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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Foredeck of The Titanic

In searching for a name for this blog, I tried a many ideas and discarded all of them as too clever or pretty. Everything I came up with seemed tired, trite, overwrought, uninspired, doomed to failure. In other words it sounded like most of the articles you read about single copy sales: trite and overwrought.  You get the picture.

Eventually I hooked onto a memory that seemed appropriate for what I am trying to do here. But to get there, let’s back up first so I can explain to anyone who may pass by what the blog is supposed to be all about.

I’ve spent my entire adult career in the single copy sales business. I’ve worked for national distributors, publishers of all sizes, consulting firms and I’ve consulted on my own like I do now. Part of the reason I stay in the business is that I’m good at what I do. It’s fair to say that I love magazines and can’t think of anything else that I’d like to do. But the biggest reason for my longevity is that in spite of all of the consolidations we’ve endured, in spite of the incredibly bad management some of our premiere companies and trading partners have encountered, in spite of the ridiculously uniformed and badly written press our industry has had to read, I’ve never met more interesting, inspiring, productive, funny, and lovely group of people. It is the people who keep me working away in this industry.

The goal here is to write stories about how we market our products , who we are, what we really do. I don’t really care how many readers I attract.  And I also want to write about the products that we’re responsible for: magazines. Why we love them, how we hope to be relevant in a changing world. My hope is that this becomes the story of how we adapted, changed, learned new skills, charted new paths.

If that is the story I get to tell, the ending will be very different. It will be about how we approached the brink of extinction and pulled back from it. How we turned onto a new course that brought us into safe harbor.

Or maybe not.

So the fact that the ill-fated Titanic is in the title of this blog may seem a little obvious. But I didn’t arrive at it easily. It’s related to that distant memory  I wanted to share:

Sometime in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s, I was calling on the Western Michigan News Agency. It was then managed by the funny and sharp edged Ron Lankerd  and owned by the Stoll family. Several national distributors had representatives based there. One of the things that made working there so much fun was the fact that these guys were the funniest and motliest crew in the area that was then my territory and the interactions between them and Ron was worth the long ride to Grand Rapids. Working in their “rep room” was sort of like being in the Cheers Bar without the beer (At least until lunch time).

One day a local publisher came into the room to review her distribution and meet with Ron. After a few minutes of working through the printouts, it became obvious that she was upset. There was a lot of huffing under her breath. A lot of hair tossing (so maybe it was the late ‘80’s ).  She went in to meet with Ron. She returned about a half hour later and was visibly pissed off.

Like most “Rep Rooms” of the era, this one was a modest sized room in between the front office and the warehouse. We worked on a random assortment of desks and tables that faced the four walls of the room. She whirled around in her chair, faced me and the other reps.

“You guys better go and find something else to do with your lives,” she fumed.

“That’s the goal, sweetheart,” said one of the reps. The others chuckled.

“Yeah, sweetie,” said another. “I keep trying to get fired, but they keep me because no one else wants this f*cking job!”

“I’m not your sweetheart,” she growled.

“Ain’t that the truth!” The third rep replied.

“You idiots don’t get it do you?” She said. “You’re dinosaurs! You’re like the damn Titanic. It’s all a nice party to you but you don’t see the iceberg and you don’t realize that when you sink, it’s going to go fast and you’re all going to be gone.”

She grabbed her things and left the building and I never saw her again. I heard from the Grand Rapids reps a few months later that her magazine went out of business.

Western Michigan News is closed and the Stoll family has moved onto other pursuits. Our industry has consolidated, and then consolidated again. The Grand Rapids reps were let go in the first round of consolidations.

Are our lives accident and chance? Or fate? Is it destiny? I’ve read articles where it is suggested that the Titanic didn’t have to sink. Captain Smith could have gone more slowly through the ice pack. There could have been more life boats. The designers could have built better bulkheads and water tight compartments.

But the Titanic did sink because none of that happened. So what about our business? Industry leaders have warned for years that that we’re heading for an iceberg. Are we? Many of the articles about our industry suggest that we are on the brink of disaster. Or that we have already passed that critical point and are now sinking beneath the wave of digital and web.

I could have named this blog “From the Bridge of The Titanic.” After all, I own my own business. I’ve been a reasonably well placed executive at a publishing company. I’ve worked in some visible places and I have longevity and experience. But I like the foredeck better. I’m closer to the waves. I can still see what’s coming but I’m not so removed from it.  And maybe, just maybe,  if I shout loud enough, the people on the bridge may hear me and steer clear of the iceberg.

If not, at least I’m close to one of the life boats. I have no interest in drowning.