Could turning digital-only content into print be a viable extra revenue stream?

Digital publishing used to be an adjunct to print – the icing on the cake of print circulation and advertising that was the foundation of a publisher’s business. Now as print sales slide most publishers are looking instead at a digital only future.

Going “online-only” has an appeal for many publishers. Yet there’s evidence that some people still value printed products in a way they don’t value digital – the only question is how to fulfil that small-scale demand without having to hold on to costly printing processes designed for mass reach.

The answer may be print-on-demand services – something New Scientist publisher John MacFarlane found out was surprisingly successful.

“A bit of a joke”

The New Scientist last year launched a quarterly science fiction spin-off called Arc. Meant to be a digital-only publication, MacFarlane needed a way to provide the featured in the issue with their own physical copies. He came across a print-on-demand service from HP-owned firm MagCloud.

The New Scientist team uploaded the same files used to produce the iPad version of Arc to the MagCloud service, expecting it to be used to produce just a handful of copies that would sell for $35.95 each, with New Scientist taking a cut similar to what it got from Kindle versions of the magazine.

“The joke was it was an unlimited edition because there was no limit to how many could be sold,” says MacFarlane. “But obviously it’s a premium product and we didn’t expect to sell any. Then people kept ringing up asking why they couldn’t find it in their local WH Smiths.”

So far New Scientist has sold around 2,000 print copies of Arc – all with minimal effort. MacFarlane says: “We’ve gone from a bit of a joke to thinking we might have 5,000 to 10,000 print circulation if we get it right.”

Of course, print on-demand isn’t a way of replacing print revenues. But it does appear to offer a way to tap into an extra revenue stream – of intelligently re-using the same content you’ve invested in.


MacFarlane thinks one of the reasons Arc did well in print at such a premium price is that the type of content contained in Arc is more likely to create a desire to own than say a newspaper edition.

It’s worth taking into account the success of so-called bookazines produced by other magazine publishers. One-off titles such as cycling guides, software guides or film review collections do very well in print on the news stands. These are often re-purposed and printed in perfect bound editions sold in WH Smiths, straight from recent magazine archives.

As MacFarlane says, it’s worth giving it a try and gauging demand: “There are a whole host of digital publishing things that let you do that lets you diversify, but let your consumers tell you what they want.”

Image via Flickr curtousey of Marcin Wichary