Thursday, April 12, 2007


Click this picture to see a full-size one.

The other day while I was waiting in a long line at the supermarket, I saw a woman walk up to the magazine rack near the check-out counter and bypass the top magazine to take one from beneath it. This isn't uncommon behavior in any country since, even in the U.S., the front copy commonly is perused by people in order to decide whether or not they want to buy one.

During my long wait, another woman came up to the rack and pulled out a publication that was tied up in the same manner in which you see bundles of newspapers. This was done to hold a bonus book of some sort inside the magazine. She proceeded to manipulate the magazine in multiple ways in order to extract the book so she could look at the cover. One might easily imagine that this bent the magazine up a bit but no one in the shop paid her any mind.

One thing you learn early on in Japan is that the Japanese shopkeepers aren't nearly as uptight about people manhandling magazines as those in the U.S. There's an episode of The Simpsons where the local convenience store owner, Apu, tells customers who are looking through a magazine, "hey, hey, this is not a lending library..." I think that pretty much sums up the attitude of American merchants toward customers reading the magazines instead of buying them.

Conversely, in Japan, there is a long-standing tradition of "tachiyomi". This is where customers stand in the shop and read. Though some shops post signs asking customers not to do this, they often do it anyway. It's not unusual to see crowded banks of readers in places like 7-11. If it becomes too bad, some of them will seal their publications in plastic bags. Given that people will hold and manipulate magazines for far longer periods of time in Japan than in the U.S., you can see why people would skip the front copy and purchase one further back.

For those of us who are in the market for English magazines, there's generally nothing on the racks of any use in mainstream shops. There are some places which carry imports - Tower Books, Kinokuniya, and the National Azabu gift store (above the supermarket). All of the foreign magazines you buy from these places are very expensive. Sometimes the price is as high as three times the U.S. cover price depending on the publication.

Subscriptions to foreign magazines are somewhat better price-wise but you either have to pay much more for airmail or wait a couple of months to get your magazines. If you're a serious fan of magazines but don't want to fork over a ton of money for something which is of temporary amusement, you may want to consider digital subscriptions via Zinio. Zinio distributes a wide variety of publications that can be used with its proprietary reader software (available for both Mac and PC but the Mac version is smoother-acting and better-looking). The reader is especially designed to emulate the real magazine reading process as well as incorporate some enhancements for marking content.

Most of the magazines purchased via Zinio are the same price as a U.S. subscription no matter where you live. Women's magazines, in particular, are a serious bargain when bought in this fashion. Woman's Day and Redbook, for instance, are less than a dollar an issue. Computer magazines are also a relative bargain when subscribed to in this fashion. The big three, MacWorld, PC World, and PC Magazine are all about $20 a year. Another thing you can do, if it is of interest to you, is subscribe to and receive uncensored men's magazines. Anyone who has lived in Japan knows these types of magazines have all the areas which show pubic hair scratched out.

There are both good and bad points to getting your magazines this way. The best point is that you get them in as timely a fashion as possible and they are quite cheap. If you look at it in terms of yen, you're getting a U.S. publication for less than a price of a 500 ml. Coke at a convenience store. As impulse buys go, you wouldn't hesitate to pick it up for that price at a shop. Additionally, a digital copy doesn't take up space in your home, waste paper or get mangled in transit.

On the down side, many start with the problem of not being able to physically hold a magazine while reading it as the tactile experience is very important to many people. While you can print out pages of some (possibly many) of Zinio's digital issues, some are print-disabled or limit how much you can print. Some magazines also let you send copies to friends but it seems that most do not. This is a change from Zinio's earlier subscription situation. A few years ago when I first started getting magazines this way, I could send copies to 3 people by e-mailing them a link and they could download a copy, too.

There does appear to be some DRM going on with Zinio publications. You cannot simply copy an issue to a disc and give it to a friend to read who has the Zinio reader software installed. You also cannot blithely move your issues from computer to computer but you do appear to be able to authorize multiple computers to read the files. If you move from an old computer to a new one and have backed-up your magazine files, the new machine seems to get re-authorized to read all your user-tagged files once you download new magazines from your account.

Annotations list, highlighted text, and a sticky note.

If you've progressed to the point where reading on your computer screen doesn't bother you and you don't feel you need to hold a magazine in your hands to enjoy it, the Zinio subscriptions are a very good idea. The interface is easy to use and allows you to zoom in and out while offering sharp refocusing of the text and pictures at each of 3 zoom levels. You can also use a virtual highlighter to highlight text and use Post-Its to make on-screen notes. You can then click on an "annotations" button which will show you the pages you marked and you can go directly to them at any time. This helps you go back through archived magazines and find articles you were especially interested in without having to flip through pages.

In terms of access, archiving and price, you really can't beat digital subscriptions. You can also feel good about the fact that you aren't contributing to the wasteful use of paper.