The Backwoodsman Magazine: A Tale of Single Copy Success

Editor’s Note: An earlier draft of this post incorrectly stated that the single copy sales of The Backswoodsman had climbed from below 40,000 copies to 150,000 copies. The post should have stated that the distribution of the magazine had climbed from below 40,000 copies to 150,000 copies. That has been corrected below. My apologies for the error.

If you’re deep into mainstream New York based slick glossy magazines, there’s not much for you here in The Backwoodsman Magazine. That is, unless you happen to have a life that’s lived in the outdoors. Perhaps you wish to live off the grid, be self sufficient and you want to know how to build a “Zeer Pot Refrigerator”. Or maybe you need to replace the gunwales on your canoe and you think you need to take a refresher course in winter driving.

This thirty-two year old magazine is ably owned and edited by the Richie family of Texas. Compared to the latest Conde glossy, it is anything but cutting edge. In fact until six months ago, the insides of this title were printed on newsprint. The cover images are taken from outdoors art. They feature hunters, fishermen, trappers, Native Americans and scenes from the Old West. While the website is functional, the content is limited. However the e-commerce store is well stocked and easy to use. There are no apps. There is no digital subscription.

The Jan/Feb 2012 Cover of “The Backwoodsman” It’s more mainstream than you think.

Most of the articles we see about print magazine circulation are about how sales are down on the newsstand and sub sides. Print is dead. No one wants to shop at bricks and mortar retail. The only place where most writers (and frankly most of the numbers) will grudgingly concede some sort of growth is in the Book-A-Zine category (aka the Zombies).

But here’s a contradiction to that trend. Seven years ago, this magazine, The Backwoodsman, was distributing less than 40,000 copies onto the newsstand. Nothing very big. The only  saving grace for the title was it’s sell through in the mid forties. It was a candidate for the slow erosion and decline on the newsstand that we’ve seen for many other independently owned, middle of the pack publishers suffer through.

But the exact opposite has happened to this title. This magazine has seen it’s newsstand distribution slowly climb from that sub 40,000 mark to 150,000 copies. All the while, it’s single copy sales efficiency has averaged 45% or better. Sales are up significantly.

How did that happen?

One answer is that the content in this magazine is something that people want. More and more people do want to be outdoors. Either read about it vicariously, or actually live self sufficiently. Many of the articles are written by the readers and it’s easy to see how intimate the magazine is with it’s audience.

However in today’s newsstand world, a hot topic is not necessarily a recipe for growth. It also takes persistance.

Newsstand circulation is handled by Irwin Krimke, a consultant and veteran of the Kable News book division and former national distributor ADS Publishing Services. When he began working with the title, about a quarter of the wholesale marketplace was not drawing the magazine and the former Anderson News had placed it on a highly restricted distribution.

It’s very possible to look at much of today’s newsstand business and think of it like many other “push button” businesses. Communication is mostly through email. People hide behind voice mail walls. Distributions are worked through MagNet or a national distributor’s equivalent and submitted electronically. For most main stream titles, the ID wholesale market may be less than 5% of your overall sales.

In this case, Irwin has steadily worked the the title’s distribution and pushed it’s national distributor, Kable Media to go after increasingly important chain authorizations. It took a long time, many submissions, and the retailers are now responding. Krimke works the wholesalers personally and has expanded the ID market. Retailers and wholesalers are paying attention to this $4.95 publication.

Two simple lessons come to mind when considering this story:

  • Good content needs good editing. We hear the words “content” and “curation” tossed around like so many pennies these days. This publisher shows us that you need to know your readers, deliver articles they want to read in a format that the readers want to read them in. In this case ink on paper seems to do just fine. For others it will be digital. Figure it out. Deliver it.
  • Work your circulation. Know your circulation. Don’t ignore your circulation. It doesn’t matter if it’s print or digital. It doesn’t matter if it’s in house or outsourced. Rule #2 in magazine survival is: “If you don’t understand your circulation, you will perish.”

This publisher has his finger on the pulse of his readers. He’s delivering words they want to read and his audience has responded by growing. He has people on staff who pay attention to the circulation and he listens to them. You can grow on the newsstand. You just need to understand it, work it, follow-up on it, and keep working it.

In my first real publishing job many years ago at Outside Magazine, the subscription director, Anne Mollo-Christensen, lead off a staff meeting once by describing her responsibilities like this: “We test,” she said, “Then we measure, test again, measure, try something new, measure, and test again. We’re always looking for a new way to get to a reader. We never stop trying.”

That was perhaps the best lesson I ever had in circulation and marketing. The Backwoodsman lives it every day.

Anybody else out there have a circulation success story they want to share?

Newsstand Reality vs. Publishing Design

Two very fun things turned up in this week’s hard slog through the marshlands of galley preparation and budgeting: My recently ordered “Cover Junkie” arrived via FedEx, and the good folks at MagNet released an e-blast listing the top performing covers on the newsstand in 2011 based on the actual sales data they collected through the year.

Cover Junkie is the brainchild web site and social media project of Netherlands based magazine art director Jaap Biemans. His website is a drool worthy time killing collection of some of the most interesting, beautiful, jaw dropping, and “What the heck(!) were they thinking” magazine covers. The Facebook page is a daily shout out to the best cover of the day. Their Twitter feed is a lively day long journey through the world of magazine design.

If you’re on these two social media sites, save them in your favorites and start interacting. You’ll learn more than you could imagine. If you’re not on social media while working in this industry and you don’t think it’s time well spent, learning and sharing, well, I can’t help you.

From a US based newsstand sales and marketing guys perspective, the Cover Junkie Magazine is a personal hand held extension of the revelation that the site has been. Holy smokes – is my perspective on print magazine design narrow and provincial.

File this under "Drool Worthy"

Some of our great publications are mentioned like Wired, The New Yorker, Esquire.  But have you ever heard of Germany’s “Zeit Magazine”? Italy’s, “Internazionale”? For that matter, how many American publisher’s are aware of our own homegrown “Vice Magazine”? Had you ever heard of “Adbusters” before the Occupy Wall Street movement got started (Actually, those last two I had heard of, but only because of Cover Junkie.)?

In contrast, MagNet, the single copy sales data collectors, published “The Most Effective Covers of 2011“. MagNet points out that from a single copy sales perspective, the most effective covers are the ones that sell the most copies. Believe it or not, this is a fact that often seems to escape notice in many publishing offices.

Two interesting streams of thought stand out in MagNet’s reveal:

1. Many of the best selling issues were specials and one-shots. These are what the Dead Tree Edition referred to as “Zombies”.  Leading the pack was National Geographic’s Wildlife Photography special with unit sales +300% higher than any other National Geographic title.

2. Not surprisingly, all the best cover advice in the universe will not guarantee a great unit sale or sell through at the newsstand. The list the Foredeck put forward last month was completely biased, highly subjective and unscientific.

Why did I do that?

Because when it comes to newsstand sales, once the copies are printed, shipped and the retailers invoiced, there’s absolutely no control for things like:

  • The national economy
  • The local economy
  • If your national distributor properly billed the title (A problem that usually only pops up when the publisher changes something at press and fails to inform the distributor)
  • If your local wholesalers properly bill the title (See above)
  • If you properly printed your UPC code on the cover (No, I’m not kidding)
  • When local wholesalers make their deliveries
  • If the local merchandisers give you a favorable or unfavorable display
  • If there’s something in the magazine that will cause a national retailer to pull your magazine from the shelves (Anyone out there remember the original Sassy Magazine?)
  • If a national retailer suddenly drops you from their authorized list just before you go on sale

This list could go longer, but I’ll spare you the agony.

So save Cover Junkie to your favorites and start looking at things with yet another new perspective. And while you’re at it, keep in mind that design is important, and so is the sale that will put money into your pocket and keep your magazine flying. That means your readers will want more.

Isn’t that why we publish?


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