Time to resolve the great iPad app subscription debate

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As John Kolbin noted in WWD, iPad magazine sales have significantly dropped according to recent figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Those figures end in November, right at the start of the holiday shopping season, which Koblin notes could result in some sort of "bump up" in the next set of numbers.

The numbers are harsh. iPad sales of Vanity Fair's November edition, 8,700, are down about 18% from the average of the August, September and October issues. Digital iPad sales of GQ's November edition, 11,000, are down 15.4% from its average digital sales between May and October. Glamour's iPad digital sales fell 20% in October, and another 20% in November, at 2,775. Further, Wired's digital iPad app, which made a splashy debut this past May, selling 24,000 copies in just 24 hours, sold only 23,000 copies during the entire month of November.

While the holiday numbers will probably result in some sort of an uptick in digital iPad magazine sales (iPads sold like gangbusters over the holidays), the evidence of an overall decline on the side of publishers is hard to dispute. (Some counter that the numbers are not as bad as they seem.)

What's the answer? Kat Stoefel argues in favor of "push subscriptions" in The Observer. "Push subscriptions," Stoefel writes, "would deliver magazine apps automatically (you know, like a real magazine), as opposed to making readers request, download, and pay for them individually."

Skepticism over whether paying for magazine apps individually actually works seems to have struck a chord online. Choire Sicha, co-editor and owner of The Awl, thinks magazines are at war with their own iPad apps. He makes the strong, non-zombie cannibalization argument that from the perspective of a longtime subscriber to magazines like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, iPad apps ought to be free.

Since the subscriber has already paid, and has been along for the long haul, Sicha says, "Right or wrong, that is definitely my feeling as a consumer, and yes, people are cheap and self-interested, but that feeling is strong, and the circulation desk whether for print or online has to work with human nature, not against it."

Ben Williams, the editorial director of NYMag.com, tweeted: "Key missing info here: Apple won't allow publishers to offer iPad subscription rates."

Publishers and Apple are still at a stalemate over this issue.But if there was ever a time to force the debate, it would be now as the atmospherics in the room are shifting from an overly idealistic, bedazzled perception of the iPad as the savior of magazines towards one of cold, hard reality.

According to a recent survey of ABC's US and Canadian newspaper and magazine industry members, only 11 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with Apple's handling of subscriber information and analytics, with 15 percent saying they were dissatisfied. Apple might want to keep that in mind going forward.

The inability of publishers to convince Apple to let them sell and manage subscriptions from their own iPad apps is a slow, simmering issue that might just be coming to a boil. Is this, quite frankly, really an argument that Apple even wants to be having?

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