30%, the long tail and a future of serialized content
The 1960s and 70s were the golden age of magazines. Why?
- Lots of people wanted to read them
- The newsstand could only hold a few of them (barrier to entry permits some to win)
- The winners had no trouble selling ads because they had motivated readers, in quantity
- The cost of making one more edition of the magazine was relatively low
Enter tablets. To some, it feels like the dawn of a new golden age. People page through apps like Wired and gasp at the pretty pictures and cool features. Surely, we're going to recreate that moment.
Here's the problem, and here's how Apple is making it much worse:
The newsstand is infinite. That means that far more titles will have far fewer subscribers. There are more than 60,000 apps on the newsstand. Hard to be in the short head when the long tail is so long...
plus, the cost of each issue is far higher, because it costs a lot more to pay a videographer, a video editor, a programmer, etc. than it does to pay John Updike to write 4,000 words...
plus, advertisers are harder to come by, because the number of readers is always going to be lower than it was back then, and the ads are easier to skip.
Of course, the good news is that the publisher doesn't have to pay for paper, so the profit on each subscriber ought to be way higher. Except...
Except Apple has announced that they want to tax each subscription made via the iPad at 30%. Yes, it's a tax, because what it does is dramatically decrease the incremental revenue from each subscriber. An intelligent publisher only has two choices: raise the price (punishing the reader and further cutting down readership) or make it free and hope for mass (see my point above about the infinite newsstand). When you make it free, it's all about the ads, and if you don't reach tens or hundreds of thousands of subscribers, you'll fail.
In a rare glitch, John Gruber got Apple's decision about the 30% subscription task completely wrong. By his logic, Apple would have been just as good for its users if the tax was 60%.
For content to be fabulous, for tablets to be more than game platforms, folks like Apple need to do two things:
- Reward creators instead of taxing them.
- Create promotional channels so that curated great stuff (not merely things from big companies) has a chance to reach a mass audience.
The web has been a hotbed of siloed content, of deep dives for small audiences. The large scale stuff, though, has tended to be mostly about gossip and other quick reads that's cheap to produce. Tablets offer a new chance to create content worth paying for. Paving the way for that to happen is a smart move for anyone who cares about the audience and the devices.