Pandemic Publishing Roundtable – Shifting from deals to training, FIPP offers value to publishers

By Linda Ruth (Cross Posted at BoSacks.com)

Our Pandemic Publishing Roundtable—Bo Sacks, Samir Husni, Joe Berger, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham, and me–welcomed James Hewes of FIPP to talk about the diversification of publishing strategies, the fate of events, and the roaring twenties, touching on Samir and Bo’s tendency to agree or disagree along the way. FIPP is global a trade association for companies, as James put it, “formerly known as magazine companies”. Founded in France in 1925, and seen as one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious membership associations, FIPP has grown over its century of existence to include media owners and content creators from around the world.  

Joe: How has the pandemic affected FIPP? 

James: Five years ago the main reason people joined FIPP was to do cross-border publishing deals. Leading up to the pandemic and accelerated in pandemic the shift has been to learning. We added new services, including a training business and a consulting business; for example, we just started a five-module course on digital subscriptions, which is free to members. We’re not for profit, and we add the commercial bit to keep costs down for members. The networking part is more bespoke, where we facilitate meetings and conversations cross borders. 

Joe: Several major publishing associations have closed down or merged with others. Why is that? 

James: It’s been a trend for years, that these associations are no longer supported by the industry. The member companies are changing, the needs of their members changing. Also so much of the critical legislative stuff that they used to do is now pan-national. There are some issues that still need addressing; for example, we should have more concerted effort in the regulation of the big tech companies. But the ability of publishing associations at the local level to have impact has dropped. It’s less about postal regulations today, and more about Facebook and Google. In some cases the associations have stayed relevant by narrowing their focus to legislative; in a way it’s a shame. Publishers have left their old homes, and in many cases haven’t found new ones.

 Bo: Agreed. It used to be that magazine business models were consistent company to company and across borders. Now no two magazines have same the business model. 

Joe: On the level of city and state magazines there still is a lot of similarity; but outside that, we do see many different approaches. 

Samir: The survival of our associations depends on the big media companies; and we’re seeing a lot of smaller independent publishers coming into the market. I just got 12 first editions from the UK. What is being done to include them? 

James: That’s an accurate observation. The boom in independent publishing is happening everywhere around the world. The legacy publishers are also starting to adopt the tactics of the independents—lower frequencies, higher prices, higher pagination, higher quality.  Which is great, it’s lifting the whole market. We work with the independents; we give them preferential rates; we help them learn. We put in place a paywall on the site, so instead of paying thousands of pounds to join smaller publishers can access it via the paywall to learn. Those publishers are still part of the FIPP family and we work with them and help them; we get them to speak at our events, to share their knowledge and successes. We involve them, but the fragmenting market makes it a good way for them to participate, through the site. 

Linda: A lot of the reason publishers have fallen away has to do with shrinking budgets. 

James: We’re focused on value. When people come to join, we need to find out what they’re looking to get out of it. We want people to get the most out of their membership. For example our digital subscription course is a valuable benefit to members. We’re trying to create as much value as we can for our members, show they can show a return on their investment. Value is the key, and the pandemic has focused that. 

Bo: The value of the FIPP conferences is extraordinary.  

From Top Left: Bo Sacks, Joe Berger, James Hewes of FIPP, Linda Ruth, Gemma Peckham, Sherin Pierce, Samir Husni.

James: We’re now doing the D to C summit, focusing on everything having to do with direct-to-consumer revenue. A big focus is putting together the agenda.  

Samir: Will you be going back to in-person events or sticking with online? 

James: We do plan to return to physical, but we’re being cautious. The states of lockdown and rates of vaccination vary greatly country to country. My biggest caution is that companies are not going to let people travel for longer than governments. When the big companies start to travel, we’ll feel more comfortable about moving back to physical. We have a conference coming up in October—we avoided your dates, Samir, we blocked them out, it will be earlier in the month than the ACT conference. We’re making it a hybrid event where people can zoom in if they want. We look forward to 2022 as a return to normality.  The pandemic has focused our attention on how we do events in the future. The big difference: it’s easier online than in person to produce an event and get great speakers. But networking in an online event just doesn’t work. We don’t try to replicate what we do physically. First thing we got rid of is streaming, with two or three events happening at the same time. Instead, we spread the event out over more time, and people don’t have to choose. We decided not to worry too much about individual ticket sales. Instead, we go to companies and offer one price for ALL employees attending. The marginal cost of additional people attending is zero, so we go from 500 people attending to 2000.

Samir: Will we reach screen fatigue with these online events? 

James: We’ve reached screen fatigue. There’s a drop in levels of engagement because people are exhausted by screens. There’s a huge pent-up demand for in person. We’re not going to land wholly on one or the other; it’s going to be a balance of both.  

Bo: The only thing about fatigue is the feeling it wasn’t worth your time. In this virtual world, quality will survive, and it won’t create fatigue. In print the crap is falling away, what remains is quality. The same will be true online. 

Samir (laughing): There’s still a lot of crap in print! 

James: And we managed to get a half hour into the call before Bo and Samir started disagreeing. 

Bo: It’s a disservice to younger people to go wholly digital. It’s in person where you make great connections and friends for life. No one is ever going to make friends for life on a zoom call. 

Linda: With the possible exception of our Roundtable. 

Samir: Magazines companies moving to an emphasis on diversity and social justice. How is FIPP involved in that? 

James: It’s huge part of what we do now. We have a commitment to ensure our programming is gender balanced and balanced in terms of diversity. On the knowledge side we’re including diversity as a key part of our events. When we present industry trends to companies we talk about diversity. Big supporter of the BBC’s 50:50 project, which advocates creating a journalistic team as diverse as the communities about which they report. We see it as just as important as the other pillars of our industry, not as something separate and special. It’s the same with sustainability, which has to be central, not an afterthought.  If you ask companies that have successfully undergone transformation, the key was to have the right people and right culture, and you won’t have that without clear and explicit diversity goals.   

Joe: Tell us about the other arms of your organization, such as consulting 

James: Our consulting arm began last year. We were getting a lot of calls from people with questions. There was just a demand for more and better solutions. So we created a network of independent consultants who can help answer questions in a better way. The big consulting firms are bad at media companies. So we reached out to the people we know who work as independent consultants in the media to tap their skills and expertise.  As for training, that’s an extension of the people and culture piece. If you want to succeed you have to have the right skill set.  

Samir: What are some of the trends you are seeing?  

James: The idea that the pace of change is accelerating as a result of the year of restriction is actually true. Newsstand is in the pits, and many people are thinking it won’t come back. International circulation gone, and it too might not come back. On the flip side, print advertising is coming back moderately; and subscription sales are off the charts. In international markets, subscriptions have always been profitable, and now they’re becoming more profitable in the US as well. Digital subs are through the roof. People are reporting exponential increases in digital subs. Every magazine company I’ve spoken to is looking at paywalls for their content if they didn’t have them before. E commerce up massively; events have disappeared.   

Joe: Can you see events coming back? 

James: If I knew that I’d be a millionaire. If your business relies on your local businesses, if everything is contained geographically, that might survive. Cross border will be different. For example, we’ve always had a number of people from India at our events; that is unlikely to come back for another year. It would be a huge mistake for an events business to say: OK, the pandemic is over, let’s go back to what we were doing before. No one’s going back. We’ve got to start doing things differently. For companies, when a number goes off a P/L, such as travel and events, it’s hard to get back on again. 

Bo: And we’ve spent a year teaching companies how to work virtually. We’re not going to unlearn that. 

Samir: We have short institutional memories; we’re quick to forget.  

James: The 18 months after the pandemic ends will be the boom of all booms. 

Bo: The roaring 20s. James: But as for now, no one has more than 50% of their people fully vaccinated yet. We’re still a long way from that.

Pandemic Publishing Roundtable: The International Magazine Centre with Nikki Simpson

By Linda Ruth (Cross Posted at BoSacks.com

The first time I zoomed with Nikki Simpson, I knew that our little group—Joe Berger, Sherin Pierce, Bo Sacks, Samir Husni, Gemma Peckham, and I—had to have her as a guest at our Pandemic Roundtable. She’s got a great eventcoming up, and our Roundtable members will be there for it. And joining the Centre is the easiest thing in the world, all publishing people are welcome.

Nikki isn’t someone who sees obstacles. She sees only opportunity. So, when she noticed that publishers starting international offices in the UK were doing so, as a rule, in London, she saw an opportunity to welcome them to Scotland. What could be easier? Get a building where publishers can have space, office infrastructure, freelancers, and the support and inspiration of other publishers. In the meantime, while you’re working on that, there’s plenty of good you can bring the publishing community—training courses and events, ideas and introductions. 

Gemma: Is your Centre based in Edinburgh?

Nikki: It will be. We want to be somewhere it will feel natural to go to a coffee with a publisher. Now, while we’re saving money to open our doors, we’re doing as much digitally as possible. We’re currently working on an online training course, which will be free to our members.

Joe: This is a new and exciting concept.

Nikki: Yes, there are trade organizations, but they take a different angle. We in the publishing industry tend to be magazine geeks. We spend a lot of time talking to each other, but not enough, I think, talking to the people who read our magazines. We’re doing that. And we focus on the small publishers, something the few remaining organizations cannot afford to do to the same extent, given their business models.

The proposed exhibition space for the International Magazine Centre.

Bo: Till now there hasn’t been a real mechanism for the little ones. We as an industry need the small publishers, and they need support. I’ve spoken for years about the need to incubate young publishers.

Nikki: That’s part of what we’ll be doing. Sometimes it seems as if the industry is netting down to the top three publishers, but there are still a lot of very creative ideas, still a lot of up-and-comers.

Bo: When companies like Future buy out everyone else, it creates a vacuum that provides openings for new businesses.

Nikki: There’s still too much focus on audited circulation, because the big publishers generally use it, and, since the big ones newsstand-based, the message the advertisers get from these publishers is that the business is dying. This message trickles down to the advertising base of the little ones. So, every time the audit numbers come out, the advertisers lose interest in advertising, and the smaller advertisers who go to the smaller magazines also lose interest. It makes small publishers feel like imposters. You hear them saying, “Well, I’m not really a publisher, I’m not audited, I don’t go to conferences, I’m just someone putting out a magazine.” 

Bo: It’s a shame, because there’s a lot that can be learned at conferences.

Nikki: Not if most of the presentations are about things that don’t work on a small scale. As an alternative, we’re offering peer-to-peer support. We have a great mentoring scheme. We’re finding it’s making a difference; it’s changing the way people do business and making them more successful. 

Gemma: I started alone and built to four magazines. This roundtable has been a great resource. What you offer would be amazing.

Joe: So often when I work with small publishers, everything they do is self-taught. 

From Upper Left: Nikki Simpson (International Magazine Centre), Joe Berger, Bo Sacks, Gemma Peckham, Linda Ruth and Sherin Pierce.

Nikki: For me diversity is also really important. In the UK the industry is predominantly white and middle class. It’s only two percent black, for instance, which is ridiculous. As a business we pride ourselves on being easy access. But if you don’t know people, and maybe they all know each other, you don’t feel welcome. It’s another reason for the training course. You can watch it for free and pay a small fee to sit the exam. 

Sherin: Out of necessity, we small publishers must innovate. People who work for a smaller company get to do so many different things, it’s a great opportunity to learn. We can pivot. It’s nice to fly under the radar. It’s where innovation takes place. It’s more fun. We don’t praise ourselves enough, so you don’t hear so much about us. The press goes to the easiest thing. They don’t dig deep enough. 

Joe: I’ve got some robust publishers whose stories don’t get told because they aren’t audited, not counted. 

Nikki: Yes, for example in Scotland I discovered a publisher with 2 million pounds turnover, 20 people staff, and I’d never heard of them because they were digital and b2b. The scene is so much bigger than we imagine.

Sherin: All boats have to rise, and if small and independent publishers do well, we’ll have a much better industry. We’re always happy to share information with new publishers, and in the process, we might learn something too.

Nikki: That’s what I tell my mentoring people. They might know more, have more experience, but they can learn as well. We have a series of Hive events, in which one person will present a problem and then turn off their camera and mic and listen in while the others discuss. We mix the groups up, students with professionals, new publishers with more experienced ones, so that everyone gets a fresh perspective, a unique angle. 

Bo: What kind of problems do publishers bring to the Hive?

Nikki: It’s a real mix. Some people aren’t actually publishers but in adjacent businesses. They might ask questions like, “I’ve lost my Mojo over lockdown, what can I do?” or “How can I better connect with my audience?” Things like that.

Sherin: We’ll come to the Hive.

Gemma: What is your membership model?

Nikki: We’re funded through Patreon. I have about 53 patrons, most from the UK but also from the US, Spain, New Zealand, Italy. It’s nice to know people like what I’m doing enough that they want to support this effort. 

Bo: I did my newsletter for over 10 years without making a dime. Keep plugging away and you’ll be surprised what might happen.

https://www.patreon.com/InternationalMagazineCentre

Pandemic Publishing Roundtable: David Atkins of Newsstand.co.uk – Newsstand Concierge

By Linda Ruth, cross posted on Bosacks.com

If you are unfamiliar with David Atkins and his business, newsstand.co.uk, he is almost certainly not unfamiliar with you. Newsstand.co.uk, the world’s largest print newsstand online, has over 4,000 magazines available with same day dispatch, worldwide. 

The Pandemic Roundtable—Joe Berger, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham, Samir Husni, Bo Sacks, and me—welcomed him to our group to talk about his operation, the movement to print-on-demand, and the opportunities for publishers moving into online sales. David’s business began in 1898 as a family wholesaler business, JG Palmer. Changes in the industry, with the consequent losses of many independent wholesalers, led the company to reassess what the needs of the customer were, and how they could help. The result was the shift to online, beginning with subscriptions and moving to single copies in 2011. Today, their online strategy enables publishers to get their publications into the hands of the reader through internet sales and online orders as economically and as quickly as possible. Through their concierge service, they are able to offer publications to readers based on their area of interest. 

Joe: When did your shift to online take place? 

David:  We stopped being a wholesaler in 2006, dabbled with projects for Tesco’s and national newspaper publishers and started concentrating on online sales in 2009. We started working with independent publishers in 2015. It’s been a nice journey. We get our copies from the wholesalers, various distributors and directly from the publishers themselves. We sell either subs or single copy at the same price point, it’s the same thing to us with the only difference being the frequency of the purchase. We’ve gone from 100% subs to, today, about 50/50. It’s slowly tilting to single copy. Maybe 10% of customers will buy more than 1 copy and we have some voracious customers. 

Joe: How different is your warehouse setup now from when you were a retail tieline? 

David: Very different. We had a huge packing machine, unique on the planet, that packed into boxes for 4,000 retailers, in every day, out every day. Now we have endless shelving! It’s tricky for staff working with packing lists with 65 different issues rather than the one. It’s an investment in equipment, an ongoing process but still a mainly manual one. 

All under one roof and ready to ship!

Bo: You have a great site–functional, easy to use, one-click purchase; it’s a brilliant setup. 

David: Thank you Bo! I’m really all about function over form; but we want to make sure the process is as smooth as possible. Of course there are always improvements to make to the website but we tend to place more importance on the service that the image, there’s always work to be done in either direction. 

Samir: How did your business change with the pandemic? 

David: It’s had its plusses and minuses. The pandemic initially strengthened our sales, which were spiked to two to three times greater year over year. At the same time, it led to other companies, both at home and abroad, focusing on online, so we needed to work harder to maintain our share of market. On the other hand, more people also have discovered they can buy single print copies online. Internally, there are all the challenges of keeping the people on site (in the warehouse) happy, as well as helping others to transition to working from home. It’s not easy and I am keen to get everyone back into the office soon. General anxiety in the population reflects in how people interact with customer service; in our case, emails into customer service went up 400% and not all of them were pleasant. 

Sherin: We’ve all had to up our game. Amazon set the standard for delivery. Publishers need to learn to keep up with that. We have to turn everything around in a day or two. The pandemic has taught us to be faster, smarter leaner and deliver to our customers so they keep coming back. 

David: You’re right about that; we went big on getting copies to the customer tomorrow. The rest of the industry was still going with 10-12 weeks. You can get a refrigerator tomorrow but have to wait 3 months for a magazine; it doesn’t make sense. We’ve been busy changing that. Joe: What are you seeing in terms of new launches? 

David: Quite a lot in the indie market, with what feels like weekly launches. Literature titles are very popular. 

Gemma: I launched a book magazine, Oh! Reader, in 2020. 

Joe: The phrase “crazy brave” comes to mind. 

David: Great! Crafts are also popular; we sell a lot of UK craft magazines in the US and a lot of US craft magazines here. 

Gemma: In the US it’s very difficult to sell single copies online. 

David: We do work with some US publishers, and also export publications to the US. 

Sherin: shipping to every country has different rules. You have to work back from on sale because it takes different lengths of time for each country. Copies are stickered. You have to learn about each individual country. And the cost of shipping is very high. 

Pandemic Publishing Roundtable – from top left: Samir Husni, Joe Berger, Bo Sacks, David Atkins, Linda Ruth, Gemma Peckham, Sherin Pierce.

David: Print-on-demand might help with that at some point. It would be good to hear from US publishers keen to experiment with UK distribution via POD. 

Samir: the day will come when we will print on demand at home. 

David: We are about to launch a POD printer. I’m very excited about it. We’ll be able to go to publishers and distribute their publication without the shipping costs and delays. We’ll have more to say in a few weeks, when we’re up and running with it. It’s still going to be expensive for now. Joe: Now. Five years from now, maybe not. 

Samir: Fifteen years ago I spend $10,000 on a laser printer. Today they sell for $49. 

David: We’re starting with the saddle stitched titles. The high quality perfect bound magazines will come later. 

Bo: The quality of POD printers can be outstanding. 

Sherin: Having online points of distribution has got to be good. It’s something we’d like to see grow with the Almanac. 

Joe: If the publisher is being paid. I see publications on Amazon that appear to be coming out of someone’s return room and being sold on Amazon stores with no remuneration to the publisher. There are a couple of online newsstands here but they don’t seem to have much traction. I feel the best people to set up effective online magazine sales would be the wholesalers. They have the warehouses; they have the magazines. What they don’t seem to have as yet is the technology. 

David: We’d like to be involved with that (not Amazon) – we’re involved in a few conversations in various locations. Crucially, we have software that can maintain the product. Bo called that out; but in many cases, the importance of effective software is vastly underestimated in this industry. 

Bo: It was the first thing I noticed about your site.

Samir: The US postal service is undependable, and worsened by pandemic; this is a factor that makes selling online single copies difficult. And postage rates are unbelievable. 

David: In the UK as well; it’s shocking how many copies were lost in the mail during the worst of the pandemic here; and since we replace copies no question for all our customers and publisher partners, it’s cost us a good bit this last year. 

Samir: We did a study and found that people buying mags on the newsstand really just the one or two issues. They don’t want the others, even if the entire year is offered at the same price. 

David: Yes precisely, we’ve tried to upsell single copies to lower-priced subs, but it hasn’t happened. People are less interested in moving over. They want next day delivery of the magazine they want and the issue they want. Many people just don’t want to commit to a subscription. They don’t want any commitment whatsoever. It’s a wholly different group than the subscribers. 

Joe: What do you see in the coming years? 

David: We’d like to work with international wholesalers to help them launch their online businesses; we want to move into becoming an industry knowledge and information base as we have more experience than anyone in what we do.  And we want to keep doing what we’re doing, trying to improve, and getting as many magazines out as we can. We’re also getting ready to shout about it a bit more – we’re not very good at that so watch this space.