Barnes & Noble Nook ColorA New York Times article recently pointed out that Barnes & Noble’s Nook Color is enjoying healthy sales, and that quite a lot of the content being sold for it is in the form of women’s magazines.  The article continues by pointing out that, according to a recent study, women outbuy men in reading material by 3 to 1, and that publishers have been surprised and encouraged by the volume of magazine sales on the NC (as I like to call the device… sorry, but “Nook Color” just doesn’t roll off my tongue).  And the article compares the device’s popularity with the iPad, the other device through which publishers like to sell their magazines, but which is not doing as well in magazine content as the NC.

None of this is surprising to me… in fact, it often amazes me that we hadn’t seen this growth much sooner.  Over the last few years, the ebook world has primarily concentrated on books, which are mostly or exclusively text-based documents.  One thing about text: It only needs good contrast to read, and it sure doesn’t need color.  Hence, the many black-and-white ebook devices on the market.

But the black-and-white devices were effectively shutting out a major sector of the publishing market, one that has proven to be strong and steady even in the worst economic times, and one which is tailor-made for the digital era: Magazines.

Magazines, or periodicals, are the unsung product of publishing; part of our daily landscape, ubiquitous and ever-present.  But they’re flashy and colorful, they’re targeted at niche markets, they come out on predictable schedules, and they encourage enthusiasts to basically preorder them through discounted subscriptions… the ideal publications product, regular and predictable.  Most bookstores have magazine racks prominently placed in the front of the stores for easy access.  Stores that do not sell books at all, often sell magazines; you’ll find them at drugstores, coffee shops, delis, transportation centers and specialty stores (because almost every specialty has a corresponding magazine).  Many people who never read books, regularly read magazines, and often have subscriptions to them.  Right now, four of my five magazine subscriptions are digital and read on the NC.

The potential for magazine profits has always been a good one, especially with the most popular subjects (news and commentary, self-improvement, glamor, celebrities, sports, and of course, sex).  Magazines in these areas, and many more besides, enjoy a consciously locked-in audience through subscriptions, plus sales generated by the occasional viewer that is attracted by the colorful cover or interesting blurb.  They are steady money-makers, only requiring freshened content for each issue… the need to reinvent the wheel every month does not exist for magazines.

With all of this going for it, the magazines was perfectly placed to take advantages of the perks of the digital medium: No printing or transportation costs; instant delivery; high-quality displays; malleable display options; and converting storage from massive shelves or heavy boxes to postage-stamp-sized chips.

I’ve always believed that the first devices to truly embrace the digital magazine would take off.  I envisioned magazine readers that would automatically download subscribed high-resolution full-color magazines and manually download magazines selected at a store or online.  It would allow the owner to read an entire magazine, then save or delete it; or, they could select parts of the magazines they wanted to keep, move those sections into customized folders–sort of a digital “scrapbook”–and delete the rest, or store them elsewhere for future reference.  Imagine being able to save articles of your favorite subject or celebrity, to recall at any time.  And that device would be portable enough to take with you essentially anywhere you wanted to go.

The PC solved all of these items except portability.  With the introduction of the iPad, its portability and quality color screen, digital magazines had a better platform (though Apple’s App Store left much to be desired).  With the Nook Color, and its equally-quality screen and improved buying experience, the digital magazine platform has improved even more.

Publishers now have the opportunity to convert many magazine readers to digital devices and subscriptions that will bring in regular income, more reliably than book sales (since books are all different, and there’s no guarantee someone who read last month’s book will want to read next month’s book).  Despite the NYT article’s suggestion that women will dominate purchasing thanks to magazines, men and women will enjoy the magazine content of their choice and drive the sales of digital devices.  If we can believe the statistics, this is already happening, and at a rate that may rival the print-to-digital conversion rate of books before too long.

Magazines may well prove to be the content that brings the non-book-reader into the 21st century of digital publications.