Pandemic Publishing Roundtable: Jerry Lynch of MBR (Magazines & Books at Retail)

“We have opportunities available to no-one else” Article by Linda Ruth

Editor’s Note: The “Pandemic Publishing Roundtable” started a few weeks after the closing of most Barnes & Noble stores instigated a smattering of new articles proclaiming the end of that storied chain and the end of magazines at retail. While it is true that prior to the pandemic the future of single copy sales of magazines was at best a tenuous proposition, it’s death didn’t seem likely to happen any time soon. So once again, I was aggravated with the conventional wisdom of those who write about magazines.

I reached out to my colleague, Linda Ruth and together we came up with the idea of starting a weekly roundtable discussion with other members of the publishing community. We could talk about almost anything. We could invite other publishers, distributors, consultants to come and talk with us.

As we were all isolated from our places of work, the meetings became a great help this year in maintaining a feeling of connectedness to something, anything.

The article below, is the write up my colleague, Linda Ruth wrote and has also been posted in the BoSacks newsletter, and on his website. Joe Berger December 21, 2020

Winding up 2020, and our year of, our group—Joe Berger, Samir Husni, Bo Sacks, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham, and me—hosted Jerry Lynch, President of MBR (Magazines and Books at Retail) to talk about what we’ve come through, and what lies ahead. Jerry Lynch talked about his faith in our industry, the unique opportunities available to us through ecommerce—and a big announcement he is almost ready to make.

Joe: We’ve spent the year reacting to the challenges that COVID threw at us; it seems, in general, we do a lot of reacting. Is there a chance for us to not be such a reactive industry?

Jerry: The challenge is going to be figuring out where retail, as a result of dealing with Covid is going to go, where it will end up, and when.  Contrary to what you’d expect, we don’t fully know what’s going on. Consumer habits have changed, and some of those changes are going to stick, but perhaps not all of them. Some of the things that businesses put in place as the result of the pandemic might have to be unwound as consumers start to change again. And additional opportunities will arise.

Meanwhile, we’ve had some positive changes; mass market and grocery are the classes of trade that have done best for us.

Bo: People have to eat. Of all the necessary resources available to the public, grocery is paramount. We have to eat 3 times a day.

Sherin: The club stores, Sam’s and BJs have done well too, although Costco has stopped carrying magazines. Why is that? 

Jerry: Costco has a unique way of judging performance. Magazines don’t fit nicely into their way of operating, and the resulting metrics don’t allow our performance, in my opinion, to be judged properly.  The timing of their decision—we had hoped the removal of magazines was temporary–did bump up against COVID, as well. We have some ground to regain there. Some retailers removed checkout entirely, seeing it as a distraction at the front end when they needed to move customers through for safety reasons.

We’ve seen some good consumer feedback around the category, and that’s giving us an entry point back in. 

Bo: People trust magazines more than any other medium. 

Joe: What is the role MBR has in presenting magazines at retail? 

Jerry: We see our role as overarching. Our involvement would be along the lines of providing good research, helping craft the story. COVID set us back. 

Sherin: If a retailer walks away from magazines, as, for example, Home Depot did, do you strategize with wholesalers how to get them back on distribution?  

Jerry: We do try to come up with a concerted effort, but remember that it’s driven by retailers in terms of who they want to talk to. That’s primarily the wholesalers and larger publishers. Our role would be to help coordinate, to make sure we’re delivering the same key messages having to do with the benefit of the entire magazine category in the store. 

Sherin: The Old Farmer’s Almanac had a direct relationship with Home Depot before anyone else, then the wholesalers got involved and turned it into a category issue. When, after years, the whole chain was lost it was a big hit.

Jerry:  Many times a decision about the category comes from higher up,  executives other than the buyer of magazines.  Those decision-makers may not have enough information or the correct information which doesn’t allow for a good understanding of the category. Where we can We work with the merchant to ensure they have the right information to take to upper management to help make our case.

Bo: My experience in our industry says there is great need for improvement, training and experience. How savvy are the buyers?

Jerry: Mixed. Book chains, terminal operators, for example, are great; in other classes of trade where publications used to have a dedicated buyer the category may now be one of many that the buyer/merchant has responsibility for or be treated as an add-on. It’s difficult to gain the expertise when the time isn’t there

Joe: and it can change in the same chain from one buyer to the next.

Sherin: Having those relationships was easier when you could go and see the buyer. They used to be happy to talk to you. Once the wholesalers took over the relationships, more of the communication went through them; the buyers have been harder to talk to. Our wholesalers need to stand up for the category and educate the retailer why magazines are important; it’s not just feeding your stomach, you need to feed your head.

Jerry: Other factors come into play as well: the decrease in sales volume, the pressures of consolidation at retail. Full service by wholesalers is seen as a real plus for retailers. That has been around for many years and recently SBT was an added big benefit for many. However, that has also allowed some retailers to be less vested/engaged in the category We need to build a love/passion for the category that gets us over those humps.  That passion is built from the product itself, the actual content of a magazine.

Bo: The magazine business is in the communication business and as an industry, we’re horrible at communicating our own presence.

Jerry: Yes, we talk about our problems all day, yet we do less well talking about our successes. We have to talk to our retailers, with good data, in a retailer-friendly format, saying what magazines mean to our mutual customer. If we treated retailers the way we do advertisers we might get somewhere.

Samir: The impulse buy, going to the store to browse magazines, has dropped off with the worsening of placement and display of magazines. When I go into a store, I might find one lane open, ten lanes self-checkout. I tell them, if I wanted to do it myself I’d stay at home and order from Amazon.

Jerry: Labor at the front end is the largest expense line by far.

Last week’s roundtable included (clockwise from L-R): Bo Sacks, Joe Berger, Jerry Lynch, Samir Husni, Linda Ruth, Sherin Pierce.

Joe: One of the opportunities we’ve been talking about is ecommerce.

Jerry: The MBR has been working with a small group of members to get ecommerce off the ground for publishers. It’s way more complex than you’d think. It’s becoming a critical item for most retailers, but there is a direct relationship between the retailer’s ecommerce sophistication and where magazines fall as a priority. As they get better at ecommerce, their interest in our category grows, so we can gauge where to put our resources based on how far along the road the retailers have traveled. Different retailers also handle ecommerce differently: in some cases, they have an ecommerce division that we need to approach; in other cases, the buyer is our link to the ecommerce people; it’s different from chain to chain.

Bo: Over the next few years we’ll continue to commodify ecommerce, making it simpler and smoother. At the end of the day, we’ll solve it, it will get more easy than it is today.

Samir: The increase of ecommerce even from Hearst, Meredith, and others, selling their own subscriptions, is up 40% YOY. How closely are you working with ANC?

Jerry: The wholesalers will be key in this. We need to work with them to ensure that, if a store offers say, 100 magazines via their online portal, every one of those 100 magazines are available in the store for pickup. You can turn items on and off at a store level. But—going back to SBT—without tracking inventory by the store the retailer won’t know how many copies they have.

Joe: Except we do through O/R. And we have more than enough inventory.

Jerry: But in an SBT environment, that O/R information often isn’t transmitted to the retailer. Long term, especially as we expand the selection, we need to solve this, because we don’t want to get sideways in operation and disappoint a customer. That will hurt us with the consumer and the retailer.

Joe: There is one additional customer to keep in mind that we don’t want to disappoint, and that’s the publisher. Too many of them are turning away from this business now.

Sherin: To that point, there are some forward-looking buyers. Harris Teeter, for example, is testing the OFA on its e-commerce site.

Joe: I keep coming back to the question of why wholesalers are not working with publishers to get a site up inclusive of all magazines in that warehouse. We have a few indy retailers that have it, but if I were a magazine wholesaler today I would use my warehouse as a source of eCommerce, and I’d set up affiliate relations as well.

Jerry: ecommerce provides a huge opportunity to link the two sides of publishing back together. Everyone in publishing, from all aspects of publishing, from circulation, from advertising, is looking at it. And the opportunities are enormous. Take one example: suppose people could buy a subscription for Prevention on the retailer eCommerce site, and next time they were in the store they could pick up that copy or have it added to their click and collect the order. That’s convenient. That opportunity doesn’t exist anywhere else. It only exists at retail. 

Or, another example, imagine the possibilities of an eCommerce generated shopping list leading the consumer to the  Food and Wine magazine next to the in-store wine display. Again, that’s an opportunity that exists nowhere else.

Sherin: Our industry has not kept up with our customers, what they want and need. Some of our customers are now buying from Amazon, or from specialty chains because newsstand hasn’t been able to provide the support to keep up with the demand.

Jerry: E-commerce has not been a high priority for retailers. But that is changing and has changed. Now it is.

Sherin: Walmart carries every one of our publications through our trade distributor because they got tired of waiting for the newsstand.

Joe: We as a group know many publishers who want seats at this table. They want to participate and help and make this happen. So how to do this?

Jerry: I expect to be able to make an announcement soon, of a step we have taken in the direction of making this happen. Let’s get together in six weeks and talk about it then.

We Have Always Been at War with East Asia…And the Newsstand Has Always Been, Um, Challenging?

If I had made an entry in my diary every time someone told me in all seriousness that the single copy sales business was: Terrible, horrible, corrupt, inefficient, outdated, out of touch, wasteful, mobbed up, operated like the mafia, doomed, too busy ripping off publishers, retailers, wholesalers, consumers – to do a good job, that we should all be in jail for taking advantage of publishers…

… Then I would have a memoir considerably larger than a Brandon Sanderson novel.

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That’s a mighty big book! (Source: BrandonSanderson.com

 

Nothing New Under the Sun

There is a verse in Ecclesiastes that says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” King Solomon wasn’t being a cranky old cynic when he wrote this. He was talking about the cycles of nature in life, not the rat race of the 21stcentury world. But while the complaints about the newsstand business are often the same year after year, the simple truth is that today’s newsstand sales business is not your fathers’ newsstand business. Or mine. And my father was in the newsstand business.

Last month industry guru and prophet Bo Sacks released two opinion pieces in his newsletter. One from former Ziff-Davis circulator Baird Davis and another from former consultant and industry leader John Harrington. Take a moment and check them out.

Both articles point out things that are very clear about the newsstand:

  • Sales are down dramatically
  • Sales for leading AAM audited titles are down even more
  • Retailers are cutting back on available space at the newsstand
  • There is continued consolidation at retail, wholesale and national distributor levels

I worked for Baird when I consulted for Ziff-Davis in its earlier print life. He is a good person and not someone I think of as gloomy or full of doom. In fact, I remember him as hard working and rather clear eyed. He succinctly points out the tremendous losses we have seen at the newsstand, especially with larger AAM audited titles. There is no denying the fact that a business that was generating about $5 billion in retail sales before the big crash in 2008 is now generating less than $2 billion. Harrington, who is also on the list of good people, is the former president of the Council for Periodical Distributors of America and a retired consultant. He points out that different participants in newsstand distribution have very different goals when it comes to profitability.

But We Knew This Already, Didn’t We?

Are industry leaders going to get together and “solve” the problem of the newsstand? Probably not because there are still too many competitors vying for space on the publishing side*. Moreover, all publishers, small, medium and large have a lot of other things to focus their attention on these days. Finally, it doesn’t seem like anything will happen without the seal of approval from the major wholesaler, TNG, or the largest national distributor, CoMag.

Captain Optimist Arrives

Earlier this week, fellow consultant John Morthanos tossed a bit of fuel on the fire in an opinion piece in response to Baird’s op-ed on Bo Sacks.  John makes the case that we should look beyond AAM numbers (I heartily agree). He cites the remarkable change in title rankings at chains like Barnes & Noble and Books A Million where traditional top ranked AAM audited titles (Think Cosmopolitan or House and Garden) have been supplanted with recent launches like Magnolia Journal.

He’s right. And as someone who is addicted to publishing stats, I’m endlessly fascinated by the report. But is that the point?

Single copy sales, the sales of print magazines at retail are down. Dramatically.

And,

Retail and wholesale consolidation has reduced a publisher’s ability to be profitable at the newsstand.

And,

If a segment of your business is not as profitable as it once was, and there is little chance of it returning to the same level of profitability, you tend to cut back your participation level and focus your attention on the parts of your business where you see opportunity.

It’s true that new titles continue to be launched on the newsstand. Some, like Magnolia Journal, Pioneer Woman, and the Centennial Media SIPs sell incredibly well. However, they don’t make up for the tremendous losses we see from former market leaders. How often can we rely on high level brand awareness to create winners at the newsstand?

New Industry Leaders

Let’s be realistic. Chains like Barnes & Noble and Books A Million are walled gardens. Their customers are actively looking for something to read – something in print. The B&N newsstand is well run and managed by a terrific magazine oriented staff. So is Books A Million. But that doesn’t mean we ignore the troubling signs that chains like Barnes & Noble have publicly experienced over the past few years.

Captain Skeptical?

It would be nice to think that every time a retailer chops a mainline in half or cuts 15 pockets from a check out that our wholesalers, national distributors and publisher quarterbacks rush in with the latest study from MBR and walk out with even more space. Half of it allocated to new, up and coming indie titles.

Maybe that does happen, sometimes. There are a lot of great people in our business and they do work hard to promote the category and maintain our space and viability.

But facts are facts and we’ve lost space. Despite some very visible, exciting and promising bright spots, sales are down overall.

From where I stand (I have a standing desk these days), these battles will continue to be hard-fought. We will never get away from the fact that store traffic is down. We have to acknowledge that there are a lot of distractions fighting for the public’s attention and money these days. Those of us who work in newsstand have to fight even harder to get the attention of the managers of magazine companies and the affiliated partners in the distribution chain because we are now a part of the magazine “media” business.

So, what to do? That’s easy.

Work hard. Vie for attention. Create your own promotions. Check your data. Prove your worth. Cooperate with others in the distribution chain.

Can you be both an optimist and a skeptic?

Yep.

*I am very much in favor of competition. Just in case you were wondering.

Hey Millennials, We Could Be Allies

“I have to say, “the red faced teacher said, “You kids are the worst.”

It was the late ‘70’s. I was sitting in what was once upon a time the coat room for an old and dilapidated class room. For us seniors, however, it was a place of grace: The high school newspaper office. Newspaper staffers had our study hall assigned to the newspaper office. Our advisor, the head of the English department and his best friend usually joined us for informal coffee clatches. Where our advisor was thoughtful and scholarly, his friend, a blustery history teacher, had a perpetually bleak outlook on the world in general and our fading New England city in particular,

His riff on why we were so terrible usually went something like this:

“You kids have it so easy. You don’t know how good you have it. I wish I were my own kid. The way you kids get everything you ever wanted. We had to work, you know. Work! You kids, with your hair and your music and now this disco. Disco! I can’t even look at you kids when I teach anymore. And your cars! They’re awful. You’ve got no respect. You don’t know what it is to work for what you want.”

Sound familiar?

He wasn’t the only one who talked about us like this. I heard it occasionally from my parents and from their friends too.

I bring this up because a few years back we started to see articles that said the “Millennial” generation, the children of Baby Boomers were the worst. According to all of these articles Millennials are lazy, entitled, poorly educated, borderline sociopathic, narcissistic. In other words, they are the worst. Ever.

Some of this conversation was kicked off in 2013 by Time Magazine columnist Joel Stein with a cover story titled, The Me Me Me Generation. After re-reading this article, I still can’t entirely decide if Stein was being tongue in cheek about the whole thing or deadly serious. Or maybe he’s just not that good of a writer (He is from Gen X).

 

Time Mag 52813 Millennial me
That is a really good selfie!

Just Another Way To Divide Ourselves

In these divided times, we’ve gone ahead and divided our generations and given them pithy labels:

There’s the aptly labeled “Greatest Generation”, the one that survived the depression and then won World War II . They were born between 1901 – 1924.*

They were followed by the “Silent Generation”. Silent, I imagine, because they grew up in the Depression era and the War era and were too busy to speak up.

Baby Boomers are so named because they were born after the War during the “Boom” years in America: 1945 – 1964.

They were followed by Madonna’s people, Generation X (or the Baby Bust) from 1965 – 1979.

And then the generation we all talk about, Millennials (or Gen Y), who were born at the dawn of the personal computing era and came of age during the early web years: 1980 -1995.

And the kids born after Millennials? They’re called Generation Z. There is no letter after Z so do we stop with the labeling? Does the zombie apocalypse come next?

Unknown
Apres moi, le deluge.

I work in retail marketing and I understand the need to divide and label every  measurable thing. Still, these generational labels leave me cold.

Boomer, But Not A Boomer

As a certified “Boomer”, I’m supposed to have fond memories of Elvis and Davey Crockett on black and white TVs. But my other cultural symbols are of Civil Rights, Women’s Lib, Flower Power, hippies and the Beatles. I was supposed to have protested the Vietnam War, tuned in, dropped out and dropped acid. But I’m a “young” boomer. I wasn’t born in the late 40’s or ‘50’s so I don’t really care about Elvis or “I Love Lucy”. I have little to no memory of most of these other cultural touchstones.

fesshead
Nope. Didn’t watch this.

I was a small child during the 1960’s. I sort of remember the election of 1968 and the Kennedy and King assassinations. But maybe I just read about it in class. I fell asleep waiting for the moon landing in 1969. I went to Junior High and High School during the 1970’s. I remember Nixon and gas lines and Ford and Carter and really weird clothes. But aren’t those the supposed early cultural touchstones for Gen X? The ‘50’s and ‘60’s that define our “generation” are memories only because I’ve read about them or seen them on TV.

1960s-Hippies-Fashion-300x261
I wouldn’t have noticed them unless they had Matchbox cars.

Former Obama White House staffer and current podcast host, Jon Lovett stirred the intergenerational waters a few weeks ago on his Podcast “Lovett Or Leave It” by declaring that Baby Boomers are “the worst” generation ever and that their cultural legacy is “garbage.”

Would he have gotten along well with my newspaper advisor’s best friend?

-Dude, really? Buffet? If this were a sincere apology you would have played a little Springsteen.-

Personally, I don’t like piling on Millennials. They’ve been criticized for growing up in the era of participation trophies. But I was a soccer coach who handed out these trophies and I’m here to tell you that kids, at least the Millennial ones I coached, had excellent BS detectors. They wanted the trophies because kids – from all generations – like to collect things. A few of the children I coached were on the field because they really liked playing soccer. Some were there because their parents signed them up without asking them if they wanted to play (They didn’t). Most of them were there to collect the uniforms, trophies and get inappropriate snacks. They knew whether or not they had done a “Good job!” out there on the field and didn’t really want to hear those two words.

soccer-womens-trophy
They were on the field for these.

It’s Pretty Much The Same For Every Generation

In my role as a consultant I now work with more Millennial and Gen X account supervisors, managers, account executives, sales representatives and even executives than with people from my generation. For the most part I like almost everyone I encounter. My MO is try to make any situation that I encounter work. I try to remind people that we have clients to keep profitable and relationships to maintain. Period.

I spite of what the press says, there is little difference between the way I and my colleagues acted when we were in our 20’s and 30’s and the way today’s younger generation behaves. The differences that I encounter are more technological than anything else.

I recall a supervisor telling me to not be so advancement oriented. “Gotta walk before you can run,” he often said.** “You’re not entitled to that until you can show me what you can do,” another told me whenever I asked to be put on new projects.

In other blog posts, I’ve mentioned the grand old timers in some Rep Rooms I worked in who were not thrilled with women entering the business. Or mainframe computers. Or in store merchandising. They didn’t think we kids knew very much about how our business worked. They were right. We didn’t. Fortunately, some of them got over their resentment and taught us.

In other words, we weren’t the worst. And neither are Millennials.

*For the record, the Greatest Generation raised Baby Boomers and Boomers raised Millennials so in the end, this whole debate has always seemed very circular to me.

**This same supervisor later sent me on a trip to Montana in November. It snowed, I barely made it home. I think he was trying to teach me something.

Dear Time, Inc. Don’t….Just…Don’t

According to a report published in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, July 11th, Time, Inc. is considering re-branding itself under a new corporate name. The thinking is that a new name would show that the company is a digital media and video firm rather than an old school legacy print publishing company.

According to the story, executives at Time, Inc. have already met with “branding firms” (The fact that such corporations exists suggests to me that I have been in entirely the wrong sort of career) and have held preliminary discussions about a name change.

Of course Time, Inc. would not change the names of their magazines. That would be silly. Just the company name would get a refresh.

I completely get why the executives at Time would want to do this. Time, Inc., as it exists today is not the Time, Inc. that we were familiar with years ago. The magazine division, what we’re talking about today, was spun off from the rest of the company in 2014 and kicked off into the corporate world loaded down with millions of dollars in debt (Sound familiar, Source Interlink veterans?).

The media world is filled with story after story after story about the decline and fall of the print magazine world. Apparently, no matter how hard we try, how much we diversify, the image of magazine publishing is firmly locked in “old school” in the eyes of the advertising world.

In fact, according to current business speak rules, we’re no longer in the magazine publishing business, we’re in the magazine media business.

Screen Shot 2017-07-12 at 8.36.45 AM
This does not mean what you think it means.

So I get it. New name. New focus. New business plan. Maybe even a whole new crop of steely eyed executive vice-presidents who can look at the big picture from 30,000 feet with a singular focus and dispassionately decide which cars to park and which cars to drive. With a new name and a new brand to show the world, the whole paradigm will shift and they will find amazing new synergies with which to delight their customer base. Just watch. The ad dollars will pour in once again.

In other words, Time, Inc. Please don’t. Don’t jettison your history, your roots, the meaning of who you are. You’re a magazine company (Even though that does mean something different now). The media business. You inform and entertain. People know who you are. We know that what you write (and video, and blog, and tweet and snap and gram) is accurate and trustworthy because that is who you are. Your history is your future. Believe in yourself. You can sell this.

Because here’s the thing. Corporate “re-branding” in the publishing world usually doesn’t go all that well. Remember when Petersen was sold to EMAP and became EMAP-USA?  Is that something you do when you’ve got a fish bone stuck in your throat on the 4th of July? K III? Which iteration of Primedia should we discuss?

You see, this…

Screen Shot 2017-07-11 at 3.36.28 PM

…is a legendary, world renown publisher of magazines and digital content that needs to find its way in the new world that we live in. We all experience identity crisis in our lives. We either find our way and thrive. Or we won’t. Would a new identity celebrate the foundation? The roots that make the Time, Inc. reputation for journalism shine?

I wonder. Because this…

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…was a well-respected publisher of newspapers and national and local content (including digital and video) that decided to rename itself.

This is what they “re-branded” themselves and became…

Screen Shot 2017-07-11 at 3.37.35 PM

…which apparently means something and is supposed to look cool. But really, it looks like one of those Starbucks Frappucinos and sounds like the noise a pygmy unicorn makes when it passes gas. Have you found anyone who has anything good to say about it? Takes this company and it’s legacy as seriously as they did before the “re-branding”?

Do you really believe that the marketing world won’t immediately jump on anything Time, Inc. comes up with and turn it into a vicious Twitter meme within minutes of the reveal?

Please, Time, Inc. Save yourself some money, some headaches and your reputation. Don’t do it. Just don’t.