The View From The Newsstand (Doesn’t Entirely Stink)

Sometime next week, the Audit Bureau of Circulation will release the results from the first half of the year. The news from the newsstand side of the world will not be good. Sales are expected to be down for these industry leading titles. Possibly in double digits. On top of that, my colleagues at MagNet, the wholesaler owned repository of industry sales have already hinted at some preliminary numbers that suggests retail sales dollars could be off by as much as 8% or more.

No doubt the follow-up to this news will be a plethora of blog postings, earnest op-ed pieces, and journalistic dissections that will discuss in detail about how troubled the magazine business is in general and how deeply in peril the newsstand distribution is in particular. A good BoSacks vs. Mr. Magazine point/counterpoint may be just what the doctor orders to rinse away the summer doldrums.

I’d be a fool to dispute any of the numbers. So I won’t. While it’s true that statistics can be bent in any particular way you want to tell almost any story you want, there is no way to dispute that for many magazines, newsstand sales are down. Furthermore there doesn’t seem to be any quick turnaround in the immediate future.

The reasons for the downturn are staring us in the face:

  • It’s the economy, stupid. Store visits are down, unemployment is high. People are bypassing the magazine rack in favor of the Ramen Noodle display.
  • It’s the economy stupid, part 2: So long as we heavily discount subscriptions, single copy sales will be for someone who wants that magazine NOW. Not in six to eight weeks. If your pockets are feeling a little light, you’ll wait. Or you’ll just never get the magazine
  • File this one under, “Tell me something I don’t know, Sherlock. We have a dysfunctional industry.” Each link in the chain: Publisher, National Distributor, Wholesaler, Retailer, has a completely different set of metrics for measuring success and profitability. What works for the publisher, may not work for the wholesaler, or retailer, and vice versa.
  • You can also file this one in the same folder: “Tell me something I don’t know, Sherlock. We have a dysfunctional industry, Part 2”. On top of differing definitions of success and failure, we also have four participants in this industry who don’t seem to like or trust each other very much (Which really makes for a fascinating work environments).
  • Yes, we’d be foolish to deny that the web, tablets and e-readers are contributing to some of these sales declines.
  • Likewise, we’d be foolish to blame the downturn on just the digital side of the aisle.

I’ve maintained for a long time that we need to do a better job of marketing and merchandising our products, and tooting our own horns. If we were better at these simple tasks, the reports that get written about us would be very different. 

With that in mind, may I present to you some interesting features from the field?

Two Specials from Cooks Illustrated: 30 Minute Suppers and Cooking for Two
Us Magazine's Katy Perry Special. Wenner's other specials have performed quite well this year.
It's not all specials out there. The end of the NFL strike means it's safe for the sports annual publishers to release their pro football books. First to market is first to win the POS sales race. Usually.
The end of summer means that bridal magazines release their "Fall" issues. Here's The Knot's Fall 2011 Gown Guide. The Knot is entering it's second year on an expanded production schedule.
When was the last time you saw this many comics in a mainstream store? B&N has expanded the category.

If you work in our end of the magazine business, or in the magazine business in general and wish you could ignore everything you will read in the coming weeks, don’t. Read the articles and try to understand what they are saying and where they are coming from. Put yourselves in their shoes. If you disagree with their conclusions,  dispute their conclusions and where you can, and where it makes sense offer up a different conclusion and an alternative solution.

Politely would be nice. But if you’re of a different mind, have at it.

This is a mature and troubled business.  The future is not set in stone. We don’t have to go over the edge and into the abyss.

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