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.

 

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