Old Times, New Times, and Digital Times

Several years ago, I stopped attending the annual MPA Retail Convention. For the amusement of my friends in the industry, my rap about it went something like this:

“If I go this year, I’ll kill my career. Every time I go to the key note, I’m afraid I’ll leap up on my chair and start screaming, ‘You lie! You hypocrite!’”

It sounded funnier live. And of course I’d never do something like that. And that poor “guy” isn’t personally responsible for the troubles in our industry.

But I stopped going anyway. The real reason was that the workshops didn’t address topics that interested me and there was always the PBAA (Periodical and Book Association of America). The PBAA  Retail Conference  schedules “one on one” round table meetings around  the usual key note addresses and workshops. In the space of one or two days, I  can accomplish what would normally take me about three weeks of heavy travel and endless hours of conference calls.

While I was employed by corporate America, I stopped attending the PBAA for a few years because the parent company I sold my business to said I couldn’t go. This year, as a self employed person, I gave myself permission to go.

I’m glad I did. It’s important for people who work in an industry to get together and discuss what they are experiencing. For me, it was worthwhile because I got to see people I hadn’t seen face to face for some time. And some of the workshops were worthwhile, even if they didn’t address the topic in quite the way I wanted it to be addressed. Oddly, I find the older I get, the more flexible about these things I can be.

Underneath the pleasure of being together, there is disquiet in the magazine distribution business. Beyond the concerns about print being replaced by digital, there are concerns about retailers continuing to cut back on available space. Will Wal-Mart go direct to publishers? Will publishers willingly go direct if that’s what Wal-Mart does? How stable are the larger publishing houses? The wholesalers? The national distributors?

Personally, I long ago accepted the fact that digital readers, digital magazines and books and some new way of marketing and selling all of this to the public is here. It’s here to stay and it’s share of the pie will grow.

Technology has a nasty habit of getting way ahead of society and it’s been society’s lot to try to catch up, adapt, and not have the technology disrupt society in too negative  a way.

But for me, the real  unanswered question is,  will digital bring us new readers? Or will they replace one way of reading your magazine with another?

There’s endless chatter about the decline of readership in this country. Some explain it away as the coarsening of our culture. I think that non-sense. We’ve never been as genteel a nation as we’d like to think. Just spend five minutes with a history book that wasn’t touched by the Texas Board  of Education and you’ll see what I mean.

The Texas Board of Education

The real issue is the two-fold:

One is the simple crunch for time most people have. They work longer hours, have fewer dollars, and there are a lot of shinny new things out there for people to play with.

The other issue is pricing. We charge too little for magazine subs – so we deflate our implied value to the reader. Then we seem to charge too much for a newsstand copy, and too much for books, and way too much for audio books.

The challenge for publishers in this new market will be to give their current readers a reason to continue to want to pay to read their magazines in whatever form they choose.

Their next challenge will be to attract new readers. Tablets, digital readers, digitized versions of their current print offerings may do that.  But they had better make sure that they don’t simply cannibalize their current readership and make the same mistake and give away their digital versions.

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