HP's MagCloud goes global – the natural evolution of DIY zines

Yesterday TechEye talked to Andrew Bolwell, Director of New Business Initiatives at Hewlett-Packard, about an interesting service called MagCloud which could well be the next evolutionary stage of fanzine and niche print publications – and more.

Very briefly and very basically, in a nutshell – MagCloud lets users become publishers while cutting out the expensive costs behind publishing any sort of magazine, even a fanzine. Simply become a member of the site – for free – upload a .PDF of all your content, advertise it yourself and if anyone wants to read the print mag, they’ll order it off MagCloud. HP then does the dirty work and you’ll have your copy in about a week.

It’s an interesting idea and frankly, a slap in the face to all the naysayers who reckon print is dead. Judging from the sizeable customer base, there are plenty of people who want content specific to their interests in print form, to lay back on the sofa with or to have a look at on the bog.

Magcloud came to be when a company called Strategic Initiatives began work with HP Labs. Together they looked at new business ideas, and how they could be developed, launched and grown, kind of like a new business incubator.

Remember when everything had 2.0 at the end of it? A couple of researchers in HP Labs were thinking about Publishing 2.0 – looking at the publishing industry and how it could become more accessible to your average, enthusiastic joe. 

With the exception of the DIY fanzine scene, which is large and a lot of work, not just in bringing together content to make a coherent issue, but with printing and stockists, magazine publishing has been limited to people with big pockets. The question was how to democratise publishing and make it available to everybody and appealing to everybody, too.

Bolwell gave us an example: Take golfing, if two people subscribe to Golf Digest they’ll both get the same magazine. But there are different types of golfing. He suggested that someone could be a scratch golfer, and the other could be a weekend hack (we’re daily hacks here at TechEye, by the way) who play differently and are interested in different information – but they’re still getting the same issue.

A typical answer would be because printing magazines is hugely expensive and wasteful. But MagCloud is cool in that it will only print an issue if it’s already been ordered and paid for. The publisher gets to decide which advertisers to talk to – HP just steps back, takes the commission for printing, and the rest is completely up to the publisher.

That cuts out on waste massively — HP gave us a great example, if you laid down all mags end-to-end that were printed and never bought, they could circle the Earth sixteen times. We don’t know exactly which sources HP was quoting, but it’s a nice stat just to visualise the amount of waste potential there is. Daily, though, people are getting magazines directed squarely at them on a pay on demand basis.

We guess the downside is, as a small time publisher, you don’t get the buzz of seeing your mag in a Waterstones or WH Smiths, but Andrew told us that some larger publishers are experimenting with ordering retail through MagCloud. 

We’d have thought, with blogs in all shapes sizes and flavours, wouldn’t niche subjects go online to find their audience? The answer, apparently, is yes. But there are plenty of people who love to read and farm blogs for interesting comment while also wanting a physical copy to leaf through. Andrew’s example to us was a MagCloud publication on Lawnmower Racing. Yeah, there’s an online community, but sales have been huge because people have been able to buy this in print easily, on demand, by enthusiasts and for enthusiasts.

It seems to us like the next evolutionary stage in DIY printing.

HP stresses that the problem with print publishers is a business model problem. Waste costs are so high and the only way to get the product across is to mass market, generally with up to 50  percent of the issue being advertisements, and cross your fingers. The argument about print vs online is almost moot, too, Andrew tells us. In his experience monitoring figures and analytics for MagCloud, yes, people do go online for content – but they want it in print too.

For example, there are publishers on MagCloud who give away their content for free via PDFs, but still sell a ton of print copies despite this – there’s a market for print for whatever reason. 

There’s a space for collectors, too. Life magazine went online only, but with the amount of exclusive, high quality photographers Life gets working for it, there was reader demand to have photo compilation issues. Life used MagCloud to deliver this and it’s one of MagCloud’s biggest sellers.

Because HP has so many fingers in so many pies, it is able to outsource printing to the existing customer base which uses its Indigo Digital Printing Technology, so the strain hasn’t been felt. 

What’s really fascinating to us is that some outlets, The Atlantic being one, are using MagCloud to get archived content out to the general public. The Atlantic has been going for years and year and has been carefully archived. But rather than leaf through a library or look at online scans, a higher resolution, readable print alternative can be available. It spliced a sort of “best bits” and put that out as an issue through MagCloud.

And there’s a bizarrely ironic circle of life going on here too, Bolwell says. Print magazines and copy have suffered through technology and digitisation, but technology and digitisation is making that old copy available again for a new, interested audience.

And what’s sure to be interesting to book buffs out there is the new service, currently in beta, by the MagCloud HP team. It’s called BookPrep. Google and Libraries the world over are scanning books in for achiving and preservation reasons, and to make books available for online reading.

Theoretically – and hopefully – out of print books will be made available by print, on an on-demand basis, through BookPrep. Think for a moment how fantastic it would be to have a physical copy of anything ever archived published physically in print again. We hope outfits cooperate because the implications are huge.

This Monday gone, MagCloud announced that it has worldwide shipping, which means that a DIY publisher can reach an audience globally. It now offers professional looking bound magazines with spines on them, which a user can design themselves, and can handle magazines larger than one hundred pages which was the previous limit.

There’s an iPad app out now too. It is opt in for publishers, so if they don’t want their content to be accessed through it, that doesn’t have to be the case. But there is an option included for buying in print on every product page too. Have a look at the MagCloud website here