Last December, headlines decreed that the digital publishing world was falling apart. After an initial surge, iPad magazine sales were steadily—sometimes precipitously—dropping. According to a report that cited numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulation, November was a bad month for the iPad and iPad magazines.
Vanity Fair went from an average 10,500 digital sales (August-October) down to 8,700. GQ had its second worse month of sales with just 11,000 digital copies sold. Men’s Health lost nearly 30 percent of its sales, and digital sales of Glamour fell 35 percent from September. Even Wired, once considered the iPad’s golden success, shed 35 percent of sales, dropping from an average 31,000 sales in April to 23,000 sales in November.
Yet, the alarmists might have been sounding their bells too early. The numbers aren’t yet out for December and January, when magazine publishers and media critics are hoping more people picked up iPads as holiday presents. But even without those numbers in hand, it’s safe to guess that sales for magazine apps will stop plummeting—at least quite so precipitously—sooner or later as more users gradually enter the market. And that’s to be expected.
The adoption rate of iPad magazines follows a pattern similar to the adoption rates of most major publishing formats, from the earliest printing presses of the fifteenth century to the birth of the blogosphere in the late nineties. iPad magazines are not stumbling for the exact same reasons that the first books, print magazines, or “web logs” were slow out of the gate—each new platform had and has its own cultural, political, and technological challenges. But there are similarities between how those new technologies were received in the public eye and mind then that suggest the iPad magazine, rather than being in dire straits, is simply following a well-trod path.
The bend in that path that we’re still waiting for is the one where cheaper prices, wider availability, and normalization mean the new publishing platform takes off.
To see the pattern in past action, you might take a look at one very old technology that replaced a different, dustier kind of tablet: paper. The idea of reading on paper was once thought of as much as an elite activity as reading GQ on an iPad—and the pickup rate reflected that attitude in much the same way. Take illuminated manuscripts. These decorative texts were rare, time-intensive to produce, and expensive—paper cost a bundle and the manuscripts were often painted with precious, pricy metals. Low literacy rates meant most people were used to hearing books rather than reading them. Normalization would take time. The adoption rate, if it can be considered as such, was understandably low.
However, as paper gradually became less expensive and rarified, it also became more widespread. It’s a pattern repeated throughout history.
The mentality that paper was precious began to change after Gutenberg came along, and by the infancy of the newspaper age in the 1600s, books and other printed materials were cheaper, faster, and easier to make.* They were no longer limited to the church or political pamphlets, and dissemination and “adoption rates” rose accordingly.
By the time daily newspapers emerged in America—a fluid time span around the turn of the eighteenth century—paper and print weren’t new technologies. They were, however, still somewhat novel. To those shoo-ing off Metro hawkers in the subway, it might be surprising to know that papers were met with excitement; many people shared and read a single issue. Some were even sewn together and offered as wedding presents, says Andie Tucher, the director of the Communications Ph.D. program at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and an award-winning historian.
Newspapers were valuable but limited in scope. It was only when, like paper itself, they became more affordable to produce and more widespread that they took a firm hold in the culture. The introduction of the “penny press”—inexpensive papers geared towards the general public—marked a turning point for adoption rates. “A colonial newspaper would print maybe 200 copies of a particular issue,” says Tucher. “By the end of the 1830s you could print 20,000 copies of the same issue. So it was a lot cheaper and it also meant that a lot more people could read it ”