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?

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7 Replies to “The Backwoodsman Magazine: A Tale of Single Copy Success”

  1. Fascinating example of growth in today’s challenging climate. Content creators as well as publishers can benefit from this example of catering to your market, and developing an audience.

  2. I think stories behind hyper-specific magazines are always really interesting. Personally, I wouldn’t be reading “The Backwoodsman,” but I’m curious to read about their internal story of growth. Have they published an editors’ letters to readers or an internal blog? It’s intriguing that “The Backwoodsman” started user-generated content. Definitely a no-fail way to connect with readers. It made me wonder, how do bigger magazines that are struggling to maintain subscription base continue to connect with readers? Not every magazine can have user-generated content. I think the balance is one of the next great publishing hurdle.

  3. @caitlin: The magazine does have en editor’s page, but the few issues I’ve seen generally talk more about the magazine and what is in it, than about anything else. You can find the mag’s home page here: http://www.backwoodsmanmag.com/ . As near as I can tell, they don’t have any blogging or social media ongoing – like I said, they’re pretty old school and perhaps that’s the appeal. If you want to find a copy of it to take a look, their distributor just launched http://www.wheresmymagazine.com. Type in a zip code, the name of the magazine you’re looking for and if they distribute it, you can find it nearby.

    As to how larger mags are working with their sub base to connect to readers? It’s a struggle to upgrade capabilities and remain relevant. The bigger houses have more resources but the sub burueas they rely are have done a lot of upgrading and have a lot further to go.

  4. Very nice post and very interesting. I am the editor of a new regional magazine called Plank Road Magazine, in Central New York.

    Please don’t take this unkindly, but if you are going to write in support of any publication, please edit your own letters and posts carefully! You have written the possessive adjective “its” with an apostrophe numerous times. IT’S is a contraction for IT IS. The word ITS (no apostrophe) as in “its sell through” or “its newstand distribution” DOES NOT HAVE AN APOSTROPHE! There are some other signs of careless editing in the post, but this one is a real sore thumb.
    Thanks for listening, and I hope you fix it!

    Elizabeth Weinstein, Plank Road Magazine, Tully, New York

  5. Hi Joe – after reading your article I sourced the Australian distributor for The Backwoodsman and ordered just 2. The first 2 editions did not sell but we recently received the May / June issue and a guy bought one, telling me excitedly at the counter that although he lived in Brisbane (100 km away) he wanted to order every issue as he had once read the magazine and loved it but could not find any newsagent that stocked it. We are to SMS him when the next issue arrives and he will drive the next weekend to buy it! This proves that (borrowed from Field of Dreams) ‘stock it and they will come’.

  6. Steve, that is great news and I’ll let my friend who consults for them know this. The publisher is still having great success with the magazine stateside and it’s good to know that they have fans on your continent too. Thanks for your efforts on their behalf!

  7. The Backwoodsman is just a good fun magazine. You don’t need to be a mountain man or living in the forest to enjoy it. It is filled with cool fun little projects to build and do. I built a very cool little boat for my nieces and nephew to play with. They have floated all over our pond 1000 times in that little thing, and they love it. They have had some very cool projects to make out of just simple tin cans .No scientific breakthroughs here, but really fun simple little projects. As silly as it sounds, there is tons of stuff you can make out of a tin can, and many of the items work amazingly well. I am not a “live off the land” type of guy, but it is a fun magazine. Buy it one time and check it out, there is something for everyone to try.

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