Traditional publishers have known better days. The business models of
the past are failing, and new ones that can take their place are, for
many publishers, elusive.

But a few, like The Financial Times, are not just surviving, they’re
thriving. And increasingly, they’re extending their success into new
channels and onto new platforms.

In doing so, however, they’re highlighting some major differences between the haves and the have nots in the publishing business. Take the iPad, for instance. Hailed by some as a publisher’s new best friend, it’s still unclear just how much iPad apps will help struggling publishers. Apple’s new policy for subscription sales in iPad apps will only complicate matters.

While the less fortunate, like The New York Times, seem to believe they have little choice but to play by Apple’s rules, The Financial Times may choose to play a different game altogether.

According to FT’s Rob Grimshaw, “We don’t want to lose our direct relationship with our subscribers. It’s at the core of our business model.” Yes, despite all of the promise (and hype) around the iPad as publishing platform, The Financial Times may opt out of in-app subscription sales if it’s not satisfied with the outcome of negotiations it’s apparently holding with Apple on the matter.

Although The Financial Times can afford to ditch iPad in-app subscription sales, there is a lot at stake; The Financial Times’ iPad app is reportedly driving 10% of new digital subscriptions for ft.com.

This raises an interesting question: the FT believes that giving in to Apple will require giving up too much, should less fortunate publishers give in simply because they have less to lose? It’s a difficult question to answer.

On one hand, it seems pretty clear that struggling publishers can’t afford to ignore new distribution channels and platforms, such as the iPad. On the other hand, investing in a new channel or platform when it requires sharing ownership of subscriber relationships doesn’t exactly seem like a recipe for instant success either. After all, the subscriber relationship is arguably a publisher’s biggest asset.

From this perspective, publishers less fortunate than the Financial Times may still find that taking an FT-like approach to iPad subscriptions isn’t such a bad idea.

As Grimshaw noted, “[there are] a large number of other channels available” to the FT — and they’re available to all other publishers. The iPad may be one of the most appealing new distribution platforms for publishers, but it’s also pretty clear that it isn’t going to single-handedly ‘save‘ any of them either.

That means that publishers might do well to focus on finding viable business models using channels and platforms that they control fully before they attempt to grapple with issues around Apple’s in-app subscription sales policy.