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.

 

In Praise of Analog

There’s a large rectangular white box sitting in our basement. It’s a basic white refrigerator and it has absolutely no bells or whistles. Two doors, freezer up top, fridge on the bottom. You set the temperature with a dial. The big add-on was some extra ice-cube trays.

At best estimate, it’s about 20 some odd years old and it’s lived in three different homes. Over the years it’s been used and abused and ignored and neglected. But no matter what, it’s always worked and done it’s duty.

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As a self-employed person, most of my ready cash goes to the government; the insurance people and what’s left over might make it into a retirement account. There’s not a lot for the latest in digital bells and whistles. So I’m think I’m pretty good at keeping my tech up to date with the latest installations and when I do pick up a new piece of equipment, I make sure its’ fully powered and going to last.

But it seems to me that in today’s digital environment we are slaves to the tech. At two years of age, my once top of the line iPhone 6 is starting to have techno burps, farts and tantrums. A three-year-old iPad periodically disconnects itself from a Wi-Fi router that is sitting no less than two feet from it. An even bigger and more powerful router that is less than two years old tends to get into arguments with the Comcast cable box. Of course all of the Comcast lines in the neighborhood like to go on vacation periodically.

We are slaves to our tech. At last count, I had something like 125 different passwords on file to different sites. They change frequently and while there are numerous handy little apps and built-ins on browsers that track it all for you, how many times have you found yourself repeatedly trying to get a new password sent to you by the site you’re trying to access?

It’s no longer enough to be proficient at MS Office. We also have to know a host of other digital programs and apps if we want to be attractive to a new employer or client. But ask yourself, what exactly did you get out of the latest update? The annual OS updates from Apple alternatively either slow down my machines, or offer “innovations” that seem pointless. Does anyone like the last few iterations of iTunes? To be fair, while some of these updates are nice to have, I don’t understand the hyperbole that accompanies them. Yes, it does make computing easier, sometimes. But I’m surprised it took you this long to figure out how to make this happen.

Please don’t get me started on what I think of MS Office updates.

Our tech is supposed to manage us, make our lives easier, make us happier. Does it? My friends who have the latest Apple Watch or similar digital minders seem to be constantly distracted by something twitching on their arm. At the beginning of many runs or bike rides, I find myself mildly annoyed with the Fitbit app because of some lag or error message or the simple fact that it exists and I feel compelled to turn it on. I’ve been known to give the finger to my poor iPhone because the free version of MayMyRide is chock full of pop ups, interruptions and requests to rate it. Then I feel irritated that I feel entitled not to want to pay for the pop up free version.

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Source: Fastcompany.com

We used to have a washer and dryer that were, according to a home inspector, at least fifteen years old. “You should get another five years out of them,” he said, “They’re a little beat up so keep an eye out.” They lasted another ten and when the washer sprung a leak and made a lake in the basement, we replaced them with the latest in front end loaders.

“Well,’ said a repairman we had out to the house recently, “These new ones tend to burn out pretty quickly. You said it’s ten years old?”

I did a quick calculation and nodded.

“You’re lucky! Seven or eight is what I usually see for this model.”

Lovely.

Our cars send us emails when they don’t feel well or think they need something. They ping at us when a tire is running low. The more expensive cars tell you which tire. If you’re driving something a little more middle class, you have to guess or remember where you put your tire gauge.

I mostly curse at my cars so maybe they feel bad. They tell me that “The phone has been connected!” and then disconnect the phone. I like the idea of satellite radio, but do I want to get clipped for yet another monthly fee for some tech?

Let me make it clear, I’m not some Luddite wishing for the days when we had to cross the room to change the channel from CBS to ABC. I usually appreciate the tech and think that much of it is nice to have.

But it seemed like analog refrigerators, TVs, cars, stereo systems and phone worked for me. They were there to serve me. They did exactly what I told them to do. To be honest was not very much. But they did what they were told and if they didn’t, they were fixed.

Today, I often feel like I serve at the pleasure of my tech. I do what they tell me to do. I service them. When I’m not in awe of some of their capabilities, I have a queasy feeling that I’m not really in control of gadgets.

It’s (Not Quite) The End of The World As We Know It

If you are reading this post during the third week of December, Kable Distribution Services, Inc., a company with more than 100 years of history in the printing, publishing, magazine and book distribution industries will still exist in some fashion. It still has employees, clients (although they are rapidly going elsewhere), customers and a working web site and data base. But that won’t last for too much longer. The last set publications they invoiced to magazine wholesalers was earlier this month and when the calendar turns and 2016 begins, Kable Distribution Services will no longer exist. It will not be one the national distributors of magazines to the North American newsstand market.

The newsstand world as magazine publishers, wholesalers and national distributors knew it ended a long time ago. It ended when cable TV providers began publishing their own free TV listings to their customers and when newspaper publishers offered detailed television supplements in their Sunday papers.

The was end accelerated when President Reagan’s Meese Commission published their terribly flawed and highly toxic “report” on pornography and many retailers panicked and kicked adult “sophisticate” magazines out of their stores. Technology invaded readers turf with even more channels, personal computers, VHS and DVDs. Then the sales of the “Seven Sisters,” the bread and butter of women’s check-out titles began to shrink.

And it crashed and then quickly evolved into a new set of power relationships when national retailers decided that they should be the ones to call the tune about who delivers to their stores, what sort of service they should get and how much discount they should receive. A tough business that nonetheless was built on familiarity and custom met late 20th century capitalism.

So the beginning of the end started several years before REM recorded the song that begins this post. Did anyone notice? Or where we too taken with a long slow walk past the graveyard of dead magazines, wholesalers, national distributors and retailers.

My consulting colleague Linda Ruth has a detailed and very readable explanation for how Kable was walked off the plank in last weeks’  Publishing Executive. Suffice it to say, the reaction from TNG to Kable proposing to recognize and use their fullillment division to open the Hudson Group airport wholesale operation was surprising and yet not surprising. Their decision to stop carrying the Kable line of magazines was not surprising according to some because of the four major US based wholesalers, Kable was the smallest. It was surprising because it was so final. No more Kable. Would TNG have had the same reaction had Time Retail decided to provide pick and pack services? That’s a good question to ponder over beers after work.

This always has been a tough business.

As Linda expertly puts it, “The loss of Hudson Retail can’t add to TNG’s health, and if TNG sneezes, we all catch cold.” And we all want a healthy, happy and profitable TNG. Yet I believe they are in an interesting place. The industry wide acceptance of POS (Pay On Scan) based reporting and “Off Invoice RDA” (ORIDA) essentially means that any company with a pick and pack warehouse and access to UPS, Fed Ex and USPS, and a steady supply of magazines can now enter the business and service a retailer.

So the question I hear from many of my colleagues on the publishing side, the national distributor side and the wholesaler side is, “Who’s next?”

Good question.

While you ponder that, consider this:

There is no doubt that one of the reasons we see lower newsstand sales these days is because there are other competitors for our audiences time. Netflix or Entertainment Weekly? The latest episode of The Bachelorette or Us Weekly? A round of Age of Empires or an hour with Hi-Fructose? Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson or an hour with National Geographic? What will the audience choose?

I can’t help but wonder if the endless round of retailers shifting back and forth between competing wholesalers has hurt sales. If you have a print order of 75,000 copies, it’s entirely possible that one “Distribution Center may handle 20% or more of your print order. How do you review, manage and adjust that efficiently?  Does anyone intimately understand anymore what will sell in a Hy-Vee store in the western suburbs of Des Moines, IA? What are the buying patterns of brides-to-be in Orange County today?

I’m not foolish enough to rail against these changes. I just can’t help but wonder if we have willingly inflicted much of this pain upon ourselves.

The critics who declaim against the “waste” and “backwardness” of today’s newsstand distribution industry have little idea how different today’s consolidated business is from the way it was ten or twenty or even thirty years ago. Some may still call magazine wholesalers “agencies”. But it is habbit, not reality. Publisher contracts may still finalize an issue at 120 days off sale, and that’s a little ridiculous in light of POS, but that too is subject to change.

The new “normal” we accepted when the year turned and we started 2015 is about to change again. Get ready because this will be interesting. I think the end result could be better for everyone. If we want it to be that way and are willing to work for it.

Finally, a word to my friends, colleagues and partners at Kable: Thank you. I have enjoyed working with you. What you did while you worked at Kable was meaningful and important to our industry. I appreciated everything you did to help me and the publishers I work for. Good luck!

There’s An Alien On The Roof

The conversation below is an amalgamation of about twenty different conversations I’ve had since 9:35 AM Wednesday, December 9th. If you don’t quite get the context, I’ll fill you in. Later.

We denizens of the newsstand world have apparently decided to mess with things. Again. Will this outcome be good? Well, for some former employees, no. For some publishers who may not see payment for product sold for a long time, no. For some publishers and their employees who may miss an issue on the newsstand and thus miss their advance payments and final payments on an issue (or two, or three), no.

But in the long run, the end result may be good. It is certainly a game changer. We should have seen this coming down the road. It could be good. We’ll see. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, try and find some humor in a phantasmagorical mess up of slightly less than epic proportions.

A Recently Overheard Conversation

Publisher: “So what does this letter from my national distributor mean?”

Consultant: “It means that they’re going out of business. Right now.

Publisher: “WTF? Now? That’s crazy! Why?”

Consultant: “Probably because one of the big wholesalers won’t carry their product anymore.”

Publisher: “WTF? That’s crazy! Why?”

Consultant: “The wholesaler objects to the distributor being a part of a company that is now competing with them for retailers.”

Publisher: “That’s crazy too! Is that legal?”

Consultant: “Who knows anymore. Maybe in some context. Maybe not in another.”

Publisher: “Well this January issue is a pretty big deal. Now how are we going to get it out?”

Consultant: “We have to find you a new distributor.”

Publisher: “We’re supposed to ship next week.”

Consultant: “I know. This will be a lot of fun.”

Publisher: “What a mess!”

An awkward silence ensues.

Publisher: “Well this is great. Did I also tell you that my printer screwed up my subscription insert for this issue?

Consultant: “No, that’s terrible.”

Awkward silence.

Publisher: “And, the server went down and tanked of my digital. My tech guy’s in the backups but this could take some time. This is the worst timing ever.”

Consultant: “That’s even worse.”

Another awkward silence. There is a loud humming noise on the cell phone connection. 

Consultant: “So what are you going to do with alien spaceship that just landed on your roof?”

Publisher: “They can wait. I’m busy.”

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Good luck with that.

So How Are Your 2016 Retail Promotion Plans Coming Along?

If by some chance, your magazine media company prints one of those old school print magazines, someone on the production team is probably working on the 2016 production schedule. If they’re a rock-star production manager, the schedule is complete.

And if, by some chance, your print magazine has paid circulation, you may have some newsstand circulation.

And if you have newsstand circulation, you may even have someone looking at the production schedule and the editorial calendar and trying to figure out what issues should be promoted.

The sales of premiere retail space took off in the last decade as publishers looked for a way to distinguish the display of their magazines on the crowded mainlines and prop up sagging print orders. In a corner of the industry where planning and analysis used to be very ad-hoc, the advent of Pay on Scan data and the online accessibility of Order/Regulation reports has greatly improved our ability to target markets and classes of trade.

Even so, old habits are hard to break. With newsstand circulation now accounting for smaller and smaller pieces of the audience pie, it sometimes hard to get publishers to focus and commit to promoting a special issue.

Fall will be here in a few weeks and by that time, ideally, you should have your production schedule and promotional plans in place for the coming year.

Or at least an outline.

Or maybe an idea of what you’d like to do.

Or a hint of an idea.

With that goal in mind (As well as a craving for pie), I took a very informal survey of some colleagues and asked them how their 2016 planning was coming along. These were their responses boiled down into six typical categories:

So, have you got your plans in place?
So, have you got your plans in place?

What The Circ Team Wants Under Their Christmas Tree

The feedback from last week’s cover selections was mostly positive and it was enormous fun hearing from a lot of people who I haven’t been able to connect with over the past few months. We’ve all been so busy patching holes.

In the newsstand world of circulation we find that almost all of the former Source retailers are now accounted for in some way. We’re far enough down the road into a new “reality” that the “conventional wisdom” about what will happen next is for the most part, conventional.

The Circ team of Outside The Groove Media in Eagle, CO celebrate the end of 2014.
The Circ team of Outside The Groove Media in Eagle, CO celebrate the end of 2014.

With that in mind, I asked some friends who work in the newsstand, sub and digital circulation worlds to share with me what they would want to find under their Christmas Tree if a Christmas Tree was found in their offices with presents labeled for them under it.

How did they answer? Here’s a look at what a variety of Circulation team members hope to find under an office Christmas Tree (or Holiday Tree or Hanukkah Bush if so inclined).

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In the comments below, what would you want to find under your “office” Christmas tree?

Thanksgiving Potpourri

So what am I grateful for this year? You mean aside from being gainfully employed and working in an industry that continues to fascinate, infuriate and confound on a regular basis? Yes, there are things to be grateful for. Here are a few of them:

MagNet Reports: I’m grateful that buried about halfway down last week’s third quarter news dump was this interesting tidbit: While everyone knew that Source Interlink’s ungraceful exit from the newsstand biz was a sales killer, same store sales looked pretty good. In other words, sales in retailers that weren’t Source supplied and didn’t have their deliveries interrupted were, well, not bad.

Data reported to MagNet suggests that retail sales in retailers unaffected by Source saw their dollar volume rise (in part because of price increases in celebrity weeklies. Unit sales, for the months of August and September declined by 6.5% (a significantly better picture than the entire market and entire 3rd quarter which was down by 26%) but dollar volume rose .75%.

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I can tell you from my own experience that I am seeing stronger sales in both units and dollars since this summer and I am projecting much better 3rd and 4th quarter results for most of my clients.

Strong Covers: I don’t know about you, but I am seeing some great covers this year. It’s going to be very hard on the foredeck to select this year’s top ten! I’m grateful that we continue to turn out some pretty tremendously great magazines. While our industry has struggled from declining circulation and ad revenue, we haven’t experienced a creative brain drain on the editorial and design side.

Should DuJour's two tone high gloss logo from their Fall issue make the list?
Should DuJour’s two tone high gloss logo from their Fall issue make the list?

Maybe our leaders should start pumping some revenue back into circulation and marketing? Maybe we could budge the numbers upwards with a little support?

Honest reckoning in the world of digital circulation: I have to confess that when I hopped into the world of digital newsstand and subscriptions, I thought the world would be much like the one I inhabited and I also thought sourcing and maintaining these readers would be a snap. Maybe I’d have to eat some crow and admit the fanboys were right.

Nope.  Not so much. Digital circulation has its own rules, its own weirdness, and is not that easy. Obscure provider service, buggy apps. Price sensitivity. Building what is essentially an entirely new business model on the fly is, well, wicked hard.

I’m grateful that maybe, just maybe, we can finally have an honest discussion about how digital and print circulation can coexist and support each other in the long term goal of growing a magazines’ readership. Because that’s our ultimate goal, right?

Taylor Swift: No! I’m not a creepy internet stalker. And I don’t turn her music off when it pops up on the radio. And I don’t roll my eyes when the spin instructor starts off another week with a T. Swift single.

Taylor was on three magazine covers (that I’m aware of) last week. That’s probably not a record but it’s bound to help sales and that’s always a good thing considering how many other covers she’s graced this year.

With that in mind, I’ll be putting out my top ten unscientifically chosen covers next month and I want to know if I you loyal readers think there should be a special Taylor Swift category.  I already took an informal survey of some of the national distributor AE’s I work with asked them this question:

“Should the Foredeck of the Titanic have a special award for 2014 Taylor Swift covers?”

And the answer was:

So what do you think?
So what do you think?

Chime in with your answers below.

So what are you grateful for this year?