ABSTRACT: This report examines the tension between print and digital magazine publishing, the divisiveness around SEO, and the future of BCBusiness magazine’s digital editorial strategy. Beyond simply extolling the virtues of SEO, this report discusses its absolute necessity in the digital editorial workflow, how it can be adapted, and the best practices for digital editors. As the magazine publishing industry moves into a new digital era, magazines have to consider how to align the goals and practices of print and digital editors while developing new online strategies that combine print content, multimedia, SEO, and social media. BCBusiness is on the vanguard of this magazine publishing movement that will see more dynamic editors working as multi-platform, multidiscipline, word- and Web-strategists. All figures and statistics are accurate as of April 2011.
Thanks to my industry supervisor, Shannon Emmerson, and to John Bucher for their support, mentorship, and for letting me stick around after my internship.
Thanks to my senior supervisor, John Maxwell, and the brilliant staff in the Master of Publishing Program. I appreciate all of your encouragement, your dedication to your students, and above all, for helping me see what an exciting time this is to be entering the publishing industry.
And finally, thanks to my wonderful husband, Luc. I couldn’t have done this without your motivation on those early Saturday mornings, your encouraging words, and all of your support as I inched further toward my degree.
In an increasingly digital world, magazine publishing strategies without Web components are rare animals. The publishing industry has evolved rapidly, changing with the technologies on which it relies to reach its readers. As digital technologies advance, so do its users, and so must the content providers. After spending three months interning at Canada Wide Media, Western Canada’s largest magazine publisher, and studying the evolution of its online publishing strategy, I saw firsthand the speed with which publishers and editors must react to the evolving demands of readers and the market.
This report addresses the seismic shifts in the magazine publishing landscape, how they have given way to new digital strategies and an emphasis on magazines’ online components, and what these changes look like at a Canadian magazine publisher. During my internship at Canada Wide I analyzed online articles from 2007 onwards to ascertain past digital editorial practices and how they figured in the overall workflow of a print article being put online. Beyond analyzing the way things were, this report thoroughly discusses current strategies and their merits in online publishing, and puts forth new ideas for the future of online publishing. Upon being hired as a full-time staff member following my internship, I extended my research to Canada Wide’s current editorial strategies, and looked at how new methods and ideas can be incorporated to improve the digital editorial workflow and the overall success of online magazines. By going inside the current digital editorial practices at BCBusiness magazine, Canada Wide’s print and online business title, and analyzing its past methods, I can trace the evolution of online magazine publishing strategies at Canada Wide Media.
As online magazine-publishing models proliferate, more companies are exploring the opportunities of digital publishing rather than dwelling on the shortcomings of print. Magazines are being published in myriad forms —Magazines Canada calls them “360 degree marketing providers”—and online editions are building credibility with both readers and advertisers. As audiences warm to the idea of consuming robust content online —books, magazines, newspaper articles—more publications are moving their digital products beyond static replications of their print editions and embracing new strategies.
Early online models seemed to be shaped around the idea that “if you build it, they will come;” any online presence was better than none, and digital strategies lacked elegance, using the Web simply as a print-content repository. The prevailing idea was that, if your content was worthy, readers would find it, consume it, share it, and return for more. But with 255 million websites in existence as of December 2010, it has never been clearer that good content alone will not fuel your site’s vitality and success.
The content is king mantra still buzzes in the background of digital publishing strategies, but the sheer vastness and increasing complexities of the Internet demand a more sophisticated approach. Publishing excellent content is the editor’s steadfast goal, but ensuring that it is findable is paramount in her strategy. If you build it, the reader must be able to Google it.
Readers do not interact with a digital publication in the same way as with a print publication, nor do they find it the same way. Adopting a separate editorial strategy for Web content (both print-to-Web and Web-only) involves understanding how readers consume content online and understanding how they find it.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the Web practice of enhancing an article or website’s visibility online and increasing its findability in search engine results. In the past few years, SEO has become an increasingly fundamental part of online magazine publishing strategies, and thorough knowledge and understanding of SEO techniques are a necessity in the digital editor’s toolbox. By employing SEO methods, the digital editor improves an article’s online visibility, which results in more traffic arriving to the magazine’s website; it is like placing your print magazine at the front of the newsstand in hopes of attracting more readers. Although some aspects of SEO are at odds with the conventions of print editorial—such as headline writing—they have their rightful place in magazine publishing.
By incorporating SEO methods into the digital editorial strategy, editors can ensure that their content is well indexed by search engines and that it drives traffic to the magazine’s site. Although SEO skeptics are still rampant, it is hard to ignore the facts; through Google analytics, it is easy to discern the articles that have been optimized from those that were copied from the print magazine with no further changes. This report looks at the SEO and analytics of successful and unsuccessful BCBusiness articles to clarify the gap between a properly optimized article and one that has not undergone any Web-specific editorial treatment. Analytics reveal how many people see an article, how they arrived there, and many other valuable details that can be incorporated into the digital editorial strategy. A magazine article that is published online without Web-specific editorial treatment or optimization is the proverbial needle in the Internet haystack, a blip on the Google analytics radar. By thoroughly analyzing search optimization methods, this report will determine the best practices for digital editors, look at new techniques, emphasize SEO’s necessity in online magazine publishing, and look at how it can be specifically applied to back issues of Canada Wide’s magazines and to its current digital editorial strategy.
The digital publishing arc of BCBusiness magazine
In 2005, Canada Wide Media launched a Web component for its flagship publication, BCBusiness magazine. The website offered fragments of five articles per month and pushed readers to subscribe to the print magazine. In 2007, BCBusiness launched its full website, BCBusinessOnline.ca. Over the past five years, BCBusiness Online has followed a similar arc to the one mentioned above. The fledgling website published entire print magazine issues by moving content online, but with minimal photos and limited consideration for the articles’ digital environment, primarily due to a small staff stretched thinly over the demanding website launch and curation. The original intention was to bring BCBusiness a Web presence as quickly as possible, populating the site with print content as a mirror to the magazine. The digital staff wanted to serve both readers, in finding content online, and advertisers, in reaching a new online audience. “The purpose of the website was to promote the magazine to advertisers and potential subscribers” with less focus on the reader experience. The website was a means to an end; the goal was to have a Web presence. In conjunction with the website launch, BCBusiness Online developed a blog component, but still left the magazine content with limited digital editorial treatment. It focused, rather, on curating the new Web-only component, a collection of blogs. BCBusiness Online’s Web component concerned itself with fresh, engaging content—which is not a bad strategy, but an incomplete one.
In the years following the launch of the site the magazine has significantly adjusted its approach to include search engine optimization as a critical part of its digital editorial strategy. With editors dedicated to SEO as a stage in each blog post and article’s workflow, the magazine has increased its visibility online and overall visitor traffic to the site. BCBusiness Online began using Google analytics in 2008, and since then the site has seen a 22.7% increase in unique visitors from 2008 to 2009, and a 49.2% increase in unique visitors from 2009 to 2010. This is no doubt the result of BCBusiness Online’s adoption of SEO, social media practices, and continued publication of high-quality content. Excellent content is a priority, but broadcasting it through social media and making it searchable through SEO has made the site significantly more successful, as can be seen by analyzing the visitor sources and keywords in BCBusiness Online’s Google analytics.
BCBusiness Online’s early practices of shoveling print content online has resulted in droves of valuable back-issue articles that have sunk to the bottom of the site and are not easily findable by search. By revisiting these articles with a revised digital editorial strategy, BCBusiness Online can create a valuable archive of content that will drive traffic, create a long tail of organic search-engine visitors, and hopefully convert those visitors to loyal readers.
We know that magazines need SEO, but it is time to revisit those strategies and evaluate which methods have real clout and which can be put aside. Rather than use the shotgun approach, editors must devote more quality time to only the important aspects of SEO than hedging one’s bets by completing every step half-heartedly. Too much time is wasted on methods that have been proven useless, like writing long lists of keywords on the backend of articles. Abandoning ineffective methods to devote more time to others (i.e. rewriting headlines and cultivating strong social media channels) can fortify the overall SEO of an article. This revision of the digital editorial strategy must also involve print editors—SEO should extend beyond the purview of just the digital editor. As magazines’ Web components build dominance, editors must work together as members of the same brand rather than separate print and digital entities.
PART ONE | A Burgeoning BCBusiness Digital Editorial Strategy
Early digital workflow; Case study: BCBusiness Online articles in 2007; The importance of SEO in digital
The evolution of BCBusiness Online provides a model in the Canadian publishing industry by which we can trace changes in online editorial strategies. Analyzing articles from even just four years ago reveals a substantially different approach to online magazine publishing and a very basic definition of “Web presence.” In its earliest incarnation—and like many of its peers—BCBusiness magazine approached search engine optimization as more of an overall site-structure strategy with less attention paid to the optimization of individual articles. But as publishers began to grasp a more sophisticated idea of what being online meant for a magazine, digital editors began to emerge and, with them, digital editorial strategies. Search engine optimization grew in relevance as publishers began to consider business models for digital publishing, and as digital editors recognized its reader-attracting power. The sales staff wanted more traffic for the sake of advertisers, and editorial staff wanted more readers. BCBusiness had humble Web beginnings, but carved out its spot online and used the power of search engine optimization to help find its online audience.
BCBusiness Online has developed over time within the Digital Media Department at Canada Wide Media under director of digital media Shannon Emmerson. Since June 2007, the department has grown from a full-time staff of two to a full-time staff of 13. This includes three full-time digital editors, each dedicated to their own digital title—BCBusiness Online, Granville Online, and BCLiving, respectively. The department also has two full-time digital editorial assistants who devote editorial time to these titles, as well as TVWeek Online, Youthink.ca, GardenWise Online, RealGolf.ca, and Wellness Matters. The remainder of the department is comprised of a vice-president of marketing and digital media, a director of business development, an online-product marketing manager, two Web developers, an interactive designer, and a digital media operations manager.
A full-time digital editor and full-time digital editorial assistant run BCBusiness Online, with occasional blog contributions from the BCBusiness print editors. Together, the digital editors manage eight blogs with various contributors, create sales-driven Web-only content (articles whose topics originate from salespeople and are juxtaposed with relevant advertisements), publish each print issue of BCBusiness online, and create web-only multimedia features including slideshows, podcasts, videos, content collections, and weekly eNewsletters.
Recent structural changes at Canada Wide have shifted the digital editors out of the Digital Media Department and under the larger umbrella of the Editorial Department. This internal shift at the company affords the opportunity to make a stronger connection between the print and digital strategies of BCBusiness and BCBusiness Online. Consolidating print and digital editors will make it easier to integrate the digital editorial strategy into the overall editorial strategy of the BCBusiness brand.
Early digital workflow
In June 2007, BCBusiness magazine made its foray into digital publishing with BCBusiness Online. This was a crucial transition for BCBusiness during a period where many publishers feared the Web would cannibalize print sales.
In its earliest incarnation, the website revolved primarily around print content, and was without a proper digital editor for its first eight months. John Bucher, the first BCBusiness digital editor, arrived in February 2008. Under Bucher’s direction, the website was primarily dedicated to Web-only content that would complement the magazine. The digital editor continued publishing every article from each print issue as more bloggers joined and the Web-only content began to flourish. Like many other publications in the nascent digital magazine market, BCBusiness Online was carving out its niche and experimenting with the tension between print and digital. This was in a pre-iPad, pre-Kindle era, where the notion of consuming books and magazines online was an ongoing debate for readers and a relatively new challenge for publishers.
BCBusiness uses—as it used then—a customizable Drupal content management system that creates new articles through a blank “article” template form with required (i.e. title, author, body text) and optional (i.e. meta title, meta description) fields. Once filled in, the article forms can be saved and left unpublished or saved and published at the editor’s discretion by simply selecting or deselecting the “publish” button. The titles, authors, and body text from magazine articles were copied and pasted from their original Adobe InDesign production files into the backend of the website as unpublished articles (not accessible online except by editors), receiving no further editorial treatment beyond the print-magazine workflow. After upload, all print content was published at the digital editor’s discretion.
Before BCBusiness Online developed a strategy around the timing of online content with the timing of print content, it experimented, in an effort to maintain subscriptions and newsstand sales. The first publishing strategy was to sync the website publication with the magazine to be a true digital companion, offering full article access in time with the newsstand date. Further experiments included trickling articles out online throughout the course of the month, and pre-releasing print content “teasers” in the weekly eNewsletters to build momentum. But it was not until BCBusiness Online joined Twitter in February 2009 that the site could effectively generate buzz around print articles prior to the newsstand date without undermining the magazine. By tweeting about topics and people featured in upcoming articles without actually linking to them, readers are left to consider what angle the article might take, and must stay tuned to the BCBusiness Twitter feed (or continue visiting the BCBusiness homepage) until the article goes live online. The digital editor measured his success in this endeavour by retweets and the quality of direct response to his teaser tweets.
At the time BCBusiness joined Twitter, the digital editor was slowly leaking print articles online after the publication of the print magazine. He now gauges the anticipated popularity of print stories and revises his publishing strategy on a month-to-month basis; he publishes articles early, on the newsstand date, and past the newsstand date, all the while tweeting about what’s live on the website and what’s to come. The current role of BCBusiness Online falls under both the idea of the companion and the complement—everything in the magazine is offered online, but with additional commentary and treatment that only the Web can offer. The website plays the companion by publishing online everything in the print magazine, but it also complements print stories by taking advantage of multimedia—and sometimes further coverage in writing—to round out the articles. For example, a February 2011 article on nuclear fusion and Burnaby-based company General Fusion had a Web-only complementary article that featured an interview with the CEO of General Fusion and a lesson on how his company’s particular brand of nuclear fusion works; a January 2011 article on BC architects had a Web-only slideshow of structures designed by the architecture firms mentioned in the print article.
Eight BCBusiness Online bloggers (a number that is currently in flux) and various other contributors provide timely commentary, business advice, and local business insight that reinforce the brand as a trusted authority in BC’s business community.
The table below illustrates BCBusiness’s size as a print magazine and as a website. Comparing the 2009 and 2010 stats of BCBusiness indicates significant growth online and in the magazine’s social media channels.
BCBusiness Circa 2009
BCBusiness Circa 2010
Total Site Unique Visitors (fiscal year 2009): >230,000
Total Site Unique Visitors (fiscal year 2010): >315,000
Magazine circulation: 26,000 (monthly)
Magazine circulation: 26,000 (monthly)
Average article and blog uploads per month: 75
Average article and blog uploads per month: 60
Online archives: July 2007 and later
Online archives: Full issues for July 2007 and later; random print articles from 2005
In comparison to sister site and magazine GardenWise, whose current circulation is 35,000 and current average uploads per month is approximately 30 articles per month plus regular blogs and events, BCBusiness has grown its total unique visitors substantially more. From 2009 to 2010 BCBusiness has increased it unique visitors by nearly 100,000 visitors per month. GardenWise decreased from >250,000 unique visitors in 2009 to >235,000 unique visitors in 2010. Although the two brands are under the same umbrella at Canada Wide Media, BCBusiness underwent more radical changes to its digital editorial strategy in recent years, has a full-time online editor and assistant editor, and has more fully incorporated SEO into its workflow of print and Web-only content.
Case study: BCBusiness Online articles in 2007
Early digital editorial strategies involved little to no SEO, in part due to unfamiliarity, but also due to fear of comprising the editorial integrity of print articles. But it was hard for publishers to ignore the logic of search engine optimization. Google analytics show that when an article is optimized, it will receive more organic visitors than an article that has not been optimized. Turning up one’s nose at SEO is turning down loads of potential readers. Senior SEO analyst for Hearst Publications, Dan Roberts, was an early proponent for SEO and the man responsible for working it into the publishing company’s online strategy. “There are a lot of people who had to make a paradigm shift [from print editorial] . . . The ones that ignore [SEO] do so at their own peril and their results speak for themselves,” said Roberts.
Print articles do not translate to the Web in many ways—especially visually. A page of magazine article has text that flows around pull quotes, has images and captions, and breaks longer pieces into subsections, even if only with drop caps rather than subheads. These longer articles online appear as blocks of text with few points of entry for the reader; without subtitles to distinguish breaks or shifts in the story, images to create visual interest, or page breaks, online articles can appear daunting and unattractive to readers. And most importantly, print titles are vague and do not contain keywords, making the articles less searchable online. If an article about boating in the Pacific Ocean is called “High Tides,” with no further metadata, and a reader is searching online for information about boating in the Pacific, this article will be buried beneath articles whose titles and metadata are trying to capture that audience. Eventually everything online is indexed, but it is not necessarily easy to find.
Rachelle Money reports that since including SEO in Hearst’s digital editorial strategy, the company saw a 150 per cent increase in overall traffic. This jump in traffic and shift in editorial strategy represents the majority of online magazines and magazine companions; some worried that SEO would compromise the integrity of the original article, and some were just skeptical. In 2007 when BCBusiness was first experimenting with online strategies and digital publishing, it had moderate knowledge of search engine optimization that was geared mostly toward website infrastructure rather than smaller-scale article infrastructure. By analyzing old BCBusiness content, it is evident that the chief priority was getting content online with few editorial changes. Had these articles been under the guiding hand of a digital editor, they could have been rigorously optimized, capturing a larger online audience, ranking higher in Google search results when there was less competition, and enjoying a long tail of traffic over the years. Each visitor in the long tail of traffic represents an opportunity to win over a new reader. Reviewing an article from BCBusiness Online in 2007 demonstrates the lost opportunities of digital editorial strategies without SEO.
On September 1, 2007 (three days prior to the September print issue’s newsstand date), BCBusiness Online published the print feature story “Here Comes the Pride.” (URL: http://www.BCBusiness Online.ca/bcb/top-stories/2007/09/01/here-comes-pride.) The article has a slug-based URL, which means it is automatically created by the online publishing platform, drawing its name from the category under which the article is classified in the Drupal article form (top story), the date on which it is published online (September 1, 2007), and the title of the article, which in this case is the original magazine headline (Here Comes the Pride). Because the title of this article was taken directly from the print magazine with no further changes, the URL contains no useful keywords for a reader who is trying to Google the article. Ordinarily when optimizing a print article’s headline, the digital editor uses the Google Adwords Keyword Tool to research popular words and phrases that pertain to the article. In this case, the digital editor might have found that “gay marriage” was a popular keyword and subsequently used it in the headline. This would create a keyword-based title, reflecting the terms that readers would use in search engines to find this content.
The meta title is an SEO element that appears at the top of the reader’s browser and describes the content of the page; it reads the same as the print story headline, but with BCBusiness appended after a pipeline (Here Comes the Pride | BCBusiness). BCBusiness is automatically added to the end of every meta title, which is good for overall brand SEO but does not help individual articles. The article deck is not visible in the body of the text and is only used in a promotional spot of the article form that appears wherever the article is featured on the website. Including a deck contained in H2 tags is another opportunity to include pertinent keywords and larger searchable phrases that may be too awkward for a title. The body of the article does not feature any further optimized metadata such as H3 tags, article links, or image meta tags.
Reviewing the Google analytics for this article reveals that zero visitors arrived from keywords germane to the article’s content. Without optimizing the article around keywords, it cannot be easily found—if at all—through a Google search. Unless a reader has the exact print title, “Here Comes the Pride,” he would have no other means of finding the article online. In order to capture visitors through Google searches, the digital editor must research keywords and phrases that relate to the article and that she thinks readers would use in order to find this type of story. The Google Adwords Keyword Tool shows the editor which keywords are popular, by how many Google searches they receive each month, and how likely it is to rank highly for the keyword by displaying the level of “competition” surrounding the word. The more popular something is, the harder it will be to win that term. But ranking on the first page of a Google search result for a popular keyword can result in consistent traffic. In Google Adwords Keyword Tool, the following relevant search terms return favourable results:
“gay marriage” – 550,000 searches per month, low competition
“same sex marriage” – 201,000 searches per month, low competition
“gay and lesbian marriage” – 165,000 searches per month, low competition
“legalize same sex marriage” – 18,100 searches per month, low competition
In publishing and journalism, editors and writers refer to an article like “Here Comes the Pride” as “evergreen”—its content does not go out of date and is perennially useful. But without SEO, once the article is shifted down by newer content, it is buried deep within the site with no means of finding it. In the next section we look at a 2008 article called “Red Light, Green Light” that received the full SEO treatment and subsequently ranks highly in Google search results. Since BCBusiness Online began using Google Analytics in 2008, “Here Comes the Pride” has received a paltry 226 unique visits—a fraction of the 9,603 visits that the optimized “Red Light, Green Light” received in just 2010 alone. And of those 226 visitors, not one arrived using a relevant keyword. With such extraordinarily popular search terms at its heart, such low competition for those terms, and an online life of over three years, the article should have tens of thousands of views.
The importance of SEO in digital
By comparing “Here Comes the Pride” to another (optimized) article based around a popular search term, it is easy to see the difference in terms of visitor traffic and longevity. Although the article “Red Light, Green Light: Sex in Vancouver” was published on October 9, 2008, it continues to draw steady traffic. The article covers a salacious, controversial, and highly searched topic (much like same sex marriage but with radically fewer searches per month in the Google Adwords keyword tool), but by optimizing the article well, it ranks highly in Google search results and constantly draws traffic. In January 2011 alone, the article brought in 1,394 unique visitors just from organic Google searches (not including visitors from other search engines). Over its lifetime, “Red Light, Green Light” has brought in the following numbers of unique visitors from the corresponding keywords: 1,205 arrived via keywords “Vancouver prostitution”; 941 arrived via keywords “Vancouver prostitutes”; and 931 arrived via keywords “prostitution in Vancouver.” Winning such a popular keyword early on in the online publishing game is a feat for BCBusiness and a testament to the power of SEO. Both “Here Comes the Pride” and “Red Light, Green Light” contain controversial and very highly searched topics and keywords, but only one continues to capture thousands of readers. According to the Google Adwords Keyword Tool, the aforementioned “Red Light, Green Light” search terms bring in the following number of searches per month through Google:
“Vancouver prostitution” – 1,300 searches/month in Google, low competition
“Vancouver prostitutes” – 12,400 searches/month in Google, low competition
“Prostitution in Vancouver” – 1,300 searches/month in Google, low competition
These are the top three keywords by which visitors arrived at the article, and each has a significantly lower search value in Google than the keywords for the non-optimized article “Here Comes the Pride.” The term “gay marriage” may not be as risqué as “Vancouver prostitution,” but it has the potential to garner more organic Google search traffic.
“Red Light, Green Light” was published online on October 9, 2008 under the revised headline “Red Light, Green Light: The Sex Industry in Vancouver.” This article headline combines the original article title (on the left side of the colon) with keywords. Keeping the original title is sometimes desired so that print readers can easily find the article online. The meta title, “Red Light Green Light: The Sex Industry in Vancouver | Vancouver Prostitution| BCBusiness,” includes secondary keywords and phrases that were not used in the title.
In the body of the article, the deck repeats the article’s keywords, and the keywords are repeated again in subheads surrounded by H3 tags. Subheads are a frequently missed opportunity to include keywords and phrases; they serve the double duty of breaking up dense text, offering more points of entry for readers, and adding further SEO keywords to the article. H3 tags can also be used in sidebar titles for shorter articles that do not require subheads. Four outbound links—three to BCBusiness Online and one to National Public Radio—are embedded in the article. The links are created with strong anchor text that denotes the content readers will find on the linked page. Links with properly anchored, keyword-dense text reflect well on an article when they connect to a credible outside source (such as National Public Radio). Including relevant links to outside sources boosts the article’s status in Google and is a standard of best practices in web publishing.
Unlike “Here Comes the Pride,” “Red Light, Green Light” is broken into shorter pages as a user-friendly way to present longer stories to online readers. Images throughout the article are tagged with metadata consistent with the article’s main keywords and phrases.
Without the above SEO treatment, “Red Light, Green Light: Sex in Vancouver” would have been buried under years of BCBusiness Online content and poorly indexed by Google. Although some editors have feared that adjusting a print article for digital publication will destroy its integrity by jamming it full of keywords, SEO merely amends the article to its medium without compromising the quality of the original writing.
Analyzing past BCBusiness articles reflects the early standards of online magazine publishing at Canada Wide Media and in the rest of the country; not every publication had a website and those that did were still developing their digital practices. Early digital workflows focused on how content would get online, but not necessarily how readers would find and consume it online. Rudimentary digital editorial strategies were the norm—out of every publication at Canada Wide Media, BCBusiness had, and still has, the most developed online strategy and the most active editorial application of that strategy. Although other publications at Canada Wide Media have comprehensive digital strategies, they have fewer resources and therefore receive less editorial attention than BCBusiness Online. Since its launch in 2007, BCBusiness has taken articles like “Here Comes the Pride” and revised their metadata to capture organic visitors and further expose the magazine’s brand. Parsing the metadata and editorial treatment of “Here Comes the Pride” and “Red Light, Green Light” emphasizes the importance and effectiveness of implementing a digital editorial strategy. Getting online was important, but now getting found online is key.
PART TWO | The Inner Workings of Search Engine Optimization
SEO explained; Social media as SEO; SEO in the analytics spotlight
Using search engine optimization in publishing is a fundamental part of finding your readers and giving them what they want. Revising print articles with a view for increasing their findability online is the cornerstone of SEO. Part two discusses the fundamentals of optimizing an article, how the various elements of SEO function, and how this affects an article’s analytics and traffic. Although social media is not strictly considered an element of SEO, it helps boost traffic and brand presence in a way that complements optimized articles. Social media article promotion is always the last step of a digital editor’s workflow, but it is crucial. Promoting content on sites like Facebook and Twitter gives articles a boost and helps generate inbound links before the article is indexed and begins to draw traffic from Google searches. Where optimizing an article is key to the long-term success of an article, social media act as the short-term portion of the editor’s overall goal to drive traffic and place an article highly in Google search results pages.
As seen in Part One, the difference between an optimized and non-optimized article can be thousands of lost visitors. Proper and thorough SEO ensures that Google indexes a magazine’s content and that quality visitors—the right people—will find it. Google co-founder Larry Page once said the perfect search engine “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.” By using best SEO practices and getting well indexed by Google, good magazine content can be exactly what someone is looking for.
Although SEO is now a more integral part of online magazines’ publishing strategies, skeptics remain. Not everyone is convinced of search engine optimization’s effectiveness; many print editors fear that SEO interferes with an article’s editorial integrity; some skeptics believe that subtle SEO tweaks do not amount to anything; and others, rightly so, are weary of “black hat” SEO artists and methods.
The fear that SEO will degrade the level of writing in magazine articles is a fear based on unfounded suspicions of the tenets of Web writing. Web writing stresses keyword density and focused content that “lets people grab and go,” but all online content does not have to fall in line under these standards—especially robust magazine articles. When weaving SEO practices into a digital editorial strategy, it is important to remember that “your ultimate consumers are your users, not search engines.” Although the goal is to be indexed by Google and ranked highly, editors have to keep the readers top of mind.
Changing content by thinning it out and stuffing the body text with keywords may help its search ranking, but the quality suffers for it, and so does the brand. Sophisticated online readers, digital natives, and an increasing part of magazines’ broader audiences understand that magazines are fighting for their attention. Finding readers online is a battle. Readers are learning more about SEO and, on the farther end of the SEO spectrum, content farms, whose sole purpose is to optimize often poorly written content around popular search terms. Readers are becoming weary of websites like eHow.com and publications using unethical or misleading practices to capture their attention. A headline and description on a Google search results page that promises to talk about the Canadian political leaders’ debate, but is jammed with keywords and does not cover the crux of the issue results in quick reader turnover. Once the reader is duped into visiting an article that does not deliver on its promise or does so poorly and ineffectively, that brand is now associated with that experience. Many readers have accused Suite 101 and other such sites of being nothing more than content farms. “Quality can be a big issue,” says Jason Glover, a former Suite 101 writer, of the website’s methods. “It can be argued that the primary concern of the sites is to sell advertising and make money, so good SEO is more important than well-written and researched articles.” Optimizing content in a misleading way or posting well-optimized but low-quality content may spike numbers, but it is not part of a long-term plan to win readers’ trust and build a strong brand reputation.
After all, the goal is to attract visitors and convert them to loyal readers, not just to secure the top position in Google searches. Writing for the web in magazine articles is realized through subheads, sidebars, and pagination—methods that improve the online reading experience and boost search visibility without compromising the quality. Content will always be King of any editorial strategy.
Small changes to optimize an article are no trifling thing. Rewriting a print article’s vague title may seem like a paltry adjustment, but according to Google, “when combined with other optimizations, [these changes] could have a noticeable impact on your site’s user experience and performance in organic search results.” Breaking down SEO into its respective parts is useful for understanding how to wield its power properly and learning which parts should be prioritized. But overall, SEO should be understood as a whole, with each step acting as a fundamental part of the SEO machine. If one part fails—a title without keywords—the entire machine slows down. And if enough parts fail—poor title, no deck, not researching the keywords—the entire machine is rendered useless and your article sinks into oblivion.
For every few SEO enthusiasts there seems to be an SEO skeptic who subscribes to the notion of “black hat” methods and “spamdexing.” Black hat artists exploit SEO practices by jamming misleading keywords into articles and metadata, paying other websites to post hundreds to thousand of inbound links to their content, redirecting articles to different pages, and subsequently “degrad[ing] both the relevance of search results and the quality of user-experience.” If Google discovers that your website is using black hat SEO techniques, they will blacklist you, excluding you from all Google search engine results pages. Although bad SEO practices are widespread, reputable publishers and editors do not have time to waste on questionable methods that could blacklist their site or bad practices that damage their brand’s credibility. An important part of a magazine’s online presence is building their community, brand, and reputation—and one instance of bad practices can damage a brand much quicker than a history of good practices can build it up.
Avoiding black hat methods also helps to dictate an editor’s priorities when optimizing an article, such as skipping the meta-keywords field on the backend of an article. Keyword stuffing was a common black hat method in earlier SEO days, and is part of the reason Google no longer uses the meta-keywords field in its indexing algorithm.
Analyzing and understanding each moving part of a machine is the best way to make sense of its function, and the easiest way to know what needs fixing when it is not performing as it should. Parsing search engine optimization lets us see which elements require more attention and where an editor should dedicate the majority of her time. The impetus behind optimizing online articles is not to inflate the magazine’s overall traffic, but to target keywords that will draw in quality visitors who can be converted into loyal readers.
Because navigating the Web is done largely through search engines, ranking highly on search engine results pages is a crucial goal for Web editors. When Google indexes an article for its results pages, it pays weighted attention to different variables on the article page, such as the headline, the image tags, or the URL. By understanding the part each element plays in search rankings, editors can focus their approach when optimizing content. For example, though it is temping to retain original magazine headlines, as seen below in the SEO breakdown, the H1 and title tags are two of the most important SEO elements.
URLs should be keyword-rich and easy to understand. Complex URLs can be a problem for both humans and Google crawlers if they’re too long or include confusing number and symbol sequences. Keeping the tail end of a URL brief is important, using up to five keywords and connecting them with dashes rather than underscores (Google recognizes dashes as spaces between each word). The more words included in the URL, the less each will be weighted in terms of SEO clout. Long and complicated URLs are more likely to be copied incorrectly or posted as broken links by readers, which results in missed inbound link opportunities. Since editors have no control over the anchor text used in the inbound links to their site, having keyword-rich URLs help. Using keywords in the URL provides Google crawlers with more information on what they will find at the link, and this boosts the effectiveness when being ranked.
BCBusiness Online’s slug-based URLs are keyword-rich because they are automatically created from the site’s taxonomy and an optimized headline. However, shortening or amending the tail end of the link can optimize them further.
For example, the headline “Human Rights in Employment: Do You Need a Tune Up?” creates the URL: “human-rights-employment-do-you-need-tune.” Replacing the last four words of the URL (which do nothing in terms of optimizing) with another keyword creates a stronger and simpler URL: “human-rights-employment-law.” Before articles are published, an automatic URL is created for BCBusiness Online articles, but editors should always change the tail end when it does not already include keywords. Any changes made after the article has been published, however, can result in the same page being indexed twice, thus splitting the SEO clout between the old broken-linked page and the newly optimized title’s page. Also, any inbound links to the article will now be broken links, therefore all URL optimization should be completed prior to publishing.
SEO software provider and online SEO resource site SEOmoz calls the title tag (also known as the meta title) the “single most important on-page SEO element (behind overall content),” appearing in two key spots. The title tag appears at the top of the user’s Web browser and at the top of article descriptions on search engine results pages. It is typically the same as the headline (H1), with additional keywords attached to the end. Placing the most relevant keywords at the opening of the title tag is important for search results, as Google only displays a maximum of 70 characters of the entire title tag. To write an optimized meta title, include the article headline and one to two more keyword phrases. Each part of the title tag should be separated using vertical pipelines: “How to Work with Family | Family Businesses | BCBusiness.”
Title tags on BCBusiness Online are automatically appended with “| BCBusiness.” Well-known or respected brands included in title tags can affect a higher click-through rate in search engine results. Including the magazine in the title tag is also an overall good brand strategy to promote the magazine’s presence on the Web.
Article headline <H1>
The H1 tag is the main title, or headline, that appears at the top of an article and should always include the top keyword or phrase. “Placing the keyword early in the header tag will increase its prominence” and will be more indicative of the content than a typical print magazine title. Some online magazines retain the print title in the headline or meta title so that it is still searchable. Reviewing Google analytics indicates that such an insignificant number of visitors arrive by searching the print title, that this practice does nothing more than minimize a headline’s SEO effectiveness.
Although BCBusiness Online sometimes changes entire headlines when optimizing content, it retains the print headline in the online table of contents. Editors who are concerned about confusing readers who are searching for articles online by their print headline can use the original headlines in their archives or tables of contents. BCBusiness Online keeps an archive of every print issue that has been published on the website (with articles listed under their original print titles). Archives are a straightforward point of reference for readers trying to find an article via the issue and original title. Print headlines can stay in the same in the rare case that they include the proper keywords, but should otherwise be replaced.
A deck is an introductory phrase or paragraph at the beginning of the article that gives the reader the main topic and a taste of what is to come. In online magazine publishing, the deck is contained between H2 tags. The H2 tag is one tier below the headline tag H1 and together they are used as a kind of in-article taxonomy. Below the H2 tag are the H3 tags (the next tier down), which indicate subheads within the body of the article. Print article decks are sometimes suitable to be taken as-is and used within the H2 tags. For the most part, however, they should be partially rewritten to include the top keywords and phrases that have already been used in the headline and meta title.
BCBusiness print articles are easily modified to include keywords and phrases, and rarely require an entire rewrite.
Subheads are as much for the search engines as they are for the readers, and are a very important function in Web writing. Because Web content does not have the same layout options as print articles, online text can sometimes appear dense and overwhelming. Using keyword-rich subheads breaks up long articles and gives the reader a better idea of the content at-a-glance. When using heading tags, it is crucial to employ them as part of your SEO strategy, and not just for aesthetics; it is bad practice to use an H3 tag where bolded or italicized text would suffice.
Longer print articles, lists, and how-to articles always take H3 tags on BCBusiness Online. The digital editors create subheads as needed and where useful to improve the reading experience and to capture more keywords in the article’s metadata—in this case, in H3 tags. On occasion, BCBusiness Online uses H3 tags to draw attention to text in slideshows. Using a larger font would style the text in the same manner as H3 tags without using SEO for aesthetics rather than for optimizing.
Sometimes ignored, the meta description is one of the most important factors on the backend of an article. The meta description is chiefly for readers, and shows up on search results pages directly below the meta title. The meta description has the double duty of informing readers and enticing them to click into the content. Although editors should focus on keywords, they should approach the meta description as a sales pitch to potential readers. It must be a brief summary, include keywords, and reflect the quality of writing in the article.
BCBusiness Online writes two to three sentences for meta descriptions, and sometimes copy and pastes the deck, depending on its length. The deck can sometimes be suitable, but in most cases the meta description needs to be a more detailed summary of the article and be economical with its words. Google displays up to 154 characters of the meta description on its search results pages. Descriptions exceeding this size will be truncated, and the meaning could be lost.
Links within the text should be added to articles where applicable. Editors should especially focus on opportunities to link to their own content. The most important element of links is the anchor text—it should be concise and related to the content on the linked page. Links should be structured around keywords or phrases rather than single words like “article,” or irrelevant phrases like “click here.”
Keyword-rich anchor text is for both the search engines and the users. Using proper anchor text gives Google a better idea of what they will find on the linked page. It is also a clearer call out for readers and easier to spot within the text.
BCBusiness Online has a reciprocal link relationship with its sister sites Granville Online and BCLiving, and links to their pages with strong anchor text whenever possible. With more editorial time for print-to-web articles, digital editors could create more links, whether to their own site or to an external source.
Breaking a long article into numbered pages aids readability and navigation. The only time breaking one page into multiple pages will negatively affect SEO is when the pages get into the double digits and higher. When a larger consumer site, like a retailer, takes its online merchandise pages and breaks them into multiple pages for ease of navigation, the higher-numbered pages are not indexed well by Google. These subsidiary pages are improperly indexed and can bury content and limit their potential to be indexed by Google. Because print articles do not have the same excessive length as say, a listing of hundreds of shoes on Zappos.com, magazines do not face this same issue.
BCBusiness Online Google analytics indicate that visitors enter articles on the proper main article page when arriving via search, and not subsequent pages that have been broken off with pagination. The majority of visitors arriving at a page that is numbered two or higher have done so via the article’s main page.
Image meta tags <alt>
Optimizing images is a twofold form of SEO that should never be overlooked. It involves naming the file when saving, and creating an alt tag. Keeping the image file name short and keyword-rich improves its visibility in search engines. On the backend or in the html, digital editors can name images (in the same way as the file naming) with an alt tag. The alt tags are used by search engines (such as Google Image Search), revealed when readers mouse over the image, and used by screen reading technology.
BCBusiness Online has naming conventions for image sizes, and names image files with relevant keywords pertaining to the article content. All embedded images are given alt tags.
Inbound links are cited as one of the most important factors for a website’s ranking in search engines—both in terms of volume of links and quality of anchor text. Inbound links are the key to increasing a site’s PageRank in Google. PageRank is Google’s calculation of a website’s importance and relative authority to all other sites on the Internet. Google gives sites a PageRank from one (lowest) to eight (highest), and uses these numbers to determine which pages have more influence online and which websites’ articles are most likely to show up in the top of search engine results. Every link pointing to an article is like a vote in its favour, and the more votes it receives, the more influential Google perceives it to be.
Although extremely important, this part of a digital editor’s SEO strategy is harder to influence and cannot be executed as simply as the above methods. Publishing high-quality content is the best strategy to attract inbound links. But even if other sites are linking to your article, you cannot control whether or not they are using proper anchor text. Community-building through social media often results in valuable and consistent inbound links.
Social media as SEO
If the goal of SEO is to drive traffic through search, the goal of social media is to drive traffic through the online community; social media in magazine publishing is like SEO for the people rather than for the search engines. Broadcasting to the community to draw in visitors and build the magazine’s brand equates to the practice of boosting PageRank and driving traffic through search. And much like in SEO, the reader remains top of mind.
Having a social media presence is not an element of SEO, per se, but it is inextricably linked to the digital editor’s workflow. Although social media does not fall within the traditional parameters of SEO—which involve directly manipulating an article or its html code for search engine visibility—it is a joint exercise in branding and self-promotion that brings visitors to the site. Social media is most closely related to generating back links, another borderline-SEO concept. In this case, however, the editor has more direct control over the process of acquiring visitors—specifically, through the frequency of messages being broadcasted through social media channels and the number of connections with peers.
Social media should be regarded as secondary to SEO, but still a crucial part of the editor’s workflow. Links created on social media are ephemeral, whereas good SEO will nest an article in Google search results pages creating a permanent long tail of traffic. Organic Google searches outweigh the number of visitors arriving from all social media channels combined, but the branding power and impact of directly connecting with readers on sites like Twitter is invaluable.
The final stage of an article’s life should be when it is promoted via social media, whether it is Twitter, Facebook, etc. Promoting content through social media helps generate inbound links and spreads the brand throughout the magazine’s community.
It should be noted that Twitter surrounds its tweeted links (any link included in any tweet by any Twitter user) with a “no follow” tag that tells search engines to ignore the links. This is so that Twitter users cannot send out a high volume of hyperlinked spam tweets to affect search engine results. However, linking to your content on Twitter gives followers the opportunity to retweet your links to their followers, subsequently increasing visitors to your website. Many Twitter users will also take links from tweets and include them on their website or blog, indirectly creating valuable inbound links to your content (and this boosting PageRank).
Connections made on social media sites influence readers beyond the act of simply clicking on article links. MediaShift, a PBS blog, credits social media with introducing a “new era of pass-along” in magazine publishing. Passing content (links) to your readers is like personally putting a magazine in their hands. And through the ease and speed of social media, it is that much easier for them to pass that article on to a friend.
Social media also provides a venue outside of a magazine’s website for readers to connect and discuss content and related topics. Some social media venues take as little encouragement as posting a link or discussion question to engage readers with each other on the magazine’s behalf.
BCBusiness promotes itself as a single brand (representing both the print and digital teams) on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Twitter and Facebook are obvious—almost compulsory—choices for social networks in which to participate, and LinkedIn is on BCBusiness’s radar because of its association with the business world and business professionals. Based on global traffic, Facebook and Twitter are the two most widely used social media platforms in the world; they are also the most popular choices in the publishing industry. Facebook and Twitter presences have become as standard as having a website.
Facebook is the social media channel that was there from the start. The ways in which magazines interact with their readers through Facebook have evolved over the years and have since settled on fan pages. Making connections with readers via Facebook (getting them to “like” your fan page) lists your brand on their personal profile and spreads your name throughout the Facebook community. It is another channel through which a magazine can build its brand and bolster its reputation through the support of the community.
On Facebook fan pages there is an implicit self-promotional agreement—the majority of content pertains to the magazine and not to material like one would find on Twitter. Although the level of discourse around articles does not match LinkedIn—both in its volume and its quality—the number of visitors who arrive from Facebook are great enough to warrant the upkeep of fan pages. In 2010, Facebook drove 12,174 visitors to BCBusiness Online and was the number seven overall traffic source.
BCBusiness posts feature articles and noteworthy blogs on a semi-weekly basis. Although Facebook fans know a magazine is there to promote itself and share content, flooding one’s fan page with content can clog fans’ news feeds with your articles and cause them to “unlike” your fan page. Like all social media endeavours, there is a fine line between self-promoting and self-obsessing, and timely updates and unrelenting content pushing.
Any magazine with a website or any semblance of a digital strategy also has a Twitter account. The immediacy of Twitter lets readers communicate directly with the brand in real time. A linked tweet holds just as much clout as a verbal recommendation. Twitter is especially useful when leaking print content online before its newsstand date. Alerting your Twitter followers with a short teaser and a link directs them to the site and creates anticipation around the forthcoming print content. However, using tweets sparingly to promote content sets the tone and lets your readers know that not just anything will be broadcasted.
BCBusiness’s digital editor controls the Twitter account with a mix of tweets, some with links and some without. He creates a balance between link-sharing, opining, and cracking jokes, which results in a useful feed of resourceful material, but with a clear voice and personality. Shoveling your website content onto Twitter like coals into a fire misses the point of tweeting. And linking only to your own articles creates a one-dimensional twitter feed with less credibility. Linking to outside sources, staying relevant, and indulging in self-promotion when it is appropriate is how BCBusiness manages its Twitter feed. It uses the same successful formula as The Walrus magazine: “Witty, upbeat, and personal. […] Engaging with the community, not broadcasting.”
Linking to articles via Twitter is also a proven method of increasing website traffic, and draws in more visitors to BCBusiness Online than any of the other social media platforms. Promoting an article with a tweet is like dropping a rock in the community pond—one tweet can cause a ripple effect and reach readers that are not even BCBusiness followers.
Starting a group under your magazine brand on LinkedIn is an effective method of connecting with readers and starting discussions around your content. As a LinkedIn user, every connection you make, whether to a person or an organization, is tied to your professional reputation. Members of the BCBusiness LinkedIn group page are more invested in discussions than their counterparts on the BCBusiness Facebook page; where Facebook has a more casual brand interaction with “likes” and often one-sentence comments, LinkedIn has more ambitious users who are dedicated to professional networking and fostering robust discussions. According to a recent survey on Mashable, more than half of LinkedIn users belonging to groups participate in discussions. Connections and associations are more carefully forged and curated in this online community, and. When Mashable polled a group of 500 LinkedIn members from entry-level workers to top-level executives, it found that the majority of users, no matter the stage of their career, identified networking in their top three uses. It is strictly for professional purposes and group discussions generally revolve around topics germane to the brand.
Because the nature of LinkedIn as a social network is more serious and career-oriented than Facebook or Twitter, discussions and comments are generally more constructive and well developed. In the same Mashable survey mentioned above, users called LinkedIn “more professional than Facebook.” Where 10 readers might simply “like” an article link on your Facebook fan page, two or three members of a LinkedIn group would engage in higher-level discourse around that same article. This makes LinkedIn a good resource for developing high-quality readers who know the brand more intimately, spend more time interacting with the content, and are more likely to share links.
Members can start their own discussions that are not directly related to magazine content, but they are still communicating and gathering in a forum under the magazine’s brand. As an editor, visiting sporadically to stoke the fire of discussion and provide article links drives readers to the site and keeps them engaged.
Although not a traditional form of social media, eNewsletters are another important tool in the editor’s arsenal. eNewsletters are best used for calling attention to new and popular content or, like with Twitter, generating buzz around an upcoming print issue by leaking articles prior to the newsstand date. Subscribers to eNewsletters are similar in their behaviour to LinkedIn group members—they are high-quality visitors who spend more time on the site.
SEO in the analytics spotlight
It is not enough to use optimized content in online magazine publishing—editors must also have intimate knowledge of how it is impacting website traffic. Using Google Analytics to evaluate how content is performing, how visitors are reaching articles, and which topics are popular is a key part of the editor’s digital strategy. Analytics should help trace trends and inform the editor’s treatment of different types of content, especially once that content has reached the social media stage of its workflow. Identifying the top traffic sources tells an editor where her time is well spent.
Google Analytics provides insight and numbers on a macro scale—like how much traffic a website gets each year, or which day of the week receives the most hits —down to the finite details of which keyword is drawing in the most visitors on a particular article. Editors can adjust their timeline window in Google Analytics by selecting any date range from years at a time to a single day’s worth of visits. For example, after the annual BCBusiness Top 100 Luncheon, the digital editor can measure the spike in website traffic for that one day and determine where the traffic came from. By looking closely at any article’s statistics, editors can see exactly how many hits an article receives and when, where those visitors are coming from, how long the visitors are staying, who is linking to the article, which keywords visitors are using to find the article, and how long visitors are staying on the page. Google Analytics provides these same details on a site-wide level.
Identifying popular keywords in analytics can create new opportunities to optimize content and pages around topics that readers are already interested in finding. Each month the names of BC business leaders figure prominently in the top 10 keywords used to arrive at BCBusiness Online. Because BCBusiness has existing profiles on these people, the digital editor can optimize the articles around the business leaders’ names (if he has not already), and promote them in social media with the goal of driving traffic and inbound links. Google Analytics is useful in this way, as it helps an editor find and fortify his strengths.
Identifying top sources and the articles they lead to can allow editors to target those source audiences with appropriate content. Singling out specific articles that have been optimized and promoted through all of the magazine’s social media channels can shed light on how readers are interacting with the content and how they’re finding it.
By analyzing the short article “Personal Branding Lesson from Jim Pattison” compared to the feature print article “Taxi Drivers: Vancouver’s Road Warriors,” we can get a better understanding of how social media audiences interact with the content. Each article was optimized, promoted through social media, and included in a weekly eNewsletter.
“Personal Branding Lesson from Jim Pattison”
Date Published: November 2, 2010
Total visitors: 1490
Average visit length: 2:57
eNewsletter: 306 visitors, average 1:06 on site, 68% bounce rate
Twitter: 164 visitors, average of 1:46 on site, 83% bounce rate
Facebook: 168 visitors, average of 2:52 on site, 86% bounce rate
Google: 101 visitors, average of 3:48 on site, 78% bounce rate
“Taxi Drivers: Vancouver’s Road Warriors”
Date published: November 3, 2010
Total visitors: 775
Average visit length: 5:19
eNewsletter: 143 visitors, average of 3:25 on site, 68% bounce rate
Twitter: 7 visitors, average of 4:06 on site, 75% bounce rate
Facebook: 24 visitors, average of 1:04 on site, 75% bounce rate
Google: 304 visitors, average of 2:50 on site, 81% bounce rate
The top eNewsletter spots are guaranteed to receive an influx of traffic; articles in the top two positions of BCBusiness eNewsletters each receive an average of 500 direct eNewsletter visitors. No matter the length, eNewsletter visitors tend to interact with the content in the same fashion. Both articles in this case had a 68% bounce rate, with each article holding readers for a period time relevant to the article’s length.
Although it is difficult to discern the reasons a link receives a click-through on Twitter, the above analytics tells us that shorter articles and quick hits of content (lessons, how-to articles, blogs, lists, etc.) are more popular than long-form journalism. “Taxi Drivers” only received 7 visitors via Twitter after being promoted through BCBusiness’s Twitter feed, while “Personal Branding” received 164 visitors. The personal branding article had the added glamour of “Jim Pattison” in its title, but even BCBusiness’s wildly popular feature article on local sports hero Trevor Linden only received 56 visitors via Twitter after being promoted through BCBusiness’s Twitter feed. Compared to the other social media channels at an editor’s disposal, Twitter seems more effective for sharing short pieces that can be scanned, understood, and shared quickly, rather than for sharing feature stories and long-form journalism.
Reviewing the analytics is very revealing of the behaviours and preferences of the readers who participate in each social media channel. By understanding the audience for whom they’re optimizing content, editors can adapt their approach depending on which channel they are using. Not every article should be pushed through all of a magazine’s social media channels. But if an editor takes stock of what works well in each channel, she can use these tools to give each audience the content that speaks the most to them.
Understanding the fundamentals of SEO and putting them into place gives the digital editor a tool for long-term growth, while social media act as catalysts for that growth. The strategies and tools discussed in Part Two help editors drive traffic and spread their brand, but they also give editors a better understanding of whom they’re trying to reach and what that audience comes to them for.
Identifying a brand’s strengths plays a key role in properly optimizing content and targeting the right audience. Editors have the power to tailor their SEO and social media treatment of each article depending on the patterns they see in analytics. Part Three takes a closer look at the BCBusiness Online Google Analytics that inform the digital editors’ online strategy.
PART THREE | The BCBusiness Digital Editorial Strategy
Parsing the BCBusiness Google Analytics; Adapting social media; New SEO strategies at Canada Wide Media; Content collections
Once the digital editor has established a workflow and online presence, she can begin to experiment and test the waters with optimizing articles, refining strategies, and adapting social media to her needs. One of the great advantages of digital magazine content is its infinite flexibility; articles can be hyperlinked, repurposed, combined with related content, broken into pieces, and myriad other tactics to increase their visibility, promote the brand, and take advantage of the digital medium. Although optimizing and promoting content seems straightforward, there are boundless opportunities for creativity.
The digital editorial strategy at BCBusiness has come full circle from its earliest workflow; from print-focused, to Web-only content focused, and now back to strengthening its relationship with print. Once inextricably tied to the print magazine, BCBusiness Online was a repository with no digital editorial strategy for magazine articles. Shortly after its launch, the BCBusiness digital editor began developing Web-only content and grew the site as an independent entity from the print magazine. Finally, after nearly six years of significant growth and development, BCBusiness Online is returning to its close ties to the print magazine as a dynamic member of the overall brand. Although the current online workflow involves minimal print-editor contributions, the overall online strategy is connected to the BCBusiness brand as a whole rather than just BCBusiness Online.
Digital editors approach articles with a mind for both readers and search engines, and put all online content through a rigorous, SEO-heavy workflow. They have also branched out from strictly editorial tasks and embraced the external tools that go hand-in-hand with SEO, such as Google Analytics and the Google Adwords Keyword Tool. The digital editors at BCBusiness are representative of an overall paradigm shift in editorial work. Consulting analytics is a part of the editor’s regular duties, and although the reader is still the number one priority, the editor has a fussy new audience member to contend with—Google.
Recognizing the value and importance of SEO has led to various emerging and experimental digital strategies at BCBusiness, many of which blur the lines between marketing and editorial. Although many initiatives are brought forth by marketing, they are developed and executed by editors. Search engine optimization seems to be the common ground where many digital jobs converge. Optimizing an article or a website landing page falls under the editor’s purview, but driving traffic and increasing brand awareness is also a great concern of the digital marketing staff. For example, the BCBusiness digital editors and marketing staff worked cooperatively on the keyword research and naming of the new landing pages and categories for the third iteration of BCBusiness Online. Online publishing has drastically changed the role of the editor into a multi-platform, multi-discipline, word- and Web-strategist. The next step is to pull print editors into the melee of digital publishing and unite the editorial efforts under one brand. In the case of BCBusiness, the company is working toward having a print editor to manage the print magazine, a digital editor to manage the website, and a brand manager to oversee the entire BCBusiness operation. Currently, the print and digital editors work on the same content, but they do not communicate, brainstorm and plan as one team.
Parsing the BCBusiness Google Analytics
Understanding Google analytics can help editors prioritize and plan for future content and social media promotion, and hopefully convert more visitors into loyal readers. Parsing a website’s analytics can indicate who the most valuable visitors are, which audiences prefer certain content, and which keywords are the most popular. Editors can separate high-quality visitors from low-quality visitors by reviewing how long they stay on the site and how many pages they visit. As seen in BCBusiness website traffic statistics below, direct visitors are of the highest quality and spend an average of 4:59 minutes on the site and view an average of 2.32 pages. BCBusiness’s overall average time on site is 2:42 minutes and the overall average page views is 2.31 pages. Higher average time on site is more important than number of page views, as it implies that the reader has found what they were looking for, and “if visitors spend a long time visiting your site, they may be interacting extensively with it.” High page views can indicate that a reader is simply jumping from article to article.
In 2010, BCBusiness Online received 461,140 visits. The main traffic sources (excluding the 89,031 direct visitors—readers who visit the site of their own volition by typing the BCBusiness web address into the URL search bar) from these visits were:
Google: 190,084 visits (41% of all site visits in 2010)
Direct visitors are by far the most valuable visitors a website can have; the goal is convert all other visitors into direct, return visitors who become familiar with and trust the brand. These readers either know what they’re looking for, trust the site to know they can find what they need, or have a genuine interest in the brand. Converting visitors into eNewsletter subscribers is also one of the digital editors’ top goals.
Organic Google search visitors
On average, Organic Google visitors spend 2:00 minutes on the site and visit 2.33 pages. Google visitors tend to heavily search business names and businesspeople. Of the top Google search terms for BCBusiness Online in 2010, the majority were B.C. business figures and luminaries. These results imply that editors would see more success by optimizing content (where appropriate) based on people and business names over business concepts (like management tips, etc.) Profiles and feature stories involving top local companies should be optimized with careful attention to names, especially in image tags. Google image search is a good arena to pick up visitors searching businesspeople.
The BCBusiness eNewsletter includes five stories with hyperlinked images, hyperlinked headlines, and teasers; four articles with hyperlinked headlines only; one hyperlinked reader comment of the week; one hyperlinked poll question; and four hyperlinked events listings. In comparison to its sister sites’ eNewsletters (BCLiving, Granville, TVWeek, Youthink, GardenWise), BCBusiness has the simplest eNewsletter layout with the least number of articles. It is believed that including too many articles dilutes the value of each one and lessens the effect of a carefully curated editorial collection.
Subscribers to the BCBusiness eNewsletter spend an average of 3:15 minutes on the site and view an average of 2.74 pages. These visitors are loyal readers and have a vested interest in BCBusiness content. Because the eNewsletter arrives once a week, some readers use it as their chance to visit the site rather than checking in on their own. Using the eNewsletter as a weekly highlight of the best content—whether feature story or blog—is an effective way to promote content and draw readers to the site. The BCBusiness eNewsletter also has its own set of analytics through the eNewsletter carrier, MagMail. The higher the content is placed in the eNewsletter, the more readers it will attract. BCBusiness eNewsletter subscribers also tend to favour content with local luminaries such as former pro athlete Trevor Linden and real estate professional Bob Rennie. Including magazine content prior to the newsstand date is a good promotional tool for the upcoming issue and it gets a high click-through rate in the eNewsletter. Because of eNewsletter readers’ loyalty and high click-through rates, digital editors can also experiment with the kind of content that they promote.
Digg is a type of social networking news site that allows its users to democratically rank online articles by “digging” (voting for) them using a button similar to the Facebook “like” button. The more people “digg” an article, the higher it rises on the Dig homepage and its respective category page (business, entertainment, lifestyle, etc.). Visitors arriving from Digg spend an average of 1:09 minutes on the site and visit an average of 1.22 pages. These are some of the lower-quality visitors that arrive at the site, but as it will be thoroughly discussed later, Digg visitors are only the byproduct of a new marketing/editorial initiative to increase PageRank. Visitors from Digg arrive at light-hearted, Web-only content that goes viral via social media channels. These visitors are not generally a part of BCBusiness magazine’s target audience, and the rest of the site’s content is not what they would be interested in reading.
Of all the social media channels, the BCBusiness digital editor puts the most time and creative energy into Twitter. Twitter followers visit an average of 2.09 pages and spend an average of 2:14 minutes on the site. However, the number of visits from Twitter seems disproportionate to the number of followers BCBusiness has following its stream. This phenomenon is related to the nature of a tweet. Unlike a Facebook wall post or an eNewsletter, tweets are the most ephemeral of all the social media promotions, and can be completely missed by the brand’s audience. Though BCBusiness may have over 10,000 followers, not everyone on that list will see every tweet as it passes by. This makes maintaining the Twitter feed exceptionally challenging—the editor must manage the precarious balance between over-tweeting and sparse updates. A report by ExactTarget reveals that among the top 10 reasons people unfollow a brand on Twitter, the top three pertain to repetitive and too-frequent tweets. So while the editor must be cognizant of spamming BCBusiness followers, he must also post often enough to make the medium an effective channel for funneling traffic to the website.
Twitter followers respond the most to shorter pieces (blog posts), rather than longer articles (print feature stories). By comparing a cross section of short pieces to a sample of long pieces and evaluating the time spent on each article by visitors who arrive via Twitter, it is clear that shorter pieces are favoured. According to Google Analytics, Twitter visitors rarely spend more than two minutes on a page for feature stories; for blog posts, Twitter visitors spend an average of nearly three minutes on the page. This comparison reveals the tendency for Twitter followers to read shorter pieces and discard longer feature stories. However, buzz-worthy features stories with local luminaries (i.e. Trevor Linden, Mat Wilcox, Bob Rennie, Terry Hui) blow up on Twitter, but are the exception to the rule. These types of top stories are sure things, and grow in popularity no matter which channels they’re promoted through.
Visitors arriving from StumbleUpon fall into the same category as those arriving from Digg. They are the byproduct of a marketing/editorial initiative to increase PageRank, and are only visiting content that has gone viral and flooded social media channels. These visitors are low quality, staying for an average of 0:25 seconds and visiting an average of 1.2 pages. The BCBusiness digital editors do not put any effort into promoting content through StumbleUpon (or Digg); all visitors arrive at the efforts of an external company hired by BCBusiness to promote its articles.
Facebook brings in a surprising number of visitors considering the minimal editorial time that goes into its promotion and maintenance. Visitors who arrive via Facebook spend an average of 1:44 minutes on the site and visit an average of 1.80 pages. Although Twitter has thousands more followers than Facebook has fans, Facebook brings in nearly as many readers in a year as Twitter. Facebook is an untapped resource for visitors that could exceed Twitter’s visitor numbers with very little time required. Currently, the BCBusiness digital editors spend a fraction of their time on Facebook, yet still draw in high traffic numbers. With a more developed strategy and more time spent toward Facebook promotion, Facebook visitors could surpass the number of Twitter visitors. Posting magazine content can be done as few times as three times each week. “Facebook users are more likely to stop engaging with a brand because that brand sends out too much information too frequently,” which makes updating the page less laborious than maintaining a Twitter feed. Facebook visitors show no overwhelming preference over feature stories or shorter blog posts. Traffic arriving from Facebook is consistent, and since the digital editors began posting weekly, it has increased.
Combined, Yahoo! and Bing do not come close to bringing in the number of organic visitors that Google does. This is popular knowledge among search engine optimization experts, and for that reason, many people do not pay as much attention to deciphering search algorithms other than Google’s. Bing brings in significantly higher quality visitors than Yahoo!. Bing visitors spend an average of 2:01 minutes on site and visit an average of 2.49 pages; Yahoo! visitors spend an average of 1:26 minutes on site and visit an average of 1.98 pages. This disparity in quality could be attributed to Bing’s superior search algorithm that provides more accurate results; according to search algorithm experts, Bing’s results are more accurate than even Google’s search results.
Although LinkedIn does not generate a high number of visitors, it is valued for its intangible qualities. LinkedIn is a venue in which readers can interact under the BCBusiness brand and extensively discuss magazine and Web-only content, as well as current issues and news. By looking at the discussions in the BCBusiness magazine LinkedIn group page, we see that the topics predominantly relate to professional improvement and business tips, politics, and social media. The readers who spend time on the BCBusiness magazine LinkedIn group page are high-quality visitors when they arrive at the site; LinkedIn visitors spend an average of 4:03 minutes on site and visit an average of 2.47 pages. LinkedIn does not require the same amount of creative energy as running Twitter, or even Facebook; posting articles related to the above topics spark discussion and generate site traffic.
In terms of overall priorities, digital editors should spend the most time making their articles web-ready and well optimized for Google, using business people’s names as the main keyword when applicable. Google is the overwhelming leader in web traffic and has the high-quality visitors to back up its utility. Digital editors should have a targeted strategy when promoting content through social media, avoiding the shotgun approach at all costs. It is about understanding the readers and accommodating their preferences—they get what they’re looking for, and in return the site gets more, higher-quality visitors.
Adapting social media
There is no debate about whether social media or SEO is more valuable to BCBusiness’s visitor traffic numbers. Google visitors outweigh all social media channels combined, and organic search accounts for the long tail of traffic that arrives at old web-only content and BCBusiness back issues. However, the effects of social media also have an intangible quality that cannot be measured against numbers or PageRank. Community building and audience communication via social media is growing in importance, and a magazine that lacks the ability to interact with its readers is missing out on valuable branding opportunities. The Internet is ripe with stories of businesses communicating with their customers, and the subsequent impact that that creates on the community. As discussed in Part Two, social media is a kind of SEO because of the way it builds links to content, but it should be seen as more of a complement to SEO.
Digital editors need to find new ways to wield platforms like Twitter and Facebook. To encourage readers to interact with the magazine on social media, BCBusiness needs to create social-media-only content. Rather than use social media as content promotion, editors need to use social media for content creation—developing new material that can only be consumed on its respective platform. Spamming the same messages and content across the brand’s various platforms decreases the value of each one–there is no incentive for the reader to visit the Facebook page if it is merely a mirror of the Tumblr or the Twitter feed.
This idea follows BCBusiness’s arc of magazine publishing from print-only, to print plus an online repository, to print plus dynamic web content, to its current state combining print, dynamic online content, and using various social media platforms. Social-media-only content is the next phase after Web-only content that will drive readers to interact with the brand in another venue.
The BCBusiness digital editor already has a unique style of content creation on Twitter, one in particular being the “first tweet haiku.” Most mornings his first tweet is a haiku; sometimes serious, sometimes funny, sometimes topical, but no matter the subject, the haiku tweets are always popular among followers. It is a clever way to engage with readers within the 140-character limit while letting them know that there’s more than a robot sending pre-scheduled tweets. It also provides the reader with unique content that he cannot find on any of the brand’s other platforms. Any magazine can promote on Twitter, but it is the voice, original content, and style that make the real impact. Maclean’s magazine is a good example of an ineffective magazine Twitter account; it only links to its own content, and the majority of tweets are cut off mid-sentence, indicating that they’re taken from the article’s deck or description, and not written specifically for the Twitter audience. This creates distance between the reader and the brand, and does not offer content that cannot be found elsewhere. Lots of companies treat their Twitter account like an RSS feed and miss the step of adding value with a real voice.
Magazines commonly use their Facebook page to promote articles in the same way as on Twitter. Even though a brand might promote different content on the different platforms, the idea is the same. By adding Facebook-only content, editors give their readers a reason to visit the page and return often. As proven with the BCBusiness Facebook page in March 2011, creating behind-the-scenes photo albums of cover photo shoots are popular with readers. After posting a short gallery of how the photographer and BCBusiness art director created the conceptual March 2011 magazine cover, there was an immediate reaction of “likes” and comments, and an increase in the overall “likes” for the fan page. Multimedia content, such as photo albums and embedded videos, fits well within the casual culture of Facebook. Two sections of the BCBusiness print magazine—“Primer” and “After Hours”—have section-opening, full-page photographs by accomplished BCBusiness contributing artists, but the images are never used online. Collecting all of the images in albums is another way of engaging with Facebook fans using BCBusiness content that cannot be found elsewhere. The BCBusiness digital editors are experimenting with various new Facebook-only content, including an “editing the editor” post, wherein the digital editors create poetry from the monthly Editor’s Note.
Although it is generally more acceptable to only self-promote on Facebook pages (as they are “fan pages”), including newsy links every now and then that do not pertain to your own brand can be a good way to spark conversation.
In the dynamic publishing landscape, editors also need to consider how they can work across multiple platforms. Something that can be recreated in or adapted to other publishing platforms has more value and potential to engage multiple audiences. The BCBusiness digital editor has considered matching up his haiku tweets with photos from the BCBusiness Daily Photo blog to create a coffee table book. Occupying more spaces than just print or just a website makes the brand dynamic and more likely to reach a wider audience. The key when creating social media content is to offer something unique on each platform that the reader cannot get anywhere else.
Using Tumblr to create unique content will be discussed in more detail in Part Four when exploring the cross-platform migration of print editors.
New SEO strategies at Canada Wide Media
Recognizing the vast importance of Google in digital publishing is the first step toward reaping its benefits. Optimizing content is the best way to attract search engine visitors, but this practice can be bolstered by a new digital strategy: increasing PageRank. Boosting PageRank is a more advanced digital editorial strategy that moves beyond just optimizing content, and can actually bolster those efforts in the long run. As discussed in Part Two, inbound links are the key to increasing a website’s PageRank. PageRank plays an integral role in deciding which content is listed on the first page of Google search results. If two different websites feature the exact same article, optimized the exact same way, Google defers to each site’s PageRank to determine whose article will list higher in results pages. Inbound links and PageRank determine whether an article “should […] be result number one, or appear buried on page 22 of the search results for a given query.” Popular and reputable websites like TheNew York Times (nytimes.com) have a high PageRank, and thus their content will rank well in search engine results pages. The New York Times website has a PageRank of nine out of a potential 10; BCBusiness has a PageRank of five.
Links are akin to one website vouching for the other. The more inbound links your site has, the likelier it is that your site’s PageRank will increase. Links, no matter where they’re from, benefit SEO efforts, but when they’re plentiful and come from a higher ranked website, they’re a stronger force for increasing PageRank.
In order to increase BCBusiness’s PageRank, the digital marketing staff and digital editors teamed with an external SEO consulting company called NVI to create a strategy for new BCBusiness content. Together they created a new digital editorial product (NVI social push article) with the express purpose of increasing PageRank. The articles are better known as “link bait,” and fall under the SEO strategy of link building. The idea of link bait is to create content that is “designed specifically to gain attention or encourage others to link to the website.” These articles do not fall under the black hat link baiting methods, which incorporate keyword stuffing, redirecting visitors to sites different from what they clicked on, and creating inbound links from link farms. (Links farms are groups of sites that link to each other and are devoted solely to linking out to increase SEO clout, with no real editorial or information value.)
Editors come up with broad, sweeping topics that work well in the form of “best of,” “worst of,” and other such lists. They generally lie on the perimeter of the brand’s mandate, and serve as brain candy content—irreverent, witty, and short. The standards of writing and editing remain high, as they would for any other BCBusiness content, but the topics are generally trivial. Although the articles do not align with the print BCBusiness mandate, they are a good fit for BCBusiness Online, which features a broader range of content types and has a lighter tone than the print magazine.
The digital editors work with NVI to prepare the articles using traditional web-writing strategies—short paragraphs, clear subheads, and good use of images. Once these articles are published, the hope is that readers will eagerly pass them on and link to them from various websites, blogs, and social media channels. But rather than wait for chance of the articles going viral, NVI sends them out to its robust list of social media contacts, mostly in Digg, StumbleUpon, and Reddit; they “push” the article. Although the first line of contacts promoting the articles is working for NVI, the hundreds of links that follow are from social media users with no connection to the company, but who genuinely have interest in the article and want to share it with their online community.
Once the articles have been “pushed” by NVI through its network of contacts, the articles go viral, resulting in tens of tweets, hundreds of links, and thousands of visitors. Although traffic to the website immediately spikes, this is not the impetus behind the NVI social push strategy. StumbleUpon and Digg both have a PageRank of eight, and with the number of links now coming from these sites and the various other who have seen the articles and linked to them from elsewhere, BCBusiness’s PageRank should increase over time.
The overwhelming number of links generated through these social networks ends up winning BCBusiness that article’s keyword on Google search results pages. However, the keyword is rarely a highly searched term in the first place. For example, an NVI social push initiated in January 2011 is the number one search result in Google for “dumbest fads,” but that search term does not even register in the Google Adwords Keyword Tool. By basing these NVI social push articles around relevant keywords from BCBusiness’s Google analytics, or even highly searched terms that fit within the brand, the site could win significant words and phrases on Google search results pages.
BCBusiness sister site BCLiving accomplished this with its NVI social push article “7 Spectacular and Dangerous Mountain Passes.” In the Google Adwords Keyword Tool, “mountain passes” has 49,500 searches per month, and BCLiving appears on the first page of this term’s Google search results. The article found balance between optimizing for a highly searched keyword and creating an article with link-bait potential. This strategy adds another layer to the original strategy and makes each NVI social push article more valuable to the site.
Currently, the Google analytics for the BCBusiness NVI social push articles are irregular, with Google not even falling in the top eight traffic sources. The main traffic sources are Digg, StumbleUpon, and Reddit—all of which provide low-quality visitors. Although the main purpose is to increase PageRank, approaching these articles with a different SEO strategy could give them double the impact for the site—inbound links and a high number of organic search visitors. Google gives every article the opportunity of a long tail of organic visitors, while social media promotion often spikes traffic for the short term and dwindles soon afterward. Basing the NVI social push articles around relevant keywords would require more research prior to writing the article (both for the digital editors coming up with the topic and the writer shaping the article), but being on the first page of Google search results is a highly coveted position. The more important keywords BCBusiness can win, the more it will be seen as the authority on these topics.
Since starting the NVI social push articles in September 2010, the BCBusiness PageRank has not increased. It is yet to be determined whether this link bait strategy is truly effective. The overall tactic of creating light, interesting articles and attracting thousands of visitors—albeit, low-quality visitors—and hundreds of links is effective, but the digital editors need to devise other strategies around these social pushes than just waiting and hoping for the PageRank to increase. Multiple inbound links may not increase PageRank over time, but it will dramatically increase the SEO value of the single articles; because we know that part of the social push strategy works, it is important to take advantage of it to meet other ends.
Choosing relevant keywords is the first step toward increasing the value of the social push articles, but editors can also revise past content that has mass appeal and longevity. Resource and “how to” articles have the same quick-read nature as the social push articles, but with more substance and practical business value. The BCBusiness monthly “Need to Know” column is the perfect resource from which the digital editors can start this project. The goal is to win highly searched terms by using similar methods to the NVI social push articles. However, rather than push these articles through sites like Digg and StumbleUpon, which are chiefly interested in humour, these articles would be more successful on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Because these resource articles align with the content expectations and interests of BCBusiness readers, the influx of visitors from the “push” would be more valuable than the traffic spikes filtering into the short and irreverent NVI social push articles. Visitors would be more likely to return, spend more time on the site, and visit other articles after reading the “how to” articles.
Success in “pushing” these resource articles would have more immediate and measurable results; the digital editors would know the strategy worked when their articles begin appearing on the first page of Google search queries. This method was partially tested (without the help of NVI and its vast social network contacts) with a BCBusiness back issue article called “Value Proposition.” The article was renamed “How to Improve Your Corporate Culture,” optimized, and promoted through BCBusiness’s social media channels. Even without the hundreds of valuable contacts from NVI and links that those contacts generate, this article rose to the first page of Google results pages and continues to have a consistent flow of traffic. With the added resources of NVI, these articles could dominate search results queries and boost BCBusiness’s reputation as an authority on business topics.
The ultimate value of these new techniques is twofold—an increase in traffic to the site, and branching out to a new audience. The higher BCBusiness Online’s site traffic is, the more leverage the sales and marketing staff have for selling ads and sponsorships. The digital marketing department initiated the original NVI social push article strategy in order to spike site traffic numbers and improve PageRank. As an editor, the real concern is not the numbers, but who the people are behind those numbers and how they can be brought back to the site again. The editor wants to drive traffic, but the end goal is always reader engagement and building loyalty to the magazine and site. Adapting the original NVI strategy to target more relevant keywords and a more business-minded audience is more in line with this goal. This audience is not the typical BCBusiness audience, but a higher-quality group than the visitors arriving to content like the “Dumbest Fads” article through Digg and StumbleUpon.
The BCBusiness print reader buys the magazine for its long-form journalism and in-depth discussion of the BC business landscape. When the digital editors spend time creating content that can be consumed quicker and has a lighter tone, they tap into a different kind of BCBusiness reader group. With this method, the content is still driving numbers but the editor is focusing on a specific audience.
At BCBusiness, content collection pages are referred to as SPACs—special ad content packages. SPACs are generally sponsored by one advertiser, and combine a targeted sales initiative with SEO. A SPAC is a landing page that aggregates articles under one topic with adjacent advertisements that are germane to that topic. For example, the clothing chain Wear Else sponsored the 2009 BCBusiness Style Guide SPAC, which included articles about business fashion in Vancouver. SPACS are not, however, strictly limited to sponsored content—the SPAC format is a good way to bring value to readers by collecting popular content in one easy-to-find location. The “how to” social push articles discussed in Part Three fit into the SPAC strategy as a collection of business resources. A SPAC is composed of a headline, a short keyword-dense write-up, and rows of articles, each with a linked image, linked title, and short promotional teaser of no more than roughly 85 characters. Building SPACs increases the number of links pointing to those articles and generates more clear opportunities for internal linking on BCBusiness.
By nature, SPACs are a reactionary type of editorial content. They are strictly based on popular keywords that are thought of as guaranteed winners. Rather than anticipating what the readers will be searching, SPACs use highly searched terms from BCBusiness’s Google analytics, popular topics, and hot current events. Alternatively, SPACs can be built on sales-driven topics, around which the digital editors must commission new articles and collect past articles that are still relevant. Using existing content can result in a more highly optimized SPAC, since these articles generally already have inbound links and have been indexed by Google.
As politics in British Columbia heated up in November 2010, the BCBusiness digital editors created a SPAC as a go-to reference for readers looking for current coverage and relevant past political commentary. Within the B.C. politics topic, they focused on HST in B.C., as they found that it was a top search term in BCBusiness Google analytics. Adding to the past content and incoming blogs, the digital editor put out an offer to all of the BC Liberal and BC NDP leadership candidates to add an article to the SPAC on why they should be leader. This series brought a proactive element to the SPAC strategy and resulted in more traffic, more opportunities to link between BCBusiness SPAC articles, and increased the credibility of the collection as a whole.
Aggregating similar content in one spot gives editors the chance to have an overview of many articles in one stop, which makes it easy to find connections and build up internal links. As discussed in Part Two, link building is an important part of SEO and increasing a website’s PageRank. The SEO aspect of SPACs complements the NVI social push strategy, as it focuses on evergreen articles and building a long tail of traffic. As PageRank increases, so will the Google search results for SPAC pages.
In addition to their sales and SEO elements, SPACs are also beneficial for reader navigation—not only for the website, but for mobile applications as well. BCBusiness has two mobile applications, one for the iPhone and one for the BlackBerry. Using a SPAC as an app category is a simple way of directing readers to popular and useful content, since searching the site on an app is not possible. The apps have four sections: “Latest,” which is a reverse-chronological list of all content; “Blogs,” which is all of the blogs in reverse-chronological order; “People,” which consists of profiles and event slideshows; and “Business Intel,” which aggregates all of the “how to” articles from the site. In the case of mobile applications, editors and other staff planning the platforms need to consider what kind of content readers will be consuming. Using SPACs (in addition to “Blogs,” “People,” and “Business Intel”) as a way for readers to navigate is more logical than listing all content (“Latest”) as one big mixed-bag of content. The only new content listed in latest that will not show up under the other categories is lengthy articles that do not translate well to app reading on small devices. Smart phone apps are a different experience than websites and should be treated as such by offering less content with more direction and purpose.
The sales team sold a SPAC for the BCBusiness April 2011 issue based around the topic MBAs. This SPAC was based on a sales initiative, and combines older content, new print content, and new complementary web-only content. This SPAC displays the opportunity for print and digital editors to develop a collection of content for both print and digital, working together under one brand.
The digital editorial workflow at BCBusiness has evolved to include sophisticated approaches to presenting and promoting content online, and with tools like Google analytics, the editors have a better understanding of who their readers are, where they’re coming from, and what they’re looking for. This understanding of the magazine’s online audience is key when developing new strategies that build off SEO and social media. Part Four will look at the methods discussed in Part Three, and what a complete workflow looks like when incorporating these strategies in an article going from print to online.
PART FOUR | The Future of Digital Editorial Practices
Bridging the gap between print and digital; From type to Twitter: An optimal workflow
As print and digital become more entwined and dependent on one another to create a strong and well-rounded brand, print and digital editors are finding that they need to open the lines of communication more often. It is not enough for print editors to hand off the completed magazine—they need to be involved in its digital life and the brand’s online presence.
In the past year there has been a fundamental change to the world of media and the ways in which its readers consume content. These changes are reflected in recent research by the Pew Center, who said more people consumed their news online than ever before. For the first time ever, more people got their news from the Web than from newspapers and magazines. Just as magazines flocked toward website creation, then social media, they are now reimagining their publications for smart phones and tablet computers to account for this seismic industry shift. Popularized by Apple, apps are now just another way for readers to consume articles and entire issues. Gone are the days of online content as a digital afterthought—online creation is in the forefront of magazine strategies as print sees few innovations. As the magazine publishing industry affixes its gaze on the future of digital publishing, we see more and more “digital editors” on magazine mastheads. Advertising is being increasingly sold in packages that include both print and digital exposure as the two entities grow ever closer. Publishers are mastering new digital technologies and methods—like social media and SEO—and they can manipulate those tools and use them beyond their original intended uses. This stage in publishing is opening new doors for editors to rethink content creation and delivery.
As digital becomes a more important form for BCBusiness magazine, the gap between online and print needs to gradually shrink. Integrating print and digital editors can improve workflow, but it also strengthens the brand when the two teams are working toward the same goals.
Bridging the gap between print and digital
Integrating print and digital practices is an important step for magazine publishers in order to strengthen their brand. In the attempt to create more agile workflows and dynamic editors, Canada Wide Media publications with both print and digital editors will be slowly merging from separate departments to one larger department of editors. As the first gesture toward print and digital collaboration, all of the BCBusiness editors (print and digital) were moved into the same physical space in the office, and the digital editors now attend the print editorial meetings. The next step will be to combine budgets and begin cross-platform contributions. Rather than have a publisher who oversees just the print magazine, each publication will have a “brand manager” who looks after the best interest of the brand as a whole. This vision represents the trend in the magazine publishing industry of editors broadening their roles and companies fortifying their digital efforts. Within this joining of departments, BCBusiness editors will be encouraged to pursue work outside their nominal tasks, and digital editors will also put time toward the creation of the print issues. Some tasks will be formed to improve workflow, while others will simply give editors the opportunity to work across multiple publishing platforms.
Getting print editors involved in search engine optimization is the first step in helping them understand the goals of online publishing. As discussed earlier, SEO can be mistaken for a process that compromises the editorial integrity of the writing. Having print editors research keywords and work them into subheads and decks of print articles is an effective method of improving workflow while performing one of the more creatively satisfying SEO tasks. The print editors work closest with the articles before they are passed on to the digital editors and have intimate knowledge of the subjects and topics, thus it would be easy for them to identify the most pertinent keywords and names in each story. One of the most time-consuming optimization tasks is splitting the articles into sections and writing subheads. Transferring this task alone to print editors would save significant time for digital editors. When digital editors publish print content online, they often have to read the entire article to get a better understanding of its main ideas, and the best keywords to research; only from there can they write optimized titles, decks, and subheads. Print editors could even provide a list of keywords with each article for the digital editors prior to optimizing the articles for the Web. Not only would this save time in the article’s workflow from print to Web, but it would also begin the integration of print editors into the online lives of the articles. Print editors can also make suggestions for internal links, whether they are to articles in the same issue, a past issue, or to Web-only content. Using the black and white proofs (“black and whites”) as a message board between the print and digital editors is an effective way of communicating these ideas. Once the black and whites have been proofed, print editors can mark up them up with notes for the digital editors, such as pointing out names, companies, and terms that can be linked to other BCBusiness content online. Because the print editors work more intimately with the text than the digital editors, they have more time to consider how the content relates to past articles.
With the time freed up from print editorial contributions to the digital editorial workflow, digital editors will have more opportunities to develop concepts for the print magazine. Digital editors can create content for the print magazine from digital-first material, like following up on popular blog posts with more in-depth coverage. Most recently, the digital editors developed a caption contest on the BCBusiness Facebook page using illustrations from Kelly Sutherland, a contributing artist who illustrates the monthly “Complaints Department” column in the magazine. The winner of the caption contest had his caption run in the print magazine alongside Kelly’s illustration. Although this first digital-to-print content is small, it is a gesture in the right direction.
As discussed in Part Three, adapting social media to create unique content is an important endeavour for brand building and expanding a magazine’s Web presence; this is a prime opportunity for print editors to get involved online and explore the different ways that BCBusiness content can be used in digital spaces. Giving the print editors ownership over a social media channel—in this case, Tumblr—helps to diversify BCBusiness’s social-media-only content. By nature, Tumblr is more of a blogging platform than a promotional tool like Twitter of Facebook; print editors do not need to follow the everyday activity of BCBusiness Online as the digital editors do when linking to timely articles through Facebook and Twitter. Editors can use Tumblr to comment on BCBusiness blogs and magazine content as a kind of meta interaction—BCBusiness blogs about BCBusiness blogs, so to speak. Tumblr is more of a blank canvas on which the print editors can make their mark and further develop BCBusiness’s online identity.
From type to Twitter: An optimal workflow
In the current magazine publishing industry, putting print content online is only a fraction of a magazine’s digital editorial strategy. There are multiple considerations outside the print magazine, including Web-only content, social-media-only content, and SEO, to name a few. However, if an article is approached with a dynamic strategy that involves both print and digital editors, and looks at more than just having a Web presence, it can make its way through an entirely new and dynamic digital workflow.
Looking at the BCBusiness April 2011 issue—and in particular, a print article called “How to Ace Your MBA Application”—we can trace the workflow from start to finish in a hypothetical, best-case scenario using the methods already discussed.
While the article is being edited, the print editor researches appropriate keywords (using the Google Adwords Keyword Tool), which can later be used by the digital editors. The print editor records the top three keywords or phrases on a sticky note, which he will later add to the article’s page in the black and whites of the April 2011 issue. Once the print editors proof the black and whites, the pages are passed on to the assistant digital editor as her cue to resize, upload, and name the image files with keyword-rich phrases. Having sticky notes with pre-selected keywords significantly speeds up the image uploading process for the assistant digital editor, as she does not have to read each article and research keywords prior to saving the images with optimized titles. On the black and whites, the print editor also indicates phrases in the article that can be linked to past BCBusiness content or external Web pages. Having both the print and digital editors look for internal and external linking opportunities increases the overall imbedded links of the articles, and therefore the overall optimization. Because the digital editors often do not have time to read every word of every article, the print editors find opportunities that would be otherwise overlooked. Even simply highlighting a single name in an article can alert the digital editor to a link opportunity. Having the print editors focus on links helps them understand the importance of the interconnectivity of content when it goes online.
Depending on the size and nature of the article, the print editor adds optimized subheads. Rather than using a vague phrase, like “Making it count,” the print editor gives the MBA article the subhead, “3 MBA application tips.” The headline of the article is not necessarily optimized, but he adds a suggested optimized title to the black and whites for the digital editors to consider.
When the assistant digital editor receives the black and whites, she resizes the images and renames them using the keywords from the print editors. She reviews the April 2011 content and devises an online strategy for the more complex sections, like the Top 20 Innovators in B.C. and the MBA-related articles. She identifies two opportunities for SPACs (one sales-driven and one editorial-driven), and sketches a strategy that will maximize SEO and make it easy for readers to jump back and forth between related articles.
When the production staff upload the XML on the backend of BCBusiness, the images have been resized and optimized and are ready to be uploaded to the articles. With the marked-up black and whites by her side, the assistant digital editor begins optimizing the articles. Based on the keywords from the print editors, she leaves the headline, “How to Ace Your MBA Application,” with one very minor change: “How to Ace the MBA Application.” She writes an optimized meta title that includes the print editor’s suggestion of “MBA admission” as a top keyword phrase. She adds a subtitle (“The 2011 BCBusiness MBA Guide”) that links back to the MBA SPAC. Other changes include rewriting the deck to include “MBA application,” writing an optimized URL, adding H3 tags to the subheads, and creating internal links. The print editor highlighted the phrase “MBA programs” on the black and whites, and after doing a quick search on BCBusiness, the assistant digital editor finds a 2010 article that outlines nine MBA programs in B.C., to which she creates an internal link. The 2010 article is still a relevant resource to readers, and the assistant digital editor decides to further optimize it and add it to the 2011 MBA SPAC.
In anticipation of the MBA content in the April 2011 issue, the assistant digital editor creates a Facebook contest—Facebook fans are invited to comment with their best University application tip, and the winner wins a collection of business books. The digital editor promotes the contest from Twitter, linking to the Facebook wall, and from the BCBusiness eNewsletter. The assistant digital editor adds the photo from the “Primer” section to the 2011 Primer Photos Facebook album, and the photo from the “After Hours” section to the 2011 After Hours Photos Facebook album at the end of March. She reposts both albums to the Facebook wall, but waits until the issue hits the newsstands (April 4) to change the profile picture to the April 2011 cover. After the April issue hits newsstands, the digital editors create a piece of humour poetry from the April Editor’s Note and post it to the BCBusiness Facebook wall.
The digital editor reviews all of the uploaded and optimized content from the April 2011 issue and begins publishing them online on April 1, with all of the content live on April 4. The digital editor promotes various articles from the Twitter account, and puts the best feature story at the top of the next eNewsletter. He focuses on promoting the MBA content on LinkedIn, starting a discussion around the best MBA programs and how to prepare and get accepted, linking to the “How to Ace the MBA Application” article and the MBA SPAC.
The print editors add posts to the Tumblr site, including photos of bizarre inventions, and link to the Top 20 Innovators in B.C. SPAC.
In this digital editorial strategy, one article saw optimization from both print editors and digital editors, and went through every social media platform BCBusiness has at its disposal.
There are endless opportunities for cross-pollination of ideas and tasks between print and digital editors, and even art directors, for that matter. While the first physical gesture has been made at BCBusiness (moving the digital editors into an office with print editors), there is much collaboration yet to be explored. Under the brand manager structure, more editorial projects can be developed with a view for both print and digital. Beyond the workflow discussed above, an integrated print-digital team can brainstorm projects that are deliberately planned for both mediums, not just created for print and adapted to digital.
The above SEO and online publishing research and subsequent modifications to the digital editorial strategy in magazine publishing reflect the shifting tides of the industry. Digital publishing has reached a new phase, in which a magazine’s Web presence needs more than just good content to survive. Few, if any, digital publishing models operate without SEO and Web-specific editing. Digital editors must be cognizant of publishing high-quality content for their audience of online readers, but they must also consider their second audience, Google. The search engine giant is like the digital mail carrier that brings your online magazine to readers worldwide. Publishing an article online without SEO is like dropping your magazine in the mail without postage; someone might see it, but it will soon disappear, never to resurface. Publishing an article without SEO falls under an antiquated online model that relies on the naïve notion that quality alone will prevail. The cruel reality is that in our saturated digital magazine industry, the odds of high-quality getting noticed without SEO or social media are slim to none.
However, there is still a long road ahead for digital editors to fully convince SEO detractors of its indispensable role and value in online publishing. As digital and traditional editorial roles grow closer, as the roles are at Canada Wide Media, print editors will see, first hand, the virtue in optimizing headlines and further altering articles for the Web. After recent firings at AOL and the Huffington Post after the former bought the latter, the now-former Cinematical editor-in-chief Erik Davis identified SEO as creating distance between the reader and the content. “When you concentrate on SEO, you lose your passion, and readers see that,” said Davis. But citing SEO as a hindrance is a cynical view of digital publishing and shows a lack of creativity to use it in more ways than keyword stuffing your content. Search engine optimization is a proven method and integral part of the digital editorial strategy, but agile publishers are thinking beyond just optimizing their content. As discussed in Parts Three and Four, editors need to consider different ways to wield SEO, and new methods of reaching their readers. Online content should receive the same editorial rigour as in print, but without special consideration for its digital environment, even the strongest article can wilt.
Thinking of social media as an extension of SEO and as another opportunity to create unique content is a step toward a more robust digital strategy. In the same way that digital editors need to develop new strategies around optimizing content, they need to reimagine the ways in which they use social media. Simply being present on Facebook and Twitter is not enough to satisfy an audience; editors need to find ways to adapt social media to serve more purposes than just promoting content.
With the introduction of each new technology and the rapid decline of print media, companies scramble to further develop their online strategies. Looking at print and digital as disparate entities creates a fracture in a magazine’s brand and ignores the opportunity to build ideas across multiple platforms. Canada Wide Media—BCBusiness magazine in particular—is proactive in its approach to navigating online publishing models. In anticipation of an industry where digital will eventually surpass print in terms of reader consumption, BCBusiness is taking steps to increase collaboration between its print and digital editors. Print and digital editors working together under one brand creates a stronger team, a cohesive strategy, and is representative of the publishing industry’s direction.
12 Janice (Ginny) Redish, Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works (San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 2007), 4. RETURN
13 Google Webmaster Central Blog, “Google Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide,” Google Webmaster Central Blog, November 12, 2008, http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2008/11/googles-seo-starter-guide.html. RETURN
14 Jason Glover. “One Month Working on the Suite 101 Content Farm.” Touch the Stars, July 9, 2010, http://youcantouchthestars.net/entertainment/one-month-working-on-the-suite101-content-farm/. RETURN
15 Google Webmaster Central Blog, “Google Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide,” Google Webmaster Central Blog, November 12, 2008, http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2008/11/googles-seo-starter-guide.html. RETURN
19 Google Webmaster Central Blog, “Google Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide,” Google Webmaster Central Blog, November 12, 2008, http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2008/11/googles-seo-starter-guide.html. RETURN
23 John Britsios, “6 Ultimate ON-Page Search Engine Optimization Tips,” Search Engine Journal, August 26, 2010, http://www.searchenginejournal.com/6-ultimate-on-page-search-engine%C2%A0optimization%C2%A0tips/23546/. RETURN
24 Google Webmaster Central Blog, “Google Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide,” Google Webmaster Central Blog, November 12, 2008, http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2008/11/googles-seo-starter-guide.html. RETURN
25 John Britsios, “6 Ultimate ON-Page Search Engine Optimization Tips,” Search Engine Journal, August 26, 2010, http://www.searchenginejournal.com/6-ultimate-on-page-search-engine%C2%A0optimization%C2%A0tips/23546/. RETURN
26 SEO Boy, “What is Pagination and How Does it Affect SEO?” SEO Boy, March 2, 2009, http://www.seoboy.com/what-is-pagination-and-how-does-it-affect-seo/. RETURN
27 Google Webmaster Central Blog, “Google Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide,” Google Webmaster Central Blog, November 12, 2008, http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2008/11/googles-seo-starter-guide.html. RETURN
30 Susan Currie Sivek, “How Magazines Use Social Media to Boost Pass-Along, Build Voice,” PBS, March 16, 2010, http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2010/03/how-magazines-use-social-media-to-boost-pass-along-build-voice075.html. RETURN
37 Lauren Dugan, “If You Want to Keep Your Followers, Don’t Repeat Yourself,” Media Bistro, February 11, 2011, http://www.mediabistro.com/alltwitter/if-you-want-to-keep-your-followers-dont-repeat-yourself_b3257. RETURN
40 Taken from the @MacleansMag Twitter feed on March 4, 2011: “BLOGS: The most expensive game on earth: When it comes to extracting money from local governments, the NHL has i… http://bit.ly/dJSZQu.” RETURN
41 Rebecca Lieb, The Truth About Search Engine Optimization, (New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2009), Electronic Access: Safari Books Online, http://proquest.safaribooksonline.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/9780768687873 (accessed January 2011), 80. RETURN
Dugan, Lauren. “If You Want to Keep Your Followers, Don’t Repeat Yourself.” Media Bistro. February 11, 2011. http://www.mediabistro.com/alltwitter/if-you-want-to-keep-your-followers-dont-repeat-yourself_b3257.
Google Webmaster Central Blog. “Google Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide.” Google Webmaster Central Blog. November 12, 2008. http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2008/11/googles-seo-starter-guide.html.
Lieb, Rebecca. The Truth About Search Engine Optimization. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2009. Electronic Access: Safari Books Online http://proquest.safaribooksonline.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/9780768687873 (accessed January 2011).
Sivek, Susan Currie. “How Magazines Use Social Media to Boost Pass-Along, Build Voice.” PBS. March 16, 2010. http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2010/03/how-magazines-use-social-media-to-boost-pass-along-build-voice075.html.
ABSTRACT: This report focuses on the comics reprints environment in 2011 through an analysis of the reprinting activities at Montréal’s Drawn & Quarterly. The report introduces the reader to Drawn & Quarterly by examining the comics environment from which it emerged in the 1980s and exploring the development of the company to the present day. The complete history of comics reprints in North America is explored, highlighting the role of reprints in creating the foundation of the comics industry. The reprints market in 2011 is discussed by analyzing Drawn & Quarterly’s key competitors and their individual roles within the industry, and exploring the idiosyncrasies of the company’s four main reprint series: Nipper, Walt and Skeezix, The John Stanley Library, and Moomin. Finally, the report closes with comments on trends in the marketplace, Drawn & Quarterly’s current stance on comics reprints, and ideas on what reprints may look like in the future.
Thank you to those who have supported and encouraged me, especially Roberto Dosil for his guidance throughout the completion of this report. I would also like to acknowledge the support of Chris Oliveros, Tom Devlin, and Peggy Burns for their patience with me and assistance throughout my internship and subsequent employment at D&Q. In addition, I am grateful for the encouragement and support from my cohort in the Simon Fraser University Master of Publishing Program, and the friendship of Kathleen Fraser, Cynara Geissler, Elizabeth Kemp, and Megan Lau throughout the program and the completion of this report. And of course, my parents, Bryan and Kim, for never once wavering in their support of my ambitions, regardless of how ridiculous they may have been at times.
Since their initial appearance within North American popular culture in the late 1890s, comics have existed in many media, from newspapers to dirty magazines, poorly printed pamphlets, and, more recently, between the covers of exquisitely designed and produced books. In their infancy, comics were regarded as lowbrow entertainment; today, society regards them as an art form worthy of further examination and exploration, representative of a range of tastes. With comics’ elevated status within popular culture, the forces that limited the medium in the past have been removed, and the future of comics is as limitless at the imaginations of those involved. Although the maturity of the industry has helped to drive the medium forward, it has also facilitated the revisiting of underappreciated works from comics’ history.
Comics’ ephemeral nature throughout the better part of their existence has left the documented history of the form incomplete. Today, comics publishers like Montréal-based Drawn & Quarterly (D&Q) are investing significant resources in culling forgotten comics treasures, bringing much-deserved attention to those that have been buried in landfills, or later, dropped off at recycling plants. The act of revisiting these classic works in a contemporary setting fills gaps within comics history: new aspects of the classic works are discovered, and the lineage of contemporary cartoonists can be understood more completely.
Reprints have existed within the comics industry in North America since its inception in the late nineteenth century; the shape they currently take, however, is miles ahead of their original form. Contemporary comics are among some of the most exquisitely designed books available today. Collections of comics reprints conform to these high standards—standards that, while in part are a result of the maturity and evolution of the form and the sophistication of the audience, are also a product of the efforts of revolutionary comics publishers, including the reference company for this report, D&Q.
The report starts with an analysis of the comics environment in the 1980s from which D&Q emerged, followed by a brief history of the company’s accomplishments to the present day. The report then explores the history of comics reprints in North America beginning with their first appearance in the late nineteenth century, focusing on their role in building the foundation of the comics industry, and ending in the mid-1990s with the demise of the first wave of modern reprints. A synopsis of the reprint environment in 2011 follows, including an analysis of D&Q’s key competitors. Next, the report focuses on D&Q’s reprinting activities, examining series acquisition and series development. To explore series development, D&Q’s reprints of Doug Wright’s comics are analyzed. D&Q’s reprint series of Frank King’s classic strip, Walt and Skeezix, is also explored, highlighting the effects of placing classic strips in a new context. As the basis for understanding series design approach, the John Stanley Library and the notes of the series designer, Seth[i] , are evaluated. Lastly, this section of the report looks at comics reprints’ role in constructing the comics canon and creating our remembered/documented history of the medium. The report concludes with observations on current trends in collector culture and its influence on reprint publishers, and an examination of D&Q’s current stance on comics reprints.
2. History of Drawn & Quarterly
2.1 Comics Culture in the 1980s
The 1980s was an important time for comics in North America. The industry was by no means flourishing, but the accomplishments of a new generation of cartoonists and innovative publishers throughout these years formed the basis of the burgeoning industry we see today. Some of the finest contemporary comics artists including the Hernandez Brothers and Dan Clowes got their start during these seminal years by creating some of the first alternative comics[ii] . Evolving from the underground comix of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which created an audience for uncensored, adult-oriented comics in North America, alternative comics provided a less transgressive, more intellectually driven outlet for these adult readers—and artists—to sate their appetites (Mouly in Kartalopoulos, 2005). But the underground comix tradition had not died entirely—it survived in the works of the father of the form, Robert Crumb, including his magazine-sized comix anthology Weirdo[iii], which continued to push the genre in innovative directions, publishing renowned artists such as Gilbert Hernandez of the aforementioned Hernandez brothers, Terry Zwigoff (who would later direct the movie adaptation of Clowes’s most successful comic, Ghost World), Gary Panter, Harvey Pekar, and Kim Deitch. Also published in Weirdo were many artists who would later be published by D&Q, including Charles Burns, Dan Clowes, David Collier, Julie Doucet, Debbie Drechsler, Joe Matt, and Joe Sacco. Weirdo remained an influential publication within the industry until the publication of the twenty-eighth, and last, issue in 1993.
Publishing comics at the same time as Weirdo was Seattle-based Fantagraphics. In 1976 Fantagraphics launched the Comics Journal[iv], the industry’s first trade magazine; the company embarked on publishing activities that extended beyond the magazine in 1982 when it began publishing some of the first alternative comics in North America. Though moving the medium in a direction divergent from underground comix tradition, Fantagraphics began their comics publishing endeavors with close ties to the underground. While underground comix were produced across North America, they especially flourished on the West Coast. Based in the West, the influence of underground comix is evident in Fantagraphics’ early alternative publications. The company published the top artists of the early alternative scene, Daniel Clowes, Peter Bagge, and the Hernandez brothers; in the years to come, these five artists would be cited as inspiration for all those who became involved in the medium, including D&Q publishers Chris Oliveros (Oliveros, interview).
While west-coast Fantagraphics had roots in the underground, emerging simultaneously on the East Coast was something entirely different. Françoise Mouly created Raw Magazine—the highbrow alternative to lowbrow underground comix—In 1980. Co-edited by Art Spiegelman, Raw soon became the seminal alternative comics publication. Although the best known comic to be published in Raw was Spiegelman’s Maus[v], the magazine also published the works of other influential cartoonists of the 1980s, many of whom later joined D&Q’s stable, including Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Julie Doucet, R. Sikoryak, and Chris Ware, who before contributing to the magazine spent his college days staring at the pages of Raw, mimicking the works of Gary Panter, Jerry Moriarty, and Kaz (Ware in Kartalopoulos, 2005). In an interview with comics critic Bill Kartalopoulos, Mouly describes the intent of Raw:
There was a goal that was to show an audience, a world, or whatever, to make it manifest how good comics could be. I mean, it was to fight the prejudices against comics as toilet literature, that they should be printed only on newsprint, and disposable…So here the large size, and the good paper, and the fact that it was non-returnable, were meant to force people to see how beautiful, and how moving, and how powerful, the work could be. And it should have Europeans and Americans and people from all over. It should bridge a lot of gaps. That was the intent. (Mouly in Kartalopoulos, 2005)
Throughout Raw’s life, Mouly followed these goals—goals that, for those familiar with D&Q, should ring a bell. Mouly’s commitment to quality content, design, and production set new standards for the comics industry.
2.2 Drawn & Quarterly: The Early Days
Amongst the budding cartoonists influenced by Raw was Chris Oliveros, founder and publisher of Drawn & Quarterly. At the time of the company’s inception, although Fantagraphics and Raw were driving the medium in new directions, the comics industry was still dominated by superheroes (Bell, 2002). Living in Montréal, Oliveros was privy to a wider range of comics than many: not only did Montréal have thriving anglophone and francophone comics scenes, but, unlike elsewhere in North America, European comics were relatively well represented (Bell, 2002). With exposure to a variety of comics styles, including those represented in Raw, Weirdo, and Fantagraphics’ publications, it was clear to Oliveros that in order for the North American comics scene to mature creatively, it would need to be steered away from its fascination with capes and toward the likes of the aforementioned alternative publications (Bell, 2002). Oliveros published the first issue of his comics anthology, Drawn & Quarterly, in 1990. Early issues of the anthology included the works of Chester Brown, Joe Sacco, and Maurice Vellekoop, who remain leaders within the comics community today. Oliveros entered the scene with a commitment to publishing first-class comics by Canadian and foreign cartoonists; he saw comics as more than a popular form of entertainment—he regarded them as art, and published them accordingly. D&Q emerged in a post-Raw environment in which comics were now clearly aimed at an adult audience, and were, however gradually, being accepted as more than lowbrow ephemeral entertainment (Devlin, interview).
Paramount to the early success of D&Q were the multifarious and provocative nature of its expertly curated list and Oliveros’s dedication to producing books with high production values. In an interview with Canadian Business magazine, Jeet Heer, co-editor of Arguing Comics and author of several introductions to comics reprints series, was quoted saying, “Oliveros was the first publisher who really cared about design…You’d think comics people would be sensitive to that, but the obverse is true” (McBride, 2009). Artist Jerry Moriarty once said, “Françoise [Mouly] would throw her body on the printing press if the work was not up to her standards” (Moriarty in Kartalopoulos, 2005). While Oliveros may not have been the first publisher to pay attention to comics’ production and design values, he certainly was a leader. D&Q’s high standards of quality, like those of Raw, attracted artists, some of the world’s best cartoonists among them, and the company has consistently maintained those standards. The early success of D&Q in pushing alternative comics forward in North America was recently noted by Mouly in an online interview in which she acknowledged that the reason she ceased the publication of Raw in the early 1990s was because she felt the magazine was no longer necessary: Raw was created to fill a niche—alternative comics were underrepresented in North America—but the magazine acted as a catalyst, and publishers, notably D&Q, were able to pick up where she left off, continuing to drive the medium forward (Mouly in Dueden, 2011).
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the emergence of several alternative comics publishers within Canada; of these publishers, only D&Q remains (Bell, 2002). Whenever Oliveros is questioned about his accomplishments—about how he was able to build, from the ground up, one of the top comics publishing houses in the world—his answer is always the same: “We just publish what we think is good.” Oliveros’s stock answer is as modest as the man himself, and although the statement may be the company’s focusing line, the reality of the establishment and continued success of D&Q is the company’s unrelenting commitment to the form that supports it.
2.3 More than a Magazine
Although D&Q began as an anthology publisher, the company quickly expanded into pamphlets[vi] , the first of which was Montréaler Julie Doucet’s Dirty Plotte, followed shortly after by Seth’s Palooka-Ville, Joe Matt’s Peepshow, and Chester Brown’s Yummy Fur, Underwater, and, later, Louis Riel (Bell, 2002). Although the majority of comics we see today are published in book form, the pamphlet format remained prominent in comics for most of the 1990s. As late as the year 2000, D&Q, an industry leader in book-format comics, only published about four books a year. Although Oliveros claims the progression from pamphlet to book format was natural, D&Q played an important role in pushing the industry in this direction: mainstream media outlets were enamoured of the company’s “lavishly, lovingly produced” titles, and the popularity of book-format comics drove their dominance (McBride, 2009). Prior to the twenty-first century, traditional, pamphlet-style comics were only available through the direct market comics shops; in a 2004 article in the New York Times Magazine, D&Q, along with Fantagraphics, is given credit for expanding the comics retail market into traditional bookstores (McGrath, 2004). Although the quality of these companies’ titles clearly contributed to their success in bookstores, the leading factor behind D&Q and Fantagraphics’ success in delivering their product to the book market, which was omitted from the New York Times Magazine article, was their alignment with two of the most prestigious literary publishers of the twentieth century—Farrar, Straus and Giroux and W.W. Norton & Company, respectively.
Still based in the same Montréal neighbourhood—but no longer out of Oliveros’s two-bedroom apartment—D&Q operates with five full-time employees, two part-time, and several interns. Two key members of D&Q’s team—who moved to Montréal in 2002 from New York to take on their new roles within the company—are associate publisher Peggy Burns and art director Tom Devlin. With the addition of their expertise and unrivaled dedication, the company has become one of the leading comics publishers in the world: only ten percent of D&Q’s sales are in Canada. Seventy-five percent of revenue comes from the United States, while the remaining fifteen percent of sales are made in Europe. The esteemed publisher produces thirty books a year; on average, six of these titles are reprints. D&Q’s current reprint series include The John Stanley Library, Walt and Skeezix, The Collected Doug Wright, Moomin, and, beginning in the fall of 2011, Everything, which will be a comprehensive collection of comics legend Lynda Barry’s work. Though not a series, D&Q also reprints collections of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s short stories.
3. History of Reprints
3.1 The Creation of the Comic Book
Despite the relative youth of comics as a medium, comics reprints are old hat. In fact, the first comic book ever published in America, which appeared in March of 1897, was a collection of reprints of Richard F. Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley. Titled The Yellow Kid in McFadden’s Flats and published by G. W. Dillingham Company (with permission from the copyright holder, Hearst), the 196 page, black and white, hardcover collection sold for fifty cents (Olson, 1997). Used for the first time in North America, the phrase “comic book” was printed on the book’s back cover (Coville, 2001). Similar in format to the comics reprints we see today, The Yellow Kid in McFadden’s Flats took a much different shape from the pamphlet comics that preceded it. This collection was also unique in that it contained supplementary material written by E. W. Townsend, the strip’s writer (Coville), a feature that, though unprecedented at the time, is now commonplace in comics reprints. On many levels, The Yellow Kid in McFadden’s Flats displays the essential characteristics of contemporary comics reprints.
Although the late eighteen hundreds saw innovation with the emergence of the first comic book, over the next thirty years publishers continued to produce collections in the same vein as the Hogan’s Alley collection, reprinting newspaper strips—either previously published or rejected (Hadju, 2008). While the early collections were generally hardcover, publishers slowly began to experiment with size, colour, and pricing (Coville, 2001). Intrinsically, comics at this time were disposable ephemera, designed to be enjoyed daily and then used to wrap up the trash. Because of this, their value—derived “from their freshness, like produce or journalism”—diminished after they were printed (Hajdu, p. 21). And so in 1933, with no intent to actually sell the comic book, which was comprised entirely of reprinted material that was perceived to be worthless, Harry Wildenberg struck a deal with Procter and Gamble to produce one million copies of a four-colour comic book to be given away as a promotional item (Coville). The comic, titled Funnies on Parade and printed by Eastern Printing, was the first comic book to take the classic comics pamphlet form—saddle stitched, measuring eight by eleven inches (Hajdu).
The success of Funnies on Parade had much to do with the format. Either Wildenberg or his salesman, Maxwell Gaines, discovered that eight pages of a comic could be printed on a single page of newsprint, and that the printing could be done cheaply during the press’s downtime (Hajdu, 2008). With its minimal overheads, Funnies on Parade was so successful as a promotional item that within the year, Gaines created a second book, Famous Funnies, which again featured ads for common household products. By early 1934, Gaines struck a deal with American News Company, a major distributor, and began selling his advertisement-backed comics on newsstands for ten cents (Hajdu). While comics had been trickling onto the newsstands in various forms for several years, Famous Funnies was the first to achieve wide-scale distribution, establishing comics’ presence on newsstands (Hadju). Thus, as a vehicle for advertisements and a venue for devalued newspaper strip reprints, comic books, as we know them today, were born, becoming a prominent element within North American popular culture.
The success of these comics in the first half of the 1930s—still comprised entirely of reprinted material—lead Eastern Printing to form an equal partnership with George Delacourt of Dell Publishing; Gaines later partnered with DC Comics to create All American Comics (Coville, 2001). In 1935, one year after the second issue of Funnies on Parade hit stands, the first comic book containing new material, New Fun, was published by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson (Hadju, 2008). Realizing there was an alternative to paying newspapers for their previously used or discarded strips, Wheeler-Nicholson commissioned new comics to be created especially for publication within New Fun (Coville). While collections of reprinted material continued to be published, reprints were no longer the only material gracing the pages of comic books, and comics containing new material overshadowed the reprints. Although comics reprints established the foundation for the comics industry, notable developments within the reprint market would not be seen again until late in the 1970s.
3.2 The First Wave of Modern Comics Reprints
In spite of the comics industry’s early reliance on reprints, the popularity of these books waned as new material found its way between the covers. One of the first publishers to dive extensively into comics reprints since these foundational years was Kitchen Sink Press. Created by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund founder David Kitchen in 1969, Kitchen Sink Press began publishing reprinted classics in 1972, including Will Eisner’s The Spirit, George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Al Capp’s L’il Abner, and Milton Caniff’s Steven Canyon (The Comic Book Database). Kitchen Sink was joined in the reprint market by many, often small, independent publishers throughout the 1980s. These emerging reprint publishers tended to pop up and produce reprints for a year or two before folding (Oliveros, interview). While the reprints being published in the 1980s were of higher production values than those produced in the 1970s, they were, nonetheless, cheaply produced, poorly designed paperbacks devoid of context (Oliveros). Confined by the technology of the day, these reprints were little more than photocopies of the original strips placed between monochromatic covers (Devlin, interview). In some cases, when the photostats were not available, the reprints were derived from traced versions of the originals (Devlin). In other cases, in an attempt to make the strips conform to standard comic book format, publishers would reformat the content in various sizes within the same book, creating a jarring experience for the reader.
Of the publishers to venture into reprints extensively in the 1980s, Fantagraphics is one of the few that continues to thrive today—or even exist, for that matter. Fantagraphics’ reprint activities included the magazine Nemo, the Classic Comics Library, edited by comics historian Rick Marschall, and an imprint, the Nemo Bookshelf. The magazine ran for thirty-three issues, and unlike the bare-bones reprints that were common in the 1980s, it went beyond simply reprinting vintage comic strips and included supplementary information on the history of the strips. Fantagraphics’ reprint imprint, the Nemo Bookshelf, included Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Will Gould’s Red Barry, Milton Caniff’s Dickie Dare, E. C. Segar’s Popeye and Harold Foster’s Prince Valiant (The Comic Books Database). Although the production value of these reprints conformed to the standards of the day, Fantagraphics’ early innovation with reprints can be seen with their Popeye and Prince Valiant collections, which were both complete collections in an era when “best of” collections were the norm.
Another publisher to venture into reprinting complete collections during the first wave of modern reprints was industry powerhouse DC Comics with DC Archive Editions in 1989. The editions collect early material previously published by DC Comics, including Batman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League of America, Superman, Teen Titans, and Wonder Woman, as well as some comics originally published by other companies, such as Will Eisner’s The Spirit and Wally Wood’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. Following a rigid design template that makes it difficult to tell the over one hundred books in the series apart, DC Archive Editions is the only reprint series that existed in the 1980s that continues to exist today. Its importance stems not only from the fact that it was among the first series to reprint complete collections—for better or worse—but also that DC was the first publisher to reprint comics in hardcover editions since the early nineteen hundreds. However flawed the series may be, it planted the seed of archiving in hardcover, setting a standard among collectors seeking to read series in hardcover book form, a format that today is the norm for such collections.
Although reprints were common in the 1980s and early 1990s, by the mid-1990s the reprint industry had withered, and the industry saw few collections of reprinted material until the second wave of modern reprints began in 2002 (Oliveros, interview). Many factors contributed to the disappearance of these reprint lines, including the comics industry’s decline during the 1990s due in part to the failure of several major distributors (Devlin, interview). Another reason for the failure of reprints, however, was the packaging. The reprints of the late twentieth century were marketed to their original audience—to collectors and readers who had enjoyed the strips when they were originally published—in a fashion that was nothing more than nostalgic and antiquated (Burns, interview). The reprint publishers during these years failed to introduce the material to new readers, and the limited customer base was not enough to sustain the industry, which, at this time, was still limited to comic shops, as interest from mainstream media and bookstores had not yet been piqued.
4. Reprints Today
4.1 Everyman’s Comics
Shortsighted vision and a floundering comics industry effectively killed the production of comics reprint by the mid-1990s; however, by the early 2000s the industry had made an unpredictable comeback, and technological advancements finally made quality reproductions of classic comics possible. Brought on in part by the unprecedented success[vii] of Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth after its 2000 release by Pantheon Books under the editorship of landmark designer Chip Kidd, the mainstream media began to pay attention to comics, and this attention meant that, for the first time, bookstores began to stock graphic novels (Oliveros, interview). Before this distribution expansion, comics publishers were limited to the direct market; the acceptance of comics into the general book trade meant the production of deluxe, hardback reprints was possible, as the market was finally large enough to make these collections financially feasible (Oliveros). In addition to the hugely successful Jimmy Corrigan, other titles published during these years include Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde (2000, Fantagraphics) and Palestine (2002, Fantagraphics), Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2003, Pantheon), Adrian Tomine’s Summer Blonde (2002, Drawn & Quarterly) and Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World (1997, Fantagraphics) and David Boring (2000, Pantheon)—all titles that garnered a plethora of mainstream media attention and were instrumental in gaining mainstream acceptance for comics. The success of these titles was partly because of the building hype surrounding the “graphic novel,” but these books were also building the hype that was helping to sell them. Satrapi and Sacco captured their readers and brought them into war zones, like Spiegelman had done with Maus a decade earlier, bringing vividly to life with the skillful combinations of image and text a world that readers could not enter with text alone; similarly, Tomine, Clowes, and Ware pushed the boundaries of fiction with innovative form that captured the attention of readers in a way that comics that predated this period had not achieved. Although several comics achieved similar mainstream acclaim in the mid-1980s, including Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez’s Love and Rockets series, and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the movement lacked teeth because these quality titles were sparse; the critical mass of quality books required to achieve mainstream acceptance and prolonged media attention was not achieved until the turn of the century (McGrath, 2004).
In a 2004 New York Times Magazine article, D&Q and Fantagraphics were credited as the “enterprising publishers” that “managed to get their wares into traditional bookstores” (McGrath, 2004). This achievement, however, could not have been accomplished without the unprecedented partnerships between D&Q and Farrar, Strauss and Giroux and between Fantagraphics and W.W. Norton & Company. Pantheon Books’ success with Jimmy Corrigan was partly the result of the publisher’s success in selling the book through the book trade, a success that was made possible because of Random House’s book trade distribution. For independent comics publishers, like D&Q and Fantagraphics, the success of this title made it clear that times were changing within the comics industry, and partnerships would need to be formed with distributors that were able to facilitate the transition away from solely the direct comics market and towards the much larger general book trade. D&Q formed its partnership with Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in 2004 after dissolving a distribution partnership with Chronicle Books that was established in 2002; Fantagraphics aligned itself with W.W. Norton in 2001.
In addition to these exceptionally successful titles and expansion in distribution channels, Hollywood adaptations of several comics helped to bring even more attention to the medium, including a film adaption of Dan Clowes’s Ghost World in 2001 and Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor in 2003, as well as a second wave of superhero comic adaptations, including X-Men (2000), Spider-Man (2002), Daredevil (2003), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), and Hulk (2003), which helped to revitalize popular culture’s interest in the medium.
4.2 The Reprint Revolution
With the wider acceptance of comics by mainstream culture, publishers were finally in a position to produce the reprint collections they had been dreaming of for decades, but that previously would not have attracted a large enough audience to make their production feasible. Spring 2002 marked a paradigm shift in comics reprints; the poorly reproduced paperback collections of the past were trumped by a superior product, one that honoured classic comics in a package that represented the contents’ cultural value. The second wave of modern comics reprints—the Golden Age of reprints—began in 2002 with Fantagraphics’ reprint series of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, titled Krazy and Ignatz because of copyright restrictions. Gorgeously designed by Chris Ware, not only was it the first reprint series to pair a contemporary cartoonist with an influential comic series—a strategy that is commonplace in reprint series today—but the design captured the spirit of the comic, drawing on the time period in which it was originally created. Krazy Kat had been reprinted in the past by numerous publishers, dating back to the first comic books in North America, but unlike its antecedents, the design of the series added a new element to the content, and following the tradition that Fantagraphics began in the 1980s with Prince Valiant and Popeye, Krazy and Ignatz was to be a complete series, including all of Herriman’s Sunday and daily strips. Today, the publication of the dailies is complete, and Fantagraphics has begun reprinting the Sundays.
Krazy and Ignatz is an important series for Fantagraphics partly because Krazy Kat is one of the most popular comic strips of the twentieth century, being the first to break out beyond the lowbrow status of comics with such fans as Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and William de Kooning, but also because the comics were in the public domain, which allowed Fantagraphics to cheaply experiment with the addition of a celebrity designer. The series also includes introductions/tributes by Jeet Heer, Ben Schwartz, and Bill Blackbeard. In addition to everything the paperback series has to offer, it has a low price point ($19.95–$24.95), which has helped to cement the success of the series, and to this date, it is one of the most successful comics reprint series in existence.
Although Krazy and Ignatz was the first reprint series to be published in a deluxe format with a contemporary cartoonist as the series designer, more often Fantagraphics’ The Complete Peanuts series, which did not appear until 2004, is given credit for pushing reprints in this new direction. However, if it were not for the success of Krazy and Ignatz, Fantagraphics may have never published The Complete Peanuts in the format it now takes, a format that has become the norm within the comics reprint industry. Although thousands of books over the past forty years have reprinted various Peanuts strips, no publisher had attempted a complete collection (Douresseau, 2004). Beautifully designed by Seth, The Complete Peanuts, now on its fourteenth volume, is scheduled to span twenty-five volumes, which will include all fifty years of the strip. At a rate of two books per year, the entire collection will be complete in the fall of 2016; each volume includes two years of strips and invaluable introductory material.
Perhaps part of the reason why The Complete Peanuts series overshadowed Krazy and Ignatz as the leader in modern comics reprints was because Fantagraphics bought the rights from United Media, and therefore had the power of one of the biggest and most influential syndication companies today, as well as, and even more important among hardcore Peanuts fans, the explicit consent, support, and promotional assistance of Charles Schulz’ widow, Jeannie Schulz. In addition, every Peanuts books, no matter the subject or format, debuts on the New York Times bestseller list, and as a result so did Fantagraphics’ editions. Because of these factors, Fantagraphics knew their series would sell, and, coupled with the public’s newfound acceptance of comics, launching the most extensive marketing campaign in history in support of a reprint series was not much of a gamble. And, with the new shape the industry was taking, for the first time, the primary focus of the marketing efforts, which included counter displays, promotional posters, and media efforts across all four media—print, TV, radio, and internet—was the book trade (Reynolds in Douresseau, 2004).
Series designer Seth responds modestly to claims that The Complete Peanuts revolutionized comics reprints; however, he does acknowledge the series’ role in steering the marketplace towards complete collections rather than selections from treasuries. Although complete collections had been done in the 1980s, they had never been done with such success, or care, and they were never the rule, but always the exception. While this element of Peanuts is quintessential to the modern reprints movement, similar to Krazy and Ignatz, the other two defining features of the series—the inclusion of supplementary information and the focus on exquisite design—have played an equally vital role in the reprints that have entered the marketplace since the release of Fantagraphics’ Krazy and Ignatz and Peanuts. When questioned about the shift in reprints post Peanuts, Seth responded as follows:
I suspect something in The Complete Peanuts seemed ‘new’ at that moment in time. It did seem to make a dividing point between the reprinting activity from before and the reprinting activity after. I’m not entirely sure why… but it might have to do with the care that was focused on the packaging and format. It was the start of a period where comic related books were starting to be assembled with a lot more care than the collections of previous decades. In life, timing is everything and The Complete Peanuts came at just the right moment. (Seth, interview)
While timing played a role in Peanuts’s success, Seth’s rethinking of Peanuts in a design sense also played a vital role. The Complete Peanuts is perhaps the perfect amalgamation of business and art. What sets Seth’s design apart from that of other Peanuts reprints is that he rethought the strip. Seth added an emotional melancholy element with his design never before seen in a Peanuts book. So while the design is exquisite, the approach to the design is also groundbreaking. Seth saw the melancholy, depressed nature of Peanuts (perhaps from reading it himself as a child) and designed the series using dark, melancholy colors to highlight this aspect of the comic. Previous collections of Peanuts were generally designed using very poppy and kid-oriented palettes. Seth intentionally avoided such colours, in part to make the series more attractive to adult readers (Seth, interview).
Whether it was a result of the marketplace sitting in a prime position, the on-point series design, the effectiveness of the marketing activities, or the inherent quality of the strips, The Complete Peanuts quickly became the most successful reprint series in comics history. More likely, however, it was no single element that garnered the series’ success, rather a convergence within the marketplace. Peanuts’s signature elements, which it shares with Krazy and Ignatz, define the modern comics reprint, and together the two series influenced a flurry of reprint projects that closely follow in their footsteps.
4.3 The Reprint Environment in 2011
Following the release of The Complete Peanuts, the reprint industry quickly expanded; publishers across North America began developing their own reprint collections, and, in some cases, devoted imprints solely to reprinting classic comics. Fantagraphics, too, developed several additional reprint series, including two titles that they had previously published as part of their Nemo Bookshelf imprint in the 1980s, E.C. Segar’s Popeye and Prince Valiant. While both these series had been previously completed in softcover, the new editions conform to the deluxe twenty-first-century reprint production standards.
Not only did Fantagraphics set the bar for the modern comics reprint, but Seth’s design of The Complete Peanuts had a major impact on subsequent reprint series. In fall 2006 IDW Publishing released the first volume of The Complete Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy. While Seth played no role in the production of this series—the credited designer is Ashley Wood—the series design is strikingly similar to Seth’s work with Peanuts. While the ethics of IDW’s design decisions are questionable, perhaps it was also a case of Fantagraphics changing the way people looked at comics reprints (Devlin, interview). One way or another, IDW came to the conclusion that Fantagraphics’ Peanuts was how comic strip reprints in the twenty-first century were suppose to look, and IDW carried on this tradition with the establishment of their imprint—the Library of American Comics—in 2007, dedicated to “preserving, in definitive editions, the long and jubilantly creative history of the American newspaper comic strip” (“The Library of American Comics”). IDW now has one of the largest lists of comic strip reprints in the industry. With Dick Tracy volumes being released on a quarterly schedule and Little Orphan Annie volumes being released three times a year (both of which, like Fantagraphics’ collections, have introductions by industry experts), IDW’s list is growing at a rapid pace; fourteen strips are currently reprinted as part of the library, including beloved Archie, Family Circus, and Blondie. All the titles in the library are hardback and of archival quality, and generally include supplementary information.
Deeply involved in comics reprints, IDW has a second reprints imprint—Yoe! Books. Created specifically for the comics collector and accomplished creative mind of Craig Yoe, the imprint draws on his very large, idiosyncratic comics collection (Devlin, interview). Yoe! Books is an example of collectors’ prevalent role in the reprints industry. While Yoe is more than simply a collector—earlier in his career he was the creative director of The Muppets—he represents collectors’ influence on the reprints market. With an industry saturated with reprints sourced from a handful of collectors, the shape of comics history can easily shift to reflect these collectors’ personal taste[viii] .
Another player in the North American reprints game is the Milwaukie-based publisher Dark Horse. While Dark Horse reprints collections of comics from mainstream publisher Marvel, they also reprint Marjorie Henderson Buell’s Little Lulu and Tubby. They began reprinting Little Lulu in 2005. Dark Horse differs from other classic comics reprint publishers today in that their collections focus less on the added value of first-class design and supplementary material, and more on achieving a price point that will put the product in as many hands as possible. The inexpensive format of the mainstream publisher’s paperback reprints is similar to that of their typical publications; it is unclear whether this is a strategic decision to keep the price point low or just a case of the publisher sticking with what they know (Devlin, interview).
Another key publisher producing reprints today is New York–based Abrams. What sets Abrams apart from the rest is that they are not strictly a comics publisher, but rather an art book publisher. Their books are not series, but more often coffee table books that display the art of a particular artist over the years—The Art of Jamie Hernandez—or cover a pivotal moment in a comic’s run—Archie Marries—or the history of a creator—Jerry Robins: Ambassador of Comics. Abrams publishes the art history books of the comics medium. Perhaps the most influential book published by Abrams is Dan Nadel’s Art out of Time, which collects the work of forgotten cartoonist from comics history. This book is discuss in more detail in section 5.5.
These four publishers—Fantagraphics, IDW, Dark Horse, and Abrams—are D&Q’s key competitors within the reprints industry today. The titles produced by these companies share similarities; however, each of them, including D&Q, satisfies unique roles within the marketplace, serving its own niche audience. Each of these publishers represent a certain standard of quality and a certain price point within the market—each company produces a product that satisfies today’s deluxe reprint standards, with the exception of Dark Horse, whose products are marketed to consumers concerned primarily with price point and less with the quality of the packaging or collectability.
5. Reprints and Drawn & Quarterly
D&Q has a distinctive list; unlike many general trade publishers, the company’s list is cohesive in content and design to such a degree that savvy readers can pull a D&Q book off the shelf and identify it as such without checking the logo on the spine. Regardless of whether the book is hardcover or softcover, verging on pocket sized or covering the top of a coffee table, the high production values of D&Q’s books are an integral element of the company’s brand. D&Q has built its reputation on publishing comics that push the medium forward; the company’s titles that look back—the reprints—are no exception. Despite their differences, the reprints at D&Q, progressive in their own right, share many similarities with their contemporary titles. From the start, Oliveros built the company on one earnest ambition: the desire to publish good comics. Regardless of the decade a comic was created in, D&Q seeks to bring quality content to readers—content that deserves to be read, and demands to be recorded in comics history—in a package that properly denotes the contents cultural value. With its publishing vision, D&Q’s rescued master-of-the-medium Doug Wright from slipping into obscurity, enabled the genius of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley to be fully realized, archived a pack of John Stanley’s rug rats—Melvin the Monster, Tubby, Nancy, Judy and Val, just to name a few—in a package tailored to honour Stanley’s exemplary skills, and introduced Tove Jansson’s daily Moomin strips to a North American audience for the first time.
The comics in D&Q’s early reprint stable pushed the medium forward in their day, and continue to add momentum to the form today through their influence on contemporary cartoonists. Regardless of how progressive a cartoonist may be, the comics they create are a palimpsest of comics history. Not long after Chester Brown’s Louis Riel was released in 2004, readers began noting the similarities between Brown’s artwork and that of Harold Gray in Little Orphan Annie (Heer, 2003). Likewise, only after reading Gasoline Alley does one notice the influence of Frank King on Chris Ware (Devlin, interview). And no matter how hard “alternative comics” readers try to separate their favourite works from superhero genre comics, the quintessentially alternative work of the Hernandez brothers cannot be divorced from its superhero influence. Comics history is intricately woven into the contemporary medium. Classic comics’ vital role in the progression of the medium is highlighted and explored through comics reprints, and this genealogy is something that D&Q’s readers—smart comics readers who care not just about where the medium is going, but also where it came from—are interested in, particularly when one starts to notice elements of a classic cartoonist’s work popping up on the pages of their favourite contemporary artists. Understanding classic comics gives context to comics today, and, as is the case with Louis Riel, adds new depths to already complex titles.
Classic comics’ below-the-radar influence on the industry today coupled with their role in shaping the medium’s remembered history makes reprints at D&Q an important aspect of the company’s publishing activities, from both business and cultural perspectives. While many logistical considerations regarding publishing reprints are similar to those regarding the publication of contemporary comics, there are several aspects of publishing reprints that are unique; these idiosyncrasies will be explored in the following sections of the report, including specific copyright considerations and the impact of collector culture on reprint series acquisition, the value of creating a new context for classic content to exist within, reprint series design best practices, and lastly, the cultural and historical impact of the specific comics that contemporary publishers decide to revisit.
5.1 Series Acquisition: Copyright and Collector Culture
D&Q is in the enviable position of being an industry leader. As such, industry members, cartoonists, and readers alike have a lot of faith in the titles that the company selects for publication. For a company producing such a reliably strong list, D&Q’s selection criteria are remarkably simple—the editors simply ask themselves, how much do we love it? (Oliveros, interview). Though relying on one’s personal taste may not be a textbook method to develop a stable enterprise, within publishing, throughout history, most brilliant publishers, including Penguin’s Allen Lane, have been able to anticipate demand, as much as they satisfy it, which means they have a big hand in shaping reading preferences or taste, as is the case with D&Q’s acquiring editors, Chris Oliveros, Tom Devlin, and Peggy Burns. Although the decision to publish reprints essentially comes down to how much the editors like the content, there are several other factors that are considered by D&Q before embarking on a reprint series.
A primary consideration when determining the feasibility of reprinting a classic comic is whether a comic is protected by copyright or it falls within the public domain. Determining who (if anyone) owns the copyright to classic comics is not always an easy task. Because copyright applies to individual issues of a comic and not to a series in its entirety, the rights to each issue within a series have to be checked individually. In text-based publishing, the one aspect of a text that is exempt from copyright is the title; in comics, however, many characters—whose names often double as the series title, as we saw earlier with Krazy Kat—are trademarked, adding one more legal obstacle to an already complex equation. In addition, because of the age of many classic comics, and the drastic metamorphosis the comics industry has been through since many classic comics were created, often the original copyright holder has long ago sold their rights to another party, making it difficult to ascertain who is currently in possession of the rights. The last factor affecting rights is whether or not the copyright has expired. The American copyright act of 1909 (which most classic comics are protected by) ensured protection to all works containing published notice for a term of twenty-eight years, with the option to renew protection for another twenty-eight years at any point within the last year of protection (Devlin, interview). If the copyright is not renewed at some point in the twenty-eighth year, the work falls into the public domain (Devlin). To assist with determining who owns the rights to classic comics, a copyright lawyer is retained by D&Q.
D&Q’s most complex copyright encounter involved the reprinting of Marjorie Henderson Buell’s Tubby. The company released their first volume of Tubby in the summer of 2010 as part of the John Stanley Library,[ix] about one month before another comics publisher, Dark Horse, released their first volume of a reprint series of the same comics. Having purchased rights to reprint Tubby from Classic Media, it came as quite a surprise to Dark Horse that another publisher was reprinting the same material—a situation that negatively impacted the sales of both publishers’ editions (Oliveros, interview). Although the copyright uncertainties have since been resolved, at the time, Classic Media—a company whose sole purpose is to buy and sell rights—maintained that they owned all rights to the material, including the trademark on the stylized version of Tubby Tompkins; however, as copyright to the issues passed hands throughout the years—first from Buell to Western Publishing Company, and then to Golden books, whose assets were later acquired by Classic Media—the rights on several issues of Tubby were never renewed, leaving those issues in the public domain, and available for publication by any interested company, an opportunity that D&Q embraced. Additionally, the trademark on Tubby Tompkins expired in 2007 and was never renewed—again, likely a clerical oversight by Classic Media. While Dark Horse’s edition of the series will be comprehensive, D&Q is limited to the issues in the public domain—twelve in total. D&Q’s first volume contained four of those issues, number nine to twelve, and was published under the no-longer-trademarked title, Tubby. Although D&Q had originally intended to publish more than one volume, the realization that Dark Horse was publishing the same material led D&Q to reconsider the viability of the series. With the lower price point of Dark Horse’s paperback volumes and the saturated market (a common problem with content in the public domain), D&Q will likely not publish a second volume of Tubby, despite the desire to showcase the content within its John Stanley Library.
Determining the availability of a series involves more than assessing the copyright status: unlike with text-based reprints where the entirety of the content is already collected, before a comics reprint series can be given the green light, a complete source for the collected material must be tracked down. In their infancy, comics were ephemeral—disposable entertainment delivered to one’s doorstep in the morning and intended to be placed on the curb with the trash in the evening. With their traditional lowbrow status, extensive archives do not always exist, and publishers often rely on dedicated collectors as a source for their material—someone must have previously invested much time, and often money, in collecting these classic comics of the past before they can be reprinted in the present.
Comics collector culture began to take shape in the 1960s with the development of the direct market. At the time, comics were distributed through magazine distributors who were unwilling to disseminate the adult-centric underground comix that were quickly rising in popularity; underground comix publishers were forced to created their own counter-cultural distribution networks, which, in accordance with the focus of the material, was centred on record stores and head shops, bringing comix directly to their niche consumers (Wolk, 39). While major publishers were unwilling to undertake large print runs at the time because of market uncertainties, underground comix publishers were able to move up to five or ten thousand copies of a book through this direct distribution channel; this distribution system evolved into the direct distribution comic-book stores that emerged in the mid-1970s and still exists today (Wolk, 39). These early comics shops created a place for comics fans to gather and talk about comics. Comic book conventions, which also emerged in the 1960s, were another venue for such activities (Devlin, interview). Together these two emerging forces—comics shops and conventions—formed the foundation for collector culture within the industry.
Even with the extensive collector culture surrounding comics, it has never been easy to compile complete collections. Though fictional, Seth’s Wimbledon Green is a realistic portrayal of the lengths collectors will go to assemble complete collection—and the prices they will pay. When comics collecting began in the 1960s, however, the activity did not necessarily require a fat wallet, simply a lot of time and the patience to dig through crates (Devlin, interview). As time passed, and the prices of aging comics began to rise, it became unreasonable for an individual to acquire a comprehensive collection of any particular comic (Devlin). In 2010, Detective Comics no. 27, the issue in which Batman makes his debut, set the record for highest selling price of a single issue in comics history, $1.075 million; one month later, Superman beat out Batman, and Superman’s debut issue, Action Comics No. 1, sold for $1.5 million (Nguyen, 2010).
Because of the high price of classic comics, reprint publishers often rely on preexisting collections as their source. Although today reprint series are generally dependent on the collections of individuals, there are several public institutions across North America that have extensive archives of artists’ work, and in some cases even own the originals[x] . Within the United States, the largest comics archive resides at Ohio State University. Both in depth and scope, the archive in extensive, and a vital resource to anyone embarking on a reprint series. D&Q utilized Ohio State’s archives for the first volume of Walt and Skeezix. Though the collection at Ohio State is extensive, the use of public institutions is, often, prohibitively expensive, and because of this, many reprint publishers have turned to private collections as a more affordable source of classic comics collections. Although D&Q used the archives at Ohio State for portions of the first volume of Walt and Skeezix, for all succeeding volumes, the private collection of cartoonist Joe Matt was the primary source of content.
D&Q’s Nipper series is another example of a series relying in part on the collection held by a public institution. Although not all of the original art is available, the majority of it was donated by the artist’s family to the Canadian National Gallery. Because of the high price of scanning the gallery’s collection, D&Q paid to have only the best years of Wright’s work scanned, and opted to utilize the private newspaper clipping collections owned by Wright’s family and series designer, Seth, to complete the company’s collection. Since the collection owned by the National Gallery is original art, the strips printed from these scans are superior to those printed from scans of yellowed newspaper clippings; however, with improvements in digital retouching software, publishers are able to restore newspaper clippings much more effectively than they could in the 1980s.
With the advent of the internet, it has become easier, and less expensive, to track down scarce material, making the use of costly public institutions even less of a necessity. When publishers are missing a strip in a series, often all it takes is a digital request sent out to the nerd network—the legions of comics fans trawling comics industry blogs (Burns, interview). Oftentimes, they come though with missing comics almost instantly, whereas, before the internet, that one missing strip could take months, or even years, to track down (Burns). Comics collectors are often so pleased to see collections of their favourite classics being published that they are happy to lend or sell their comics to publishers at a reasonable price.
Determining the availability of a comic—through private or public collections—is just the first step in deciding whether reprinting the material is a viable business decision. The second factor to consider is whether or not there is a viable market for the material, or whether one will have to be developed. Part of the success of The Complete Peanuts was that the strip had not yet faded from the collective memory of North American society. With many of the strips D&Q reprints, the artist’s work is no longer prominent within the cultural milieu. Regardless of the historical significance of a comic, or how well respected a publisher is within the industry, it is not always possible to build an audience for a classic comic within our contemporary environment. D&Q published a collection of Clare Briggs’s Oh Skin-nay! comics in 2006. Despite the quality of the work, D&Q was unable to cultivate an audience for the material, and, sadly, no subsequent reprints of the artist’s work have been published. In some cases, however, all the comic needs is a modern-day champion, a prominent cartoonist to put their name behind the strip—this is where a respected series designer comes in. By attaching a big name within the industry, like Chris Ware or Seth, to a series, publishers can more easily find a home for forgotten or obscure content within our contemporary industry.
As we’ve seen, acquiring a reprint series can be an extensive process; however, there are several financial benefits to reprinting classic content. Acquiring content from the public domain accrues no costs to the publisher. Although acquiring the rights to some copyrighted work can come with an unwieldy price tag, often the rights can be acquired for very little cost. Without having the financial burden of large advances, acquiring reprint series can be an excellent way to expand one’s list with few upfront costs.
5.2 Series Development: Format , Price Point, and Doug Wright
Once the viability of a reprint series is established, the extent of the series needs to be determined. The industry trend is towards comprehensive collections, and, for the most part, D&Q’s reprints conform to these standards; however, for a small company like D&Q, committing to a comprehensive series is a major undertaking, especially since sales dwindle as a series progresses (Burns, interview). In France for example, series are the norm—bookstores and libraries are accustomed to stocking complete series and readers look forward to seeing a series through to the end. The opposite is true in North America. Although retailers are becoming increasingly versed in stocking series with the recent success of Harry Potter and Twilight, change is slow. After all, trade bookstores are still learning how to shelve comics, let alone reprint series.[xi] Because publishing series is not a trade tradition in Canada, it is understandable that a retail tradition does not exist either. The push for maximizing return per square foot of retail space controls the products available in bookstores; unfortunately, this means that stocking every volume within a series that is now on its eighth or twelfth volume is not a priority for many retailers, and this unavailability of complete series negatively impacts sales. The success of comics series such as Jeff Smith’s Bone, which was picked up by Scholastic, and Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim, which was turned into a major motion picture in 2010, has helped to train bookstores to effectively stock, and therefore sell, comics series, but retailers still have a lot to learn (Oliveros, interview). Even if a bookstore wanted to shelve an entire series, there would likely be logistical obstacles—there is only so much room in bookstores, leaving little room to shelve The Complete Peanuts, for example, which will comprise of twenty-five volumes when it is complete.
Whether due to retailers accustomed to single title promotion/merchandising and pumping bestsellers, or a reading culture that is unaccustomed to the form, declining sales over the life of a series often results in price increases as a series progresses. Selecting a price point—and, therefore, format—that will be sustainable over the life of the series is ideal. The publisher needs to balance the desires of devoted fans, who often want high-end reprints, and newcomers to the material, who need the content and the price to be accessible (Mullaney in Lorah, 2008). Regardless of how strategically the initial format decisions are made, in all likelihood, pricing hikes will still need to occur in order to maintain the production of the series. Luckily, this trend tends to be a reality that most reprint comics readers are familiar with, and once they’ve committed to a series, dedicated readers generally stay faithful to the comics even when faced with the imposition of price increases (Burns, interview). This was the case with D&Q’s Walt and Skeezix: after the fourth volume the price increased to $39.95 from $29.95. Despite this somewhat drastic price increase, the series still has enough faithful readers to support its continued production (Burns). The casual reader, the reader without any previous relationship with the comic, however, is easily driven away by the higher price tag.
Another factor that can prohibit readers from reading books within a series is volume numbering. When readers have no previously relationship with a series they are often reluctant to pick up in the middle of the series and start reading, even though in many cases there is no disadvantage to beginning in the middle. To counteract this problem, with the Moomin series, D&Q chose to exclude numbers from the spines of the books. This decision has helped to facilitate higher sales of later volumes within the series.
Whether as a solution for declining sales, or simply because the original format is not the best fit for the content, adjustments to format can breathe new life into a series. While it is ideal to maintain the format of a series throughout its run, sometimes changing the format is the best solution (Devlin, interview). D&Q’s Doug Wright series illustrates this point succinctly. The first book in the series, The Collected Doug Wright Volume One, was released in the spring of 2009. Designed by Seth, the oversize, metallic-hardcover tome measures nine by fourteen inches, spans 240 pages, and weighs in at just under five pounds.[xii] The first volume of The Collected Doug Wright is a comprehensive look at both the life and career of one of Canada’s most beloved and most successful mid-century cartoonist. Reprinting material from Wright’s family’s and Seth’s personal collections, as well as the National Gallery’s, it includes thousands of pieces of art, pictures, letters, and unique excerpts from the artist’s journals, creating a picture for the reader of not only Doug Wright the cartoonist, but also the individual (Burns, 2009). The book includes Wright’s earliest work through to the early days of his seminal pantomime strip, Nipper. With a biographical essay by Brad Mackay and an introduction by Canadian cartoonist and creator of the landmark strip For Better or Worse, Lynn Johnston, The Collected Doug Wright Volume One is a book all comics collectors and book fetishists should have on their shelves.
The $39.95 cover price is not necessarily prohibitive in itself (though pushing it for some readers); however, the book has several other barriers to entry. Although Doug Wright was a household name at the peak of Nipper’s popularity, the strip was largely a Canadian phenomenon. In the United States, where the majority of D&Q’s market resides, the lovable, bald-headed children in Wright’s strip had no cult following—readers did not know what to make of the deluxe tribute to an unfamiliar cartoonist (Burns, interview). Even within Canada, where the strip was syndicated for over thirty years, the only existing collection of the strip outside of the artist’s family’s belongs to the series designer, Seth. For a cartoonist that today is virtually unknown, especially outside of Canada, the lavish format may have hindered rather than helped sales.
Since the primary goal of The Collected Doug Wright Volume One was to introduce Wright’s work to a new generation of readers, the format was rethought, and the focus shifted from collectability to accessibility (Oliveros, interview). With a new format and stripped down content, the second book in the collection, Nipper 1963–1964, achieved the goal of reaching new readers. With much of the material on the history, carrier, and life of Wright removed, the reader is left with only the meat—two years of the enduring comic strip Nipper, as well as a brief introduction by Brad Mackay. Still designed by Seth, and still lovely in its own right, this paperback edition measures eight by five-and-a-half inches and sits at 112 pages: it’s almost small enough to carry in one’s pocket. At less than half the price of the first volume, Nipper 1963–1964 fared much better in the market than the previous volume, receiving very good reviews, including mainstream media coverage from powerhouses Boing Boing and Entertainment Weekly (Burns, interview). In addition, positive word of mouth within the comics community really helped to sell the book (Oliveros). The inexpensive paperback format does not suit all of D&Q’s reprints—indeed, it is the only series like it—but it seems to be just the (W)right format for Nipper.
The third book in the collection, Nipper 1965–1966, is scheduled to be launched in the fall of 2011 and will continue to be released annually in the same paperback format as the second book. With such a sustainable format, D&Q’s staff is confident that they will be able to keep churning out volumes until they run out of material (Burns, interview). Wright’s body of work, a vital part of twentieth century Canadian cultural history, escaped obsolescence thanks to D&Q’s publishing vision and ability to adapt to the demands of the market, finding the appropriate form to bring Wright’s work to the reader. Learning from the success of Nipper’s new format, D&Q has become increasingly aware of the necessity of selecting the best format for the content, even if at times it means straying from the deluxe packaging that has come to define the company’s brand.
5.3 Context and Walt and Skeezix
In 2000, in volume three, issue one of D&Q’s flagship anthology, Drawn & Quarterly, Oliveros began reprinting Sunday pages of the American cartoonist Frank King’s Gasoline Alley, retitled Walt and Skeezix because of copyright restrictions. Beginning as a satire of the post-wwi car craze, Gasoline Alley quickly transformed into the story of a family. The strip was one of the first cartoons to use contemporary America as its setting, and King’s characters age in real time, painting a succinct portrait of life in America—of America’s collective cultural history—in the twentieth century (Burns, 2005). At the time, only reprinting the Sundays, Oliveros did not have grand designs to reprint a complete collection; he did have an interest in reprinting the dailies, but it was still too early in the evolution of the comics industry to conceive of a comprehensive collection that was up to the high production standards that Oliveros had set for the company (Oliveros, interview). In 2000 the comic shop direct market was all that comics publishers had to work with, and with all its limitations, including its limited reach, a reprint series the likes of which we see today would not have been possible (Oliveros). At this time, D&Q was only publishing about four books a year; the remainder of the company’s titles were pamphlets (Oliveros).
By 2004, however, the industry had changed drastically. The inclusion of comics in the book trade created a much larger market for comics; all of a sudden the production of books instead of pamphlets was viable (Oliveros, interview). In addition, the success of Fantagraphics’ Krazy and Ignatz and The Complete Peanuts gave hope to those with aspirations to produce similarly ambitious reprints projects. As the industry transformed before his eyes, Oliveros saw an opportunity to reprint Gasoline Alley in the format he wanted to, but he knew that taking on a reprint series of this nature would be a serious commitment. Indeed, to this day, the Walt and Skeezix collection is D&Q’s most extensive reprint series. Not only would embarking on such a series be a big commitment, but the act of tracking down a reliable source for forty years worth of daily strips was daunting. D&Q artist Joe Matt had been collecting the strip for years, and encouraged Oliveros to publish a comprehensive collection from his own archives; however, because of the nature of syndicated strips, Oliveros knew he would need a secondary source against which he could check Matt’s collection. Since Gasoline Alley appeared in four hundred newspapers across America, some newspapers would print the strips on the wrong day (Oliveros). Luckily, Ohio State University has microfiche copies of the Chicago Tribune, which was the newspaper that held the rights to King’s strip. With the Chicago Tribune’s collection available to check the dates on Matt’s strips and fill in the occasional gap or replace damaged strips in his collection, Oliveros realized that the publication of a comprehensive collection would be possible. At the same time, Oliveros was in contact with King’s granddaughter; to his delight, he discovered that she had extensive archives of her grandfather’s work, including photographs, letters, and other ephemera that could be used as supplementary content within the collection. The collection that Oliveros did not think would be possible back in 2000 was finally fully realizable. With series designer Chris Ware—who often cites Gasoline Alley as one of his favourite comic strips—on board, in addition to series editor Jeet Heer and collector Joe Matt, the first volume of Walt and Skeezix was published by D&Q in 2005. Currently reprinting only the dailies, the series is now D&Q longest running reprint collection.
Walt and Skeezix is the first multi-volume collection of King’s classic strips. Even when the strip was at its peak, no publisher collected it in book form, which meant that after each daily strip graced the newspaper’s page, the content was thrown in the trash, essentially obsolete the day after publication (Burns, interview). The obscurity of the strip posed both an opportunity and a challenge: unlike commonly reprinted comics like Popeye or Little Orphan Annie, there were no competing collections of the work floating around used book stores or being auctioned online; however, Gasoline Alley, undiscovered and underappreciated, did not have much of a built-in audience, which was part of the challenge of marketing the collection (Burns). Luckily, with famous cartoonist Chris Ware[xiii] as the designer, the series received a great deal of attention upon release of the first volume, and despite the fact that the strip was largely unknown, the first volume achieved widespread acclaim.
The annual volumes, now five in total, are each over four hundred pages, cloth bound, debossed, and jacketed, showcasing Ware’s design at its finest. Each volume collects two years of daily strips (beginning in 1927 when the dailies first appeared) and includes a unique eighty-page introduction by Heer, illustrated with photos and ephemera. Part of the magic of Heer’s introduction is that it is a biography within a reprint series; it is a time capsule. Though many publishers have since followed, D&Q was the first to include supplementary material of this magnitude in a reprint series, and with its inclusion, Walt and Skeezix is more than just a reprinted classic comic strip: it is the story of one of America’s finest cartoonists.
The new context in which King’s strips are placed not only creates a stunning package for the material, but also presents the content to the reader in a way that maximizes the strengths of King’s storytelling, making the content even more accessible today than it was when it was originally published almost a century ago and delivered daily to the doorsteps of over thirty million readers across America (Burns, interview). The strip’s pacing is what makes it so unique today. When it was originally published, the continuous nature of the strip made it difficult for casual readers to enjoy. In a newspaper article written by the series editor Jeet Heer and published shortly after the release of the first volume, Heer notes that Gasoline Alley has not been canonized with comics classics such as Peanuts or Krazy Kat because “as a strip that dwelt on the daily travails of ordinary people, Gasoline Alley needs to be read in bulk to be appreciated” (Heer in Rizzo, 2005). In the new context of its collected form, the reader experiences King’s pacing in a much more concentrated way, one that makes King’s strip more engaging and optimizes his story telling abilities. The condensed format also makes the strips more accessible to today’s comics readers who are used to faster-paced content.
Although Walt and Skeezix is the reprint published by D&Q that benefits most from the contextual change brought on by its collection in the book format, regardless of the comic, placing classic comics that were once ephemera into a contemporary package affects the way the comics are perceived and enjoyed. Aside from the obvious fact that collecting classic comics and placing them within the context of a book adds posterity to the content, making it easily accessible to a new generation of readers, the new context also plays a role in how the content is perceived by the reader. For example, Dark Horse and D&Q each placed their Tubby reprints in different contexts: Dark Horse published the content in a paperback format more closely resembling the original context in which the comics appeared, while D&Q produced exquisite hardcovers, with embossing and foil stamping. Neither format is incorrect. Dark Horse’s format does little to alter the context in which the content is consumed, which, it can be argued, is the right way to reprint classic comics, as it most closely resembles the context in which the creator intended the work to appear. Conversely, D&Q’s format highlights the content’s importance within comics history and adds value and collectability to content that was previously ephemeral in nature. Regardless of the approach taken by a publisher, it is important to consider the effect that the new context will have on the material, and select a format that is most suitable to the content. For Walt and Skeezix this meant a comprehensive collection that highlighted King’s gift for pacing, while Doug Wright’s work, widely unknown, benefits from a minimalist approach that keeps the comics affordable, and thus encourages readers unfamiliar with the content to give it a try.
5.4 Series Design and the John Stanley Library
Designed by world-renowned cartoonist Seth, D&Q’s John Stanley Library plays a vital role in celebrating Stanley’s underrepresented works. A journeyman cartoonist who made his name on licensed properties like Little Lulu, Stanley’s other work is widely forgotten. The library includes several series written—and sometime drawn—by Stanley, including Melvin Monster, a story about a good little monster who has a tough time fitting in with all the bad monsters in Monsterville, Thirteen Going on Eighteen, which is often considered a smart alternative to Archie, Tubby, an offshoot from Little Lulu where the title character has more time to shine, and Nancy, a comic centred around the title character, a self-assured young girl who spends much of her days outsmarting the boys. Since these works are not among Stanley’s best known, Seth’s role in the series has been instrumental to its success.
Regardless of whether a series’ design is done in or out of house, there are some initial decisions regarding the shape of the collection that need to be made before a designer can begin. When choosing the format and size of a series, not only does it need to reflect an appropriate price point, as discussed earlier, but it also must be suitable for the contents: the format and size of the book needs to work for the entire collection, which in some cases means it must to be adaptable to material of varying sizes (Devlin, interview). While D&Q does not currently publish any collections of reprinted comics that include both daily strips and Sunday pages, other publishers have faced this challenge with mixed results. Published by Abrams, Dan Nadel’s Art Out Of Time is an example of the challenge of finding a format that accommodates the varying sizes of its content. The daily strips and comic book pages in this collection are well suited to the format; however, the Sunday pages, which were originally much larger, and therefore shrunk down considerably, are illegible. Though to a much lesser extent, the varying sizes of the contents played a role in selecting the format for the John Stanley Library. Throughout Stanley’s long cartooning career, comic books became smaller; D&Q’s art director, Tom Devlin, had to select a format for the series that would accommodate content that came from any stage of Stanley’s career.
Another factor in choosing a format is the intended audience. In the case of the John Stanley Library, the content was designed to be enjoyed by children; Devlin selected a large format and decided to only collect three or four comic book issues in each volume to keep the page count low and therefore easily handled by little hands. By keeping the length of the volumes short the books are also quick reads, which preserves the original reading experience. The format keeps the comics in children’s territory, conforming to a classic children’s format, but also accommodates the varying sizes of the works contained within.
The amount of material to be collected in the complete series also affects the length of each volume. When a series’ run is short, like Melvin Monster, these decisions are simple: the series only spanned nine issues so it was clear that each volume would contain three issues. With a longer running series, it is important to plan out all the volumes before the initial design stages begin so pacing is consistent through to the last volume.
Once these initial format decisions are made, the design of the series can begin. Because the John Stanley Library includes several different titles, it was important that that design of the series be adaptable. Seth discusses his solution:
With the [John Stanley] Library I tried to build a design-system based on the very simple idea that these were a “Library.” I have always had a real fondness for children’s encyclopedias and I wanted to get some feeling of these old books into the series. By building the look of these books around a simple grouping of horizontal rules (and the [John Stanley Library] seal) I knew that I could easily create simple variations in the arrangement of these elements on the book covers to allow an almost endless number of new titles to be added to the series. They could look basically the same as the other books—and yet, by simply moving these elements up or down, here or there, they could have their own specific places in the series. This would allow them to sit together on the shelf as a unified whole in a way that wouldn’t be as cohesive if each series was entirely its own design. I also knew, though, that each book could probably stand alone as a nice children’s book because of the bold images on the covers and the bright colours involved. Basically they needed to work individually, and as a title (say Nancy) and as part of an overall library. The idea of a pepped-up encyclopedia model was a simple solution. (Seth, interview)
In addition to his over-arching design concept, Seth selected a colour palette that would appeal to children. With The Complete Peanuts, Seth deliberately chose low-key colours because he wanted to avoid an association with children’s publishing; with the John Stanley Library, however, he wanted to emphasize those elements, so he chose to work in bright tones to create an appropriate mood (Seth, interview). Although Stanley’s reprint history is limited, the previous collections of his work have always been aimed at adult collectors; with his design, Seth hoped to make the books appeal more to children, since they were Stanley’s intended audience, after all.
It was also important to Seth that Stanley’s characters, being central to his work, played a central role in his design. Stanley’s characters were “big and bright and extroverted…eccentric (yet likable),” which were rare traits in comics of that time period as most characters were “remarkably vapid and cardboard” (Seth, interview). The personalities of these characters come alive in Seth’s design, flawlessly expressing their quirks.
Another aspect of Seth’s design, which is visible in all the series he designs in addition to the John Stanley Library, is the attention he pays to creating a complete package for the content: the reading experience begins with the front cover and ends with the back cover, effectively leading the reader into the work and easing them out. As a designer, Seth notes his enjoyment in designing the front matter of books:
Chip Kidd once said to me that the pages between the half title page and the [start of the body text] are the place for a book designer to shine—to use some poetry. He’s right, I never forgot that. I love those introductory pages. They have a rhythm to them that can really be special if you can balance images, the spreads, the text etc. It should roll by the reader like a panorama—setting the emotions for what is to come in the book itself. (Seth, interview)
The success of Seth’s design comes not only from his exemplary design skills, but also his love of the content. In fact, it is Seth’s respect for Stanley’s work that led him to design the series. Years ago when Devlin was editing a special issue of the Comics Journal Seth wrote an essay about Stanley to be included in the journal; years later when Devlin conceived of the John Stanley Library, Seth was an obvious choice for series designer (Seth). Much as Frank King shaped the work of Walt and Skeezix series designer Chris Ware, Stanley had an influence on Seth’s work:
He moved his characters through space and time in interesting ways and my first chapter of Clyde Fans was heavily influenced by Stanley’s signature trait of having characters talk endlessly to themselves while engaged in other matters. I’ve also been a student of how he structured his comic books—the care and thought that went into each decision on how his separate short stories and one-pagers fit together. (Seth, interview)
While Seth’s exquisite design has contributed to the success of the series, the quality of the content, of course, is what keeps readers coming back. Stanley was ahead of his time, writing protofeminist cartoons with women in dominant roles at a time when this was not the norm, and these aspects of his cartooning result in comics that continue to hold up today, where many comics created during these years do not. If Stanley had been working in a different medium, film, for example, he would be remembered by society at large, but instead, he was creating comics in a time when what he was doing was considered the lowest of low culture (Oliveros, interview). Though the design is secondary to the content, Seth’s packaging has been instrumental in introducing this quality content to a generation that may otherwise never have known it existed.
5.5 The Comics Canon and Moomin
The first chapter of Douglas Wolk’s comics theory book Reading Comics and What They Mean is titled “What Comics Are and What Comics Aren’t.” Although the opening chapters of other comics theory books may not be so blunt in their intent, they all tend to revolve around asserting some sort of defining statement regarding what should be included in the realm of comics and what should be excluded. Art Spiegelman defines comics as “writing, drawing, and this other stuff that’s somewhere between the two” (Spiegelman in Kartalopoulos, 2005), which, being a non-definition, is perhaps the best definition of comics that I’ve come across. If someone attempted to define comics fifty years ago, surely some of today’s best comics would be excluded from the antiquated definition. An example of this is Lynda Barry’s recent work: when Amazon first received What It Is—having no idea what to make of the thing—they classified it, to Barry’s delight, as science fiction. Similarly, if one were to use Spiegelman’s definition, Maira Kalman’s work, residing as it does in liminal territory, could be classified as comics; others, including Kalman herself, who fervently denies any similarities between her work and comics, would disagree, but to many, the distinction is not so clear. Comics are a young medium, and throughout their century of evolution in North America, the form has grown and expanded in delightfully unpredictable ways. Boxing comics in with definitions—or panel walls, as it were—not only hinders the creativity of the medium, but is also a waste of time, as the defining elements of what makes a comic a comic are sure to expand in the years to come.
Looking forward, with artists like Barry pushing the medium in unexpected directions, the diversity of the medium will continue to expand. Looking back into comics history, however, diversity within the medium it not easily visible. It is not the case that unique works created by fully-formed artists were not being created; rather, for many years, there was no celebration of comics as an art form, and those works that were not greeted with immediate monetary affirmation were quickly dropped by publishers, leaving a plethora of first-class work without support because it lacked mass appeal (Nadel, 2006). These works quickly faded into obscurity, often the moment they were tossed in the trash. Because of comics’ ephemeral nature and low-art status, there is a wealth of history that has yet to be uncovered. The comics documented in history are primarily those that achieved commercial success—although these comics are deserving, they form an incomplete picture of comics history (Nadel).
Enforcing this canon are books like Wolk’s Reading Comics, but also art exhibits like Masters of American Comics and the Comics Journal’s 210th issue, which listed the one hundred best comics of the twentieth century. In addition, by making the material available to readers, comics reprints play an instrumental role in canon construction. To this date, the majority of comics that continue to be reprinted, and therefore shape comics history for society at large, are these canonized works. The literature canon wars of the 1980s were fought to broaden what was being taught in classrooms to include more works by women and minority writers; similar expansion has occurred within the art history canon (Donadio, 2007). Both literature and art have a well-documented history, making the exclusion of widely forgotten works correctable; with comics, however, the history is undiscovered, and therefore malleable (Campbell, interview). The exclusion of works today could mean their permanent exclusion within a generation (Oliveros, interview).
Until recently, the canon was shaped by heavy hitters like Stan Lee and collectors like Bill Blackbeard and Rick Marshall who have connections within the publishing industry (Spurgeon, 2006). The same names—Richard F. Outcalt, Windsor Mackay, George Harriman, E.C. Segar, and Walt Kelly—chiefly belonging to white, American men, pop up time and again (Devlin, interview). These greats were established as such in the 1960s when the fandom began to take shape and comics folks began meeting and talking at conventions (Devlin). Without someone to champion comics from the past in the modern day, their ephemeral nature leaves them marginalized (Spurgeon). Even Fantagraphics, which built its reputation on challenging the status quo, rigorously upholds the canon with its reprint series (Devlin).
As in literature and art, women have long been excluded from the comics canon. Marjorie Henderson Buell, who created Little Lulu, which, until Peanuts, was the most licensed strip in comics history, and Dale Messick, creator of Brenda Starr, Reporter, which ran in newspapers from 1945 to 2011, are rarely mentioned among the great cartoonists of the twentieth century. And although Little Lulu is now being reprinted, for such a popular comic, it is astonishing that it was never reprinted until 2005; Brenda Starr, Reporter has never been reprinted.
Although the majority of reprints today enforce the canon, we are starting to see publications that broaden the lens, focusing less on the established American classics. Forward-thinking publishers like D&Q have played an instrumental role in this expansion. One such comic championed by D&Q is Tove Jansson’s Moomin. Although the strip was syndicated in forty countries around the world and enjoyed a readership of several million, Moomin had never been syndicated in North America and, therefore, was virtually unknown on the continent. Furthermore, despite its popularity in Britain, it had never been reprinted in English, only in Scandinavian languages where Jansson was a celebrity. In addition to being gender exclusive, comics reprints tend to be geographically myopic. Until D&Q began reprinting Moomin in 2006, the only European comics series to be successfully reprinted in the United States was Tintin. Expanding the North American canon on two fronts—gender and geography—Moomin has become the company’s top selling reprint series; with 45,000 copies in print, the first volume is in its seventh printing. Deservedly, and at last, Jansson has been given the position she deserves within the North American comics history. But the D&Q series not only awarded Jansson with the readers she deserved in North America, the series also spawned an international interest in reprinting the work, sparking many foreign editions— most using D&Q’s design.
While D&Q consistently challenges the canon, they are not the only publisher to do so. Dan Nadel, publisher at Picture Box and co-editor of the Comics Journal, is well known for his efforts in bringing much-needed attention to under-appreciated works from comics history. Published by Harry N. Abrams, Nadel compiled two comics history books—Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries 1900–1969, and Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, 1940–1980. As the titles suggest, these collections focus on the “lost comics” (Nadel, pg. 9, 2006). Nadel saw holes in the documentation of comics history, and, with these two books, found a place for many under-appreciated artists within the narrative of comics history. In addition to giving more obscure works a few moments on centre stage, Nadel has managed to broaden the diversity of work that the industry takes seriously. In Art Out Of Time Nadel takes widely unknown cartoonists like Boody Rogers and Fletcher Hanks and looks at them less as freak oddities and outsiders, and more as individual artists (Devlin, interview). The context in which these works were published—as forty-dollar art books published by an esteemed art book publisher—helps to increase the perceived value to these underappreciated works.
Culturally, reprints’ role in expanding the comics canon is perhaps the most valuable aspect of continuing to publish these works. For publishers like D&Q who have long worked to push the medium forward, reprinting these invaluable works is not only a pleasure, but a duty—an effort to right the wrongs that exist within this “impure medium” (Nadel, pg. 6, 2006).
6.1 Collector Culture and Cultural Vogue
Part of the reason why comics reprints in the 1980s were not sustainable was that the primary audience for the books was comics collectors; today, however, that audience has expanded and it is not just collectors that are interested in classic comics. In part the expansion of the audience is because of comics presense in trade bookstores, but also, as Jeet Heer points out, because the historical consciousness of our current culture is stronger than ever, and people are seeking to learn about the past through other means than history textbooks (Heer, 2002). The success of shows like Canada: A People’s History, historical novels by Margaret Atwood, and biographical comics like Chester Brown’s Louis Riel highlight the current trend towards informing oneself about history through popular culture (Heer, 2002). Reprinted comics, particularly when presented with supplementary information, provide a history lesson for readers. In the case of Walt and Skeezix, the reader learns about the collective history of America during the 1900s.
But it is not just the historical consciousness that is helping to sell comics reprints. Collector culture is creeping its way out of niche countercultural pockets into the mainstream in many ways; similar to complete seasons of television shows presented on DVD, or discographies of artist’s completed works, comprehensive collections of classic comics are aligned with the current cultural trend towards collecting popular culture in complete packages (Taylor, 2005). Although people’s attraction to completeness is nothing new—some anthropologists speculate that our desire to do so stems from our instincts to hunt and gather—its prevalence in mainstream culture has not been this strong since the popularity of stamp collecting waned in the early 1900s (Rubin, 2008). This current trend is favourable to publishers such as D&Q, who invest a substantial portion of resources in the production of volume after volume of reprints.
6.2 The Future of Reprints at Drawn & Quarterly
Although reprints are not among the highest selling books at D&Q, they provide a stable and predictable source of income for the company. Despite the success of D&Q’s reprints, the model is still in flux and the future of each reprint series is as unpredictable as the future of the publishing industry itself. Declining sales of a series as it progresses is currently the top obstacle for the company, but D&Q is committed to finding creative solutions—even if it means straying from the preferred hardcover format, as we saw with Nipper—in order to keep its reprint series alive. Initially D&Q approached its reprint series from the same perspective that it approached all of its titles: if the content was good, the company would publish it as a deluxe, hardcover book (Oliveros, interview). Publisher Chris Oliveros is the first to admit that this approach has some flaws. He notes that, as we saw with Nipper, the hardback format is not always the best fit for the content, and, as was the case with an early reprint, Clare Briggs’s Oh Skin-nay!, the company’s assurance of quality is not always enough to sell a book. There are currently no plans to alter the format of any more of the company’s reprints series, but there is constant chatter around the office about ideas for new series, and about innovative formats and approaches that could maintain the sustainability of reprinting classic comics in the years to come.
Likely, particularly with the success of Nipper, D&Q will experiment with other paperback reprint series in an attempt to lower its overheads and keep the editions at a price point that is not prohibitive and places the content in the hands of as many readers as possible. This format will lend itself particularly well to collections of children’s comics, which are likely to be seen from D&Q in the near future. Although various formats will be explored, Oliveros’s personal vision—to publish good comics, which to Oliveros means first-rate content and production—is still the sole driver behind the company’s activities, and will continue to be the reason why comics readers trust D&Q as an authority on quality content.
Although the reprint industry will likely remain similar in form for the next several years, speculations regarding what it may look like further into the twenty-first century produce some interesting questions, many of which, at this point, do not have answers. With comics’ evolution from staple-bound pamphlets to hardcover books, and movement from newspapers’ pages to computer screens, what impact will the art’s increased posterity and existence within more long-lasting formats have on reprint collections in the future? Will the same careful curation be necessary when the work is already available in various forms? How much longer can the reprints industry survive before all the comics considered “worth” reprinting are exhausted? Or will the well simply be replenished as contemporary comics age and become classics? In our current environment, the internet is flooded with webcomics and reproductions of vintage comics, and, brought on by the increased popularity of comics beginning at the turn of the century, the print comics industry has become oversaturated. What impact will comics’ increasingly mass appeal have on the medium? Despite the uncertainties, D&Q’s assurance of quality and role as a gatekeeper will remain valuable to comics readers, and, likely, will become even more valuable as uncurated digital content becomes even more prevalent.
i Pen name for Canadian born cartoonist and designer Gregory Gallant. RETURN
ii Although the term “alternative comics” is still used by some, alternative comics are, today, more often simply referred to as comics. RETURN
iiiWeirdo was published by San Francisco–based Last Gasp from 1981–1993. Control of the publication was turned over to cartoonist Peter Bagge with issue 10, and then Crumb’s wife, and fellow cartoonist, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, with issue 18. RETURN
iv The last regular print issue of the Comics Journal—issue 300—was published in November of 2009, at which point the publication moved online. On March 5, 2011, The Comics Journal relaunched their online publication, revitalizing the format and changing over the staff. The magazine is now run by Comics Comics (a web-based critical comics analysis blog that was retired with the launch of the new Comics Journal) editors Dan Nadle and Tim Hodler. RETURN
vMaus was later collected in two volumes and published by Pantheon Books (an imprint of Random House). The first volume appeared in 1986; the second in 1991. Spiegelman received the Pulitzer Prize for Maus in 1992. RETURN
vi Traditional comic book form is the pamphlet format, which Unesco defines as a “printed publication of at least 5 but not more than 48 pages exclusive of the cover pages” (Unesco, 2004). Pamphlets are generally saddle stapled. RETURN
vii In 2001 Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth won the Guardian Prize for best first book, a prize that had previously been awarded to authors including Zadie Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer and Philip Gourevitch (McGrath, 2004). RETURN
viii Comics collectors and their influence on shaping comics’ documented history are discussed further in chapter six. RETURN
ix John Stanley, being a journeyman cartoonist and scripter, wrote stories for Buell’s characters, and, in some cases, created the art as well. RETURN
x IDW’s The Complete Little Orphan Annie is an example of a series reprinted from archived original art. Harold Gray, the comic’s creator, saved virtually all of the original art, which he donated to Boston University in the 1960s. The superior quality of the strips reprinted in this series is noticeable. RETURN
xi A 2010 article in Publisher’s Weekly talked extensively about the difficultly trade bookstores have in shelving comics, which are a medium, not a genre; since bookstores are organized by genre, shelving comics in one section is exclusive and limits their exposure to a broader bookstore audience (Reid, 2010). RETURN
xii Spare copies around the office are used to weigh down the scanner lid when scanning material with creases. RETURN
xiii Chris Ware was also the series designer behind the first reprint series of the second wave of modern reprints, Krazy and Ignatz. In addition, he is one of the finest contemporary cartoonists today. Volume twenty of his comic series The Acme Novelty Library, which was released in the fall of 2010, has virtually sold out less than half a year later. The print run was twenty-five thousand. RETURN
About us. (2010, November 8). Retrieved from http://www.fantagraphics.com
Bell, J. (2002, June 24). Beyond the funnies. Retrieved from http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/comics/027002-8700-e.html
Burns, P. (2009, January 12). The collected doug wright volume one. Retrieved from http://www.drawnandquarterly.com/shopCatalogLong.php?item=a4947fe5c97c42
Burns, P. (2005, March). Walt and skeezix: 1921-1922. Retrieved from http://www.drawnandquarterly.com/shopCatalogLong.php?item=a3e53d5c571ae6
Donadio, R. (2007, September 16). Revisiting the canon wars. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/16/books/review/Donadio-t.html?_r=2
Coville, J. (2001). The history of comic books. Retrieved from http://www.thecomicbooks.com/old/Platinum.html
Douresseau, L. (2004, January 23). Mr. charlie opens the door. Retrieved from http://www.comicbookbin.com/charlie12.html
Dueben, A. (2011, January 6). Spotlight on francoise mouly. Retrieved from http://www.comicbookresources.com/page=article&id=30211
Hajdu, D. (2008). The ten-cent plague. New York: Picador.
Heer, J. (2003, November 6). Little orphan louis. Retrieved from http://www.jeetheer.com/comics/riel.htm
Heer, J. (2002, February 16). Seth and nostalgia. Retrieved from http://www.jeetheer.com/comics/seth.htm
Kartalopoulos , B. (2005, Winter). A raw history: the magazine. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20080210081625/18.104.22.168/indy/winter_2005/raw_02/index.html
Lorah, M. (2008, November 25). Dean mullaney on idw’s library of american comics, Retrieved from http://www.newsarama.com/comics/110825-IDWLibrary-American-Comics.html
McBride , J. (2009, November 9). Graphic novels: canadian splendour. Retrieved from http://www.canadianbusiness.com/managing/strategy/article.jsp?content=20091109_10019_10019
McGrath, C. (2004, July 11). Not funnies. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/11/magazine/not-funnies.html?src=pm
Nguyen, H. (2010, March 30). Action comics no. 1’s super $1.5 mil sale. Retrieved from http://blog.zap2it.com/frominsidethebox/2010/03/action-comics-no-1ssuper-15-mil-sale.html
Olson, R. (1997, September). The yellow kid in mcfadden’s flats. Retrieved from http://www.neponset.com/yellowkid/news0302.htm
Reid , C. (2010, January 12). A shelf of one’s own: shelving graphic novels in book stores. Retrieved from http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/newtitles/adult-announcements/article/41575-a-shelf-of-one-s-own-shelvinggraphic-novels-in-bookstores-.html
Rizzo, F. (2005). Collection offers perfect chance to appreciate. The Atlanta Journal.
Rubin, R. (2008, April). Amass appeal. Retrieved from http://www.aarp.org/entertainment/leisure-activities/info-01-2008/amass_appeal.1.html
Spurgeon, T. (2006, May 20). Preview: art out of time, dan nadel. Retrieved from http://www.comicsreporter.com/index.php/briefings/commentary/5040/
Taylor, c. (2005, July 24). Funny how life goes on. The Sunday Star Ledger, pp. 10, 5.
The comic book database. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://comicbookdb.com/publisher.php?ID=14
The library of american comics. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.libraryofamericancomics.com/about/
Unesco institute for statistics. (2004, February 17). Retrieved from http://www.uis.unesco.org/ev.phpID=5096_201&ID2=DO_TOPIC
Wolk, Douglas. (2007). Reading comics and what they mean. Cambridge: Da Capo Press.
Burns, Peggy (Associate Publisher, D&Q). 2011. Interview with Author, January 5.
Campbell, Jessica (Designer, D&Q). 2011. Interview with Author, January 5.
Devlin, Tom (Art Director, D&Q). 2011. Interview with Author, January 24.
Oliveros, Chris. (Publisher, D&Q). 2011. Interview with Author, January 20.
Seth. (Cartoonist and John Stanley Library designer). 2011. Interview with Author, February 5.
ABSTRACT: The unprecedented access to knowledge enabled by the internet is a critical development in the democratization of education. The Open Access (OA) movement argues that scholarly research is a common good that should be freely available. In theory, university presses concur, however, providing such access is largely unsupportable within current business model parameters.
This study presents an overview of OA in North America and Europe, focusing on the Canadian context. Given their relatively small market and current funding models, Canadian scholarly presses differ somewhat from American and European publishers vis-à-vis OA. Drawing both on information from industry stakeholders and relevant research, this paper aims to clarify how Canadian university presses might proceed with respect to OA. While the study does not make specific recommendations, possible business models are presented that might help university presses offset the cost of offering OA to the important body of scholarship that they publish.
For my family, Jacqueline Larson and Oliver Kwan-Larson:
you make everything possible.
I am deeply indebted to Rowland Lorimer and John Maxwell for their infinite patience and willingness to engage with my work across several false starts and as many long silences. Many thanks are also due to Peter Milroy who kept the faith over many years. I am grateful as well to the Association of Canadian University Presses and its members, especially Melissa Pitts, for giving me the opportunity to write the original white paper upon which this report is based. Thanks as well to Linda Cameron, Philip Cercone, Elizabeth Eve, Brian Henderson, Walter Hildebrandt, Kathy Killoh, Charley LaRose, Donna Livingstone, J. Craig McNaughton, Kel Morin-Parsons, and John Yates for taking time out of their busy schedules to respond to my queries. I am also grateful for the editorial expertise of Laraine Coates and Jacqueline Larson, whose eagle eyes made this report much more readable.
The scholarly monograph has long been an emblem of academia. Often one of the major prerequisites for tenure, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, the monograph has been seen as the embodiment of rigorous and sustained scholarly enterprise, and the prime means of the broad dissemination of scholarly research. While the monograph continues to represent an important form of scholarship, the rise of journal publishing and the proliferation of online publications is beginning to significantly affect its role as the primary conduit to a broad audience.
This report explores the implications of the increasing demand for broader accessibility to scholarly research on monograph publishing. As more and more scholarly activities take advantage of the low-cost efficiencies offered by the internet and other forms of virtual file sharing, the pressure on scholarly publishers to offer free, or near- free, access to their books has been growing. While journal publishers have, to date, borne the brunt of this pressure, book publishers have also been fielding calls for open access to monographs that emanate from publicly funded research.
Contrary to some of the criticism that is often leveled at university presses, one of the main principles behind the open access movement – making the product of academic research widely available to other scholars, as well as the general public – has always been the raison d’être of university presses. Historically, these presses have been committed to the publication of specialized works for which the market is too small or financially unviable to attract the interest of for-profit publishers. Over the years, university presses (UPs) have developed their own specializations in identifying groundbreaking scholarship, editing and facilitating objective peer review of academic works, working with academic and public libraries, helping professors select appropriate books for courses, and publicizing important research to the media, general public, and special interest groups. Indeed, the quality control that UPs have brought to scholarly communication has become a key part of academic life.
The unprecedented accessibility offered by the internet, however, has shifted the ground upon which most traditional scholarly publishing business models have been built. The web has presented a putatively paperless economy in which a universe of information is freely available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. However, as discerning internet users are aware, caveat emptor applies to all that free information: its quality varies enormously, and sorting the wheat from the chaff remains the responsibility of each individual user.
The present challenge for university presses, then, is to discover how to exploit the economy of the internet – both in terms of the heightened capacity for information dissemination and the savings in print and distribution costs – while still maintaining the rigorous quality-control standards upon which the academic community relies. And, more importantly, presses have to safeguard their financial sustainability so they can continue to perform their vital roles in academia well into the future.
This paper investigates a number of issues related to the economic sustainability of Canadian university presses with respect to open access. The first section defines open access, discusses both its benefits and its drawbacks, and compares the implications of OA for scholarly journals versus monographs. An explanatory note is necessary: this report is limited in its coverage of OA initiatives in journal publishing, addressing them only insofar as they relate to book publishing in the digital environment. Many excellent websites and publications already exist that compile and summarize OA in journals. These, along with publications of specific interest to monograph publishers, are listed in the bibliography. The paper’s second section offers an overview of open access as it has developed in the United States and Europe, and how monograph publishers in those regions have responded. The third section zeros in on the Canadian situation, looking closely at how open access is unfolding in this country and what its implications are for Canadian university publishers. A case study of Athabasca University Press – Canada’s first entirely open access UP – is given, along with a discussion of specific OA initiatives being undertaken by other Canadian UPs. A final section presents possible business models and addresses future considerations for Canadian university presses. These models should not be seen as prescriptive— a number of possible scenarios and theoretical concerns are given in the hopes that they may be useful to the industry as it navigates the murky waters ahead. Ultimately I hope this work will provide Canada’s scholarly presses with a meaningful starting point for future discussion and business planning that will allow them to approach the important challenge of open access as knowledgeably as possible.
1: Open Access: Its Advocates and Discontents
While what is now known as open access arguably finds its North American roots in 1960s-era efforts to share information freely among academic researchers with the aid of large mainframe computers, its modern incarnation, at least as far as academic publishers are concerned, took shape much more recently.
In the early- to mid-1990s, the scholarly publishing industry – publishers, librarians, wholesalers, and academics themselves – found themselves caught up in the maelstrom that became known as the “serials pricing crisis.” During this time, the cost to libraries of mostly scientific, technical, and medical (STM) journals rose astronomically as large multinational firms demanded – and received – unprecedented sums for subscriptions to some of the world’s most reputable journals in these fields. As more and more journals were acquired or created by the multinationals, practices such as “bundling” began to emerge. That is, libraries were charged a subscription cost for a collection of usually electronic journals, many of which they didn’t require, for a reduced price on each individual journal. Library budgets became severely stretched. As a result, libraries allocated less money to monographs and journals in the social sciences and humanities and began to experiment with cost-saving practices, such as interlibrary loan and consortium buying. Not surprisingly, by the early 2000s, these budget-stretching measures took a toll on both libraries and publishers – particularly those of smaller journals and monographs – who found it increasingly difficult to provide academic researchers and students to a full exposure of all relevant research. Pressure was building to find a new, more feasible system to govern library acquisition and management of scholarly output.
In December 2001, that pressure found a possible valve: George Soros’s Open Society Institute (OSI) convened a “small but lively” meeting in Budapest to discuss how to further free access to scholarly research articles in all disciplines. Citing “the unprecedented public good” that would come from unrestricted access afforded by the internet and the willingness of scientists and scholars to share the results of their research without expectation of remuneration, the OSI called upon “all interested institutions and individuals to help open up access … and remove the barriers, especially the price barriers, that stand in the way” of “free and unrestricted online availability” of scholarly literature. Although the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI), officially signed in February 2002 by representatives of both non-profit and academic interests from Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, was primarily concerned with access to peer-reviewed journal articles, its statement was developed with the knowledge that mechanisms already existed, such as arXiv.org, Paul Ginsparg’s physics preprint server, that allowed scholars and scientists to share unreviewed work online for the purposes of generating discussion or to alert the academic world of important research.
In many ways a response to the widespread commodification of knowledge by the large multinational journal publishers, open access was defined in the BOAI as:
the free availability [of scholarly literature] on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.
The BOAI was a watershed document insofar as it was a joint articulation – a manifesto of sorts – of the goals that OA advocates had long been pushing for individually. Of particular import was the way in which it defined two separate streams of open access. The first, self-archiving, would require individual scholars to deposit journal articles and preprints into open electronic archives, such as arXiv.org. This research would then be freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection and an interest in the subject. Presumably, the task of maintaining the archives would fall to institutions or individuals with a vested interest in broadening access to ongoing and past research, such as universities or governments. Self-archiving later became known as the “green road to open access” – a theoretically sustainable, author-driven model. The BOAI’s second strategy to achieve open access, the “gold road,” relied on open-access journals. These journals would involve user-fee-free access to peer-reviewed, copyright- free research. In lieu of traditional subscription or access fees, these journals would be funded by alternative means such as research foundations, governments, universities, or endowments; profits from ancillary add-ons to the original scholarship; funds made available for switching from subscription-based journals to OA journals; and contributions from the authors/researchers themselves. At its inception, the BOAI was clearly directed at research published in scholarly journals, as much of the material and activism related to OA has been. Monographs, however, ought to be seen as tacitly included this group, insofar as they also represent the public dissemination of scholarly research.
1.1 The Case for OA
As the BOAI makes clear, the impetus for OA came from a desire to harness the potential of the internet to provide “complete free and unrestricted access” to peer- reviewed scholarship to “all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds.” OA advocates argued that removing the access barriers to research would heighten the use-value of existing research, allowing it to further future research, level the intellectual playing field between rich and poor countries, and enhance education. Moreover, open access was seen as a way to broaden the audience for scholarship that had previously enjoyed only an extremely limited audience. The idea was, and continues to be, that if information is freely available online, more people will read it, thus broadening its impact and increasing its visibility. Some advocates have also argued that, in addition to the access-based benefits of OA, it could ultimately be much more cost effective than traditional print-based models.
While defining exactly what makes research “useful” is a tall order, removing the price barriers to research has certainly had a positive effect on citation statistics. One of the key ways of evaluating the impact of scholarly research is to look at how frequently a given work has been cited in subsequent academic articles. Steve Hitchcock’s open- access-impact bibliography, which has been compiling studies on the effect of OA and downloads (or hits) on citation impact since 2004, makes a convincing case for OA as a means by which authors can increase the number of citations made to their research.
Open access has also made progress in equalizing the access to intellectual output between wealthy and developing nations. One of the most successful OA initiatives in this regard is the Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative HINARI, the spearheaded by the World Health Organization in 2000 and launched in January 2002. With its goal of offering “free or very low cost online access to the major journals in biomedical and related social sciences to local, not-for-profit institutions in developing countries,” HINARI now comprises more than 7000 journals from some 150 publishers, including large corporate publishers such as Elsevier, Blackwell, Springer, and Wiley. Projects like HINARI, notes John Willinsky, author of The Access Principle and a major proponent of OA, have given researchers in developing countries, such as the Kenya Medical Research Institute, access to literature that is desperately needed to carry out important work in health and other professions.
While the overall cost-efficiency of an OA model for scholarly communications cannot be definitively confirmed, at least one major British study has concluded that a broadscale shift to open access in scholarly research would ultimately result in significant overall savings across the higher education system. 2009’s Economic Implications of Alternative Scholarly Publishing Models: Exploring the Costs and Benefits, more commonly known as the JISC (the Joint Information Systems Committee, a UK-based organization whose aim is to encourage and facilitate the use of digital technologies in post-secondary education) report, modeled the economic implications of a wholesale move to the gold (OA journals) or the green (OA self-archiving) roads to OA in the United Kingdom. The report concluded that, while green OA would save the system more than gold OA, both forms of open access would be more cost-efficient than the current model of “toll access publishing,” in which users/readers are charged a fee to use/purchase/download scholarly publications. Moreover, the report posited that a shift to an open-access model – either green or gold – in scholarly publishing would result in net savings to research institutions, funders, libraries, publishers, and authors that would then be sufficient to pay for open-access journal publishing or self-archiving. In short, while it acknowledged that there would be “transitional” pains, the JISC study strongly recommended that OA be pursued in the UK as a cost-saving measure that would also further the dissemination of scholarly research.14 While the JISC report made some promising claims, the models upon which it was based were quickly questioned by some of the key players in scholarly publishing, most notably the publishers themselves. In a joint statement, the UK Publishers Association, the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers, and the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers criticized the JISC authors for failing to produce a document that added to “the primary evidence base” and presenting instead “a think piece resting on a number of assumptions mostly derived from the authors’ own estimates applied to a theoretical model of the scholarly communication system.”
1.2 A Cautious Opposition
Although they may be sympathetic to the spirit behind the OA movement, many scholarly publishers have been uncomfortable with some of the arguments made in favour of open access. In 2007, the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) issued a statement on OA in which it applauded the open-access mission to further the dissemination of scholarly research but urged caution when considering approaches to OA “that abandon the market as a viable basis for the recovery of costs in scholarly publishing” in favour of a “gift” or “subsidy economy.” Noting that the term “open access” subsumes a number of different models under the same umbrella, the AAUP warned that any calls to change the current (largely user-pays) system of scholarly publishing should “take careful account of the costs of doing so, not just for individual presses but for their parent universities, and for the scholarly societies that also contribute in major ways to the system.” In other words, the AAUP saw OA not simply as a publisher issue; rather, it pointed out that OA has implications for the entire scholarly communication system, and these implications might not always be positive.
Chief among the concerns voiced by the AAUP was that of sustainability, particularly in a subsidy (rather than a market) economy. In such an economy, OA would have to be financed in some way and most models propose author or institution-side contributions as the means. Such a situation threatens to create serious inequities between better- and less-well-funded institutions and scholars, where the poorer may find themselves unable to publish without fee waivers or reductions, which will in turn increase the financial burden on those who are able to pay. Moreover, such gift economies are, at present, only generally proposed for scholarly articles. Monographs, which frequently run at least ten times the length of an article, are much more costly to produce. A subsidy economy for this important form of scholarship would soon become prohibitive – falling in the range of $20, 000 to $35, 000 USD per title.
The AAUP further argued that OA models would likely not result in any net savings to universities. Any money saved through the elimination of printing and warehousing costs would quickly be nullified through user printing costs, particularly with monographs. Savings gained by laying off university press staff would be offset by increases in faculty time (and salary) devoted to publishing work. Moreover, since an OA model is unlikely to replace the traditional model overnight, the cost of maintaining print versions will still need to be borne while new online OA models are developed (also at a cost).
Finally, the AAUP raised the spectre of journals and monographs that might be orphaned by commercial publishers who balk at the idea or costs of free-to-user open access. The ability of university presses and scholarly societies to adopt these projects would be severely limited, and would entail even greater financial investments by their host universities and faculties. While the AAUP document highlighted some of the key issues at stake for scholarly publishers caught in the OA debate, it remained silent on some of the other mechanisms of scholarly publishing that would also have to change if the BOAI were to be successfully implemented. Copyright, pricing, dissemination, and peer review have all been raised by other publishers as items of concern when considering the shift to open access.
Traditionally, the copyright for scholarly material, once accepted for publication in both journals and monographs, is held by the publisher. The publisher then distributes the document for sale and licenses any use of the document outside of what might be legitimate under fair use, fair dealing, or like clauses (for example, for inclusion in course packages, reprints in textbooks or collections, adaptation into instructional or entertainment video, and so on). The BOAI, with its call to allow users to “read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers,” necessitates a shift in the way copyright has been licensed within the scholarly publishing industry. Open access initiatives advise authors and/or publishers to take out a Creative Commons license for their work. Under Creative Commons licenses, authors retain the copyright to their material and choose the conditions under which their work may be legally used, copied, shared, displayed, distributed, and performed, and how it should be credited. These licenses, which are available in six different levels varying from completely open to “for redistribution only,” may be obtained for free at creativecommons.org. The goal of the licenses aligns perfectly with the aims of OA: “making it easier for people to share and build upon the work of others, consistent with the rules of copyright.”
From the perspective of traditional scholarly publishers, however, the Creative Commons license deviates significantly from the copyright arrangements upon which many contracts have been based. Reprint rights, for example, have long been a source of income for publishers. While not a main source of income, such rights have nevertheless generated funds that have been used to subsidize the ongoing operations of the publisher. A shift to Creative Commons licenses, as recommended by OA advocates, thus entails the loss of income to the publisher, which must then be recouped in some other way.
Delivering scholarly information via the parameters laid out in the BOAI – that is, “without financial barriers” – requires completely rethinking the business of publishing. The writers of the Budapest initiative acknowledge that even though the ultimate goal of OA is to provide peer-reviewed journal literature online free to readers, “it is not costless to produce.” Publishers wishing to embrace OA must find a way, then, to cover the significant costs of editorial development and production that eschews the traditional consumer-pays model that has long governed commercial publishing and, indeed, most other for-profit and not-for-profit industries.
The BOAI suggests that scholarly publishers look for other sources of funding, such as grants from host universities, foundations, and endowments, or change the model from user-pays to author-pays. Some for-profit scholarly journals have begun to experiment with the latter scenario, offering the open-access option to journal contributors. While the schemes differ from publisher to publisher, the cost-per-article to authors for optional open access ranges from US$665 for the least expensive (non- foundation-funded) journal at BioMed Central to US$3250 at Taylor and Francis. Oxford Open, a non-profit enterprise, charges US$3000 for the open-access option (discounted to US$2250 for authors whose institutions have a full-price subscription to the journal in question). All publishers, with the exception of BioMed Central (now owned by Springer, but founded as a strictly OA enterprise), restrict which journals offer an OA option.
How successful these author-pays models will prove to be for journal publishers remains to be seen. Richardson reports that in 2006, Oxford Open found that 11 percent of authors in its OA-optional life-sciences journals took advantage of its author-pays scheme, while only 5 percent of authors in medical journals and a mere 2 percent of those in the social sciences and humanities opted for author-pays OA. The argument can be made that such shifting of fees is little more than a shell game that transfers the burden of cost from the reader to the author. In many cases, authors use publication subsidies from their institutions or a portion of their research funding to pay OA author fees, which, in the broader picture, may simply result in a re-allocation of institutional funds from library subscription budgets to research budgets in order to cover the costs of access to research. In the case of monographs, as the AAUP noted in its statement, the production cost for a peer-reviewed scholarly monograph is almost unquestionably prohibitive for individual authors, as well as most funding bodies. Not surprisingly, none of the large journal publishers that also produce book-length works currently offer an OA monograph option.
Monograph publishers, then, are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place when it comes to financing open access. Revenues that used to come from the sale of printed books and went towards funding press operations such as editing, peer review, design, and marketing would no longer come from the consumer, but the costs associated with these functions for book-length projects would be much too high to be covered by individual authors.
Traditionally, journal and monograph publishers have faced very different dissemination issues. Today, most, if not all, scholarly journals are available online, regardless of whether or not they are subscription-based or open access. Some journals (for example, all journals published by BioMed Central) offer online versions only, thereby foregoing the constraints and costs of print formats. Scholarly book publishing, however, is only now beginning to make a broadscale shift from print to electronic versions, despite the fact that the e-book has been around for well over a decade. Until recently, the involvement of many academic book publishers in e-book sales has been limited to libraries, with varying degrees of success. The distribution of e-books to libraries has been mediated by a number of different middlemen, such as NetLibrary, Ebrary, myilibrary, the Ebooks Corporation, and Questia, each of whom have slightly different file preparation standards and proprietary platform requirements. Because user licences that accompany the e-books vary from single-user time-limited to multi-user perpetual, the cost of the e-book to libraries usually varies accordingly. Due to the fact that traditional print production involves a “sunk investment,” many publishers were initially wary of cannibalizing the market for print editions by releasing digital editions. Some presses thus chose to protect their proven traditional revenue stream (the sale of print titles to libraries) by delaying the release of e-book editions for six to eighteen months following the first print-publication date. However, as libraries have moved more and more towards digitization, such cannibalization is less of a concern. For example, UBC Press, which had enforced a six- to twelve-month embargo period on the release of their e-book editions now publish both printed and electronic versions simultaneously.
The broad adoption of e-books by academic book publishers has been complicated by the lack of a uniform distribution platform. Differing file specifications across e-book distributors and aggregators introduce a level of technological complexity to which many academic monograph publishers have been ill-equipped to respond. Moreover, the fact that many individual scholars and students continue to prefer the printed product to its electronic counterpart has meant that publishers must continue to produce printed books in sufficient volume to meet this demand, thereby negating any real savings that might be available in an e-book-only market. It is only recently, as the public, both general and academic, begins to accept e-book readers such as the Amazon Kindle, the Kobo E-book Reader, the Sony Reader, and other mobile reading devices such as iPads and netbooks, that the e-book has become a viable primary product. However, such newfound acceptance does not make a particularly convincing argument in favour of open access for scholarly monograph publishers. Rather, as e-books become more viable, there is less and less financial incentive for university presses to offer open access to digital versions of their books, particularly when these versions are only just becoming profitable.
1.2.4 Peer Review
A key function of both scholarly journal and monograph publishers is peer review. A safeguard against the publication of subpar, erroneous, or methodologically flawed scholarship, peer review is a well-established, rigorous process. In brief, it usually involves the selection of unbiased reviewers who, for a small honorarium and/or as part of their traditional academic responsibilities, agree to evaluate the suitability of a manuscript for publication. While the golden road to open access as envisaged by the BOAI retains the peer-review function of academic presses, at least with respect to journals, the green, or self-archiving, option fails to guarantee it and leaves peer review up to either individual authors or to the gatekeepers of the open archives in which the BOAI recommends that the articles be deposited. Significantly, the Open Archives Initiative (www.openarchives.org) to which the BOAI refers focuses on the technological aspects of data harvesting, search-engine operability, and resource sharing and does not specify any guidelines whatsoever for monitoring or ensuring the quality of the data contained in these archives.
Open archives fall into two main categories: institutional repositories (IRs) and subject-based repositories. The former hold research emanating from a specific institution (such as a university or government organization), while the latter amalgamate work based on the field of study. The problem with both of these models is that neither necessarily requires that the articles deposited be peer reviewed. The solution proposed to this problem, at least by the earliest and most eminent subject- based archive, arXiv.org (physics), is to accept articles as “pre-prints” with the assumption that many of these articles will later be submitted and accepted – and in the process, peer reviewed – by journals in the discipline. Pre-prints that are deposited in the archive are later annotated with the information that the article was accepted by a peer-reviewed journal. In this case, the OA self-archiving scenario does not replace the peer-review process, but rather supplements it. Moreover, it shifts the burden of quality assessment from the information provider (in this case, the archive) to the user: the responsibility of ensuring that the source is reliable falls on the individual researcher, who must check that the works that s/he uses have been accepted by a journal and hence peer reviewed. Moreover, as the process of peer review can often result in significant revisions, earlier pre-review versions may differ importantly from the final reviewed work. Thus, pre-prints do not provide true open access to the final, ‘best’ version of the scholarship in question.
While self-archiving is generally seen as economically preferable to open-access journals (or monographs, as the case may be), OA skeptics fear that wholesale adoption of this model without uniform standards of unbiased evaluation will jeopardize the objective peer-review process that is facilitated by university presses in both the journal and monograph worlds. Indeed, scholars, librarians, and tenure committees have long taken the imprint of recognized scholarly publishers as an indicator of the quality of the scholarship in question.
For academic publishers who view peer review as a fundamental function of their work, however, such off-loading of quality control from provider to user in order to support open access is not an option. Monograph publishers striving to attain OA are struggling with how to continue to provide stringent peer review while preserving their economic viability and sustainability.
In academic book publishing, peer review is facilitated by acquisitions editors – scholarly editors who frequently specialize in particular fields of study and who are responsible for developing and maintaining contacts within those fields for the purposes of both peer review and connecting with prospective authors. These editors work closely with authors to ensure that the scholarship produced is of the highest possible quality. A key part of their job, then, is to facilitate a thorough and unbiased peer review. Unlike academics, who will often take on the editorship of a journal because they “believe in the intellectual mission of the journal and expect to be paid indirectly by the satisfaction they experience from aiding the research of others, from furthering quality research, and from any prestige that their position offers,” acquisitions editors for book publishers do not volunteer their services (nor, it ought to be noted, do the assistant editors who frequently perform the peer-review function for academic journals). And while peer review is key for both scholarly journals and monographs, the challenges it presents to each can differ significantly. For example, an average monograph generally runs from fifty to one hundred thousand words and puts forth a sustained argument that must be thoroughly evaluated, not only for its main idea(s), but also for supporting evidence and readability. A journal, on the other hand, might have ten to twelve articles of five to fourteen thousand words, where the task of evaluation is based on individual articles, rather than the sum of the journal itself. Thus, for book publishers, the reviewing process itself is highly labour intensive, and finding reviewers willing to take on such projects can be both difficult and time-consuming. For journals, on the other hand, finding reviewers willing to assess a single article may not be difficult, but the task of finding reviewers for each article in an issue can be problematic. While neither process is necessarily more onerous than the other, it is generally the case that the expense of the peer-review process is higher for book publishers, since none of their staff is likely to be working without pay, whereas journals are, more often than not, staffed by at least one volunteer editor who takes on at least some of the burden of securing peer review.
Further, monograph acquisitions editors remain connected to their projects throughout the book production period – a process that can sometimes take up to two years. This ongoing attention is vital, not only to the end quality of the published research, but also to the researchers themselves. Many first-time authors have found immeasurable support in the editor-author relationship. The process is of particular importance for young scholars in the early stages of their careers. Sustaining this process under the auspices of volunteer editors is a risky proposition for even the most optimistic of publishers. Thus, either the expense of peer review or the challenges of sustaining a publishing program on the shoulders of unpaid editors must be accounted for in any OA model adopted by academic publishers, concerns that by and large weigh most heavily on the shoulders of scholarly monograph publishers.
1.3 A Note on the Differences between Journals and Monographs
While many of the issues associated with offering open access to scholarly research are common to both journals and monographs, there are also significant differences between the two. This is particularly important to note, since the bulk of scholarship, buzz, and discussion surrounding OA in the academic world has been focused on journals, and then largely on scientific, technical, and medical (STM) journals rather than those in the humanities and social sciences (HSS). As a result, much of the information available and many of the scenarios proposed do not necessarily apply to HSS scholarly monographs – the leading form of university-press-published scholarship. The chief differences between journals and monographs – manuscript length and method of dissemination – have already been noted as factors contributing to the added complexity of offering OA to scholarly monographs over journals. In addition, monographs and journals differ with respect to the competitive markets in which they operate.
The primary market for both journals and monographs is academic (libraries and scholars). While both forms of scholarly publishing also gain revenues through course adoptions and in the general trade market, monograph publishers rely much more heavily on these streams than their journal counterparts. Traditionally, this diverse audience has been a strength for university presses; the diversification of their core market offered some protection from financial strife should sales to one of those core audiences diminish. However, these markets have been arguably less secure in recent years due to increased competition from both large commercial educational publishers and general trade publishers, both of which have been slowly but steadily taking market share away from university presses. Moreover, competition from journal publishers has been ongoing in the library market, as libraries attempt to accommodate the rising costs of serials by slashing budgets for books.
What this has meant is that university presses, already struggling in an increasingly competitive environment, face dwindling revenues since their traditional print markets of libraries and course and trade sales, upon which they have relied for survival, are becoming less and less of a sure thing. Furthermore, because these markets – general trade and textbook in particular – have not wholly embraced a digital model, books must still be available in print form, as well as e-book form. As a result, monograph publishers cannot yet contemplate doing away with print entirely, as many journals have, in order to save costs.
Finally, while both journal and monograph publishers in Canada rely heavily on government grants, the way in which those grants are administered affects the two types of publishers differently. Publisher members of the Association of Canadian University Presses, all of whom are primarily book publishers, receive title grants from the Aid to Scholarly Publications Program (ASPP) and block operating grants from the Canada Council and the Department of Canadian Heritage (DCH), which support all qualifying Canadian publishers. Many university presses also receive funding from their provincial arts councils and/or their host institutions, although the amount of such funding, if any, varies greatly from press to press. Most of this funding is predicated on sales figures in dollars and/or the payment of author royalties that derive from those sales figures. For example, the Canada Council and most provincial funders require publishers to prove that they pay royalties to their authors, while the most important funding source, the Department of Canadian Heritage’s Canada Book Fund, requires an auditor’s statement certifying that royalties have been paid.
Canadian journals, by contrast, are generally funded by circulation. DCH’s Canada Periodical Fund provides assistance to journals with sales or by-request distribution of five thousand copies. While open access is not any more compatible with this funding formula than with the formulas used for book publishing, the by- request distribution option available to journals does leave the door open to allow for digital content that has been expressly requested, regardless of whether it has been paid for.
While the differences between journals and monographs are important to bear in mind, these differences do not mean that providing OA is a non-issue for journal publishers. To be sure, revenues derived from government, institutional, and foundation funding and subscription sales are significant for these publishers. My aim in highlighting the differences here is only to emphasize that monograph publishing is a unique endeavour and that the solutions proposed or embraced by OA advocates with respect to journals do not necessarily translate easily to monograph publishing.
According to Peter Suber, perhaps the most active advocate and most prolific activist for OA in the US today, the first glimmers of open access can be traced back to 1966, when the US Department of Education launched ERIC, the Educational Resources Information Center which, since its inception, has aimed to provide barrier-free access to educational literature. However, modern-day web-based digital open access probably more accurately owes its existence to the advent in 1969 of ARPANET, the US Department of Defense’s progenitor of what we now know as the internet. Since then, OA advocacy has spread around the world, arguably culminating in the Budapest Open Access Initiative, signed in February 2002. Although recapping the individual developments in OA in an international context is well beyond the scope of this project, understanding the current status of open access with respect to scholarly monographs in the US and Europe offers valuable context for considering how Canadian publishers may wish to proceed in the future.
2.1 Open Access in the United States
The open-access movement in the US has, until recently, been focused on publishers of scientific, technical, and medical journals. The argument has been that this type of scholarship, in large part funded by taxpayer monies, should be accessible to all – not only wealthy drug companies and people affiliated with academic institutions who either can or have to afford the hefty price tag associated with STM journal subscriptions. Open access was heralded as the backbone of the “global knowledge economy” that would allow us all to prosper through the collaborative (scientific) innovation that would be possible with barrier-free access to STM research. In the US, OA, at least for journals, has had some high-level supporters. In 2003, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a major scientific research funder, issued a “final” statement on data-sharing that required all major funding applications to address their plans for data-sharing as a funding requirement. By 2008, the NIH had upgraded its OA requirements to mandate that all publications based on research funded by the NIH must be made available to PubMed Central, the NIH’s open-access archive, for public access no later than twelve months after official publication. Other notable OA projects that shaped the OA landscape in the US include the development of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) and the launch of BioMed Central. Founded in 2000 and funded by a number of private foundations, PLoS is a non-profit OA publisher of peer-reviewed journals whose mission is to make “the world’s scientific and medical literature a public resource.” The launch of BioMed Central in 1999, on the other hand, represented the first for-profit publishing initiative to offer free access to research reports in medicine and biology. In 2001, BioMed Central began charging processing fees to authors in order to cover the costs of free online access, a practice that has since become the standard for commercial publishers offering OA publishing options.
The universities at the heart of STM research, and academic research in general, have also been active in the open-access debate. Since 2005, a number of American universities have adopted OA policies or resolutions, while Harvard’s 2008 OA mandate, the requirement that every faculty member grant the university the right to make their scholarly articles freely available, made it the first US university to take OA that far. In September 2009, five of the leading American research universities – Cornell, Harvard, Dartmouth, MIT, and UC Berkeley – signed on to the Compact for Open-Access publishing equity, a statement of these universities’ commitment to open-access publishing and their intention to provide financial support to underwrite the cost of barrier-free research. With such major universities beginning either to mandate open access or craft official OA policies, university presses across the country began to be more forcefully confronted by calls to make their publications freely accessible.
On the monograph side, the Association of American University Presses (AAUP), which counts among its members eight Canadian university presses, responded to these calls by issuing their February 2007 statement on open access. Acknowledging that most of the push towards OA has been directed at scholarly journals, the AAUP recognized that monographs, too, had to be addressed in the discussion. A rebuttal to criticisms that university presses (UPs) have been resistant to change or hostile to the open-access mandate, the AAUP statement affirmed that its members have always been open to using new technologies to further the dissemination and use-value of scholarship. It also lent its support to forms of open access that attempted “to balance the mission of scholarly communication with its costs,” noting that many UPs had already initiated pilot OA projects that embraced this type of OA. However, the statement also expressed concern about OA models that advocated abandoning a market economy such that publication would ultimately become limited to those authors who could afford to underwrite its costs, either individually or through institutional grants. The AAUP further argued that completely free-to-user OA risked the demise of well- established electronic archiving services, such as Johns Hopkins’ Project MUSE, as well as an increase in the cost to UPs’ parent institutions, should the revenues currently generated by sales disappear. Finally, the association cautioned that if the free-to-user OA model was rejected by commercial publishers, the raft of journals and monographs currently published by these presses might be abandoned – along with the vital research contained in them.
While the AAUP statement may have painted a grim picture of OA as envisioned by the BOAI, a number of US academic presses had already begun experimenting with different forms of open access. The National Academies Press (NAP) was revolutionary in its 1994 decision to provide free online full-text editions of its printed books, a practice it continues to this day. Against the prevailing logic of the industry regarding OA at the time, NAP found that offering books for free on its website lead to greater sales of their printed counterparts. While the NAP was surely the vanguard of OA in the scholarly monographs world, it was not alone for long. A number of university presses have since experimented with OA, offering free access in a variety of different ways. At the time of writing, US university presses experimenting with open access number fifteen.
Germane to the OA debate in the US, particularly for university presses, was the controversy sparked by the July 2007 publication of a document called “University Publishing in a Digital Age” that became known as the Ithaka Report. Published by the Ithaka Group – a “not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping the academic community take full advantage of rapidly advancing information and networking technologies,” –the report aimed to assess the importance of publishing, defined as “the communication and broad dissemination of knowledge,” to universities in the internet age. It touched on many issues that overlap with open access, such as the need to develop online publishing capabilities for both backlist and front-list titles and for “new emerging formats.” It also included the recommendation that universities “increase access to scholarship through new pricing models.”
What ignited the controversy, however, was not the push for universities to put their research online. Rather, it was the implication that, in order to streamline the scholarly communication process, many of the traditional publishing functions of university presses might be assigned to university libraries, with the result that university presses would be subsumed into the university library, or in extreme cases, done away with altogether. The report noted that the future of scholarly communication lies in making it electronically available in multiple formats with varying levels of peer review. Libraries, it asserted, were taking action to support this vision, while university presses were seen as struggling to adapt to change. The university provosts interviewed for the study generally saw their university presses as mere accessories to the academic mission rather than as central players, or, if they were appreciative, had the sense that their days were numbered if they did not have a devoted champion in the administration.
Librarians, for their part, mostly saw university presses as anachronisms doomed to extinction in the near future unless they found ways of making themselves more relevant to their host university’s mission or collaborated with university libraries to reinvent themselves. The report concluded with several recommendations, the basic tenor of which was that university administrators need to take a more active role in the publishing output of their institutions and that libraries and presses must work together to “create the intellectual products of the future which increasingly will be created and distributed in electronic media.”
Perhaps anticipating the discussion that would ensue, the Ithaka report noted that university presses were in many ways caught between a rock and a hard place. The two key challenges facing them were to “find the best way to be good stewards of scholarship on behalf of the community (public good), while also creating value for their parent institution (private good).” They also had “to advance their businesses through commercial discipline … while at the same time serving the not-for-profit demands of the community.” The first challenge touches upon the central mission of university presses: in holding up the standards of objective scholarship, few, if any, of them pursue a publishing program that gives special recognition to research emanating from their own institutions. To do so would risk engaging in what is known as “vanity publishing.” The press would exist mainly to trumpet the accomplishments of its host institution – a role many feel is more than adequately performed by the university’s public relations department. The second challenge addresses also lies at the heart of the open-access debate: the economics of survival. As the report points out, university presses are often one of the few departments on campus that are expected to be largely self-sufficient: “they [university press directors] feel they are held to a different standard than all the cost centers on campus, that they are essentially penalized for pursuing a cost recovery model, which then becomes the basis for evaluating their performance. When they perform well (in financial terms), they are ‘rewarded’ by having subsidies cut. When they run too large a deficit they are threatened with closure.”
As a working paper provided for informational purposes only, the Ithaka report was in no way binding upon any universities, presses, or libraries. Its recommendations were offered for the consideration of the academic community in the hopes that some of them might be adopted and that, as a result, scholarly communication might become more open and amenable to digitization. In the end, the report succeeded in galvanizing discussion about the role of university presses and perhaps pushed many directors into considering how they might assure the ongoing viability of their publishing houses. Related in no small way to this discussion was the mounting pressure from government funders and individual scholars to provide open access to scholarly research. University presses were faced more forcefully with the question of whether or not open access might be a viable business model for their industry and, if so, what structures needed to change to accommodate it.
The challenge of OA in the book world came to widespread attention with the lawsuits brought against search-engine giant Google in response to the Google Books Library Project. Initially called Google Print for Libraries and then Google Book Search, the project was first made public on 14 December 2004 when Google announced that it was teaming up with the libraries of Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, the University of Oxford, and the New York Public Library in a massive digitization project that would make those libraries’ collections freely searchable online. The announcement set off a firestorm of discussion within publishing communities, many of which were concerned that Google’s plan represented a blatant infringement of United States copyright law. Peter Givler, Executive Director of the AAUP, in a letter to Google, made it clear that in the view of the AAUP’s membership, the Google Books Library Project was a potential financial disaster for scholarly publishers who relied, in large part, on the sales of books and subsidiary rights underpinned by copyright, to sustain their businesses. Other publishers agreed. On 19 October 2005, McGraw-Hill, Simon and Shuster, Penguin Group USA, Pearson Education, and Wiley filed a lawsuit against Google seeking an injunction to prevent it from digitally copying and distributing copyrighted works without the permission of the copyright owners. The suit was coordinated and funded by the American Association of Publishers (AAP). In response, Google argued that its scanning project did not infringe on copyright and qualified as fair use. In an argument that echoed that of OA advocates, Google maintained that a fair-use claim was justified since the digitized books would promote wider access to the literature.
In October 2008, however, the case was settled, with the parties agreeing that Google could proceed with the project provided they establish a “collecting society,” to be called the Book Rights Registry (BRR). To fund the registry, Google would provide an initial 34.5 million USD followed by an ongoing contribution of 67 percent of revenues from the Library Project, which would be used to compensate copyright owners for past and future uses of their books. The Google case is significant to open-access discussions since its outcome bears directly on what constitutes fair use of copyrighted works in US law. In short, the settlement upholds the basic tenet that traditional copyright holders are entitled to compensation for public distribution of their works, and that parties seeking to digitally distribute those works are required to adequately compensate rights holders.
The OA versus copyright battle enacted in the Google case mirrored issues of ongoing concern in the US legislative arena, where two opposing bills were brought to the Congress seeking to amend the extent of copyright legislation. The “Public Access to Science Act” (colloquially known as the Sabo bill because of the congressman who championed it) was introduced in June 2003 and proposed that any research papers authored by scientists receiving substantial federal funding for the work in question should be considered ineligible for copyright protection. The bill failed to proceed and was not resurrected, but it generated extensive public debate on open access. Indeed, its very proposition was a sign that open access to scholarly research was significant enough to make it onto the national agenda.
In 2009, the issue of research and copyright was raised again – but this time from the other direction. The “Fair Copyright in Research Works Act,” which went to committee in February 2009, is a direct response to the NIH requirement of OA to NIH- funded research papers. In short, the act “prohibits any federal agency from imposing any condition, in connection with a funding agreement, that requires the transfer or license to or for a federal agency, or requires the absence or abandonment, of specified exclusive rights of a copyright owner in an extrinsic work.” The previous version of the bill, which was introduced in the previous Congress but died in session, was opposed by OA advocates but supported by the AAUP. The current version of the bill, “.R.801 was referred to the House Subcommittee on Courts and Competition Policy on 16 March 2009, and has to date made no further progress. Thus, it is too early to tell whether OA will keep its footing with respect to federally funded research in the US.
In June 2009, perhaps in response to the Fair Copyright in Research Act, the Committee on Science and Technology of the United States House of Representatives convened a roundtable on scholarly publishing, with the goal of developing “consensus recommendations for expanding public access to the journal articles arising from research funded by agencies of the United States government.” With representatives from academic administration, librarians, information science researchers, and scientific journal publishers, the roundtable’s core recommendation was that “each federal research funding agency should expeditiously but carefully develop and implement an explicit public access policy that brings about free public access to the results of the research that it funds as soon as possible after those results have been published in a peer-reviewed journal.” It went on to make eight other recommendations, among which was that specific embargo periods should be established between publication and public access. Notably, it acknowledged that while science journals seem to be adequately provided for with a zero- to twelve-month period, other fields, such as the social sciences and humanities, may require longer embargoes since knowledge in these fields devaluates at a slower rate. While the report certainly represents a ringing endorsement for open access, its acknowledgement of the need for embargoes recognizes that such access has a real impact on the financial viability of research publishers.
Admittedly, many of the developments in OA in the US pertain to journals rather than monographs. However, since technology is advancing daily and shapes how and what we read electronically, monograph publishers must recognize that what happens with journals will undoubtedly have a bearing on what will be expected of books in the future. A burgeoning cross-border development has come out of John Willinsky’s Public Knowledge Project (PKP), which, since its inception in 1998, has advocated for open access to scholarly research while also developing technological solutions that foster its adoption—again particularly in the realm of journal publication. In 2008, PKP began work on its Open Monograph Press (OMP) software, which is currently in its first external testing phase. While the software is not designed solely for OA publishing, it has been designed with the goal of facilitating OA, should a publisher embrace that model. As Willinsky notes, “the software does not determine the economic model used by the press. Certainly, we have been developing systems designed to support open access, but we have learned that to encourage increased access to research and scholarship, we have needed to build systems that are financially ecumenical, if not agnostic.” As such, the OMP represents a potentially important technological contribution to the development of a workable OA business model.
2.2 Open Access in Europe
The progress of OA in Europe has largely paralleled that in the US. Indeed, since the very concept of open access has within it the breaking down of barriers, it should not be surprising that developments in open access in one country are often accompanied by similar, sometimes more expansive, developments in others. The Budapest Open Access Initiative of 2002, although based in Europe, was international in terms of its signatories and scope. It was followed in 2003 by the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities, which broadened the BOAI by explicitly including cultural heritage, along with research in the sciences and humanities. The Berlin declaration was signed by representatives of research and cultural institutions from around the world, with the majority in Europe.
In March 2006, the European Commission (EC) released the results of its study of the scientific publication system in Europe, which recommended that the public should have guaranteed access to publicly funded research “at the time of publication and also long term.” The report acknowledged that, at the time, electronic publications might have different cost/profit models than traditional print publications, and so also proposed “eliminating unfavourable tax treatment of electronic publications and encouraging public funding and public-private partnerships to create digital archives in areas with little commercial investment.” In December 2006, the European Research Council (ERC) issued a statement in favour of open access, and indicating its intent to mandate that any ERC-funded research be deposited in an OA archive no later than twelve months after publication. By December 2007, the ERC amended its position to shorten the acceptable embargo period to six months after publication.
In February 2007, the EC held a conference to discuss how European governments and institutions could best respond to the challenges of access, dissemination, and preservation of scientific information in the digital age. The results of that conference, along with other relevant policy documentation, lead to the publication of the council’s “Conclusions on Scientific Information in the Digital Age: Access, Dissemination and Preservation,” in which the Council recommended that, from 2008 onwards, the EC and its member states define clear policies with respect to OA, and promote “through these policies, access through the internet to the results of publicly financed research, at no cost to the reader, taking into consideration economically sustainable ways of doing this, including delayed open access.” Moreover, it advised member states to “explor[e] the possibility for national funding bodies to define common basic principles on open access.” The council further invited the EC to experiment with different forms of OA in projects funded by the EU Research Framework Programmes, in an effort to document and define the results of such experiments on the scientific community and the public.
The July 2008 publication of the EC’s handbook on open access – Open Access: Opportunities and Challenges – marked the commission’s public endorsement of the principles of OA. Produced in conjunction with the German Commission for UNESCO, and initially authored by that body in 2007, the handbook was partly an OA primer for the uninitiated, as well as a how-to for universities and individual scholars, and an overview of open access from a number of different social and economic perspectives. Like much of the available literature elsewhere, the handbook largely limits itself to discussion of OA with respect to journal/data publishing, and does not significantly address monographs. The majority of the contributors to the handbook take a pro-OA stance. Two contributions from publishers – represented by contributions from Wiley- Blackwell and the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers – raise concerns about the viability of open access, in terms of economics, quality assurance, and maintenance of a clear version of record (versus the multiple versions that are possible in the open access to scholarly pre-prints model proposed by some OA activists).
A month later, the EC officially launched an OA pilot project, requiring that certain recipients of EU funding for projects representing 20 percent of the EC’s research programme budget from 2007 to 2013 make the published results of their research freely available to the public. Specifically, these researchers are required to “deposit peer reviewed research articles or final manuscripts resulting from their … projects into an online repository [and] make their best efforts to ensure open access to these articles within either six (health, energy, environment, parts of information and communication technologies, research infrastructures) or twelve months (social sciences and humanities, science in society) after publication.”
As in the US, supporters of OA, particularly within the life sciences, have moved ahead of legislation and government funding mandates to establish OA repositories where copies of peer-reviewed journal articles are archived and freely available to the public and other researchers. In the UK, for example, UK PubMed Central (http://ukpmc.ac.uk), which launched in January 2007, was modeled after the US- based, NIH-sponsored PubMed Central to provide “a stable, permanent, and free-to- access online digital archive of full-text, peer-reviewed research publications” in the biomedical and life sciences. In the Netherlands, the Digital Academic Repositories programme, now known as the National Academic Research and Collaborations Information System (http://www.narcis.info/index/tab/narcis), a joint effort of all fourteen Dutch universities and other significant Dutch research institutions, provides free access to almost two hundred thousand scientific publications, as well as data sets, and information on Dutch researchers, research projects, and research institutions. Most other European countries have some form of OA repository (OAR). OpenDOAR, an online directory of open-access repositories, keeps listings of OARs by continent and country, and shows at least one OAR for each of thirty-two countries in Europe. Some of these are joint efforts, some are run by individual universities, and others are international and serve specific areas of study. An important example of the latter kind has been spearheaded by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). A 2006 report by that organization proposed an OA implementation and business model, known as SCOAP3 – the Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics. Under this model, a group of research institutions, funding bodies, and libraries would assume the cost of funding the publication of important journals in particle physics while these journals transition to OA. Rather than subscribing to the journals, each SCOAP3 partner would instead contribute an equivalent amount to the consortium, which would take over funding for the journals. These journals would then be made freely accessible over the internet. The consortium estimates that the maximum annual budget for this transition project would be significantly lower than the amount currently spent worldwide on subscription fees to these highly specialized journals. As the EC handbook on open access notes, the beauty of the SCOAP3 model “lies in the fact that publishers maintain an important role and that authors do not have to finance the cost of publication themselves.”
In a 2005 working paper, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Working Party on the Information Economy presented the results of their study of scientific and scholarly research publishing. Their central question was “whether there are new opportunities and new models for scholarly publishing that would better serve researchers and better communicate and disseminate research findings.” The report itself failed to answer the question with any decisiveness, providing instead an overview of the state of the nation of scholarly publishing, as well as a qualitative comparison of three different publishing models: subscription publishing, open-access publishing, and self-archiving (i.e., the green road to OA). In an attempt to lend an economic analysis to the discussion initiated by the OECD, in 2009, the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) of the UK published the results of their own study, which mounted a comparison of the same publishing models, but from a financial standpoint. While its report delves into a number of technical economic considerations that are quite specific to the UK market, their basic conclusions were that, in comparison to the traditional subscription model of journal publishing, both self-archiving and open- access publishing were significantly more cost-effective, with the former being the most economical publishing strategy of all. While the study does devote a very small portion of its discussion to a cost comparison of traditional print monographs with OA e-books, the bulk of the report refers to journal publishing. Nonetheless, the authors make the claim that their conclusions account for book publishing, despite the fact that the level of analysis devoted to this sector is minimal.
The JISC report, in its summary of implications for publishers and the publishing industry, noted that a wholesale shift to OA or self-archiving models would, of necessity, result in “a reduction of revenue to the publishing industry.” Such a reduction would, the report goes on to say, “imply a reduction of activity and employment in the industry. Such adjustments are difficult for those concerned, but the economy is a dynamic system … As a result, the capital and labour no longer employed in publishing would be employed in an alternative activity. Given the relative size of the publishing industry and the rate at which alternative models are being adopted, it is unlikely that the UK economy would have difficulty adjusting to such a change.” As Jim Ashling notes, even as the JISC document was designed to highlight the costs and benefits of scholarly publishing to the UK’s knowledge economy, it paid “scant recognition [to] the economic and social benefits contributed to the UK by British publishers and societies.” Moreover, he notes wryly that the report’s assurance that an alternative activity would provide new employment for publishing professionals is not accompanied by any “guidance on what the ‘alternative activities’ for those left unemployed might be.” For their part, UK publishers firmly refuted many of the assertions put forth in the JISC report. In a joint statement, the Publishers Association, the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers, and the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers charged that the report was based on assumptions derived not from actual industry figures, but rather from the authors’ own estimates. They further noted that the model used was theoretical, rather than real-world, and that while the study claimed to be based on industry consultation, “none of the publishing trade associations or any of the major commercial or society publishers were consulted in advance of publication.” The joint statement went on to critique specific assumptions underlying the JISC report. The report authors issued their own response to these criticisms, largely maintaining their original position, but remaining open to continuing discussions with UK publishers on the report’s key recommendations.
JISC assertions aside, monograph publishing in Europe, like the US, has not seen nearly as much OA activity as has been the case with journals. Still, some European publishers are experimenting with OA for books, and while it is still too early to tell how these trials will work out, they are worth following as possible models and/or cautionary tales. Open Access Publishing in European Networks (OAPEN) is the first broadscale OA project devoted to monograph publishing in the humanities and social sciences. A partnership of eight European university presses, the project aims to “find a financial model which is appropriate to scholarly humanities monographs, a publishing platform which is beneficial to all users and create a network of publishing partners across Europe and the rest of the world.” OAPEN is currently funded by a thirty-month, €900,000 grant from the EC.
Dr. Saskia de Vries, director of Amsterdam University Press, a key OAPEN partner, has been a vocal supporter of OA for monographs. In a 2007 article, she came out in favour of a combination of OA and print-on-demand (POD). “I believe that digital disclosure of academic information via open access could actually lead to more books being sold,” she wrote, citing Amsterdam University Press’s successful experience with POD technology at the University of Amsterdam as evidence. Asserting that “open access is a fact of life, and it is here to stay … the whole debate about open access should be about how to use it,” she also pragmatically reminded readers that OA publishing is not cost free. Moreover, in a statement that predated the one made by the JISC, de Vries advised her publishing colleagues to brace themselves for change: “if parts of publishers’ traditional role are being taken over by others, should publishers nevertheless be kept in business to protect those 36,000 jobs? Of course not … It is very hard to predict what the future holds for us all – publishers, librarians, and academics. But I would like to remind you of a quotation attributed to Charles Darwin: ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.’” Amsterdam University Press, for its part, is putting its money where de Vries’s mouth is. It is currently collaborating with the International Migration, Integration, and Social Cohesion in Europe (IMISCOE) research group to produce some two hundred publications over the next five years, all of which will be made digitally available in an OA repository. The IMISCOE project will be disseminated via Amsterdam University Press, and funded by a grant from the EU. At present, ten full-text books stemming from this project are available in PDF form on the Amsterdam University Press website. Each of these is also available for purchase via POD.
A similar experiment is being conducted in the UK by Bloomsbury Academic (BA), the scholarly imprint of the British trade house, Bloomsbury Publishing. The brainchild of publisher Frances Pinter, Bloomsbury Academic will publish exclusively in the social sciences and humanities (SSH) and will make all of its titles available “free of charge online, with free downloads, for non-commercial purposes immediately upon publication, using Creative Commons licences. The works will also be sold as books, using the latest short-run litho technologies or Print on Demand (POD).” BA launched the public beta version of its distribution and display platform on 25 September 2010, which currently houses twenty-five full-text completely open-access books. The platform, originally envisaged as “plug[ging]into the world beyond the site itself, with connections to blogs, podcasts and webcasts to accompany and enhance the world-class content inside. Within the site, additional readers’ resources will augment the core texts, with role-based navigation helping core groups make the best of Bloomsbury Academic,” it currently offers advanced search functionality, relevance ranking, several browsing options, refined searching, HTML output, fully printable documents, article- and search- saving functionality, and Web 2.0 tools, such as sharing on social networks and social bookmarking.
An undoubtedly ambitious undertaking by any standards, Pinter acknowledges that the financial backing available from Bloomsbury Publishing, the house behind the Harry Potter phenomenon, is essential to the project: “I could only attempt this by having the resources of a major publishing house behind me to experiment with what I see as radically new business models, highlighting the strengths of both print and digital communications.” Considering that BA has only just launched, its performance in the marketplace as a viable financial model remains to be seen. In what seems like qualified optimism, Pinter herself refused to commit to the survival of the initial BA business model. “I believe this is a beginning, not the end of creating a sustainable business model,” she wrote. “While positioning Bloomsbury Academic to provide all the additional added value features scholars are still seeking from independent presses, it will at the same time explore other avenues of income generation around the core content. The opportunities for Web 2.0 in SSH publishing are only just emerging, and our team will be at the forefront.” This inclusion of value-added Web 2.0-based services in BA’s ultimate business plan, however preliminary, is notable, and largely under-discussed in the literature. It bears further investigation by publishers considering a switch to OA, and will be discussed in more detail in the later in this paper.
Interestingly, both de Vries and Pinter make the observation – and assumption – that monographs differ from journals in that journals are innately suitable to on-screen reading. In arguing that the printed book will not be killed off by the introduction of a digital OA counterpart, de Vries claims that “no academic reads more than a few pages on the internet, or prints out 300 pages; so even if the full text is available in a repository, the printed book will still be wanted.” Similarly, Pinter makes the assertion that “once a book is read more than twice in a library it is actually cheaper than printing out copies for individual users who either discard them or leave them on their personal shelves … People still need to read a 300-page exposition and hate doing it on a screen.” While both may be right at this juncture, their observations likely have a limited shelf life. As I noted earlier, advances in e-book reader technology and market- share may make such assertions quickly obsolete. The more people invest in the “hardware” of e-book readers, which have been designed specifically to counteract arguments such as Pinter’s and de Vries’s, the more likely it is that the demand for printed material will drop, perhaps precipitously.
Europe, then, is not much further advanced than the US in terms of OA. The experiments being conducted at present are very much in the early days, and there is little to no data available by which to assess how OA is affecting monograph publishing. However, what is clear is that OA in Europe is a topic of great concern to policymakers, publishers, and scholars, and that there is both the political will and the financial wherewithal to explore its possibilities further.
3: Open Access in Canada
As in both the US and Europe, much of the discussion on OA in Canada has focused on journals, and for good reason. OA journal publishing in this country has been burgeoning. As of this writing, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) lists 137 OA journals from Canada, or just under 10 percent of Canada’s academic journal output. By contrast, the DOAJ lists 998 OA journals from the US, which represents approximately 5 percent of that country’s academic journal publication. These figures indicate that OA has a solid base in Canadian journal publishing, and should seem encouraging to Canadian OA advocates. However, journal publishing is only one front on the OA battleground. Of equal importance are the availability of open archives where scholars can deposit their work (peer reviewed, non–peer reviewed, and works in progress), as well as institution-backed OA mandates to ensure that such archives, where they exist, are comprehensive records of national and discipline-specific scholarship.
When it comes to open archives for scholarly material, Canada is still in the developing stages. Most of our fifty-one open archives are single-institution archives, designed to house the research output of scholars at particular universities. Of these, several are still in the pilot stage. A notable exception to this is érudit.org, a partially open archive that is the result of the collaboration of three Quebec universities – the Université de Montréal, Université Laval, and the Université du Québec à Montréal. Established in 1998 as a digital publishing platform, the site underwent a number of changes before emerging in 2008 as a highly advanced digital repository, publishing, and research platform that allows for advanced browsing, searching, and filtering of content, as well the capacity to export search-result citations and to search and browse through the collections of partner platforms. While érudit is committed to the wide dissemination of scholarly materials, offering 80 percent of its content completely free, at the behest of journal publishers, it maintains a subscription model for the remainder. This model uses a “moving wall principle for filtered access,” with journal content less than two years old reserved for paying subscribers. Thus, the portion of scholarship available for free on érudit is older – and arguably less immediately relevant – research.
Erudit’s platform formed the basis for the Synergies project, “a not-for-profit platform for the publication and dissemination of research results in the social sciences and humanities published in Canada” that is currently in development. Stemming from an investment of almost twelve million dollars, 5.8 million of which came from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), an independent corporation of the Canadian government, Synergies is unique for its focuson the Canadian social sciences and humanities. Like Erudit, however, the project is not wholly open access. While details are scant on how much of the information available will be OA, the Synergies beta site indicates that while the promotion of OA is a goal, participating publishers can expect to gain revenues generated by “the ongoing commercialization of collections,” which will include subscriptions and “commercial agreements with national and international research library consortia.” In the life sciences, Canada houses PubMed Central Canada (PMC Canada), a Canadian version of the American PubMed Central (PMC). A joint effort of the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) and the National Research Council’s Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Research, PMC Canada is a completely free-to-access full-text archive that links up with PMC in the US, while also managing the submission of Canadian-funded biomedical and health research to the joint PMC database. PMC Canada does not charge any subscription fees, but relies on the OA release policies of individual journals to determine the length of embargo periods. No maximum embargo period is enforced, with the exception of published research funded by the CIHR, which mandates that such research must be made freely available either through an OA repository or via the publisher no later than six months following the date of publication. The CIHR OA mandate is currently one of nine funder-initiated mandates that exist in Canada, all of which are in the sciences.
University OA mandates are comparatively rare in Canada, with only three Canadian universities adopting open-access mandates. In September 2009, the University of Ottawa (U of O) became the first Canadian university to join the Compact for Open Access Publishing, joining Harvard, Dartmouth, Cornell, MIT, and UC Berkeley. At the same time, it announced a comprehensive OA strategy that includes an author fund for faculty publishing research in OA journals, an institutional repository for U of O-generated research, the development of an OA collection of monographs with the University of Ottawa Press, as well as funding support for open education resources and research into the OA movement itself. Simon Fraser University (SFU) has also signaled its support for OA, with the endorsement of an OA strategy for the SFU library and the creation of an open-access fund to aid researchers in publishing their work in OA form. Athabasca University (AU), the first Canadian university to formally request the deposit of all research performed by its faculty into the university’s repository, has not insisted that such research be OA, allowing that “the contract with the publisher determines whether the article is restricted (lives in the repository as a record of the AU’s research but is not accessible online by searchers) or open access (accessible online by searchers).” The University of Calgary, while not mandating its authors to deposit their research into OA repositories, took the step of facilitating publication in OA journals through its Open Access Authors Fund. First established in 2008, the fund set aside $100,000 for the express purpose of paying publisher fees for articles to be published in OA journals.
Librarians, for their part, are largely in support of the OA movement in this country. The Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) was an original signatory of the Budapest Open Access Initiative, and has since been active in promoting OA among university faculty and researchers, as well as with other scholarly communications stakeholders, such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The Canadian Library Association, which represents librarians in college, university, public, special (corporate, non-profit and government), and school libraries, has also issued a position statement in support of open access, encouraging libraries to “support and encourage policies requiring open access to research supported by Canadian public funding … raise awareness of library patrons and other key stakeholders about open access … support the development of open access in all of its varieties, including gold (OA publishing) and green (OA self-archiving).”
Explicit government involvement in the OA debate with respect to scholarly research, such as the legislative bills that were brought to the US Congress, and the commissioning of the JISC report in the UK, has largely been absent in Canada. To date, the federal government has not made any statement or initiated any discussion on open access to scholarly research in the political sphere. However, it is notable that in June 2010, the government introduced Bill C-32, an act to amend the Copyright Act with particular respect to protecting and strengthening copyright protection for “performers’ performances, sound recordings and communication signals and moral rights in performers’ performances.” In this case, the government signaled its support for stronger copyright, rather than a more open position, at least insofar as video and audio recordings/performances are concerned. That this position extends to scholarly research, however, is unlikely, since the main government research funding agency in the social sciences and humanities, SSHRC, has officially endorsed the principles of OA for research it funds, although at present, this endorsement has meant only that open-access journal and monograph publishers are eligible to apply to the organization for financial assistance through the appropriate funding programs.
Thus, the OA climate in Canada is broadly similar to that of the US and Europe. OA has unquestionably arrived in Canada, and is rapidly gaining momentum. So what does this mean for Canadian scholarly monograph publishers?
First, Canada’s monograph publishers should be prepared to face more forceful calls for open access from their constituencies – primarily from academics themselves, but also from university administrations and possibly from national funders of both scholarly research and the publishers themselves. This is the direction that developments in the US and Europe are taking and there is no reason to believe that Canada will not eventually follow suit. However, despite the ongoing similarities among these regions, there are some notable differences that contribute to Canada’s unique position with respect to implementing open access in monograph publishing.
In 2005, CARL published the results of a three-year study on scholarly communications in Canada, which highlighted major trends specific to the Canadian situation. Among these were the observations that “the majority of articles and monographs written by Canadian researchers are published outside Canada,” and that “Canada is a ‘net importer’ of information resources. Although Canadian researchers are productive authors, the Canadian research community imports far more scholarly publications than it authors or produces.”
Because Canadian researchers often publish their work abroad, the volume of scholarship that is ultimately “housed” in Canadian presses is much lower than the dollar figure of government-funded research might suggest would be the case. This means that Canadian scholarly publishers trying to make ends meet from Canadian-authored scholarship have a much smaller pool to draw from on the one hand, and that libraries seeking to ensure that Canadian scholarship resides on their shelves must negotiate with both commercial and non-profit publishers from outside of Canada, thus being forced to pay the often exorbitant subscription fees charged for international journals. Ultimately, then, the financial squeeze that this trend places on both publishers and libraries is not simply a matter of changing the situation in Canada. A shift to OA in Canadian publishing alone will not even begin to solve the budgetary crises in our libraries. Mandates by Canadian university administrations requiring the OA publication of all faculty research might help in terms of making more Canadian-based research freely available, but even this will be only a drop in the bucket, since “Canada is a ‘net importer’ of information.”
Canada’s smaller number of universities and population, relative to the US and Europe, is also a mitigating factor in the comparative viability of OA for Canadian scholarly publishers. Most of these publishers specialize in some form of Canadian- focused studies, and thus have a limited market for their books and journals. Going OA for these books, assuming that printed versions would still be available for purchase, opens Canadian UPs up to a significant risk of declining revenues, which, in an industry that already operates on slim margins, could prove fatal. This is not to suggest that a wholesale switch to open access is less fraught for American and European publishers than it is for Canadian presses. Rather, the smaller market for their products might mean only that Canadian scholarly publishers will feel the effects of OA on their bottom lines more quickly than publishers to the south or across the Atlantic.
Perhaps the most important difference between the Canadian situation and that in the US or Europe is the funding structure of the Canadian publishing industry. Unlike in the United States, where university presses are funded almost exclusively by revenues from sales, Canadian university presses, like the rest of Canada’s publishers, receive a significant part of their operating budgets through grants from the Canadian government. Because the Canadian publishing industry has long been dwarfed by the output and market share of its US counterpart, publishing in Canada is considered a cultural activity, and as such, falls under the protection of the Department of Canadian Heritage (DCH). As mentioned previously, Canadian scholarly publishers are eligible to apply for annual grants from both DCH, as well as from the Canada Council for the Arts. Currently, the amounts of the DCH grants are determined by a publisher’s past and projected revenues. Grants from the Canada Council, on the other hand, are awarded on a title-by-title basis determined by the average deficit across the genre to which the title belongs, and require a minimum print run of 350 copies. Additionally, scholarly publishers may also apply for funding from the Aid to Scholarly Publications Program (ASPP), run by the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences (CFHSS). These grants are available to publishers wishing to make their titles available in only electronic form provided that they are published on an open-access basis, and that they meet other ASPP eligibility requirements.
The problem with switching to open access, then, for most Canadian UPs is much deeper than restructuring their own business models. Much of the infrastructure around the publishing industry in this country has been built on the assumption of a print-based model; digital considerations are still very much in the developmental stage. In principle, the CFHSS, also known as the Federation, has issued a statement in support of open access. In e-mail correspondence, Kel Morin-Parsons, Manager of the ASPP, acknowledged that the Federation supported OA’s aim of disseminating scholarly research “to the widest possible audience with the fewest possible barriers.” The ASPP’s support for OA is demonstrated “by seeking to encourage and work with scholarly presses that put it into practice … Essentially, the ASPP and Federation believe that no paradigm shifts overnight, nor would anyone reasonably expect it to do so – but that a willingness to explore the principle, via pilot projects or even individual titles placed in open access, could provide some excellent data about the costs and benefits of OA publishing for scholarly books.”
SSHRC, for its part, has also adopted, in principle, a policy of open access for its research-support programs, but unlike the CIHR or NSERC, has held off mandating OA for publications stemming from research it has funded. J. Craig McNaughton, Director of Knowledge Mobilization and Program Integration at SSHRC, notes that the organization has instead chosen to “take an awareness-raising, educational and promotional approach in this transitional period when the needed infrastructure and resources are still being developed to support Open Access.” McNaughton further notes that SSHRC has been focusing on “encouraging and facilitating the shift of scholarly journals to online and open-access business models” and has been a champion of the CFI-funded initiatives, the Synergies program, and the Canadian Research Knowledge Network (CRKN), which has provided significant funds to support the digitization and dissemination of Canadian books through library acquisitions.
At present, the Canada Council for the Arts (CCA), which administers the Block Grant program to support Canadian publishers, lacks an official policy on how/if open access will be incorporated into its granting structure. Elizabeth Eve, Program Officer for the Writing and Publishing Section, makes the point that the eligibility criteria for CCA grants are founded on supporting titles for which authors are paid “in line with industry standards.” Moreover, because the council is largely concerned with supporting literary publishing, its eligibility criteria are constructed with literary publishers in mind, most of whom are not particularly concerned with open access. Eve notes that while the CCA does not currently have a policy in place, “as things evolve there may be some clarity about how the Council would include digital editions into the Block Grant program.” At present, the Department of Canadian Heritage also does not have an official policy or statement on open access and it is unclear whether one is forthcoming or not.
A shift to open access is likely to require a restructuring of the funding paradigms that currently support the Canadian scholarly publishing industry. At the very least, it will involve official policies from funders that make OA titles eligible for grants. It may also require higher levels of subsidies, since most university presses stay solvent by augmenting their sales revenues through grants, a situation that may not be sustainable at current levels if an OA version of a title is offered at the same time as a printed one. Indeed, if a press chooses to offer OA-only versions of its titles, then sales revenues would disappear altogether.
If the government funding bodies that largely sustain Canadian university presses are unable or refuse to augment subventions to cover the loss of revenue that might result from a shift to OA, some presses might choose to turn to their host universities to make up the shortfall, assuming those institutions have the financial wherewithal to contribute. Indeed, the Ithaka report hints in its recommendations that university administrators should recognize the importance of publishing to the “core mission and activities of universities” while also developing “ a strategic approach to publishing … including what publication services should be provided to your constituents, how they should be provided and funded, how publishing should relate to tenure decisions, and a position on intellectual assets.” More explicitly, the report urges administrators to “create the organizational structure necessary to implement this [strategic approach to publishing] and leverage the resources of the university” and “commit resources to deliver an agreed strategic plan for scholarly communication.” While the degree of funding that Canadian university presses presently receive from their home institutions varies, a shift to OA may require both an increase in institutional funding and the development of formal scholarly communications plans like those the Ithaka report recommended.
In the event that no significant changes are made to the funding structures that support Canadian scholarly presses but OA mandates surface, either through pressure from the academy as a whole, or less directly through mandates initiated by research funders, those presses will have to find a way to make up any budgetary shortfall that might arise from implementing OA. The most common model is the one used by Amsterdam University Press and proposed by Bloomsbury Academic: offering titles free of charge online alongside a print-on-demand version of the same title. In this case, academics, libraries, and the general public would likely see an increase in the price of the printed book as the unit costs of the POD products would generally be higher than traditional litho printing, and as the publishers seek to offset potential revenue losses from offering titles as OA online. That said, this is not the only scenario: Rice University Press (RUP) in Houston, TX, which ceased operations on 30 September 2010, operated using this model, but produced POD copies for sale at a cost that was actually lower than traditionally printed books. Perhaps tellingly, this business model was enabled largely through the savings the press claimed in bypassing the time-consuming and labour- intensive peer-review process. In an innovative move, Rice’s books were books that had been peer reviewed at other scholarly presses, but had become stuck in “the economic logjam in academic publishing,” that is, they had been deemed academically important but financially impossible. Additionally, Rice University Press was funded by its host university, as well as by private foundations, although the specific support offered is unknown. Certainly the closing of RUP might be indicative of the significant financial difficulties faced by publishers seeking to operate on a wholly OA model. Rice University’s outgoing provost and champion of the press blamed the closure on painful budget reductions, as well as lackluster POD sales: “The hope was that, without the burden of having to maintain a print inventory, the press might sustain itself largely from revenues from print-on-demand book sales. Unfortunately, book sales remained very slow, and projections discouraged the anticipation that revenues would, in the foreseeable future, grow to a level that could materially cover even minimal costs of operations.”
Given these obstacles to publishing monographs using an OA model, few Canadian presses have had the financial wherewithal or the organizational tenacity to undertake open access. Athabasca University, which recently launched Canada’s newest scholarly monograph publisher, Athabasca University Press (AUP), stands as an exception.
3.1 Case Study: Athabasca University Press
Knowledge is too important to be left to free enterprise.
Athabasca University Press (AUP), launched in 2008, is the “centre of scholarly publishing expertise” at Athabasca University (AU), an open university specializing in online and distance education, with campuses located in Athabasca, St. Albert, Edmonton, and Calgary. What distinguishes Athabasca University Press from other Canadian university presses is that it was established at a time when digital publishing had already become commonplace and the internet was already moving to embrace the interactivity of Web 2.0. Moreover, it is affiliated with an open university that has as its mission the breaking down of barriers to higher education. Citing Terry Anderson, a professor and Canada Research Chair of distance education at AU, Walter Hildebrandt, AUP’s director, says that central to the press’s operation is the idea that “knowledge is too important to be left to free enterprise.” Open access, then, makes ideological sense in both its commitment to the free dissemination of knowledge and the lowering of barriers to information.
Hildebrandt came to AUP from the University of Calgary Press – a traditional bricks-and-mortar scholarly publishing enterprise – and admits he had reservations about AU president Frits Pannekoek’s vision of OA. He worried that open access would dissuade authors from publishing with AUP, and was warned by colleagues that publishing OA titles would lead to the demise of both the printed book and with it, AUP’s hope of revenues. To his relief, he has found that neither of these things have come to pass.
So how does Athabasca University Press make open access work? The press’s business model derives its budget from a combination of institutional funding, grants, and sales revenue. It makes every work it publishes available for free online, while at the same time offering traditional print copies for sale. AUP published eighteen books in its first year, seventeen in its second, and anticipates publishing twenty to twenty-five new titles in 2010/2011. Hildebrandt estimates that its maximum output would be around thirty to thirty-five titles per year, making it a mid-sized press comparable to Wilfrid Laurier University Press. It also publishes seven online OA journals, one of which is also available in a print subscription. In addition, AUP lends its imprint to peer-reviewed website publications – sites that have, like scholarly monographs, been through an assessment process to determine the scholarly impact and validity of the material. Distribution and academic marketing of AUP’s printed books is done through the University of British Columbia Press, which provides marketing and distribution services for the print books in Canada and internationally via its network of distributors in the US, Europe, and Asia. AUP employs nine people – eight full-time and one part-time – and contracts out most of its copyediting and design work.
The funding model for AUP likely differs from that of the rest of the Canadian university presses insofar as it has been initially nearly fully supported by its host university. According to Hildebrandt, the university currently supports the cost of bringing each title to the point of online publication. The cost of print publication must then be recouped by sales and/or grants. The university has committed to subsidizing the press in this way for at least three years, until AUP qualifies for the Canadian Book Fund (formerly known as BPIDP funding) from the Department of Canadian Heritage. The press also pursues any traditional funding that is available to it, including ASPP grants from CFHSS, Canada Council funding, and funding from the Alberta Council for the Arts.
AUP author contracts have a copyright clause based on a Creative Commons attribution (i.e., non-commercial, no derivatives licence) that allows the free distribution of a work for non-commercial purposes with no changing of the original work, provided the author is properly cited. The OA work is distributed on the press’s website in PDF form, both as a whole work and in chapter form. Additionally, the website provides librarians with MARC (machine-readable cataloging) records for the book directly from the book’s website. Print copies are produced in short offset runs so that the minimum print-run requirements for funding are met. The press will often overrun covers on the initial print run so that subsequent print runs, should they be necessary, can be done on a POD basis. People wishing to purchase a printed copy of the book are able to do so by linking through from the AUP site to UBC Press’s site, where they can place their order. The press also produces value-added e-books (enhanced PDFs and epub files), which are mostly sold to libraries in bundles through the various aggregators that AUP works with. AU Press also produces and distributes podcasts and interviews with authors to accompany their OA books.
Marketing of AUP books occurs in the traditional manner. UBC Press takes on some of the academic course marketing, while trade marketing happens in house at AUP. Marketing campaigns are based on the print books only, and don’t reference the OA availability of the title. Kathy Killoh, Journals and Digital Coordinator at AUP, notes that while marketing campaigns for the book titles do not advertise the OA versions in order to protect print sales, marketing for the press itself does publicize the OA model.
So far, Hildebrandt says, the results have been encouraging. Where he initially did have to do some “selling” of OA to prospective authors, he now finds that authors are seeking him out because they want their work to be published as open access. “Authors are saying that they would rather have their material read,” says Hildebrandt. He notes that this may be due partially to the low royalties that most authors expect to receive on their books, but also that what is important to the scholars he talks to is that their work gets out to a reading public. Additionally, OA can result in increased citations of an author’s scholarship, which are in turn interpreted by deans and tenure committees as evidence of the importance of the work to the scholarly community. While he didn’t release any specific sales figures, AUP’s director says that the anecdotal evidence he has seems to show that print-book sales are remaining fairly solid, especially for trade and quasi-trade titles. Librarians are continuing to order print versions for their collections, even though the e-books are readily available for download on the AUP site. There is also evidence that course adoptions of AUP titles continue to sell print books, even when students are aware that free versions are available online. Since Athabasca UP has offered open access to its titles since its inception, it is impossible to compare how the titles might have fared in the commercial market in a print-only format. That said, it is Hildebrandt’s opinion that OA seems to be driving sales rather than taking away from them. “Print and digital seem to be surviving in a robust way, maybe for different reasons,” he says. “No one would have predicted that print would survive as robustly as it has.”
Even with his positive experience of OA, however, Hildebrandt cautions against the notion that OA scholarly publishing is a free-for-all that can be undertaken by anyone anywhere with access to a computer and the internet. Publishers add significant expertise to the publishing process and it would be a shame to lose that expertise. At a recent OA conference he attended in Sweden, Hildebrandt noted that a number of European universities had allocated publishing functions to their libraries. But librarians operate from a different mandate than publishers. Their goal is often to get as much information out to researchers as possible, with the quality of that information being a lower priority. Scholarly publishers, by contrast, are concerned with getting the best information possible out to researchers and, in order to do that, they have established procedures and cultivated the necessary skill to ensure the quality of the books they produce. To demonstrate his point, Hildebrandt recounted an incident that occurred at the conference when a librarian at one of these library-publisher institutions was asked if he had any expertise in the peer review of scholarly works, to which the librarian had to admit he did not. In Hildebrandt’s view, open access is important to lower the barriers to knowledge, but not at any cost. There needs to be a hybrid model between the one showcased at the Swedish conference and the commercial one used by most university presses today. Scholarly publishing needs to make the best of both worlds by saving the expertise while also making research accessible.
Athabasca University Press’s future plans, like that of other presses, will undoubtedly depend on the directions that the economy, policy, and technology take, but Hildebrandt foresees a possible expansion of the press’s website publishing arm. Currently, the press has two website publications online (The Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia, available at http://www.canadiantheatre.com, and AURORA: Interviews with Leading Thinkers and Writers, available at http://aurora.icaap.org), and one more in the pipes. The AUP imprint is given to these sites after they have passed a review process that is similar to a journal assessment. While the site’s authors are free to add and modify content, an editorial board monitors the content. The ultimate goal of these projects, which do not currently have a built-in revenue stream attached to them, is to tackle the problem of knowledge integrity on the internet.
The press is also involved with John Willinsky’s Public Knowledge Project (PKP). A user of the PKP’s Open Journal Software (OJS), AUP is currently serving as the workflow model for monograph publishing in the PKP’s latest project, Open Monograph Press (OMP), after approaching PKP with their desire to have an OJS-like system that addressed the specific needs of book publishers. Currently still in the development stage, the first release of OMP is not going to be e-book publishing software. Rather, it will facilitate the production of a ready-to-publish file. Killoh anticipates that a future release will be actual online publishing software that will incorporate an incubation stage, a sort of informal interactive peer-review arena, where authors can get feedback from colleagues on their manuscripts before submitting them for publication. More information on the Open Monograph Press is available on the PKP website at http://pkp.sfu.ca/omp.
The press will also likely move towards electronic-only OA titles in the future— that is, titles that will be published only digitally, using a funding model in which the required subvention may be less than that necessary to publish a printed edition. When asked about whether the press had discussed different funding models for such titles with major funding bodies, such as the ASPP, Hildebrandt said he had not, but that he could envision differential subsidy figures, based on whether a book was printed or distributed online only. Author-pays models, such as the ones being used by commercial journal publishers, may be in the cards, but as yet, AUP has no formal policy on future funding. “We’re going to have to be creative about funding,” says Hildebrandt. As the first university press on the block to go fully OA, he no doubt will, and his creativity may provide models for other university presses wishing to travel the same road.
3.2 Open Access and Other University Presses
While Athabasca University Press may be the first Canadian press to embrace the uncharted territory of OA, other Canadian university presses are decidedly more cautious. Not all presses responded to my request for information on their experiences with open access, but of those who did, only two reported that they had published any OA titles. The University of Alberta Press (UAP) worked with Athabasca UP to publish two OA books. In this arrangement, UAP published the print version, while AUP published the OA version online. Linda Cameron, the director of UAP, reported that while she was unaware of the number of times those titles were downloaded from the AUP site, “the sales of the print editions seem to be as expected, neither higher nor lower than we would have forecasted.” Wilfrid Laurier UP (WLUP), for its part, has published approximately fifteen titles in OA form. All of these have been published in partnership with other organizations. In one case, the press worked with the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), which makes the books freely available on its website a year after publication. Brian Henderson, WLUP’s director, says that sales of those books “are not great, in part because CIGI buys back 300 copies from us and hands them out for free too.” Henderson notes that despite lacklustre sales, the arrangement with CIGI ensures that the press still makes a profit on the book. The last two books in the international governance series have been published in partnership with the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), which releases the books for free upon publication. Henderson acknowledges that it is still “early days” with respect to these two books, but “for the series as a whole we can say there has been no positive effect.” Similarly, UBC Press has made titles in its Legal Dimensions series, published in association with the Law Commission of Canada, available for free on its website. No data is currently available on whether OA has had an impact on the sales of the print versions of these works. It is not insignificant that two out out of three of these presses have chosen to offer OA on books that have been published in partnership with other institutions. While the mandates of the institutional partners may have dictated that the books be offered for free, the contribution of institutional subsidies to the production of these titles offset at least some of the risk of OA to the publisher.
The University of Calgary Press has indicated that they are on their way to OA, with plans to move to an OA model in the next two years. To facilitate this, they are reworking author contracts to permit OA distribution, and are asking authors to sign a Creative Commons licence. Donna Livingstone, the press’s director, foresees that OA titles will likely be simple PDFs, while e-books, which would be sold to libraries, would include “library-attractive features,” such as MARC records. While the press doesn’t have any first-hand evidence to go on, it expects that sales of both print and e-books will be negatively affected by the release of titles on an OA basis. For Livingstone, as for Hildebrandt, the only way to make OA work is to “change our paradigm and the way we measure our success. Scholarly research shouldn’t be measured by sales – it should be measured by the reach and impact we make.” Perhaps to that end, one of the initiatives that the press is eager to take on is the open-access release of their African studies series, which will make that research freely available in the countries where it is most relevant. The University of Calgary Press, unlike other ACUP presses, is part of the library at the university, and from Livingstone’s perspective, scholarly publishing is shifting towards becoming the more broad “scholarly communication,” in which digitization and institutional repositories are considered forms of publishing as much as the traditional print book is. The U of C Press is encouraged in its OA goals, especially once it has found that several young authors have expressed an interest in publishing with the press because of its openness to open access.
Publishers who have not yet released any books in OA report that they rely on sales of printed monographs to recover the full costs of publication and to contribute to overhead. Some indicated that unless there was additional funding made available, they would not be attempting OA. One press director indicated that there was no demand for OA from his constituency, while another indicated that he had not yet had the time to assess the possible impacts of OA on his press’s operations. The point was also made that, unlike journals, most monographs are only starting to find their markets after a year, so a year-long embargo period, the period frequently cited in OA journal literature, is insufficient time for monograph publishers to retain their necessary sales revenues. In addition, one publisher noted that their authors still prefer printed books, which are still seen as more valuable to tenure committees, although this may change as ebooks become more accepted in the general marketplace.
In many ways, the current situation in Canada with respect to open access is a bit of waiting game, as stakeholders watch to see what new developments – in technology, funding, university governance, advocacy, etc. – take place. What most can now agree on, however, is that open access isn’t going to go away. It may have found an initial broad audience as a result of the serials pricing crisis in libraries, but it now finds supporters in areas quite unconcerned with the cost of medical journal subscriptions in a university library. OA advocates support it for many different reasons, including facilitating access to knowledge to underdeveloped nations; the belief that knowledge should always be free; and the conviction that if taxpayers fund research and publishing, then they should have access to it at no cost. In the face of this advocacy, those who work in the knowledge-dissemination business have concerns about the long-term financial viability of OA models, and wonder what the effects of OA in scholarly publishing will be on both the publishers themselves, and the type of scholarship they have become expert at shepherding into the world. While nobody has a crystal ball to determine what shape the industry will ultimately take, Canadian scholarly presses are aware that it is changing, and that the best way to meet those changes is to be informed. The next section examines some business models that might be of use to Canadian university presses as they strive to produce the best scholarship that Canada has to offer, while meeting their fiscal obligations to their host universities, funders, and staff.
4: Possible Business Models: Advantages and Disadvantages
One of the key concerns of publishers in this brave new world of open access is sustainability. How can Canadian scholarly publishers sustain current operations and safeguard the viability of the industry while still addressing the goals of the OA movement? The following models may provide some guidance to presses considering open access for some or all of their titles. Readers are asked to bear in mind that this report is not endorsing any one of these models; individual publishers will determine whether or if any of the scenarios here make sense given the specificities of their unique press. Many of these models are currently being used in some aspect of the scholarly publishing world in either in journals or monographs. Several have been adapted from Ithaka’s 2008 report, “Sustainability and Revenue Models for Online Academic Resources,” a useful document that examines why sustainability is such a salient and problematic issue for online academic resources. Others have been drawn from The Long Tail author Chris Anderson’s most recent book Free: The Future of a Radical Price, which presents a compelling history and theory of product pricing and promotion in the digital age. None of these models needs to stand alone; presses may wish to consider using a combination of models depending on their needs and resources.
4.1 Author-Pays Model
In this model, borrowed from the author-pays model used by several of the STM commercial journal publishers, publishers seek to recoup what is lost from print sales from an author fee that covers this amount. Estimates of the actual amount that this might be vary from $5,000 to $7,000, to upwards of $34,000 (including overhead allocation). Actual figures would need to account for whether or not funders who have traditionally given grant monies for printed titles decide to fund OA titles to the same degree. An “add-on” to this model, which might be considered as an add-on to other models as well, comes from Greco and Wharton, who suggest charging submission fees to prospective authors, both for the initial manuscript assessment and then, once the manuscript is deemed ready for peer review, as a fee to cover the peer-review process.
4.2 Institutional Subsidies to Publishers Model
In this model, presses would negotiate higher institutional subsidies in order to offer titles on an open-access basis. This may be a persuasive model for presses whose host institutions are moving more towards OA in their faculty research and library policies.
4.3 Third-Party Funding Model
Not unlike sponsored series, third-party funding for OA would involve grants from individuals, foundations, or corporations with the specific purpose of making university press titles freely accessible. It is unlikely that any one individual donor could or would wish to fund open access for an entire list, so this model may work best for presses wishing to experiment with OA on specific titles while minimizing their financial risk. Donors might be acknowledged both on the website at the point of download, or/as well as in the printed book.
4.4 Freemium Model
“Freemium” is a term coined by venture capitalist Fred Wilson, and is used to denote a sales model in which at least two versions exist of an online product or service: a premium version and a basic version. Users pay for the premium version, while the basic version is free to whoever wants it. According to Chris Anderson, freemium works because “[a] typical online site follows the 5 Percent Rule – 5 percent of users support all the rest. In the freemium model, that means for every user who pays for the premium version … nineteen others get the basic free version. The reason this works is that the cost of serving the nineteen is close enough to zero to call it nothing.” A freemium model applied to open-access monographs might charge users for a value-added e-book (for example, an enhanced PDF, an epub file, access to additional content, hyperlinked citations, full MARC records, etc.) while offering a basic text version of the book for free.
4.5 Three-Party (aka Two-Sided) Market Model
This is the business model that underlies advertising in the media: “a third party pays to participate in a market created by a free exchange between the first two parties.” For example, radio is free to listeners because advertisers have paid to have those same listeners listen to their ads. At first glance, this model may not make much sense when it comes to scholarly monographs. However, when one considers that major library associations have been vocal advocates of open access for citizens, a case might be made that OA to monographs could be free if libraries are willing to pay to spread their message of OA to book readers. In this case, publishers would charge libraries a fee for online access to the books, while everyone else gets it free. In many ways, this model is simply another version of the institutional subsidies or third-party subsidies model, but it proposes targeting a class of purchasers (libraries) rather than individual entities.
4.6 Hybrid Model
Also known as the mixed bag, this model is the most common model for OA publishing in academic presses at present. The hybrid model involves making titles freely accessible online, with printed copies available on a POD basis. The publisher (or author) retains a non-commercial, no-distribution Creative Commons licence for the work, which will still allow the collection of licensing rights for chapter reprints and excerpts used in other works and in course packs. This is essentially the model used by both Bloomsbury Academic and Rice University Press. Athabasca University Press also uses this model, but does traditional print runs for its books, rather than one-off POD books.
4.7 Embargo Model
This is a common method of offering open access to research in the journal world and involves releasing the research for free on the publisher’s website after a certain amount of time. In the STM journal world, that period is generally between three and twelve months following publication, however, this period may need to be longer for research in the social sciences and humanities. The embargo period, during which time the book – either in print version or e-book version – is sold for a price, allows publishers to recoup their investment costs before the research is released in OA form. It is important to note, however, that the embargo model is frequently criticized for not being true to the spirit of OA, in that it ties up important scholarly research in a way that denies access to certain (economically disadvantaged) groups for what some might see as a crucial period of time.
4.8 Advertising Model
This model is best suited as an add-on to other models because few university presses have the site traffic to generate significant revenues. In this model, advertising may appear on various pages on the publisher’s website, from which OA titles would be downloaded. Alternatively, it might appear in the download itself. Regardless of its placing, advertising alone will never be able to fully fund OA. Nonetheless, as the 2008 Ithaka report notes, advertising “has become by far the most prevalent business model for commercial content providers on the web, and certainly for those that are open to the public.” Publishers register their sites with ad networks like Google’s AdSense which then serve up ads based on keywords and site subject matter.
4.9 Collaborative Model
In this model, the press collaborates with another institution or department – usually the university library – to share resources in a way that would make OA financially feasible. This model often involves budget-sharing between departments and a clear delineation of responsibilities based on each party’s areas of expertise. An example of this model is the University of California Press’s collaboration with the California Digital Library to offer “a suite of open access digital and print publication services to University of California centers, institutes, and departments that produce scholarly books.” This collaboration takes advantage of the California Digital Library’s expertise in OA via their eScholarship platform with the University of California Press’s commercial distribution and marketing experience to make OA of University of California research more accessible (through OA) while still financially viable (through resource sharing).
4.10 SCOAP3 Model
As described earlier, SCOAP3 is a funding project by a consortium of stakeholders in advanced particle physics wherein OA is facilitated by reallocating funds: instead of the consortium buying institutional subscriptions to journals in advanced particle physics it provides the funds to journals to offer their content on an OA basis. While the SCOAP3 model may not be suited to all subjects, there is no reason why it can’t be recast to accommodate scholarly monographs in certain subject areas, or across subject areas. What might happen, for example, if all Canadian and perhaps American research libraries reallocated their monograph monies in Canadian studies to a fund that would instead go towards funding OA of those titles? This is an ambitious, organizational nightmare, perhaps, but not beyond the realm of possibility.
4.11 Complete Restructuring
Not so much a business model as an industry model, complete restructuring would involve the reorganization of the scholarly publishing industry at a much grander scale. As this report has noted, both Europe and the United States have seen discussions – and in the case of the EC, mandates – on open access in scholarly publishing at a governmental level. As yet, such discussion has not emerged on the Canadian stage. A complete restructuring of the Canadian industry to accommodate and encourage open access to scholarly research would require the involvement of the federal government on a policy level.
4.12 Do Nothing
This “model” would entail simply proceeding with business as usual. Publishers would not actively institute any new business models to accommodate open access, but would, of course, respond to overwhelming demand for it, should it arise, when the time comes.
Table 1 (below) summarizes the advantages, disadvantages, and other considerations associated with each of the twelve models listed above. Of course, these models are by no means exhaustive, and none of them will likely emerge as a panacea for OA in scholarly publishing. It is also important to note that virtually none of these models can be implemented by a university press on its own. University presses do not operate in isolation from their partners in scholarly communication. Consequently, funder guidelines must be considered, contacts and relationships with libraries must be made, university administrators must be consulted, scholars must be accommodated, and authors must be attracted. The broad adoption of open access for research published in monograph form is a sea change for the industry, and as a result, will require coordinated effort and goodwill from all parties affected.
Table 1: Model Comparison
5: A Look to the Future
Much of this report has focused on the digital future of the Canadian scholarly publishing industry. Open access, almost by definition, requires that publications are available and distributed online. However, the death knell has not yet sounded for the printed book, and indeed, it may never. The industry is still standing with one foot solidly in the print world because that is what scholars, researchers, librarians, and financial supporters still expect. Until that expectation disappears, Canadian university presses are obliged to continue to provide print options for the scholarship they publish. At the same time, they must keep abreast of developments in the online world of e- books, RSS feeds, social networking, OA, Kindles and other e-readers, iPads, and the Next Big Thing. One thing that the world has learned about the internet and its related technology over the past decade is that nothing stays still for very long. There are always new file formats to conform to, new mark-up languages to learn, new tags to update.
With respect to open access, then, publishers would be well advised to keep an eye on how advancing technology may work to disrupt, challenge, complement, or eradicate the best-laid of business plans. For example, a publisher adopting a freemium model to fund OA may find that the value-added features that made a certain title worth paying for are suddenly obsolete. On the other hand, a publisher who decides to sell e- pub versions of their titles, while offering flat-text files or standard PDFs for free, may find themselves in just the right place should the recently announced iPad and iBook store become as ubiquitous as iPods and iPhones.
Those who would question the value of Canadian university presses in the future would be well advised to remember that academia is its own ecosystem. Eradicating a key part of that ecosystem will have serious consequences on the remaining players – and none of us can know in advance what those consequences might be. University presses were created with the aim of publishing scholarly research whose market was too small to attract commercial publishers. As time went on, they evolved to become important arbiters of quality in academia, and as a result, came to play a key role in the tenure process that is so important to professional scholars. To continue their mandate of broad dissemination of research, university presses developed expertise in production, design, and marketing. The scholarship that found its home with UPs could be assured not only of the highest editorial quality, but also of a finished product comparable to that produced by trade and commercial publishers that finds its way to the widest audience possible. To dispense with university presses would mean losing all of this hard-won expertise, only to have to replace it from scratch in the hands of librarians, academics, or whatever new intermediary rises up. Reinventing the wheel has never been a successful strategy. A much better one has always been to build on what has come before, through careful and considered strategies that retain the best of what has come before.
How scholarly monographs will be produced, read, and purchased in the future will probably always be unclear. What we can be assured of is that Canadian university presses will continue to produce important high-quality publications that advance and enhance scholarly research, and to do it in a way that ensures that this vital activity will survive for many years to come.
Canadian university presses are not uniform entities. Like the books they publish, each has its own unique blend of ideology, goals, resources, infrastructure, and personality. This paper provides a common starting point from which further discussion can emerge. It has not resolved the problem of how best to offer open access for scholarly publishers, but its background to the issue identifies key areas for future discussion. The sustainability of university presses in an open access world has certainly emerged as one of these, as has the necessity of collaborating with other stakeholders in the scholarly communication process, such as libraries, university administration, faculty members, researchers, and funders. Open access affects all of these entities so it is incumbent upon them to acknowledge that the actions of each with respect to OA affects all the others. Donna Livingstone, the director of the University of Calgary Press, has said: “I don’t believe that scholarly presses can survive in isolation.” If she is right, then the time has come to work together to facilitate open access to university-press-published works.
1 OA advocates have long been pressing for freer access to publicly sponsored research. RETURN
2 See Peter Suber’s “Timeline of the Open Access Movement,” available at http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/timeline.htm. Accessed 27 July 2010. RETURN
6 Open access as a concept has a longer history than this. As John Willinsky notes, OA emerged informally in the early 1990s, with the launching of physicist Paul Ginsparg’s pre-print service (now known as arXiv.org). Arguably, OA had its technological start as early as the 1980s with the release of free, open source software. See Willinsky 2005 and “The stratified economics of open access” 2009. However, as Suber has noted, the ideological history of OA can be traced back to the 1960s. See See Peter Suber’s “Timeline of the Open Access Movement,” available at http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/timeline.htm . Accessed 27 July 2010. RETURN
7 See the Budapest Open Access Initiative, available online at http://www.soros.org/openaccess. Accessed 14 September 2009. RETURN
8 See the text of the Budapest Open Access Initiative. Available online at http://www.soros.org/openaccess/read.shtml. Accessed 14 September 2009. RETURN
19 Author communication with Canadian university press directors, particularly R. Peter Milroy (UBC Press), Linda Cameron (University of Alberta Press), John Yates (University of Toronto Press), and Philip Cercone (McGill-Queen’s University Press). RETURN
20 Creative Commons. Available at http://creativecommons.org/about/who-uses-cc/. Accessed 7 November 2009. RETURN
21 See the text of the Budapest Open Access Initiative. Available online at http://www.soros.org/openaccess/read.shtml. Accessed 14 September 2009. RETURN
22 OA article-processing fees are available on each publisher’s webpage. For more information on OA options available at BioMed Central, Springer, Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor and Francis, Sage, and Oxford Journals, see http://www.biomedcentral.com/info/authors/apcfaq, http://www.springer.com/open+access?SGWID=0-169302-0-0-0, http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/intro.cws_home/sponsoredarticles, http://authorservices.wiley.com/bauthor/CTA.asp, http://journalauthors.tandf.co.uk/beyondpublication/iopenaccess.asp, http://www.sagepub.com/sageopen.sp, and http://www.oxfordjournals.org/oxfordopen/charges.html. All accessed 8 November 2009. Additionally, all publishers make concessions for research funded by the National Institutes of Heath (NIH) which requires that any researchers they support must submit an “electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication, to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication.” See “NIH Public Access Policy Details,” available at http://publicaccess.nih.gov/policy.htm. Accessed 6 October 2010. RETURN
23 Richardson,cited in Willinsky,“The stratified economics of open access” 2009. RETURN
24 While traditional scholarly book publishers will likely be caught between the world of the codex and the e-book for some time to come, there is evidence that a tipping point has been reached that is forcing university presses to adjust their business models. At an April 2010 meeting of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), Steve Maikowski, Director of NYU Press and a founding leader of a UP consortium designed to sell e-book collections to academic libraries, reported that sales of university press print titles to academic libraries were rapidly declining, noting that “university presses [were] holding onto an outmoded print monograph publishing model” (See “A University Press Ebook Consortium,” presented at the ARL Membership Meeting, 30 April 2010. Available at http://www.arl.org/bm~doc/mm10sp-maikowski.pdf. Accessed 2 October 2010). The goal of Maikowski’s consortium is to establish a financially stable and viable means by which UPs (at least those who are members of the American Association of University Presses) can bring their books to academic libraries in an electronic format. The consortium, apparently borrowing from journal dissemination models, such as JSTOR, aims to provide a standard platform for e-book monographs that will be built specifically for academic libraries. The platform will offer both front- and backlist titles from AAUP member presses for both purchase and subscription, and titles will be available to libraries immediately upon publication. While the consortium venture signals a sea change in how university presses are approaching e-book sales, it does nothing to clarify how UPs will address the open-access issue. If anything, the new energy – and funds – invested in bringing this model to market make delivering open access to university-press published e-books an even riskier proposal, since providing OA threatens to cannibalize this newly profitable e-book market. RETURN
26 See Willinsky, “The stratified economics of open access” 2009; Bernius et al. 2009; Houghton et al. 2009; and Harnad et al. 2008, among others. RETURN
27 In Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, a major funder of scholarly publishing through its Aid to Scholarly Publications Program (ASPP), requires that any works receiving support must be peer reviewed, either by the sponsoring publisher or by the ASPP itself. See the ASPP’s Guidelines, Eligibility Criteria, and Procedure document, available at http://fedcan.ca/images/File/PDF/ASPP/Guidelines%202010.pdf. Accessed 3 January 2011. RETURN
29 Additionally, the current monograph publishing model devotes significant attention to the presentation of scholarly material, through both graphic design and typesetting, as well as careful copyediting and proofreading, that contributes immeasurably to the ultimate readability and accessibility of the final document. These costs are over and above those attributed to peer review. RETURN
30 Waltham 2010 reports that in 2007, only 5.5 percent of the total revenues of a sample of eight HSS journal revenues were attributable to reprints, royalties, or back copies. In 2005, this figure was only 3 percent. By contrast, figures available from the AAUP for 2002 (the most recent data available) show that sales to trade and course markets accounted for 48.1 percent of total operating revenues. (See “Some University Press Facts,” available at http://aaupnet.org/aboutup/upfacts.html . Accessed 2 October 2010.) RETURN
32 See Canada Periodical Fund, available at http://www.pch.gc.ca/eng/1268240166828. Accessed 4 October 2010. RETURN
33 “International”inthispaperwillbelimitedtoUSandEurope,inpartbecausethescholarly communication systems in these regions are very close to our own, and in part because of the difficulty of getting detailed information on OA and scholarly communications from other parts of world due to the author’s language limitations. RETURN
34 See Suber’s Timeline of the Open Access Movement, available at http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/timeline.htm. Accessed 16 January 2010. RETURN
35 ForathoroughhistoryofOAdevelopmentsintheUSandinternationally,seePeterSuber’s nearly exhaustive blog on the subject, Open Access News, at http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/fosblog.html. For Suber’s fulsome writings on OA, see http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/oawritings.htm. For a compendium of OA facts, see http://oad.simmons.edu/oadwiki/Main_Page. For the Open Access Tracking Project, a news alert service on OA, see http://oad.simmons.edu/oadwiki/OA_tracking_project. RETURN
37 “Final NIH Statement on Sharing Research Data,” available at http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-03-032.html. Accessed 17 January 2010. RETURN
38 See “NIH Public Access Policy Details,” available at http://publicaccess.nih.gov/policy.htm. Accessed 17 January 2010. Access to these articles prior to the twelve-month deadline is usually on a pay-access basis. RETURN
39 PLoS Mission and Goals, available at http://www.plos.org/about/index.html. Accessed 17 January 2010. RETURN
40 “Science Publishing – Beginning of a Revolution,” available at http://www.biomedcentral.com/info/presscenter/pressreleases?pr=19990426. Accessed 17 January 2010. RETURN
41 See “Harvard Goes Open Access” available at http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/node/3462. Accessed 17 January 2010. RETURN
42 See “Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity,” available at http://www.oacompact.org/. Accessed 6 October 2010. RETURN
43 University of Alberta Press, Athabasca University Press, University of British Columbia Press, University of Calgary Press, McGill-Queens University Press, University of Ottawa Press, University of Toronto Press, and Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
44 See AAUP Statement on Open Access, available at http://aaupnet.org/aboutup/issues/oa/statement.pdf. Accessed 16 January 2010. RETURN
45 SeeJensen,“MissionPossible:Givingitawaywhilemakingitpay,”availableat http://www.nap.edu/staff/mjensen/aaup99.html. Accessed 17 January 2010. RETURN
46 These are: Ohio State University Press, University of Pittsburgh Press, Harvard University Press, Utah State University Press, Columbia University Press, Rice University Press, Yale University Press, MIT Press, University of California Press, Pennsylvania State University Press, University of Michigan Press, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Computers and Composition Digital Press, Miami University Press, University of Tennessee, Georgetown University. RETURN
47 See http://www.ithaka.org/about-ithaka, accessed 12 January 2010. RETURN
54 See “Google Checks Out Library Books,” available at http://www.google.com/press/pressrel/print_library.html. Accessed 17 January 2010. RETURN
55 Letter available on the AAUP website at http://www.aaupnet.org/aboutup/issues/0865_001.pdf. Accessed 17 January 2010. RETURN
56 See http://publishers.org/main/Copyright/Google/Release.htm.Accessed 17 January 2010. RETURN
57 In November 2009, the settlement agreement was amended to address concerns about “orphan” books (books with unknown rights holders but which are still in copyright) and stipulated that the BRR was required to search for rights holders who had not been identified and to hold revenue for them for at least ten years, at which point the BRR could ask the court for permission to distribute those funds to nonprofits benefiting rights holders and the reading public. The amendment further addressed the issue of international authors whose works might be included in the digitization project, specifying that the settlement applied only to books registered with the US copyright office or which were published in Canada, the UK, or Australia. RETURN
59 CongressionalResearchServiceSummaryofH.R.801:FairCopyrightinResearchWorksAct. Available at http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h111-801&tab=summary. Accessed 4 October 2010. RETURN
60 See Peter Suber’s Worst of 2008, available at http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/newsletter/01-02-09.htm#2008. Accessed 20 January 2010. RETURN
61 See http://www.aaupnet.org/aboutup/issues/letterFCRWA.pdf, accessed 20 January 2010. RETURN
62 See the Library of Congress’s Bill and Summary Status at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi- bin/bdquery/z?d111:www.R.801:. Accessed 3 January 2011. As of 30 December 2010, Govtrack.us, a public research civic project devoted to tracking Congressional activities in the US, reports that H.R.801 “is in the first step in the legislative process. Introduced bills and resolutions first go to committees that deliberate, investigate, and revise them before they go to general debate. The majority of bills and resolutions never make it out of committee.” See “H.R.801: Fair Copyright in Research Works Act” information page, available at http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h111-801. Accessed 3 January 2011. RETURN
63 See Scholarly Publishing Roundtable 2010,i. RETURN
73 Availableathttp://ec.europa.eu/research/science-society//document_library/pdf_06/open- access-handbook_en.pdf. Accessed 20 January 2010. RETURN
74 See“OpenAccessPilotinFP7,”availableathttp://ec.europa.eu/research/science- society/index.cfm?fuseaction=public.topic&id=1680. Accessed 20 January 2010. RETURN
75 See “UK PubMed Central: An International Initiative,” available at http://ukpmc.ac.uk/ppmc- localhtml/about.html. Accessed 21 January 2010. RETURN
76 SeeOpenDOARlistingsforEurope,availableat http://www.opendoar.org/countrylist.php?cContinent=Europe. Accessed 21 January 2010. RETURN
77 See “About SCOAP3,” available at http://scoap3.org/about.html. Accessed 21 January 2010. RETURN
78 European Commission 2008, p. 120. It should be noted, however, that the SCOAP3 model may be limited to certain kinds of publishing. Particle physics, for example, is a field where vary few journals exist, with these journals being priced at the high end of the spectrum. RETURN
79 OECD2005,p.14.Available at http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/42/12/35393145.pdf. RETURN
83 See the text of the joint statement, available at http://publishers.org.uk/download.cfm?docid=2CFFA8AE-ADDF-4191-9F2EA377E72CA6DC. Accessed 29 September 2009. RETURN
84 The response of the UK publishers to the JISC report bears some striking resemblances to a scenario that Clay Shirky has described in his essay, “The Collapse of Complex Business Models.” Building on Joseph Tainter’s theory on the collapse of complex societies, Shirky posits that, in the online economy, the structural complexity of many of today’s business models has outlived its usefulness. In many industries, complexity arose as a means of enabling companies to deliver high quality services to large numbers of people. In the online economy, however, the definitions of what constitutes “quality” as well as the types of services for which consumers are willing to pay have changed. As a result, complexity becomes a liability rather than an advantage. See Shirky 2010. RETURN
85 See OAPEN homepage, available at http://www.oapen.org. Accessed 21 January 2010. RETURN
97 Based on searches of Ulrich’s Periodicals Index, which revealed 1437 scholarly/academic journals originating in Canada, and 19,548 originating in the United States (as of January 2010). RETURN
98 As a point of comparison, as of 25 January 2010, a search of www.opendoar.org reveals 51 open archives in Canada, 366 in the US, and 753 in Europe (of which 168 originate in the UK). RETURN
99 See http://www.erudit.org/apropos/info.html, accessed 22 January 2010. RETURN
100 See “About Synergies,” available at http://www.synergiescanada.org/page/about. Accessed 23 January 2010. RETURN
101 See “CFI Invests $25 Million in the Social Sciences and Humanities,” available at http://www.innovation.ca/en/news/2007/02/8/28. Accessed 6 October 2010. CFI funds were also a major form of support for the érudit.org project. RETURN
102 See the “Publishers” page, available at http://www.synergiescanada.org/page/publishers. Accessed 23 January 2010. RETURN
103 See http://pubmedcentralcanada.ca/ppmc-localhtml/about-faq.html. Accessed 23 January 2010. RETURN
104 See “CIHR Policy on Access to Research Outputs,” available at http://www.cihr- irsc.gc.ca/e/32005.html. Accessed 23 January 2010. RETURN
105 According to ROARMAP, the Registry of Open Access Repository Material Archiving Policies, only nine research funders in Canada have an OA mandate for publications resulting from research they fund. These are: CIHR, the National Research Council, the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (proposed mandate), the Canadian Breast Cancer Research Alliance, the Canadian Cancer Society, the Canadian Health Services Research Foundation, les Fonds de la recherche en santé Québec, and the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research. RETURN
106 See “University of Ottawa Adopts Commitment to Open Access” by Michael Geist, available at http://www.michaelgeist.ca/content/view/4603/125/. Accessed 5 October 2010. RETURN
107 See “Removing Barriers: Open Access Strategy at the SFU Library January 2010.” Available at http://www.lib.sfu.ca/sites/default/files/8537/OA%20Support%20Final.pdf. Accessed 5 October 2010. RETURN
108 See “Simon Fraser University Takes Steps to Support Open Access Publishing,” available at http://www.straight.com/article-300330/vancouver/simon-fraser-university-takes-steps- support-open-access-publishing. Accessed October 6 2010. RETURN
109 See “Open Access Research Policy,” available at http://www.athabascau.ca/policy/research/openaccess.htm. Accessed 23 January 2010. RETURN
110 See “Open Access Authors Fund,” available at http://www.ucalgary.ca/news/june2008/authorsfund. Accessed 6 October 2010. RETURN
111 CARL, “Brief to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council: Open Access” 2005. RETURN
112 See “Canadian Library Association / Association Canadienne des bibliothèques Position Statement on Open Access for Canadian Libraries,” available at http://www.cla.ca/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Position_Statements&Template=/CM/Content Display.cfm&ContentID=5306. Accessed 24 January 2010. RETURN
113 Canada. Parliament. House of Commons. “An Act to Amend the Copyright Act.” Bill C-32, 40th Parliament, 3rd Session, 2010. Available online at http://www2.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?Docid=4580265 . Accessed 6 October 2010. RETURN
114 CARL, “Towards an Integrated Knowledge Ecosystem: A Canadian Research Strategy” 2005, 11. RETURN
115 In a 2005 letter to Google, Peter Givler of the AAUP outlined how American university presses stay afloat: “Although our members are nonprofits and many of them receive an operating subsidy from their parent institutions, they still have payrolls to meet and bills to pay, and in 2003, the most recent year for which we have such data, total university support only averaged about 13% of their operating income. Virtually all the rest of the money required to cover costs and stay in business must come from the sale and licensing of their publications” (Givler 2005, 2). RETURN
116 Available at http://fedcan.ca/images/File/PDF/Open%20Access%20Position.pdf. Accessed 26 January 2010. RETURN
117 Author’s correspondence with Kel Morin-Parsons, 29 October 2009. RETURN
118 Author’s correspondence with J. Craig McNaughton, 11 December 2009. RETURN
124 See http://rup.rice.edu/about/support?support=1. Accessed 26 January 2010. RETURN
125 Jaschik 2010. It is worth noting that not everyone agrees with the provost’s assessment of the factors responsible for RUP’s demise. Christopher Kelty, a RUP board member and former employee, categorically refutes the provost’s claims in a blog post on the subject, blaming instead “bad university administration.” See “How Not to Run a University Press (or How Sausage is Made),” available at http://savageminds.org/2010/08/31/how-not-to-run-a- university-press-or-how-sausage-is-made/ (accessed February 10, 2011). RETURN
126 Web 2.0, a term used to describe the “second generation” of the internet, is a somewhat indefinite term used to describe a set of technological, design, and user-based features that have emerged since the web became common in our everyday lives. In general, it refers to the use of the internet as a platform upon which other interactive applications are built. See “What is Web 2.0,” available at http://oreilly.com/web2/archive/what-is-web-20.html. Accessed 26 January 2010. RETURN
127 Walter Hildebrandt, Director of Athabasca University Press, in conversation with author. RETURN
128 There is some evidence from the experience of the National Academies Press in the US that suggests that this has also been that press’s experience. A 2003 study funded by the Mellon Foundation found that even when a free PDF was available, more than half of the customers still opted to pay for the printed book (Kline Pope and Kannan 2003). RETURN
129 Email correspondence with Linda Cameron, 18 January 2010. RETURN
130 Email correspondence with Brian Henderson, 22 January 2010. RETURN
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ABSTRACT: This report examines the online partnerships that Reader’s Digest Canada’s established with web portals for its magazines and digital properties: Best Health magazine and PlaisirsSante.ca with Sympatico.ca; and Reader’s Digest Canada and Sélection du Reader’s Digest with MSN.ca. When Besthealthmag.ca became Sympatico.ca’s health and fitness channel in 2009, the website’s audience grew exponentially, proving the value of investing in online publishing. This paper presents the marketing, web editorial, and business strategies for the publisher’s web properties. The histories of web portals and Reader’s Digest’s web strategy, with an examination of how and why the publisher’s partnerships with portals were established, are covered. As well, the impact of the partnerships on brand awareness and audience growth is discussed. Finally, the implications of partnerships with web portals for the greater Canadian magazine publishing community are considered.
It is with no small thanks to the unrivalled guidance and teaching of Dr. Rowland Lorimer and Dr. John Maxwell that this report is before you. I would also like to acknowledge my “teachers” at Reader’s Digest Magazines Canada in Montreal and Toronto, who expressed their enthusiasm and interest, and lent their immeasurable knowledge and experience to this project. My sincere gratitude goes especially to production editor, Michele Beacom Cant; vice-president of digital media and strategic partnerships, Yann Paquet; and senior web editor, Kat Tancock, for their significant contributions.
Most importantly, I am grateful for the encouragement and strong support from my cohort in the Simon Fraser University Master of Publishing program, and the unwavering friendship of Andy Au, Deanne Beattie, Brandon Gaukel, Cynara Geissler, Tracy Hurren, William Lau, Ryan McClanaghan, Michelle Reid, Lauren Schachter, and Fraser Stuart. Thank you.
Figure 1. Sympatico.ca Home Page, Best Health dropdown menu Figure 2. The Sympatico.ca Home Page prior to November 2010 Figure 3. Sympatico.ca audience subscription offer Figure 4.Screenshot of Besthealthmag.ca, with calls to subscribe highlighted
List of Tables
Table 1. Traffic sources and losses Table 2. 15-month trend of traffic to Besthealthmag.ca Table 3. Audience demographic profile for Besthealthmag.ca Table 4. 15-month trend of traffic to Readersdigest.ca Table 5. Audience demographic profile for Readersdigest.ca and Selection.ca
Glossary: Analysis Metrics
Reader’s Digest Canada’s web publishing uses the following metrics from comScore and Google Analytics to measure its performance online:
Comparable Sites: Other website in the same category. At comScore, every website belongs to a primary category. For example, Best Health is in the Health category. Other relevant categories would include Lifestyles, Family & Parenting, and Home categories.
Entries/Entrances: The number of entrances to a website. With content pages, entries will indicate the number of times a particular page served as an entrance to the website.
Exits: The number of exits from a website. ComScore refers to sites that visitors go to after as “losses.”
Impressions: In advertising, the number and quality of page impressions is used to gauge the value of a website or page. Interchangeable with “page view.”
Open Rate: Percentage of messages delivered in an email campaign that are confirmed as having been opened by the recipient.
Page View: (PV) A request to load a single page of a website.
Time Spent: The time a visitor spends a website.
Time on Page: How long a visitor spent on a particular page or set of pages.
Total Audience: The size of the complete Canadian population that uses the Internet as calculated by comScore by extrapolated data gathered from random “digit-dial” phone calling.
Unique Visitors (UV): A unit of online traffic to a website, counting each visitor only once in the time frame of the report. This statistic is relevant to site publishers and advertisers as a measure of a site’s true audience size, equivalent to the term “reach” used in other media.
Visitor: A user of a website site.
Visits: The number of unique sessions initiated by all your visitors.
Canadian magazines have been online since 1996. In the 1990s, as excitement and anxiety built around translating print products and brands for digital platforms, many magazines went online without a strategy for online editorial or revenue development. Like other media businesses that depend on ad revenue, including television and radio broadcasters, magazines struggled to navigate the world online. What would be their business strategy? How would they find funding to invest in technological development and programming? For smaller, non-profit magazines, which make up much of the landscape in Canada, building a functional website was simply not within their means.
One of the largest struggles for Canadian magazine websites is one that the country’s publishers are familiar with: the lack of economies of scale. In publishing print magazines, a smaller audience has always meant fewer subscriptions and single-copy sales, and cautious advertisers; fewer readers makes it more difficult to offset the costs of producing a magazine—such as printing, editorial, design, and rights. Though federal cultural policy has stepped in to help address these economic obstacles, digital publishing has yet to be adequately handled in the same way. As well, Canadian magazine websites are in direct competition with international magazine websites. This challenge is further compounded by the fact that online, all content creators—whether their main business is newspaper publishing, television broadcasting, or blogging—are direct competitors and jockey for the same audiences and advertisers.
In order to attract lucrative advertising accounts, websites must have a substantial number of unique visitors who are engaged with the content. This is no small task to be sure, particularly for magazines. For example, editorial for print and the web are different, in so far as the latter needs to be “read” by search engines and appeal to audiences who generally scan content, rather than read it. Producing an engaging magazine website requires editors to re-imagine their magazine brands in terms of content and form. And, for the first time in magazine history, publishers can and must show their advertisers how well their ads are performing. It is possible to know how many people clicked on an ad, or how many “eyeballs” saw the creative. As a result, the definition of “successful editorial” and the ability to sell advertising becomes all about the analytics.
With the help of a strong research department and its many years of expertise, Reader’s Digest Magazines Canada, one of the country’s largest multi-title publishers, is forging ahead into the world of digital publishing. Reader’s Digest uses its strengths and an innovative publishing model to capture large but targeted audiences online, and thereby provide attractive environments for its advertisers. The Reader’s Digest Canada magazines websites are Readersdigest.ca, Selection.ca, Plaisirssante.ca, Besthealthmag.ca and Ourcanada.ca.
In 2008, Reader’s Digest Canada launched Best Health, a Canadian women’s health magazine.Best Health was extremely successful from the start; it earned $1.9 million in advertising revenue in its first year. The success of the print product, however, was only the beginning. The launch of the magazine was in fact the launch of a multi-platform brand: The magazine’s website, Besthealthmag.ca, became an integral part of the Best Health product. Previous to the launch of the magazine, 55 percent of an Internet research panel said they were “extremely interested” or “very interested” in an integrated web component for the soon-to-be-launched title (Boullard, 2008, p. 17). Accordingly, the team behind Best Health engaged the brand’s audience on multiple platforms early on. Today, Besthealthmag.ca attracts approximately half a million unique visitors a month; that’s 1.7 percent of the total Canadian audience online (comScore, Inc. Canada, 2010). Best Health on Twitter (@besthealthmag) has more than 86,000 followers, making it the most “followed” Canadian magazine brand on the social networking application by leaps and bounds (Twitter, 2010).
How Reader’s Digest Magazines Canada found phenomenal success in digital publishing with the Best Health brand is the primary subject of this report. In the summer of 2009, shortly after the launch of Best Health magazine and Besthealthmag.ca, Reader’s Digest established a partnership with the web portal, Sympatico.ca. The portal—which split from its partner MSN on September 1, 2009, to become an independent portal separate from the former Sympatico.msn.ca— adopted Besthealthmag.ca as its Health and Fitness section, or “channel.” From there, traffic to Besthealtmag.ca grew exponentially. The partnership with Sympatico.ca is the heart of Best Health’s online business. The editorial and production processes that come with working with an online general interest portal are further explored in this report.
To establish the context in which Reader’s Digest Canada launched its various digital initiatives, the first chapter of this report examines the history of Canadian magazines online, and explores the economics of publishing online. This chapter also presents the history of web portals in Canada, followed by a discussion of the publishing activities of Reader’s Digest Magazines Canada.
Chapter two describes the business strategies and mechanics involved in the Best Health-Sympatico.ca partnership. This section of the report details how the partnership with Sympatico.ca was established, the mechanics of producing content for a general interest portal, the impact on the Reader’s Digest websites, the websites’ successes and challenges, and the unique editorial strategies employed. The introduction of the Plaisirs Santé brand, the French-Canadian counterpart to Best Health, is also discussed.
Next, the report describes a different approach to online partnerships for Readersdigest.ca and Selection.ca. The development of a partnership with MSN.ca was partly modelled on the company’s success with Sympatico.ca, but has different goals and parameters. In this chapter, decision makers and editors forecast the partnership’s potential impact on the website in terms of editorial and production, and new advertising opportunities as a result of the expected influx of traffic.
The final chapter assesses the implications of Reader’s Digest Canada’s success for other multi-title publishers. There are possibilities for other Canadian magazines to repurpose their material for general interest portals, but how widely applicable is this business model? And considering the changing demands and realities of readers and the media industries, what is the long-term viability of this strategy? There are no conclusive answers; however, the value of publishers’ expertise in building communities, brands, and content is definite.
A Note on Research Method and Analysis
The web analytics presented in this report are based on custom reports from comScore, a web-research company internationally recognized as the standard for digital market intelligence for the Internet’s largest sites. Reader’s Digest is a customer of comScore, Inc. Canada. Although the publisher’s web department uses Google Analytics internally, most corporate advertisers prefer comScore’s data due to their recognized impartiality.
ComScore’s intelligence is based on data gathered from a random panel. Very roughly speaking, comScore is to Internet audience data as Nielsen’s ratings are to television: Unlike Google Analytics, which captures data on a website’s server, comScore installs proxy-technology software on the computers of panel members. The software captures information about panel members’ behaviour click-by-click, second-by-second. ComScore’s Canadian panel is composed of roughly 50,000 users (comScore, Inc., 2010); globally, the company estimates that its panel comprises two million users (comScore, Inc. website, 2010b).
ComScore determines its clients’ audience reach based on a figure it calls “total audience”; it represents the complete Canadian population that uses the Internet. The company calculates the number of people in the total audience by conducting phone surveys of a random sample group: “Respondents are asked a variety of questions about their Internet use [such as, Do you use the Internet?], and descriptive information about their households is collected” (comScore, Inc. website, 2010a). These data are extrapolated to establish the total audience number, as well as other demographic details about the Canadian online audience. By combining the total audience data with information gathered from panel members, comScore is able to produce an up-to-date picture of online audience behaviour.
This method, which comScore calls “panel audience measurement,” has some limitations. While the software precisely records panel members’ Internet usage, panel members and phone-survey respondents self-report demographic information; this can result in imprecise findings. Another shortcoming of the panel-sample method is that it favours popular websites since there is a higher probability that the panel members will visit them. Conversely, comScore cannot account for smaller websites if no panel members land on the site. In short, when the data are extrapolated, the method can inflate the number of visitors to larger sites and overlook traffic to smaller sites.
In the interest of protecting Reader’s Digest Magazine Canada’s proprietary information, this report mostly uses comScore’s data. Although this information is public, access to purchased comScore products (including comparative analyses and demographic information) was granted on the basis of my status as an employee of Reader’s Digest Magazines Canada. The data presented show the scale of the partnership’s impact on the Reader’s Digest Canada websites, but are not an exact or up-to-date representation of the websites’ performance metrics.
ComScore’s data support the discussion of Reader’s Digest’s web strategy. Using information gathered from extensive in-person interviews with the digital media executives, and the online marketing and web editorial teams, this report serves as a comprehensive picture of how this major Canadian publisher is building targeted audiences online and grooming those audiences for advertisers.
Please see Glossary for a glossary of web analytics terms.
Canadian Magazines Online
The decline of magazines has been predicted since the start of the twentieth century, when film was introduced (Quin, 2003, p. 3). Historically, whenever a new medium for entertainment and information emerges, critics and naysayers speculate that the end of the magazine (or other existing media) is nearing. This was absolutely true at the advent of the Internet. Since its introduction, the Internet has forcefully reshaped the media landscape. Its influence was—and is—so great that predictions of the magazine publishing industry’s imminent demise seemed more likely than ever. In response to the speculation, and making sure not be left in the dust, many magazines publishers launched websites for their titles in the late 1990s.
Theoretically, magazine publishers were well-positioned to take advantage of the features of the new medium, as they already had arresting editorial to offer. A website had the potential to attract new readers and subscribers by offering content (either from the magazine or exclusively online) in a format that was convenient and accessible for readers. However, publishers (and most everyone else) lacked knowledge or expertise about how audiences behaved online, and how to translate magazine content or brands for online audiences. Quin (2003) notes, “By 1996, many magazines were launching sites that were mirror versions of their print products” (p. 8). Early magazine websites were wanting in overall “stickiness” (the quality that makes a user stay on a site, engage with the content, and tell others about it) because without tailoring it for the web, print-magazine content lacks timeliness, interactivity, searchability, and personalization.
There were other challenges, too. For example, monitoring, updating, and editing a magazine website required additional resources in terms of time and money; it often increased editors’ workloads. Most magazine editors were not accustomed to producing daily updates, since they traditionally worked on monthly or weekly production schedules. With smaller staffs and operating budgets than their American counterparts, the vast majority of Canadian magazines did not have the capacity to build and maintain functional websites, market them, cultivate regular audiences, and engage with the audiences in a meaningful way. Another obstacle was gaining rights and permissions for previously published work, since older contracts for writers did not address digital formats. There was always the question, too, of whether making a magazine’s content available online would cannibalize its print operations. Ultimately, without the infrastructure, market research, or knowledge to produce effective online spaces, magazine websites struggled to find audiences and make a profit.
The early 2000s were especially dismal. In his 2002 book Bamboozled at the Revolution:How Big Media Lost Billions in the Battle for the Internet, technology journalist and media critic JohnMatovalli revealed how powerhouse media companies such as Time Warner lost millions in early Internet ventures (Sumner and Rhoades, 2006, p. 118). An essay from Slate.com in 2008, argued that even turning household names, such as Vogue and Esquire, into profitable web properties was “probably not possible, at least not right away,” since advertisers were not willing to pay for online audiences (Blume, 2008). A media expert quoted in the Slate.com essay estimated that “online CPM is worth between one-seventh and one-tenth of a print CPM” (Blume); in short, the online-advertising model looked bleak for everyone, not just small- and medium-sized magazines. In July 2009, Kat Tancock, who is also the author of the blog Magazines Online,wrote, “The debate is still on (and for good reason) about how the media can make money with their online properties. Readership is certainly there, but display advertising isn’t bringing in enough revenue and most readers are unwilling to pay to read articles online”  (2009a). Only very savvy publishers could realistically expect to make a profit from sponsorships and advertising online—and a small one at that.
Faced with this reality, publishers were forced to reevaluate their web properties and thus, redefine their goals and measures of success. While most magazine websites were not likely to sell a fair amount of ads in the near future, they could exploit the equity in the brands. Readers invest trust in magazine brands, and looking at the magazine as a brand created more opportunities to increase visibility and revenue. By extending their brands online, through other media, and in-person, publishers could sell subscriptions and increase single-copy sales, and apply the brands to other media, products, and events. Popular magazines lent their brands to television shows, special interest publications, and merchandise, such as T-shirts, books, and calendars (MacKay, 2006, p. 198). For large media companies with resources and experience to maximize vertical and horizontal integration, this transformation was a familiar evolution. A 2003 survey of the leading magazine publishers in the UK showed that more than half thought of themselves as multimedia publishers and communicators, and not just publishers (Dear in MacKay, p. 213).
Online, some magazine websites became hubs for the communities around the brands. Members of the communities went to the websites to interact with editors and each other (MacKay, 2006, p. 153). In the web and print formats, a magazine represents the centre of a community. As noted in Rowland Lorimer’s 2008 study of Alberta Magazines, “Magazines Alberta: Vibrancy, Growth, Interactive Community Leadership,” “…magazines take their lead from their communities of readers, serving their needs and desires, and in doing so, they emerge as significant and distinctive voices in their communities” (Lorimer 2008, key findings). The formation of a community was especially key for Chatelaine, one of Canada’s most popular magazines. In her research in the magazine’s archives, Valerie Korinek looked at correspondence from readers and discovered that magazines and discussion about magazines “‘fostered a sense of identity or membership in a community’” (Korinek in MacKay, 2006, p. 154). This dynamic is dramatically enhanced by the possibilities of online networking on magazine websites. Says McKay, “the community aspect of a magazine is indeed one of the form’s important traits and a prime requirement for [online] success” (p. 154). Recently, publishers have found their web properties with established and engaged online communities are desirable environments for advertisers.
In 2010, the importance of a having a thoughtful online presence is impossible to ignore. As CEO of Meredith Corporation (publisher of Ladies Home Journal, MORE, and Fitness), William Kerr, notes:
The Internet is your friend. Once viewed as a threat, the Internet is a medium that magazines are using as a growth catalyst on many fronts. For our editors, it allows us a more frequent dialogue with readers. For our marketers, it provides another source of potential revenue generation. For our circulation professionals, it provides a low-cost alternative for generating magazine subscriptions. And it is growing at a phenomenal rate (Sumner and Rhoades, 2006, p. 118).
As more and more readers read online in their leisure time, an increasing number of publishers are establishing devoted web editorial and ad sales teams. The user experience has also improved as best practices for producing content online have also emerged: search-engine optimizing content, creating more interactive features, and integrating ways for readers to talk back. And publishers that nurture the communities around their magazines have more engaged online readerships to entice advertisers with. Publishers are also adopting social networking, blogs, email newsletters, and RSS feeds as part of their web strategies. There are also new digital spaces for magazine brands to cultivate audiences, including mobile applications and digital editions. Today, the largest Canadian magazine publishers are looking beyond breaking even. Though small- and medium-sized magazines still struggle to get a return on their investment in online publishing, multi-title publishers are managing to leverage their web properties into money-makers. One way of doing this, as Reader’s Digest Magazines Canada has found, is to partner with a web portal.
Web Portals in Canada
“Web portal” loosely describes any website that aggregates links from diverse sources and presents them in a unified and organized way. General interest web portals curate links to news, stock prices, entertainment gossip, and weather forecasts. Much like a newspaper, portals provide value in aggregating this information in one place. Similarly, portals present their content, gathered from syndicates such as Reuters and the Associated Press, in a consistent look and feel. Some web portals produce some content in-house but all portals have editorial teams gathering content from outside sources, including magazine websites. Web-portal editors analyze which articles, slideshows, services and interactive features perform best and choose the next day’s content accordingly. Many major web portals also host search and email services.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, web portals were important pieces of online real estate because they were daily destinations for users—often they were the first pages users visited before going elsewhere on the web. Internet service providers (ISP) and web portals often formed partnerships: When a user purchased access to Internet from an ISP, his or her browser would be programmed with the partner portal site as their home page. Similarly, users of Yahoo! Mail or Hotmail were directed to the service’s partner portal site upon logout. Accordingly, portals generated substantial traffic. Additionally, before Google, portals’ search engines were a popular way to locate relevant information.
Globally, MSNBC, Go.com, Netscape, Lycos, AOL, and Yahoo! dominated the web-portal market during the dot-com boom in the late 1990s. While some of these portals went out of business when the bubble burst around 2000, Yahoo! and MSNBC continued to find success. These companies also launched international portals to serve the demand for regional and local content. Yahoo! Canada, MSN.ca, and Sympatico.ca (owned by Bell Canada Enterprises) were established as dedicated services for the Canadian audience. Other Canadian portals include Canoe.ca (which is particularly popular in French Canada), AOL Canada, Canada.com, and myTELUS.com.
In 2003, Bell and Microsoft Canada merged their portal websites into the co-branded portal Sympatico.msn.ca (Canadian Press, 2003). According to Kevin Crull, president of residential services at Bell, “We wanted [Microsoft’s] development capabilities. They wanted our audience” (Avery, 2009). The joint portal combined the large audiences that used MSN’s Hotmail service and those that purchased Bell’s Internet service and/or were readers of Sympatico.ca. At the time, Canada’s online advertising market had an estimated worth of just over $350 million (Lloyd, 2009); accordingly rather than selling consumers to advertisers, the portal’s primary business model was based on selling services to consumers. The partnership allowed MSN to generate additional revenue by offering premium subscription services, developed by Microsoft, to Bell’s customer base (Lloyd). Bell hoped to use Microsoft’s technology to add value to Sympatico.ca.
Over the next five years, Sympatico.msn.ca, which offered content for English speakers and Francophones, became one of the country’s most visited websites and the major Canadian portal, with 18.5 million unique views a month (Lloyd, 2009).
Nonetheless, in the summer of 2009, MSN and Bell realized the partnership was no longer optimally serving either company. The rise of “freeconomics”—an online-business model where basic services are offered for free and revenues are generated from advertising or selling value-added services—lowered the value of Microsoft’s “premium level” services, such as email, and made it necessary to sell advertising to support those services. The companies divorced and re-established their individual (bilingual) portal sites: MSN.ca and Sympatico.ca, and improved their inventory of display-advertising spaces by developing video players as part of their advertising services (Lloyd, 2009). Currently, an ongoing task for Bell and Microsoft is restructuring the portals to operate without the content and technology resources previously afforded by having a joint, co-branded portal.
Today, portal sites are still major online destinations, but the number of visitors, page views, and time spent by users is declining. Microsoft Canada and Bell are engaged in a three-year agreement to exchange traffic, but neither portal site has been able to amass an audience as large as the former readership of Sympatico.msn.ca (Reynolds, interview, August 9, 2010). Meanwhile, engagement on social media sites is rising (Stableford, 2010). Users are turning to Twitter and Facebook for a more personalized experience. Some users are turning to social media first to get the news, and to tap into what their friends are reading and watching. Due to the ebbing popularity of portal sites, advertisers and agencies are taking their ad dollars to Facebook for more ad impressions (Oreskovic, 2010; Walsh, 2010). AOL, MSN, and Yahoo! are responding to this development by offering new customization options, such as personalized home pages. But more importantly, web portals are investing in quality content and thoughtful presentation. In order to become competitive content providers, portals—particularly MSN.ca—are turning to experts in publishing and journalism, including magazines (Stableford, 2010; Microsoft Canada, 2009).
Canadian magazines have a relatively long history of providing content to portal sites. In 1995, Maclean’s partnered with CompuServe Canada, a popular Internet service provider. At the time, CompuServe had three million Canadian subscribers. The partnership gave CompuServe subscribers—who were also the audience for the ISP’s portal—exclusive access to Maclean’s articles before they hit the newsstand (Quin, 2003, p. 9). In exchange, CompuServe drove traffic to the magazine’s online forum, where readers could discuss articles or talk to the writers and editors. Other magazines have sold content from their websites to portals. Selling daily music news from their website, Chartattack.com, to Sympatico.ca was a major revenue source for Chart magazine’s publishers in the early 2000s (Quin, p. 48).
When portals link to and publish magazine content, they gain content to draw and engage visitors, as well as the authority and credibility of an established magazine brand. A 2010 study by the Online Publishers Association (OPA) (Smith, 2010) and a 2008 study by Dynamic Logic (Lakin, 2008) concluded that branded content sites, such as magazine websites, had a greater impact on customer awareness and purchase intent than non-branded websites. Customers and advertisers also positively associated media sites with trust and quality. The OPA survey of 3,000 people found:
Eighty percent of people who said they had purchased brands as a result of online advertising described themselves as having a strong, positive connection to the sites where the ads ran. In most questions regarding trust and ad responsiveness, the branded media sites came out on top.
On the question of which content they are most likely to trust, respondents said: media sites first (72%), then portals (60%), and social media (23%).
Audiences also felt that advertisers were more likely to be of high quality and reputable on media sites (24%) rather than portals (20%), or social media (8%) (Smith).
By partnering with magazine brands, portals can provide advertisers environments where consumers are more trusting and receptive. Ultimately, portals’ burgeoning traffic troubles are creating ripe opportunities for magazine publishers.
The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. (RDA) is an international company with offices in 43 countries (Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. website, 2009). Founded in 1922 by DeWitt and Lila Wallace, the company’s flagship publication, Reader’s Digest—known for providing practical and useful information, is the largest independently published magazine in the world with 50 international editions (Sumner and Rhoades, 2006, p. 144). The company is also famous for its sweepstakes and contests—both of which are effective marketing and name-gathering techniques and thus, important parts of the RDA business. Its large customer base and database of prospective customers is possibly the most important asset to the company.
Although it has been slower than others in embracing digital services and products, RDA has always been a multi-brand, multi-media company. It produces and markets hundreds of media products. Annually, the company sells approximately 40 million books, music, and video products around the world (Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. website, 2009). Over the years, RDA has generated a wealth of content, which it can economically repurpose as digital products. For example, contents from the Reader’s Digest book Extraordinary Uses for Ordinary Things are the source material for the popular series “5 Things to Do with…” series on Readersdigest.ca. RDA owns and operates 78 branded websites. The crown jewel in the company’s digital properties is AllRecipes.com, the world’s largest online food community, with 15 localized websites, including one for Quebec.
The corporation’s relatively recent but rapid expansion into the digital world is part of its strategy to grow by “creating multi-platform communities based on branded content” (Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. website, 2009). RDA also leverages national successes and expands those brands internationally. In 2006, Reader’s Digest Australia launched HealthSmart magazine, a health and lifestyle magazine for women ages 30 to 50 years old. It is now the leading women’s health magazine in Australia and spawned a New Zealand edition in 2009. In 2008, the editorial formula was imported to Canada; with a few tweaks, it became Best Health magazine. And in 2009, the US offices announced the launch of BestYou magazine.
The Canadian offices of Reader’s Digest were established in 1947. The first Canadian edition of Reader’s Digest, Sélection du Reader’s Digest, appeared in 1948; it was, of course, the French-language edition for Canada. Currently, Reader’s Digest Canada is the largest circulation consumer magazine in Canada (Print Measurement Bureau, 2010) and is also recognized as the most trusted and influential magazine in the country conducted by Ropers Reports (in 2009) and Masthead magazine (in January/February 2008) (Ludgate, interview, 2010). The Canadian editorial offices are located in downtown Montreal, Quebec, and advertising sales are headquartered in the business district of Toronto, Ontario. The Montreal office has approximately 170 Reader’s Digest Canada staff members in the finance, editorial, marketing services, promotions, communications, human resources, sales, and administration departments. Reader’s Digest Magazines Canada publishes five magazines: Best Health, Reader’s Digest Canada, Sélection, Our Canada, and More of Our Canada. The magazine division also publishes special interest publications (SIPs) and produces custom publications for companies such as RONA.
In Canada, Reader’s Digest has been online since 1998, the year Readersdigest.ca and Selection.ca were launched as online extensions of the magazines. At the time, isolated but dramatic success stories from Silicon Valley created the illusion that e-commerce was the new “Klondike.” However, it was not a simple task to transform two well-established print magazine brands into competitive players in the digital publishing landscape. Reader’s Digest Canada and Sélection initially struggled to define their brands and voices online, and without a clear and considered strategy, the Reader’s Digest Canada magazine websites floundered.
At the time, neither Readersdigest.ca nor Selection.ca had a dedicated editor or a content management system. The websites were updated monthly, mostly with repurposed magazine content. When taken directly from the magazine, the articles did not appeal to the audience of Readersdigest.ca: Many of the features published in Reader’s Digest Canada and Sélection are examples of extended investigative reporting or long-form journalism, but, as the company later found, the online audience was more interested in shorter, more practical food, home, and lifestyle content. As well, the magazine articles, their headlines, and their descriptions made little to no impact on search engines because the text lacked keywords; this made it unlikely that the latent online audience would find the articles by way of search. To make matters more difficult for the provisional web team, Reader’s Digest did not have the digital rights for some of its previously published content.
After the dot-com bust, online businesses adopted more realistic expectations about what they could achieve. As a provisional solution, the Reader’s Digest Canada websites were made into online stores for the company’s books, music and video products, and magazine subscriptions. Meanwhile, the new-business-development team introduced the famous Reader’s Digest sweepstakes program to the magazine websites. This important addition—which cost relatively little to establish—helped the company to build a large database of customers’ email addresses and to draw visitors to the sites daily. The online sweepstakes made Readersdigest.ca one of the top three Canadian magazine websites online, just behind Canadianliving.com. The “sweeps” program was the bread and butter of the company’s online business; in 2003, it made up 70 percent of Reader’s Digest Canada’s online traffic and an even larger percentage in the earlier years.
However, advertisers were interested in putting their products in front of readers who were engaged with content, and therefore could be influenced about their purchasing decisions. The quality of the magazine’s readership is something Reader’s Digest Canada wanted to offer to its online advertisers, too. Fittingly, the publisher has always boasted the quality of its readers. According to vice-president of digital media and strategic partnerships, Yann Paquet, the readers of Reader’s Digest Canada spend 90 minutes a month with the magazine, on average, and themagazine’s readers highly trust the brand (interview, August 11, 2010). Accordingly, Reader’s Digest moved towards producing websites for content, not contests. The company needed to develop online audiences large enough to be worthwhile for advertisers, but specific enough that demographically, they matched advertisers’ targets.
It was time to set new goals for the Canadian Reader’s Digest web properties: The first was to generate revenue with the company’s existing assets—its brands, customers, prospects, and most importantly, content. In 2008, the company hired a dedicated web editor, Jennifer Reynolds, as part of its initiative to makeover the website. Reynolds focused on developing an identity for the websites that was separate from the magazines. As such, the House and Home, Food, and Health “affinities” were launched. Furthermore, content was written and edited to be more “web-friendly” without straying from the Reader’s Digest brand: Articles were generally shorter and geared towards providing practical, everyday lifestyle advice. As well, user-generated content (UGC) features, such as photo galleries, were introduced. In short, Readersdigest.ca and Selection.ca were transformed into “content-rich sites” with community interaction (Goyette, interview, July 16, 2010). The change was in-line with the Reader’s Digest brand and produced a more targeted and desirable audience for advertisers. At the same time, the Reader’s Digest Association started an international initiative to digitize its content and build an e-library accessible to its offices around the world, which gave the web editor more content to offer to the readers of Readersdigest.ca and Selection.ca.
The second goal for Reader’s Digest Canada’s digital business was to expand traffic beyond sweeps visitors, and increase the loyal and trusting audience they had begun to establish. To fast-track the growth of its online audience, Reader’s Digest launched e-newsletters, which are major traffic drivers and a service to their readers. The company also developed cross-promotional partnerships with websites such as Divine.ca and Yahoo! Canada, sometimes running co-branded contests, or cross-promoting content.
The next step in audience development was to establish relationships with national, general interest web portals to give Reader’s Digest content more exposure. Reader’s Digest considered three different partnership models they could pursue with portals: 1) content for traffic, 2) content for dollars, or 3) content for technology. The first model is what Reader’s Digest ultimately found success with (This is covered in extensive detail in the following chapters). The second, in which the publisher licenses its content, was ruled out because although it would be beneficial to the company’s cash flow, the advantages would be limited in respect to traffic/audience development and advertising. The third model was used for Ourcanada.ca.
The launch of Our Canada magazine in 2004 is considered one of the most successful introductions of a magazine in Canadian history. The bi-monthly publication is made entirely out of submissions from readers about their experiences of Canada. The magazine’s editors receive hundreds of written and photographic submissions each month, which are compiled, edited, and produced into a glossy, fully illustrated print publication. Within two years, Our Canada gathered 238,000 subscribers. The magazine was so popular Reader’s Digest launched More of Our Canada in 2008 so that subscribers could opt to receive 12 issues of Our Canada content a year.
When conceiving an online space for the Our Canada brand, Reader’s Digest knew it needed a website that would facilitate UGC, by allowing users to upload photos, connect in forums, and publish their own blogs. However, developing that technology alone would be costly and risky. Meanwhile, Canoe.ca was looking to expand in the English-language market and had created online tools for community building. The two parties established a mutually beneficial relationship where both could leverage the considerable Our Canada readership and the associated travel and lifestyle content. Beginning in 2009, Our Canada has been hosted on Canoe.ca and uses the portal’s social-networking platform.
In the next five years, Reader’s Digest Canada hopes to grow its digital businesses in terms of advertising dollars, product sales, and revenue generated through renting its e-database of customer names and information (Reader’s Digest Magazines Canada Limited, 2010c). While expanding into mobile downloads and multimedia—an area of growing importance—Reader’s Digest is also focused on enhancing reader engagement. The managers and web editors are cultivating return users by building “community-focused websites,” which integrate social media and other avenues for readers to shape content and generate dialogue. As Kat Tancock told Masthead Online, “Reader’s Digest has always been a community-focused company. [It was a] natural extension to get into social media and let readers contribute to how they see the brand” (Masthead Online, 2010).
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In the years since Canadian magazines first went online, Reader’s Digest Magazines Canada has had successes and disappointments in experimenting with business and editorial models for digital publishing. Taking the lessons learned from the early days of the web, Reader’s Digest has a wealth of knowledge and resources to draw upon in this time of flux in the publishing industry.
Of course, the business of online magazines is never static, just as users’ behaviours, demands, and desires are inherently dynamic. For instance, in the 1990s, web portals were formidable features in the online landscape but today their status has diminished due to the success of Google and Facebook. Nonetheless, changing realities also mean new opportunities.
Since digital publishing took hold in Canada, Reader’s Digest’s roster of magazine brands has grown new audiences in new environments. Best Health—the magazine, website, and brand—is a successful confluence of the company’s traditional expertise in brand extension, content production, audience development and engagement, and its new online-business strategies.
Case Study: Best Health, Plaisirs Santé, and Sympatico.ca
In March 2008, Reader’s Digest Canada launched Best Health. The mission of the Best Health brand is to be the “Canadian authority on enhancing the health of women’s minds, bodies and spirits” by providing information about how to “Look Great,” “Eat Well,” “Embrace Life,” and “Get Healthy.” Under these four editorial “pillars,” the brand aims to cater to the interests and aspirations of its audience, and respect their challenges and realities by providing eye-catching design and trusted, practical healthy lifestyle information (Reader’s Digest Magazines Canada Limited, 2009b). Best Health’s target demographic is women 35 to 55 years old, and skews slightly younger online. To Reader’s Digest, Best Health represents new territory and its success extended the publisher’s audience reach in the Canadian market. (The subsequent launch of Plaisirs Santé increased that reach into French-language market for women’s health content.)
In the past year, the magazine has been a major Canadian industry mover and shaker. According to Masthead’s report on “The Top 50” magazines in 2009,Best Health posted a positive 102-percent change in revenue from 2008-2009, leaping from 53rd place in the previous year to number 37 (Masthead, 2010). Its current paid circulation is 100,000. Its success has revealed there is still demand in the competitive genre of women’s magazines. Lynn Chambers, group publisher of Canadian Living and Homemakers, observed, “From an advertiser’s point-of-view, magazines are still highly relevant with this target group…What I’d love to see is a continued strengthening of the magazine category as a great way to reach women” (Masthead Online, 2008).
Best Health magazine is published seven times a year but encourages its readership to be apart of its online activities 365 days a year. Best Health uses a “multi-channel branded approach [to reach its audience], including…media, events, seminars and products” and “keep[s] community building at the centre of everything [it does]” (Reader’s Digest Magazines Canada Limited, 2009b). Readers’ contributions in tips and personal stories are regular features in the magazine. As Boullard notes, reader involvement breeds loyalty because participants are more likely to feel they played a role in developing the magazine (2008, p. 8). The brand’s focus on connecting and supporting women has resulted in a coveted readership: They are deeply engaged, trusting, and devoted. To advertisers across a broad spectrum, this audience is highly valuable.
Besthealthmag.ca was launched in tandem with the print magazine in March 2008. The website was designed as a “women’s healthy lifestyle [online] community” (Reader’s Digest Canada Magazines Limited, 2010c). Editorial on Besthealthmag.ca is organized into the same four editorial pillars as the magazine. The content takes shape in the form of slideshows, articles (most are original articles but some are from the magazine or repurposed from Reader’s Digest books), recipes, and quizzes. The website is updated several times a day with at least two new stories and one blog post a day. Besthealthmag.ca also features a multi-author blog, commenting and rating capabilities, forums, and interactive online tools. The website is complemented by accounts on Facebook and Twitter, which allow the web editors and readers to personally engage with one another. Readers are a part of creating and shaping the content on Besthealthmag.ca by commenting and rating stories, contributing to forums, or writing their own blogs. Readers can also preview and/or subscribe to the magazine online, and purchase Best Health branded products through the Reader’s Digest Canada online store.
The Best Health web team started small with one dedicated web editor, Kat Tancock. In less than a year, Tancock increased the number of unique visitors by more than 600 percent: There were 15,000 unique visitors in June 2008 and 100,000 in May 2009 (Reader’s Digest Magazines Canada Limited, 2010d). Reynolds attributes the dramatic growth to Tancock’s launch of several popular e-newsletters that provided multiple “clickable” links back to the site, and optimizing content for search (Reader’s Digest Magazines Canada Limited, 2010d). Any content that was previously published in the magazine was edited for the web by strategically incorporating keywords into headlines and subheads. By making it easier to find Best Health articles through Google, search traffic increased. The detailed data from Google Analytics allowed Tancock to determine which headlines, keywords, and tags produced the most clicks and highest open rates.
By the summer of 2009, Reader’s Digest Canada had a desirable web property in its hands and an editor with an intimate knowledge of Best Health’s online community. As well, as web editor, Tancock was very successful in building a community of readers, who were enthusiastic about interacting online (Paquet, interview, August 11, 2010). In order to increase the value of the Best Health website and brand to its advertisers, and increase company’s list of customers and prospects, the Reader’s Digest’s digital media executives knew they needed new users and readers. Moreover, substantial online audiences could be found on web portals. Initially, Reader’s Digest sought a partnership between a high-traffic portal and Readersdigest.ca and/or Selection.ca, but a ripe opportunity arose for Besthealthmag.ca with Sympatico.ca.
Sympatico.ca is a web portal owned by Bell Canada. Within the Sympatico.ca network, there are 23 websites, otherwise known was “online properties.” According to its advertising information, the Sympatico.ca network captures 85 percent of the Canadian online audience, with more than 17 million unique visitors each month (Sympatico.ca Advertising website, 2010).
When Sympatico.ca and MSN.ca parted ways, many members of the joint portal’s sales staff—and thus its national advertising accounts—remained with Sympatico.ca. Bell also retained advertisers with its strong hold on mobile marketing (Bell claims Sympatico.ca has the largest mobile advertising network in the country), which it could leverage in combination with its television and Internet platforms (Bell Canada Enterprises, 2009). Sympatico.ca also continued to offer display-advertising inventory on Windows Live Hotmail and Windows Messenger (its instant message software) to its advertisers (Bell Canada Enterprises, 2009).
In 1995, when the portal first launched, Sympatico.ca established a commitment to offering Canadian content in both official languages. The portal has separate editorial teams for English and French content, instead of just translating content to minimize costs. Sympatico.ca aims to produce content for Canadian users that authentically “reflects their voice and culture” (Sympatico.ca Advertising website, 2010).
As part of offering quality content to attract readers, the portal’s editors and managers developed the popular channels Celebedge.ca (celebrity news and gossip), Fashionism.ca (fashion and red-carpet looks; the portal’s most popular channel), InMusic.ca (music news and videos), Sync.ca (technology), and Push.ca (skateboard and snowboarding). According to comScore, approximately 6.8 million Canadians visited Sympatico.ca’s portals channels in 2009 (Bell Canada Enterprises, 2009). These channels are easier to market to users than the portal as whole because they are conceptually concrete as products. Style-savvy readers may have a relationship with Fashionism.ca but little recognition of or loyalty towards the Sympatico.ca brand, for example. And while the overall portal’s audience numbers are substantial, advertisers are more interested targeting the niche audiences who visit branded channels within the portal. The branded channels were a part of the former joint portal but they stayed on Sympatico.ca after the split.
On its own, Sympatico.ca gained greater editorial flexibility, which its editors and managers used to develop additional branded channels. Most of the content for these channels would be sourced from what Kevin Crull, president of residential services at Bell, called “top content providers” (Avery, 2009). In August 2009, Sympatico.ca announced four new channels: InMovies.ca, Autos, YourMoney.ca, and its new health and fitness channel, Best Health.
Behind the scenes of the MSN-Sympatico.ca split, Sympatico.ca and Reader’s Digest Canada were establishing the details of a partnership, and the timing was right for such a deal. As previously noted, both Reader’s Digest and Bell were seeking out opportunities to develop new business: Reader’s Digest needed more exposure for its up-and-coming brand in the marketplace and Sympatico.ca’s management was seeking high-quality content. Both parties saw a demand in the marketplace for health and fitness content, particularly in the sought-after demographic of women 35 to 55. Additionally, diet and fitness was an editorial niche that MSN (with content from Transcontinental) fulfilled in the former joint portal and Sympatico.ca needed to replace it after the split. So, the companies began to look into the possibility of a partnership to make Best Health the portal’s Health and Fitness channel. First, Bell and Reader’s Digest Canada investigated the potential benefits of working together.
As one of the three largest magazine publishers in the country, Reader’s Digest offers expertise in organizing content, building community, managing editorial, and developing brands (Paquet, interview, August 11, 2010). Best Health would be an asset to Sympatico.ca because of its wealth of quality health and lifestyle content. And since Best Health’s dedicated and specialized web editorial staff would produce this content, the need for Sympatico.ca to hire its own health-and-fitness editors would be eliminated. Also, Besthealthmag.ca offered an attractive amount of reader engagement and commenting on articles; by making Besthealthmag.ca its health and wellness channel, the portal could carve out a niche in its broad audience.
Perhaps one of the most important draws for Sympatico.ca was the cachet of a Reader’s Digest-developed brand, which had already been quickly established over its first year (Tancock, email interview, July 7, 2010). The general principle behind branding is that “a recognizable brand will more easily attract and retain customers than an unrecognizable one” (Bellamy and Traudt in Blevins, 2004, p. 250). Although a prominent brand name does not guarantee success, it can help lower barriers to entry (Blevins, p. 250). Moreover, a magazine brand imbues an inherent level of trustworthiness in the content, as illustrated by the OPA and Dynamic Logic studies discussed earlier.
On the other hand, partnering with Sympatico.ca would assist Reader’s Digest in its efforts to create what Tony Cioffi, President and CEO of Reader’s Digest, calls “multi-platform communities based on branded content” (Reader’s Digest Magazines Canada, 2009a). While Best Health’s website had already established the brand and its community on an online platform, the potential partnership would be a way to expand its presence; a partnership with Sympatico.ca would provide daily opportunities for Best Health’s editors to engage with a new audience (Reynolds, interview, August 9, 2010).
The most important advantage for Reader’s Digest in the potential partnership was an increase in traffic. While the number of visits to Besthealthmag.ca was respectable for a magazine website in its first year, and the site’s traffic from search and organic traffic (either through word of mouth or driven from callouts in the magazine) was significant, having Best Health content featured on a portal would multiply that traffic exponentially. A partnership with Sympatico.ca would offer Best Health a dedicated channel, meaning users seeking health and fitness content on the portal would be directed only to Besthealthmag.ca. This arrangement would virtually guarantee more readers for Best Health’s articles. Ultimately, a larger audience would present new sponsorship opportunities, more revenue, and eventually, it could justify hiring more members for the website’s editorial staff.
To definitively determine if there would be an increase in traffic for both parties, the companies consulted an Internet audience measurement agency to determine the size of the audience if a partnership were established. By combining the number of people who visit “Site A” (e.g. Besthealthmag.ca) and “Site B” (e.g. Sympatico.ca), and subtracting how many visit both, the size of the combined audience can be projected. At comScore, the combined audience is called the “audience duplication number.” If the audience of either site is comparable to the audience duplication number—or, in other words, there is a large overlap between the audiences—then a partnership would be effectively futile. Conversely, if a strong overlap is not evident, then there is opportunity for growth through forming a partnership. The calculations showed that both websites would gain traffic.
The benefits of a partnership were clear to both parties. As identified by Zahra Young, the director of marketing, e-commerce, partnerships, new magazines & series, Reader’s Digest four main goals/opportunities in establishing the partnership were to:
Generate advertising sales revenue [via increasing site traffic]
Increase brand awareness
Generate subscriptions and product sales
Generate new prospective customers [via email gathering]
(Reader’s Digest Magazines Canada Limited, 2010b)
Now came time to establish the details. Targets for traffic were set. Sympatico.ca would be responsible for directing traffic to Besthealthmag.ca and highlighting Best Health content on its home page. Best Health gained a tab on the portal’s navigation (see figure 1). When hovered over, the button revealed the four Best Health editorial categories and the “Health News” newswire. All of these links took the user to the corresponding section on Besthealthmag.ca. Best Health was also given a “brick” below the fold on the home page, to highlight articles chosen by Besthealthmag.ca’s editors (see figure 2). Sympatico.ca would also direct traffic to Best Health articles by featuring them on the home-page viewer, which is the dominating feature on the home page. In return, Best Health would draw traffic to Sympatico.ca by linking to the portal’s home page and helping to cultivate a regular readership by offering clickable and inviting content.
Figure 1. Sympatico.ca Home Page, Best Health dropdown menu. Each of the portal’s channels has a dropdown menu onthe home page. NB: The Sympatico.ca homepage was redesigned in November 2010. In the new design, the Best Health “brick” is located just below the fold.
Figure 2. The Sympatico.ca Home Page prior to November 2010.
A unique aspect of the partnership is its revenue-sharing model: In this agreement, the companies’ sales teams work collaboratively to sell their shared online display-advertising inventory. Both parties are motivated to support traffic to Besthealthmag.ca and Sympatico.ca because if Besthealthmag.ca’s traffic sags, so do Sympatico.ca’s revenues, and vice versa. Under the partnership, two groups sell ads for the health and fitness channel: the Reader’s Digest media sales team, which sells integrated, cross-platform (print and online) advertising, and the Sympatico.ca sales team, which sells online advertising only. The Reader’s Digest media sales team lends Sympatico.ca’s team know-how in building, pitching and selling multimedia brands.
A final synergy established through the deal was the possibility of running co-branded contests. Best Health’s digital marketing department could produce the contest creative (i.e. display ads, entry pages, etc.), and source the prizes. The contests could be promoted on the websites’ home pages, contest hubs, newsletters, banners, and in Best Health, increasing the exposure of both brands (Reader’s Digest Magazines Canada Limited, 2010b). More importantly, however, contests are simple ways for Sympatico.ca and Best Health to gather names, emails and other customer data. For Best Health, a contest is an opportunity to acquire a new subscriber: special subscription offers on contest entry forms (see figure 3) can create new customers. The online entry forms also offer Best Health an easy way to build the readership of its free e- newsletters: Entrants need only to check off a box on the form.
Best Health began working with Sympatico.ca at the beginning of August 2009, as it progressively integrated its content on to Sympatico.ca’s existing health and wellness channel. The official launch on September 1, 2009, was supported by a public-relations campaign to raise awareness of the partnership in the public, as well as the industry. In the first three weeks of integration, the website drew over 1.5 million visits—approximately ten times the number of users before the partnership (comScore, Inc. Canada, 2010; Bailey and Tcholakian, 2009). This increase in traffic meant new visitors, and countless additional opportunities to build lasting relationships with readers.
The partnership was the first of its kind in Canada (Paquet, interview, August 11, 2010). The making of a magazine brand into the channel of a high-traffic web portal was unprecedented. The partnership was effectively a merging of Besthealthmag.ca into Sympatico.ca. To any outsider, Besthealthmag.ca is just another of Sympatico.ca’s branded channels, except it offers other branded products, such as the magazine. Says Jennifer Goldberg, web editor of Besthealthmag.ca, some of the comments left on the website indicate that some users believe that the content is produced and published by Sympatico.ca (interview, July 21, 2010). Like Fashionism (fashionism.ca), Best Health has its own domain, but its relationship as a property under the Sympatico.ca umbrella is patent. Now a part of a web portal, Best Health was transforming itself into a media brand, and not just a print magazine. Furthermore, this partnership demonstrated how it was possible for a Canadian magazine brand to build a readership large enough to attract major national advertisers.
Impact on Traffic
To say that the traffic to Besthealthmag.ca increased in August 2009 is a gross understatement. Reader’s Digest’s Google Analytics data for Besthealthmag.ca illustrates the enormous impact of the partnership:
Source: Best Health/Sympatico.ca Partnership Update, prepared by Zahra Young (Reader’s Digest Magazines Canada Limited, 2010a)
It is understood at Reader’s Digest that the scale of the audience’s growth simply would not be possible without a partnership like this (Tancock, email interview, July 7, 2010). Though dramatic, the increase in users matched Reader’s Digest and Sympatico.ca’s expectations for Besthealthmag.ca, which were based on traffic to the portal’s previous health and fitness section. ComScore measured 465,000 unique visitors to the site in July 2010, and 976,000 total visits or “entries.” Three hundred and seventy-one (371,000) unique visitors (80 percent) and 676,000 visits (69 percent) were directed from a Sympatico.ca property (see “Traffic Sources and Losses,” p. 55). As well, the website gained tens of thousands of Best Health newsletter subscribers (Reader’s Digest Magazines Canada Limited, 2010a).
Notably, the partnership also increased the website’s male readership. Aside from the occasional “Male Call” article or a small tidbit in Best Health’s front-of-book section, “New and Now,” content in the magazine is primarily directed at women. A similar editorial makeup was initially adopted for the website; however, a higher proportion of Sympatico.ca’s readership is male. To better serve the portal’s readership, Besthealthmag.ca included a “Men’s Health” category in its “Get Healthy” section online and tailored more of its content to be gender neutral. Currently, over a third (37.3 percent) of the website’s readership is male (comScore, Inc. Canada, 2010).
Since Besthealthmag.ca directs traffic back to the Sympatico.ca websites, there have been gains for Sympatico.ca, as well, in terms of traffic: In July 2010, 214,000 unique visitors (46 percent) clicked to another site in the Sympatico.ca network after visiting the Best Health channel (comScore, Inc. Canada, 2010). The partnership also boosted Sympatico.ca’s Health and Fitness channel into the number seven spot in the “Health” category, as defined by comScore. Aside from About.com’s Health channel and Health.com, the Sympatico.ca Health and Fitness channel performs better in Canada than any other portal or media site in the same category, including MSN Health (Rank 26), CNN Health (Rank 25), and Canoe Health (Rank 8) (comScore, Inc. Canada).
As a result of the partnership, the sales teams for Reader’s Digest and Sympatico.ca can offer their advertisers improved ways to reach more consumers. For example, an advertiser may sponsor a section on Best Health’s site and purchase ad space anywhere on the Sympatico.ca network (also known as “run-of-site advertising”) at a discounted rate. Obviously, the partnership produced another important incentive for advertisers: the website’s increased readership. The larger audience was an important selling point for companies such as Becel, Shredded Wheat, and Splenda, who have sponsored entire categories of content (Heart Health, Simple Living, and Diabetes, respectively). Most notably, VICHY, the international skincare brand, partnered with Best Health to launch its own dedicated micro-site, the VICHY Best Health Challenge, “an invitation to women across Canada to dare themselves to Look Great, Get Healthy, Eat Well and Embrace Life” (Best Health 2010b). An initiative of this size simply could not be launched or sustained by Best Health without the sponsorship of VICHY—which would not be possible without the partnership with Sympatico.ca.
Impact on Brand Awareness and Product Sales
Like being on the newsstand, being on a web portal works as a powerful marketing and promotion tool for a magazine and its brand. Sometimes, it makes the first impression, setting the tone for the reader’s future interactions with the brand. Partly because there is no simple way gauge this change, there are no available data to indicate that Best Health magazine or brand are more well-known since partnering with Sympatico.ca. However, it is safe to venture that by simply being on Sympatico.ca’s home page, the network’s most popular property, more Canadians are aware that Best Health exists since its visibility has increased.
Reaching Sympatico.ca’s audience means more people interact with Best Health and may develop a positive perception of the brand. Accordingly, this strategic partnership offers Reader’s Digest an opportunity to substantially grow the online brand community. In the framework for analyzing online brand communities put forward by Madupu and Cooley (2010), online brand communities exist because their members seek “information, self-discovery, social integration, social enhancement, and entertainment” (p.127). When those needs are served and members feel integrated into the community, they recommend the brand to outsiders out of a felt responsibility to contribute to the success and longevity of the brand (Madupu and Cooley, p.141). The more active participants (those that create content or offer their opinions) there are in such a community, the larger the force is to convert first-time visitors into return visitors. The formidable online community Best Health brought into its partnership with Sympatico.ca worked powerfully to its advantage: Readers who were introduced to Besthealthmag.ca through Sympatico.ca were “welcomed” by the existing brand community and the community “wardens” (in this case, the publisher and the web editorial team).
Perhaps due to the strength of the online brand community, the percentage of traffic to Besthealthmag.ca from Sympatico.ca’s position is diminishing since the partnership began (Google Analytics report, September-November 2010). Besthealthmag.ca is becoming a regular destination for more users, who are bookmaking the website and landing there directly, rather than arriving via Sympatico.ca properties. This development illustrates growing audience loyalty and brand recognition for Best Health.
Does this brand awareness and community engagement translate to magazine sales? Traditionally, one of the primary goals for a magazine website was to sell subscriptions (Sumner and Rhoades, 2006, p. 79). However, anecdotal evidence does not suggest that a larger online readership translates into increased subscriptions or newsstand sales (Goldberg, interview, July 21, 2010; McAuley, interview, July 28, 2010). Even if one were to assume that the entire readership of BestHealth magazine is part of the website’s audience, the overlap between the print and online audienceswould be small compared to the actual number of monthly unique visitors. Furthermore, if most of the traffic is from a Sympatico.ca property, rather than direct traffic, then it is highly probable that most readers do not interact with Best Health in magazine form. It is especially telling that the number of visitors on articles, slideshows, and blog content dwarfs the traffic to pages about the magazine, such as the table of contents, the magazine preview, or pages where readers can buy a subscription (Google Analytics report, 2010).
Even still, the web designers and editors endeavour to support the magazine and make it visible to its online readers. Above the fold on the Besthealthmag.ca home page, there are multiple calls to action to subscribe and a tab in the main navigation for content related to the current issue of the magazine (see figure 4). Additionally, a subscription form appears at the bottom of the right-hand column of every page; the digital marketing team sometimes sweetens the deal with a chance to win a $50,000 car, for example, if you subscribe (Best Health, 2010a). Magazine subscriptions are also promoted in the weekly and daily e-newsletters, and the editorial team reminds readers to subscribe by appending articles originally published in the magazine with the note:
This article was originally titled “[Name of the article in the magazine]” in the [September2010] issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience—andnever miss an issue!—and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health (Best Health, 2010a; emphasis in original).
Continuing to support the magazine online is important to the Reader’s Digest media sales team, as they sell cross-platform advertising; to effectively sell the Best Health audience, the strength of the print readership needs to be maintained—for as long as people are interested in print magazines.
A brand can adapt to different media as readers’ attitudes and preferences shift. A brand can have a life beyond the print magazine, as is the case with Gourmet magazine. A significant goal for the company’s digital and social media strategies was to raise awareness of the Best Health brand among Canadians. Building platform-agnostic relationships between community members and the brand is the first step in creating additional revenue streams—including digital services, such as mobile apps and SMS subscriptions; in-person events, and books—out of a magazine brand.
Figure 4 A screenshot of Besthealthmag.ca, with calls to subscribe highlighted. NB: the middle area of the page wasomitted.
The Launch of Plaisirs Santé
Even before the launch of the partnership with Sympatico.ca, Reader’s Digest began to investigate the viability of launching a French-language version of the brand. When preparing for the launch of Best Health, the company published Special Interest Publications (“SIPs” or “newsstand specials”) called No Fail Weight Loss under the Best Health brand. These digest-sized magazines, which are sold on newsstands, include recipes, workout programs, and weight-loss and nutrition advice. SIPs are a cost-effective way to try out content, design and branding in the market. Accordingly, Reader’s Digest published a French edition of No Fail Weight Loss (Maigrir Sans Faute) under the Plaisirs Santé (meaning “Best Health” or “Healthy Pleasures”) brand, to test the appeal of women’s health and fitness content in the French Canadian market. The publisher also tested the content in the lifestyle section of Sélection du Reader’s Digest and created a channel for the brand on Selection.ca.
The market research showed there was a positive response from advertisers and readers, but the projected profit and losses showed the publisher that the timing was not right to launch a print magazine. However, Reader’s Digest could build a large and desirable readership online—through a partnership with Sympatico.ca, which it secured for the launch of the website.
Plaisirssante.ca debuted on Sympatico.ca in January 2010. Within its first month online, Plaisirssante.ca drew 300,000 visitors and 1.5 million page views (Reader’s Digest Magazines Canada Limited, 2010d). Additional traffic is driven to the website through promotion on the main navigation and in the health section of Selection.ca, and in print in Sélection.
Directed at readers in Quebec, content on Plaisirssante.ca is more localized and “less conservative,” says its web editor, Stéphanie Letourneau (email interview, August 16, 2010). Its target demographic skews slightly younger as well (women 25-50). While the English audience generally looks for more “newsy” stories, the French editors find that their readers click more on content related to sex and weight-loss (Letourneau). But overall, like Besthealthmag.ca, Plaisirssante.ca’s focus is to deliver “healthy lifestyle information that’s inspiring, attainable, and fun” (Reader’s Digest Magazines Canada Limited, 2009b). The French website is also organized into four parallel editorial pillars: “Mon Look,” “Ma Santé,” “Mon Assiette,” and “Ma Vie.”
For Reader’s Digest Canada, Plaisirs Santé was a landmark initiative: the launch of a brand that started online, rather than in print. Not only does the success of Plaisirs Santé mark significant progress in the company’s overall efforts to move into digital publishing, but in the short term, it also means move revenues, and fuller exploitation of the market interested in health and fitness content. The stake in the French market presents improved opportunities for the Sympatico.ca and Reader’s Digest media sales teams. With Plaisirs Santé as part of the Sympatico.ca family, Sympatico.ca and Reader’s Digest may offer national advertisers tremendous flexibility and reach with this bilingual, cross-platform brand.
Web Editorial for Portals
Best Health’s web editors are responsible for producing content that works for advertisers, the Sympatico.ca home-page editors, and both websites’ readers. The content on Besthealthmag.ca evolves according to the changing needs of these stakeholders. This section discusses the editorial practices and strategies unique to Besthealthmag.ca, which have developed out of its partnership with a national general interest portal.
The Besthealthmag.ca editorial team has changed substantially as the website has grown. Besthealthmag.ca is primarily managed by web editor Jennifer Goldberg and assistant web editor Alicia McAuley.Goldberg and McAuley plan and assign content, oversee production, and manage and contribute to the Best Health blog. The editors also respond to comments from readers and are responsible for posting on Facebook and Twitter. Aside from a handful of freelancers and the senior web editor (Tancock, who manages editorial on all the Reader’s Digest Canada magazine websites), the two editors compose the entire web team for the audience of over half a million users.
On a Canadian scale, the Best Health web editorial team is quite big. Many magazines rely on just one dedicated editor (or, in many cases, volunteers). In comparison, Self.com, the website for a comparable U.S. publication—with a print circulation of over one million (Condé Nast, 2010), employs a web team of four members.
According to web editor, Jennifer Goldberg, the Besthealthmag.ca editorial team is an agile operation, whose small size works to its advantage. Although there are limitations to having just three editors —such as how much they can produce and cover—Best Health’s web team discusses ideas easily and efficiently. This ease of communication makes it simple to make changes as requested by the portal site. Without the managerial bureaucracy that exists with publishers that license content from many of their magazine brands, “a small team of flexible and creative editors probably works better as a partner for a portal than a larger team that may work more slowly,” says Goldberg (email interview, October 26, 2010). For example, without a lot of lead-time, Sympatico.ca can coordinate special projects with the Best Health web editorial team, as they are more adaptable and work closely with one another.
While working with Sympatico.ca brings Best Health content to a larger audience, there are also increased demands on the online editorial and production staff. The partnership requires coordination and extensive planning on the part of the Best Health web editors to plan upcoming content with the home-page editors for Sympatico.ca.
New editorial strategies emerge when needing to consider two audiences and the expectations and predilections of an additional editorial team. Sympatico.ca’s home-page editors select their content based on what they think will engage visitors and increase their time on the site; accordingly, content providers, such as Best Health, must design content strategically to get optimal placement on the portal’s home page. The articles, blogs and slideshows Best Health’s web editors offer to their readers need to be interesting, valuable, and informative to a broad audience—it has to be the kind of content that will be the most “clickable.” This is what Halligan and Shan (2010) call “remarkable content”:
Remarkable content attracts links from other web sites pointing to your web site.…Every one of these links (remarks)…send[s] you qualified visitors, and they signal to Google that your website is worthy of ranking for important keywords in your market…. remarkable content is easily and quickly spread on social media sites.
Ultimately, the high-level goal for the web editorial team is to produce content that performs. In the past, search engine optimizing content was a vital editorial practice for Besthealthmag.ca. Today, search traffic makes up less than five percent of the site’s total traffic (comScore, Inc. Canada, 2010). Accordingly, Best Health’s editorial is meant to appeal to an audience that does not actively seek out health and fitness content but will be exposed to it on the portal site. One primary method to generate traffic from the portal audience is incorporating topics, titles, and descriptions that grab the attention of online readers. Not unlike any other website, analytics are a helpful resource in determining what sorts of subjects, keywords, and—speaking more generally—ideas are relevant and compelling. The web team has found that historically, articles related to the following topics are highly likely to gather an audience and be promoted in a strong position on the Sympatico.ca home page:
Weight loss (This topic performs particularly well on Mondays, after readers have had indulgent weekends)
Sleep (Articles on this topic especially grabs readers on Fridays, as they are likely to have lost sleep over the week)
Food (Articles on healthy eating, dieting and nutrition, as well as recipes, aregenerally successful)
The web editorial team has also found that articles with a “negative” spin perform well (Goldberg, interview, July 21, 2010; McAuley, interview, July 28, 2010). For example, “The worst Halloween treats you can eat” and “Top 10 weight-loss mistakes” are titles written with the understanding that readers are curious about how they could be harming their health (or their waistline). Words such as weird, strange, easy, tips, surprising, and unusual, and titles with numbers (e.g. “7 things that are secretly making you gain weight” ) also work well to bring readers to Best Health’s website from Sympatico.ca (Goldberg; McAuley). Articles with numbered titles are often made into slideshows, which increase page views and time spent on site—and thus, the number of impressions for advertisements.
Reader engagement is also integral to the editorial strategy for Besthealthmag.ca, as community and dialogue are central to the brand. Readers are always invited to comment and join in the conversation, particularly on blog posts on “newsy” or controversial topics. Similarly, the web editors use Facebook and Twitter to draw the Best Health social media community to the site. For instance, in October 2010, the editors asked Best Health’s Facebook fans, “Have you had laser eye surgery? What was it like?” and linked to their story “Is laser eye surgery right for you?” (Facebook, 2010). The editors also use social networks to produce user-generated content. In another Facebook post, the Best Health editors wrote, “Happy Friday, everyone! Office party today for our soon-to-be-married associate web editor. What are your best tips for a happy, healthy marriage? (Let us know and we may feature them on our site!)” (Facebook ) The responses from readers were used to produce the slideshow “The best advice for a healthy relationship.” Essentially, Facebook and Twitter are two additional avenues to expose readers to the brand and content, and increase the dialogue around health issues for women.
The use of social media to promote Best Health content does not mean that Besthealthmag.ca is an insular community or a “walled garden.” Aufderheide (in Blevins, 2004) notes that only linking to one’s own content “structure[s] the user as a consumer of branded services”—and not trust-worthy reporting (p. 248). The practice of linking to sources and resources “is the key gesture to being a citizen of the web and not just a product on the web” (Sholin, 2009). In order to increase the credibility of the content and brand, Best Health links out to research studies, health stories by other media websites, and blog posts. This connects Best Health with the larger community of health and fitness websites, and increases the likelihood that other websites will link back to Besthealthmag.ca (and increase its ranking within Google). Making more quality content (regardless of the brand) available to the user has multiple benefits, including improving user experience. After all, the quality of the user and their satisfaction is much more valuable to the publisher and the advertiser:
By adding links out to stories…readers will find interesting, [websites are] extending their brands: Not only do they create content for their readers, they’re presenting themselves as the experts in those content areas, giving their subscribers even more value. And you can make a lot more money off a newsletter subscriber than off a click (Tancock, 2009b).
The best practices presented above are at the foundation of the success Besthealthmag.ca has found since partnering Sympatico.ca. Using these techniques, the editorial team manages to create articles that grab the attention of daily readers on a crowded portal page—and on Besthealthmag.ca, which itself is densely populated with a growing archive of useful and interesting content. Quality content is the foundation for building a quality readership and community—the elements of a website that produce an appealing environment for advertisers.
One of the challenges of being a part of a web portal is working with at least two brands (in this case, Best Health and Sympatico.ca), and dozens of advertising brands. When the editorial team plans lineups of content, it creates stories around the Best Health brand while remaining “very mindful of the Sympatico.ca audience” (Tancock, email interview, July 7, 2010).
The Best Health brand has four editorial pillars but content under “Look Great” and “Embrace Life” does not necessarily fit Sympatico.ca’s editorial mandate for its health and fitness channel. Moreover, Sympatico.ca already publishes fashion and beauty content under the Fashionism channel, and has a separate lifestyle channel. Since Sympatico.ca features only Best Health’s health and fitness articles on its home page, “Get Healthy” and “Eat Well” stories generate the most page views for Besthealthmag.ca.
Nonetheless, beauty and lifestyle content are integral parts of the Best Health brand, and for some readers who come directly to Besthealthmag.ca, it may be the content they are looking for. To maintain the brand’s editorial voice, the editorial team tries to produce an equal number of articles for each pillar, even though “Look Great” and “Embrace Life” life articles are usually not pitched to Sympatico.ca.
Additionally, the editors need to consider the communities associated with each brand. For Sympatico.ca, they aim to produce items that are not specifically aimed at women because the portal has a broader audience than Best Health. While this is a departure from the Best Health brand, it is beneficial for Besthealthmag.ca’s traffic: Tancock has found that stories that appeal to men and women—such as articles related to fitness, weight loss and healthy eating—produce more clicks (Tancock, email interview, July 7, 2010). At the same time, the web editorial team still publishes more gender-specific, serious issue-oriented, or news-related stories (which have a narrower appeal) on Besthealthmag.ca as a way of keeping Best Health content informative, authoritative and insightful—in other words, true to the brand.
A highly trafficked website with the right audience can draw coveted advertisers, who demand unique and prominent ways to showcase their products. This was true for Besthealthmag.ca. However, the original website (launched in March 2008) was not designed with the partnership with Sympatico.ca in mind. In the summer of 2010, Besthealthmag.ca and Plaisirssante.ca were given makeovers (Masthead Online, 2010). The redesign lends the websites a different colour scheme and allows for many more points of entry into Best Health’s (and the Reader’s Digest Association’s) vast bank of health content. Overall, the site was made more functional, usable, and “sticky.”
The redesign also shows that Best Health is part of the Sympatico.ca media family more overtly by visually integrating the two brands. Since links to health and fitness content on the Sympatico.ca portal take the reader directly to Besthealthmag.ca, arriving at the old website was sometimes jarring for the first-time user. In the redesign, the Sympatico.ca logo is prominently featured in the upper right-hand corner of the website to signal the connection between the two properties. On most pages, Besthealthmag.ca also features links to lifestyle content from Sympatico.ca, increasing brand awareness for the portal amongst visitors.
Additionally, the new design allows Best Health’s advertisers to do more with the larger audience: “One of the challenges with the old site was it didn’t always allow for the flexibility with advertisers,” Tancock told Masthead Online (Masthead Online, 2010).
The first custom-built program for the new site was the previously mentioned VICHY Best Health Challenge, where participants “pick a [health or fitness] goal and reach it, with help and support from the Best Health community of women” (Best Health, 2010b). The VICHY Best Health Challenge is a multi-platform content and advertising program sponsored by the international skincare company. Each issue of the print magazine includes Challenge-based content. Online, registered participants (called “Challengers”) can set goals, take part in daily challenges, discuss and ask questions in the forums, and write about their experiences on their blogs. The micro-site has its own branding and exclusive content from beauty, fitness, and nutrition experts, and a life coach. The Challenge is also supported by a weekly newsletter, which features new content and forum discussions, and promotes online-community engagement. Best Health’s Editor-in-Chief Bonnie Munday notes, “The Challenge enabled us to create a unique setting for women to empower and inspire one another…Plus, the response to our call for participation in the program was tremendous” (Reader’s Digest Magazines Canada Limited, 2010a).
Since the program is targeted at a specific audience that may or may not have been readers of Besthealthmag.ca or of Sympatico.ca, the Challenge has the potential to introduce a new audience to the web portal; community members who visit the Challenge website directly (perhaps having been prompted by the magazine), also see Sympatico.ca’s branding and links to its content. With the Best Health Challenge, the partnership is further evolving into a symbiosis where both media brands support each other in brand awareness and traffic driving, and ultimately, shared advertising revenue.
Case Study: Readersdigest.ca, Selection.ca, and MSN.ca
The success of the Best Health and Sympatico.ca partnership proved that Reader’s Digest Canada could leverage its content and brands online to produce advertiser-friendly environments. With this in mind, Reader’s Digest Canada sought out another formidable online partner for its flagship magazine websites, Readersdigest.ca and Selection.ca, with the hope of replicating the audience growth that came out of the first partnership. MSN.ca had an audience large enough to appeal to Readersdigest.ca and Selection.ca’s potential and existing advertisers; and Reader’s Digest Canada had content, experience and a trusted brand to offer the portal. A partnership was finalized late in the summer of 2010. After months of planning and negotiation, in October 2010, content from Selection.ca was published on MSN.ca.”
Readersdigest.ca and Selection.ca
Readersdigest.ca has five content “affinities”: Health, Food, Home and Garden, Pets (which premiered in October 2009), and Travel (which was added in April 2010). The website is updated with two to three new articles daily, and offers readers practical home and lifestyle content that they can use to improve their everyday lives. Readersdigest.ca also offers special content features such as a Halloween Guide for October and an Outdoor Entertaining section in the summer months. Overall, the website mirrors the “RD Living” section of the magazine: It is a collection of consumer-oriented articles and tips, written in a casual and friendly voice. The content is comparable to that found in the magazines Canadian Living, Homemakers, and U.S. brands such as Martha Stewart Living, Good Housekeeping, and Real Simple. The Readersdigest.ca readership—of approximately 378,000 unique visitors a month—is 66 percent female (comScore, Inc. Canada, 2010). The average reader is over 35 years old, and has a yearly household income of $40,000-$60,000 (comScore, Inc. Canada).
The English-language audience in Canada far outnumbers its French counterpart ; as a result, the digital strategy at Reader’s Digest Canada is very much oriented towards the English market. Readersdigest.ca has two full-time editors, while Selection.ca has just one part-time web editor and one of the magazine’s print editors is responsible for a considerable portion of the website’s upkeep. Still, the French Canadian readership is an integral part of the publisher’s history, and Quebec is a market where a magazine can develop an exceptionally loyal readership partly because there are fewer competitors from the United States. For that reason, Selection.ca has found an audience with more ease and less marketing.
Selection.ca is geared towards younger readers (the lower age bracket of its target audience is 18-25 years old). There is a larger focus on consumer tips and product-oriented content on Selection.ca, instead of the instructional “how-to” articles that appear on the English site (Barillaro, interview, July 8, 2010). The four Selection.ca affinities are Bien Manger, Maison, Santé, and Animaux. And like Plaisirssante.ca, Selection.ca produces more local content to appeal to readers inQuebec, who make up most of the French-language audience in Canada (approximately 90 percent) (comScore, Inc. Canada, 2010).
For Readersdigest.ca and Selection.ca, one of the publisher’s primary goals is to build community engagement. Both websites have a substantial number of return users, and the websites have cultivated a nascent sense of community (Paquet, interview, August 11, 2010). However, there is potential to foster more “active users.” Currently, Readersdigest.ca has interactive features such as polls and “Join the Debate,” a feature that invites users to discuss a topic featured in the magazine. The websites’ editors are also using social media to encourage more interaction. In the summer of 2010, Readersdigest.ca re-established its presence on Facebook ; since then, it has been using similar practices to Besthealthmag.ca (i.e. linking to recent articles; asking questions to Facebook fans to spark discussions) to engage its audience and promote fresh content. A partnership with a portal is another mechanism to stimulate more activity in the online community by drawing more traffic. Having a platform to invite new audiences into the Reader’s Digest brand communities is one of the most important opportunities in working with MSN.ca.
When MSN Canada and Sympatico.ca ended their partnership, the former emerged as the stronger of the two portal sites (Reynolds, interview, August 9, 2010). Microsoft also claims it is the number one home-page portal in Canada, with 10 million unique visitors a month (Microsoft Advertising website, 2010b). To prepare for the newly reestablished MSN.ca, Microsoft added about 60 advertising and editorial staff (Avery, 2009). Though Sympatico.ca staff had close relationships with Canadian brands, international campaigns drifted towards MSN.ca and its international sales team (Lloyd, 2009). Furthermore, during the relaunch, Microsoft Canada executives announced they would seek out Canadian advertising accounts for MSN.ca by offering Canadian content on the portal.
However, MSN.ca also lost many of its content providers in the split. Microsoft Canada planned to offer the same channels on the new MSN.ca as the former joint portal did (Lloyd, 2009). So, content was sourced from MSNBC, BBC, Delish, CBC/Radio-Canada, Chatelaine and Protégez-vous to populate the portal (Microsoft Canada, 2009). Today, the English-language site has 15 channels, including one that is branded—Delish, its food and recipe channel (Microsoft Advertising website, 2010a). The majority of content published on MSN.ca is from third parties. MSN.ca’s largest content partnership is with Rogers Media, which provides content to the portal site under numerous magazines brands. Reader’s Digest Canada is the second largest Canadian media company to partner with MSN.ca. Establishing a partnership with Reader’s Digest reflects MSN.ca’s efforts to compete with Sympatico.ca in providing Canadian content to its audience.
Though Reader’s Digest had already forged a partnership with a web portal, initiating another one would require the company to evaluate the details of a deal anew to negotiate the most beneficial (and profitable) arrangement for its websites. First off, the company needed to find the portal that could provide the optimal audience for Reader’s Digest. Next, Reader’s Digest and the portal would have to decide if money would be exchanged. They would also need to determine what kind of content Reader’s Digest would provide and how the would portal link users back to Readersdigest.ca or Selection.ca. Advertising sales would be another point of discussion. In short, the partnership with Sympatico.ca could only serve as a scanty outline for how to create a successful partnership involving different magazine brands and a distinct web portal.
The finalized partnership gives MSN.ca access to Reader’s Digest content from across Reader’s Digest’s affinities, with a focus on lifestyle and travel. Articles from Readersdigest.ca or Selection.ca are hosted on the portal site, thus making Reader’s Digest content visible to many more readers; links in the articles to Readersdigest.ca or Selection.ca will drive traffic to the respective sites—if readers are inclined to click through. If the partnership is successful, Reader’s Digest will gain additional and/or larger accounts based on the increased traffic sourced from the portal. Ideally, a presence on MSN.ca will also result in readers actively seeking out Readersdigest.ca or Selection.ca content independently, and/or increasing engagement with the brands through signing up for newsletters, purchasing products, entering contests or buying subscriptions.
Reader’s Digest offered MSN.ca other editorial efficiencies besides a supply of original content. MSN.ca’s home-page editors work with many content providers, and those that can simplify the process are at an advantage. Thus, due to its size and numerous magazine brands, Rogers Media’s significant relationship with MSN.ca is likely a cumbersome one. Although Rogers offers a wealth of content and powerful brand names, the company’s organizational structure offers limited flexibility. Conversely, Reader’s Digest has only one contact person responsible for liaising with MSN.ca to deliver French and English content: Maria Barillaro, associate web editor for Readersdigest.ca. As Goldberg suggested when speaking about the benefits of working with the Best Health editorial team, a smaller team means the process is streamlined but the content offered to the portal is still rich and varied (Goldberg, email interview, October 26, 2010).
In several ways, this partnership is very similar to the Besthealthmag.ca/Sympatico.ca deal: Again, Reader’s Digest is offering its partner the benefit of a web editorial staff that is well-versed in creating quality content. Similarly, the publisher is leveraging its recognized media brands and content on digital platforms to seek new audiences; in turn, the portal can offer its audience an enriched experience. The salient differences of the partnership are in the details: Reader’s Digest content will be published in thematic channels alongside content from other providers. The publisher’s content will be simply branded with the display of a logo on MSN.ca. Thus, without dedicated channels for Reader’s Digest’s brands, it will be harder to establish a presence on the busy portal site and get readers to notice their stories. Furthermore, since MSN.ca is not relying only on Readersdigest.ca to supply content for their channels; accordingly, there are no guarantees that items from Reader’s Digest will be published on MSN.ca, particularly if other content partners present stories that are more competitive. Furthermore, the popularity of story on MSN.ca will not directly translate into traffic for Reader’s Digest’s websites if the “related stories” or internal links are not appealing to readers.
Publishing Reader’s Digest Content on MSN.ca
In the initial months of the partnership, the primary editorial challenge will be to build successful articles by creating content that will appeal to the MSN.ca editors, and draw people back to the Sélection or Reader’s Digest websites, such as recipes, how-to articles, and slideshows. When preparing content with a portal audience in mind, there are new considerations. For example, at the most basic level, there is a different audience to cater to. As the editors of Besthealthmag.ca have found working in a portal environment, a key editorial responsibility in this type of partnership is producing the content that MSN.ca calls for (for its audience) while making sure to maintain the integrity of the Reader’s Digest content and brands.
Keeping in mind what Reader’s Digest can offer that is unique from the portal’s other content providers, Barillaro designs a lineup of content for MSN.ca. For MSN.ca’s French site, Barillaro pitches items for the portal’s Maison, Vie Practique, Cuisine, Amour et sexualité, Famille, and Mode et beauté channels. For the English site, Readersdigest.ca will provide content for the Lifestyle and Travel channels (Barillaro, interview, August 4, 2010). When offering articles to MSN.ca, it is important for the editor to show that there is an audience for each article or gallery. For example, when pitching “5 delicious low-fat Thanksgiving recipes,” the editor would highlight the thousands of health-conscious homemakers who are planning holiday dinners. Producing original articles for MSN.ca will also be priority for Readersdigest.ca’s editors, as it gives editors the ability to target the MSN.ca audience directly.
Along with additional administration and correspondence, the partnership creates new demands on the editorial teams for Readersdigest.ca and Selection.ca. When MSN.ca publishes an article or gallery from either website, Barillaro must review and monitor the content on the portal. She moderates comments posted on the syndicated articles (and alerts an MSN.ca editor if there is an issue), and ensures that the content has been accurately reproduced on the portal site (i.e. all the images appear correctly, and all the links are functional). To improve the performance of Reader’s Digest articles on the portal, the editor also notes patterns in the type of content MSN.ca has selected, and which stories or techniques successfully drive users back to the Reader’s Digest websites. Another responsibility for the web editor is keeping an eye on competing content providers to stay abreast of successful practices and new trends.
At the moment, Barillaro is playing a game of “fill in the blanks,” armed only with some basic clues about MSN.ca’s readers and their behaviour. Each partnership has unique qualities that make creating successful content a dynamic and sometimes unpredictable process. For example, each portal designed differently—leading users’ eyes in a different pattern on the home page—and each portal has a unique content delivery system, different content providers, and a distinctive audience. This is an intricate environment for a web editor to approach. As Barillaro observes how the audience and traffic patterns shift in the coming months, as a result of the partnership with MSN.ca, the most “clickable” words will be more apparent and a better understanding of what the Reader’s Digest Canada and Sélection brands can offer to a broad audience of online Canadians will emerge.
At this time, it is still too early to tell the exact impact on traffic and audience development this partnership will have, and whether the company’s audience-growth and revenue goals will be met. The number of visitors to Readerdigest.ca or Selection.ca will increase; however, without a dedicated channel or a revenue-sharing model that Besthealthmag.ca has the advantage of, the audience growth will likely be less dramatic.
For multiple reasons, including taking advantage of the influx of traffic they expect from MSN.ca, Reader’s Digest’s digital media team is in the midst of redesigning of Readersdigest.ca and Selection.ca. Like the redesign of Besthealthmag.ca, the new look will treat each page of the website like a “landing page,” with multiple points of entry to other content on the site. By having fully branded pages, the design will signal to first-time visitors where they are as soon as they arrive from MSN.ca. Furthermore, at a time when there will be many new visitors, Reader’s Digest is also introducing new games and humour affinities to the website to capitalize on those areas of content. Games and humour have already proven to be popular among the existing Readersdigest.ca audience, and having more of this type of content on the website is certain to increase the time spent on the website.
Overall, the publisher is forging ahead with confidence that the partnership will be hugely beneficial to its online business. The anticipated success of the partnership with MSN.ca is a significant part of the publisher’s plan to expand its reach in the digital market and become the top Canadian magazine brand online. Reader’s Digest is not widely known for offering cutting-edge technology or sophisticated web strategies, but already, the company has expanded into the largest publisher’s digital network in Canada (Scott, 2010). If this second portal partnership does well, it will confirm the viability of the portal partnership strategy.
If one is to accept the Best Health/Sympatico.ca partnership as a typical example of what a magazine publisher can accomplish by teaming with a portal, then it appears that Reader’s Digest Canada has done the formerly impossible: It successfully attracted regular and targeted traffic to a Canadian magazine website—and made it profitable. This business model is not the only way for Canadian magazine companies to build an online audience; undoubtedly, other models and strategies have worked for other publishers. However, it shows tremendous promise. For Best Health, a presence on the Sympatico.ca home page continues to be its primary traffic driver; Reader’s Digest simply could not have gathered the same size audience without a partnership of this sort, despite putting tremendous effort into search engine marketing, SEO, and newsletter campaigns. The portal is a crucial partner for revenue generation, name gathering, and audience development—and this will continue to be true as long as portals continue to be a destination for web users.
As such, there are opportunities for other established, multi-title magazine companies to leverage their content and publishing expertise to forge similar relationships with popular websites. Generally, a perennial problem for Canadian media companies is a lack of economies of scale. As stated in the introduction to this paper, this is a quandary online, too, as Canadian audiences are usually too small to generate sufficient ad sales—and those revenues are needed to support capable web editorial teams. However, large audiences are not entirely absent from Canadian websites. Major national portals such as MSN.ca and Sympatico.ca have substantial audiences and, fortunately for publishers and media companies, they need content but do not have the resources or experience to produce it. Meanwhile, the multi-title Canadian publishers—Transcontinental, Rogers Media, TVA, and St. Joseph’s—have the know-how to build brands, produce content on a regular schedule, and market the brands properly. As well, large magazine publishers have vital, existing relationships with audiences, writers, photographers, and advertisers. Publishers can also provide Canadian-specific content in place of international newsfeeds. Essentially, when viewed in broad strokes, the needs and strengths of portals and publishers are perfectly complimentary.
A potential challenge for Reader’s Digest Canada in the coming years will be to find alternative revenue sources if the viability of this business model wanes. For several years, experts have been predicting the downfall of portals (Joel, 2010; Stableford, 2010). Even when the portals were popular web destinations a decade ago, there was only room for a handful of players. This led to huge losses for companies as formidable as NBC (with its portal, Snap) and ABC/Disney (with its Go! Network portal).
Web users have become savvier since the days of Go! And Snap. One of new media’s salient characteristics is the decline of the media monolith. Today even the New York Times website can barely compete with online blog news sites like Gawker (part of the multi-site Gawker network) and the Huffington Post. Generally web-native users form their own “surfing patterns,” picking and choosing where they get their information and entertainment, regardless of platform, and sometimes, production value. They curate their own content, according to their moods, tastes, and other preferences. Applications such as RSS-feed readers and applications for tablets such as Flipboard —which presents social media content from Facebook, Twitter and blogs, into a magazine-like form—are totems of this shift. Portals websites need to adapt to these new behaviours. They need to consider how they will provide value to a user who has an abundance of content at his or her disposal.
The future of the portal also depends on them not becoming “walled gardens,” where most of the content and services offered are owned by the portal’s parent company (Aufderheide in Blevins, 2004, p.248). Walled gardens offer owners attractive economic advantages but are a detriment to user experience. For example, according to Kerschbaumer, Go!’s downfall can be attributed to the fact that the Disney portal primarily offered advertising and cross-promotion (for Disney, ESPN, and ABC), not expert content. Kerschbaumer adds, “Success in the portal game has hinged on the ability of the portal itself to be neutral. When visitors…do a search, they want to feel comfortable that they aren’t being pushed to certain sites” (in Blevins, 2004, p.266). In 2010, users feel entitled to choice because they have access to a glut of information and entertainment available to them online, as well as through traditional media, including radio, television, print, and film. Today, the idea of web portals generally brings to mind middling content packaged for the broadest possible audience—in other words, it represents many qualities that are antithetical to what audiences are accustomed to getting online. Google, on the other hand, serves as a platform that consistently presents the most relevant content for the user as decided by an objective algorithm. Accordingly, it is the second most popular site in the world (Arrington, 2010). Furthermore, portals offer information under the large umbrella of “general interest,” which can vary from breaking news to costume ideas for pets, but portals are not established as leaders or experts in most of the topics they cover.
Thus, offering quality, branded content is important to the survival of web portals. As an increasing number of users move towards personalizing their content streams, portals need to make themselves into destinations by narrowing their content down, and giving themselves a distinctive voice (or voices) so that users willingly return to the sites. Publishers can play a crucial role in this necessary evolution: If portals offer the appealing content from the media brands readers trust—such as magazine brands, they will visit regularly to read and to touch base with the online communities built around the sites’ channels. As well, partnerships with multiple publishers can provide a diversity of personalities, ideas, and views, which will prevent the “walled garden” predicament. In turn, portals will have “quality users” to offer to advertisers.
As illustrated by the online partnerships presented in this discussion, portals are already making moves to compete with branded blogs and branded news websites for audiences. In the late summer of 2010, AOL (America Online) hired Former Canwest Global Communications executive Graham Moysey to be the new general manager of AOL Canada (Beer, 2010). Moysey is part of AOL’s “very bold and ambitious plan around quality and unique content creation.” Part of that plan is to make use of its content assets such as Engadget, MapQuest, and AOL Health (Beer).
A decade ago, AOL bought out the world’s largest media company, Time Warner. AOL’s CEO, Stephen Case, championed the merger by arguing that media companies could be successful on digital platforms if their strategies were smart (Lohr, 2000). His predictions were entirely accurate—even when considering the fact that the AOL-Time Warner merger was called, “One of the biggest disasters that have occurred to our country” by Time Warner’s major stockholder, Ted Turner (Arango, 2010). Case knew that the Internet would be the dominant medium for the years to come, but what audiences were seeking was not technology but content. The companies split in January 2010, and all the executives involved with the AOL-Time Warner transaction claim AOL was responsible for the merger’s undoing because it did not meet the projections that were the basis of the deal. Conversely, Time Warner now has a formidable network of online content providers including the successful magazine-brand websites SportsIllustrated.com, People.com, Time.com, and EW.com, and the hugely popular news website, CNN.com. Time Warner’s CEO, Gerald Levin, told the New York Times, “AOL was the Google of its time. It was how you got to the Internet, but it was using some old media business ideas that were undone by the Internet itself, and that’s why Google came along” (Arango, 2010).
Bell held a similarly precarious position in Canada, since it was primarily a technology service provider; however, in September 2010, the telecom bought a majority share in CTV Inc., giving Bell exclusive access to CTV programming. The deal typifies the growing consolidation of media and telecom carriers: Rogers, Quebecor’s Vidéotron, and Shaw—all Internet service providers—have also invested in exclusive content deals to attract customers (Ladurantaye, 2010). This trend indicates a movement towards the walled-garden predicament, but also represents telecoms’ valuation of content providers. So, will Canadian web portals, like AOL.com in the U.S., be a ball and chain to content creators, or are they a boon to media industries such as publishing? The answer is more likely the latter.
Regardless of the fate of MSN.ca and Sympatico.ca in the coming years, Reader’s Digest Canada and the country’s web portals have found a way to satisfy some of their most essential needs at the moment: traffic and content, respectively. Publishers live by the maxim that “content is king,” but, as Reader’s Digest Canada recognizes, quality content alone is not sufficient to generate a valuable audience for a brand, particularly in a country where the audience is inherently small. Thus, magazine publishers’ partnerships with web portals are not only effective but also necessary; they are borne out of Canadian media-industry realities. Developing a business model that makes Canadian magazine content profitable online is a landmark accomplishment for Reader’s Digest Canada. With these partnerships, the publisher has shown that a traditional media company can adapt to the new-media landscape and successfully transfer its enduring strengths onto digital platforms.
(Source: ComScore reports, generated September 2010)
1. Traffic sources and losses
“Sources” (below) represent where users come from immediately before Besthealthmag.ca and “Losses” (bottom) represents where they went to immediately after.
“Entries” or “Exits” represent the aggregate number of times that source or loss transition happened. E.g. 371,000 unique visitors came from a Sympatico.ca property. These 371,000 visitors made came from a Sympatico.ca property to Besthealthmag.ca 976,000 times.
2. 15-month trend of traffic to Besthealthmag.ca
3. Audience demographic profile for Besthealthmag.ca
% Composition Unique Visitors: proportion of visitors from this demographic Composition Index UV (Unique Visitors): relation to index for websites in Canada % Composition Pages: proportion of page views from this demographic % Composition Minutes: proportion of BH’s minutes spend by this demographic
4. 15-month trend of traffic to Readersdigest.ca
5. Audience demographic profile for Readersdigest.ca and Selection.ca
1 The first Canadian magazine website was Shift, a digital culture magazine founded in 1991, and which folded in 2003. Its website was in operation from 1996 to 2004 (Quin, 2003). RETURN
2 Conventional wisdom holds that online content should be written and edited to cater to short attention spans. However, websites are finding that certain readers are interested in long-form journalism online and that the longest pieces can actually drive the most amount of traffic: New York Times Magazine editor Gerry Marzorati’s claimed, “Contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s our longest pieces that attract the most online traffic” (Garber, 2010). RETURN
3 The launch of Best Health is extensively covered in Lise Hélène Boullard’s project report, “Finding Out What Women Want” (2008). RETURN
4 To compare, Maclean’s magazine (@macleansmag) has 8,030 followers, Canadian Living (@canadian_living) has 4,806 followers, and Chatelaine (@chatelainemag) has 4,553 followers (November 8, 2010). RETURN
5 I interned at Reader’s Digest Canada in the summer of 2010. I worked on four of the publisher’s magazines and provided production and editorial assistance for two of its websites: Readersdigest.ca and Besthealtmag.ca. This report partly draws on my experiences during that time. RETURN
6 Anicka Quin (2003) posits 1994 as the approximate introduction of the web to the general public in North America (p.1). RETURN
8 Various websites have implemented “paywalls” over the years but with little success. With the notable exception of the Wall Street Journal , charging for online content is an outmoded practice in 2010. RETURN
9 Brand extension in the magazine publishing industry is just as prevalent today: Robert Sauerberg, president of Condé Nast, told the New York Times “he and his staff had been working on creating what he called “12-course content meals”—package deals that would include access to multiple Condé Nast magazines delivered in multiple ways, like print, tablet, mobile, and Internet, as well as invitations to magazine- sponsored events. Tom Harty, lead of Meredith’s magazines division said he would be expanding the company’s licensed products (Peters, 2010, November 28, 2010). RETURN
10 In the midst of the financial maelstrom of 2008 and 2009, some magazines, including Cosmogirl and Gourmet, shut down their print operations and now exclusively serve their online community (Blume 2008). RETURN
11 Today, this trend persists when less tech-savvy users retain the home page that was programmed on their Internet browser when they purchased their computer.generated substantial traffic. Additionally, before Google, portals’ search engines were a popular way to locate relevant information. RETURN
12 In Canada, Yahoo! Canada and Sympatico.msn.ca, respectively. RETURN
13 According to eMarketer Digital Intelligence, total ad spending in Canada will reach CAD $11.55 billion in 2010 (http://bit.ly/8YtYkc). RETURN
14 “Nearly one of every four graphical, online display ads viewed in the United States in the third quarter [of 2010] was on [Facebook], according to a new report by comScore… Facebook racked-up more ad impressions in the third quarter than the next four companies combined, which includes Yahoo, Microsoft Corp, News Corporation’s Fox Interactive Media and Google Inc… Analysts note that Facebook ads sell at a significant discount to display ads sold on traditional Web portals like Yahoo.” (Oreskovic, November 8, 2010) RETURN
20 Reader’s Digest also offers its some of its advertisers the use of its reader database to distribute direct mail campaigns, samples and custom publications such as The Magazine RONA (Bailey and Tcholakian 2009). RETURN
21 Masthead Top 50 Methodology: Advertising revenue was supplied by Nielsen Leading National Advertisers. Subscription and newsstand revenues are calculated using data from the Audit Bureau of Circulations and Canadian Circulations Audit Bureau and available in CARD. The survey takes into account discounts applied across the board. Revenue from special interest publications, websites, events, government grants and other ancillary products is not included (Masthead 2010). RETURN
22 According to comScore, the number of unique visitors was roughly 79,000. RETURN
23 The Sympatico.ca home page has approximately 8 million visitors a month (Sympatico.ca Advertising website, 2010). RETURN
24 In this case, Bell could offer only approximate numbers for their “individual site traffic,” as Sympatico.ca did not yet exist. RETURN
25 The partnership was made official and widely announced on September 1, the date Sympatico.ca and MSN.ca launched their independent portals. RETURN
26 According to comScore, Besthealthmag.ca had approximately 62,000 unique users in July 2009, and 857,000 in August 2009 (comScore, Inc. Canada, 2010). RETURN
27 The following websites rank higher than Besthealthmag.ca in the health category: 1) WebMD Health, 2) Everyday Health (http://www.everydayhealth.com), 3) About.com Health (http://www.about.com/health), 4) LIVESTRONG – eHow Health (http://www.livestrong.com), 5) Health.com, and 6) Shoppersdrugmart.ca (comScore, Inc. Canada, 2010). RETURN
28 Best Health magazine isn’t yet measured in PMB. RETURN
29 The conversion rate—the rate in which a company converts casual visitors into paying customers—is not measured within the web editorial department. RETURN
30 No Fail Weight Lossis still published on a quarterly basis and is an additional revenue stream for Reader’sDigest. RETURN
31 The initial incarnations of the website did not have any of the community and social media tools it has today. RETURN
33 At Plaisirs Santé, there is just one web editor, and a part-time editorial assistant web editor (Tancock, who manages editorial on all the Reader’s Digest Canada magazine websites), the two editors compose the entire web team for the audience of over half a million users. RETURN
34 An item’s position on the page can dramatically influence its success. For example, placement on a “slider,” a tab on the home-page viewer (see figure 1), gives stories more visibility and clicks. Since it occupies prime real estate on the page (i.e. it is a large box in the centre of the page, above the fold), articles featured on the viewer become the most popular on Besthealthmag.ca, without fail. RETURN
52 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/; While lean and immensely popular, sites such as Gawker and the Huffington Post have also garnered criticism for their use of content created by “old media” companies such as the New York Times. By regularly citing and repurposing content, such sites exploit reporting and other production costs other companies pay for. RETURN
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