The Five Most Egregious Magazine Covers of 2016 (S0 Far)

There are now so many ways for a magazine to brand itself. There is, of course, the print edition. Even for the most digitally savvy publication, everything usually starts there. But there’s also the web edition, the mobile edition, the digital replica. Then there are the social media feeds, events, videos and newsletters. So which comes first?

I don’t think I know anymore. But one thing that has not changed is the magazine cover. Think of it as the front door to a magazine brand. Sure, it means very little for the reader who drops into the website (In fact, on many magazine websites, you have to work hard to even find a mention of the magazine). Subscribers, be they print or digital, have already ponied up money for the magazine so they’re going to get that issue no matter what.

So why, even in this day and age, is the cover so important?

Because it is the front door of the magazine. It says to potential readers who you are, what you are about. What’s in between the covers.  Most importantly, if your reader picked up the magazine at the newsstand, they paid full cover for that one issue.

Sure, you could have subscribed to Entertainment Weekly  for one year for $5.00. But if you went to the newsstand and picked up the June 17 issue with the TV show Mr. Robot on the cover you paid full price, $4.99, for that one issue. So that means you must have really liked Mr. Robot and Entertainment Weekly. Right?

As far as I am concerned, there is little more unsettling in the world of cover design when a well known magazine blows a flat note and puts out an unattractive cover. What were you thinking? Why did you do that? Sometimes it’s groupthink. Sometimes it’s an experiment that just went wrong. Sometimes it’s just that there was nothing else to work with.

Last year, the Foredeck introduced the “Most Egregious Cover of The Year” of the year. The response from readers was pretty interesting. Now that we’re halfway through this year I thought I’d share with you what I think (You’re entitled to your own opinion of course) are the covers that that have made me wrinkle up my nose and wonder what went wrong.

For your consideration:

5. Outside Magazine, May 2016

The only real issue here is the simple fact that you have to stop and squint to read part of the cover line. What they were trying to tie together was the National Parks 100th anniversary and their list of 100 things to do in the national parks. Most likely this looked way better on a computer screen than it did printed on paper and placed on a newsstand.

Fortunately for Outside, they publish twelve times a year and from my perspective they usually hit triples and home runs.

may-2016-cover
Swing and a miss.

 

4. DuJour Magazine, Summer 2016

Let’s leave aside the potential political debates about this issue. They are immaterial for the purposes of this particular post. Sometimes black and white covers can work well. Heck, the Foredeck has listed some in times past. But there’s just something creepy and foreboding about this particular one. Even if Donald Trump weren’t running for president, the image of him lurking in the background is just….off.

dujour-melania-trump-8193f6b1-1ba0-4995-a43b-067b18781603
Don’t look over your shoulder Melania….

 

3. W Magazine, June 2016

File under “An Unlikely Mess.” Who doesn’t love English model-actress Cara Delevingne? But why dress her up as an emoji? Let’s hope her new movie does better.

W Magazine June 16
Not so sure I ❤ this…

 

2. Vogue Magazine, May 2016

Taylor Swift and Vogue have a long history together. I made their February 2012 cover featuring Taylor Swift as my #1 cover from the Foredeck that year. Usually Swift on the cover is instant attraction on the newsstand. It’s not that one of the most popular and powerful singers in the world can’t go out and change up her look. But in this photo, otherworldly looks unrecognizable. I’m not opposed to red backgrounds. In fact I love primary colors in the background. But this one….

Vogue May 16
…not so much.

1. Chicago Magazine, January 2016

To me Chicago Magazine is the epitome of a successful city book. I look for the latest edition of Chicago Magazine every month when I’m out at retail. Usually their covers are reliably good. It’s as if they take to heart every single CRMA presentation ever given and then make it better. “Top Doctors” editorial is generally a top newsstand seller for most city publications. Most “Top Doc” covers feature some sort of generic doctor on the cover so it’s understandable that Chicago tried to do something creative. But this?  Should we call Spiderman and let him know that Doc Ock has invaded the Second City?

 

Chicago Mag Jan 16
Paging Dr. Octavius!

The good news is that for every flop of a cover, there is usually a redeemer or two. Chicago Magazine has published several very good covers since January 2016 and for the record, may I show you what I think is one of the very best covers of 2016, Chicago Magazine’s July 2016 cover. Featuring a puppy.

ChiMag Jul 16
Who doesn’t love a puppy?

Just remember. The cover is the front door. You want curb appeal. You want people to spend full freight on that copy. You want them to love it so much that they’ll turn around and subscribe. And subscribe to the newsletter. And pay for a ticket to your event. And buy your “Buyer’s Guide.” And subscribe to your YouTube feed.

More puppies. Less octopuses.

 

 

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Put This One in the “WTF” File!

Back in the day, back when there were more than 300 magazine wholesalers and eight or nine national distributors, the coveted jobs were often the ones where you worked directly for a magazine publisher. The big publishers: General Media, Playboy, Conde Nast, Ziff-Davis, all had people out in the field. According to an old “Bunny Book”* from 1990 that I found in a recent sweep of my office, Playboy Magazine had at least eleven people working in the newsstand department: Five people in the field, one in marketing, and another five in the corporate offices.

If you were a national distributor rep toiling away for Curtis, Kable, Select or ICD, a job with one of those publishers was a ticket to more pay, travel and career success.

Even smaller publishers often had people out in the field. I worked for Outside Magazine, a single title publisher and we were a department of two. When I wasn’t working on specialty sales I was sent out once a month into the countryside where I would call on upwards of five or more magazine wholesalers in the course of a week. I recall a US News and World Report representative joking that he worked for two magazines: “US News is one. World Report is the other,” he quipped. I guess you could call that rep room humor.

Which brings us to the unexpected news from late Thursday afternoon: Harris Publications is closing it’s doors. This forty year old publisher may be one of those companies where you might have recognized the title, but never realized how many titles the publisher actually produced. Harris published upwards of 75 different magazines running the gamut from The Harris Farmer’s Almanac to Celebrity Hairstyles, Who’s Who in Baseball, Survivors Edge, Naturally Danny Seo and Dog News. If a trend got hot on the newsstand, Harris wasn’t far behind with a new title launch.

In fact, I had a running joke with myself whenever I came across a new magazine on the newsstand that I didn’t recognize: I’d pluck if off the rack and before I turned to the staff box to see who the publisher was (and if they had a consultant), I’d say, “I bet this is a Harris special!” I was often right.

Back when there were more wholesalers and distributors and field people, I frequently ran into Harris reps. Aside from being really great people, I was always impressed with how much they knew about the wholesaler system and the retailers that were serviced. They knew which buttons to push, which retail buyers were open to new titles, how strict certain distribution managers were with authorized lists, who the best route supervisors were and which general mangers you wanted to stay as far away from as possible.

So is it surprising to see that Harris is going to “wind down” it’s operations? Well, initially I’d say yes.

In fact, the headline for this post is exactly what I said. “WTF?”

But on reflection, maybe it wasn’t that surprising.

It seems to me that Harris was always something of a “newsstand first” type publisher. While that may not be impossible to do even in today’s market, it is certainly a risky way to run your publications in the first year of “Off Invoice RDA” and POS sales reporting. In 21st century publishing you need a lot of revenue buckets to make things work. I could be wrong, but Harris titles never seemed big on subscriptions or advertising and I wonder how big their digital efforts really were. In a letter to industry partners, Stanley Harris acknowledged the changes in the publishing industry and then said,

“We have tried mightily to persevere against these forces, but have been unable to overcome these challenges.”

So perhaps the management at Harris felt it better to fight how the industry was changing rather than hop on and try to wide the waves?

Most people don’t really like change. I can understand that. One of the things that I find interesting about the newsstand industry is that it is constantly changing. When I entered it in the early 1980’s there were some long time employees in some of the rep rooms I worked in who lamented that things hadn’t been good in the business since the 1970’s when “They started hiring all those women and bringing in those computers.” Now those gentlemen were real dinosaurs. Nice guys, often, but dinosaurs.

The loss of Harris is a blow to this business. We need the numbers and revenue from those titles. We need them on the checkouts and mainlines. We need them in feature pockets and flex pockets. Harris’ distributor is certainly going to feel pressure from this closure and that is not a good thing. Hopefully the better titles can be salvaged and made competitive for today’s market and their employees can find new homes and continue to work in magazine media.

In the meantime, I’ll stay on the foredeck and wax my surfboard.

I'd rather be here...

 

*: The Playboy Bunny Book was the official listing of all “Playboy Approved” magazine wholesalers in the US and Canada. It was a coveted possession because it had the address and phone number for all of these wholesalers. As an added bonus, it had phone numbers for the wholesaler sponsored “Rep Rooms.” How else could you reach your traveling companions in the days before cell phones? For those reps who were looking for new employment, it also included listings of all the national distributors and their key personnel and phone numbers. In the early 2000’s Playboy ceased publishing this directory.

Bunny Book 1990
A scan of the cover of the 1990 Playboy “Bunny Book”

 

It’s (Not Quite) The End of The World As We Know It

If you are reading this post during the third week of December, Kable Distribution Services, Inc., a company with more than 100 years of history in the printing, publishing, magazine and book distribution industries will still exist in some fashion. It still has employees, clients (although they are rapidly going elsewhere), customers and a working web site and data base. But that won’t last for too much longer. The last set publications they invoiced to magazine wholesalers was earlier this month and when the calendar turns and 2016 begins, Kable Distribution Services will no longer exist. It will not be one the national distributors of magazines to the North American newsstand market.

The newsstand world as magazine publishers, wholesalers and national distributors knew it ended a long time ago. It ended when cable TV providers began publishing their own free TV listings to their customers and when newspaper publishers offered detailed television supplements in their Sunday papers.

The was end accelerated when President Reagan’s Meese Commission published their terribly flawed and highly toxic “report” on pornography and many retailers panicked and kicked adult “sophisticate” magazines out of their stores. Technology invaded readers turf with even more channels, personal computers, VHS and DVDs. Then the sales of the “Seven Sisters,” the bread and butter of women’s check-out titles began to shrink.

And it crashed and then quickly evolved into a new set of power relationships when national retailers decided that they should be the ones to call the tune about who delivers to their stores, what sort of service they should get and how much discount they should receive. A tough business that nonetheless was built on familiarity and custom met late 20th century capitalism.

So the beginning of the end started several years before REM recorded the song that begins this post. Did anyone notice? Or where we too taken with a long slow walk past the graveyard of dead magazines, wholesalers, national distributors and retailers.

My consulting colleague Linda Ruth has a detailed and very readable explanation for how Kable was walked off the plank in last weeks’  Publishing Executive. Suffice it to say, the reaction from TNG to Kable proposing to recognize and use their fullillment division to open the Hudson Group airport wholesale operation was surprising and yet not surprising. Their decision to stop carrying the Kable line of magazines was not surprising according to some because of the four major US based wholesalers, Kable was the smallest. It was surprising because it was so final. No more Kable. Would TNG have had the same reaction had Time Retail decided to provide pick and pack services? That’s a good question to ponder over beers after work.

This always has been a tough business.

As Linda expertly puts it, “The loss of Hudson Retail can’t add to TNG’s health, and if TNG sneezes, we all catch cold.” And we all want a healthy, happy and profitable TNG. Yet I believe they are in an interesting place. The industry wide acceptance of POS (Pay On Scan) based reporting and “Off Invoice RDA” (ORIDA) essentially means that any company with a pick and pack warehouse and access to UPS, Fed Ex and USPS, and a steady supply of magazines can now enter the business and service a retailer.

So the question I hear from many of my colleagues on the publishing side, the national distributor side and the wholesaler side is, “Who’s next?”

Good question.

While you ponder that, consider this:

There is no doubt that one of the reasons we see lower newsstand sales these days is because there are other competitors for our audiences time. Netflix or Entertainment Weekly? The latest episode of The Bachelorette or Us Weekly? A round of Age of Empires or an hour with Hi-Fructose? Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson or an hour with National Geographic? What will the audience choose?

I can’t help but wonder if the endless round of retailers shifting back and forth between competing wholesalers has hurt sales. If you have a print order of 75,000 copies, it’s entirely possible that one “Distribution Center may handle 20% or more of your print order. How do you review, manage and adjust that efficiently?  Does anyone intimately understand anymore what will sell in a Hy-Vee store in the western suburbs of Des Moines, IA? What are the buying patterns of brides-to-be in Orange County today?

I’m not foolish enough to rail against these changes. I just can’t help but wonder if we have willingly inflicted much of this pain upon ourselves.

The critics who declaim against the “waste” and “backwardness” of today’s newsstand distribution industry have little idea how different today’s consolidated business is from the way it was ten or twenty or even thirty years ago. Some may still call magazine wholesalers “agencies”. But it is habbit, not reality. Publisher contracts may still finalize an issue at 120 days off sale, and that’s a little ridiculous in light of POS, but that too is subject to change.

The new “normal” we accepted when the year turned and we started 2015 is about to change again. Get ready because this will be interesting. I think the end result could be better for everyone. If we want it to be that way and are willing to work for it.

Finally, a word to my friends, colleagues and partners at Kable: Thank you. I have enjoyed working with you. What you did while you worked at Kable was meaningful and important to our industry. I appreciated everything you did to help me and the publishers I work for. Good luck!

Are Books Commodities? Are They Speech?

Books, as well as magazines, newspapers, newsletters in all of their various formats: paper, digital, smoke signals, whatever, are not commodities. They are speech.

There is no hard and fast rule that books should be priced at $9.99 either.

Source: IPDA News Digest, 04/17/15
Source: IPDA News Digest, 04/17/15

Books are not widgets. They are not plastic tzotchkes made by low wage labor in China and packaged by low wage temp workers in overheated warehouses in exurbia USA.

Many readers consider books they love to be works of art (at least the really well written ones).

They are the result of hard work, hard effort, hard labor by the authors who often seek represenation by book publishers. Sometimes it’s Hachette. Sometimes it’s Penguin. Sometimes it’s  Amazon.

So as wonderful as Amazon is, at least to their consumers, they do come in between the reader and the author. In other words, despite what the fanboys and the trade press thinks, they’re middlemen. Just like wholesalers. Or publishers.

So, I’m sorry to point out all of the fans, apologists and futurists, but Amazon and many other e-tailers, are simply the latest thing that is “disrupting” a traditional economy. Just like the big chain booksellers disrupted the indy bookstore and newsstand economy in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Just like Pay-On-Scan has disrupted the traditional magazine distribution economy in the last decade. Just like Tesla is disrupting, to a certain extent, the car sales franchise market.

But to Amazon’s credit, they’ve taken advantage of a deregulated economy, and found a great entre into middle and upper class pocketbooks – reading.

I’ve never bought the argument that “books cost too much”. They don’t.  They are priced according to the market.

Is it fair that some writers never got published under the old regime? No. The world is not fair.

Is it fair that some visionaries (and not a few hucksters) got into the digital book market first and made a ton of money while some true craftsmen now find themselves self publishing books and making slave wages because they were late to the party?

No. The world is not fair.

Books (and magazines) are not widgets. We’d probably all make more money if we stopped trying to market and sell them like that.

Link to the article mentioned above is here.

What The Circ Team Wants Under Their Christmas Tree

The feedback from last week’s cover selections was mostly positive and it was enormous fun hearing from a lot of people who I haven’t been able to connect with over the past few months. We’ve all been so busy patching holes.

In the newsstand world of circulation we find that almost all of the former Source retailers are now accounted for in some way. We’re far enough down the road into a new “reality” that the “conventional wisdom” about what will happen next is for the most part, conventional.

The Circ team of Outside The Groove Media in Eagle, CO celebrate the end of 2014.
The Circ team of Outside The Groove Media in Eagle, CO celebrate the end of 2014.

With that in mind, I asked some friends who work in the newsstand, sub and digital circulation worlds to share with me what they would want to find under their Christmas Tree if a Christmas Tree was found in their offices with presents labeled for them under it.

How did they answer? Here’s a look at what a variety of Circulation team members hope to find under an office Christmas Tree (or Holiday Tree or Hanukkah Bush if so inclined).

Christmas

 

In the comments below, what would you want to find under your “office” Christmas tree?

I Know It’s Around Here, Somewhere

A long lost publisher client recently contacted me. He’s in a different somewhat more lucrative end of the publishing business these days and he asked for assistance in compiling a list of magazine publishers in several different categories.

After I began the research I was at first intrigued to discover that there was no really solid comprehensive list of these types of titles. There were a lot of lists, but they were all very different. The upside of that discovery? Damn! We’re a really diverse industry!

Then I began visiting publisher web sites and looking for subscription information, advertising information, the corporate name, details on management and…

A quick short term project turned into a hard slog and plod through a wide variety of web site designs. Some sites made it immediately obvious that they were the publisher of a magazine. Others seemed to want to hide that fact. Are they embarrased that they have a print product in the 21st century?

But was fascinating about the whole project was how anti “mercantile” many of these sites were. Aren’t we in the business of selling information to readers as a service?

So I have to ask:

You want your potential paying reading customer to fill out a long form of personal information before you even tell him how much your going to charge him for a subscription?

Or even better, you’re going to hide the button to subscribe to the magazine at the very bottom of the page in teeny tiny little type?

Or your page is so full of flickering images and tabs that no one with the exception of a hard core gamer could figure out what exactly you provide as a service?

Or your page is so devoid of anything that the casual passer by would presume that you’re a long abandoned web site from the old AOL dial-up era?

Or should an advertiser decide that he wants to be in your magazine  you’ll hide the advertising information button at the bottom of the page next to the teeny tiny little subscribe button?

Or, you don’t make your media kit readily available?

Or you do have a media kit, but it’s out of date?

Or it’s full of bunkum and hokum (OK, really obvious bunkum and hokum)?

Or you don’t have any sort of contact information. What? You don’t want to hear from your readers? Isn’t this the 21st century where all communication is is free flowing and on all the time?

So with all of that in mind, this Friday’s information dump and pie chart gives an approximate breakdown on where I found all of the information that I was looking for.

Because it’s Friday, and who doesn’t like pie?

Where Magazine Publishers Hide Subscription and Contact Information on Their Websites.
Where Magazine Publishers Hide Subscription and Contact Information on Their Websites.

On Mentoring, Consulting and Charging For Your Time

Editor’s Note: I recently received a communication from business consultant Anne Chertoff.  The presumption, in the article and how I read it, is that along with professional consulting services, she charges for career advice.

Instead, Ms. Chertoffs “Pick My Brain” is a service intended to offer start up businesses the opportunity to get some marketing consulting services without having to invest in a full time marketing firm or employee.

A link is provided here for further clarification.

A few times a day I take a timed break from the spreadsheets, data bases, emails, phone calls and other work-a-day routines to check in on the social media feeds to see what’s trending in the world of publishing and beyond. In particular, I’m looking for what is trending outside the circulation/audience development silo. And this being the 21st century, it helps to continue to enhance my own digital “brand.”

Keith Kelley writes about magazines for the NY Post so I follow that papers feed. Occasionally I’ll click on something beyond Mr. Kelly if it looks interesting.

This Monday, I was intrigued by a head line titled “Why people are charging to network over a cup of coffee” Was I missing out on a potential new source of income? The article was by writer and freelancer Anna Davies who turned down a request from another aspiring freelancer to meet for coffee and offer advice.

Source: Wethechange.com
Source: Wethechange.com

Ms. Davies reported that she was surprised at the reaction of her acquaintances who agreed with her decision to forgo the time and energy the meeting would have taken. She then went on to describe the growing trend of some self-employed professionals to charge for their “mentoring” services.

She points out Anne Chertoff, the founder of the boutique marketing agency, Anne Chertoff Media. Ms. Chertoff dealt with the flow of requests for advice by offering a service on her website called “Pick My Brain”. For $500.00 she gives advice seekers 90 minutes of her time. At the very least this is cheaper than seeking the advice of a Manhattan lawyer.

I couldn’t decide as I read through the article: Was the point to create some outrage over the fact that a cottage industry has sprung up to strip a few more dollars out of the pockets of the newly self-employed? Or if the author was just pointing out that some people are doing this while others are just irritated with requests for free help? Sprinkled throughout the short article are words of advice from people who don’t charge for these services.

Here’s my conclusion: If you’re charging people for advice, you’re a consultant. Deal with it. If you’re irritated with people asking you for free advice, then tell them up front that they get this much for free and after that the clock starts. That is just a very good, very basic business practice.

Over the years I’ve taken what is probably hundreds of of requests for advice about all things related to magazine publishing and being self employed. It took awhile to create some hard and fast rules and here they are:

1. No one, including my parents, gets my pricing guidelines, client list, or customer service guidelines. No one.

2. Everyone who calls or emails, from startup publishers to long time publishers get a certain set amount of my time. We can talk on the phone, communicte through email, and even meet face to face (depending on distance). I think that’s called good manners. Or maybe it’s called building and maintaining connections. Mostly it’s self-preservation.

Remember, you’re a free lancer, not a hermit. Did you really plan on becoming an agoraphobic? Get out there and talk to people.

Of course, they still don’t get my pricing guidelines, client list, or customer service guidelines.

3. If I know you and we’ve done business before and you’re about to become a competitor, you’re welcome to join the brotherhood. But you don’t get item #1 and the rest of the advice you get is timed and generic. But friendly.

Remember: You never know who you may be working on that next project with. Work friendly, y’all.

4. A publisher, even a novice start-up with limited funds is a potential customer and a potential long time friend. However, there is a difference between having a conversation with someone who could become a customer and when that someone is looking for free labor. Learn how to detect the difference.

There is a limit to how much “free” advice everyone gets. Much of that is on my blog under the heading of “Free Services”. We can talk for a while. However long ago I learned to say “I’ve been able to answer a lot of your questions, but if you want an answer to that one, I am going to have to turn the clock on and charge you.”

It’s not hard to learn how to say that. Nor is anyone’s feelings hurt if you say it politely, but firmly. If the persons feelings are hurt when you say that, you didn’t want to work with them anyway.

More often than not, when I tell a potential client that I need to start charging them if we keep the conversation going, they ask me how much I charge.

In case you were wondering: I charge less than a Manhattan lawyer.