Selling Magazines The Indie Way

The circulation data reported in this month’s AAM “Snapshot” release was dissapointing, but not all that surprising. Since 2008, well known magazines that used to sell a million or more copies on the newsstand are now struggling to sell more than a few hundred thousand. Since the rise of relatively cheap high-speed internet access, whole categories that were once the “King of the Newsstand” like newsweeklies, adult entertainment, celebrity driven mainstream magazines have either disappeared or lost their retail clout.

Yet at the same time we continue to see steady launches of regular frequency magazine titles. Since the start of this year alone, Mr. Magazine’s “Launch Monitor” has counted more than 129 new regular frequency titles.

Where are they all getting sold? In many cases, these titles have “micro” circulations. Distributions that are restricted to internet sales, sales to specific indy bookstores and specialty retailers. Some make their way into mainstream stores like Barnes & Noble but often they eschew traditional mainstream single copy sales channels. Check the back of one of these new magazines (or their web page) and you’ll see a limited list of “Stockists” who carry the magazine.

A single issue of Kinfolk magazine will set you back $18.00. You’ll find it in some Barnes & Noble stores, but not in a chain supermarket. The Great Discontent, my favorite new launch of the year costs, $25.00. These are not mainstream magazines.

The Great Discontent. Fascinating - and worth every penny.
The Great Discontent. Fascinating – and worth every penny.

If you look across the Atlantic to the English town of Brighton, you just might see an alternative future for magazine sales. One that is not dependent on mass merchandising and sales. One that looks remarkably familiar to anyone who’s ever spent time in an independent bookstore.

Martin Skelton, a former founding partner of an international educational consulting business, stepped off the corporate track last year and opened a magazine shop in the English coastal town of Brighton. However Magazine Brighton is not like any other traditional UK newsagent. This store carries only indie magazines and is staffed with people like Martin, people who are passionate about indie magazines.

I came across this store through my Twitter feed and have been fascinated by the endless pictures of beautiful titles Martin and his staff post to Twitter and Instagram. Last week, Martin was kind enough to share his thoughts about indie mags and his store with me via email.

His responses to my questions are below. The questions and his answers have been lightly edited for clarity:

Do you have a background in the magazine business? What drove you to open your store?

Not in the magazine business (Unless you count publishing “The Medway Gazette” every fortnight with two friends when we were nine.) I have always loved magazines and print, writing and words. Ideas and illustrations since anyone in my family can remember. Since the rise of Indie Mags, I have bought tons of them, followed lots more and – in my old traveling corporate life – visited stores in many countries around the world. The town I live in is the nearest England gets (And that’s not very near) to San Francisco, but I kept coming home to this university, design led, independent, multi-cultural town and we didn’t have a store (like this). As my present to myself, after years of (Good, enjoyable) corporate life, I followed my passion and opened this store.

How is your shop different from a more traditional newsstand in the UK?

Well, first, you won’t find 95% of the magazines we sell on any traditional newsstand anywhere. We specialise in Indie mags. Second, we only sell Indie mags – no ancillary sales of drinks or anything. Third, we have a design intent to our store – it looks pretty good (will get even better). And no magazine is allowed to overlap another magazine. They each have their special place. Fourth, we don’t just sell magazines. We love them. We like talking about them. Recommending them, and so on.

Can you give us an idea about the number of titles you carry in the store? How many are delivered each week? What are your top sellers?

Yikes. We are currently stocking about 250 – 300 magazines regularly. We have chosen about half of these from our own likes and favourites. People who come into the shop recommend mags to us that we try out. Mag distributors and publishers are regularly in contact with us about magazines we might want to stock.

For some mags, it is unfair to talk about best sellers because they print in small print runs, sometimes as low as 500 and occasionally as low as 100. So we get a few of them and sell out but that might only be five copies. There are indie mags that are edging towards non-indie status as they get more popular. We can always sell multiple copies of Cereal, Kinfolk, Flow and Frankie and others in that vein. These are probably our best sellers but as a proportion of their total print run we probably sell less of these than some of the smaller mags.

What is just as interesting is the range we sell. Very, very few of our stock don’t get sold. On any given day, we might sell multiple copies of two or three magazines, but single copies of many, many more.

In that vein of thought: What are your current favorites?

This is really, really hard as I love the magazines for all sorts of different reasons. I could you my top three mags that smell the best. My top three for paper quality, my top three for design, my top three for obscurity, and so on. I really do get something from all of them and I’m inspired by the people whose passion and hard work produces such beautiful and interesting things. Right now, I’d probably snatch my own copies as soon as they come in of “Elephant”, “Dumbo Feather”, “Victory”, “032C”, “The White Review”, and I’ll have to stop there (The list is much longer).

Four of the beter known Indie Mags you can find at Magazine Brighton: Cereal, Flow, Kinfolk, and my favorite Aussie, Frankie.
Four of the beter known Indie Mags you can find at Magazine Brighton: Cereal, Flow, Kinfolk, and my favorite Aussie, Frankie.

In indie bookstore tradition, there is the idea of “hand selling” a book to a customer: A knowledgeable bookseller will guide the customer to the “perfect book” he may or may not have known he was looking for. Is it like that in your shop, or do your customers know what they are looking for when they come in?

Some people do know what they are looking for, yes. But even these people may want to have a conversation so that they can experience something new as well. Lots of people want to be guided and one of the joys of being in the store is meeting interesting people, having great conversations with them and trying to match them with a magazine they might not know.

Time for the wonky circulation question: Do you work directly with distributors or the magazine publishers? Or both? Are the magazines returnable for credit? Or do you buy non-returnable? Also, do you sell anything besides magazines?

Tick all boxes (Editor’s Note: What Martin is doing is really impressive! Tracking all of that is not easy!). We work with about six larger distributors (But even distributors can be small operations); we work directly with the editors and publishers of about 50 magazines. About 60% of our magazines are on sale or on return, the rest we buy upfront. Trying to get the mix right and buying the right number at any one time (Re-ordering when we need to) is one of the big tricks to staying afloat. As above, we sell nothing else except a small dash of greeting cards.

Who comes to your store? What are they looking for? If a customer comes in looking for a more “traditional” magazine, are you able to guide them to something along the lines of what they were looking for?

People who know the magazines. People who don’t know the magazines but like what they represent and want to get to know them; People who are attracted by the look of the shop; people who think we are a conventional newsagent, find we aren’t and leave more quickly. A few guys who think we are a porn shop and leave very quickly.

Are there other stores similar to yours opening in the UK? Do you have competitors?

We have no real competitors in our town although some lifestyle shops sell one or two of our magazines. But no one sells as many as we do. There are a very few shops in the UK that sell only indie mags, and a few more that sell them alongside books. I guess our biggest competitors are: A. The current low levels of awareness, B. Publishers who rightly sell subscriptions cheaper than we can offer, and C. A few online sellers.

But because the magazines are tactile and quite different from a mainstream magazine we also have advantages having a store (with) knowledgeable people who can be spoken with.

What is the retail community like in Brighton? Are there other indie shops that sell magazines and if so, how have they responded to your presence?

Brighton is ‘famous’ for its range of indie stores and we have added to that mix. The people who run these stores have been unbelievably kind and helpful to us as we go going. Other store owners in our street tell us that our shop has added to the mix and so it benefits them, too.

What was your best day, so far, like? What are you looking forward to?

Well, a bit like choosing my favorite mags. We’ve had lots of best days. For example, actually opening was brilliant. We were still putting mags on just dried shelves when a woman came in and wanted to buy one so we decided we were open. Our first queue at the till was pretty amazing and last Sunday we had our first queue before the shop had actually opened. We like seeing our monthly takings rise each month and get us closer to break even so the end of the month days are pretty good. We love it when editors and publishers drop in to see us. We love it most when interesting people come in and we have great conversations, learn stuff and introduce them to magazines. 

Editor’s Note: Now don’t you want to quit your job, hop on a plane and go work at Magazine Brighton?

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Well, it’s an act of passion. Someone in a small bookstore in Massachusetts about fifteen years ago told me that the trick was to have low expectations and in terms of worldly success that’s exactly what we have. But we have really high expectations of what the shop can become as a meeting and gathering place in the future. There are the odd off days, but it is a joy.

You can find Magazine Brighton on Twitter here. Their Instagram feed, which I find endlessly fascinating, is here.


A Letter to Victoria Hearst

Dear Ms. Hearst,

I would like to commend you for the success of your recent campaign against Cosmopolitan Magazine. That is, I would commend you if your goal were to raise your public profile and fundraise for the organization you are affiliated with.

On the one hand you say that if you were the Queen of Hearst, you would put the magazine out of business. Yet in the same article, you are quoted as saying that you are not trying to censor Cosmopolitan nor put it out of business. Frankly, that is confusing. Either you are trying to pressure the company your family founded to see things your way, or you are trying to eliminate one of their flagship publications from the magazine world.

If your goal is to shield minor children from “harmful” cover lines and editorial that denotes what you claim to be a “dangerous lifestyle,” I wonder why you are spending time taking on the display of magazines at retail. Especially since Cosmopolitan and many other check out titles have been behind blinders for a long time.  Foot traffic in retail stores is down. Newsstand sales of Cosmopolitan are down. In the latest report to the Alliance for Audited Media, Cosmopolitan sales at retail were down 31%.

Surely the researchers at the foundation you are affiliated with discovered the many reports suggesting that overall newsstand sales since 2008 have declined by 50%. Didn’t the researchers also uncover that the newsstand industry has always been a small part of overall circulation for many American magazines? I would imagine that your researchers reported that the newsstand industry has consolidated significantly over the past twenty years. In 2014 a major wholesaler went out of business. Even a casual analysis could conclude that may be a contributing reason to Cosmopolitan’s declining sales at the newsstand.

According to a variety of reports, most children between the ages of eight and twelve have cell phones and more than 30% of teens (and the number may be higher now) have their own smartphones. So I have to ask you: Have you heard of SnapChat? WhatsApp? GroupMe? I’m sure you’re aware of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Teens do read magazines. Children read magazines and books. But they also love their mobile computing.

Demi Lovato started the hashtag #unwrapmycosmo
Demi Lovato started the hashtag #unwrapmycosmo

Cosmopolitan reports a paid circulation of more than 3 million and a reach of 16 million readers. On the other hand, the magazine reaches more than 20 million unique digital users. If I believed as you did (which I don’t), I would try to sit down with the publishers at Hearst and see if I could work with them to create an app that would keep minor children out of Cosmopolitan’s web-based content.

I know. That would be hard. Hearst may reject your approach. Taking on an industry, the newsstand industry, an industry that is visible and on the ropes is rather easy. Retailers are skittish about negative publicity. Going after us will get you headlines and headlines are fun.

That wasn’t too snarky was it? My apologies. However, let me tell you what your campaign against Cosmopolitan just might achieve. It’s not your goal – but something that I consider hurtful. In my opinion, its insidious.

Did you know that the newsstand industry employs more than 15,000 people? While I’ve publicly wondered if some of the leaders of the publishing industry are trying to staunch the flow of lost sales at retail, I can tell you this:

Every week I work with line workers, account executives, marketing managers, sales representatives, vice presidents, and a wide variety of people who work very hard. They spend their days trying to make our industry profitable. They love this work, love our industry, and love the people they work alongside of. They want nothing more than to do their job and, frankly, keep their job.

Clearly you’re not helping the cause.

Do you really think that putting Cosmopolitan behind more blinders will keep children from seeing “pornography”? They can see it every day on their smartphones. They can call it up on their laptops in their bedrooms and the computer in their family room. They can turn on the TV and see “racy programming” on antenna TV, basic cable, premium cable and satellite. We’ve all heard arguments that advertisements on billboards, in magazines, newspapers and TV contain “pornographic” images.

I’m sorry, Ms. Hearst, but pornography has been with us for a long time and will not go away anytime soon. Want to diminish it? Let’s try to build a fair and equitable society where all people are valued regardless of their belief system or sexual orientation. That’s hard, but worthwhile work. You’re not going to accomplish that by putting more blinders on Cosmopolitan check-out pockets. That’s a picayune goal when you consider that the magazine is written for adult women who know how to make their own choices. Women who are certainly capable of expalaining to their daughters or sons what the magazine is all about.

Please reconsider your goal.


The Newsstand Can’t Catch a Break: Cosmo Gets Blindered

Any day now we could deluged by an onslaught of bad news from the upcoming AAM “SnapShot” report. Until then, we can contemplate the news that one of the nations’ leading newsstand magazines will experience some new retail challenges at two national chains.

Last week WWD Magazine reported that an organization that partnered with Hearst family heir, Victoria Hearst, The National Center on Sexual Exploitation, had won a major victory by convincing Rite Aid Drugs, and Delahaize (The corporate parent of Food Lion and Hannaford Brothers Supermarkets) to put privacy blinders over copies of Cosmopolitan Magazine because minors need to be shielded from Cosmo’s sexual content.

Let’s just pause for a moment and take a look at the August cover of Cosmopolitan.

Pretty darn racy, huh?

Cosmopolitan does have a long history of cover lines that push the margins. But let’s look at it this way, going after magazines distributed at a check out rack in a mass market retailer is pretty low hanging fruit. Maybe you can keep your minor child from seeing some “Hot Summer Sex” on a magazines’ cover. But seriously, have you checked your tweens’ Snapchat?

Victoria Hearst, a member of the founding family of the Hearst publishing conglomerate is reported as saying that she wants Cosmopolitan to be sold only to adults and have the cover wrapped like an adult (porn) magazine.

There is so much snark this publishing professional wishes to throw in the general direction of Victoria Hearst. However, unlike Ms. Hearst,  I will resist the temptation to go after such low hanging fruit.

For the record, Cosmo will be placed behind plastic blinders. That should make life slightly more challenging for wholesale merchandisers and add some costs to the single copy sales department over at Hearst. Adult magazines, porn magazines: Penthouse, Hustler, and dozens of other more aggressively sexual titles are often sold in opaque polybags that show only the magazine logo.

The Hearst corporation is quite possibly one of the most successful magazine media companies in the world. They have done some incredible work in maneuvering their  properties through the ever-changing digital and print landscape. Last year, they successfully launched the Dr. Oz magazine, a title that has half a million subscribers and sells over 300,000 copies on the newsstand. In a December 2014 interview with industry analyst Samir Husni, Hearst President David Carey sounded pretty upbeat despite the challenging environment most publishers had just navigated.

Let’s try and be serious for a moment. Or not. Are parents really all that concerned with the “smut” that their children see as they walk through retail stores? Don’t their kids already have their noses in their smart phones? And isn’t it possible that they are seeing a lot more graphic content than “Hot Summer Sex” while they browse their Snapchats, WhatsApp and Instagram pages?

In the second half of 2014, Cosmopolitan reported single copy sales of 632,000 copies with a retail sales value of $15.7 million. That sounds like a lot. Until one considers the fact that in the second half of 2007, Cosmopolitan reported single copy sales of 1.896 million copies at a retail value of $49.7 million.

That should get your attention and put the newsstand crisis in perspective, what?

Moreover, it also might explain why it feels like Rite Aid and Delahaize shrugged and said, “Whatever” when Ms. Hearst’s’ organization demanded they shield children’s delicate sensibilities from smutty cover lines.

Do you think the National Center will target these magazines next?

In the end, this campaign seems like nothing so much as an attention seeking malarkey. Children are much more at risk for injuring themselves while they walk around staring at their smart phone screens. Of course, that would presume they are walking and not sitting on the couch watching a smutty movie on Netflix.

If I learned anything while raising my two daughters, it was that open, honest, frank and age appropriate conversations got all of us much further in life than trying to hide, shield and keep them clear of today’s culture.

How would I suggest a parent handle a Cosmopolitan cover line? Simple: “Those are magazines for grown up women. Look, here’s Discovery Girls.”

That doesn’t seem hard, does it?

For the record, I’d like to point out to the folks at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation that this….

Genesis Magazine - 2011
Genesis Magazine – 2011

…is a pornographic magazine. About the only place you can see one in the wild would be in an adult bookstore and a few convenience stores or traditional newsstands.

However, this…

MILEY CYRUS at Cosmopolitan International Covers, March 2013 Issue
Miley Cyrus tried to save the newsstand back in 2013.

Is a well-respected, multiple award-winning national women’s service magazine produced by a much-admired U.S. corporation.

Other than the fact that they are both magazines, there’s really no similarity.

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