The Twin Elephants on the Foredeck (Part 2)

So how do we fix this and are there any points of light that look bright?

Well  Conde Nast did announce that they were producing as many as six “newsstand only” specials this year.  You don’t spend that kind of money on paper and ink if you don’t think there’s no return on your investment.

One of my newsstand clients decided to double the frequency of their parent title from bi-annual to quarterly and simultaneously increase the frequency of their spin-off titles from quarterly to bi-monthly. In almost all cases we were able to maintain the print orders and our per issue sales. This means our retail and wholesale partners are smiling when they think of our titles.

Mr. Magazine, Dr. Samir Husni reported a pretty decent number of regular frequency titles launched in July.

Are all these people launching magazines fools? I don’t think so.

Dr. Husni is putting money and his reputation where his mouth is. This fall, he is launching the Magazine Innovation Center with a special two day conference called “ACT: Amplify.Clarify.Testify”. I’m looking forward to being one of the attendees.

Can we do a better job of marketing and merchandising? We can always do better. But the rub is, if we do better, does that mean, in the eyes of some of our contemporaries in the publishing business, that we’re turning our back on the digital future? That’s nonsense. You can’t be a print publisher these days, and not pay attention to digital.

However, just as you’d be a fool to turn your back on the digital future, you’re just as big a fool if you dump your print past and don’t plan for a print future. Yes, we all know that there are studies and reports that show that by 2015 x% of revenue will come from digital sources. But when I look at my calendar today, I see that we’re in the third quarter of 2010. I need revenue now. How about you?

What are some of the things we can do to let the world know that people are still working in the print publishing industry and that people are still buying magazines?

Well, here are a few ideas. And if you don’t like them, go ahead and make your own list. This is the type of discussion that would be fruitful for our industry.

1) Become experts in self promotion. I am always amazed at the number of publishers I have worked with over the years who operate in a publicity vacuum. You don’t have to be a Conde title to try and get yourself some publicity. If you don’t have a media list. Make one. Learn about who talks about what you write about. Don’t be shy.

I was amazed, years ago when I worked for a mid sized publisher to discover that no one wrote press releases. So as the Assistant Director for Newsstand Sales (me), I took it upon himself to write press releases. And the next thing I knew, I was up early in the morning doing interviews with the likes of “Tim and Tony and Tania and the Morning Zoo!” Why? Because the editors didn’t want to write press releases and they also wanted to sleep in.

By the way, I know it’s a lot more involved these days than back in my day.

2) Better industry promotion.  I was heartened to see the MPA print and magazine campaign roll out, but appalled at the video where some of our leaders where sitting behind their desks. C’mon! Really? Get out from behind your desks, ride the elevator down to the street level, stop by one of Manhattan’s amazingly well stocked and serviced newsstands and be filmed there. You’re promoting your magazines, not yourselves.

3) Better merchandising. Do we really need plan o grams? Does anyone think it’s a good idea to have empty gaping holes in a mainline because a merchandiser doesn’t know what to do when they don’t have the magazine that’s supposed to go in the second tier, third row? So they leave it empty? Is this really the best we can do? Some retailers need a lean rack. Others a full. If we had distribution managers who could actually take the time and energy to learn about the retailers they service, they could do a better job with their distributions. Retailers go to plan o grams either because they are beyond frustrated with what they receive at the store level,  or because some publisher or group of publishers thinks it will benefit them over other publishers.

In the former, as publishers, we need to help our wholesalers alleviate this situation. As publishers, we need to stop committing collective industry suicide.

4) Better marketing part 2 – and see #1): As publishers, we’ve now had 40 years or more of wholesale distribution so our day to day activities are now pretty rote. But again, for all of my years of working with publishers, I find it odd that the number of publishers who fail to work with their national distributors, wholesalers and retailers to self promote their magazine. Have a special issue? Maybe you should let everyone know well before zero hour when the print order is due.

At one of my publishers, I was appalled that while we produced over forty five unique titles, we could never get time with the art department and the marketing department to create simple, professional brochures for their line. This publisher produced 2.5 million copies on the newsstand and sold more than 40% of their product.

I’ve also seen single title publishers shudder over this prospect too.

This is not rocket science.

So what else do you think we can do better? I know the list is much, much longer.

The Twin Elephants on the Foredeck (Part 1)

The new ABC reports are out for the first half of 2010 and we’re deluged with stories that try to put a thoughtful, pensive and sober face on all of the numbers.

What do they mean? What do they mean for the new print vs. digital paradigm? Where is this all going? At what point do we say to that cute little paper and ink baby, “You know, we’re tossing you out with the bathwater. Deal with it.”

You can’t argue with the numbers:

Total paid circulation is down 2.27% as compared to the first six months of 2009. No one would call 2009 a banner year for any business.

Total single copy sales were down 5.63%. Keep in mind that in the first half of 2009 Anderson News shut their doors, Source Interlink ran into a wall, and News Group and to a lesser extant, Source and Hudson News were scrambling to pick up the pieces left behind from Anco’s tantrum.

On the subscription side, sales were down 1.96%

Can we read the message in the bottle? reported on the results this way: “ABC Fas-Fax: Consumer Mag Circ Sill Falling, Just Not As Badly.” That’s not exactly what I call a hearty endorsement of your industry.

So what’s up? How can you follow up a real stinker of a year with another rotten egg? In an interview with Media Life Magazine, consultant John Hanrahan  points out some things that everyone should already  be aware of: the poor economy, changes in buying habits, and the availability of free information on the web.

Writing in Audience Development, former Ziff Davis Circulation Director Baird Davis somberly advised  publishers who have copies on the mainline that they should find “more distribution alternatives because major wholesalers are more likely to be focused on their hit driven checkout titles.”

Yet check out title sales are down and some of the “hit” driven celebrity check out titles such as “Oprah” and “Every Day with Rachel Ray” are down.

So, um, those 9,000 copies per issue that I sell at a major national discount chain are going to be replaced, um, where exactly?

Where do we go from here?

Several things first of all.  I don’t think the shift to “digital” is what’s hurting the sales of print magazines at the newsstand. Yet.

Firstly, ABC audits a few hundred titles. We have as many as 5000 titles on the newsstand.

I’d also point out that 75% of my clients (most of whom are not ABC audited) experienced single copy sales increases in the first half of 2010. This doesn’t mean that I’m denying what’s happening in the world I work in, I just look at it from a very different angle.

And from my angle, I want to start the conversation by talking about the twin elephants in the room that no one wants to talk about: We do a lousy job of merchandising and marketing our magazines for sale at the newsstand.

On the marketing side of the aisle we have to face the fact that we produce millions of copies of our products for sale. That costs money. We invest hundreds of millions of dollars in packing and shipping our products all over North America and world,. We pay our merchandising companies even more money to place them on expensive displays that we often pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for to get the premium placement on those displays.

And then we hope and pray that someone will walk by and be willing to pay full price for our magazines because this is an “impulse” business.

We hem and haw when our retail trading partners ask us to join in something as simple as a coupon campaign.

Do you recall the last time you heard a radio ad encouraging you to buy a magazine? How about TV? Or let’s go all 21st century and think an internet ad? An E-blast? Something on Facebook? Twitter? Do some of our magazine marketing gurus even know about foursquare?

We rarely use social media to create campaigns to get people into stores to buy our magazines. That’s behavior we need to stop now.

Let’s take a look at the merchandising elephant. We abused our retail trading partners in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s to a point where they finally destroyed what was a pretty decent way to move product to market. Don’t knock local knowledge.

We now have about 90% of US distribution in the hands of three major companies. That’s not a bad thing. I don’t want to go back to the “good old days.” These partners we now have work hard and do the best they can. And they are good people to work with who want to do the right thing. But we can’t expect companies that are sprawled out throughout the country, working hundreds of miles from their central warehouses, handling thousands of products to get it all right. We can’t expect their stretched to the limit staff to really know and understand the products that they are handling when our own staffs are stretched to the limit.

We should face the fact that we took a combative and suspicious industry where the four links in the distribution chain often work at cross purposes and made it even more combative and suspicious.

This is not exactly what I would call a recipe for success.

More on this later this week.

Marketing Fail

I was on my way to a meeting with a new publisher client this morning when I stopped into a store that I hadn’t had on my weekly checkup route for some time. The picture  below really shows what our partner magazine wholesalers are up against when it comes to getting our product up in stores and successfully displayed.

Cookies go great with your favorite magazine, but this here is a sure fire sales killer.

This is clearly a case where the wholesaler did what he was supposed to do. The checkouts were fully stocked for the weekend (even the mainline looked pretty good). And then either the cookie guy needed a place to stick his special display, or the store’s floor manager needed a to move the rack out of the middle of the aisle, or….

Perhaps it’s because as a representative of what is rapidly becoming an underdog industry, I see so many cases of these types of magazine display “accidents”.  What is funny about this case is that the retailer is actually hurting himself. The cookie rack is probably a one time placement payout to the retailer. On the other hand, as many as ten or more publishers paid up front for three years for the checkout rack.  And the retailer also collects display allowances on top of his net from the sale of the magazines.

In case you were wondering about the stores response?

“Sir, that cookie display is blocking your checkout rack.”

“Uhhh, yeah.”

“So you’ll move it?”

“Sure thing, dude.”

And so it goes.

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