When Amazon announced the end of the Newsstand system for selling subscriptions to Kindle e-ink editions of newspapers and magazines, I suspected that it might be the end of the line for many publishers. Now, every single publisher we helped to get onto the platform is no longer using it. Gone. Not there.
You’ll be presented with a screen like this if you try to find these publications on Amazon now:
Why? Because Amazon spotted an opportunity, and misjudged it horribly. They didn’t understand why people subscribe to magazines and newspapers and they didn’t understand what publishers understood. They surely felt that Kindle Unlimited would be a winning recipe for them – they could pay publishers by the read, and the publishers would be happy to have access to a wider audience.
I believe this is a fundamental failure by Amazon to think about the relationship between subscribers and publishers. That it’s not nearly as transactional as simply buying a magazine at the train station.
People subscribe to support, not read
Every fortnight, a copy of Private Eye arrives on my doormat, in its paper envelope. I faithfully open the envelope and put the copy of Private Eye on my kitchen island (I’m quite middle class now, I guess) and leave it there. Sometimes I read a few bits of it. Often I read almost nothing of it. Other times I really get into it. I’d say that on average, I only read about five pages a month. That sounds terrible. Surely, then, it’s a waste of money for me to subscribe to Private Eye? Right?
I subscribe to Private Eye because I think they’re an important part of our journalistic landscape. Their investigations, reports, and satire all help to make people in power, whether they be government, business or media based, accountable to the rest of us. Their content matters. So I pay for it, even if I don’t read it, because what I’m not doing is reading it. It’s not a big part of my entertainment.
I also know that many people (from my data it’s around 7%-10%) buy subscriptions for family members and friends, as gifts. Again, they can’t do this with Kindle Unlimited. The person winning a subscription might never read, but the publisher gains.
Now, let’s say Kindle Unlimited paid 10p per article read… that would feed 50p a month to Private Eye. Which would be barely adequate. I doubt it would be that much. And for the reader it would be a less pleasant reading experience than thumbing through Private Eye, because the Kindle reading experience actually isn’t that great. It’s good for word only novels, tolerable for books with some graphics, terrible for everything else. Too small, too clunky. A browser and a website is a better experience. However, Kindle had their niche, with travelling types especially liking them because carrying books is a pain when you’re on the go.
Our own petite mort around products
During the covid lockdowns, all our publisher customers pulled back spending dramatically, and our contract renewals landed in the teeth of the pandemic. We were very down on revenue, saw some competitors go bust, and generally had to have a good hard think. We already had a solid and well proven Kindle product based on WordPress, but it had little potential and didn’t scale well. This was where I made a terrible mistake that my marketing qualification shouldn’t have let me make. I decided, without research or a lot of thought, that instead of furloughing some staff, I would initiate an R&D project. We had the money in the bank to do so, and I figured that if we redeveloped our Kindle offering with a view to expanding it out to being a more general purpose CMS in the future.
Unfortunately, this build it and they will come attitude wasn’t so smart. The Kindle platform wasn’t growing, and then Amazon dropped their bomb.
I wouldn’t have minded but we’d also built a product for Alexa Flash Briefings, another thing that just died out and wasn’t being much developed or well surfaced by Amazon.
And this is how platform providers end up losing developers. We build something at substantial cost to ourselves to add value to a platform, and then the potential is torn away from us. But in reality, I can’t fully blame Amazon. I have to look at my own failings here for having failed to do some proper market research. I knew that most Kindle editions of magazines were poorly produced. I assumed that the publishers saw this as a real problem they needed to deal with. Had I tried asking them, and seeing what they thought was a fair price to pay for resolving this problem, I might have done a proper business plan and realised that it wasn’t worth the big (for us) investment and risk.
However, we can’t let the channels fall into the hands of just a few platform providers. Publishers need to own their content and be able to control it properly. All our solutions are based on the idea that if it’s about content, it can be installed on a publisher’s servers and the code made available to the publisher, meaning there’s no lock-in. The open web and open devices are critical to a an open publishing world, free of the capricious nature of mega-corporations.
Where next? Tell us what you need!
We now have a really nice CMS for managing periodicals, and we have Standfirst Reader, a platform that’s in place ready for a quick and nice periodical reading experience for publishers. We’re going through the process of offering all this to publishers, but what we’re planning next is arguably much more important. We’re no longer trying to guess what publishers need. We’re asking them. If you’d like to take part in one of our publisher panels so that we can provide better solutions at ever more impressive prices, please complete the form below and we’ll be in touch.