If you’re curious about the future of magazines, HP Lab’s MagCloud may offer a clue

Summary: MagCloud is an HP Labs research project evaluating new web services that will provide small independent magazine publishers, online content owners, and small businesses the ability to custom publish digitized magazines and economically print and fulfill on demand.

Story: Derek Powazek, one the founders of the innovative JPG Magazine, that got its start by first marketing the magazine as a short-run, print-on-demand publication, announced today he’s been working with HP Labs for the past year on today’s launch of a Print-on-Demand (POD) service called MagCloud.

The service will allow a publisher — or anyone who wants to publish a magazine — to upload a high-resolution PDF and then, sit back, and let the money roll in. According to the site, “We’ll take care of the rest: printing, mailing, subscription management and more.” (Note: I’m not sure what the “more” will entail.) The website offers a “store” — a digital newsstand, where readers can browse and, using PayPal, order publications.

According to the site, it will cost nothing to “create the magazine” (don’t tell writers, designers, etc. that) and the publisher will set up a “markup” to earn a profit above production cost. No word yet on what the “production cost” will be.

MagCloud uses HP Indigo technology to custom-print each issue when it’s ordered. According to MagCloud, “Printing on demand means no big print runs, which means no pre-publishing expense. Magazines are full color on 80lb paper with saddle-stitched covers.”

During the beta, publisher accounts are by invitation only.

My Observation: Is there a market for this? Absolutely. If the price-point is low enough, short run magazines can help create one amazing long-tail of magazine publishing.

Several services offer “digital magazine” production and hosting products, which convert print magazines into a digital form. MagCloud is taking things in the opposite direction. In other words, “content” that originates in a digital form — say blogs, for instance — can have the opportunity to see life on paper — perhaps even on a coffee table. While several services offer book POD products, including the Amazon-owned (and currently controversial) BookSurge, this is the first serious major-corporate step into the magazine print-on-demand market (with full-service “backend” services) that I’ve seen.

Even More Background: Longtime readers of this blog know I was an early fan of JPG Magazine and have written about its demonstration of the potential of print-on-demand magazines often. Later, the magazine’s founders broadened their focus with a venture called 8020 Publishing.

Last year, when I read about the split-up of the company’s founders, I lamented that happening, but I included in my post:

“I do know this: they are pioneers. Their work will lead to many great things. Whether or not it is with that specific company and that specific magazine, I have no idea. But I can say this with some degree of certainty: They all have a great deal of opportunity ahead of them. The quicker they move through the current crap, the better off they’ll all be.

Today, I’m thinking that’s one of my better calls.

(Thanks: Hugh Roper)

  • For some reason this sounds cooler to me than the vanity presses that will print books for you.

  • As I understand it, “vanity press” refers to scams that charge would-be writers a large fee to publish a book. The author would be required to pay for a print run of at least several hundred books.

    Print on Demand — book and, now, magazines — makes that scam a bit more difficult to pull off (although I’m sure there are still those who do it).

    I’m sure some will attempt to label this “vanity” magazine publishing, but there will be churches, non-profits, schools and many, many others who will be able to publish magazines who could have never touched the budget of a putting a magazine on a traditional press.

  • That didn’t come out right. I like the idea of being able to create magazines on demand. I was trying to equate that to printing books on demand, which can be legit.

  • Rex, not much specific info at the site yet about the economic model and the publishing side is in a closed beta. Any info about what these magazines will cost to publish, what the markup will be and so on?

    Also, it looks like this becomes a platform for more than the old school magazine. I see some one-off brochures already on the site and can imagine using it to publish super-rapid, in-depth coverage of timely topics or other stuff that is less than a book (maybe how-to’s for software that changes frequently too). But I think a lot depends on how the business side is set up.

  • Aaron, I didn’t mean to imply that the service would just appeal to schools. Yes, you are indeed correct. I see it for all of the types of uses you indicate. The insta-magazine, especially.

    I do not know about the pricing yet. However, I’m hoping that as its an HP project, they will view this as a means to create a new market and industry and will price it in a way that allows them to scale up to profitability — rather than attempt to start out at such a high price point that results in no market forming.

  • I know of another version of this that is still in the works, so it is not new to me, but I can’t disclose any details at this time. I think that this and other variations of this process is indeed a piece of the future. It is niche publishing in its finest and most concentrated format. Yes, it is like vanity publishing but without all the baggage. And there are several instances of vanity publishing working out extremely will for the vain publisher. This system works and to my knowledge is not unafordable.

  • Mark Smith

    How is this different technology from existing print-on-demand? Is it the cutomer/printer interface that is innovative?

  • @MarkSmith Let’s start with existing POD. As you probably know, most of the “industry” of POD has been focused on books. While there are end-to-end business solutions for those who want to publish a book using POD services — including marketing and distribution services — the end-to-end solution focused solely on POD magazines has not yet emerged. So, yes, the “customer/printer” interface of MagCloud means there is something like Lulu.com with a primary focus on the nuances of magazines — as MagCloud.com says, “printing, mailing, subscription management and more.” I assume that in the future (when a very longtail of short-run magazines is established), the “more” could include aggregating category-specific magazine titles into advertising networks. So, it’s not about the technology, it’s about the bundling of services and the price-point.

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  • Jay Villa

    Magcloud is almost perfect but the .20 cents a page makes a standard magazine extremely expensive to sell. Most magazines that can be bought at stores retail around the $5 range give or take. If I wanted to print a 40 page magazine, my cost would be $8 per book plus shipping. Even if I decided to mark the book up by only a quarter and pass along the shipping cost, that would make the book cost $9.65 when I sell it. I just don’t think I could move that many books at that price. Does anyone know if these are just test prices or is this the permanent price structure? If so, MagCloud would be better suited for book publishers or specialty books and not for somebody who plans on putting out 6 or more unique issues a year.