As Publishers Eye Subscriptions, Don’t Overlook Institutional Sales
Content producers and publishers have a new appetite for digital subscriber revenue. Of course, there is the striking success of subscription platforms for streaming music and video content: as we see with iTunes, Spotify, Netflix, Amazon and others. But newspapers in their transition to fully digital platforms are also showing that digital subscriptions from a loyal readership can be a critical and fast growing source of revenue, as for the New York Times (last quarter nearly 3 million digital subscribers), Washington Post and Financial Times. And magazines too are eager to build subscriber revenues, with notable success at titles such as The New Yorker and The Economist among others.
As magazine publishers and owners develop plans for attracting, and retaining digital subscribers, they should also consider the potential for licensing the same digital content to libraries and educational institutions. In the 19th and early 20th Century periodical reading rooms and public libraries were avenues for distribution and brand building by newspapers and magazines. Libraries have never lost their appetite for periodicals.
While public library subscriptions for digital resources are possible, for many magazines the strong institutional library market at universities, colleges, and other schools is more accessible and richer. Universities and colleges need campus-wide access to digital resources, so a library sale in today’s world usually requires a site license. Digital libraries are now the hub of most campuses and with digital tools for searching, linking, citing, and sharing this means that the institutional library is the main way of licensing content to a school or campus. Libraries are used to licensing digital access, they have well developed protocols for doing this, and budgets for paying substantial annual fees for campus-wide access.
When licensing to an institution for research markets it is wise to keep in mind that the whole archive of the magazine may be of primary interest. Sure, the current and forthcoming issues are also of value in teaching and research, but a complete archive adds value and a digital or databased archive is much more usable than a print archive.
If magazine publishers have been slow to seize on the importance of this market one reason may be that they have not realized that the annual license that can be fairly charged for a key educational resource may be large — perhaps 10 or 20 times the $60 or $75 subscription that a library may be paying for its “single user” paper copy of the magazine. Digital licenses are much more useful and more valuable because they give campus-wide and multiuser access.
How can a magazine publisher judge whether his/her magazine has a potentially significant educational or institutional market? Three tests may help.
- Is the magazine written (also designed or illustrated) by professionals at the cutting edge of their field?
- Does the magazine sell print subscriptions to universities or schools already? My rule of thumb is that any magazine that sells 100 or more print subscriptions to colleges or schools will have a digital institutional market larger than that.
- Does the magazine already have a digital edition which is selling to individual subscribers?
If the answer to all these questions is “yes,” then plans should be made to develop institutional sales through site licensing. If the answer to the first two questions is positive, but “no” to the third, then it is time to get a digital edition that works for individuals and for institutions. If the future for magazines is digital subscriptions, the market is at least partly institutional.