Techinch Magazine Postmortem — The Life and Death of an Indie Newsstand Magazine
Steve Jobs famously quipped that people don’t read anymore, but then launched two apps that seemed the savior of independent publishers: iBooks and Newsstand. iBooks, pared with iBooks Author, is an exciting shot at reinventing how eBooks should work. And Newsstand, with simple subscriptions, automatic issue downloads, and beautiful cover icons, seemed the best shot to turn a blog or a print magazine into a digital paid magazine.
Marco Arment’s The Magazine, launched just over a year ago, was the first smash indie success on Newsstand. It made Newsstand make sense, and inspired many of us to try to publish on Newsstand ourselves. When tools like TypeEngine came along, Newsstand seemed the obvious place to move your writing behind a paywall.
So Techinch Magazine. I’d wanted to try out making a digital magazine, and when TypeEngine announced they were making custom Newsstand apps and a publishing system, I signed up and was accepted as a launch partner. That gave me a free magazine design, and waived my $25/month publisher fee for the first 6 months, leaving me with just a $99 Apple developer account and a $0.15/issue/download fee. I’d price the magazine at $1.99/month, and publish twice a month. After Apple’s 30% cut, and perhaps 3 downloads per user per issue, I’d take home $0.80 per subscriber.
It sounded like it’d work out great, at least if you didn’t think too hard. $1.99 per subscriber sounds like a decent amount, but $0.80 is far less exciting — but it’s hard to keep the first number from clouding your vision.
To make the magazine break even (aside from the cost of content and time), I’d need to have at least 10 subscribers each month to pay for my $99 developer fee, and once I was past my 6 month grace period, I’d need another 31 subscribers to pay for the TypeEngine subscription fee. That means I’d need a total of 41 subscribers just to make $0, and that’s assuming no one downloads the magazine more than twice per issue. Just one extra time per user would mess everything up.
So, ready to turn an idea into reality, I got the content ready for the first issue of Techinch Magazine, worked with the TypeEngine team to turn Techinch.com’s theme into a magazine app theme, and hit the App Store a few days ahead of the July 1st launch. Initial downloads were very exciting to see — being listed on the new apps lists and showing up on the first page of the Newsstand section of the App Store was worth a ton of downloads, even without being featured. What it didn’t turn into, though, was subscribers.
On the chart above, you’ll see the great download numbers (at least compared to the eventual low numbers) in the first 3 days, with over 100 downloads each day. Then, it leveled off to around 30 downloads per day for most of July, and finally trickled down to mid single digits. Interestingly enough, with next to no promotion aside from my blog, the app still got at least several downloads almost every day. All together, Techinch Magazine app has been downloaded over 1,600 times.
But subscribers are the make or break number, and they never broke single digits any day. Even when the App Store’s ranking gave me a download boost, the vast majority of people never subscribed. But that’s fine — all you need is a core of subscribers, and based on the App Store’s reporting of in-app purchases, I though I had 75 subscribers in July.
Turns out, that was wrong. The App Store’s stats show all in-app purchases, but with Newsstand apps, that includes everyone who started a 7 day trial. If they canceled before the end of that grace period, they never actually paid but the App Store stats still showed it as a sale.
I still got a decent number of paid subscribers: 34 in July, and a gradual decline to 17 in more recent months. But compared to the crucial 31 number to just break even, it wasn’t going to work. And, on average based on the number of paid subscribers, each subscriber downloaded each issue of the magazine 3.6 times — a number that may be inflated by users with a free trial, but one that nonetheless makes my break even number only realistic.
And then, in another turn of events that could make it tough for a solo writer trying to make money through Newsstand, I didn’t receive the first payout from the App Store until September 5th — over 2 full months after the first subscription was purchased. That wasn’t a problem for me, but it’s another catch in the process for a newcomer.
The Non-App Store Reality.
Of course, the App Store isn’t the only game in town. I’d decided early on to sale PDF and ePub copies of Techinch Magazine via Gumroad. Pages made it easy to turn out nice looking PDF and ePub copies of the magazine after Ulysses III turned my Markdown into rich text, and Gumroad made it very simple to sale the non-App Store copies.
The only problem was, there were almost no sales. Literally: I only sold 3 non-App Store subscriptions, and 1 single issue purchase. The App Store, even at its higher cost, is still far more lucrative.
All told, Techinch Magazine brought a total revenue of $168.61 — plus a pending approximately $60 that still hasn’t been paid from the App Store, for a total of just over $228. And the total expenses so far were $99 for the App Store account, $100.35 in download fees for TypeEngine through last month. That leaves $28, and didn’t count anything for any of the contributors to Techinch Magazine. Thus, it simply isn’t making financial sense.
So that’s Techinch Magazine. It started out strong, but no App Store magic can make up for a small audience and the tough task of convincing people to pay for a magazine written by one guy. And I didn’t really have the time and resources to put into the magazine to make it better from the start. I’m still glad I tried it, though — it was an amazing learning experience, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
For the best example of the exact opposite scenario, though, you only have to look at The Magazine. There’s no recent numbers public, but before Arment sold it, he told NPR in an interview that it was making around $15k in profit per month off $35k in post-App Store review. But even The Magazine has struggled a bit this year. PandoDaily just reported that its been losing subscribers, and its new owner and editor, Glenn Fleishman, was quoted saying that “I hooked my wagon to a star that has dimmed in Apple’s eyes.” Newsstand’s new design in iOS 7 makes it even more forgettable than it was originally, and the prospects of publishing in it are seeming dimmer than ever.
If you’re starting out today, and have hundreds of people you know will pay for a magazine subscription, it might be a worthwhile gamble to publish on Newsstand with a service like TypeEngine. They make it insanely simple to publish, and the App Store is still one of the easiest ways to get paid and setup recurring payments. For all the requests you’ll hear for a stand-alone non-App Store subscription option, if my experience is any indicator you’re better off just to focus on the App Store.
But for small publications — and especially individual bloggers — don’t do it. It’s just not going to be worth your time. You’d make far more just by blogging on your existing site more, growing your audience, and finding ways to sell one-off things. Subscriptions are tempting, but they’re still one of the hardest sales ever.
Paid publishing is far from dead, but Newsstand isn’t the answer we all hoped it was. But hey: it was a fun experiment.
Thoughts? @reply me on Twitter.