Adobe Digital Editions "astronomically expensive" ... but who is the customer?

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Elliot Jay Stocks discusses Adobe's pricing model for its forthcoming Digital Editions package. The price for the add-on, which allows publishers to export iPad magazines from Adobe Creative Suite, is astronomical.

£7003 per year as a minimum spend -- irrespective of how many copies you sell, or how regularly you publish -- and that's on top of ... the suite [which] costs £1810. That's what you'll be paying to Adobe. On top of that, there's the 30% per-download charge publishers are required to pay to Apple

He notes that this effectively prices small, website-size publishers out of the market and criticizes it on that basis. His is an excellent analysis, but assumes that Adobe was interested in that kind of market to begin with. But is it?

You may think this question odd, and you'd be right! Given the singular functionality of the software and its accompanying platform, and how it slots in alongside relatively inexpensive apps like InDesign, it seems absurd to ask for $12k a year (and it goes up with circulation!) to publish the output. There's clearly a potential market for small publishers wanting a piece of the native app-mag action, so it seems crazy not to serve it.

I suspect that we, makers and eaters of the new media, understand this only because we tend to approach publishing technology with a consumer mindset. It's always been that convenient for us: low overheads and few obligations. We can rig it all together ourselves. We can change our minds, switching technological ecosystems whenever it suits us. And we often revel in the culture of innovation that embraces this attitude. Traditional publishers don't. They have a simple question--how do we "Command-P print to iPad"?--and this is the answer, from a vendor they may already be wedded to. The big question on many minds will not be "How can we afford this?" It will be "Is it cheaper than the one for Quark?" or, God save their sorry asses, "How do we get Baseview to hook up to this?"

So I don't think Adobe's pitching here to small websites or creative professionals, but for big print publishers who remain profoundly disinterested in how cheaply they could do things by stepping out of the discomfort zone. Newspapers, even wee ones, don't believe in everyday, inexpensive DIY solutions and the risk that comes with them; they pursue service contracts, foolproof support, and an unyielding faith in the value of long-term technological commitments. They're used to them: a big offset press costs millions of dollars to replace, a decision one may live and work with for an entire career.

I can offer an illustration from experience. When I was a cub reporter, our newsroom database software was a proprietary monster running on Mac OS Classic. The database software alone cost tens of thousands of dollars. This state of affairs is completely normal in the newspaper business. When Apple released OSX, it took the vendor years to upgrade this database, leaving us to run Classic servers well past their sell-by date. And when the upgrade finally came to market, the price tag was another giant sum.

Looking under the hood, I saw that the 'upgraded' version of their database was in fact MySQL. Just like the MySQL that comes free with OSX! In essence, the huge cost was for whatever scripts they'd use to transfer over the data, and the associated support. To me, the representation of MySQL as its own product was kind of shady, but to a newspaper, that's how they like to do business. They're paying for the turnkey solution. Their religion was built on the need for completely dependable machines that cost unbelievable amounts of money. It's a part of why they've become poster children for institutional resistance to necessary change, even in the face of death.

With its Digital Editions Suite pricing scheme, Adobe fails the sniff test with consumers and smart modern publishers, but it won't care. The New York Times recently spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a fancy new skyscraper. Smaller newspapers still spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year paying for presses they bought in the 20th century. These are Adobe's ideal customers.