In Praise of Analog

There’s a large rectangular white box sitting in our basement. It’s a basic white refrigerator and it has absolutely no bells or whistles. Two doors, freezer up top, fridge on the bottom. You set the temperature with a dial. The big add-on was some extra ice-cube trays.

At best estimate, it’s about 20 some odd years old and it’s lived in three different homes. Over the years it’s been used and abused and ignored and neglected. But no matter what, it’s always worked and done it’s duty.


As a self-employed person, most of my ready cash goes to the government; the insurance people and what’s left over might make it into a retirement account. There’s not a lot for the latest in digital bells and whistles. So I’m think I’m pretty good at keeping my tech up to date with the latest installations and when I do pick up a new piece of equipment, I make sure its’ fully powered and going to last.

But it seems to me that in today’s digital environment we are slaves to the tech. At two years of age, my once top of the line iPhone 6 is starting to have techno burps, farts and tantrums. A three-year-old iPad periodically disconnects itself from a Wi-Fi router that is sitting no less than two feet from it. An even bigger and more powerful router that is less than two years old tends to get into arguments with the Comcast cable box. Of course all of the Comcast lines in the neighborhood like to go on vacation periodically.

We are slaves to our tech. At last count, I had something like 125 different passwords on file to different sites. They change frequently and while there are numerous handy little apps and built-ins on browsers that track it all for you, how many times have you found yourself repeatedly trying to get a new password sent to you by the site you’re trying to access?

It’s no longer enough to be proficient at MS Office. We also have to know a host of other digital programs and apps if we want to be attractive to a new employer or client. But ask yourself, what exactly did you get out of the latest update? The annual OS updates from Apple alternatively either slow down my machines, or offer “innovations” that seem pointless. Does anyone like the last few iterations of iTunes? To be fair, while some of these updates are nice to have, I don’t understand the hyperbole that accompanies them. Yes, it does make computing easier, sometimes. But I’m surprised it took you this long to figure out how to make this happen.

Please don’t get me started on what I think of MS Office updates.

Our tech is supposed to manage us, make our lives easier, make us happier. Does it? My friends who have the latest Apple Watch or similar digital minders seem to be constantly distracted by something twitching on their arm. At the beginning of many runs or bike rides, I find myself mildly annoyed with the Fitbit app because of some lag or error message or the simple fact that it exists and I feel compelled to turn it on. I’ve been known to give the finger to my poor iPhone because the free version of MayMyRide is chock full of pop ups, interruptions and requests to rate it. Then I feel irritated that I feel entitled not to want to pay for the pop up free version.


We used to have a washer and dryer that were, according to a home inspector, at least fifteen years old. “You should get another five years out of them,” he said, “They’re a little beat up so keep an eye out.” They lasted another ten and when the washer sprung a leak and made a lake in the basement, we replaced them with the latest in front end loaders.

“Well,’ said a repairman we had out to the house recently, “These new ones tend to burn out pretty quickly. You said it’s ten years old?”

I did a quick calculation and nodded.

“You’re lucky! Seven or eight is what I usually see for this model.”


Our cars send us emails when they don’t feel well or think they need something. They ping at us when a tire is running low. The more expensive cars tell you which tire. If you’re driving something a little more middle class, you have to guess or remember where you put your tire gauge.

I mostly curse at my cars so maybe they feel bad. They tell me that “The phone has been connected!” and then disconnect the phone. I like the idea of satellite radio, but do I want to get clipped for yet another monthly fee for some tech?

Let me make it clear, I’m not some Luddite wishing for the days when we had to cross the room to change the channel from CBS to ABC. I usually appreciate the tech and think that much of it is nice to have.

But it seemed like analog refrigerators, TVs, cars, stereo systems and phone worked for me. They were there to serve me. They did exactly what I told them to do. To be honest was not very much. But they did what they were told and if they didn’t, they were fixed.

Today, I often feel like I serve at the pleasure of my tech. I do what they tell me to do. I service them. When I’m not in awe of some of their capabilities, I have a queasy feeling that I’m not really in control of gadgets.

Thing Placed (Yet Again) In Front Of The Magazine Rack

There are admittedly many advantages to the way the newsstand sales business is organized these days. For example, if I have a decent wi-fi signal I can quickly find out exactly where my magazine is selling. And where it isn’t. With a few mouse clicks, I can download sales history, competitive sales history, class of trade data, top performing stores and more. With a few more mouse clicks I can send off a note to a distributor or retailer and make a presentation about why my ranking should be changed or a certain issue is being promoted.

On the other hand, there are few compelling reasons outside of curiosity or a desire to travel, for me to get into a car or board an airplane and jet off to Louisville, KY (Once the home of a decent sized wholesaler) to see what the displays in that town look like.

So I was pretty thrilled a few weeks ago to get in my car and drive for a few hours to meet with a regional publishing client face to face. In fact I was so happy to get out of my oddly shaped office that the day before the appointment I did something I hadn’t done for years outside of my own home base: I set up a retail check-up route, left hours before the appointment and spent the morning checking stores.

The trip had some nostalgia to it because this town was once home to one of my favorite wholesalers. To be fair, the wholesalers who now manage the retailers in this town do a good job. Most displays were perfectly fine.


Got milk. But got no magazines!

And then there was this:

Wisconsin 3
No whining just because you can’t get to your favorite magazine now…

And a few others I didn’t capture very well on camera. To be fair, most displays were perfectly fine.  But the ones above are memorable and they occur far too frequently for comfort in an industry that is constantly under assault.

A few weeks ago, fellow consultant John Morthanos put up a post on Publishing Executive where he argued for expanding the title mix at checkout. He posited, correctly I think, that the checkout was dominated by seven publishers. Most of these titles had experienced significant circulation declines so wouldn’t it make sense to experiment? Try out new titles, new categories? Shouldn’t we make the checkout more, well, democratic and meritorious (my interpretation)? He went so far as to suggest, to the apparent horror of some of our colleagues, that one checkout in each store should be designated for these up and coming titles.

John is on to something. Without diving deep into the data, it’s probably fair to say that the crash of newsstand sales over the past seven years has come mostly from the checkout. The celebrity weeklies are the biggest culprits. The uptick we see in the sales of book a zines, adult coloring books, and niche titles like The Backwoodsman and so many regional city books, guns and survivalist titles  can’t make up for the hundreds of thousands of lost units in weekly celebrity and women’s service magazines if these trending titles are relegated to the back row of a twelve-foot mainline.

There are opportunities opening up in some chains. Over the past few years, most Kroger owned banners have either re-racked their stores or opened them up to a program called “Pay to Stay”. For the record, that title, “Pay to Stay” is not nearly as ominous as it sounds. “Pay to Stay” or PTS for short, is a one-year checkout program where the retailer does not install new racks, but does ask all the titles on the rack to pay for a relogo program – or give up their space. Open pockets are then offered to other titles – often titles that are growing and ranked highly on the mainline.

The cost for this program is significantly less than a new rack program. In the last cycle, I was able to move a client who had a national publication and multiple regional titles into many markets where in the past we were relegated to the mainline and could only dream of putting the titles onto the checkout.

The program is managed by TNG’s RS2 division. It is interesting to note that the program is billed in quarterly increments and publishers can opt out if they give notice one quarter in advance. This was a huge plus in gaining the participation of my client. And no, they didn’t opt out.

Since then I have come across more programs like this. You don’t always get in. You don’t always get what you want. But it’s a small step in the right direction.

I am seeing more and more requests from retailers for publishers to be more active in promoting their titles on the newsstand and partnering with the retailers to promote their magazines in their stores. A recent letter from the Costco buying team comes to mind.

For my part, I have always encouraged the publishers I work with to announce the on-sale dates of their titles, feature their cover images and stories and promote the availability of the magazine in national and local retailers in their social media feeds and e-blasts. Why wouldn’t you try to make a sale?

Of course, we can and should do more. No matter how wonderful home delivery, drone delivery and and driverless cars may be and become, people are social animals. We need to interact. We like to get out of our homes from time to time. Anyone who works from a home office can tell you about that.

In the meantime, a recent tour of some local retailers over the July 4th weekend showed that we still have a long way to go.

While Whole Foods, has and always will get props from me for their unlogo’d checkouts, last weekend they popped a bunch of mobile carts in front of their checkouts. On the one hand, you can’t blame a retailer for wanting to boost impulse sales over a busy holiday weekend. But to me, it’s a chilling reminder of how tenuous our hold on the checkout is. It also makes you wonder why our industry didn’t approach them with an idea for the busy holiday weekend.

The local Jewel Supermarket was selling t-shirts at their checkouts.

Go Cubs Go!

As bricks and mortar retailers come under increasing pressure from on-line retailers and changing customer patterns, our industry would be wise to continue to reinvent how we do business. John happens to be right. We need to experiment more.

But we also need to make sure that there are fewer things in front of the magazine rack.


The ACT 6 Conference Addresses the Newsstand

In 2009 I was excited to hear that Dr. Samir Husni (aka Mr. Magazine) had launched the Magazine Innovation Center at the Meek School of Journalism at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. I thought it was past time that the conventional wisdom was challenged. Yes, the world of information is changing. Yes, digital is the future. But did that mean that digital was the only future? While we  embrace digital, revise how we look at media and magazines and journalism do we have to dance so happily on the grave of printed magazines?

One of the missions of the MIC is to host conferences that discuss the business of publishing in an open and free ranging forum. The conferences are called ACT (ACT is the acronym for “Amplify, Clarify and Testify.”) At the first ACT conference I was thrilled to see speakers beyond the usual batch of insiders who spoke at most magazine conventions. Better yet, we got to hear from a wide range of Samir’s publishing acquaintances from overseas and learned how they were addressing the changes in the magazine world. And even better than that, the auditorium in Overby Hall was filled with journalism students, undergraduates and graduates who were there to learn about magazine publishing and what the future may hold for them.

This year, the ACT conference was in the Spring (April 20 – 22) instead of the Fall.  After five conferences that focused on a wide variety of topics, this years’ ACT featured several panels on the struggles of the newsstand side of the business.

Day One of the ACT conference kicked off with an industry overview from Tony Silber of Folio Magazine. It was followed by a very lively and informative address from Sid Evans of Southern Living Magazine.

Day Two took on a whole different form.

The conference kicked off with an historical overview of the makeup of the newsstand distribution industry from John Harrington, a consultant and editor of the New Single Copy newsletter and former head of the industry trade group, The Council for Periodical Distributors of America (CPDA). John is a long time industry veteran and he was able to lay out for many conference participants how the newsstand was organized, how it had worked for many years. Finally he explained why the industry experienced such rapid consolidation and had arrived at such a precarious position in the second decade of the 21st century.

But for any newsstand veteran, the surprise was the next panel, “Reimagining The Newsstand”. This was a remarkably open and frank discussion between several publishers, a major magazine wholesaler, and the major supplier of books and magazines to Barnes & Noble. The panel was moderated by Gil Brechtel, a former magazine wholesaler and current CEO of MagNet, a data service that provides publishers with store level information on their newsstand sales. The members of the panel were: Shawn Everson of Ingram Content, David Parry of TNG, Hubert Boehle of Bauer Media, Andy Clurman of AIM Publishing and Eric Hoffman of Hoffman Media.

While it was not that remarkable to have wholesalers and publishers on a panel discussion, this panel was more lively and open (Perhaps because we were nowhere near either coast?). Before the panel opened, each participant was given the opportunity to give a short presentation on their side of the business. This was incredibly informative. I could understand, fully for a change, the incredible pressures that TNG operates under (High fixed costs, pressures from retail customers, competitors for space within those retail customers, pressure from magazine suppliers). I could see why a publisher from another country (Hubert Boehle of Bauer) would view the American newsstand with a skeptical and quizzical eye (Germany has similar sales volume as the US, yet a higher sell through and lower remittance to the retailer). It was fascinating to hear about the transformation of Ingram from a strictly magazine and bookstore reship operation into a multi-channel company that also profited from digital production and distribution was impressive and remarkable.

Did the panel fix the newsstand?

Of course not. The challenges that face the newsstand distribution business can’t be fixed in one morning. But to my mind, this was the first of what should be many open, frank, and engaging discussions. We should continue this conversation. You can watch the presentation below:


This panel was followed up with another MagNet sponsored panel titled “Cover Data Analysis for Editors”. This was led by Joshua Gary of MagNet and included Brooke Belle of Hoffman Media, Josh Ellis of Success Magazine, Liz Vaccariello of Readers Digest and Sid Evans of Southern Living. From my perspective, this was another successful panel. It was refreshing to hear from editors who understand that newsstand copies are the public front door to their magazine. That something designed to appeal to a potential reader could make that part time fan of the magazine a full time paying subscriber.


Consider the potential streams of revenue open to magazine publishers today: Events, e-commerce, newsletters, blogs, video, subscriptions. Ask yourself, why wouldn’t you put your best foot forward with every single issue that hits the newsstand? Why wouldn’t every newsstand cover be a piece of art instead of the very last thing you think of?

I don’t know. Any art directors or editors want to chime in?

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 10.33.04 AM
The MagNet cover panel discusses the impact of discounted sub on newsstand sales.

In a March editorial, Tony Silber, the VP of Folio Magazine stated that the fate of the newsstand is not the same fate of print magazines. Tony correctly points out how the channel no longer generates much, if any profit. That racks are “truncated”. That many editorial pursuits have moved online. His address at the opening of the ACT conference was inspiring. But on this point I’d have to disagree. What has happened to the newsstand could very well be the fate of the printed word if publishers do not pay attention to all aspects their business. If all they do is react.

The fate of the newsstand is the fate of any business if the participants pay no attention the rumblings of their customers or suppliers. If you don’t watch and respond to trends, the fate of the newsstand is waiting for you.

If we want readers to buy newsstand copies, we have to give them a reason to do so. If we want the newsstand channel to be profitable, then the participants in the channel have to cooperate and on the same page about who, how, when and how much they will get paid.

Recently a supplier contacted one of my customers and rather (Rudely I thought) informed them that they were not profitable, that they would have to switch to another form of discount and that they would have to agree to this right now this very minute or else they would be dropped. A quick review of this distributors sales showed that their sales losses were significantly higher than anything else this title had ever experienced. Moreover the discount structure that the title was currently declared “unprofitable” had been imposed by the distributor in an earlier “either/or” declaration. In other words, the losses this distributor incurred were self inflicted. Why? Because they took their eye off the ball and didn’t think long term.

When will sales stop declining? When we give readers a compelling reason to buy. When the producers of the content, the publishers decide that it is a channel of sales that they should pay attention to. In fact, during the ACT conference, we heard from several publishers who are doing well on the newsstand precisely because they are paying attention to their business.

It’s my hope that the discussions that were started at this years ACT conference continue. The alternative is a continued drift. At a certain point, we need to stop the drift and chart a new course. That point really is now.

A BoSacks Reader Speaks Out

Precision Media Group leader Bob Sacks was an early adopter and claims to have America’s “Oldest e-Newsletter”. Five days a week you can open up your email and find three interesting and timely articles Bob has selected that cover a variety of trends and topics of interest to the magazine media business. Bob often includes his own insight and wit to many of the articles. On a regular basis he collects and then publishes the thoughts and responses from his readers.

Two weeks ago, I posted “Maybe We Should Rephrase The Question”, asking if perhaps it was time to stop lamenting the decline of the newsstand and instead see what was working and how we could replicate that on a grander scale. The post appeared in the newsletter and along with a huge lift in visitors to this blog, one of Bob’s readers responded to the post with a series of suggestions on lifting newsstand sales.

I’ve reposted the questions below along with my own answers. The questions are good and I hope they spark a discussion about what works, doesn’t work, and could work on the modern newsstand:

Question: What if there were five times as many places one could buy a magazine (not every magazine, but a magazine)?

At a national level something like that has happened – although not to the level you  propose nor in terms of the quantity of retailers with mainline magazine racks.

There are many places now where the “newsstand” is a select group of titles that reflect what the retailer carries. Home Depot, Orschelns Farm & Home and Toys R Us are just three examples.

Twenty-five years ago, many chains in these categories did not carry magazines.


Question: What if we made the newsstand inconvenient?  Like only one in a community instead of every line at the grocery?

You must be thinking that scarcity would drive up demand?

In some communities newsstands are scarce. But perhaps not in the way you are imagining.

The local wholesaler no longer exists and neither do the bookstores or newsstands that the company owned. Locally owned stores or regional chains (Think Arbor Drugs in Michigan or an IGA Supermarket) that used to carry a large assortment of magazines have been sold and merged into a national chain and the only place to get a magazine is at the Wal-Mart or Walgreens. Both now have smaller mainlines and checkouts.

The question isn’t so much scarcity of magazines so much as the dip in demand for newsstand copies of magazines and the changing habits of the shopper.

Question: What if newsstands were a drive-through?   

Interesting! There is (or used to be) a “drive through” convenience store chain in northern Ohio. I do recall them on some “dealer guides” (remember those?) back in the day.

A more modern variation on that could be the “Pick Up” locations that the grocery chain Peapod has developed. But you’d have to have a committed program with the retailer. This means that someone in the current chain of delivery would have to think the idea is worth pursuing.

Frankly, it would be great (and simple) to include single copies of magazines in home deliveries of goods. My concern would be how to get the public to buy in and make it a habbit.


Question: What if magazines were sold in pairs of titles rather than one at a time at retail?

Clearly this question was asked by someone who has never seen an adult magazine “pack”.

Tongue now out of cheek: That is happening on some levels. Hearst sold a “pack” of their Fall Fashion titles this year in a gift box. Fantastic idea!

Local city publishers will often polybag a “Home” or “Fashion” supplement with their main title.

The real issue is always cost. Doing this isn’t cheap. ROI is not guaranteed. Think of the challenge if it were a case of “co-publishing” and two different publishers were involved.

And staffing. Having enough people around to make it happen is usually a challenge.


Question: How can we enhance the value of the single copy?

By charging a more realistic price for a subscription?

Question: What if single copies were sold and distributed monthly to people who meet for social reasons already?   

A great idea! Let’s staff up!

In the audited circulation world, that can often be looked at as “verified” or some sort of club membership subscription – not single copy. Or it could also be some sort of paid bulk circulation. Again, the issue is finding the right group, selling them on the title, getting them to agree to a price that will pay for itself, and making the effort worth the while.

As an example, a sports book I once worked with had the great idea of selling the magazine as an added value to local sports clubs. Great idea. But hours of labor to find, locate and then sell the program to one local club would at best yield a hundred or more in a bulk delivery at a severe discount. It’s often a question of resources. Time, Inc. or Hearst may have the resources, a small circ title doesn’t.


Question: What if a fresh People magazine went home with every customer at a hair salon?

Joe Ripp is a little busy right now. And, see above for AAM circulation rules.

Question: What if a fresh copy of Real Simple went home with everyone who spent $50 at Home Depot the first week of every month?

See above. But I imagine that if an RS competitor is reading this….

Your timing is perfect! At a client meeting last week, we pitched this idea for a different title in a totally different retail environment. It is still on the tickle list so we’ll see where it goes when we meet with the buyer.

Question: What if newsstands become emporiums that sold what was advertised in the magazine(s) associated with the emporium?

If I’m reading this question correctly, you’re suggesting that a publisher try to compete with Wal-Mart in both physical and e-commerce?

If I’m not (reading this correctly), in reality one of the “pros” that we use when we pitch a magazine to a retailer for authorization is that the people who read the magazine will be in their stores looking at their wares and that the products advertised in the magazine are already in the store.

A more advanced variation on this theme can, and should be: Some level of cooperation between the publisher, manufacturer and retailer to bring potential readers into the store and purchase both the magazine and the ware. To varying degrees of success, publishers have attempted this. However, the idea is far more simple than the execution and it again, often comes down to a question of staffing and ROI.

Does Bob’s reader have some good ideas? Can we make some of this happen on the newsstand and will it lift sales?

If you’re not a subscriber to the BoSacks newsletter, click on this link and sign up. It’s well worth your time.


Is There A Light At The End of The Tunnel (Or Is It Just An Oncoming Train)?

The musical accompanyment for this post is brought to you by Martha’s Vineyard, Carly Simon, and progress. Slow progress, but progress nonetheless.


For the past few weeks my Facebook feed has been offering me a $5.00 for a one year subscription to a Time, Inc. magazine. This is a pretty good deal. My annual sub to EW Magazine runs over $20.00. A single copy of that magazine at the airport is $4.99. Time Magazine itself? You will pay $5.99. You want their number one magazine, People? A copy from the newsstand would cost you $6.99.

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 9.46.07 AM.png

So if a major national publisher is heavily invested in selling low priced introductory subscriptions, that must mean that they have given up on that antiquated newsstand distribution system. Right?

Clearly, I can’t speak for Time, Inc. But they obviously want to ramp up their circulation numbers and they’re not doing it through the newsstand. For what it’s worth, some of the publishers that I work with are less than enthralled with the system that we operate within.

But why don’t you wander down with me into the engine room of this old steamship and see why I think there are actually a few signs that the system may be transforming. Into something good? Maybe? Into something worse than it is right now? That’s possible. The free market we operate in is run by people and even well intentioned people can mess things up.

Let’s just say that I am modestly optimistic.

What’s been happening since the start of the fourth quarter is that we are experiencing some changes that we’ve known were coming for fifteen or more years. If there is an upside to these changes, it’s that no one is panicking or acting like the world is about to end. Frankly the people who are grumbling about these transitions usually grumble anyway.

Here’s what’s happening and why I consider them mostly positive:

1. We’re moving to POS (Pay On Scan) based reporting. At the beginning of October, TNG (The wholesaler formerly known as The News Group) announced that they were moving to this system with the retailers they service who are already on Scan Based Trading (SBT).

SBT does not necessarily pick up issue codes and there is the issue of shrink. But as an industry we’re acknowledging, finally, that retailers base their sales data on what went through the cash register. They no longer care about sealed boxes of returns. They don’t pay their bills with premature returns. That’s not how the major national chains that account for most sales work.  SBT is how they operate.  Feel free to grouse but it’s how they want to do business and if we want to reach our ultimate customer, a reader, who is in their store,  who will pay full cover price for our content, we have to treat the retailer like a customer.  So let’s quit the bitching and do business the way they do business.

Why are we finally moving to this form of reporting? Because a national wholesaler, not a publisher or a national distributor, took the bull by the horns and said, “We’re doing this!”

2. We’re getting rid of an antiquated RDA system. That will, in the long term, save money for wholesalers and national distributors, make a little more money for retailers, force publishers to re-think cash flow for a quarter or two. In the end, things should be just fine once we re-arrange how we think about RDA.

2a. In my opinion.

2b. Until some circulation person at one of the big six sits down at a conference room table, takes a big sip of his/her afternoon latte and says, “Hey, I have this great idea! Let’s offer retailers a quarterly 10% cash bonus…….”

3. Most of the mainstream wholesalers in the system right now seem financially stable.

As to the negatives like declining sales and lost space:

Are we losing space? Yes. We have lost some space. But you can’t shed the amount of circulation we’ve shed over the past five years and not expect to lose retail space. Can we get it back? Most likely not. Will sales go up? Maybe. Maybe they will go down more.

It will depend on what actions publishers take and if they can actually impact people’s reading and leisure habits. Maybe we can. Why not try?

Why do I feel optimistic? For one, we’ve seen wholesalers take some proactive measures and in the end, that may be good. I also see some publishers doing things that suggest that they are also re-thinking the newsstand.

Here are some examples:

1. Hearst Magazines repeated their fashion box in September and got it into retail. Even better, they created a buzz about it through the press and in social media.

Hearst created a “mag mobile” and drove it around NYC selling the magazines. Did they sell a lot of copies? Who knows? They haven’t said and frankly I don’t know if I care that much. What they did do was generate publicity for their magazines, their brand.  And they may have indirectly impacted sales positively.

Of great interest to me (and it should be to everyone in this business), is that they did it without the benefit of their national distributor or their local wholesaler.

As I point out to my clients, “Why would print all these magazines and just hope that someone walks by the newsstand in the back of a national chain and decides they want it. Let people know it’s there and give them a reason to go and find you!”

2. One of the Dollar store chains sells both books, and “book-a-zine” type publications. They sell a lot of them. Like hundreds of thousands of multiple releases. This is off the grid and I admittedly don’t know much about this system. But hopefully publishers that participate are using it to generate subs, create awareness of their full priced brands and inspire visits to their web and mobile sites.

3. Many regional magazines have a small amount of “direct to retail” business. Sometimes it’s something that could be handled within the wholesale/national distribution system, but often it’s local restaurants, bars, salons, etc. This has been around for a long time and I continue to be pleasantly surprised that it has not gone away.

4. Of equal interest to me are the specialty publishers who have developed their own newsstand systems outside of the national distributor/wholesaler system. This was reported by my “blogging colleague” D. Eadward Tree this past week but here are some of the examples I gave to him.

For example: Kinfolk Magazine, can be found in B&N (my guess via Ingram), but also in Anthropologie. I don’t know if that’s direct or through a book distributor, but you don’t see that every day

Anthology Magazine: This is a distribution that appears to be a series of indie bookstores and many, many craft stores and art studios.

Cereal Magazine: Admittedly, as an international priced at $25 a copy, you wouldn’t expect to find many here but like Kinfolk, one that has some business at B&N, but also local indie shops and bookstores.

UpperCase Magazine: A Canadian indie that follows the same path.

The Great Discontent:  A $20.00 indie that can be found in B&N and Urban Outfitters. They have also built up a network of many non-traditional stores.

5. Retailers taking independent action: On Black Friday, B&N’s newsstand department is discounting all magazines at 30%. They’re going to advertise this through e-blasts and special signage in the stores. This is a one day sale. The publishers are expected to cover that 30%. So while some publishers may be grouse, from my perspective, it seems to me that if you want to move product, you have to periodically discount it. Why not do that if more people than usual are in the store. And how many do you really sell in one day in one chain?

If I were a publisher, I would  let followers know that the magazine is available in the store on that day at 30% off. Maybe you’ll get a new gift sub. Maybe someone who only follows on social media and gets stuff for free will finally go and pay for something. Maybe a long time reader that was wavering, buys one more copy.

In other words, someone (in this case B&N) is doing something. That’s good.

6. Through much of this year, and last, Kroger banners were involved in intensive re-racking or PTS (Pay To Stay re-logo) programs which changed around their front end. To their credit, they were flexible and were often looking for magazines that were not previously involved in front end merchandising. PTS programs are often  less expensive due to their duration and TNG’s front end managers operate the program on a quarterly basis so the upfront monies involved are not too steep. For one of my clients it was a great opportunity to test their front end salability for a national and regional spin off.

So the question remains: Is this ship sinking? Are we all going to drown? I honestly don’t know. But I do know that this year, I see more evidence of people taking action, instead of reacting. The critics who think this is a business stuck in 1978 don’t know anything about how we do business in 2015.

(Revised) Some Final Thoughts on the Anderson News Anti-Trust Suit and the Way Forward

Note: I turned to a tech savvy friend once and asked, “Is it me, or is this program wacked?” He looked up from his tablet and without missing a beat said, “It’s you.”

 I accidentally  set the timer wrong for the release of the post below.  If you are a subscriber of follwed the link from Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, you may have seen it this morning. It needed additional editing before release and I now present it to you as it was supposed to go out into the ether. In case you are wondering, I actually did score higher on my English SAT than this morning’s release may have suggested.

One aspect of the newsstand distribution industry that continues to fascinate me is how little each link in the distribution chain seems to know about the other. This lack of understanding is often compounded by the tension and historic mistrust each participant in the channel seems to have for each other. Add to that the apparent lack of interest the leading publishers seem to have in attempting to rescue, reinvent, or repair the broken distribution model and you have a perfect recipe for the continued downward sales trend we keep experiencing.

Lunch, and a few extra points....
Lunch, and a few extra points….

Industry consultant Baird Davis once described the Anderson News Company (A major wholesaler servicing upwards of 40% of the national market in the last decade) as having “a strange naivety about both the magazine and retail industries…they serve.” I experienced this once while on a call at Anco headquarters in Knoxville. One of their managers took me aside and castigated a client I represented for turning down their inquiry into getting an increased discount.

“Why aren’t they sharing some of their ad revenue with us?” he demanded. “They have millions. Look at everything we have to do to distribute their magazine.”

I pointed out that the publisher was a high dollar cover price title with a discount that was already 5 points above the industry average. On top of that they paid the industry standard RDA and had spent over $100,000 in retail promotions that year either directly with retailers serviced by their company, or in programs directly administered by their company.

That wasn’t good enough apparently because we continued to argue about this for some time.

The discussion ended. We didn’t pay the additional discount. They chose not to expand the title (which at the time was experiencing double-digit growth). Several of his colleagues invited themselves to join us for lunch.

Despite that experience, I genuinely liked almost all of the people I worked with at Anco and thought that for the most part, they did a pretty good job for most of my client titles. But I was also struck by how little they seemed to understand how magazines got produced and why publishers even started new titles. Was this inspired by the necessity to work so closely with their retail customers? Or was it caused by the inherent distrust that publishers had for wholesalers and vice versa? Does each link in the distribution chain really need to understand how each part fits into the whole?

To be fair, publishers often fail to understand the nature of the wholesaling and retailing business. Sometimes the rules that make the system work mean little tot them. Publishers amusingly sometimes see me as more of a representative of the wholesaling and national distributing industry and often talk about how they feel we (the people who work in the industry) speak an unintelligible language. And are mostly corrupt.

I bring all of this up because from the time Anderson News went out of business until late July of this year, the former wholesaler had been engaged in an anti-trust lawsuit against surviving wholesalers TNG and Hudson News. Also included in the suit were all four major national distributors and many of the larger publishing houses like Hearst, AMI and Conde Nast.

In a fascinating twist, the presiding federal judge, Paul Crotty, intimated that some of the actions that Anderson News had taken just prior to shutting down may have violated the rules of anti-trust.

The judge was reported as saying, “If there were ever an antitrust case of the pot calling the kettle black, this is it.”

The upside of the dismissal of this case is that finally, the publishers, wholesalers and national distributors who were involved in the suit can now focus their attention and resources on the business of selling magazines at retail.

The questions I have asked myself since the suit was dismissed this summer are, “Is it just a little too late?” and “Do they really care?”

In 2009 there were four major magazine wholesalers in the US, several specialty distributors beyond Ingram and Media Solutions, and more than twenty regional magazine wholesalers. Since then, the number of national wholesalers is down to two. Only Ingram and Media Solutions service the larger bookstore chains and each one has exclusive arrangements. There are now fewer than 20 regional wholesalers.

One telling change we see since the closure of Anco and the spectacular flop of Source Interlink in 2014 is that national distributors are increasingly reluctant to offer anything in the way of direct advice to publishers when it comes interactions with wholesalers. TNG or Hudson decide want adjustments to per copy distribution fees? Your national distributor may speak to you in very neutral tones and suggest that you make the decision on your own. How are other publishers responding? They can’t say.

Is it a stretch to wonder if the recent expenditure of multiple millions in lawyers fees has made them a bit gun-shy? With only two large wholesalers covering upwards of 90% of the business can they really serve their traditional purpose as the publishers banker? Are they advocates for the publishers? Can the remaining two wholesalers really interact effectively with multiple publishers and national distributors?

This could be a great time to come up with a way to revamp a declining industry, reignite how people look for and shop for magazines. Change the way magazines are merchandised, the way publishers and wholesalers are compensated.

In the meantime many smaller, start-up and niche publications are selling their magazines at retail. Look at the “Stockists” page on Kinfolk Magazine and you’ll notice that they are distributing their magazine without the benefit of a national distributor or a traditional mass market wholesaler. They use Ingram for some of their bookstore business and the rest they do themselves. Moreover, they can be found in less traditional chains such as Anthropologie.

Kinfolk flie solo
Kinfolk flies solo

Startup The Great Discontent followed suit and their stockists page is similarly filled with a few national chains, independent bookstores, and stores that probably don’t carry many magazines at all. Browse the shelves of your local bookstore some day, look at all of the high-priced startup indie fashion and lifestyle magazines and you’ll notice that many of them seem to be following this “do it yourself” attitude when it comes to their circulation.

To celebrate the release of their September fashion magazines, major publisher Hearst Magazine painted a delivery truck hot pink and sent it out into New York city to sell copies of all of their September fashion magazines. It is interesting to note that the truck was not owned by New York City wholesaler Hudson News and it appears that Hudson was not consulted about the promotion.

Does this portend a sea change in how magazines are distributed? Perhaps. We need new blood and new ideas on how to market our publications. But we also need relatively easy access to the retail market. How we approach squaring that circle may determine what the future of single copy sales will look like.

Selling Magazines The Indie Way

The circulation data reported in this month’s AAM “Snapshot” release was dissapointing, but not all that surprising. Since 2008, well known magazines that used to sell a million or more copies on the newsstand are now struggling to sell more than a few hundred thousand. Since the rise of relatively cheap high-speed internet access, whole categories that were once the “King of the Newsstand” like newsweeklies, adult entertainment, celebrity driven mainstream magazines have either disappeared or lost their retail clout.

Yet at the same time we continue to see steady launches of regular frequency magazine titles. Since the start of this year alone, Mr. Magazine’s “Launch Monitor” has counted more than 129 new regular frequency titles.

Where are they all getting sold? In many cases, these titles have “micro” circulations. Distributions that are restricted to internet sales, sales to specific indy bookstores and specialty retailers. Some make their way into mainstream stores like Barnes & Noble but often they eschew traditional mainstream single copy sales channels. Check the back of one of these new magazines (or their web page) and you’ll see a limited list of “Stockists” who carry the magazine.

A single issue of Kinfolk magazine will set you back $18.00. You’ll find it in some Barnes & Noble stores, but not in a chain supermarket. The Great Discontent, my favorite new launch of the year costs, $25.00. These are not mainstream magazines.

The Great Discontent. Fascinating - and worth every penny.
The Great Discontent. Fascinating – and worth every penny.

If you look across the Atlantic to the English town of Brighton, you just might see an alternative future for magazine sales. One that is not dependent on mass merchandising and sales. One that looks remarkably familiar to anyone who’s ever spent time in an independent bookstore.

Martin Skelton, a former founding partner of an international educational consulting business, stepped off the corporate track last year and opened a magazine shop in the English coastal town of Brighton. However Magazine Brighton is not like any other traditional UK newsagent. This store carries only indie magazines and is staffed with people like Martin, people who are passionate about indie magazines.

I came across this store through my Twitter feed and have been fascinated by the endless pictures of beautiful titles Martin and his staff post to Twitter and Instagram. Last week, Martin was kind enough to share his thoughts about indie mags and his store with me via email.

His responses to my questions are below. The questions and his answers have been lightly edited for clarity:

Do you have a background in the magazine business? What drove you to open your store?

Not in the magazine business (Unless you count publishing “The Medway Gazette” every fortnight with two friends when we were nine.) I have always loved magazines and print, writing and words. Ideas and illustrations since anyone in my family can remember. Since the rise of Indie Mags, I have bought tons of them, followed lots more and – in my old traveling corporate life – visited stores in many countries around the world. The town I live in is the nearest England gets (And that’s not very near) to San Francisco, but I kept coming home to this university, design led, independent, multi-cultural town and we didn’t have a store (like this). As my present to myself, after years of (Good, enjoyable) corporate life, I followed my passion and opened this store.

How is your shop different from a more traditional newsstand in the UK?

Well, first, you won’t find 95% of the magazines we sell on any traditional newsstand anywhere. We specialise in Indie mags. Second, we only sell Indie mags – no ancillary sales of drinks or anything. Third, we have a design intent to our store – it looks pretty good (will get even better). And no magazine is allowed to overlap another magazine. They each have their special place. Fourth, we don’t just sell magazines. We love them. We like talking about them. Recommending them, and so on.

Can you give us an idea about the number of titles you carry in the store? How many are delivered each week? What are your top sellers?

Yikes. We are currently stocking about 250 – 300 magazines regularly. We have chosen about half of these from our own likes and favourites. People who come into the shop recommend mags to us that we try out. Mag distributors and publishers are regularly in contact with us about magazines we might want to stock.

For some mags, it is unfair to talk about best sellers because they print in small print runs, sometimes as low as 500 and occasionally as low as 100. So we get a few of them and sell out but that might only be five copies. There are indie mags that are edging towards non-indie status as they get more popular. We can always sell multiple copies of Cereal, Kinfolk, Flow and Frankie and others in that vein. These are probably our best sellers but as a proportion of their total print run we probably sell less of these than some of the smaller mags.

What is just as interesting is the range we sell. Very, very few of our stock don’t get sold. On any given day, we might sell multiple copies of two or three magazines, but single copies of many, many more.

In that vein of thought: What are your current favorites?

This is really, really hard as I love the magazines for all sorts of different reasons. I could you my top three mags that smell the best. My top three for paper quality, my top three for design, my top three for obscurity, and so on. I really do get something from all of them and I’m inspired by the people whose passion and hard work produces such beautiful and interesting things. Right now, I’d probably snatch my own copies as soon as they come in of “Elephant”, “Dumbo Feather”, “Victory”, “032C”, “The White Review”, and I’ll have to stop there (The list is much longer).

Four of the beter known Indie Mags you can find at Magazine Brighton: Cereal, Flow, Kinfolk, and my favorite Aussie, Frankie.
Four of the beter known Indie Mags you can find at Magazine Brighton: Cereal, Flow, Kinfolk, and my favorite Aussie, Frankie.

In indie bookstore tradition, there is the idea of “hand selling” a book to a customer: A knowledgeable bookseller will guide the customer to the “perfect book” he may or may not have known he was looking for. Is it like that in your shop, or do your customers know what they are looking for when they come in?

Some people do know what they are looking for, yes. But even these people may want to have a conversation so that they can experience something new as well. Lots of people want to be guided and one of the joys of being in the store is meeting interesting people, having great conversations with them and trying to match them with a magazine they might not know.

Time for the wonky circulation question: Do you work directly with distributors or the magazine publishers? Or both? Are the magazines returnable for credit? Or do you buy non-returnable? Also, do you sell anything besides magazines?

Tick all boxes (Editor’s Note: What Martin is doing is really impressive! Tracking all of that is not easy!). We work with about six larger distributors (But even distributors can be small operations); we work directly with the editors and publishers of about 50 magazines. About 60% of our magazines are on sale or on return, the rest we buy upfront. Trying to get the mix right and buying the right number at any one time (Re-ordering when we need to) is one of the big tricks to staying afloat. As above, we sell nothing else except a small dash of greeting cards.

Who comes to your store? What are they looking for? If a customer comes in looking for a more “traditional” magazine, are you able to guide them to something along the lines of what they were looking for?

People who know the magazines. People who don’t know the magazines but like what they represent and want to get to know them; People who are attracted by the look of the shop; people who think we are a conventional newsagent, find we aren’t and leave more quickly. A few guys who think we are a porn shop and leave very quickly.

Are there other stores similar to yours opening in the UK? Do you have competitors?

We have no real competitors in our town although some lifestyle shops sell one or two of our magazines. But no one sells as many as we do. There are a very few shops in the UK that sell only indie mags, and a few more that sell them alongside books. I guess our biggest competitors are: A. The current low levels of awareness, B. Publishers who rightly sell subscriptions cheaper than we can offer, and C. A few online sellers.

But because the magazines are tactile and quite different from a mainstream magazine we also have advantages having a store (with) knowledgeable people who can be spoken with.

What is the retail community like in Brighton? Are there other indie shops that sell magazines and if so, how have they responded to your presence?

Brighton is ‘famous’ for its range of indie stores and we have added to that mix. The people who run these stores have been unbelievably kind and helpful to us as we go going. Other store owners in our street tell us that our shop has added to the mix and so it benefits them, too.

What was your best day, so far, like? What are you looking forward to?

Well, a bit like choosing my favorite mags. We’ve had lots of best days. For example, actually opening was brilliant. We were still putting mags on just dried shelves when a woman came in and wanted to buy one so we decided we were open. Our first queue at the till was pretty amazing and last Sunday we had our first queue before the shop had actually opened. We like seeing our monthly takings rise each month and get us closer to break even so the end of the month days are pretty good. We love it when editors and publishers drop in to see us. We love it most when interesting people come in and we have great conversations, learn stuff and introduce them to magazines. 

Editor’s Note: Now don’t you want to quit your job, hop on a plane and go work at Magazine Brighton?

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Well, it’s an act of passion. Someone in a small bookstore in Massachusetts about fifteen years ago told me that the trick was to have low expectations and in terms of worldly success that’s exactly what we have. But we have really high expectations of what the shop can become as a meeting and gathering place in the future. There are the odd off days, but it is a joy.

You can find Magazine Brighton on Twitter here. Their Instagram feed, which I find endlessly fascinating, is here.