The Single Copy Mystique – A Warranty, but No Guarantee

A good friend of mine, a former publishing executive and semi retired magazine consultant frequently says to me that “ Single copy sales is a very simple, practical, complicated, business.”

That’s not as off putting as it sounds. The end goal of the single copy chain of distribution is simple: If your magazine is readily available on the newsstand, and a reader is of the mind to look for a magazine, you have a chance to make a sale.

Of course, the magazine rack could have a case of strawberries in front of it.

This could be a "Buy 1 Package of Strawberries, Get Cooking Light at 50% Off", but I don't think so.

Or, there could be numerous dump displays in front of it.

Now that's a Tri-Fecta of dump displays.

Or, some genius may have decided to eliminate flats (large display “flats” at the bottom of the rack) and replace them with pockets that are only three inches deep

This is a Two Fer: The flat is gone and a dump is in front of the rack.

Or, your art director may have decided to put an inscrutable cover on the magazine that baffled your readers.

Or, your transportation company may misdirect your shipment to Warehouse 13

Or a key wholesaler could shut down right at the time so many publishers need a solid first quarter in a new year

Or, one of your key magazine wholesalers may have submitted a print order for 35% of your national US print run, then decided that they were kidding and only distribute 70% of that 35% of your print order.

Am I making a case to put myself out of business or what?

As my semi retired friend (who spends some of his online time taunting the imperturbable says: “Single copy sales is a very simple, practical, complicated, business.”

Not as catchy as “If you build it, they will come.” But true. If there’s a market for your magazine, and the delivery, distribution or display don’t get screwed up, people will buy it.

The question is, how many will buy? And will that cover the bills?

Like all people who live and die by the sale, I prospect for new business during the year and at least once or twice, I have a conversation with a publisher that goes something like this:

Publisher: “ If I hire you, my newsstand sales will go up, right?”

Me: “That’s certainly the goal, but I can’t guarantee that they will.”

Publisher: “Well all I really want you to do is pay for yourself. You’ll do that, won’t you?”

Me: “My goal is to increase your sales, increase your efficiency, and help you make more money, That will more than pay for myself, but I can’t guarantee that.”

Publisher: “Well why not?  I don’t get this stuff. My sub gal doesn’t want to be involved. I need a guarantee!”

Me: “ The only way I would even try to guarantee this for you would be if you gave me complete control over your editorial, your ad-edit ratio, your cover art, if you hired me sales representatives to call on all of the major distributors and retailers, and if you hired me about 15,000 merchandisers to direct traffic in key stores to your magazine’s spot on the rack. Will you do that?”

Publisher: “That’s going to cost a ton of money.”

So you can see why a lot of publishers are taking a hard look at digital marketing and digital editions.

I could turn this post into a rant about how businesses are now looking for the sure thing and aren’t willing to invest and develop their products so they can have a “brand” to sell.

But it seems to me that we’ve done a really fine job of taking something simple and making it difficult. There’s a mystique around newsstand sales that doesn’t need to be there.

For the record, that rant I have with the publisher only takes place in my head during long bike rides. If I’m on the phone with the publisher, I wear a hole in the carpet pacing and trying to explain what reasonable expectations are.  If we’re face to face, I put on my calm, nice guy face and do the same. Sometimes I make the sale, sometimes I am shown to the door.

There are no guarantees.

But there are affidavits of returns.


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