If I had made an entry in my diary every time someone told me, in all seriousness, that the single copy sales business was: Terrible, horrible, corrupt, inefficient, outdated, out of touch, wasteful, mobbed up, operated like the mafia, doomed, too busy ripping off publishers, retailers, wholesalers, consumers – to do a good job, that we should all be in jail for taking advantage of publishers…
… Then I would have a memoir considerably larger than a Brandon Sanderson novel.
Nothing New Under the Sun
There is a verse in Ecclesiastes that says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Solomon wasn’t being a cranky old cynic when he wrote this. He was talking about the cycles of nature in life, not the rat race of the 21stcentury world. But while the complaints about the newsstand business are often the same year after year, the simple truth is that today’s newsstand sales business is not your fathers’ newsstand business. And my father was in the newsstand business.
Last month industry guru and prophet Bo Sacks released two opinion pieces in his newsletter. One from former Ziff-Davis circulator Baird Davis and another from former consultant and industry leader John Harrington. Take a moment and check them out.
Both articles point out things that are very clear about the newsstand:
- Sales are down dramatically
- Sales for leading AAM audited titles are down even more
- Retailers are cutting back on available space at the newsstand
- There is continued consolidation at retail, wholesale and national distributor levels
I worked for Baird when I consulted for Ziff-Davis in its earlier print life. He is a good person and not someone I think of as gloomy or full of doom. In fact, I remember him as hard working and rather clear eyed. He succinctly points out the tremendous losses we have seen at the newsstand, especially with larger AAM audited titles. There is no denying the fact that a business that was generating about $5 billion in retail sales before the big crash in 2008 is now generating less than $2 billion. Harrington, who is also on the list of good people, is the former president of the Council for Periodical Distributors of America and a retired consultant. He points out that different participants in newsstand distribution have very different goals when it comes to profitability.
But We Knew This Already, Didn’t We?
Are industry leaders going to get together and “solve” the problem of the newsstand? Probably not because there are still too many competitors vying for space on the publishing side*. Moreover, all publishers, small, medium and large have a lot of other things to focus their attention on these days. Finally, it doesn’t seem like anything will happen without the seal of approval from the major wholesaler, TNG, or the largest national distributor, CoMag.
Captain Optimist Arrives
Earlier this week, fellow consultant John Morthanos tossed a bit of fuel on the fire in an opinion piece in response to Baird’s op-ed on Bo Sacks. John makes the case that we should look beyond AAM numbers (I heartily agree). He cites the remarkable change in title rankings at chains like Barnes & Noble and Books A Million where traditional top ranked AAM audited titles (Think Cosmopolitan or House and Garden) have been supplanted with recent launches like Magnolia Journal.
He’s right. And as someone who is addicted to publishing stats, I’m endlessly fascinated by the report. But is that the point?
Single copy sales, the sales of print magazines at retail are down. Dramatically.
Retail and wholesale consolidation has reduced a publisher’s ability to be profitable at the newsstand.
If a segment of your business is not as profitable as it once was, and there is little chance of it returning to the same level of profitability, you tend to cut back your participation level and focus your attention on the parts of your business where you see opportunity.
It’s true that new titles continue to be launched on the newsstand. Some, like Magnolia Journal, Pioneer Woman, and the Centennial Media SIPs sell incredibly well. However, they don’t make up for the tremendous losses we see from former market leaders. How often can we rely on high level brand awareness to create winners at the newsstand?
Let’s be realistic. Chains like Barnes & Noble and Books A Million are walled gardens. Their customers are actively looking for something to read – something in print. The B&N newsstand is well run and managed by a terrific magazine oriented staff. So is Books A Million. But that doesn’t mean we ignore the troubling signs that chains like Barnes & Noble have publicly experienced over the past few years.
It would be nice to think that every time a retailer chops a mainline in half or cuts 15 pockets from a check out that our wholesalers, national distributors and publisher quarterbacks rush in with the latest study from MBR and walk out with even more space. Half of it allocated to new, up and coming indie titles.
Maybe that does happen, sometimes. There are a lot of great people in our business and they do work hard to promote the category and maintain our space and viability.
But facts are facts and we’ve lost space. Despite some very visible, exciting and promising bright spots, sales are down overall.
From where I stand (I have a standing desk these days), these battles will continue to be hard-fought. We will never get away from the fact that store traffic is down. We have to acknowledge that there are a lot of distractions fighting for the public’s attention and money these days. Those of us who work in newsstand have to fight even harder to get the attention of the managers of magazine companies and the affiliated partners in the distribution chain because we are now a part of the magazine “media” business.
So, what to do? That’s easy.
Work hard. Vie for attention. Create your own promotions. Check your data. Prove your worth. Cooperate with others in the distribution chain.
Can you be both an optimist and a skeptic?
*I am very much in favor of competition. Just in case you were wondering.