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Strange times make for strange bedfellows. Two years ago, as the U.S. magazine industry began to realize its golden years were probably gone for good, five of the country's largest and most competitive publishers warily put down their weapons and agreed to work together. And last week, their adversity-born experiment produced a magazine lover's dream.

That's when Next Issue Media, a Silicon Valley startup funded by Hearst Magazines, Condé Nast, Meredith Corporation, Time Inc., and News Corporation, rolled out an all-you-can-read digital buffet of some of the publishers' biggest titles. For $9.99 (U.S.) a month, U.S. readers can purchase access to the full Android tablet versions of 27 monthlies, including Vanity Fair, Glamour, Real Simple, Elle, and Esquire. For another five bucks, they get five weeklies, too: People, The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, Time, and Entertainment Weekly.

By the end of 2012, there will be about 100 titles on the list. An iPad app is expected in the next few months.

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And if you're one of those readers whose bedside table is toppling over with half-read issues of The New Yorker that you're still hoping to get to, you can relax: The magazines' archives remain completely accessible in "the cloud" (i.e. a remote server), even if old issues are deleted from your tablet to make room for new ones.

Next Issue is calling it a "Netflix-style" offer, and the industry as a whole is hoping the move could provide the same happy jolt for magazine readership that the popular on-demand TV service has done for viewership.

The U.S. magazine industry, that is: Two years after the introduction of the iPad, some of Canada's largest magazine publishers are woefully behind on developing digital versions of their magazines. And with readership continuing to decline – circulation of domestic magazines dropped about 5 per cent last year – the industry can't afford to play ostrich much longer. Especially since Next Issue expects Canada to be one of its first international territories.

"The industry as a whole is recognizing that the transition to digital is coming on faster than they thought," Morgan Guenther, the CEO of Palo Alto-based Next Issue Media, said in an interview. "We think there's a huge opportunity to turn this industry, which is massive, back into a growth industry." The app gives some negotiating leverage back to publishers, who have wrestled with Apple over the tech giant's restrictive policies. It also offers those publishers extremely valuable data about how people actually read their publications: Every finger swish has the potential to be captured and analyzed.

Canadian publishers, meanwhile, are in a defensive crouch. Late last month, the magazine trade group Periodical Marketers of Canada produced an enervating video that barely acknowledged the digital revolution. "The preference for print magazines is overwhelming," said a tired voiceover. "Fewer than one in 10 [Canadians]have bought an e-edition of a magazine in the past six months."

That may be because Canadian publishers aren't giving readers much of an option, preferring instead to spend their few spare bucks on extra content for their websites or smartphone apps.

Rogers Publishing currently has 10 of its consumer magazines on tablet apps, including Macleans, Chatelaine, and Hello! Canada; it expects to have all 12 in its stable available by the end of the year. And while Ryan Trotman, the senior director and publisher of Rogers Digital, said in an interview this week that its tablet apps are profitable, he wouldn't reveal any numbers. Meanwhile, Transcontinental Media, which publishes Elle Canada and Canadian Living, has developed apps that are little more than PDF versions - it calls them digital replicas - of its magazines, though it is aiming to introduce more interactive versions of a few titles by the end of the summer.

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If the future is a scary place, it might also be one of pleasant surprises. In the past couple of years, critics have lamented the way people are using new technology to deepen their engagement with specific subjects rather than – contrary to early hopes for the Internet – broaden their interests, and themselves. But Next Issue has the potential to turn that on its head.

"Consumers, we know statistically, are about three times more likely to sample outside their core genre in this kind of single-price environment," said Liz Schimel, the executive vice-president and chief digital officer of Meredith Corporation, in an interview. "I've seen that in other comparable situations. The flexibility you give the consumer causes them to experiment outside their usual comfort zone."

Which means The New Yorker or Fortune readers, who might never drop the cash at a physical newsstand for a full issue of People or Better Homes and Gardens, might find themselves sampling those mags at the virtual newsstand.

Sure, that means challenges, especially for Canadian publishers who are uncomfortable going head-to-head against their U.S. counterparts. "It means we have to be on top of our game in producing the best possible content, that's going to be the most highly engaging for our consumers, and really understanding what they're looking for," said Schimel. "We're all going to have to be at the top of our game." The sooner Canadian publishers step up, the better.

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