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Tablets Helping Publishers Sell Back Issues

Single copies are delivering a brisk business via digital subscriptions plays

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Here’s some good news publishers probably didn’t anticipate when they started selling their titles on the iPad.

When Apple launched the tablet, single copies were the only way most magazines were available, and the consumer backlash was brutal. Because single issues usually were priced the same as the print edition, readers balked at having to pay almost as much for a single digital issue as a year’s print subscription. So not only did publishers sell very little in the way of copies, but they also got a lot of ill will in the process.

But now digital subscription options are available to consumers, and single issues have turned out to be a good way of selling back copies of magazines, which has been cumbersome to do in print.

At Hearst Magazines, for example, 30 percent of its single copies sold on tablets are back issues, according to president David Carey. Hearst sells digital editions of lots of its brands including Cosmopolitan, Esquire and Popular Mechanics on the iPad, and with single issues representing 10 percent to 15 percent of its digital editions volume, back issues make up some 4 percent of the total.

Carey calls back issues the “long tail” of digital editions. “Like book publishers, we’re making our ‘back list’ more easily accessed by readers,” he emailed. “Much of the content is truly timeless.”

Enthusiast publisher Bonnier has had a similar experience. At its Popular Science, which has been on the iPad since its launch, back issues have accounted for 40 percent of its single digital copies sold this year, said Gregg Hano, Popular Science’s publisher. At sibling title Popular Photography, the figure is 41 percent.

It’s hard to see news-driven magazines selling a lot of back issues, but for those with evergreen content, back issue sales have the potential to be big business. Martha Stewart Living and Everyday Food report that one-fourth of their digital single copies sold on the iPad are back issues. “Our readers have always told us they archive every issue of our magazines and regularly refer back to them, and they’re archiving issues digitally now as well,” a Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia rep said.

Similarly, people also are drawn to back issues like Popular Science’s Best of What’s New that have a long shelf life, Hano said. Even with Bonnier’s back issues being priced lower than current editions ($2.99 versus $4.99), he said, “We have found this to be really good for our business.”

Pleased by the appeal of back issue sales, publishers are now mulling how to make the most of them by getting them in front of readers in tablets’ app stores. They may have to wait, though. At least for now, the sale of multiple back issues is limited to the iPad; sources said only one back issue per title is available on Barnes & Noble’s Nook and the Kindle Fire.