The Atlantic's Great Idea About How to Use HP's MagCloud [Updated]

Last Updated Oct 14, 2009 5:16 PM EDT

In the past, I've viewed Hewlett-Packard's custom-publishing product, MagCloud, as a bit puzzling, but now The Atlantic is making more sense out of it ... and its idea is something other magazine publishers should pay attention to. MagCloud offers anyone the chance to produce a custom-published paper magazine, but I always thought of it as being positioned as more of a mom-and-pop play for the Anna Wintour who resides in many of us. (And those who actually want to read the niche publications MagCloud exists to produce.)

The Atlantic, however, is using it to produce an issue solely made out of what it calls "iconic articles" from its archives going back as far as 1859, written by people including Woodrow Wilson and this guy named Ralph Waldo Emerson. People who want the 60-page issue can go to and buy a copy; it will be printed on-demand and sent to the purchaser for $6.00.

What a wonderful way to resurface -- and make money off of -- great content that's been sitting in a vault somewhere! (The Atlantic's online archive only goes back as far as 1995.) Not all of the older stuff deserves to see the light of day, I'm sure, but I expect, if this run is a success, we'll see the magazine using MagCloud to make money off of content that hasn't been read in decades, or longer.

It's really entertaining to think of how this approach marries old technology and new. In fact, one of the stories, by Vannevar Bush, written in 1945, is said to have "helped lay a foundation for the Internet." But the coolest thing here is that The Atlantic can conduct this MagCloud experiment at virtually no cost. A preview of the issue available at the MagCloud Web site makes it obvious that some art direction was involved in putting the issue together. But the magazine didn't have to guess-timate how big a print run to order, and pray that consumer interest would outweight the costs of producing the issue. It also didn't have to sell advertising. Though the magazine could have -- MagCloud publishers can sell ads -- it can let orders from consumers be its profit.

if fact, it looks like this special issue could have a profit margin of close to 100 percent. (UPDATE: OK, readers, I admit to an analytical flaw here. MagCloud obviously gets a cut; right now I'm checking into how, and if, The Atlantic makes money here. But, yes, I still think this is a great idea!) And if the project is a bust, it hardly matters. It was certainly worth taking the chance. It's not as though experiments like this will save print, but out-of-the-box thinking like this just might.
  • Catharine Taylor