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.

 

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Things Placed In Front Of The Magazine Rack: The Clerk Edition

So how does this deal sound?

  • You’ll get a generous discount.
  • We’ll give you Scan Based Trading so you don’t have any inventory to concern your accountants.
  • We’ll pay you a Retail Display Allowance. Heck, we’ll make it “Advanced RDA”. Will that work for you?
  • Your suppliers trucks will drop off new deliveries, merchandise the product and return those pesky unsolds that will never disgrace your accountants’ ledgers.
  • Representatives of your suppliers will advise you on product mix, placement and keep you apprised of all the latest new launches, manage, market and sell your promotional programs.

Sounds good? Great! Thank you for being a magazine retailer! Now, where will you display our merchandise in your stores?

Oh, I don’t know. How about in the “dead” lane?

Lots of traffic here...
Lots of traffic here…

Jim Sturdivant, one of the founders of mediaShepherd sent me the above photo from his local drugstore. This is the aisle that leads to the cashier station. The swinging door in front of the rack is, as you can see, open. Clearly this does not invite the customer to browse the magazine rack.

Unfortunately, this is not an unusual scenario.

031914 RATPIFTMA JS1
Not so inviting a space, is it?

Anyone who has traveled the country on behalf of magazine publishers, wholesalers or national distributors can regale you with tales of how they walked the aisles of a major national or regional retailer only to find the magazine rack located at the back corner of the store in a “dead” aisle. I’ve even seen the mainline placed on the exit aisle on the other side of the check outs (If you wanted to buy a magazine, you’d have to go back to the cashier to pay for it – or steal it).

A national chain store near my office has the magazine rack in the last aisle of the least busy section of the store. The magazines face the wall. It’s this way in at least four other stores I’ve visited in other parts of the country. This position is clearly something I take into consideration every time one of my clients wants to purchase their “Mainline Feature Pocket Program.” On the other hand, when I check sales in these stores, copies are being purchased. I know they aren’t being “stolen”. It’s an SBT chain.

So how do we fix this? We’re currently in a fight to maintain the space we have. How do we get a better position?

Editor’s Note: Please keep the flow of pictures coming. It’s great to see what is going on out in the world. They also don’t have to be of display disasters. Good stuff happens everyday.

A Bounty of Book A Zines

We’ve seen numerous reports of the remarkable growth of the Book A Zine category since the beginning of this no longer new decade. Most of the reports marvel at the tremendous elasticity of the category, the unit sales growth and the wide variety of titles that publishers are pumping out.

But unless you really go and look at a magazine rack today, you wouldn’t really see and feel the impact of what this “new” category is doing to the rack.* Oh you can talk about it and read all about it, but until you really go and look and see, you might not understand it.

As our former Secretary of Defense and eloquent wordsmith Donald Rumsfeld once said:

When there were more wholesalers to visit, distributions to work and territories to see, I always made it a point to spend a few hours at retail. Unlike some of the traveling pooh-bahs of the time, my goal wasn’t to find an issue to use as a cudgel on the local rep. I really wanted to see and know the town. It was the only way I felt that I could know, understand and own what I was working on. The only way to know what I knew and know that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

If you know what I mean. Because otherwise it was just a bunch of numbers.

We don’t have that today. When was the last time someone other than the local merchandiser was in the Martin’s on Route 20 in South Bend, IN?

The other day I spent some time getting acquainted with a new supermarket in the wake of my neighborhood store closing. While I still go out to retail, these days I’m usually just looking for one or two client titles. It was good to really stop, look, absorb, and spend time at the rack. It’s a great way to learn a store.

And look how these “zines” have taken over the rack:

Who said "General Interest" is dead?
Who said “General Interest” is dead?
Cooking, cowboys...and ice fishing? Well, it is January, this is the Midwest.
Cooking, cowboys…and ice fishing? Well, it is January, this is the Midwest.
Maybe there was nowhere else to drop the bridal mag?
Maybe there was nowhere else to drop the bridal mag?

While this part of the market is doing well, they can strain the distribution chain. If the store is part of chain that has “SBT” (Scan Based Trading), then the wholesaler owns that merchandise. These are annuals. Those are high cover prices and a long on sale. That’s a lot of inventory to own.

There are fewer turns on the rack unless the publisher is pumping out a bunch of ‘Zines. And while some publishers are (cough, cough) pumping out a ton of ‘zines, it’s not enough to replace the lost sales we see in the higher volume categories.

Lastly, not all magazine categories are naturals for these “Zines.” And, more importantly, there are some economic issues to be concerned with. Without some existing clout behind you, a brand that is well established and has a significant newsstand presence, these aren’t that cheap to produce nor are they that cheap to launch in the blind.

In the comments section of Dead Tree Edition’s post about Book A Zines, industry guru Bo Sacks wondered if we would get too greedy and kill the category. I’m inclined to think not. Unlike a regular frequency title, you don’t repeat a special edition if it doesn’t work. It’s just too costly. Unlike a monthly, you’re not going to leave it on life support because there’s no ad or subscriber revenue to prop it up.

Where will the category go? I don’t know. But it was nice to stop and look, really look at the rack.

*For the record, back in the day, we called them annuals or SIPS. There just weren’t as many of them, and they didn’t have good press.

Why Esquire Magazine Gets It

The February issue of Esquire Magazine does not look very different from past editions of the title. It’s glossy, full of editorial that’s designed to help their audience of young urban men be hip and trendy. It’s chock full of advertising that supports the publication’s market.

What is different is that once again, the publication has mixed digital “reality” with their print product and is driving their readers to the newsstand to pick up a print copy.

The magazine actually has several interactive features in this issue. In one, readers can download an app to their iPhone and interact with model Brooklyn Decker (who’s name reminds me more of something I’d find in Home Depot instead of on the pages of the Victoria’s Secrets catalog) in the magazine area of a Barnes & Noble Store.

In another, they can use the same app to locate the Esquire Magazine logo in one of several cities that was geo tagged by the app.

Brooklyn Decker on the February Cover. No, this isn't a B&N store.

 

Esquire has a pretty good history of using digital within the confines of their print product and they seem to be getting better at it every time. I have to say that I was very impressed a year  ago when Esquire demonstrated their design wizardry with the  Robert Downey, Jr. cover.

Robert Downey Jr.'s Augmented Reality Issue.

This past November, when Playboy Magazine launched their “Golden Ticket” newsstand promotion, I was even more thrilled. Could it be that we publishers are finally realizing that you can use social media to push single copy sales?

I’ll be tracking the sales of this issue of Esquire. Will these efforts pay off in increased sales?

Publishing consultant, digital guru, sometime defender of ink on paper, and one heck of a writer and commentator, Bob Sacks of BoSacks.com fame commented on the Esquire promotion in a recent newsletter and wondered if

At the end of the day a printed magazine should stand on its feet and proudly be what it is – a damn good read. All the other stuff is bluster, smoke and mirrors. If your magazine is a digital magazine, have at it and be all that you…can be. If it is instead a traditional magazine, then you should be all that you can be.

I’d have to disagree. Respectfully, of course. He gets more hits on his site than I do.

I don’t see this as stunt as much as two very distinct actions. The first follows in the footsteps of the Robert Downey, Jr. cover and their 75th Anniversary cover by pushing the boundaries of printing and showing how flexible the printed page can be.

The second strikes me as a marketing program designed to attract readers to the print edition and then show those readers what exists for the magazine digitally. It demonstrates, successfully I think, that a print magazine is so much more than ink smeared on dead trees. If I had designed these promotions, I would have pointed out that we are getting Esquire print readers more wrapped up in our digital offerings. Likewise, we may be moving some digital readers to go and spend some money (!) on our print products.

Like so many things in the 21st century, a magazine does not have to fit in a very neat and tidy box anymore. Is a “crossover” car a sport utility vehicle, a mini-van or a station wagon? Is a Super Wal-Mart a discount department store, an electronics store, a hardware store or a supermarket? Will you buy your next washer and dryer combo at Best Buy, Home Depot, Sears or somewhere else?

When the technology gets there, will a “print” magazine be nothing more than ink on dead trees (or hemp)? Or will it be a hybrid of the former and then something else? Maybe something that is both print and digital.

Editorially, I admire Esquire Magazine, although it doesn’t speak to me anymore. But I truly applaud their efforts to both promote their single copy sales, and use contemporary marketing techniques to promote their, ahem, brand. More publishers should take notice.

Ben Bova Was Almost Right

In an earlier post, I mentioned that my days of nearly endless business travel afforded me the opportunity to read a lot of books. As a child who grew up in the magazine and book distribution business, I was used to spending my down time with a book or magazine or newspaper in my hands. And as a young teenager with a constantly renewing supply of books, I quickly fell down the rabbit hole of the great American science fiction authors of the last century.

Alan Dean Foster, Philip Jose Farmer, Asimov, Herbert and Marion Bradley. I read them all. Endlessly. And I recycled their stories over and over as well. I’m one of those readers who doesn’t mind picking up a book I’ve already read to see if there was anything I missed the last time around. Or I’ll re-read simply to revisit an old friend.

When I was around 15 or 16, my dad brought home a hard back book by Ben Bova titled “Millenium” and deposited it on the steps going up to our second floor. In our home, any reading material left on the stairs was considered “fair game”. I grabbed it, and started reading it, and then read it again, and again. This book, which told the story of a “revolution” that occurred on a fictional moon colony of American and Soviet colonists against an increasingly destructive and belligerent set of American and Soviet governments back on earth was the first of four books Bova would write about the hero, Chet Kinsmen. Interestingly enough, as much as I loved that book, I didn’t know there were three other Chet Kinsmen books until recently.

Thirteen years later, I am in my late twenties and traveling around the country working on magazine distributions. My travels frequently took me into bookstores where I would, after examining the magazine rack, look for something to read. At some point I came across this book by an author who’s work I had really loved, but who, for some inexplicable reason, I had only read one of his many, many novels.

It foresaw the future of reading, but fortunately, not fashion.

“Cyberbooks” was published in 1989 and the weird thing I find about it’s cover is that it feels more like something from the early or middle eighties. In spite of the horrific cover, I snapped it up because I had remembered my love affair with “Millenium” and the book was about the publishing industry.

The plot of the  book is simple. The publishing industry is screwed up (No, really? Who’d have imagined that?). An earnest MIT engineering student creates an easy to use, simple to manufacture and cheap to buy electronic reader. The publishing industry reacts poorly and tries to kill him so they can keep on doing what they’ve been doing best. Screwing things up and having their way.

At the time, the book resonated for me. It was still relatively early in the personal computing era. Most PC’s were DOS based. Color monitors on anything but the most expensive desktops were still a rarity. I had just started to use a laptop computer and I had lots of things I wanted to do with it, but the technology was just not there so Bova’s fantastical vision was interesting, but seemed as far away as an iPad.

I don’t think anyone from Simon and Schuster or Random House wants to kill Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs. Although maybe Leonard Riggio would like to a private moment in a small darkened room with Ron Burkle and William Ackman. But Bova demonstrates some scathing satire of the publishing industry ranging from the control corporate buyers have on what goes into the stores, to tales about the distribution industry that he clearly based on the actual  history of the magazine and book wholesale business (Like the wholesaler who printed his own covers and submitted them for credit).

Like many of the good science fiction writers, Bova predicts some of the technical aspects of today’s digital e-reader. The machine he describes is full color, easy to use, easy to read. Books are stored on “disks”  (it would probably have been too much to expect him to foresee cloud based computing or flash drives). Because they’re digital, you never “run out” of a book. The novel is intended as a satire and as such, it pokes a lot of fun at what the “future society” is like: Huge corporate mega mergers, lots of plastic surgeries, dumbed down public school classes, hospital admissions based on the quality of your insurance, book buying procedures run by monkeys and teenagers.

In an article published in the Naples News earlier this year, Bova pointed out some of the similarities between his novel and the current market today. In particular, the reaction of the publishing industry (with the exception of the assassination attempts)  and the current struggles over who gets paid royalties and how much those royalties will be.

I first remembered “Cyberbooks” when the Kindle began to get some traction and the publishing industry seemed to go into full “fight or fright” mode a year and a half ago. Weirdly, what stuck with me from the novel were the stories that Bova had told about the distribution side of the business and the description of the book buyers on their post plastic surgery cruise.  While it feels dated, it’s worth a second and third look.

Better yet, for me in any event, the trip down memory lane brought me to Bova’s website where I learned that I have a few more novels to go if I want to get the complete story about my first introduction to this writer.

Lost Sales Opportunities – The Siloing of Marketing

Several years ago I sat in on a presentation made by the CEO of  a publishing company. After he spoke for a few minutes,  it became clear that he had recently spent time on a long plane ride and was exposed to a Forbes specialty magazine. The buzz word at the time in the business world was “silo” and the goal was to get everyone out of their “business silos” so they could all “work together.”

It was a great talk and I actually felt hopeful for that company’s future for about five minutes. However it was apparent that to this CEO, breaking down silos meant taking resources out of the consumer silo side of his business and “investing” it in the business to business silo.  We could have saved a lot of time and skipped the whole speech.

The phrase “silo” brings to mind several images: The first is the symbol of plenty we see out here in flyover country. A grain silo. A vision of flat fields of corn and wheat and bountiful plenty. If you had a “business silo” and imagined a grain silo, you could think of a business resource that you draw on in times of good or ill, and it would nurture your business.

The second image is a missile silo. Here we’re talking about concrete bunkers and uniformed, brush cut military personnel waiting for the signal from another bunker to fire death and destruction on the “enemy”. Even in a business setting you can “harden” your silo and keep others from taking your resources.

In magazine media marketing, we unfortunately do a lot of the latter. Single copy newsstand marketing is kept far, far away from subscription marketing. Advertising marketing exists on an entirely different plane. Cross promote video and print? Why on earth would we attempt that? Promotional marketing of your own product? Huh?

And the new kid, that scruffy internet punk with all those social marketing thingies. Well, she’s so out there who the heck knows what she’s up to. And she’s kept on another floor. And why the hell is the home office is giving her so much time and resources?

Of course, this is stupid. We all know that.  But this is how it’s done.

Consider this publishers:

If your customer buys a single print copy every month at $4.99 per issue, it will cost her $59.88 per year. I have a client who has a $4.99 monthly magazine and they charge $2.00 per issue to subscribe. That’s $24.00 per year. It costs $1.35 per copy to print the magazine. You do the math.

If you buy the Zinio version of the magazine so you can read it on your computer or iPad, or smart phone, it will cost you $3.99. Why $3.99? Of course, an iPad could cost you anywhere from $500 to $800.  If you buy the $800 version there’s the monthly 3G fee. If you store your stuff in a cloud and you want more than 5 gigs, there is that fee.

About this all being cheaper and greener…

Searching for answers
“So Pete, about that conference call tomorrow…”

It does make you wonder who’s in charge and where are we going.

Honestly, I don’t know. But I do know, that at least in the single copy side of the world,  we’ve been on a roller coaster since January 2009 when Anderson News melted down. Since the announcement of the iPad and the rollout of new 3G Nooks, Kindles, and whatnot, we print folk are supposed to see a renaissance of the business as we embrace the digital world. Which many of us already had. But still, we’re all dinosaurs. Or we’re all dead men walking.

Whatever. It seems to depend on who’s talking.

Consider this:

If you work at a company, you could work in a silo. Raw grain is inedible. You’ll starve if that’s all you’ve got. Do you work out of a bunkered missile silo? You do know that you’ll run out of food eventually.

So, really, if you work at a company, imagine that you’re all working at the dining room table. And you all need to eat. And you all want a nice meal.

So pass the food, talk across the table, not just to your neighbor, and learn some manners.

Husni Vs. Sacks: Who’s right? Who wins? Does it matter?

Dr. Samir Husni aka Mr. Magazine,  ( mrmagazine.wordpress.com ) has developed a well deserved reputation as a defender of the printed magazine. He loves them, collects them, teaches about them to college students. And in the era of digitized content, declares very eloquently that they are not obsolete. As somebody who is acutely aware of the fact that more than 80% of his income still comes from ink on paper magazines, I applaud Dr. Husni.

On the reverse side of the same coin, Robert Sacks (aka BoSacks.com), a leading publishing industry consultant refers to himself (and apparently Dr. Husni concurs) as Samir’s “very good friend”, but debates him just the same about the future of the printed magazine. Like all good consultants, Sacks opines that the future of the printed magazine is essentially one where it will be niche and pull in significantly less revenue for publishers as the world goes digital. In fact, Sacks is such a forward thinker, that he and his staff came up with a definition of a magazine that does not include paper or ink (or staples, for that matter). I realize that in ten years or so more than 80% of my income might come from this new definition of a magazine, so I applaud BoSacks too (although may be more of a polite golf clap).

Of course, there are industry gurus who seem to feel that the printed word is dead, gone and anyone who works with print is a dead man walking. If nothing else, they certainly get to write an awful lot of articles. The notably ironic and sarcastic “Reaper” of magazinedeathpool.com comes to mind. I keep my Twitter up throughout much of the day and have designated time in the late afternoon to follow some of the links that come through from the people on my list. Just as the iPad was coming out, the conventional wisdom seemed that print publishers were the walking dead and the iPad would ride in and rescue us all if we let it. If we continued to fight it, we would stay dead.

I should point out, that as far as I am concerned, I have rightly placed both Dr. Husni and BoSacks in my “Future Media” list on Twitter.

In his most recent blog post  (http://bit.ly/c26rbv), Husni writes: “Magazines, each and every one and each and every issue of every one, are a total experience that engages the customers five senses. “

And that is true, but you could argue the same about a digital edition. Even on an iPad or a Kindle or a desk top, there is tactile, maybe even some smell. But I’ve been around mags long enough to know what Samir is saying.

Sacks’ definition of a magazine goes like this: “a magazine must be paginated, edited, designed, date stamped, permanent, and periodic. But it does not have to use either ink or paper to be an ‘official’ magazine. Ink and paper are an unnecessary restriction in the 21st century.”

And technically, he’s right too. As Husni pointed out in his blog entry, you could call a “digital magazine” a magazine, but it’s not really a magazine like an ink on paper magazine is. He objects the comparisons that have been made between publishing and the music business. As he points out, “I listened to my favorite songs over and over. I used earphones, loud speakers, any and all the things created to help me listen to the music. The goal was always to listen to my favorite song over and over again. I did not care how the song was broadcasted or delivered.”

Couldn’t the same be said, then for magazines and even books? Could it be that three, five or even ten years from now, people won’t care how they get Outside Magazine, or the latest Nelson Demille novel, they’ll just want it? Don’t definitions of objects, over time, change?

After all, I can listen to an entire album on an LP, a cassette tape, on my computer, on a CD, on my iPod. In all cases, it’s an album.

What I like about Dr. Husni’s arguments is that he fights against the industry wags and arch ironists and says in effect (at least as I interpret it), “Pay attention. You have a viable, profitable business here and you’re about to run off and play with an untested shiny object that could bankrupt you if you’re not smart about it.”

Likewise, Bob Sacks points out (again, as I interpret it), “And don’t forget to pay attention to this shiny new object too. If you’re not careful, all you’ll be left with is a cute, niche business that will make less money than before and you’ll be considered a throw back to the old horse and buggy days if you don’t modernize.”

So I tend to think that these two great friends are arguing the same side of the coin. And, actually, I’m very grateful for that. Because they certainly got this publisher consultants attention.