There's little point in denying that advances in technology mean the world of publishing is changing, but that doesn't mean newspapers and magazines are dying. Ben Veal has just launched a new, digital-only science magazine which he hopes will hit the big time despite being offered as a free download.
Guru, billed as "the world's first digital-only science lifestyle magazine," aims to fill a perceived gap in the market that neither websites nor traditional publications target. "At its heart," Veal explained to thinq_ during our interview, "it’s a new type of crowd-sourced magazine which looks at a range of scientific topics in an easy-to-understand and - dare I say it - fun way. We’re looking to break down barriers that exist currently between the scientific community and the general public, making it accessible to all."
Founded by three experts in their respective fields - doctor and science blogger Stuart Farrimond, graphic designer Sarah Joy, and PR man Veal - Guru is already generating buzz, despite little in the way of an advertising budget and a product which is both ephemeral and with no attached value.
"Stu has the rare ability of taking a complicated scientific subject and breaking it down so that it’s interesting to all," enthused Veal. "His blog received a great deal of interest very quickly, and from that it became clear that there was a gap in the market - and interest for - this kind of magazine.
"Stu wanted to create a magazine which is like nothing out there currently - and with Guru, we believe that we have achieved that. Topics include science, food, the mind, technology and the media, all of which look at the facts but without getting too heavy like many scientific journals do."
Previously, such a venture would have launched a paper-based magazine requiring a massive investment of cash for - initially - little return. More recently, a website would have been launched and likely languished as its creators struggle to carve out a niche in the increasingly crowded market. Guru's creators took a different path, however: a publication with the production values of a traditional - if somewhat short - magazine, but without creating a physical product to spare themselves that start-up cost which sees most magazines start their lives deeply in debt.
Veal points to three factors for the decision to launch Guru as a digital-only venture: "changing reader habits, environmental reasons, and money. With Guru," he explained, "we’re recognising the range of ways in which people now access magazines, and making the most of smartphones, computers, and especially iPads and tablets. Looking after the environment is also very important to us, so digital publications have that obvious advantage over print, and financially... at this stage, printing is prohibitively expensive for us."
The decision to launch as a digital-only title has also been driven by consumers' growing desire for 'instant' content. While the magazine is still published on a regular schedule, distribution is instantaneous and new readers can get their hands on a copy without having to get up off their chair.
The move towards tablets and eReaders for consumption of content is a game-changer, Veal argues. "It’s a huge change – the ability to find, download, comment on and enjoy a magazine on the move is already having a massive impact and will continue to do so, especially as tablets become more mainstream with devices such as the Kindle. Don’t get me wrong," he added, "I still love print media and ‘traditional’ magazines, but times and reader habits are definitely changing."
It's easy to dismiss Guru as yet another wannabe in a crowded market. While still rare compared to websites, the low barrier to entry in the world of digital publishing - where writers can easily self-publish at little or no cost - does mean a great deal of noise as well as signal, but that's something which Veal and his colleagues are keen to avoid.
"The quality of the content will always be the big issue with self-publishing," he claimed. "Without that, you'll struggle to get a magazine off the ground - whether it's free or not."
As a result, the magazine targets 'gurus' - appropriately enough - for its crowd-sourced content. "Since the pilot issue launched in June, we've welcomed a number of great writers from all around the world on board," Veal claimed, "including American artist Michele Banks, whose science-themed work focuses on cells, bacteria and the human anatomy; South African broadcaster and radio presenter Daryl Ilbury, who looks at scientific scepticism; and American psychology expert Dr Kim Lacey, who explores the inner workings of the human mind."
Those used to traditional publishing will be curious as to Guru's business plan, however: while the magazine has high production values, it is given away in a variety of digital formats - including DRM-free ePub, Adobe PDF, and Kindle editions - completely free of charge. It's a bold move, and one which is still largely unproven for a digital magazine.
"Producing Guru isn't free," Veal admitted, "and takes a great deal of time from the three of us in writing, editing, reviewing submissions, designing and promoting. But we're currently looking at ways in which to bring in revenue, and one of these ways is advertising – with our magazine being so targeted and web traffic growing by the day, we are able to offer great advertising opportunities to businesses. We’re also looking at merchandising, sponsorship and donations as ways of generating revenue."
While giving away the product might seem counter-intuitive - and, it must be said, will continue to be a loss-making venture until the group can sign up some high-profile advertisers - the magazine has already proven a hit. "We were overwhelmed with response to our pilot issue," Veal crowed, "so much so that our site temporarily crashed due to the levels of downloads! Issue One has been even better. I think people are really beginning to see what Guru is all about, and that we are trying to do something new here."
With sales of Amazon's Kindle continuing to mount, and increasing numbers of tablet users looking towards services such as iBooks and Zinio - rather than the local newsagents - for content, Guru could be well positioned to be at the forefront of what is increasingly looking like a fundamental change in publishing.
To check the magazine out for yourself, head on over to the official Guru Magazine website.