Digital Publishing Reader Revenue Top Stories
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Magazine publishers’ hidden treasure trove: Digital back issues

A recent press release that landed squarely on the newsdesk of What’s New in Publishing confirmed what many magazine insiders already know – namely, magazine back issues are a fertile source of revenue for publishers willing to make them easily available.

The press release in question belongs to Readly, the digital subscription service that gives unlimited access to almost 5,000 national and international magazine titles. The back story was the release of an exclusive collection of Motor Sport magazine highlights from the last 100 years curated by Jenson Button, the acclaimed British racing driver who won the 2009 Formula One World Championship.

The ‘Jenson Button Motor Sport collection’ for Readly consists of six historic issues from Motor Sport magazine featuring moments from Button’s career as well as events that inspired him to get into the sport.

A key strategy behind the collection is to leverage the back issues of what is the most famous publishing brand in motor racing, and to simultaneously be a launch partner of ‘Readly Retros’ where the magazine app will re-publish iconic Motor Sport retro issues on a weekly basis dating back to the title’s first issue in 1924.

As a small independent publisher we have always pushed ourselves to try and be a digital leader within our sector…..we are using our fully digitized archive to further grow our digital footprint by teaming up with Readly, and to be the launch partner for Readly Retros. This is the start of an exciting digital growth plan for us at Motor Sport.

Zamir Walimohamed, Head of Digital, Motor Sport magazine

Readly Retros is a brand new series within the Readly app with the ambition to make nostalgic content and issues from the past available again. Chris Couchman, Head of Content at Readly, says that not only do retro issues address a clear reader desire for more archived content, they also help increase interest across publishing titles.

I personally love to go back and revisit old magazines for inspiration, information and nostalgic moments. For publishers it’s a great way to re-activate already available content and drive current and new readers to their magazines in the app.

Chris Couchman, Head of Content, Readly

The most telling statistic, however, is the popularity of retro content across Readly’s portfolio of magazine brands. Couchman says that 20 percent of Readly users read back issues and that “there is an increasing demand to go back in time and read historical content.”

The popularity of retro content

Exact Editions, which specializes in digitizing content and selling subscriptions for magazine publishers, agrees that archived content offers a rich seam of revenue for publishers willing to take the trouble of not only digitizing their back catalogue but also making the titles easily available across the web, iOS and Android devices.

Silverback Publishing, the latest publisher to digitize its back catalogue via Exact Editions

Ellie Burnage, Exact Editions’ Marketing Manager, says that offering unlimited digital access to both new and archived magazine issues makes for a compelling subscription proposition, as well as clear upselling opportunities. Earlier this summer, the company archived the back catalogue of 5 railway magazines (British Railway ModellingNarrow Gauge WorldGarden Rail, Traction and Engineering in Miniature) with the publisher, Warner Group Publications, bundling access under a new subscription tier called ‘World of Railways Plus’.

The subscription, which spans 750 magazine issues, also brings members a Trackplan Archive, railway modelling video footage, exclusive competitions and access to RMweb Gold, the UK’s biggest model railway forum.

The extensive digital magazine archives add a tremendous amount of value to the new membership. Railway lovers relish being able to search through an ever-growing collection of content that is accessible at the click of a button.

Steve Cole, Publisher, Warners Group Publications

Institutional interest from libraries and academic establishments adds a further potential revenue stream for archived digital back issues, even for niche publishers. Since The Wire, a popular indie music title, started offering its digital magazine archives (dating back to 1982) to institutions it has seen a 92% increase in institutional sales. Gramophone magazine, another title to fully digitize its archives, has seen institutional sales soar 400% and the value of these institutional subs soar 719% over a similar time frame.

As Perpetual Access sales are incredibly high value, just a small number of institutional sales can lead to a large increase in overall revenue (as is the case of The Wire). Better still, renewal rates on annual subscriptions are extremely high at over 95%.

Ellie Burnage, Marketing Manager, Exact Editions

Imagery also proving popular

The popularity and desire for retro content is not restricted solely to magazines or written words. Earlier this year, Condé Nast leveraged its entire photo collection in partnership with Shutterstock to offer, “a virtual time capsule of the 20th century covering fashion, design, beauty, travel, food, and the arts.” The collection forms part of Shutterstock’s Editorial’s archive, The Vault, which now has over 50 million assets across photo and video, making it one of the largest photo and video archives in the world. 

Colorado daily newspaper, The Denver Post, has also pioneered the selling of its archived imagery and through its online store sells Colorado photos taken by its photojournalists. The newspaper also offers one-off digitized articles for $2.95 dating back to 1989. Similarly, The Seattle Times – on occasion working with third parties – sells wall art, keepsake pages (reprints from their archive), photos and prints as well as coffee table books.

Perhaps the biggest takeway is that publishers of all sizes and hues have a wealth of untapped archived content and imagery at their disposal. Moreover, far from being outdated, this content has solid commercial value and shouldn’t be overlooked either as a one-off purchase or a compelling subscription proposition.