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)