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At a tech talk on digital editions at the UK Publishers Association (PPA) in London last week one of the panelists was typically direct. ‘We think replica editions are a crime against humanity,” said Jon Marks, co-founder of HTML app builders Pugpig.

As their business is predicated on turning magazines into HTML apps, and they have no place for replicas in that process, he is not unbiased. But agreeing with him were two replica companies: Zinio and Pixelmags.

Within the calendar year, both companies have made the first steps in a u-turn on a business they have been pursuing for a number of years: turning as many consumer publications as possible into page-turners to sell through their newsstands.

“We are moving away from digital replicas but there is a caveat on that – we have to do the numbers,” said Zinio’s Rolf Zohwer.

The growth of mobile

The numbers are how many purchasers of certain magazines are mobile readers.

Pixelmags’ Sean Briggs recounted how he had been laughed out of the room when he was at Hearst Magazines, and argued they should prepare for people reading the magazines on mobile phones.

“Now with 60% of downloads for mobile, and more traffic and revenues from phones…it is more important than tablets,” Briggs argued. “HTML/XML is the future, as it’s the only way publishers can reach the mobile audience.”

“Zinio does not believe in the PDF on a mobile – the way to do it is HTML/XML,” Zohwer confirmed.

Page Lizard agrees, especially as we have been turning PDFs into XML for over ten years – not just in 2014.

Human costs

The problem we face is that deconstructing a complex magazine into structured XML is not a process which can be 100% automated. It comes with a human cost – and that is an overhead not all publishers are prepared to pay for.

The second issue is that reconstructing that magazine into an HTML edition is also not something a machine can do on its own. Just as a print edition needs careful arranging, the new edition needs designing – or rather re-inventing for its new digital life. It requires a style-sheet and maybe a whole new typography and navigation.

In an ideal world, once that is done, the second edition can be created semi-automatically by tagging content as it is imported into the new digital templates. But, believe me, a creative magazine will still need the human touch if you want it to look beautiful.

I believe that this human element should be an awful lot less than that required by InDesign plug-ins that require the magazine to be effectively laid out twice. Or is that three times if you have to do it once for portrait and once for landscape?

At Page Lizard HQ, a digital editor typically spends a day on digital conversion. From downloading the PDF to pressing the publish button on a typical 64pp magazine, this will be compatible for mobile and tablet.

Is that too much cost/effort? I don’t know. Maybe we could build a leaner production process, automate more, spend less time designing and editing each edition.

Let’s put it this way. If the world buys the argument above – and the converts are only doing the difficult and expensive u-turn because that’s where the science says the future money is – send over your PDFs and we will adapt our XML conversion conveyor belt to meet the demand.

We have to help the folks who are not digital-first to stop sending PDFs to their readers’ mobile phones. It would be a crime not to.

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