Why do digital magazine replicas suck?

10/09/2010 — 9 Comments

Why do digital magazine replicas suck?Ok let’s get something clear: It’s not me asking that question! For goodness sake, some of my best friends publish digital magazine replicas.

“Why do digital magazine replicas suck?” was a recent search query that led the Google algorithm to send someone, somewhere to Flipping Pages. I’m not sure if they found the answer they were looking for on the blog – I hope I’m less about why digital replicas suck and more about why optimized digital magazines work. But just in case Google sends this question my way again, here’s an algorithm-driven, Demand Media style answer to why digital magazine replicas suck.

What is a digital magazine replica?
A digital magazine replica is a magazine published electronically, usually in Flash, that mirrors the print edition of a magazine exactly. It is a simple digital conversion of print prepress files, often originated in PDF format. Publishers generally produce digital replicas as a way of saving on distribution and printing costs without incurring additional layout, production or content creation costs.

Why do digital magazine replicas suck?
Many people find digital magazine replicas very difficult to read, leading some to go so far as to say they suck. The principle reason for this is that publishers insist on mangling digital technology to try to recreate analog products on a computer screen.

Legacy layouts
The key cause of suckiness in digital magazine replicas has to do with the use of legacy print layouts. Traditional print magazines generally have a portrait aspect, that is they are narrower at the top and bottom than they are at the sides. Computer screens generally have a landscape aspect, that is they are narrower at the sides than they are at the top and bottom. Publishers who try to squeeze portrait layouts into landscape screens risk significant suckiness.

Symptoms of Suckiness
The biggest symptom of suckiness in digital magazines replicas centres on the readers inablity to read the magazine. Typography designed for print on paper, usually A4 size or thereabouts, is squeezed onto a screen layout less than half that size. This results in significant shrinkage of the type and the aforementioned reading problems.

A common “solution” for this is to allow readers to zoom into the digital page. This increases typre size to the point where it is readable, but the reader often loses control of the page, inadvertantly exacerbating the overall suckiness of the digital magazine replica.

General absence of added value
Being simple print page conversions, few replicas take advantage of the multimedia capabilities that today’s digital readers have come to anticipate. They also tend to ignore the potential for interactivity. Readers familiar with other online formats, websites for example, are frustrated by this general absence of added value – audio, video, animation – in digital magazine replicas. This frustration adds to the existing perception of suckiness.

The solution?
The easiest way to stop digital magazines sucking is to avoid publishing replicas. Publishers that take the time to design pages in a screen friendly format and to add value with video, audio or animation are far more likely to produce a digital magazine that doesn’t suck. Getting ready for new reading devices like the iPad will avoid a possible reoccurence of sucky digital magazines in the near future.

I hope this answers your question?

9 responses to Why do digital magazine replicas suck?

  1. Hi Peter,
    Couldn’t agree more with your analysis. When we started developing Publisha (www.publisha.com), which allows you to publish digital content in a platform-appropriate form from one simple dashboard to Web, iPhone, iPad and a Facebook app, we specifically avoided the “page-turner” option for the exact same reasons as you list in your blogpost. Unfortunately many publishers do not get the usability issues and are still looking to replicate the look and feel of their print publications. We have developed an improved interface for such a page-turner, but are still reluctant to implement as we really believe that the format is inappropriate and will cost them readers. Thanks for your post, will re-tweet and FB 😉

    • Peter Houston 14/09/2010 at 8:54 pm

      Thanks Chris,

      There are so many great platforms offering so many possibilities for publishers. I understand the process and cost limitations, but with just a little extra thought and effort digital magazines could be so much more.


      • Agreed. Unfortunately our experience with print-based publishers is that they are strapped for resources already and the challenge of software design and project management of a bespoke digital ‘perfect solution’ is too big and risky. What we are trying to do with Publisha, is give them a quick, user-friendly way to create a multiplatform digital publication with all the revenue streams baked in so it makes financial sense. Part of this means ensuring that the reader-experience must be compatible with the platform they choose to access the publication, whether that be iPad or Facebook. Starting with simple and effective, our reader-facing GUI will become more and more advanced as HTML5 develops, and the publishers will not have to do much more to make their publications provide a cutting edge experience for readers except make great content as they do today. Gradually they will become more comfortable with digital publishing and take it to the next level, but it needs to be financially viable too.

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