Impossible to Subscribe

Subscribing to Harper’s (or at least trying to) teaches Kevin Nguyen that it’s worth the extra effort to support the publications he cares about.


I remember buying my first issue of Harper’s Magazine on a whim and reading it cover to cover on a sunny afternoon in 2009. That day, I decided Harper’s was the kind of publication I wanted to support. I also learned that a magazine cost six dollars.

About a year later, I was standing in line at the grocery store when I picked up another copy of Harper’s. A subscription cost $16, which made buying a $6 issue feel like a waste of money. So I tore out one of the cardboard subscription cards from the spine, assuming that those cards were made to be ripped out while people were standing in line at the grocery store.

When I got home, I tried subscribing online using the URL on the card, but I got an error, which told me to try again later. I tried again later, and it still didn’t work. After a third failed attempt a week later, I gave up. If it wasn’t going to be easy, I wasn’t going to do it.

I recently bought an iPad, which has been great for consolidating all my leisure reading in one place — Kindle books, Google Reader, and articles saved on Instapaper.

Harper’s doesn’t have a native iPad app, but instead handles their online subscriptions through an app called Zinio. After I installed and signed up for a Zinio account, the app kept encouraging me to download free issues of Travel and Leisure, WebMD, and something called Falconer (which I downloaded and, to my disappointment, is not about falcons). But I just wanted Harper’s, so I subscribed, which cost me $16 — the same as a print subscription.

I think a lot of people get hung up when the digital subscription costs the same as the print subscription, but for me, one of the big appeals of going digital is that it prevents things from cluttering up your apartment. I’ve become wary of subscribing to the print edition of anything. I have copies of The Atlantic piling up at my apartment that I can’t simply “mark all as read.” But I feel too guilty throwing them in the recycling, so they’re scattered about my living room, some still sealed in the plastic wrap they were delivered in. I also get at least one “special offer” letter from The Atlantic each week, which goes straight into the recycling along with Safeway fliers and anything that says Capital One on the envelope.

Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to read Harper’s — or anything really, even Falconer — in Zinio. None of the layouts are formatted for the screen; they’re just scanned versions of the magazine, displayed on a screen that’s significantly smaller than the page it was designed for. The only way I could read a page was to zoom way in, which was clumsy and frustrating. I didn’t get more than two pages into a short story by Alice Munro before I got a headache and closed the app.

The Harper’s website offers PDF versions of each article to subscribers — not an eloquent way to offer digital content, but I figured it would be a far better than reading in Zinio. But I had trouble logging onto the Harper’s site because it kept asking for my subscriber number. I combed through the half dozen emails Zinio had sent me when I signed up looking for my subscription number and couldn’t find it, so I wrote an email to Harper’s customer support. Five days later, I got a stock reply: “Subscribers with digital subscriptions through Zinio do not have access to the archive.”

If I wanted access to the Harper’s website, I had to pay for a print subscription — a purchase entirely separate from the digital subscription I already had through Zinio. So I forked over another $16, which means I have now paid for two separate subscriptions to Harper’s.

It wasn’t so much stubbornness. Publications are chastised for not “getting it” when it comes to digital content, and it’s true — Harper’s digital offerings are a nightmare — but are we only supposed to pay attention to the publications that best handle online subscriptions? Are the magazines with great iPad apps the only ones deserving of readers? I don’t want to discount the importance of a good reading experience, but the conversation about the future of print weighs more heavily on how we’re reading than on what we’re reading.

Even though I had to read Harper’s as a PDF on my laptop, it didn’t make the Alice Munro story any less wonderful. For me, it’s worth it to go through a couple hurdles and pay a few extra dollars to read what I want instead of what’s convenient. I’m tired of the limitations of format dictating what I read. Harper’s is a fantastic magazine, and will continue to be, even as I’m recycling print the issues that arrive in 6-8 weeks.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.