In Which I Disappoint (Maybe), the Mysterious Mr. Tree

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Who is the mysterious D. Eadward Tree, the prognosticator and pundit of the lively and insightful Dead Tree Edition blog? There is some speculation about that in certain circles of the magazine industry. Maybe Mr. Magazine knows. Perhaps Bo Sacks knows. The team at Publishing Executive might know but they’re not talking.

The interesting thing about the Dead Tree Edition blog is that Mr. Tree’s anonymity lets him step outside his career path for a moment and speak openly about the issues impacting the magazine business. Honestly, I’ve learned more about the US Postal Service than I ever thought I wanted to. But I’m very glad I read his blog!

Last week, Mr. Tree published a piece, In Defense of Giving Away Free Magazines on the Publishing Executive website. The piece is interesting and I encourage you to read it.

In his piece, Tree announces that he has found what he thinks may be the lowest priced subscription offer to date, a $1.00 per year subscription to Entrepreneur Magazine. Yep, that’s right. $1.00 for a years’ worth of magazines.

Tree presumes that according to the rules of magazine punditry, “I’m now supposed to launch into a rant about how such bargain-basement offers undercut newsstand sales and reflect overinflated ratebases.”

Well, yes, you could go that way. For the record, bargain basement subscription offers do seem to undercut newsstand sales. The good folks at MagNet have some interesting data on that. Do they reflect overinflated ratebases? Maybe. And maybe not. Personally I hate to see low priced subs. However unless I actually worked on the team that put the prices into effect, I’d have to admit that I don’t know why the publisher is doing this. So when we criticize publishers for taking this path, what we’re really doing is spitballing.

Source - University of KY
Pundits hard at work! Source: University of Kentucky

Tree acknowledges that the Entrepreneur team may have a strategy where the $1.00 sub price makes a lot of sense. The way I look at it, if you have a lot of other income buckets, a low priced sub might get people in the door and encourage them spend more money elsewhere more efficiently. It’s a good strategy if it works.

Tree then suggests, “Why not give the copies away?”

Indeed. Why not?

Frankly, free is a great circulation model for many consumer titles. Free city, state and regional publications are a staple in many coffee shops, dry cleaners, hotels and even in supermarkets. I’d point you in the direction of the Where Traveler Magazines published by the Morris Media Network as an example of a very successful line of free consumer publications.

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Free!

Free circ can save your bacon. Two years ago I launched an art magazine onto the newsstand. We were well funded, well edited. The publication was beautiful. I put together, if I may toot my own horn, a really good newsstand program focusing on chain and independent bookstores, regional distribution in areas where the publisher knew their audience would be. The launch model numbers worked. The launch issue was gorgeous.

The sales were terrible. Embarassingly bad. No matter how hard we tweaked things, the sales were not there.

The magazine is now free. It is a free insert in several local newspapers in targeted markets. The title is thriving. Free can work.

I can’t continue on this train of thought without pointing out that much of the B2B publishing market consists of entirely free print and digital circulation magazines.

So I’m not entirely sure why Mr. Tree thinks publishing pundits will come after him. For sport maybe?

I don’t like low priced subs because they can impact newsstand sales negatively and newsstand is where my history comes from. I don’t like seeing my history (Or my people) trampled on.

While it may be personal to me, publishers have gone this way for a reason and what’s personal for them is the survival of their magazine. Not just a piece of a larger business. The trade journals focus on the big publishers and retailers because they drive the business. The stats that get breathlessly repeated are their stats.

But many smaller publishers are doing just fine and making a profit. They don’t devalue their subs and they invest in all of the things that the big publishers invest in. Their newsstand numbers are solid and reflect what’s happening in their niche.

To repeat: Plenty of consumer publishers already have free distribution and they’re doing just fine.

The energy drink, Red Bull, publishes a magazine called The Red Bulletin. For many years I got it for free. They never asked me to pay for a subscription. They do sell the title on the newsstand, but my guess is that is more for visibility purposes and to show off to some advertisers**. Here in the states, they print and distribute more than 500,000 copies. That sounds successful to me.

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High energy and free!

So, Tree. Sorry. I don’t think what you’re suggesting is all that far off base. Some publishers will opt for free. Some publishers will continue with paid. Some publishers will mix and match and that may work. Or that may not work. My clients have a wide variety of models with varying degrees of success.

And I really hope no one comes after you. It’s summer and it’s too hot for fighting. How about some lemonade instead?

**: See? I’m spitballing there. “Pundit” at work.

On Quidditch and Newsstand Sales

A few days ago, I was sitting on a couch in my parents’ family room with my brother and our discussion wandered into a conversation about life, Harry Potter and the sport of Quidditch. My brother said that if the sport really existed, and you played it the way that magical people were supposed to play it, it would prove to be the most difficult sport ever played. I think he may be right.

Muggle sports are pretty straightforward and linear. Kind of like the way we usually think about our lives. You move the ball down the field. Put it in a net of some sort. Score. Players move around bases, down the ice, swim back and forth in the pool, bike or run from point A to point B.

Quidditch is very different. You fly on a broom. The field is up, down, diagonal. It’s three-dimensional. You can put your ball (called a Quaffle) not through one hoop, but one of three. Could you guard three hoops while balancing in the air on a broomstick?

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Kind of like that.

All the while, the defensive players on the opposing team are trying to knock you off your broom, not by “tackling” you, but by whacking giant, heavy balls called Bludgers at your head.

And just like life can be unfair, your team can be ahead 110 to 50 and still lose. How, you may ask? There’s a player called a seeker whose one job is to catch a small winged ball called a snitch. If she catches it, her team gets 150 points and the game is over. So, she catches the snitch, you lose 200 to 110.

When you think about it, life, and most of our activities are linear. We’re born and the stages of life are straightforward: Infancy, child, teen, young adult, adult, middle age, and old age. Activities, especially games, are the same way and for many of us, our career paths are very linear.

Bludgers and snitches are like the bumps you experience in life. You exercise, eat thoughtfully, live right. And one day, a small bit of plaque comes off an artery and you have a heart attack.

Or one day you get called into the Senior Executive Vice President’s office and he says, “We like you fine, you do good work, but our consultants’ review of the company says, we don’t need you anymore. Here’s your severance package.”

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The consultants said that revenues would go up 10% if we cancel Quidditch.

And now that I think about it, the single copy sales of magazines are a lot like Quidditch.

For example: Sorry about that hurricane that hit the southeastern US last week while you were launching your new title. What a shame it impacted 38% of your launch allotment.

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Where’s that Feature Pocket we bought for the new launch?

For example (This is a real example): Well, we production guys thought we were saving the company a few hundred bucks when we put this UPC code on the cover that we found online. Too bad it doesn’t scan at the wholesalers or the retailers. Sorry you have to re-sticker an entire launch allotment of 175,000 copies at a minimum of $0.50 per copy and miss the on-sale date of all those promotions you bought for the new title. It’s too bad the costs have to come out of the newsstand department’s budget because…accounting rules?

For example: The distribution of the new title is perfect. Retailers match the magazine readers demographics. All of the major national chain retailers are authorized and have magazines distributed to high volume stores. The promotions line up with peak season activities. The problem? The art department locks the newsstand team out of cover meetings and covers are beautiful works of art that have nothing to do with selling magazines at retail.

In other words, retail sales, and Quidditch are three-dimensional and often not fair. There are so many things that you have no control over that can impact how you play the game.

So what do you do? Like any good Quidditch player, hold your Quaffle tight to your chest, keep you head down and your eyes on the look out for rogue Bludgers. Head towards the golden hoops and try to score. And make sure you have a really good Seeker (who creates beautiful covers).

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But it’s really great when you win!

 

 

 

Dear Cover Design Team

Dear Cover Design Team,

It’s pretty mind boggling how much the magazine business has changed in just the past few years, isn’t it? I mean, we now work in what is called “Magazine Media”. There’s all kinds of new players in the field. The big companies aren’t safe havens anymore. And we’re constantly told that we need to change and we need to be the future and if we don’t we’re going to get downsized and we’re dinosaurs and all that.

Wow! Right?

It’s amazing how much our jobs have changed and how many new skills we’ve acquired. How many times has your job description and title changed? Was your pay cut? This is what number job since the big crash of ’08?

So, here’s the thing. I work in circulation (OK, let’s call it Audience Development or whatever) and one of my portfolios (or buckets, or folders) is newsstand. And even though the business is entirely different from what it was even five years ago, who really likes newsstand anymore? Really.

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Vanity Fair, March 2017

Stick with me here, for a minute.:

  • Newsstand is a bucket where money comes in. Companies need money.
  • Newsstand is the public face for our magazine. It’s how people identify us, even if they don’t buy or subscribe and only see a social media feeds or a mobile site. They know the logo.
  • Even if they don’t buy the magazine, there are more than 100,000 retailers in the US and Canada where the magazine could be displayed. Face time.
  • If someone buys the magazine on the newsstand, they are paying a premium price for your work. Therefore, shouldn’t they have a premium experience when they pick it up?
  • If they like what they paid a premium for on the newsstand, they just might buy a subscription. That means the magazine gets money up front for one or two years.
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Boston Magazine, April 2017

So I have to ask you: Why won’t you let someone from newsstand in on the cover design meetings? Why don’t you accept some of the recommendations when we present a simple sales by cover analysis report?

I get that there are a lot of pressures on cover design. Advertisers may be expecting one thing. Subscribers another. There may be a major editorial or artistic talent contributing an article and she’s expecting an entirely different thing.

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Chicago Mod Magazine, Launch Issue, March 2017

But I have to ask, if you’re trying to sell your publication to the general public, don’t you want to put the best possible face on that product and sell more copies? And if you’re trying to come up with something to appeal to the audience, wouldn’t you talk to people who have to sell what you designed to that audience?

Here’s a simple equation for you: >Copies Sold=>$s.

And the converse: <CopiesSold=<$s

Finally: <$s=A visit from the accountants and the “consultants”.

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Women’s Running, Jan/Feb 2017. The publisher holds an annual contest for a reader to be on the cover.

Also, it’s not just the general public who looks at your magazine and makes a judgment. That cover you’re designing also gets looked at by these folks:

  • The people in the warehouse. Do you have the right UPC code, issue code and cover price on the magazine?
  • Do you understand the requirements and best practices for a UPC code? Can you accept them (and understand that maybe they are for your benefit)?
  • Do you realize that people in the wholesale warehouse handle your magazine and that they make a judgment call about it’s appropriateness?
  • Do you realize that a merchandiser who may work for a third party company puts the magazine into the rack? Does the title on the cover match how the magazine is listed in the retailer and wholesaler’s authorized file?
  • Is there uniformity in your logo? Can merchandisers and wholesalers and others recognize your title from issue to issue? If you did a redesign, did you let your suppliers know and show them a before and after for easier indentification?

In case your wondering, we really admire your mad design skills and we’re not looking to drag you down. We also think you’ll find that circulation (or Audience Development or whatever) people are some of the nicest , easiest to please and eager to please people in the magazine media world.

Love Mag Spring 17(1)

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Love Magazine, Spring ’17. Eight unique covers.

So please, open the door a crack. Let your circ people drop in for a few minutes. Nine times out of ten the response will be, “Hey, that looks super! Thank you!” And occasionally you’ll get a suggestion that may sell more copies.

Remember: More copies sold equals more money in the pot. The accounting team will love you for that!

Yours sincerely,

 

 

 

Tony Silber, Vice President, Folio, Leads A Panel On “Tales Of A Magazine Launch” At The ACT 7 Experience…Linda Ruth Reporting…

Mr. Magazine

On the eve of the last day of ACT 7, Tony Silber, vice president of Folio, entertained us as a drummer in the ACT 7 band at Ground Zero Blues Club in the Mississippi Delta town of Clarksdale. The next day, that same Silber was leading a panel of publishers who told us their stories of recent magazine launches.

The range of successful launches represented on stage was enormous. It included Jarry, focusing on cooking and lifestyle for gay men; ROVA, a new print magazine for millennials who love to hit the open road in their RV’s; Take, which tells stories about the artists of New England; Good Grit, a social culture magazine for the South; Good Day, which will introduce the Grange and its mission to an audience beyond its current membership; Art+Design, which is bringing the New Orleans culture to 17 countries worldwide; Via Corsa, offering post-purchase adventure…

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Everything’s Gonna Be All Right (Just Different)

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I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Magazine Innovation Center’s ACT 7 conference at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, MS last week. The Magazine Innovation Center was founded in 2009 by Dr. Samir Husni of the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism in response to the crisis the magazine publishing industry found itself in after the start of the Great Recession of 2008. To me, the ACT conferences (ACT means Amplify, Clarify, Testify) serve two purposes: The first is to give a small group of magazine professionals a chance to meet together and exchange information about the business in a setting that is outside the usual “industry conference” setting. The second and in some ways more important one is to allow undergraduate and graduate students of journalism and magazine publishing a chance to learn from and interact with industry professionals.

This was not my first time to an ACT conference. In fact, it was my fourth. I attended the first in 2010, the second a few years later. Last year I was incredibly privileged to give a presentation on launching a magazine onto the newsstand. This year I served on a panel that discussed what publishers needed to know in order to have a successful launch.

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The Overby Center, home to the ACT Conference.

I return to the ACT conferences because I thoroughly enjoy the intimacy of the conference community and it pairs well with the depth of experience of the presenters and panelists. There is a very collegial and community feel to the meeting. If you’ve ever been to a International Regional Magazine Association meeting you may know what I’m talking about.

The other reason is the students. These are some pretty incredible people. Their mere presence defies all of the stereotypes you read about Millennials and Gen Ys. I’ll discuss that more in a bit.

If you want to know what some of the panels were like, check out Dr. Husni’s blog to see what I am talking about.

This week, the newsstand business is buzzing with the news that TNG, the largest magazine wholesaler in North America is purchasing Ingram Periodicals, LLC (IPI) from the Ingram Content Group. IPI is the exclusive magazine distributor to Barnes and Noble, Jo Anne’s Fabrics, and several hundred independent bookstores. B&N may account for as much as 75 -80% of IPI’s business according to several industry professionals.

As soon as this news was released, my email and my phone blew up with comments and questions about what all of this will mean. What is the future for the newsstand side of the magazine business?

So?

Obviously TNG will get bigger. Most likely, the IPI warehouses will close. Some IPI employees may get to stay on in the TNG organization. Others will not find jobs and will leave the industry. Will TNG look to acquire Media Solutions next? Hudson News? What will this mean for One Source, the distributor to Whole Foods who uses IPI warehouses? How will they wield all of this accumulated power?

Much of the commentary I heard was negative. Depending on your point of view, working in the newsstand business is pretty much nothing but a long hard slog from one bit of “bad news” to another bit of “bad news.”

But let’s be realistic. What’s been going on in the newsstand distribution business since the massive consolidations of 1995 – 1997 is nothing other than change. We often don’t like change but so what? It may be personal to us but to the people who implement change, it is not personal.

Change in our business came as regional retail chains gave way to large powerhouse national chains. Simultaneously, TV Guide gave way to cable television. The seven sisters of the check-outs gave way to other forms of entertainment for women. Adult entertainment magazines, the third leg of the profit triad for magazine wholesalers, retailers and national distributors lost circulation to VHS tapes, then to DVDs, and finally the internet. Those three sources of newsstand circulation were what made magazine racks in retail stores the “must haves” for retailers. Unlike our European cousins, our industry focused on check out exposure and not the mainline.

We have two large national magazine wholesalers because the large national chains that carry magazines want it that way. We lose circulation because there are many other things (like Netflix and YouTube) that compete for people’s leisure time and pocket change. Retail shopping patterns are changing. Perhaps you’ve heard of Amazon?

Throughout the past decade, we’ve heard call and response after call and response for the newsstand business to “work together”. To “solve” the problems of the newsstand. I would suggest to you that the newsstand may be the way larger publishers and retailers want it to be. Mostly out of sight, mostly out of mind. Frankly the folks in the executive suites have other things on their mind: Events, mobile web, video, subscriptions, and newsletters.  Newsstand is and always has been a small piece of the circulation pie. Just a very visible one that people like to write about.

I’ve always liked this business because I like magazines and I like characters. And there are still a lot of characters and magazines in this business. When I started this blog, I talked about surfing the waves of change. You can surf. Or you drown. It is up to us who work in this business to affect as much change as we can on behalf of our publishers. You want change? Make it so.

Why do I think “Everything’s Gonna Be All Right”?

At the close of the ACT 7 conference, Samir called a number of students up onto the stage at the Overby Center. These students were seniors in Samir’s class and their final project was to create, edit and print a magazine. I was fortunate enough to get to see some of these magazines and they were pretty impressive. as with other ACT conferences, I got to see and sometimes interact with Samir’s students.

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Dr. Samir Husni awards prizes to Ole Miss seniors for creating magazines as part of their final projects.

After seeing these students, let me tell you, when it comes to the magazine business, everything’s gonna be all right.

Just different. Very different.

 

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.