Newspapers and magazines are still trying to figure out how to cash in on the huge digital growth that the humble book is experiencing. So this piece from Ken Doctor, author of Newsonomics and respected digital thinker for the newspaper industry got me thinking about which publishers — newspapers, magazines or books — will stand the best chance in this new digital free-for-all space which Doctor calls the digital cafeteria. So I’ve lined them up and ranked them. Read on to find the answer.

Doctor makes several points. Among them:

  • The old model of a one-size-fits-all newspaper delivering the same content to everyone won’t fly in the digital world
  • An increasing number of digital sales will come from what he calls the ‘digital cafeteria’ approach which will (partly) address the problem of the current one-size-fits-all newspaper model
  • He thinks Amazon started something along this line with its less-(and cheaper)-than-a-book-more-than-a-story Kindle Singles (though six months after launch the Singles selection still looks a little uninspiring)
  • This new ‘singles’ space (whatever the term turns out to be) will be up for grabs by newspaper, magazine and book publishers

The digital cafeteria term is a reference to a la carte dining where the consumer chooses the dishes they want. “We’re not talking about single articles though,” says Doctor, “but packages assembled with key target readers — by interest, of course, but also by age, gender, relative affluence, and more — in clear mind.” He comments further:

We’re moving — maybe smoothly, but my guess is fitfully, just like the newspaper industry does everything else — to a cafeteria approach. It’s a digital cafeteria, of course, making use of the infinite flexibility of digital production and marketing.

… In early 2011, we see the first moves into supplying the new news and information cafeteria. These have been largely propelled by the Kindle, but soon we’ll see a cascade of iPad products as well, resplendent with links, photos, and videos that the Kindle products largely lack.

… While we focus on the huge question of the day — will digital news subscriptions succeed or fail as a business model? — my guess is that by 2015, more than 20 percent of news companies’ “digital circulation” income will derive from one-off products. We’re talking tens, and then hundreds, of millions of dollars. It’s time to start thinking about the newsonomics of this digital cafeteria, the obstacles to its grand opening and how they’ll be surmounted.

Where this becomes really interesting, I think, is in the way the traditionally distinct media of magazines, newspapers and books will clash on this new turf.

… It forces us to reconsider: What’s journalism? What’s a book? How much does it matter? Journalism, as expressed in newspaper, magazine and book form is jumping the old boundaries, in search of new territories and hungry readers, perhaps hungry and willing to pay for great, useful and timely-to-them content.

So who will come out on top in the new digital battleground?

With this in mind, I thought I’d have a crack at rating each of the media on their strengths and weaknesses going into this mashed up digital hybrid world to see which publishers might succeed best in this new digital singles space.

In no particular order, here are some of the success factors you’ll need and how each media rates today.

Speed getting stuff to market

A lot of these singles will succeed by tapping quickly into trending issues so speed will often trump thoroughness.

  • Newspapers ***
  • Magazines  **
  • Books *

Selling digital single copies

Getting punters to pay for these $0.99 to $9.99 singles will be very useful.

  • Newspapers *
  • Magazines  **
  • Books ***

Advertising sales

There’s no question that advertising is going to play a part, and probably a big part in bringing in the money. But it’s likely to be skewed to sponsorship where a single advertiser, or a small group, buys the whole issue since one-offs won’t have the research metrics that advertisers typically demand to support their ad buys. And selling lots of one-off ads into a one-off product is time-consuming and expensive. Magazines are very familiar with this approach through their custom publishing initiatives and strong focus on brand advertising. Book publishers have basically zero experience publishing products that will excite an ad-funded market.

  • Newspapers **
  • Magazines  ***
  • Books (zero)

Direct channel to readers

Special interest topics thrive on serving special interest groups. It’s handy if you can go direct and build up a customer base for future products rather than relying entirely on single copy sales through online booksellers. This is also key if you’re hoping to get advertising support since a well-defined and quality list as part of the circulation helps reduce the risk  for advertisers and increase the advertising yield. Magazines, especially, are very sophisticated direct marketers and understand the techniques and economics well. Newspapers will have subscriber experience but a typical local newspaper has a very different fulfillment and promotion operation than a national magazine company. Trade book publishers typically have little or nothing in terms of reader databases though some niche publishers in narrow verticals (eg tech publishing) are exceptions. So, too, are educational publishers who operate more like business-t0-business (magazine) trade publishers.

  • Newspapers **
  • Magazines  ***
  • Books *

Marketing skills — Advertising and promotion

Many one-off projects will need advertising to get them in front of potential readers. This is something that magazines and newspapers are more familiar with than most book publishers who rely on publicity. And newspapers and magazines have a great asset in house ad space, ie free ad space in their own media. That said, none of the print media publishers is a great practitioner of paid advertising and promotion.

  • Newspapers **
  • Magazines  **
  • Books *

Marketing skills — Publicity buzz

Book publishers are masters of the dark art of publicity — actively working the media to create an editorial buzz around their products. Magazine and newspaper publishers seldom practice it and, with their deeper journalistic influence, are often uncomfortable with it. But for one-offs, it’s a vital skill.

  • Newspapers (zero)
  • Magazines  (zero)
  • Books ***

Digital skills in-house

Newspapers already have substantial online operations and, as a group, would be better-developed than magazine publishers which have too often under-performed in the internet arena. Book publishers are almost starting from zero, having woken up only recently to the importance of bringing serious digital skills in house. Most small to mid size book publishers still haven’t woken or are severely under-capitalised, making technology investments (people and infrastructure) difficult.

  • Newspapers ***
  • Magazines  **
  • Books *

Ebook/ereader channel experience

Book publishers, especially the trade publishers, are understandably well ahead here in their experience and connections in the ebook channel. This is mostly because magazines and newspapers haven’t yet arrived at a standard format— and hence channels — for their more complex media. But when they do, chances are it will tap into the same eReading devices and probably the same vendors (Amazon, Apple, Google, etc).

  • Newspapers *
  • Magazines  *
  • Books ***

Design sizzle

Design sizzle will be essential to attract brand advertising, the sort of advertising that tends to work best in one-off projects. And, as reading devices become more sophisticated, it will be an increasingly important drawcard for readers, too. Magazines are traditionally, and deservedly, the stars of print media design and should have a headstart in the digital world. But there’s a big proviso here: they have to learn the subtleties and compromises of digital design, especially in its limited early iterations. In the first generation internet, magazine publishers were often the worst digital designers by failing to adapt to the early compromises needed in the digital world. There are signs they might be repeating this mistake in opting for unwieldly half gigabyte file sizes and a focus on hard-to-find apps to support slick designs rather than focusing on less slick, but more practical, ePub or web designs in the early stages of the market’s development. Book publishers do pretty well in high-design illustrated categories and my guess is they’re more likely to skip the bloated file stage.

  • Newspapers *
  • Magazines  ***
  • Books **

Scale advantages — large scale

Some projects need the ability to throw large resources and take big bets. Newspapers are probably better resourced than most magazine or book operations but both newspapers and magazines are most comfortable working within their own subscriber universes. Book publishers have a long-nurtured risk appetite for taking big, one-off gambles. Every new book is a risky venture and the big books are big bets. Of course, in the digital world, the things that give scale advantages — often related to physical distribution — don’t matter as much. So arguably none of the biggest offline gamblers will bring much scale advantage to the digital world.

  • Newspapers ***
  • Magazines  **
  • Books **

Scale advantages — small scale

Most one-off publishing opportunities serve small niches. So the little-and-often approach suits it, and suits those geared up to this style of publishing — those who can produce and market a portfolio of products, balancing risks and eking out small profits from each. Book publishers mostly live in this world. Many magazine publishers, especially trade publishers, work with a similar business model.

  • Newspapers (zero)
  • Magazines  **
  • Books ***

And the overall winner is …

So, who’s likely to be best-equipped to win in the emerging singles space? Here’s the result, based on counting the stars. Looks like a close race.

1 .. Magazine Publishers (22pts)

2=  Newspaper Publishers (18pts)

2=  Book Publishers (18pts)

Of course, there’s a fourth player that I haven’t listed here: start-ups. It’s likely this singles opportunity will be fertile ground for new competition and we might see a very different media landscape when we look back in a few years.