Can publishers ever make money from digital magazines? Who are the winners?

In the last couple of years, many consumer publishers have rushed to create mobile editions of their print titles, seeing the paid platform as a potentially lucrative haven from the free content of the open web.  But recently some have expressed disillusion with the revenue potential, with Future opting to bundle digital editions free to paid print subscribers.

Digital ABCs provide the only comparable measure of average paid digital circulation – I trawled through the latest data to uncover just who is making money from mobile magazines, with some surprising results…

International news magazines have cracked the digital code

The Economist has built up its digital sales to almost 70,000 copies worldwide, over 10% of total circulation, and almost entirely subscription copies.  New Scientist isn’t far behind, also with digital contributing over 10% of circulation, with over 14,000 digital copies.  The Week reports as a digital publication as it has created a bespoke mobile version of its print edition, but again, with over 26,000 digital sales, it’s now 13% digital.  What these titles all share is weekly frequency plus international distribution, making digital subscriptions more attractive than expensive print postage, plus a deep-pocketed publisher prepared to invest.

Tech-savvy men receptive to mobile magazines

Notable digital success stories in the Jan-June 14 ABCs include Total Film from Future, with 14,000 digital sales (23% of total) and Empire from Bauer with 13,000 (9% total).  Both were likely spurred into action by Future’s pioneering tech title T3.  They only report annually, but their Jan-Dec 13 digital sale was over 22,000, of which 12,000 copies were outside the UK and ROI, contributing over 40% of total circulation.

More general upmarket men’s glossies from Conde Nast and Hearst, including GQ, Wired, Vanity Fair & Esquire, were early adopters of digital editions, and in aggregate 10% of their sales are now digital. Attitude magazine reports its ABC in Digital Publications, but has built to over a 13,000 total digital sale.

Niche titles can build a dedicated digital circulation

Surprisingly high in the league table is specialist title BBC History, with over 11,000 digital sales, contributing 12.5% of its total circulation.  Sister titles BBC Top Gear (at 13,500 or 9.5% total) and BBC Good Food (at just under 11,000 or 4.6% total) also rank highly, showing the benefit of parent Immediate Media’s early investment in mobile.  Lonely Planet Traveller, a recent Immediate acquisition, has a healthy 5.6% digital sale.

Health and Fitness is another market sector where mobile editions are thriving – with the aggregate digital sale of Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Health & Fitness and Women’s Fitness exceeding 20,000, or 5.6% of total circulation.

But it isn’t just larger publishers who are winning in digital mags.  Independent interiors mag Grand Designs has built up almost 4,000 digital sales, a useful 11.7% of its total circulation.   And Jamie magazine has a creditable 5.5% digital contribution to its total sale.

Mass market & lifestyle mags do better on single copy sales

While weekly news magazines and specialist titles are focusing on subscriptions for their digital circulation, making up 80-95% of the total; mass market and lifestyle titles typically have 30-60% of their audited sale as one-off copies, implying a more impulse purchase, possibly on the strength of cover stories or app store promotion.  Notable examples are OK and New! magazines, both published by Northern and Shell, with two-thirds individual sales.  Women’s glossies Red and Elle have about one-third individual sales, possibly mimicking on digital the impulse newsstand purchase?

So the outlook for digital magazines seems to be dependent on the type of publication:  for weeklies with international appeal they appear to be taking off rapidly, and the affluent tech-savvy audience of many male glossies seems to be ready to pay for digital “extras”.  Plus in niche markets where publishers are prepared to invest digital subscriptions could prove a lucrative and predictable revenue stream.  But in the traditional newsstand markets of women’s interest, the focus perhaps should be more on stimulating one-off impulse buys with good cover stories and promotion.  Once more titles achieve or surpass the tipping point of 10% of circulation, they may well acquire the confidence to charge a premium for advertising in their digital editions, rather than bundling for free.

About the author:  Carolyn Morgan has launched, grown, acquired and sold media businesses across print, digital and events.  She has programmed several highly regarded conferences on digital publishing and advises publishers on their digital strategy.

If you’d like a chat about how you can reinvent your publishing or media business for the digital age, please get in touch.

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