Time Inc. Pines for a Kindle Killer–If Someone Else Builds It

Published on September 10, 2009
by Peter Kafka

kindlekillerIs Time Inc. building a Kindle Killer? Nope.

My pal Owen Thomas, late of Valleywag, has published a piece for NBC’s Bay Area local site that suggests that Time Inc. wants to get into the hardware business and produce its own e-reader.

That’s something other publishers, like Hearst and News Corp. (NWS), are actually doing or have at least mulled. But multiple sources familiar with the Time Warner (TWX) unit’s thinking say that’s not the case here.

But the publisher certainly is thinking about ways to create specialized content for e-reader devices and about the best way to distribute that content.

Time Warner executives have talked about this openly for many months–see Time Inc. digital guru John Squires’s comments in June–and Thomas appears to have gotten his hands on an internal document that addresses the same topic.

Most intriguing, according to Thomas’s read of the documents: A Hulu-like spinoff that would do…something:

The presentation concludes that Time Inc. and other partners should form a new, jointly owned company. Time Inc. might spin out its Maghound service, a service which lets consumers bundle multiple magazines together into a single monthly subscription, to form the base of the joint venture. The company is also considering acquiring other businesses to jumpstart the venture.

No comment from Time Inc.

But I do know that Time Inc.’s executives have met with other publishers about collaborating on e-reader standards, etc. And I do know that Time Inc. executives  think a special version of their print products, designed specifically for e-readers, is a good idea. Most everyone I talk to in magazine publishing, in fact, believes this.

And I understand why they do. In their minds, the e-reader versions of their products function just about the same way magazines do: People pay to read them and advertisers pay to distribute their messages through them. And–this part is crucially important, from their perspective–publishers retain control of distribution and the billing relationship with their customers.

That relationship gets obliterated in Amazon’s (AMZN) Kindle model: Publishers wholesale the stuff to Jeff Bezos, who deals with consumers directly. This is also one of the music industry’s big regrets about the digital age. Even though labels are selling their stuff on the Web, via Apple’s (AAPL) iTunes and others, they still don’t have direct relationships with its customers.

Which is why publishers are desperately hoping that they’ll be able to push their stuff through someone other than Jeff Bezos. On the surface, at least, it looks as though their wishes are being met: A bevy of Kindle competitors–Sony (SNE), Plastic Logic, iRex, etc.–is surfacing. Surely one or more of those will figure out how to offer publishers the terms they want.

But even if one or more of the Kindle clones succeeds, print publishers still have a core problem: They need to convince consumers that content–in any form, on any device–is worth paying for. That will work in some cases, but for many it’s going be a very hard slog.

Return to: Time Inc. Pines for a Kindle Killer–If Someone Else Builds It