In Which Captain Obvious Drops in for a Visit

Earlier this month, the release of the latest rounds of newsstand sales numbers from industry data consolidator MagNet resulted in yet another flurry of concerned articles from the magazine industry trade press.

News reports about newsstand sales fascinate me. They tend to follow the 21st century digital reporting trend of reviewing someone else’s work and then writing about it. The Folio report was thorough and it went through the numbers and pointed out what was up and what was down and how dire the numbers looked.

Thank you. There’s no way anyone in magazine media couldn’t have have sussed that out on their own

Medialife performed a similar feat. However they also helpfully pointed out what category was down the most. In case you missed it, it was the celebrity and weekly titles. They also informed us that this could be because of free stuff on the web.

Free stuff on the web! Who knew?

Folio upped the ante a few days later with some stern warnings from industry Cassandra, Baird Davis* who continues to point out some practices contemporary audience development practitioners use to prop up their circulation numbers that seem to contribute to the problem: Verified subs, sponsored subs and other free or low revenue generating copies.

I’m convinced that no self respecting audience development/circulation professional would challenge any of these assertions because they have a point.

But that’s not the point. Circulation people are doing these things either because we’re being told to (so we have to), or it may actually be working for that publisher’s big picture (Which may not take newsstand distribution into account because – well, it just doesn’t).

So here’s the thing:

We can blame the decline of newsstand sales on the expansion of the mobile web. We could blame it on the fact that no one wants to read “magazines”.

Newsstand professionals may also cite the rapid consolidation the industry experienced, the high level of discount and promotional demands put on publishers that prevents them from investing in any further newsstand development. Other people close to the business might bring up merchandising failures, failures to follow on-sale dates. They may cite what they consider to be a weak wholesaling system. You name it there are dozens of reasons for a declining newsstand sales.

Then there is the issue of ridiculous subscription pricing tactics. That’s a good one. Why would you spend $5.00 at retail for one copy of Time Magazine when you can buy a six month subscription to the magazine for just $5.00?

That is a very good question. And I’d love to see a study that answered it.

Baird, and others who have written about the newsstand correctly point out that the rise of SIPs and Book A Zines creates a zero sum game where the consumer will spend $9.99 (or more) for a fat magazine filled with pictures and articles and then decide not to pick up the $4.99 monthly.

Good point, that one.

In fact, they are all excellent points and have some validity.

People do walk around these days with their noses stuck in their smart phones.

The industry did consolidate rapidly and it feels like we continue to endure earth-shaking re-arrangements that impact our finances, our ability to merchandise, our relationships with our retailing and wholesaling partners.

Subscription pricing is a challenge.

I found it very interesting that while these articles did a great job of consolidating the MagNet numbers and repeating Baird’s warnings, none of them reached out to any actual publishers. They could have talked to the publishers who experienced growth in the last year: Kappa, Trusted Media, Topix, Hoffman and asked them what they were doing differently and what was working for them. They could have asked other publishers why they thought sales were down so much and what they were trying to do about it. I know a few in both categories.

Sometimes I wonder if it matters. Does anyone really care about single copy sales outside of reciting “frightening” numbers every six months and offering casually obvious observations:

Because in the end, I would asset that the problems at the newsstand have more to do with the problems facing bricks and mortar retailing than anything else.

In the 1990’s retailers demanded wholesaler consolidation, one bill, uniform pricing and service because that was what they needed as they experienced their transition from regional chains into national and global chains.

Now Retailers are closing stores at an accelerating rate because they overbuilt in the last two decades. Why did they overbuild? You may as well ask why the sun rises in the east. I think it’s called competition. Or capitalism. Some may call it hubris.

The rise of e-commerce has impacted traditional retailers in a number of ways ranging from the “show rooming” effect to the cost of trying to compete with e-commerce retailers at the game they invented

One of the most important retailers to the newsstand industry, Barnes and Noble continues to generate a significant amount of sales for the business (they are a top 5 retailer for every single title I work with) and maintain the most extensive list of titles in the business. However they continue to close stores even as they experiment with new store formats.

Meanwhile, Amazon not only competes with books and discounted subscriptions online, but they currently have four bricks and mortar stores and plans to open another six. Do you think they’re interested in playing in the current existing distribution structure?

We see other online retailers experimenting with bricks and mortar stores as they realize that a physical presence can extend their brand reach.

What we are seeing in retail, at least as far as I can tell is a reorganizing of how consumers shop and socialize. Just as print and ink is not going away, bricks and mortar is not going to go away either. People are social animals. We like to be out and about.

But we are seeing a restructuring of who will lead the market, what that market will look like. And that clearly will impact the place for magazines in the new order.

In other words, it is no longer enough for circulators to consider all of the steps they need to take to get the magazine onto the rack. We now must consider how we will interact with potential readers and get them to come to the rack for the magazine. We will need to think about how we interact with the retailer to let them know how we are trying to drive traffic into their stores.

That is quite a challenge for an industry that likes silos.

I suppose that in the end this is nothing but a lot of nitpicking. But we now live in a world where the exchange of information is very easy. The fact that newsstand sales are down and still declining is not “fake news” to be angry about. Newsstand sales are down. This a challenging business. But I would asset that we are doing ourselves a disservice by doing nothing but repeating the obvious. There’s a lot more going on here.

Don’t stop with the numbers. Tell us what is working. Tell us what is not working. Tell us what is new and interesting. Talk to the big publishers. Talk to the small publishers.

Six months from now, the numbers will still be down. And circulators who are audited will still be discounting subs and using verified and audited bulk circulation. Because that is what they believe they need to do to stay competitive. Disagree with them? Well, go and ask them why they do it.

So let’s do something different the next time around. I’m busy. I need information. I don’t want obvious.

*Editor’s Note: I used to work for Baird and I happen to like and admire him very much. He’s been warning our industry for years about best circulation practices and it would be very nice if some of our leaders would heed his very rational warnings and observations. It would be even nicer if some of our industry news outlets would talk to publishers who practice what he warns about to get their side of the story.

Things Placed In Front of The Magazine Rack: The Cubbies Edition

Editor’s Note: Permanent music video for this series. See if you  can guess the significance…

Here we go again. There’s been a lot of interest in the Chicago Cubs this year for obvious reasons. So much so that two publishers actually put out Chicago Cubs book-a-zines in the weeks leading up to the World Series.

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Wanna buy a Cubs World Series Special? Yeah, good luck with that!

It is not surprising that within hours of the Cubs winning their first World Series in 108 years, every brick and mortar store in Chicago and the collar counties put out giant racks of blue Cubs shirts, hats and every other sort of tchotchke and gizmo you can imagine.

And of course, a few other publishers got in on the game and put out their world series specials.

However at this particular retailer not only has the mainline rack been cut down in size and shunted from the retailers’ dead zone to the retailers’ even deader zone, but unsold Cubs merchandise got stuck in front of the mainline.

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It’s money that matters.

Our industry continues to launch a lot of new product. Most of what I’ve seen these days is better written, produced on better paper and offers better value even though the cover price is higher. Unfortunately, much of it is also niche and doesn’t come close to replacing the sales we’ve lost from general interest mass merchandise titles.

As a result, we can expect to continue to see smaller racks, and obscured racks.

So I moved the cart and the rack.

 

Trump, The Cover

 

Editor’s Note: This seems appropriate….

 

Is it possible that there are more magazine covers this year with Donald J. Trump on the cover than say, Taylor Swift? Heck yes! Have I managed to count them all? Well, no. I had to stop after a while. It would have been a really interesting exercise trying to count them all*. However it is planning season and spending all that time on Google is something I politely call a “Non-Revenue Generating Activity.”

So, no. I don’t have proof that there are more Trump covers than Swift covers, but go look at a newsstand and tell me what you think.

Of course the newsweeklies, business mags and culture pubs are the ones having the most fun with the mercurial Republican candidate as a cover story. Below are a collection of some of the ones I’ve found over the course of the year.

Here’s a few from Time Magazine.

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I’m a fan of illustrated covers so my favorite is the one from August 22nd.

Newsweek Magazine, which no longer tries to follow in Time‘s shoes went with a more straightforward, head-on approach.

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The current iteration of Newsweek retains the white on red logo but adds a small “folder tab” on the bottom right for the issue date. It’s an interesting add-on and I think it works to both preserve the original brand ID and set the new version apart. Other than the white on red, there is nothing else about the “new” Newsweek that resembles it’s predecessor as far as I am concerned (It’s a much better magazine). For the record, Trump has been on many Newsweek covers over the years. Here’s one from 1990 when he was having some trouble with his real estate companies:

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So the hair style hasn’t changed much.

Meanwhile, The Economist yet again shows us that British humor and intellect always arrives with an arched eyebrow.

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Apparently so.

 

Meanwhile, The New Yorker, the sophisticated tongue in cheek publication from Trump’s hometown has had great fun mocking the developer turned presidential candidate in a series of off-beat covers.

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Across the island, New York Magazine, which avoids illustrated covers went with a more posed picture of Trump during it’s expose on how his campaign operates.

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That is some seriously huge manspread.

Years ago, John F. Kennedy, Jr. identified the intersection between politics and entertainment and launched George Magazine. In fact, you may remember that back in 2000 Trump flirted with the idea of running for president and this was covered in the February/March issue of the magazine.

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So apparently we have seen this before.

It is fitting, then, that this year The Hollywood Reporter got into the act in June with their own Trump cover.

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Will Hollywood support Trump?

To show how politics has become entertainment, the newsstand champ, People Magazine asked “Who is the Real Donald Trump?” in their April cover.

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It’s a little late to ask that question now.

 

In the end, what all these magazine covers have in common is their immediacy. They’re on topic and address something that is important to their audiences. They approach their main cover topic (Trump) with respect and understanding of their audience. The New Yorker, for example, always has a pointed, sarcastic spin on the city and their cover topic.

Back in June, I announced what I thought were the five most egregious covers to date for 2016. Coming in at number four was this cover.

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Sorry, Melania

To my mind, Melania Trump can certainly stand alone on the cover of a luxury magazine. Having Trump lurking in the background strikes me as a bit creepy.

So what Trump covers have I missed from this year? What do you like or dislike about them?

*For the record, I should probably pick up the phone and call the nice folks down at MagNet and ask them if they have the count. Chances are they probably do.

#TheFirstWeekOfFall

Editor’s Note:  If you’re lucky, you get to meet someone during your career who can inspire imaginative thinking, offer a calming influence and when necessary, some very funny late afternoon riffing. This post was inspired by a long time friend who called to blow off a little of that late afternoon steam and crack wise about the magazine “media” industry.

This is for you my friend. A thanks for the friendship, the fun, and the ability to laugh at the absurdities of our business.

The first week of Fall is upon us. Kids have been back in school for a while. Leaves are starting to change color and some are already falling from the trees. There’s no frost yet but maybe the air where you live is a little cooler. There’s that anticipation that the holiday season is just there, just a little bit beyond the horizon. You may be too busy to think much about it, but it’s starting to push its way into your thoughts.

Here in the shallower pools of the publishing industry. That place where magazines get sold at full retail, most people have their production schedules set. They know if they have promotional dollars. They know if they have a job. Or if they’re going to get outsourced. Again.

But more importantly, if you work in newsstand, you may already have a pretty good idea of what those second half AAM, BPA and MagNet reports could look like.  For those of us who dare to dream we have a pretty good idea what upper management might ask when we’re seated around the conference room table sometime just before the holidays.

Picture yourself in that conference room. Maybe the meeting will go something like this…

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What do you think the end of the year will bring you? What’s your outlook for 2017?

Every Picture (Doesn’t) Tell A Story

 

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An infuriating, but not entirely accurate juxtaposition.

I saw this picture in my Facebook and Twitter feeds last week. It’s pretty powerful and tells a story that is true. At the same time however it’s not exactly accurate.

Oh great, now I’m going to come off like I’m mansplaining. Well, here goes.

I spend my life in the magazine world. For the past year I’ve had the really terrific privilege of working in the children’s category with a noted and well-respected children’s publisher.

I also used to be a Boy Scout and a subscriber to Boy’s Life Magazine. So I’ve kept an eye out for the magazine and watched their evolution for a long time.

So I get the anger that the picture and accompanying article is expressing. I get the point. It’s the 21st century. Why are we still telling girls to be pretty and cute and love pink and purple and wait for their prince instead of go out and have adventures?

This is a no brainer.

But the question I wanted to ask when I saw the picture was: Why the hell were those two magazines put side by side in that library? Don’t those librarians pay attention to content?

Boys Life Magazine is the official publication of the Boy Scouts of America. The magazine is about and for boys. Boy Scouts: Camping = rockets, experiments, social projects. Boys.

Girls Life Magazine is a publication that is run by a privately held company that publishes a consumer-oriented magazine aimed at girls aged 10 – 16 who are raised in what I guess some might consider consumer oriented families? On it’s web page it says without any apologies exactly what it is all about: “focusing on fun stuff like fashion, beauty, and celebs along with real information and advice on friends, family, school, tough stuff and more.”

So, yeah, there you have it. The publishers are very up-front about who and what they are. I’ll leave it to any reader who passes by to decide if they want to judge that.

The question, then is are there magazines that are aimed at pre-teen and teenaged girls that aren’t all about fashion and celebs and beauty?

The most obvious example is Discovery Girls. This publication considers their readers to be “curious, strong, and enthusiastic about becoming the very best they can be.”

Discovery Girls

Perhaps the best in the category.

And while some people aren’t thrilled with some of the consumer aspects aligned with its parent company, Mattel,  American Girl Magazine magazine says that “In a culture that tends to pressure girls to fast-forward through their childhood, American Girl tells its readers: “It’s great to be a girl!”

American Girl

It’s great to have a deep pocketed parent company.

I think that New Moon Girls Magazine is probably the closest thing to what the author is looking for. I would hope that the library where this was spotted carries the publication. New Moon was founded in 1992 as a magazine and on-line community for and about younger girls. The fact that it’s survived independently for 24 years says a lot about its editorial strength. I’ve read this magazine. It’s great.

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24 years? They’re doing something right don’t you think?

There’s a new entry into this category and I’m really excited about finding a copy in the wild.  Kazoo Magazine  is a brand new quarterly magazine for girls who want to “make some noise.” Regular features in this new magazine will include “…science experiments; comics; art projects; recipes; interviews with inspiring women from Olympic athletes to astronauts…”. Frankly, I think this may be the most interesting children’s magazine launch of the decade.

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Go make some noise! A lot of noise! And sell a lot of copies!

 

Interestingly, most magazine that are published for younger children, such as Highlights, Ranger Rick, Cricket and Ask are not sex specific.

What about atypical launches for adult women? There are always some really great new launches each year. Perhaps the most interesting one I’ve seen is the print version of “Misadventures Magazine,” a quarterly print publication that started life as a web site, sprouted an e-commerce store and then it’s first print edition a year ago.

MisAdventures Mag

Great cover. Great launch. Great niche.

So, yeah, here we are, well into the second decade of the 21st century. A decade that has seen “typical” social patterns, sexual stereotypes and the like shattered. It is both sad and upsetting to see that in a place of learning, a library where clearly the librarians should know better, that a “typical” boys magazine is placed next to a “typical” girls magazine and implies that they are equal. They’re not and this is especially true when the two magazine have next to nothing in common with the exception of some very old tropes.

A deeper look at the whole of the category shows that there is more out there, for girls at least, than celebs and mean girls. The durability of titles like Discovery Girls, New Moon Girls and the exciting launch of Kazoo shows us that.

So maybe the question should also be, “Where are the alternative niche boys magazines?”

 

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.

But….

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Got milk. But got no magazines!

And then there was this:

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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.

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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 Five Most Egregious Magazine Covers of 2016 (S0 Far)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For your consideration:

5. Outside Magazine, May 2016

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

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

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Swing and a miss.

 

4. DuJour Magazine, Summer 2016

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

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Don’t look over your shoulder Melania….

 

3. W Magazine, June 2016

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

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Not so sure I ❤ this…

 

2. Vogue Magazine, May 2016

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

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…not so much.

1. Chicago Magazine, January 2016

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

 

Chicago Mag Jan 16

Paging Dr. Octavius!

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

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Who doesn’t love a puppy?

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

More puppies. Less octopuses.