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Literary magazines in the digital framework

The launch of the iPad, the first of a wave of new tablets, has given an enormous and positive jolt to the world of print: books, magazines and newspapers. The jolt is a shock but almost entirely positive, a bit like a very powerful dodgem thudding into a group of marooned buggies just waiting to get going. And there will be another jolt coming later this year when a cavalcade of Google-powered Android tablets burst on the scene. Print needs the iPad, just as our print heritage will enormously enrich the tablets. Print publications can in various straightforward ways, gracefully, become apps. The reader with an iPad who wishes to see how this works should go to iTunes and pick up the freemium app for The Spectator or Publishers Weekly. Both these apps have automatic links from ISBNs to web resources (Amazon in the case of The Spectator and Google in the case of Publishers Weekly). These links, and others that the Exact Editions service automatically generates show that the digital edition is more than a copy of the print edition. Though it is that, as a starting point.

Print publications now swimming off into the app store as digital editions are at a starting point, an evolutionary rupture. I particularly like the way Mario Garcia, doyen of newspaper designers, talks about it: “If you give print respect, print is the mother milk of the tablet… that is the best thing going for the tablet, take it to the next stage.” (Paid Content). We need to give print respect as we set off to be digital.

Literary magazines have a very interesting place in this collection of stranded dodgems, because they are hedged in by books and magazines and newspapers which are all about to be pitched headlong into a new digital framework. Take newspapers for starters, well and truly marooned, bumper to bumper and short of volts. In the last five years, we have seen newspapers struggle to retain their position as a prime source of literary opinion. Especially in the USA, dedicated books pages, literary sections, and specialist, full-time literary reviewers have been wilting. They have in too many cases been abolished. As newspapers try to redefine their audience and their role in a digital constellation, they will mostly cease to be major organs for book reviews. I suspect that only the most upmarket and only the most ambitious newspapers, Le Monde, The New York Times, The Guardian, will retain their literary sections as they move towards their digital audience.

The ambitious exception, will be for those few newspapers that have a constituency that they can carry with them to publishers and authors as potential book buyers. So the idea of the Daily Telegraph ‘book club’ or the Financial Times ‘bookshop’ makes perfect editorial and economic sense, a branding exercise where readers and subscribers can buy digital editions of popular books which have been reviewed in the newspaper. Digital newspapers will have an advantage in the business of creating commercial audiences for publishers because of their large circulation and I expect that the newspapers that do this well will be able to negotiate better terms for digital books than they have extracted for selling physical books.

Special interest magazines will likewise have a good opportunity to develop their commercial links with specialist publishers for the niches that they serve (cookery, sports, fashion, travel etc). At Exact Editions we work with magazine publishers and book publishers and we have considered cross-selling titles from each side. It has not yet happened, perhaps partly because magazine publishers are more used to the idea of selling books on subscription than generalist book publishers, but the technology is pretty much there and since digital services are almost the easiest proposition to offer an existing digital sub-scriber, one would expect synergies on these lines to be particularly attractive to major publishers that have big stables of books and magazines (e.g. Hachette or Bonnier).

What about the core literary magazines that concentrate more or less exclusively on publishing reviews of serious books, trade fiction and even sometimes poetry or translated literature? Magazines such as London Review of Books, The Literary Review, New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement? They all have digital editions and I am sure that they can prosper though readers’ subscriptions, but I am not convinced that they will wish to convert themselves into digital bookstores, or digital book clubs for the audiences that they serve.

Perhaps the main reason for doubting that it will be in the interests of the TLS or the LRB to turn themselves into digital book shops or even to cultivate affiliate income from digital books, is that they really serve an audience which is really too specialist, too knowledgeable and too well served. Any acquisitive reader of the New York Review of Books is going to be a major user of Amazon (or iTunes or Google Books, if they become the major repositories for digital bookselling). So the New York Review of Books will not be doing its audience any favours by ‘getting in the way’ of the Google Bookshelf that its readers already possess. But, of course the best of these magazines has a great future that will soon be unfolding on the iPhone and its kindred tablet cousins.

The reason for this optimism? Simply, that books, in their digital form, are going to have a wonderful future on these devices. If books work well on tablets, then so will literary magazines. When there are tens and hundreds of millions of iPads and Tablets in the market, and there soon will be, there will be many billions to be spent on content for them. A large part of this spend will be going to digital books, and some of that will be going to the relatively small part of the market that really cares about good fiction, serious political and cultural writing, and even occasionally poetry and translated masterpieces. The serious reader will still enjoy reading extended reviews of good books (and devastating reviews of bad books) by the best reviewers. That is why I think that the London Review of Books will still be one of my favourite reads on my 2020 NanoPad, and Slightly Foxed will also be a much prized app.

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