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Reports of the death of magazines on the iPad are greatly exaggerated

December 29, 2010 |  3:04 pm

Project_ipad_demoToday the news came that magazine sales on the iPad have been sliding. When Wired launched its first magazine-as-app for the iPad in May 2010, it sold more than 100,000 copies -- or downloads, or issues -- for $4.99 each (it later dropped the issue price to $3.99).

That initial success came as a surprise to many. I was at Book Expo and for a while, the Wired app's huge sales numbers were the big buzz of the publishing convention. Technology enabling old media, not cannibalizing it? What a novelty. What a glimmer of hope.

Not for long: the second issue of Wired on the iPad only sold a third as much, around 30,000 copies.

Today's Audit Bureau of Circulations report's numbers, along with a post at WWD crunching some numbers, show that major magazines, including Vanity Fair and GQ, had declining iPad sales in November.

But the slide off from Wired's initial gangbuster sales is nothing new. In October, Ad Agelooked at how major magazine apps were doing on the iPad, noting that since Wired's first iPad issue, its sales had consistently been around 30,000. And while that number is certainly no 100,000, Wired -- one of the earliest well-known magazines to debut an iPad app -- has been holding onto a major market share. In contrast, Ad Age found that Popular Science, Vanity Fair, GQ and People regularly sell significantly fewer copies: 10,000 to 15,000 per issue (for People, that's weekly).

And those hard numbers mean different things to different publications. Vanity Fair's summer iPad sales, averaging slightly under 10,000 per month, were just 2% of its newsstand sales, while Wired's 32,000 September iPad sales were 37% of its newsstand sales. That's a huge distinction. It's easy to see why Wired might look to the iPad as a revenue source and as a way of deepening its connection with readers. Vanity Fair? Maybe not so much.

But if the sky is falling, media media moguls Richard Branson and Rupert Murdoch aren't ducking. Instead, they're creating new tablet-focused media. In November, Branson launched Project, a magazine built for the iPad (and, he promises, other tablets eventually). Murdoch's iPad-native newspaper, the Daily, is said to be coming in 2011.

As Ad Age noted in Ocotber and Read Write Webreiterates today, the mechanism for purchasing magazines on the iPad still needs improvement. Magazine sales on the iPad might be stronger if iPad magazine readers could subscribe -- instead, they must buy each issue individually -- and if they could browse for magazines in Apple's shopping interface, which isn't yet easy to do.

What's more, content-wise, magazines have only intermittentlytaken advantage of the tablet's interactive and multimedia capabilities. Mashable notes that the failure to innovate, coupled with overly big download sizes and overly high prices, are working against greater success of iPad magazines.

But these are just the kinds of fixes that publishers can tackle. In fact, if they want to successfully move to capture people who like e-reading, they'll have to. The real question, I think, is whether the built-for-tablet magazines (or newspapers) will have an advantage over magazines that come from the old media world.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: An iPad with Richard Branson's "Project." Credit: Mike Segar / Reuters

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