Pandemic Publishing Roundtable – With Lizanne Barber of Distripress

By Linda Ruth


We Will Once More Meet Face to Face

Our Pandemic Roundtable, comprising Joe Berger, Bo Sacks, Gemma Peckham, Samir Husni, Sherin Pierce, and me, started one year ago and is, amazingly, going stronger than ever. Recently we hosted Lizanne Barber, Managing Director for Distripress, the international association of distributors, publishers, and associated press industry supply chain service providers. Distripress’ mission is, as it has always been, to connect its international members in the world of publishing. It started almost seventy years ago, and has grown to, today, 200 members from 50 countries around the world. Many members have joined historically to take part in the Congress, where every fall they have had the opportunity to meet up with industry colleagues from the world’s markets. For decades the Congress served as the one way that people could meet up with their international colleagues and discuss their international business—and still is often the only time people meet their international partners face to face.  

Linda: I first attended Distripress in Toronto in 1988. The next year, when I went back, I was astonished that people remembered me from the year before; I was new to the industry, and it seemed no one in the US remembered me from meeting to meeting. Going back year after year, I came to feel a real connection with these people, even though we only saw each other a few days once a year. 

Lizanne: Yes, it’s all about building connections, and it really is a community. My first Congress was in Monte Carlo, and I had the same experience. Once you’re in Distripress you are in its community forever. Last year was the first year Congress couldn’t take place. Meetings by Zoom have been fantastic, but we’re all looking forward to meeting face to face again.  

Joe: As the new Managing Director, tell us about your mission at Distripress. 

Lizanne: Irreplaceable as the Congress is, I want to look at Distripress and make sure we’re offering connections throughout the year, and not just that once in the fall. I’m surveying our members and looking for touchpoints, finding out more about their businesses, about how they have been managing in the pandemic and how they are structuring their businesses coming out of it. So far, I’ve spoken to over 75 members. 

Joe: And what have you discovered? 

From Top Left: Linda Ruth, PSCS; Joe Berger, JBA; Samir Husni, MIC/Ole Miss; Lizanne Barber, Distripress; Bo Sacks, PMG; Sherin Pierce, Yankee Publishing; Gemma Peckham, Executive Media GroupMagazine

Lizanne: The main reason they are members is the connection with the community that we offer. And as we emerge post-COVID, we will continue to organise the Distripress Congress event, and look for more ways of strengthening those connections, and adding touchpoints, all year long. This year we plan for the Congress to be a smaller event, because there will be parts of the world where people still won’t be able to travel. But in the US for example, we’re finding that people are willing to travel again. That’s fantastic for our community.   People are willing – and wanting –  to meet up again face to face. So we’re planning a two-day conference in Zurich this fall, with a half-day forum of industry presentations and a day and a half of face to face meetings. For those who cannot attend we will be offering a virtual meeting platform a few weeks later and the opportunity to view and listen to the half day Forum presentations on the Distripress website, which will be available to all members. The planned – and widely anticipated-  larger Congress in Estoril has been moved to 2022 when we plan to welcome all members back in full force. People are really excited about the opportunity to meet again. It’s great to have virtual meetings, but face to face is a different level of connection. So many things can happen, so much can happen serendipitously, in person as opposed to over Zoom. 

Bo: Humans like to mingle. You can’t mingle on zoom. You can talk but not mingle. 

Samir: Keep Oct 26-28 open; that’s when ACT is taking place at the School of Journalism at the University of Mississippi. I’d hate for my attendees to miss out on Distripress. 

Lizanne: Yes, we’ll make sure we don’t conflict! 

Bo: The plans and procedure you’re describing is a brilliant synopsis of a competent association. 

Lizanne: We are also starting a bi-monthly newsletter for our members, to bring positive news stories to the community. The first one will feature a Q&A with the two French national distributors – a market that has seen a lot of change in the last 12 months and our members will want to read about what is happening. Plus we’ve got a Distripress half day virtual forum planned for the 9th of June, with industry leaders presenting information on global trends, a retail perspective from Barnes & Noble and Lagardere Travel North Asia, plus a case study from Mediahuis a Belgian news publisher on their diversification in e-commerce, and an overview from CMG on the effect of covid on the US market.   

Joe: From the 75+ publishers you’ve spoken to, is there a single thread you could pull on, something that everybody seems to be thinking about? 

Lizanne: for publishers it’s ecommerce; everyone’s looking to develop this revenue stream, here in the US and all over the world. For distributors, the focus is more on exploring the expansion of potential new product lines. A sustainability note runs throughout. The exciting role that Distripress plays, is that we can put people together who are working on the exact same projects in different countries. They can share learnings, make swifter progress, avoid mistakes. 

Joe: Retail sales have consolidated dramatically in the US. Have you seen that happening elsewhere?

Lizanne: Absolutely, along with other universal challenges. Many markets have seen the loss of travel channel sales, which has had an impact on sales. But there are also green shoots coming through in different territories, places where sales are looking up and some surprising successes.  

Joe: For publishers, the choices of whom to work with are increasingly limited. 

Lizanne: This is a common theme across most – if not all –  territories. Most have only one main distributor, certainly for international press and even for domestic. The slow down in print sales you see in the US is reflected to differing extents globally. This drives the determination of the distributors to diversify to pick up efficiencies of sale that are needed.  

Joe: What kind of successes have you seen? 

Lizanne: Australia is doing well—it hasn’t been hit as badly by COVID, and the distribution route is direct to retail, as opposed to through the additional layer of wholesalers, and all key outlets have remained open. The distributor has introduced toys, board games, and other products to run alongside press to retail outlets. They have around 1800 retailers on board with their new program and 6000 SKUs (non-press). It’s called Market Hub; you can look it up online. Board games for example have had appeal during lockdown —and they are universally appealing and easy to pack. 

Sherin: Are there any markets where publishers and distributors are successfully collaborating to get magazines online or included in the retailers’ click-to-curb programs? 

Lizanne: I am aware of exploration into this area in several countries – for the same reasons as the US. Customers shifted to online sales from supermarkets and magazines have been under-represented. The technical aspect with frequency of product change is a challenge. 

Sherin: As customers are going to stores less frequently, we need to find new ways of getting our publications into their hands. 

Samir: Have you seen US publishers not so interested in shipping overseas as previously? 

Lizanne: We did see an initial reluctance to commit to supplies at the start of the pandemic. Australia in particular was looking for copies, because some of their supply was reduced, but the immediate impact, was seeing efficiencies improve. Publishers are more open now to putting copies back, but every country is in a different position.   Holland closed press retailers, and we won’t know how that damaged consumer purchase pattern long term till it opens up again. Every country is unique. Now, for the first time, by looking at the sales that held throughout the pandemic, markets can identify how much of the sales of imported publications go to the domestic purchaser as opposed to travelers. This data reveals the stable base sale. For travel sales, time will tell how quickly that segment of sales will return. 

Bo: Each country has re-trained its consumers differently, but overall we have set new buying and reading patterns. And it’s not all bad—in fact, in many cases it’s quite positive. Subscriptions are up, for example. How much of that will be maintained? 

Joe: Part of maintaining that growth in subscription sales lies in reigniting newsstand, and it’s up to publishers to do that. Are Distripress members talking about how to get people back to retail to look for magazines? 

Bo: Addictive content is the best lure. 

Lizanne: My discussions haven’t focused on that area. I am hearing more about how different companies are adapting generally. That might include how to set up office space, the new hybrid work options; companies are looking at how they might restructure, coming out of COVID, to keep doing what they’re doing in a strong way but take on board the learnings form the last year.  

Joe: Do you see any good as having come out of COVID? 

Lizanne: For one thing, we’re having video calls like this. There is more contact between members outside of the Congress, and that’s great. It’s enabled me to connect members, because I am aware of the similar journeys different members are on and where a conversation might be interesting.  

Bo: Like our roundtable. 

Samir: People are sick of screens. That’s why subscriptions are going up, board games moving, and so on. People need an alternative to screens.  

Bo: Samir tracks launches, and domestically we’re seeing a spike. What do you see worldwide? 

Lizanne: There have been over 50 in the UK so far this year; so yes, quite a bit of activity. Also I am aware of two French publications which have launched off the back of celebrity TV personalities.  

Joe: From big publishers mostly, or smaller publishers as well? 

Lizanne: Definitely smaller ones too, with quite a few niche premium products: knitting, crafts, transgender, very nice, rich product. 

Joe: Bo has said that one of the consequences of the pandemic is that the speed of change will all happen quicker. Is that something you see? 

Lizanne: Absolutely correct. Including in the field of sustainability. I expect the accelerated speed of change will continue apace till we see what the world is going to look like after the pandemic. There has been acceleration in change in every part of the supply chain and we are going to have to figure out how to keep up with it.