Measure Twice. Then Cut, Paste, Spindle, Fold and Mutilate

I’ve been diving deeper and deeper into the digital subscriber waters over the past year and I can’t help but wonder if this is a little like what the newsstand distribution sea was back in the mid 1970’s when mainframes and service bureaus entered the business. Their initial uses were to manage the warehouse, distribution, tie lines and reporting. An industry trade journal at the time actually listed all of the magazine wholesalers at the back of the book by the type of computer system the wholesaler had installed. Everything was possible and everyone had a different way of looking at things. The new technology was all over the place.

The thing that has really driven me to distraction with digital circulation so far is the reporting. Maybe it’s the learning curve but not much is very helpful at first until I download, copy, cut, paste and then consider the fine art of self defenestration. The later is a helpful fantasy until I realize that I work on the ground floor. At best, I’ll scare the dog and sprain a knee.

To be fair, the reports I see from Curtis Circulation, Kable Media, Comag, Source Interlink, Ingram Periodicals and the like also require massaging, cutting and a fair bit of pasting to get the data to to where I need it to go. But over the years we’ve all learned to speak the same language. We all know what we’re looking for so the basic data is just waiting to be reinterpreted.

The magazine Audience Development recently published an exellent comparison guide that lists all of the many features digital subsriber services like Zinio, Nook and iTunes offer publishers.

Most notably, only Zinio pushes reports automatically to publishers. Want to report your digital numbers on your next audit report? There is very little audit bureau support. I can vouch for that last fact as I am currently struggling with a series of spreadsheets that the Alliance for Audited Media (Sorry, I still want to use ABC) has developed for reporting purposes.

So you see, digital providers and your legion of fanboys: If you want us boring circulation, um, pardon me, Audience Development types to show real appreciation for your potential and your wildly growing coolness and inevetiability….how about some data that actually, you know, uh, means something at first glance? You know, something that I don’t have to waste half a day scrolling around to get to the one piece of information that will let me tell my client, “Hey! We’ve got a winner on our hands!” Or, sadly, “Nope, that did not work. Let’s try something different.”

We're getting there, right?
We’re getting there, right?

Charts and graphs are really handy. And they are so pretty! But what I want to know (Quickly) is how many subs were served for the February issue, how many of those were new, how many renewing, and how that compares to a year ago?

Oh, and if you haven’t, please meet with the AAM folks. They are some of the nicest, most patient, extraordinarily polite and very helpful people around. Right now in fact, I can say they are my favorite people on the whole wide planet.

It’s that time of year again, you know.

Sadly, It Really Does All Come Back to Porn

This is true.

When I started this blog, one of the things I wanted to do was share some of the stories about my experiences in the newsstand distribution industry during my early years. This was when the business was in it’s hey day. There were still more than three hundred magazine wholesalers located around the country. The opportunity to bump into some really memorable characters and great people was just around the corner each time I went out into the field. The industry was more family related and less professional. Much of what we did in the business was self taught.

During my first year of blogging, I published a two part post entitled “A Year Without Porn (No, Not Like That!) Part 1” and “Part 2” which was not about how to give up porn. The post was  about how changes in the magazine business had led to me not having an “Adult Sophisticated Client” client in more than a year.

However, the post was mostly an opportunity for me to tell a story about my time as a junior high student working in my Dad’s warehouse.

The two posts generated a fair amount of views, some emails, and a few comments that never went through moderation. When I received an email that seemed to question my intentions, I was inspired me to write one additional blog about the topic in which I tried to spell out what I was trying to say (Besides the story about my Dad’s warehouse). The point was that I missed the publishers that I used to work with.

If you are so inclined, WordPress gives its bloggers some great tools to work with that will help you track your audience and measure how you’re doing. I do admit to occasionally keeping one eye on this data. To me the interesting stat is where the readers from outside the US come from.

In case you’re wondering:

Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Russia, Turkey, Mexico, Brazil. And interestingly, one day I drew in a click from someone from Saudi Arabia.

WordPress will also tell you what the top search terms were that took readers to your blog.

So what terms were searched for? What brought people to the Foredeck? What made people want to search out stories and information about life in the newsstand distribution business? Where the search terms related to digital magazines and their relationship with their print cousins? Did people want to know how to put a magazine onto the newsstand and what that might cost? Where people interested in how we market our products and how social media is affecting what we do?

Maybe my tongue in cheek story about the publisher who was surprised to discover that he still printed a magazine caught traction was being treated as a news story. Were readers searching for it on the net?

Nope. Most of the search terms that brought people here were:

“Porn Magazine” “Porn Mag” “Biased Magazines” “Porn Magazines”

Sigh. Some days you realize that you and the people you work with in the industry that you love will never, ever, (ever, ever, get back together. Or) catch a break.

My personal favorite search term: “Hottentot Porn.” That was generated from this post: “Dear Newsweek Critics: If That’s Porn, Then I’m a Hottentot“.

While some twenty odd years later I still fail to see the long term appeal of porn, I’ve always appreciated and respected the people who do. But really? Someone actually searched for “Hottentot Porn”? And wound up here?

To be fair, a reasonable number of searchers landed here because they were looking for the  Seventeen Magazine cover image of actress Chloe Grace Moretz that I used in an article about a group of teenagers who were trying to get that magazine publisher to abandon photoshopped images of models.

To be even more fair, there were some searches related to magazine distribution that brought people here such as:

“National Magazine Distributors” “Supermarket Magazine Racks” “Titanic Magazine Articles” “Bridal Magazines” “A List of Magazine Distributors”

So all is not entirely lost.

But way way far down at the bottom of the list of search terms, this image showed up. I had to copy it into the Google Translate site to find out what this lonely searcher was looking for:

اي سكس

means “Any Sex” in Arabic.

I give up. Back to work.

Things Placed In Front of The Magazine Rack: The Wayback Machine Edition

Like many people, I’m a collector of non collectable collectables. Most of them land on my desk, in my desk, in my desk drawers, in desk drawers that rarely, if ever, get opened.

Earlier this week I found myself highly frustrated with the lack of work space in my office. The solution I came up with was to open up a few drawers to see if I could take some of the clutter from the top of my desk and put it inside my desk to deal with “later.” That was unfortunate.

It turned out that the drawers were already full of stuff that I had previously dumped into these drawers over the past few months. Out of sight, out of mind.

Cue the nursery school teachers singing “Clean up, clean up, everybody, everywhere…”

You can thank me for that ear-worm later.

To make a very long story slightly shorter: Here, in the middle of circulation audit season, right smack dab in the middle of “Is the promotion budget for 2013 the right size?” Just as the questions are starting to come in, “So how are we doing this year?” I suddenly decide to go on a “I gotta clean this up and make some space!” detour.

In the bottom of a drawer that will very soon be almost empty (Hey, paperless office! Sort of.), I came across a drugstore photo sleeve from 2004. In it were a series of pictures that I had taken at retail. I don’t recall having a film camera back then, but I must have because there were actual film negatives in the sleve with the pictures. But what was remarkable were a few pictures in the collection that could have been entries in last year’s popular “Things Placed In Front of The Magazine Rack” series.

Walking stick, Big Bird or a cool gift bag with your mag?
Walking stick, Big Bird or a cool gift bag with your mag?

If I were a Frenchman, right about now I would say,

“Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.”

But I’m not, and as I don’t feel like writing out any swear words, I will just say,

“SSDD.”

The only way we will ever slow the encroachment of our retail space (That we do actually pay for via RDA, enhanced discount, purchased check out positions and promotional incentives) is if we help our wholesalers and their merchandisers to more vigorously protect our space. The only way I see that ever happening is if our publishing community stops treating single copy sales as the third class citizen of the publishing community. Then maybe our retailers will catch on.

Will that happen?

Hmmmm.

“SSDD?”

Note: I’m going to keep the “Things Placed In Front of The Magazine Rack” series going. So please feel free to send me your photos from retail to joe.berger at newsstandpros.com. 

Join, Or Die

Editor’s Note: Over the holiday break, I spent a few millennia sitting on a plane reading articles about the Tea Party and looking at photos of some of their paraphernalia. While you don’t want my opinion about the current state of their union, the images they used, especially the “Join, Or Die” flag, got me contemplating Walter Issacson’s excellent biography, “Benjamin Franklin-An American Life”. Somehow, that led me to this image which  I offer  to you readers.

Illustration by ELB
Illustration by E. Berger

There are enough writers now who scoff at the notion of print magazines going the way of the dinosaur that we can drop the whole “going the way of the dinosaur” or “buggy whip” analogy.  In any event, while there are no dinosaurs around these days, they are a pretty big business. And, while there aren’t too many horse drawn carriages rolling around major American cities, there are still buggy whip manufacturers.

The current state of the newsstand distribution business is an altogether different nest of dinosaur eggs.

In theory, the consolidation of the newsstand distribution business should have been a good thing for everyone. For publishers, piecing together a print order became much simpler because there are fewer wholesalers of wildly varying sizes and fewer people with wildly different agendas to negotiate with.

For wholesalers, the elimination of some nearby competitors and the consolidation of their presence in key regions should have made life easier. It also provided a chance to create firmer relationships with major national retailers. There was the possibility of breaking into new national markets.

Retailers were finally able to consolidate their service levels, streamline their invoicing and payments and bring magazine distribution up to levels comparable to their other DSD delivery agents.

Some of that happened and whether or not any of it is a good thing most likely depends on which side of the table you sit on. Are you a glass half full or half empty kind of person?

What more than fifteen years of consolidation has not done is streamlined how we measure success in our business. All the links in our distribution chain look at it differently.

For an SBT retailer, a 35% sell through should be meaningless because they only paid for what they sold and they never carried the other 65% on their books (Although the savvier ones should wonder what could have sold in the space where those returns came from).

For a publisher, a 35% sell through can mean a profit if their production costs were not too high. It can also be a break even point. Or it can be a loss. It all depends on those pesky printing and shipping costs. Plus whatever else the wholesalers, retailers and national distributors tack onto the final bill. Those add ons can add up.

For a national distributor, selling a magazine at 35% is pretty much the same as a national distributor that sells it at 55% or 15%. For them, the only difference in many cases (Unless the contract is creative and has efficiency tied in) is the volume of sales. A publisher client with a 15% sell through is either on the way out of business, or about to get a lot of hand holding if they still have a stack of cash and the will to fix what is wrong. Hand holding a publisher can be expensive. On the other hand, a lot of hand holding for a +50% client at least means there’s money coming in, and the potential for more.

But in the end, what about the reader? After all, our goal here, in this little brackish, increasingly shallow tidal pool of the publishing industry is to sell as many copies of as many magazines as possible. Isn’t it?

Is the solution to meld the national distributors (ND’s) and wholesalers together? I’ve heard this idea kicked around. Ideally the goal of  the ND’s is to market and advocate for the publishers to the wholesaling and retailing community. If ND’s are not there, who advocates for the publisher? Wholesalers should be invested in the success of the products they market but it often seems as though it’s simpler for them to push a button and say “No” than to dig in and try to understand what is presented to them. To be fair, many on the publishing side still don’t really understand what is involved in wholesaling magazines.

And distributing magazines to the newsstand, in spite of all of the technological advances we’ve seen over the last twenty years is still very labor intensive. We don’t see as much local knowledge of the stores and markets serviced as we should expect.

There’s no denying that readers have not been picking up newsstand copies in the quantities that they used to. Sales have been declining for many years. We’ve seen some positive trends like the successful launches of HGTV Magazine and Food Network Magazine. There’s great news on the specialty front as Book A Zines and specials bring in high cover prices and high sales. Mr. Magazine ™, Samir Husni counted 242 regular frequency magazine launches in 2012.

At the same time, we have seen the declines in traditionally strong categories as well as the near elimination of some categories that were traditionally industry leaders in the last two decades. These declines wipe out the gains that have been hard won.

Maybe we’ve lost our way. In all of our obsessing over consolidating, efficiency, will we or won’t we survive, we’ve forgotten that this is a hand sell, one at a time, get the people into the stores kind of business. There don’t seem to be any short cuts to achieve that end. There are a lot of great tools these days that should make our job more efficient. But we still have to get readers to find the rack, stop in front of the rack,  pick up a magazine and then make the decision to buy the magazine. We know people like magazines, we just have to get them to buy them.