Pandemic Publishing Roundtable: How Magazine Publishing is Faring Around the World

By Linda Ruth, cross posted on BoSacks.com

Moving our focus out for an international perspective, Ian Watts dropped in on the Publishing Pandemic Roundtable—Bo Sacks, Gemma Peckham, Joe Berger, Samir Husni, Sherin Pierce, and me—to tell us that there are bright points of hope in a world market that is still facing the impact of the pandemic. 

Ian is the Director of Pincot Consulting Ltd, from whence he provides international circulation services to Genera Solutions, America’s largest magazine exporter. I can’t remember when I met Ian; he’s been in our business a long time. He started out with WH Smith Wholesale in the UK in the 1970’s.  

“That was a great academy for English circulation people, back in the day,” he tells us. “They did great training, hoping to invest in people they would then keep for life.” Those who left were picked up by publishers—in Ian’s case, Murdoch in the 1980’s, then SM Magazine Distribution, then Hachette, who owned an export company in the UK and COMAG UK. He’s been in international ever since. 

Following a stint as International Sales Director of Comag UK, Ian went on his own. His specialty was taking kids’ product and making it international product. He launched some big success stories internationally, including Spice Girls magazines, and later Sudoku magazines. His job now is to liaise with the 70-80 markets around the world that receive American exports and get the best deals and service for Genera’s US publisher clients.  

Ian: It’s a fascinating, exciting field. Every market around the world is an individual market with its own characteristics, facing the same issues that we face, but dealing with it individually. It’s very stimulating, learning about how these different markets manage. 

Roundtable Participants (from Top Left): Ian Watts, Joe Berger, Samir Husni, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham, Linda Ruth, Bo Sacks.

Joe: Can you give us an idea as to how these various markets look for imported product? 

Ian: Due to Covid responses It’s tough everywhere. International markets are going through a hard time for their own domestic publications; and it’s harder still for import. A lot of the import sale comes from travel locations, and of course travel has been decimated in most countries. There are exceptions. Some of the larger markets, for example Australia, continue to have domestic travel; but overall travel is down 90%, and outlets are closed in many airports. The sales we are currently getting are indicative of the market for import products consisting of people who live in the market, as opposed to travelers. They could be local-language speakers, or expatriates.  

Joe: Do you see any bright spots?  

Ian: There are certainly exceptions to this downturn. The strong, heavy-edit magazines, ones that look toward American politics, and to how we might fix the world, ones oriented toward business, are doing relatively well travel outlets notwithstanding. Examples are Foreign Affairs, Atlantic magazine and the New York Review of Books. US Business magazines are highly respected, for example Harvard Business Review

Linda: New York Review of Books actually increased in sale in markets where sales of US products were dropping up to 50%.  

Ian: We saw some new opportunities arise. In many countries throughout the world, we’ve seen a resurgence of domestic kids’ magazines, so we took a look at our portfolio. Now, for example, Thrasher magazine is performing strongly in Australia and across Europe. 

Sherin: COVID aside, have you seen the political situation over the last four years causing a decline in US magazine sales? America used to be a shining star, but it seems that glow is tarnished. People used to buy magazines for US culture, lifestyle, aspiration. Do you see that as continuing? 

Ian: With the loss of sales internationally, it’s difficult to pin down changes that might be due to politics. 

Samir: For a majority of magazines, it’s pop culture that draws people. A Thrasher reader wants to know about skateboards, not about who is president of US. People really don’t give a hoot. 

Ian: Yes, for example when you’re talking about surfing, who doesn’t want a magazine from California? And the coolest kid is always the one with a copy of the physical magazine in his hand. We’ve seen outstanding recent success with Esquire featuring BTS (the Korean pop phenomenon) on the cover.

Samir:Esquire went to a second printing; and wholesalers had to pay in advance for the copies they ordered. 

Ian: They printed tens of thousands copies of the US version in Korea for a sell-out. 

Samir: Fascinating how they are working to get a younger audience without losing the older. 

Ian: Harry Styles was an even bigger success. Selling over 90%–unheard of. 

Samir: When was the last time you heard of something like that on a website or digital platform? 

Ian: Fans are so devoted they seem to get info about this quicker than we do. Politics and digital technology aside, if you have a premium brand and a hot topic, magazines still deliver what the audience wants.

Joe: Stateside we see a trend to bookazines eating up a lot of mainline and checkouts. Do we see that in overseas markets? 

Ian: Very much so. If you go into a WH Smith, most of the prime real estate is bookazines. 

Sherin: Can you give us a picture of the import market in Europe? 

Ian: Of course, in many markets, sales are predicated on the ability to read English. And then, we get back to the unique features of every market. In France, for example, they’ve had structural problems over the past years. Not only pandemic-related; they suffered the loss of their major distributor, NMPP, in 2020. NMPP was a coop owned by publishers to distribute magazines and newspapers, and it was preserved by law from 1947 under the Bichet law whose intent was to ensure that news be available throughout the country, and accessible to all. Since the 1950’s, NMPP never made money. It was repeatedly bailed out by the government. Reality hit this year. Another distributor was established and picked it up, but there was a hiatus. We stopped shipping, only restarting in September. In Germany, they kept the train outlets open because Germans desperate for reading matter went into the stations to buy knowing that they are the go-to range stockists. In Italy, almost as a matter of principle, the news kiosks stayed open, but sales are badly down. Spain’s economy is driven by tourists from Northern Europe, and no one is arriving.  Throughout Europe we need the traveling public back. The vaccine is rolling out fast in Britain, and Portugal and Cyprus have been the first to step forward to say they’ll allow British travelers in from May. The progress of the vaccine in continental Europe has been initially much slower, but the EU and country governments are beginning to get things moving. 

Joe: What about Australia and New Zealand? 

Ian: Still a good market. New Zealand is a small market, with only 6 million people, but it has the highest literacy rate in world. The NZ market was hit hard when Bauer closed its publications. But we’re seeing a bit of a resurgence as former Bauer employees set up “me too” titles to replace what was lost and creatin former Bauer title are relaunched by independent publishers. Also, they’ve been able to securely lock down those two islands, so they haven’t been hit as hard by COVID. The same thing is happening in Australia. The news agencies have always been considered essential retailers; they never closed and have even seen increases in some sectors, like crafts, kids and puzzles.  Their complaint is that there is less US product arriving. Some publishers decided to cut export, and others closed entirely, so not enough was being shipped. Despite this reduction in supplies, they are only 11% down—a good number. We’re going back and saying now’s the right time to get back into this market.  South Africa also had a distributor that exited last year, but fortunately in that market there still are choices, we found a new distributor, and despite hiatus issues sold through well. We’re finding the people there desperate for reading material.  

Sherin: Do you see growth possibilities in South America and Africa? 

Ian: The only market worth anything from a North American or British point of view is South Africa. They have a problem with the emigration of bright educated youngsters. But they have a good audience in the older sector and an emerging middle class. Zimbabwe had its moment but since the devaluation of their currency the market has disappeared. We have small representations in Uganda, and throughout east Africa. In those markets few people have the money to buy magazines at the prices we’re asking. 

Samir: Will the increasing diversity that we’re seeing in American magazines help in Africa? Ian: Perhaps it ought to; however, in some the South African market, the readers don’t necessarily self-identify by race; they see themselves as middle class, aspiring people. They may be more likely to buy a GQ than an Ebony.  

Sherin: what about India’s enormous, well-educated, and upwardly mobile population? 

Ian: Imports tend to be too expensive for India. Also, to some degree the population has bypassed print and gone straight to mobile.   

Linda: There’ve been a few successful publishers who have the scale to print in India and sell at local prices. 

Ian: We’ve been down that road. By the time you’ve negotiated your contracts, factored in freight and been paid in rupees, it really doesn’t pay off. 

Samir: How is the Japanese market doing? 

Ian: There are 1.25 million Japanese, with only a maximum count of 150 retailers taking English-language press. Yet they are innovative. They were the first country to start to sell single copies online. The distributor treats Amazon Japan as one of its retailers—and it is now the largest newsstand retailer in Japan. Our distributor even owns a bookstore https://bunkitsu.jp/ where customers pay an entry fee and we are told this is a great success. With space under pressure at retail, Europe needs to go in that direction as well. Magazine Heaven has a large online store; and the UK’s largest, Newsstand.uk, was growing 20% annually before COVID. It’s an exciting development. The trick is going to be to have a brand that becomes known in the real world. WH Smith, for example, would be a powerful brand for an online store.


Pandemic Publishing Roundtable: One Source Magazine Wholesale – Front End Merchandising With a Twist

Article by Linda Ruth

Last week, at the Publishing Pandemic Roundtable—Bo Sacks, Gemma Peckham, Joe Berger, Samir Husni, Sherin Pierce, and me— spent our hour with Gregg Mason of One Source, the distributor to major Natural Food specialty retailers, discussing the unique nature of the One Source checkout program, the changes that the pandemic has brought, and what we might anticipate for 2021. 

Joe: Can you give us some background on One Source and your role in the company? 

Gregg: One Source is a traditional direct distributor, in that it orders its product from publishers and ships to one location for pick and pack. We service primarily the natural food segment, with close to 2000 retailers nationwide. Our largest chain is Whole Foods, with 500 stores, followed by Sprouts with 365 locations. We also service a small sports retail segment.  One Source started small when the chains were small and grew along with them.  Our approach to magazine merchandising is unique—we don’t have mainlines. We are front-end focused with pockets at the checkout-only, and with non-logo’d pockets. Without logos, it allows dynamic movement of magazines which caters to the impulse buy of shoppers. We can sell more of what sells and the fixture presentation changes often.    When our retailers wanted a magazine program and looked at what traditional grocers had, they wanted something different, something fluid and dynamic. Something that would appeal to both new and returning customers; something that had the ability to drive high efficiencies. This fluid checkout was the solution. 

Bo: Does the fluidity you exercise with different titles in the pockets create a better sell through?

Gregg: Having the titles move around drives greater sales and sell through as they do stay in store but get shifted. Older product moves down, newer product comes in at the top of the rack. Titles with enough product at release for two pockets consolidate down to one over time. In this way we can extend shelf life for high-selling magazines. Our best-selling regular-frequency titles are all either bi-monthlies or quarterlies, we’re able to give them their full on-sale period.

Joe: Traditional retail stores don’t always follow their so-called “fixed” planograms; you can spend a lot of money participating and find you’re not in the program you paid for. In the One Source program you have opportunity to show if you’re capable of performing; though, on the other hand, these efficiencies can regulate a title out in the end. 

Gregg: Yes, it’s somewhat Darwinian; we look for not only high sell through but high sales per store. As draws come down, it’s hard to maintain the volume needed to stay in the stores, which can be frustrating to publishers. On the other hand, we don’t charge for the up-front placement; so if a title can perform, it will do well. For example, city titles can be the highest sellers in their home markets; so we created a city magazine placement at the front end.   Recently the efficiency rates have come down somewhat with the shift to high-priced, low-frequency bookazines. It’s amazing how the migration from regular frequency magazines to the bookazine model has dominated the business direction. With high-frequency mags, a normal order regulation system works; but with bookazines, different topics on same bipad can have widely different sales. For every single bookazine we order, we create an individual distribution for it, from the ground up.  

The Pandemic Publishing Roundtable from top left: Linda Ruth, Joe Berger, Gregg Mason (of One Source Distributing), Bo Sacks, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham. Missing: Samir Husni.

Joe: Isn’t that considered bipad packing? 

Gregg: It would be in certain circumstances. What I’m referring to is a loose overarching editorial focus with different subjects under one brand. It’s literally a full-time job, managing these releases; but it’s necessary to garner volume sales.   

Joe: What changes did you see as a result of the pandemic? 

Gregg: We were lucky; our retailers stayed open. Sales were hit hard in the spring; since then it’s been a climb and partial recovery—creeping up, flattening out several times over. People have been gradually returning to more normal patterns. Our largest category is food and cooking; and those titles did well during the pandemic. We all cooked a lot more this year and turned to titles that can help. And publishers stuck with us. The children’s category, almost non-existent before the pandemic, took off like gangbusters. We found that the product couldn’t be too educational; it had to have a fun presentation.  We partnered with a publisher who collaborated with PBS kid shows—the product was just educational enough, just fun enough. Also the Highlights bookazines were hugely successful.  Shelter was a pleasant surprise. Domino took off, along with other shelter titles, primarily lower frequency titles and bookazines.  One area that has continued to lag are the city titles. They have not come back yet. Our stores are firstly suburban, secondly urban, and the urban stores are slower coming back. The commuting stores that cater to the people who work in the area have yet to come back; the residential area stores have.  

Joe: How are the indies and smaller chain stores doing? 

Gregg: We service Fresh Market and Natural Grocers, 160 stores each, they carry narrow edit, mostly just food, cooking, and health. Because they’re primarily suburban, they came back pretty well. And the independents have very loyal customer bases, so they also held up well. 

Sherin: Can you tell us a little more about Sprouts, what sells well? 

Gregg: They are located overwhelmingly in California and throughout the southwest. Their shoppers tend to be more price-sensitive, although certain higher-priced titles do very well, such as Willow and Sage at $14.95. Sprouts also tends to do very well with the vegetarian and Vegan titles. 

Sherin: What about getting their magazines on drop-down menus for online shopping? 

Gregg: We’re exploring and looking to move in that direction. 

Joe: MBR has started an initiative where they are talking to retailers about including magazines with electronic orders. You should be in that discussion. They’ve signed an agreement with an electronic platform, all the wholesalers should be at the table with this. 

Bo: Home delivery is not going away. We’ve retrained the consumer on how to shop, and that’s going to continue. Magazines need to be involved in this system. 

Gregg: Agreed, grocery was a last bastion of retail where people went to the store. Now many more people are getting delivery, and that won’t go away. And yet, although sales haven’t returned to where they were, they’re better than we expected, one year later. But you can’t make up for lost foot traffic.  

Joe: How do we get people back into the stores, or encourage them to find and buy the magazines? 

Gregg: We encourage our publishers to promote on their sites and social media platforms, to let them know we have their product, that it is available. In the stores, our biggest challenges are maintaining our pockets and keeping them open. The product that blocks the checkout are often at lower price points, lower profit. The migration to bookazines has helped show the financial impact of magazines, and what they bring to the retailer. 

Sherin: The Old Farmer’s Almanac has listings online of where to buy; we have robust PR when we go on sale; and we provide floor displays to appeal to consumers. 

Joe: What are you looking forward to in 2021? 

Gregg: We’re hoping to avoid a repetition of 2020’s peaks and valleys—and that the distribution of the vaccine will get people back in the stores. We’re prepared for an uptick in the city stores.   We’re poised to respond to changes as quickly as we can.