How to Make a Digital Magazine on a Shoestring Budget

How to make a digital magazine replica on a budget, while you’re budgeting to publish a better version.

If it seems like everybody has a digital magazine, that’s because they do. If you’re a publisher and reading this, then I’m guessing you’re not quite “everyone” yet, but you’re seeing the influx around you, and maybe even your customers are asking for a digital edition.

When I first got an iPad, the first thing I did was head to the Newsstand and look for my favorite magazines. I expected them all to be there, but some of them weren’t. I would have pressed down my fingerprint and subscribed on the spot—Apple makes it so easy to make a purchase like that—but they lost my business. I wonder how much more business they lost from others. To be honest, I subscribed to a number of magazines that day, so I didn’t spend my free time going back every week to check and see if the others ever appeared.


If you’re suddenly getting anxious from the fear of missing out (and it’s a warranted feeling at this point) and you’re ready to make a digital magazine, then you know there are several different types of digital magazines:

Online Magazine

Online magazines are read online. They aren’t formatted for a tablet and they can’t be bought in an app store. They are available through a magazine subscription website, where the user can view an issue of a magazine—one that is linear and periodic, has pages and a regular frequency, and can be viewed in HTML on any desktop or mobile device at any time. There’s nothing to download. Publishers of online magazines usually generate their revenue through subscribers and may also take advertising.

Online Magazine Archive or Library

Typically, when you’ve digitized your magazine into an online magazine, this makes it remarkably simple to create an online magazine archive or library. This is available through your magazine subscription website just like the original online magazine. Users have access to old articles up until whatever date you choose. The online magazine archive is typically an upsell to your online magazine subscription and offered at an additional price per month or year.

Digital Magazine App

Although a digital magazine could rightly refer to any magazine read digitally, most would agree that a digital magazine is a digital edition. In other words, this is the magazine that you read on your iPad, Kindle or other tablet-like device. It can still be held in your hands and the “digital” in digital magazine also refers to the type of content offered. For example, ads may link to webpages (a great advantage to advertisers), and articles may include videos.

Digital-Only Magazine App

A subset of the digital magazine app is the business model that does not include a print version at all. This is what some publishers have started exploring. We don’t see the digital-only magazine app as a survival strategy, as it once was, but rather, drastic innovation and serving the needs of a beckoning digital audience.

But I imagine you’re probably thinking of a digital magazine app, so you should also know about the many different types. Here are the most popular digital magazine app types, in order of least interactive to most interactive:

Digital replica: A digital replica is typically a PDF of your magazine that has been formatted for a tablet reader.

Replica-plus: A replica-plus offers much more interactivity (the videos and ads previously mentioned.)

Reflow-plus: Magazine publishers who create a reflow-plus tend to add new functionality to the magazine that makes it act uniquely from any other digital magazine, and more like an interactive app.

If you’re pinching pennies, you won’t be developing a reflow-plus. Although, we think you should.

If you’re on a very tight budget, you’ll most likely be producing a digital replica. We’ve weighed out the many  different  cons of digital replicas, but the main one is that readers don’t like to pinch and zoom a PDF. They want the text to be in HTML and scrollable.

But hey, you’re on a budget, and digital replicas are cheap, so let’s get into the pros:

Consumers expect and even demand a mobile version of your magazine. The longer publishers wait to jump on the bandwagon, the more they risk losing their audience to rivals who already have a mobile version. The biggest pro of launching a digital replica is that at least you’ll have digital edition to sell and bundle.

Our consumer research shows that the small type of a replica can be a pain for readers, but there is an alternative to the basic replica that we call the “vertical swipe reflow,” which allows a larger font size as each article is then reflowed into a long single page that’s accessed by swiping vertically. This is something most publishers could choose at a minimal expense.

But there are other digital magazine costs to consider.

Who’s going to put together your digital magazine? If the content already exists and you’re simply uploading a PDF, you can skip over this section. If you’re starting a new digital magazine, these costs may apply to you.

You can read the full boat of them here, but here are the most fundamental fees:

  • A new hire –  If you decide to hire a new designer specifically for your digital issues.
  • and/or magazine software – If your existing designers are ready and willing (more on that below).
  • and/or a partner – You may choose to outsource everything to a company (like Mequoda) that does it all for you, usually for a per-page rate.

If you want to save money when making your digital magazine, do it yourself. 

If you’re truly shoestringing it, and doing it all yourself, start with Apple. In the very near future, Apple Newsstand won’t exist anymore, and all magazines will again become apps in the app store. Your mission: become an app developer, or hire one. Join Apple’s Developer Program for $99 per year, visit their newsstand page, and get started.

The general costs you’ll avoid are:

  • Initial magazine publishing software fee – the charge to use software that will submit to the digital newsstands
  • Startup fees – typically from companies who help you set up / design your digital magazine
  • Per download fee – the flat rate or percent you pay per sale
  • Per published magazine – the flat rate or percent you pay every time a new issue comes out
  • Monthly fees – a flat rate you pay monthly to use the sofware / service
  • Hosting fees – the cost to host your files

The one you’ll keep is:

  • Remit rate – the % a newsstand gets every time you sell an issue or subscription

Digital replicas are minimally designed, so you can get away with just the minimal fees if you do it yourself. If you want to add a little sass to your PDF and make a replica-plus or a reflow-plus, check out our favorite digital magazine publishing software platforms. They’ll get your digital edition up, optimized, and into the different newsstands and app stores. For a price.

If you’ve already launched a digital magazine on the cheap, what was your secret? Comment and let us know! 


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