Death of the printed journal: an interview with Chris Flynn on the hows and whys of electronic distribution (part 1)

Less than two weeks ago, Torpedo announced the release of its back catalogue on Kindle and the demise of its print issues. According to its blog, Torpedo is the first Australian journal to embrace the Kindle format, citing prohibitive printing and postage costs and a saturated lit market as its reasons to go digital. I thought this was a bit space age, so I started bugging Torpedo’s editor Chris Flynn about the transition process; he was nice enough give me some decent replies.

TL: How does it feel to be the first Australian journal on Kindle?

CF: In Australian terms, it feels good to be a pioneer and to be embracing new technology, though there are virtually no Kindles in circulation in Australia, so that’s unfortunate. Still, it means we’re available on iphone and PC through the apps, but people seem to be unwilling to make that much of an effort. Since launching it on Kindle last week, every sale we’ve had has been in the U.S. No Australians as yet. Part of the problem there is that we’re so far behind with this technology. Americans have had Kindles for almost two years now and Amazon sold several million in the last quarter of 2009 alone. In New York, it’s not so much a case of ‘have you got a Kindle’ but ‘what sort of skin have you got for your Kindle’. We seem a long way off that here in Australia and I find that a little embarrassing.

TL: Yeah. We’re a bit backward in the outback. I don’t have a Kindle and I don’t have an iphone. I didn’t even know that we could put journals onto Kindle. Is it easy to set up? How does one go about it?

CF: It is and it isn’t. You have to register with Amazon as a publisher and present your credentials to them so they know you’re not uploading books you don’t have the rights to. All that takes a little while. Once that’s done, it’s a matter of playing with their desktop publishing software, which is easy to use, and creating html versions of your books. Having some coding experience is handy, but html is not as difficult as it might seem to the layman.

You definitely need a physical Kindle to test how your books look before putting them up live on the Amazon store though. There are limitations to what they’re capable of at this stage too. Although they can handle 32 shades of grey, some photos, illustrations and comics don’t look very good, mainly because you can’t zoom in the way you can on an iphone, and will be able to on an ipad. Plus, no colour. So for the moment the Kindle versions of most books are relatively simple text-only format. But hey, it’s a book, what more do you want? Once they go colour and touchscreen, graphic novels and photography will be perfect for the format, as it will be an inexpensive method of displaying rich content.

The financial model has come under question since Apple’s ipad announcement. Amazon currently take 65% of the list price of every book sold on their store, but on June 30th that will change to 30%, in line with what Apple are proposing.

TL: So Amazon takes 65% from your RRP (hopefully less in the future). How does this compare to the middle-men who distribute print journals, for example Readings, Mag Nation, and Selectair?

CF: Selectair (or Speedimpex as they are now known, since their amalgamation with Europress) are the only Australian magazine distributor who will distribute independent titles…Selectair also take 65% of the cover price, which is quite a lot considering how much it costs to print. Getting 35% back on the cover price makes it very problematic in covering print costs and paying staff/contributors. Also, you have to pay to ship your stock to Sydney where they are based.

If you distribute yourselves through shops like Readings and Mag Nation, you may be able to strike better deals (where they take as low as 35-40%) but you have to manage that distribution yourself and that is very time consuming. Plus, you have to chase up invoices and as a small player it can be very difficult getting money back. Readings are good eggs in this respect, but there are unfortunately many independent bookstores that I have found to be sadly unreliable when it comes to paying me what I’m owed. They’re keen to have the stock to make their store look good, but less enthusiastic when it comes to paying their bills it seems. That’s a real shame and it makes it hard for an independent publisher to get behind independent bookstores.

TL: You’ve mentioned in private that you’ve lost a bit of stock through dealing with unreliable independent bookstores, a common pitfall that emerging journals are often unaware of. Can you tell us more about this? Who are the bad eggs?

CF: Obviously I can only speak about the stores I’ve had personal dealings with, despite having heard about the problems other journals may have had. When I self-distributed my magazine Litmus Journal prior to Torpedo, I had problems getting money back from McGills (now closed) on Elizabeth Street, and unfortunately Metropolis in Curtin House. I like that bookstore, and I’m sure the hundred bucks or whatever it was at the time wasn’t high on their priority list, but when you’re an indie publisher it only takes a few stores to be slack in paying their bills for your next issue to be screwed. Perhaps other editors/writers will tell a different story, but I’ve heard too many people talking about this topic to stake the future of my journal on it. That’s why I chose not to distribute Torpedo in any bookstores at all (except Readings). I knew if I ended up waiting six months for a few hundred bucks here and there to be paid back to me, the next issue would be put in jeopardy and I didn’t want to spend half my time chasing up invoices that I felt should have been paid automatically at the end of the month or whatever.

There’s a strange symbiotic relationship between independent publishers and independent bookstores. They rely on each other. I just feel personally that the bookstores aren’t as invested in keeping the publishers alive as the publishers are in supporting the bookstores. That’s short-sighted and makes no long term business sense and I know no one likes paying bills, but if stores want fresh stock on their shelves then they have to understand that’s not possible unless they tighten up their invoice-paying process.


More ‘Death of the printed journal’ will be posted up on Thursday. Meanwhile, read Torpedo’s post on Kindle here.


6 thoughts on “Death of the printed journal: an interview with Chris Flynn on the hows and whys of electronic distribution (part 1)

  1. Very interesting! I must admit my naivety and say I’d never really thought about the numbers before. I will buy my small journals etc direct from the publisher, more often than not, which I suppose bypasses this problem, but it would be nice to think that independent bookstores and small publishers were supporting each other in equal measure.

  2. Unlike Readings or other large chains, we are a small business and also suffer from the same issues in terms of payment as do many of our niche publisher friends. The major problem in terms of magazines is that we pay for them upfront from the massive suppliers, but only get our cash back on returns well down the track. The distributors (as opposed to the retailers) are the ones who get to happily sit on our cash.

    That said, we still do everything we can to support small local magazine titles, and if you look at some of the major Aus successes in micro independent publishing in the last few years (T-World, Wooden Toy, Spook, King Brown, The Sex Mook and the Death Mook for example), I would like to think that mag nation has played some small part in these successes. That is not to say that those publishers are making a ton of money, but that their publications seemed to sell very well and found real consumer resonance. By the same token, it is not as if we are making a ton of money either. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of fat lying around this industry.

    We just hope that niche publishers will continue to be brave enough to have a go at print. It definitely won’t put food on the table (so they have to have other things to rely on), but it does make the world more interesting.

    • ‘The major problem in terms of magazines is that we pay for them upfront from the massive suppliers, but only get our cash back on returns well down the track.’

      Somebody actually suggested this model to me to prevent further losses i.e. ask stockists to pay upfront for the journals and then pay them back for returned stock a couple of months later. But if stockists are struggling with cash flow also, then it’s unlikely that this model would work. 😦

      Does anyone have any ideas on how distribution can be successfully managed?

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