Today I reviewed my magazine subscriptions, partly to see which of Apple’s iTunes, Amazon’s Kindle and digital magazine indie Zinio has the best offering currently. My check reaffirmed many positive things about digital magazines, but one thing still frustrates me: the user experience for subscriptions in both iTunes and Kindle. Apple and Amazon could learn a thing or two from the specialist in digital magazines, Zinio.

My current tally of magazine subscriptions is 12. Of those, only one is not a digital magazine that I read on my iPad – and that’s because it’s a niche health magazine that isn’t available digitally. I also discovered in my review that only two of my twelve annual subscriptions cost more than US$50 per year. So not only are most magazines that I’m interested in available digitally, they’re all relatively inexpensive.

Here’s a table showing ten of my digital magazine subscriptions: what I pay annually for each of them, and which platform I use. For various reasons, the prices I pay aren’t necessarily the cheapest available. Sometimes my location (New Zealand) increases the cost, or sometimes I opt for a higher priced better reading experience on a certain platform. But in general, I do tend to go with the least expensive option – because the reading experience usually isn’t that much different across platforms. The exception is when a publisher creates an interactive experience for tablet devices, which is Wired’s approach. But a simple PDF is the most common format these days for digital magazines.

As you can see, the pricing is probably the most attractive feature of digital magazines. I pay from 39 cents to $2.50 per issue (if I discount Scientific American, as my subscription for that is for both digital and print). Of course, American customers are long used to paying ridiculously low prices for magazine subscriptions. That’s because advertising is typically the main revenue source for commercial magazines – and that advertising mostly targets US customers. So publishers take the hit on printing and delivery costs, in order to reach the US audience. But what my American friends may not realize is that for the rest of the world, prices for popular magazines like Rolling Stone and Wired have traditionally been high. So digital magazines make the low priced magazine subscription model available to the rest of the world.

Which brings me to the second major advantage of digital magazines: they’re available immediately, no matter where you are located. For me, out here in Middle-earth, that is most appreciated.

The Bad News: Apple & Amazon Don’t Make It Easy

The only bad thing about the state of digital magazines is how poor the user experience for subscriptions is on both iTunes and Kindle.

Apple has a Newsstand concept, but it’s confusing. You first have to download the publisher’s app, then subscribe either from within the app or on the publisher’s website. Once downloaded, each of these apps is housed in the Newsstand – a kind of meta-app. But the user experience leaves a lot to be desired. For example: you need to manually move around the magazine apps, to separate out your subscriptions from magazine apps you downloaded but didn’t subscribe to. Then sometimes you find yourself in the iTunes Store, when you thought you were in Newsstand (or are they the same thing? Yes, kind of… but then no, Newsstand is a separate icon on your iPad). The user experience of Newsstand is very unlike Apple: it’s unintuitive and a bit disorienting.

Managing your subscriptions in iTunes (what you’re subscribed to, when it’s up for renewal, etc.) is even more confusing. Every time I want to check my iTunes magazine subscriptions, it takes me 5 minutes or so to work out where to go. For the record, you need to go to your iTunes account page and it’s an almost hidden option on there.

As for Amazon’s Kindle, if anything it’s even harder than iTunes to manage your subscriptions. There is no option to manage your subscriptions from within the Kindle iPad app, as far as I could see. I eventually found it on the Amazon website under Your Account > Manage Your Kindle > Magazines.

One last confusing aspect for digital magazine consumers is that often publishers have subscription offers on their own websites, which can be different from what’s available in iTunes, Kindle or Zinio. That’s entirely up to the publisher of course, but it does add another level of head scratching for the consumer.

The shining light in the digital magazine space right now is Zinio. It offers a wonderful selection of digital magazines and its pricing is almost always better than either iTunes or Amazon Kindle. After my review today, I ended up moving a couple of my subscriptions from Kindle over to Zinio because the pricing and overall experience is better. While Zinio’s user interface for managing subscriptions is not perfect, it’s markedly better than iTunes or Kindle. Plus it’s about to improve even more, with a redesign (currently in beta, screenshot below).

We can only hope that Apple and Amazon get their acts together and follow the example set by Zinio. Because right now, managing digital magazine subscriptions is a frustrating process.

richard macmanus

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