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).



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.

Re: Inside The Wholesaler Dynamic

Editor’s Note: Probably some of the most interesting series of articles on the current status of the newsstand industry and it’s future have come from publishing consultant and “Folio Magazine” contributor Linda Ruth. Linda is a veteran of the newsstand industry and has successfully added the digital realm of the publishing world to her portfolio. That’s a model I am striving to follow. Recently she’s published some articles on what the newsstand world’s “Plan B” could look like. This week’s article, included some interesting “reveals” from former Buffalo, NY wholesaler Larry Scheur. It was then picked up and re-posted by industry guru Bob Sacks. It’s sparked much reaction. What I have written below is my response to some comments, calls and emails directed my way. I suggest you read Linda’s  article to get the gist of what I am trying to say.

I never called on Larry Scheur in Buffalo and don’t know him personally. However, I do know him by reputation and I respect him for his creation of the “Buffalo System.” I’ve seen it in action in several forms and it was, in my opinion, one of the better single entry systems in use. Moreover, I do know many people who did call on his Buffalo and Jamestown, NY warehouses and they reported that the operations were well run.

But since the publication of this article, I’ve received a decent sized flow of  “See, I told you they were all corrupt!” and a “Pox on all their houses!” comments so some sort of response seems appropriate.

The former Mobile News Company. Mobile, AL
The former Mobile News Company. Mobile, AL

Yes, some magazine wholesalers did try to screw around with their systems. One of the reasons we know about them is because they were called out at some point and compelled to pony up and correct their ways. There’s a reason national distributors have auditors. From my experience, most of what these auditors catch are honest mistakes in the system.

Hell, I still have to correct people I meet who have heard some version of the “Phony Book Cover” returns story. The one is what, at least forty years old? It was a hoary old chestnut back when I walked into the business and there have always been multiple versions of that story. Even science fiction author Ben Bova includes a version of it in his prescient novel Cyberbooks.

Yes, many wholesalers may have made a portion of their total profit from delivery fees charged to retailers. They may have even made money from overages, shortages and the like. From my experience, however, it really depended on the wholesaler, the market that was serviced, and their individual corporate culture. If you traveled around and called on as many US and Canadian based wholesalers as I did back in the day, you got pretty good at figuring out who worked hard, who was clean, who was good at merchandising, who put interesting and effective ideas into action, and who made money in spite of themselves.

The former Austin Periodicals. Terre Haute, IN
The former Austin Periodicals. Terre Haute, IN

Frequent readers of this blog know that I grew up in this business and have an excellent source of my own about how things were pre-consolidation and even pre-computerization. My father, who managed an agency for over twenty years (and the book side of the company before that) claims that he ran a very tight ship. I’m inclined to believe him and not just because he’s my dad.  Yes, they may have made some money from service charges. But most of their profits came from sales and most of their sales were from magazines (although they sold books, newspapers and ran a very profitable bookstore and school book business). Where they clean? Yes. Why? He always said it was because they didn’t want to lose an audit from a national distributor. He also felt that the few “tricks” that were talked about were more complicated than they were worth. Remember the old adage: “When you tell the truth you have less to remember?”

Were there concerns about cheating? Mostly they were about things falling off of the back of a delivery truck and into the hands of the local “Friendly Neighborhood Bootlegger”.

The former Klein News Company. Cleveland, OH
The former Klein News Company. Cleveland, OH

Did some wholesalers play with the float on returns crediting with their retailers? We heard that often enough. There is conjecture that it may be one of the numerous reasons the big national chains put the business up for bid. However, I’ve never had a retailer say that to me.

But all in all, this was, and still is, a straightforward business. You take stuff in, you put it out. It either sells, or it doesn’t. If you screw around with your privileges, you’ll either be caught and forced to pay up, or you will gain a reputation and no one will trust you.

As for Larry’s ideas: The time for magazine mass merchandising on a grand scale may have come and gone and neither of those solutions would solve the problem of getting the rest of the mainstream and niche titles to market. That doesn’t mean these ideas shouldn’t be explored, but I would hope that anyone who currently works in the newsstand distribution business at any level would challenge any supposed “solution” that would result in the sales of this business getting any smaller than they currently are. We know people are going into stores. We know that people are looking for magazines. If the major publishers won’t help themselves save their single copy sales, then the rest of the industry will have to do it for them because they sure as heck won’t help anyone else but themselves (And why should we expect it to be otherwise?)

The former Interstate Periodicals. Madison, WI (And one of my favorite cities and wholesalers to visit).
The former Interstate Periodicals. Madison, WI (And one of my favorite cities and wholesalers to visit).

As for O&R “over regulating” the business. I think that is a fascinating comment from someone who had a hand in developing the order regulation system (Although I always thought the first system to market was the DataMan system). Does he regret it? The big problem with order regulation is that the sell throughs and sell through targets mean different things to different links in the chain. A 30% sell through may break even or even make money for a publisher. It may be a loser for the wholesaler. Both the retailer and the national distributor make money on everything that’s sold.

Finally, with regards to the story about the national distributor offering “skiffs” to Larry. Who am I to dispute his story? He did the right thing by leaving and the “well-respected” VP was in the wrong. Were similar offers made to other wholesalers? Maybe. Most likely, I would surmise. But that is my opinion. Show me some other business in or outside of the publishing world where everything is clean, tidy, shiny and perfectly honest and I’ll show you some Sunday morning pontificator on cable TV bloviating about something he knows nothing about.

From my experience, most “deals” between ND’s and wholesalers involved fees and payments for additional distribution and dealer adds. Occasionally additional discounts would be offered in lieu of fees. This was a successful way to launch a new title or the relaunch of a stagnant veteran. I have to confess that I did that myself more than a few times at the behest of publishers I worked for.

If I have any fear, it is that this article will be remembered not for Larry’s discussion of ideas on how to fix things, which is worthwhile. Rather, it will be used to confirm the “publics’” worst fears about a broken business model that is in dire need of repair.

Oh well.

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