Pandemic Publishing Roundtable – With Lizanne Barber of Distripress

By Linda Ruth


We Will Once More Meet Face to Face

Our Pandemic Roundtable, comprising Joe Berger, Bo Sacks, Gemma Peckham, Samir Husni, Sherin Pierce, and me, started one year ago and is, amazingly, going stronger than ever. Recently we hosted Lizanne Barber, Managing Director for Distripress, the international association of distributors, publishers, and associated press industry supply chain service providers. Distripress’ mission is, as it has always been, to connect its international members in the world of publishing. It started almost seventy years ago, and has grown to, today, 200 members from 50 countries around the world. Many members have joined historically to take part in the Congress, where every fall they have had the opportunity to meet up with industry colleagues from the world’s markets. For decades the Congress served as the one way that people could meet up with their international colleagues and discuss their international business—and still is often the only time people meet their international partners face to face.  

Linda: I first attended Distripress in Toronto in 1988. The next year, when I went back, I was astonished that people remembered me from the year before; I was new to the industry, and it seemed no one in the US remembered me from meeting to meeting. Going back year after year, I came to feel a real connection with these people, even though we only saw each other a few days once a year. 

Lizanne: Yes, it’s all about building connections, and it really is a community. My first Congress was in Monte Carlo, and I had the same experience. Once you’re in Distripress you are in its community forever. Last year was the first year Congress couldn’t take place. Meetings by Zoom have been fantastic, but we’re all looking forward to meeting face to face again.  

Joe: As the new Managing Director, tell us about your mission at Distripress. 

Lizanne: Irreplaceable as the Congress is, I want to look at Distripress and make sure we’re offering connections throughout the year, and not just that once in the fall. I’m surveying our members and looking for touchpoints, finding out more about their businesses, about how they have been managing in the pandemic and how they are structuring their businesses coming out of it. So far, I’ve spoken to over 75 members. 

Joe: And what have you discovered? 

From Top Left: Linda Ruth, PSCS; Joe Berger, JBA; Samir Husni, MIC/Ole Miss; Lizanne Barber, Distripress; Bo Sacks, PMG; Sherin Pierce, Yankee Publishing; Gemma Peckham, Executive Media GroupMagazine

Lizanne: The main reason they are members is the connection with the community that we offer. And as we emerge post-COVID, we will continue to organise the Distripress Congress event, and look for more ways of strengthening those connections, and adding touchpoints, all year long. This year we plan for the Congress to be a smaller event, because there will be parts of the world where people still won’t be able to travel. But in the US for example, we’re finding that people are willing to travel again. That’s fantastic for our community.   People are willing – and wanting –  to meet up again face to face. So we’re planning a two-day conference in Zurich this fall, with a half-day forum of industry presentations and a day and a half of face to face meetings. For those who cannot attend we will be offering a virtual meeting platform a few weeks later and the opportunity to view and listen to the half day Forum presentations on the Distripress website, which will be available to all members. The planned – and widely anticipated-  larger Congress in Estoril has been moved to 2022 when we plan to welcome all members back in full force. People are really excited about the opportunity to meet again. It’s great to have virtual meetings, but face to face is a different level of connection. So many things can happen, so much can happen serendipitously, in person as opposed to over Zoom. 

Bo: Humans like to mingle. You can’t mingle on zoom. You can talk but not mingle. 

Samir: Keep Oct 26-28 open; that’s when ACT is taking place at the School of Journalism at the University of Mississippi. I’d hate for my attendees to miss out on Distripress. 

Lizanne: Yes, we’ll make sure we don’t conflict! 

Bo: The plans and procedure you’re describing is a brilliant synopsis of a competent association. 

Lizanne: We are also starting a bi-monthly newsletter for our members, to bring positive news stories to the community. The first one will feature a Q&A with the two French national distributors – a market that has seen a lot of change in the last 12 months and our members will want to read about what is happening. Plus we’ve got a Distripress half day virtual forum planned for the 9th of June, with industry leaders presenting information on global trends, a retail perspective from Barnes & Noble and Lagardere Travel North Asia, plus a case study from Mediahuis a Belgian news publisher on their diversification in e-commerce, and an overview from CMG on the effect of covid on the US market.   

Joe: From the 75+ publishers you’ve spoken to, is there a single thread you could pull on, something that everybody seems to be thinking about? 

Lizanne: for publishers it’s ecommerce; everyone’s looking to develop this revenue stream, here in the US and all over the world. For distributors, the focus is more on exploring the expansion of potential new product lines. A sustainability note runs throughout. The exciting role that Distripress plays, is that we can put people together who are working on the exact same projects in different countries. They can share learnings, make swifter progress, avoid mistakes. 

Joe: Retail sales have consolidated dramatically in the US. Have you seen that happening elsewhere?

Lizanne: Absolutely, along with other universal challenges. Many markets have seen the loss of travel channel sales, which has had an impact on sales. But there are also green shoots coming through in different territories, places where sales are looking up and some surprising successes.  

Joe: For publishers, the choices of whom to work with are increasingly limited. 

Lizanne: This is a common theme across most – if not all –  territories. Most have only one main distributor, certainly for international press and even for domestic. The slow down in print sales you see in the US is reflected to differing extents globally. This drives the determination of the distributors to diversify to pick up efficiencies of sale that are needed.  

Joe: What kind of successes have you seen? 

Lizanne: Australia is doing well—it hasn’t been hit as badly by COVID, and the distribution route is direct to retail, as opposed to through the additional layer of wholesalers, and all key outlets have remained open. The distributor has introduced toys, board games, and other products to run alongside press to retail outlets. They have around 1800 retailers on board with their new program and 6000 SKUs (non-press). It’s called Market Hub; you can look it up online. Board games for example have had appeal during lockdown —and they are universally appealing and easy to pack. 

Sherin: Are there any markets where publishers and distributors are successfully collaborating to get magazines online or included in the retailers’ click-to-curb programs? 

Lizanne: I am aware of exploration into this area in several countries – for the same reasons as the US. Customers shifted to online sales from supermarkets and magazines have been under-represented. The technical aspect with frequency of product change is a challenge. 

Sherin: As customers are going to stores less frequently, we need to find new ways of getting our publications into their hands. 

Samir: Have you seen US publishers not so interested in shipping overseas as previously? 

Lizanne: We did see an initial reluctance to commit to supplies at the start of the pandemic. Australia in particular was looking for copies, because some of their supply was reduced, but the immediate impact, was seeing efficiencies improve. Publishers are more open now to putting copies back, but every country is in a different position.   Holland closed press retailers, and we won’t know how that damaged consumer purchase pattern long term till it opens up again. Every country is unique. Now, for the first time, by looking at the sales that held throughout the pandemic, markets can identify how much of the sales of imported publications go to the domestic purchaser as opposed to travelers. This data reveals the stable base sale. For travel sales, time will tell how quickly that segment of sales will return. 

Bo: Each country has re-trained its consumers differently, but overall we have set new buying and reading patterns. And it’s not all bad—in fact, in many cases it’s quite positive. Subscriptions are up, for example. How much of that will be maintained? 

Joe: Part of maintaining that growth in subscription sales lies in reigniting newsstand, and it’s up to publishers to do that. Are Distripress members talking about how to get people back to retail to look for magazines? 

Bo: Addictive content is the best lure. 

Lizanne: My discussions haven’t focused on that area. I am hearing more about how different companies are adapting generally. That might include how to set up office space, the new hybrid work options; companies are looking at how they might restructure, coming out of COVID, to keep doing what they’re doing in a strong way but take on board the learnings form the last year.  

Joe: Do you see any good as having come out of COVID? 

Lizanne: For one thing, we’re having video calls like this. There is more contact between members outside of the Congress, and that’s great. It’s enabled me to connect members, because I am aware of the similar journeys different members are on and where a conversation might be interesting.  

Bo: Like our roundtable. 

Samir: People are sick of screens. That’s why subscriptions are going up, board games moving, and so on. People need an alternative to screens.  

Bo: Samir tracks launches, and domestically we’re seeing a spike. What do you see worldwide? 

Lizanne: There have been over 50 in the UK so far this year; so yes, quite a bit of activity. Also I am aware of two French publications which have launched off the back of celebrity TV personalities.  

Joe: From big publishers mostly, or smaller publishers as well? 

Lizanne: Definitely smaller ones too, with quite a few niche premium products: knitting, crafts, transgender, very nice, rich product. 

Joe: Bo has said that one of the consequences of the pandemic is that the speed of change will all happen quicker. Is that something you see? 

Lizanne: Absolutely correct. Including in the field of sustainability. I expect the accelerated speed of change will continue apace till we see what the world is going to look like after the pandemic. There has been acceleration in change in every part of the supply chain and we are going to have to figure out how to keep up with it. 

One Year and One Month and a Few Weeks In…

One year and one month in I have learned that:

  • I need to sit up straighter during my Zoom calls.
  • My dog mostly sleeps behind me while I am working.
  • A month after he passed away, I found out that one of the two people who helped me set up my business had passed away.  
  • Losing a mentor can be as upsetting as losing a family member.
  • Sometimes, a Zoom, or Team or Google meeting can be fun. Sometimes.
  • The hours you put into work are just the hours you put into work.
  • There are a lot of people out there in the world who need help.
  • Sometimes people don’t really want help.
  • If it’s clear that someone is asking for help, you’ll feel better if you offer to help. And then help.
  • Sometimes people just need to complain. And you can just listen.
  • Volunteering for almost anything (so long as it’s not a committee) is better than not volunteering.

Publishing guru Bo Sacks aptly pointed out that the Covid-19 pandemic would advance the timeline in the magazine publishing business. I think he was right. Titles that would have dragged out their death throes over the course of several painful years found that during the pandemic, their anemic ad sales, subscription revenue, declining newsstand sales or marginal digital revenue meant the end came quickly. Sometimes quietly.

We witnessed similar instances of fast corporate deaths in the worlds of both bricks and mortar retail, and e-commerce.

In the shallow tidal pool of the newsstand world, we discovered that we’re still very good at rapidly adjusting print orders in response to wholesale or retail closures. I suppose that was a good thing, but it’s still a skill I would rather not have maintained. And, per Bo’s prediction, some retailers that may have kept magazines in their stores a while longer, like Costco, simply looked at their bottom lines and kicked their magazine racks into the dumpster.

And now that the world, or at least the USA is opening back up? What will we do with these lessons?

Well, I do intend to try and sit up straighter throughout the day because it doesn’t look like Zoom, Teams or Google meetings are going anywhere. And I have promised my dog that I will periodically take more breaks and engage her a bit more. Why should her days be so long and boring?

My sometimes helpful editor. You can find her on Instagram, of course, @iamsummerdog

Beyond that, the optimist in me thinks that we could see a blossoming of print magazines outside of traditional channels of distribution and circulation. Even better, we may see more cooperation within the newsstand channel: Publishers, retailers and wholesalers cooperating on opening up racks, testing new approaches to distribution, opening up magazines to single copy e-commerce (Note: The latter is something I have been rallying for since, oh, say, the dawn of e-commerce?).

Of course, the other half of me, the cynic, thinks much of the opposite to the above. In the newsstand world this is also a wonderful opportunity to shrink the size of checkout and mainline racks down to just a handful of titles and SIPs produced by the largest and most profitable of publishers. On the subscription side, there’s no reason to think that anyone will ever regulate how autorenewal subscriptions are managed and why would anyone think that subscription prices should reflect actual costs to produce?

And sometimes it’s just easier to fall back into old habits. Update the app or website? Why? It’s working. And look at all that revenue now that we can have live events again…

Until the next pandemic.

I’ve learned to try to be more hopeful and optimistic.

I like to think that those of us who are still here have learned. Managed. Grown. Survived. Thrived? That would be nice. Magazine publishing remains one of the most interesting careers available. Honestly, all facets of the business are fascinating. And with a regular publishing schedule you have the opportunity to create, and distribute, and sell, something new every time you press the button that sends your publication to the printer and/or out into the ether. 

I trust that we’ve learned. I hope that we’ve learned. I would like to keep learning.

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

Permanent musical accompaniment for this post:

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.

18881959_10155326042889120_6886036106399145609_n
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.

Unknown
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.

Put This One in the “WTF” File!

Back in the day, back when there were more than 300 magazine wholesalers and eight or nine national distributors, the coveted jobs were often the ones where you worked directly for a magazine publisher. The big publishers: General Media, Playboy, Conde Nast, Ziff-Davis, all had people out in the field. According to an old “Bunny Book”* from 1990 that I found in a recent sweep of my office, Playboy Magazine had at least eleven people working in the newsstand department: Five people in the field, one in marketing, and another five in the corporate offices.

If you were a national distributor rep toiling away for Curtis, Kable, Select or ICD, a job with one of those publishers was a ticket to more pay, travel and career success.

Even smaller publishers often had people out in the field. I worked for Outside Magazine, a single title publisher and we were a department of two. When I wasn’t working on specialty sales I was sent out once a month into the countryside where I would call on upwards of five or more magazine wholesalers in the course of a week. I recall a US News and World Report representative joking that he worked for two magazines: “US News is one. World Report is the other,” he quipped. I guess you could call that rep room humor.

Which brings us to the unexpected news from late Thursday afternoon: Harris Publications is closing it’s doors. This forty year old publisher may be one of those companies where you might have recognized the title, but never realized how many titles the publisher actually produced. Harris published upwards of 75 different magazines running the gamut from The Harris Farmer’s Almanac to Celebrity Hairstyles, Who’s Who in Baseball, Survivors Edge, Naturally Danny Seo and Dog News. If a trend got hot on the newsstand, Harris wasn’t far behind with a new title launch.

In fact, I had a running joke with myself whenever I came across a new magazine on the newsstand that I didn’t recognize: I’d pluck if off the rack and before I turned to the staff box to see who the publisher was (and if they had a consultant), I’d say, “I bet this is a Harris special!” I was often right.

Back when there were more wholesalers and distributors and field people, I frequently ran into Harris reps. Aside from being really great people, I was always impressed with how much they knew about the wholesaler system and the retailers that were serviced. They knew which buttons to push, which retail buyers were open to new titles, how strict certain distribution managers were with authorized lists, who the best route supervisors were and which general mangers you wanted to stay as far away from as possible.

So is it surprising to see that Harris is going to “wind down” it’s operations? Well, initially I’d say yes.

In fact, the headline for this post is exactly what I said. “WTF?”

But on reflection, maybe it wasn’t that surprising.

It seems to me that Harris was always something of a “newsstand first” type publisher. While that may not be impossible to do even in today’s market, it is certainly a risky way to run your publications in the first year of “Off Invoice RDA” and POS sales reporting. In 21st century publishing you need a lot of revenue buckets to make things work. I could be wrong, but Harris titles never seemed big on subscriptions or advertising and I wonder how big their digital efforts really were. In a letter to industry partners, Stanley Harris acknowledged the changes in the publishing industry and then said,

“We have tried mightily to persevere against these forces, but have been unable to overcome these challenges.”

So perhaps the management at Harris felt it better to fight how the industry was changing rather than hop on and try to wide the waves?

Most people don’t really like change. I can understand that. One of the things that I find interesting about the newsstand industry is that it is constantly changing. When I entered it in the early 1980’s there were some long time employees in some of the rep rooms I worked in who lamented that things hadn’t been good in the business since the 1970’s when “They started hiring all those women and bringing in those computers.” Now those gentlemen were real dinosaurs. Nice guys, often, but dinosaurs.

The loss of Harris is a blow to this business. We need the numbers and revenue from those titles. We need them on the checkouts and mainlines. We need them in feature pockets and flex pockets. Harris’ distributor is certainly going to feel pressure from this closure and that is not a good thing. Hopefully the better titles can be salvaged and made competitive for today’s market and their employees can find new homes and continue to work in magazine media.

In the meantime, I’ll stay on the foredeck and wax my surfboard.

I'd rather be here...

 

*: The Playboy Bunny Book was the official listing of all “Playboy Approved” magazine wholesalers in the US and Canada. It was a coveted possession because it had the address and phone number for all of these wholesalers. As an added bonus, it had phone numbers for the wholesaler sponsored “Rep Rooms.” How else could you reach your traveling companions in the days before cell phones? For those reps who were looking for new employment, it also included listings of all the national distributors and their key personnel and phone numbers. In the early 2000’s Playboy ceased publishing this directory.

Bunny Book 1990
A scan of the cover of the 1990 Playboy “Bunny Book”