David Zax

A View from David Zax

A New Idea for Publishing: Ink and Paper

HP and Condé Nast team up in a curious throwback–digitally distributing content to your printer.

  • October 20, 2011

Sometimes, in order to take a step forward, you need to take a step back.

That sounds really deep, even though it may be completely nonsensical. At any rate, it’s the koan-like thinking behind a new partnership between HP and Condé Nast, the magazine publisher behind titles like Allure, Details, Gold Digest, and Wired, among others. Even as Condé has soldiered on bravely into the digital world, putting out some seriously pretty iPad apps, they’ve entered into a partnership with HP that relies on that decidedly old-school medium: the dead tree.

The unlikely twosome is piloting a program in which consumers receive Condé content digitally, only–wait for the twist–via their web-connected printer. This turns all the conventional logic on its head. Digital distribution supposedly has freed us from the shackles of print and paper, right? Wrong. It turns out those shackles were really jewels all along. (Another koan for you.) MediaBistro is justifiably confused in writing, “The Future Of Magazines… Is Print? From Home?” further confessing that it doesn’t know whether the maneuver is “savvy or silly.”

In its release, HP touted the new ability to “reach readers more frequently than with print magazines and more tangibly than via email.”

Doesn’t printing out page after page of richly illustrated magazine content get, well, expensive? That seems to be half the point: HP also announced an ink-by-mail subscription service called HP Instant Ink, that will keep you afloat. The service runs $10.99 per month, tops, and as little as $5.99–a pretty good deal, if you’re a prolific printer; many of those cartridges don’t run cheap. “We recognized that customers are concerned about the rising cost of ink and we wanted to create a program where they could get their ink on a monthly basis for a flat fee,” HP’s Annette Friskopp told News and Tech. The service launches on a trial basis this month.

It seems to me that the HP/Condé collaboration will appeal to very particular type of person, whom we might call the “connected dinosaur”: someone who keeps up enough with the zeitgeist to own an iPad, yet remains enough of a throwback to still crave the crackle of paper and the smudge of ink.

Even if the service seems, in its own way, a regression, I can see a few reasons why it might be useful to some. If you’re a real ink-guzzler, you might save money. If you’re a positive Condé Nast addict, you might save money, too. (News and Tech says the Condé content will “initially be offered for free,” though it’s hard to see how that make sustainable business sense for the publisher; not all Condé magazines, like The New Yorker, appear to be participating.) If you’re a person who very selectively reads only certain pages in magazines–solely front-of-the-book pieces, or only articles out of the feature well–then perhaps you’ll take satisfaction knowing that you’re saving paper by only printing those pages. Another way to make this service exciting, of course, would be for Condé to push exclusive or early content to subscribers; there’s no talk of that, yet, though.

At the very least, it’s intriguing to see a publishing venture rely on something familiar: the printed page. The HP/Condé project is a curious atavism, and it will be interesting to see if it lasts.

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