The Sad Economics of an iPad Magazine

When you turn the latest Sports Illustrated iPad issue to the portrait position, like a book, nothing happens. Just an error message. That's because Sports Illustrated is too poor to offer it in anything but the landscape format.

The issue, says Time's Josh Quittner, who's been guest editing the iPad edition of SI, is that offering an alternative view taxes already overburdened designers. It's 33 percent more work. And they can't hire more designers. They want to! "Well, if we were able to build a real business, with subscriptions that offered our iPad versions to readers at a reasonable price, that would be a no brainer. But we can't yet..." Emphasis mine: SI needs subscriptions to be a viable business as an app, is what Quittner's saying.

Subscriptions the single largest pain point for publishers dealing with Apple, who've otherwise come running to splash themselves on the iPad, one desperate belly flop for print salvation. The sticking points have been many. Apple doesn't want to hand out valuable subscriber info willy nilly; publishers don't want to give a third of subscription revenue to Apple in perpetuity, as current App Store guidelines would dictate. So there've been no subscriptions. Until now, maybe.

The rumor, which started as a simple "Apple will allow newspaper subscriptions" is now that Apple's going to open an entirely separate service for newspapers and magazines, a "digital newsstand" that's "designed particularly for the iPad" and "would be similar to Apple's iBook store for electronic books." (Update: The Wall Street Journal backs up Bloomberg with similar details about Apple's "efforts to persuade publishers to join the company's first foray into selling newspaper and magazine subscriptions for the iPad.")

An iPad digital newssstand could be the beginning of the iPad print revolution publishers have been dying for. It's not hard to see how it'd change the way you read magazines on the iPad, currently dispensed as disjointed, single-serving apps. My iPad has been littered with an unruly mess of news and mag apps. (Until I got Folders, thank Christ).

It's still too soon to celebrate, though. Talks are ongoing. The hangups are over the same issues as before, says Bloomberg. Revenue splits and subscriber info. The newsstand could open for business in "a couple of months" (in time for a new beefed up, marquee NYT app?) or "early 2011" with the next iPad. Or it might take a lot longer, if talks fall apart. (Subscriptions will happen, one day, even if it takes a very long time.) And if mags and newspapers are framed within this new app and service, publishers would do well to consider what it mean to be window dressing for Apple's frames.

Still, glorious as SI's new Super Looooong View photos might be in landscape mode, I'm sure Quittner and the rest of SI wouldn't mind being able to include a portrait mode, if they could afford it. [Bloomberg, WSJ, Netly via MediaMemo]