POD Opens Door to Magazine Experiments and Customization

MagCloud is a new print-on-demand (POD) service targeting the magazine industry. In the following Q&A, MagCloud consultant Derek Powazek — co-founder of JPG Magazine and founder of Fray — discusses the utility of POD and the evolving relationship between print and Web content.

How did you get involved with MagCloud?

I came into the project over a year ago — it had been percolating in HP Labs for a long time before that, led by Andy Fitzhugh, Udi Chatow, and Andrew Bolwell. Andy is the one who brought me in. We had this meet and greet lunch to talk about the future of publishing and it turned out we had the same vision. He kept saying, “Right, now push that further.”

When did you first encounter POD?

Years ago, when Heather [Champ] and I were exploring ways to make a photography magazine, Lulu was really the only game in town. We learned so much creating JPG there, and starting with a POD service allowed us to experiment, develop the voice and vision of the magazine, and build an audience. I think it’s a very natural way to start a magazine.

How did you gravitate toward a POD model for magazines?

It’s all about the Giant Pile. I’ve worked on a lot of newspaper and magazine projects, and they all had one thing in common: A huge print run, followed by the slow, terrible realization that you’ve gotta get rid of all that paper.

POD banishes the Giant Pile to the dustbin of history where it belongs. Because, with a POD system, you don’t print it until somebody wants it. It avoids the pile. It avoids creating trash (70 percent of all magazines are never bought). It brings some of the elegance of the Internet to this very old industry.

But mostly it was just a financial decision. Heather and I weren’t out to become publishing magnates. We just had an idea that we thought people would like. We wouldn’t have been able to do it at all if not for POD.

What types of magazine publishers (large, small, individuals, etc.) are best suited for MagCloud?

I think that magazines are about nurturing a community. If you look at the most successful magazines (Rolling Stone in the ’60s, Wired in the ’90s, Make now), they’ve always been the ones that surfed the zeitgeist. They found a growing community of people and reflected it, and in that reflection, began to lead it for a time.

But if you tell people in the publishing industry that they’re really in the community business, they’ll say “shut up, hippy” and go back to monetizing their audience metrics.

So the trick is to find those niche audiences that need a voice. And there are a lot of them. And the truth is, they know who they are better than we do. So, with MagCloud, the idea is to open up the tools so that those communities can create their own magazines. We think they’re going to make amazing things.

Do you see larger magazine publishers eventually moving to POD, or will this be a niche option?

Not only do I think that large magazine publishers will move to digital printing, but I think that the idea that we used to print millions of things that were exactly the same will someday be seen as a cute historical artifact. “You mean every copy of this magazine was the same for everyone, Grandpa? Weird!”

For the biggies, it’s just a matter of economics. As soon as the price per page for printing on digital is cheaper than traditional offset printing, the biggies will move. The quality of POD is already the same or better than offset.

It’ll start with smaller publications because they’re the most agile, and they don’t see the real price savings of scale anyway. Right now, if you’re printing a few thousand copies, digital printing is the same cost as traditional offset. (I’ve been wrestling with this for Fray.com — we’re right at the cusp. Our first issue was printed via traditional offset, but issue two will be printed with MagCloud.)

And once magazines move to POD, they’ll realize it opens up opportunities they never had before. When you can really tailor each issue for each subscriber, what will you do? Exciting, huh?

Book publishers often focus on the short-term elements of POD, most notably POD’s higher cost per page. Some industry folks try to cite the long-range benefits, such as efficiency, higher retail prices via customization, etc., but the per-page discrepancy continues to be a sticking point. Have you encountered similar obstacles on the magazine side?

Magazines are a better fit for POD because, unlike books, they’re usually all color and timeliness is much more of a factor. Plus, the price per page for digital print is falling fast, while the price per page of traditional offset has remained very steady. Still, the exciting part is all the opportunities digital printing enables. Ultimately, POD services like MagCloud will enable a degree of customization that is not only cheaper, but just plain impossible to do via traditional means.

Beyond strict numbers, what do you see as the upside to print editions? Does a print product carry a higher level of esteem for a writer or consumer?

I love the Web. I think it’s still a publisher’s dream come true. But, inconveniently, we humans are still real world creatures. And no matter how much connectivity blankets the planet, and how good our devices get, there will still be a role for print.

I don’t say this because I’m some ancient technology fetishist. I don’t own a tube amp. I sold all my CDs. It’s just that print is a really good delivery mechanism for some kinds of experiences. Reading a physical magazine is a different experience than surfing hypertext online.

And, yes, I think the scarcity of print does give it a higher level of importance for its creators and consumers. On the Web, where every page is just a click away from any other, there’s no relative importance communicated. But in a magazine, you know that a team of writers and editors picked this story to go here. That has a profound effect on how that media is consumed.

tags: , , ,