Monday, March 30, 2009
Philip Chavez binding a MagCloud magazine at Progressive Solutions, which prints about 50,000 pages a month for the service.
By ASHLEE VANCE
PALO ALTO, Calif. — For anyone who has dreamed of creating his own glossy color magazine dedicated to a hobby like photography or travel, the high cost and hassle of printing has loomed as a big barrier. Traditional printing companies charge thousands of dollars upfront to fire up a press and produce a few hundred copies of a bound magazine.
With a new Web service called MagCloud, Hewlett-Packard hopes to make it easier and cheaper to crank out a magazine than running photocopies at the local copy shop.
Charging 20 cents a page, paid only when a customer orders a copy, H.P. dreams of turning MagCloud into vanity publishing’s equivalent of YouTube. The company, a leading maker of computers and printers, envisions people using their PCs to develop quick magazines commemorating their daughter’s volleyball season or chronicling the intricacies of the Arizona cactus business.
“There are so many of the nichey, maybe weird-at-first communities, that can use this,” said Andrew Bolwell, head of the MagCloud effort at Hewlett-Packard. Samir Husni, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi who plans to use the technology in his classroom, said, “We’re not talking about replacing the Vanity Fairs of the world. But it’s a nifty idea for a vanity press that reminds me of the underground zines we had in the ’60s and ’70s.”
Should the service take off, Hewlett could expand its lucrative business of selling huge digital printers to companies that would print the magazine and then ship its profitable inks by the barrel instead of the ounce.
It is not clear how big a market there is for small runs of narrow-interest magazines when so much information is available free on the Internet. So far, users of the service, which is still in a testing phase, have produced close to 300 magazines, including publications on paintings by Mormon artists, the history of aerospace, food photography and improving your personal brand in a digital age.
Aspiring publishers must handle their own writing and design work, sending a PDF file of their creation over the Internet to the MagCloud repository. H.P. farms out the printing jobs to partners scattered around the globe and takes care of billing and shipping for people who order the magazine. While H.P. charges the magazine publishers 20 cents a page, they can charge whatever they like for the completed product.
Traditional printing presses are fast and can produce large quantities of publications for much less than 20 cents a page. But the business model and technology relies on replicating a single, fixed image in volume to achieve cost-effective scale.
With digital presses like those made by Hewlett’s Indigo unit, a company can print one copy of 10 magazines or 10 copies of one magazine for about the same price. It is simply a matter of turning on the press and hitting a button.
Doreen Bloch, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, who created and runs a fashion publication, said MagCloud had made it much easier to produce her magazine, Bare, on a tight budget.
Ms. Bloch used to send final versions of Bare to a print shop in Arizona. If the editors noticed a typo or wanted to make a last-minute change, they had to pay $60 a page. “If we needed to change the cover because it had the wrong date, they gave us so much trouble,” Ms. Bloch said. With MagCloud, the editors can fiddle all they want free.
MagCloud could also open up new opportunities for local print shops.
Progressive Solutions in Santa Clara, Calif., has bought five of H.P.’s Indigo presses, which range in price from $300,000 to $600,000 a machine, in the last five years. It produces custom documents for companies like Tiny Prints, a popular service that lets people design their own invitations, stationery and announcements.
According to Scott Feldman, the co-owner of Progressive, the company needs to run its presses eight hours a day to break even and 12 hours a day to make money. It has been printing about 50,000 pages for MagCloud a month, including Bare.
The creators of Bare and other publications warn that it takes a lot of work to produce each issue, and some of the early MagCloud customers have had little success selling their publications online.
H.P. has developed technology in its research labs that could smooth the publication process. It has software that relies on algorithms to automate part of the design process, arranging photos in a way that is pleasing to the eye and suits a page packed with text. Down the road, H.P. might add such applications to the MagCloud service.
H.P. is also using technology similar to MagCloud to help publishers make out-of-print books available. It scans old books, cleans up the images and sends them off to the digital presses.
“By using electronic processes rather than humans, we were able to get our costs down from $2,500 per title down to about $50 per title,” said Phil Zuckerman, the president of Applewood Books in Carlisle, Mass. He said he can now afford to print single copies of old titles.
For H.P., MagCloud is also a way to provide customized service at low risk. And if the niche does not thrive, the company will simply move on. “We are trying to experiment with these new types of business models,” Mr. Bolwell said.