Pandemic Publishing Roundtable: The International Magazine Centre with Nikki Simpson

By Linda Ruth (Cross Posted at BoSacks.com

The first time I zoomed with Nikki Simpson, I knew that our little group—Joe Berger, Sherin Pierce, Bo Sacks, Samir Husni, Gemma Peckham, and I—had to have her as a guest at our Pandemic Roundtable. She’s got a great eventcoming up, and our Roundtable members will be there for it. And joining the Centre is the easiest thing in the world, all publishing people are welcome.

Nikki isn’t someone who sees obstacles. She sees only opportunity. So, when she noticed that publishers starting international offices in the UK were doing so, as a rule, in London, she saw an opportunity to welcome them to Scotland. What could be easier? Get a building where publishers can have space, office infrastructure, freelancers, and the support and inspiration of other publishers. In the meantime, while you’re working on that, there’s plenty of good you can bring the publishing community—training courses and events, ideas and introductions. 

Gemma: Is your Centre based in Edinburgh?

Nikki: It will be. We want to be somewhere it will feel natural to go to a coffee with a publisher. Now, while we’re saving money to open our doors, we’re doing as much digitally as possible. We’re currently working on an online training course, which will be free to our members.

Joe: This is a new and exciting concept.

Nikki: Yes, there are trade organizations, but they take a different angle. We in the publishing industry tend to be magazine geeks. We spend a lot of time talking to each other, but not enough, I think, talking to the people who read our magazines. We’re doing that. And we focus on the small publishers, something the few remaining organizations cannot afford to do to the same extent, given their business models.

The proposed exhibition space for the International Magazine Centre.

Bo: Till now there hasn’t been a real mechanism for the little ones. We as an industry need the small publishers, and they need support. I’ve spoken for years about the need to incubate young publishers.

Nikki: That’s part of what we’ll be doing. Sometimes it seems as if the industry is netting down to the top three publishers, but there are still a lot of very creative ideas, still a lot of up-and-comers.

Bo: When companies like Future buy out everyone else, it creates a vacuum that provides openings for new businesses.

Nikki: There’s still too much focus on audited circulation, because the big publishers generally use it, and, since the big ones newsstand-based, the message the advertisers get from these publishers is that the business is dying. This message trickles down to the advertising base of the little ones. So, every time the audit numbers come out, the advertisers lose interest in advertising, and the smaller advertisers who go to the smaller magazines also lose interest. It makes small publishers feel like imposters. You hear them saying, “Well, I’m not really a publisher, I’m not audited, I don’t go to conferences, I’m just someone putting out a magazine.” 

Bo: It’s a shame, because there’s a lot that can be learned at conferences.

Nikki: Not if most of the presentations are about things that don’t work on a small scale. As an alternative, we’re offering peer-to-peer support. We have a great mentoring scheme. We’re finding it’s making a difference; it’s changing the way people do business and making them more successful. 

Gemma: I started alone and built to four magazines. This roundtable has been a great resource. What you offer would be amazing.

Joe: So often when I work with small publishers, everything they do is self-taught. 

From Upper Left: Nikki Simpson (International Magazine Centre), Joe Berger, Bo Sacks, Gemma Peckham, Linda Ruth and Sherin Pierce.

Nikki: For me diversity is also really important. In the UK the industry is predominantly white and middle class. It’s only two percent black, for instance, which is ridiculous. As a business we pride ourselves on being easy access. But if you don’t know people, and maybe they all know each other, you don’t feel welcome. It’s another reason for the training course. You can watch it for free and pay a small fee to sit the exam. 

Sherin: Out of necessity, we small publishers must innovate. People who work for a smaller company get to do so many different things, it’s a great opportunity to learn. We can pivot. It’s nice to fly under the radar. It’s where innovation takes place. It’s more fun. We don’t praise ourselves enough, so you don’t hear so much about us. The press goes to the easiest thing. They don’t dig deep enough. 

Joe: I’ve got some robust publishers whose stories don’t get told because they aren’t audited, not counted. 

Nikki: Yes, for example in Scotland I discovered a publisher with 2 million pounds turnover, 20 people staff, and I’d never heard of them because they were digital and b2b. The scene is so much bigger than we imagine.

Sherin: All boats have to rise, and if small and independent publishers do well, we’ll have a much better industry. We’re always happy to share information with new publishers, and in the process, we might learn something too.

Nikki: That’s what I tell my mentoring people. They might know more, have more experience, but they can learn as well. We have a series of Hive events, in which one person will present a problem and then turn off their camera and mic and listen in while the others discuss. We mix the groups up, students with professionals, new publishers with more experienced ones, so that everyone gets a fresh perspective, a unique angle. 

Bo: What kind of problems do publishers bring to the Hive?

Nikki: It’s a real mix. Some people aren’t actually publishers but in adjacent businesses. They might ask questions like, “I’ve lost my Mojo over lockdown, what can I do?” or “How can I better connect with my audience?” Things like that.

Sherin: We’ll come to the Hive.

Gemma: What is your membership model?

Nikki: We’re funded through Patreon. I have about 53 patrons, most from the UK but also from the US, Spain, New Zealand, Italy. It’s nice to know people like what I’m doing enough that they want to support this effort. 

Bo: I did my newsletter for over 10 years without making a dime. Keep plugging away and you’ll be surprised what might happen.

https://www.patreon.com/InternationalMagazineCentre

Pandemic Publishing Roundtable: David Atkins of Newsstand.co.uk – Newsstand Concierge

By Linda Ruth, cross posted on Bosacks.com

If you are unfamiliar with David Atkins and his business, newsstand.co.uk, he is almost certainly not unfamiliar with you. Newsstand.co.uk, the world’s largest print newsstand online, has over 4,000 magazines available with same day dispatch, worldwide. 

The Pandemic Roundtable—Joe Berger, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham, Samir Husni, Bo Sacks, and me—welcomed him to our group to talk about his operation, the movement to print-on-demand, and the opportunities for publishers moving into online sales. David’s business began in 1898 as a family wholesaler business, JG Palmer. Changes in the industry, with the consequent losses of many independent wholesalers, led the company to reassess what the needs of the customer were, and how they could help. The result was the shift to online, beginning with subscriptions and moving to single copies in 2011. Today, their online strategy enables publishers to get their publications into the hands of the reader through internet sales and online orders as economically and as quickly as possible. Through their concierge service, they are able to offer publications to readers based on their area of interest. 

Joe: When did your shift to online take place? 

David:  We stopped being a wholesaler in 2006, dabbled with projects for Tesco’s and national newspaper publishers and started concentrating on online sales in 2009. We started working with independent publishers in 2015. It’s been a nice journey. We get our copies from the wholesalers, various distributors and directly from the publishers themselves. We sell either subs or single copy at the same price point, it’s the same thing to us with the only difference being the frequency of the purchase. We’ve gone from 100% subs to, today, about 50/50. It’s slowly tilting to single copy. Maybe 10% of customers will buy more than 1 copy and we have some voracious customers. 

Joe: How different is your warehouse setup now from when you were a retail tieline? 

David: Very different. We had a huge packing machine, unique on the planet, that packed into boxes for 4,000 retailers, in every day, out every day. Now we have endless shelving! It’s tricky for staff working with packing lists with 65 different issues rather than the one. It’s an investment in equipment, an ongoing process but still a mainly manual one. 

All under one roof and ready to ship!

Bo: You have a great site–functional, easy to use, one-click purchase; it’s a brilliant setup. 

David: Thank you Bo! I’m really all about function over form; but we want to make sure the process is as smooth as possible. Of course there are always improvements to make to the website but we tend to place more importance on the service that the image, there’s always work to be done in either direction. 

Samir: How did your business change with the pandemic? 

David: It’s had its plusses and minuses. The pandemic initially strengthened our sales, which were spiked to two to three times greater year over year. At the same time, it led to other companies, both at home and abroad, focusing on online, so we needed to work harder to maintain our share of market. On the other hand, more people also have discovered they can buy single print copies online. Internally, there are all the challenges of keeping the people on site (in the warehouse) happy, as well as helping others to transition to working from home. It’s not easy and I am keen to get everyone back into the office soon. General anxiety in the population reflects in how people interact with customer service; in our case, emails into customer service went up 400% and not all of them were pleasant. 

Sherin: We’ve all had to up our game. Amazon set the standard for delivery. Publishers need to learn to keep up with that. We have to turn everything around in a day or two. The pandemic has taught us to be faster, smarter leaner and deliver to our customers so they keep coming back. 

David: You’re right about that; we went big on getting copies to the customer tomorrow. The rest of the industry was still going with 10-12 weeks. You can get a refrigerator tomorrow but have to wait 3 months for a magazine; it doesn’t make sense. We’ve been busy changing that. Joe: What are you seeing in terms of new launches? 

David: Quite a lot in the indie market, with what feels like weekly launches. Literature titles are very popular. 

Gemma: I launched a book magazine, Oh! Reader, in 2020. 

Joe: The phrase “crazy brave” comes to mind. 

David: Great! Crafts are also popular; we sell a lot of UK craft magazines in the US and a lot of US craft magazines here. 

Gemma: In the US it’s very difficult to sell single copies online. 

David: We do work with some US publishers, and also export publications to the US. 

Sherin: shipping to every country has different rules. You have to work back from on sale because it takes different lengths of time for each country. Copies are stickered. You have to learn about each individual country. And the cost of shipping is very high. 

Pandemic Publishing Roundtable – from top left: Samir Husni, Joe Berger, Bo Sacks, David Atkins, Linda Ruth, Gemma Peckham, Sherin Pierce.

David: Print-on-demand might help with that at some point. It would be good to hear from US publishers keen to experiment with UK distribution via POD. 

Samir: the day will come when we will print on demand at home. 

David: We are about to launch a POD printer. I’m very excited about it. We’ll be able to go to publishers and distribute their publication without the shipping costs and delays. We’ll have more to say in a few weeks, when we’re up and running with it. It’s still going to be expensive for now. Joe: Now. Five years from now, maybe not. 

Samir: Fifteen years ago I spend $10,000 on a laser printer. Today they sell for $49. 

David: We’re starting with the saddle stitched titles. The high quality perfect bound magazines will come later. 

Bo: The quality of POD printers can be outstanding. 

Sherin: Having online points of distribution has got to be good. It’s something we’d like to see grow with the Almanac. 

Joe: If the publisher is being paid. I see publications on Amazon that appear to be coming out of someone’s return room and being sold on Amazon stores with no remuneration to the publisher. There are a couple of online newsstands here but they don’t seem to have much traction. I feel the best people to set up effective online magazine sales would be the wholesalers. They have the warehouses; they have the magazines. What they don’t seem to have as yet is the technology. 

David: We’d like to be involved with that (not Amazon) – we’re involved in a few conversations in various locations. Crucially, we have software that can maintain the product. Bo called that out; but in many cases, the importance of effective software is vastly underestimated in this industry. 

Bo: It was the first thing I noticed about your site.

Samir: The US postal service is undependable, and worsened by pandemic; this is a factor that makes selling online single copies difficult. And postage rates are unbelievable. 

David: In the UK as well; it’s shocking how many copies were lost in the mail during the worst of the pandemic here; and since we replace copies no question for all our customers and publisher partners, it’s cost us a good bit this last year. 

Samir: We did a study and found that people buying mags on the newsstand really just the one or two issues. They don’t want the others, even if the entire year is offered at the same price. 

David: Yes precisely, we’ve tried to upsell single copies to lower-priced subs, but it hasn’t happened. People are less interested in moving over. They want next day delivery of the magazine they want and the issue they want. Many people just don’t want to commit to a subscription. They don’t want any commitment whatsoever. It’s a wholly different group than the subscribers. 

Joe: What do you see in the coming years? 

David: We’d like to work with international wholesalers to help them launch their online businesses; we want to move into becoming an industry knowledge and information base as we have more experience than anyone in what we do.  And we want to keep doing what we’re doing, trying to improve, and getting as many magazines out as we can. We’re also getting ready to shout about it a bit more – we’re not very good at that so watch this space.

Pandemic Publishing Roundtable: Jerry Lynch of MBR (Magazines & Books at Retail)

“We have opportunities available to no-one else” Article by Linda Ruth

Editor’s Note: The “Pandemic Publishing Roundtable” started a few weeks after the closing of most Barnes & Noble stores instigated a smattering of new articles proclaiming the end of that storied chain and the end of magazines at retail. While it is true that prior to the pandemic the future of single copy sales of magazines was at best a tenuous proposition, it’s death didn’t seem likely to happen any time soon. So once again, I was aggravated with the conventional wisdom of those who write about magazines.

I reached out to my colleague, Linda Ruth and together we came up with the idea of starting a weekly roundtable discussion with other members of the publishing community. We could talk about almost anything. We could invite other publishers, distributors, consultants to come and talk with us.

As we were all isolated from our places of work, the meetings became a great help this year in maintaining a feeling of connectedness to something, anything.

The article below, is the write up my colleague, Linda Ruth wrote and has also been posted in the BoSacks newsletter, and on his website. Joe Berger December 21, 2020

Winding up 2020, and our year of, our group—Joe Berger, Samir Husni, Bo Sacks, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham, and me—hosted Jerry Lynch, President of MBR (Magazines and Books at Retail) to talk about what we’ve come through, and what lies ahead. Jerry Lynch talked about his faith in our industry, the unique opportunities available to us through ecommerce—and a big announcement he is almost ready to make.

Joe: We’ve spent the year reacting to the challenges that COVID threw at us; it seems, in general, we do a lot of reacting. Is there a chance for us to not be such a reactive industry?

Jerry: The challenge is going to be figuring out where retail, as a result of dealing with Covid is going to go, where it will end up, and when.  Contrary to what you’d expect, we don’t fully know what’s going on. Consumer habits have changed, and some of those changes are going to stick, but perhaps not all of them. Some of the things that businesses put in place as the result of the pandemic might have to be unwound as consumers start to change again. And additional opportunities will arise.

Meanwhile, we’ve had some positive changes; mass market and grocery are the classes of trade that have done best for us.

Bo: People have to eat. Of all the necessary resources available to the public, grocery is paramount. We have to eat 3 times a day.

Sherin: The club stores, Sam’s and BJs have done well too, although Costco has stopped carrying magazines. Why is that? 

Jerry: Costco has a unique way of judging performance. Magazines don’t fit nicely into their way of operating, and the resulting metrics don’t allow our performance, in my opinion, to be judged properly.  The timing of their decision—we had hoped the removal of magazines was temporary–did bump up against COVID, as well. We have some ground to regain there. Some retailers removed checkout entirely, seeing it as a distraction at the front end when they needed to move customers through for safety reasons.

We’ve seen some good consumer feedback around the category, and that’s giving us an entry point back in. 

Bo: People trust magazines more than any other medium. 

Joe: What is the role MBR has in presenting magazines at retail? 

Jerry: We see our role as overarching. Our involvement would be along the lines of providing good research, helping craft the story. COVID set us back. 

Sherin: If a retailer walks away from magazines, as, for example, Home Depot did, do you strategize with wholesalers how to get them back on distribution?  

Jerry: We do try to come up with a concerted effort, but remember that it’s driven by retailers in terms of who they want to talk to. That’s primarily the wholesalers and larger publishers. Our role would be to help coordinate, to make sure we’re delivering the same key messages having to do with the benefit of the entire magazine category in the store. 

Sherin: The Old Farmer’s Almanac had a direct relationship with Home Depot before anyone else, then the wholesalers got involved and turned it into a category issue. When, after years, the whole chain was lost it was a big hit.

Jerry:  Many times a decision about the category comes from higher up,  executives other than the buyer of magazines.  Those decision-makers may not have enough information or the correct information which doesn’t allow for a good understanding of the category. Where we can We work with the merchant to ensure they have the right information to take to upper management to help make our case.

Bo: My experience in our industry says there is great need for improvement, training and experience. How savvy are the buyers?

Jerry: Mixed. Book chains, terminal operators, for example, are great; in other classes of trade where publications used to have a dedicated buyer the category may now be one of many that the buyer/merchant has responsibility for or be treated as an add-on. It’s difficult to gain the expertise when the time isn’t there

Joe: and it can change in the same chain from one buyer to the next.

Sherin: Having those relationships was easier when you could go and see the buyer. They used to be happy to talk to you. Once the wholesalers took over the relationships, more of the communication went through them; the buyers have been harder to talk to. Our wholesalers need to stand up for the category and educate the retailer why magazines are important; it’s not just feeding your stomach, you need to feed your head.

Jerry: Other factors come into play as well: the decrease in sales volume, the pressures of consolidation at retail. Full service by wholesalers is seen as a real plus for retailers. That has been around for many years and recently SBT was an added big benefit for many. However, that has also allowed some retailers to be less vested/engaged in the category We need to build a love/passion for the category that gets us over those humps.  That passion is built from the product itself, the actual content of a magazine.

Bo: The magazine business is in the communication business and as an industry, we’re horrible at communicating our own presence.

Jerry: Yes, we talk about our problems all day, yet we do less well talking about our successes. We have to talk to our retailers, with good data, in a retailer-friendly format, saying what magazines mean to our mutual customer. If we treated retailers the way we do advertisers we might get somewhere.

Samir: The impulse buy, going to the store to browse magazines, has dropped off with the worsening of placement and display of magazines. When I go into a store, I might find one lane open, ten lanes self-checkout. I tell them, if I wanted to do it myself I’d stay at home and order from Amazon.

Jerry: Labor at the front end is the largest expense line by far.

Last week’s roundtable included (clockwise from L-R): Bo Sacks, Joe Berger, Jerry Lynch, Samir Husni, Linda Ruth, Sherin Pierce.

Joe: One of the opportunities we’ve been talking about is ecommerce.

Jerry: The MBR has been working with a small group of members to get ecommerce off the ground for publishers. It’s way more complex than you’d think. It’s becoming a critical item for most retailers, but there is a direct relationship between the retailer’s ecommerce sophistication and where magazines fall as a priority. As they get better at ecommerce, their interest in our category grows, so we can gauge where to put our resources based on how far along the road the retailers have traveled. Different retailers also handle ecommerce differently: in some cases, they have an ecommerce division that we need to approach; in other cases, the buyer is our link to the ecommerce people; it’s different from chain to chain.

Bo: Over the next few years we’ll continue to commodify ecommerce, making it simpler and smoother. At the end of the day, we’ll solve it, it will get more easy than it is today.

Samir: The increase of ecommerce even from Hearst, Meredith, and others, selling their own subscriptions, is up 40% YOY. How closely are you working with ANC?

Jerry: The wholesalers will be key in this. We need to work with them to ensure that, if a store offers say, 100 magazines via their online portal, every one of those 100 magazines are available in the store for pickup. You can turn items on and off at a store level. But—going back to SBT—without tracking inventory by the store the retailer won’t know how many copies they have.

Joe: Except we do through O/R. And we have more than enough inventory.

Jerry: But in an SBT environment, that O/R information often isn’t transmitted to the retailer. Long term, especially as we expand the selection, we need to solve this, because we don’t want to get sideways in operation and disappoint a customer. That will hurt us with the consumer and the retailer.

Joe: There is one additional customer to keep in mind that we don’t want to disappoint, and that’s the publisher. Too many of them are turning away from this business now.

Sherin: To that point, there are some forward-looking buyers. Harris Teeter, for example, is testing the OFA on its e-commerce site.

Joe: I keep coming back to the question of why wholesalers are not working with publishers to get a site up inclusive of all magazines in that warehouse. We have a few indy retailers that have it, but if I were a magazine wholesaler today I would use my warehouse as a source of eCommerce, and I’d set up affiliate relations as well.

Jerry: ecommerce provides a huge opportunity to link the two sides of publishing back together. Everyone in publishing, from all aspects of publishing, from circulation, from advertising, is looking at it. And the opportunities are enormous. Take one example: suppose people could buy a subscription for Prevention on the retailer eCommerce site, and next time they were in the store they could pick up that copy or have it added to their click and collect the order. That’s convenient. That opportunity doesn’t exist anywhere else. It only exists at retail. 

Or, another example, imagine the possibilities of an eCommerce generated shopping list leading the consumer to the  Food and Wine magazine next to the in-store wine display. Again, that’s an opportunity that exists nowhere else.

Sherin: Our industry has not kept up with our customers, what they want and need. Some of our customers are now buying from Amazon, or from specialty chains because newsstand hasn’t been able to provide the support to keep up with the demand.

Jerry: E-commerce has not been a high priority for retailers. But that is changing and has changed. Now it is.

Sherin: Walmart carries every one of our publications through our trade distributor because they got tired of waiting for the newsstand.

Joe: We as a group know many publishers who want seats at this table. They want to participate and help and make this happen. So how to do this?

Jerry: I expect to be able to make an announcement soon, of a step we have taken in the direction of making this happen. Let’s get together in six weeks and talk about it then.

Pandemic Publishing Roundtable: Jim Bilton, Media Futures and The Wessenden Briefing

By, Linda Ruth

On Wednesday, almost a full year after the onset of our pandemic, nine months from the first Pandemic Roundtable, hosted by Joe Berger and attended by Bo Sacks, Samir Husni, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham, and me, we met again to review the state of our industry. Our special guest was Jim Bilton, the publisher of the annual mediafutures market analysis and the wessendenbriefing, the 7x newsletter covering print and digital trends and analysis.

While the scope of his business is international, we were particularly interested in hearing about trends in the UK, where his business is based, and how they relate to trends in the US and the rest of the world. Our conversation took us to the continuing strength of print, the re-dedication to print on the part of key retailers, and the excitement that our audience still finds in the world of print.

Jim: I was interested in reading in a past Roundtable about the direction Barnes and Noble is taking. That is such a huge part of your market; we have nothing like that in the UK. WH Smith was formerly number one in the UK, but they expanded into travel, which seemed a good move at the time, that has backfired; now magazines aren’t their main thing, stationery is. Tesco, a supermarket chain, leapfrogged over WH Smith.  Barnes and Noble is interesting because of its connection, through James Daunt, to Waterstones. But the size of the store format couldn’t work in the UK, where the rents are so high; we don’t have the big out of town malls to the same extent as in the USA. The interesting aspect, to me, is what Krifka said about focusing back on bricks and mortar, on print, and moving away from a strong digital focus.


Jim Bilton of Media Futures

Joe: We’re interested in getting your perspective on the effects of the pandemic on UK publishing, and where you expect it to take us from here.

Jim: During lockdown magazines did worse than newspapers. Sales dropped by 30% YoY, although they came back, and overall are now down about 17%. The travel sector fared much worse, of course, going into virtual hibernation initially and are still now about 80% down.  Here many UK publishers overreacted and slashed draws more than they needed to. Supermarkets held up; and independents have a bigger share than ever before. And there’s a background issue about the health of print—in terms of physical health; copies have been taken out of waiting rooms and shops because of health concerns and people have been made to feel uncomfortable about browsing at the magazine racks. This obviously hits impulse sales and discovery at retail.


Samir
: In the US, we’ve seen a big increase in people of color on magazines; are you seeing the same trend in the UK, and is it helping or hurting sales?

Jim: Yes, we are seeing the same trend, but the impact on sales is difficult to size given everything else going on in the marketplace. One launch I can point to is Cocoa Girl magazine, celebrating Black girls. We’re generally seeing lots of small launches, specialty launches, and a bit of a trend from digital to print.

Bo: Last time I was in the UK most publications had cover mounts(Polybagged magazines with attached products of one sort or anohter) ; is that still a trend?

Jim: Yes, though not quite as much as before. There’s a big sustainability issue, and issues having to do with returns. Publishers are learning to move premiums closer to content, so they relate more directly to the content of the magazine. The same has been true of events—although of course that’s less of an issue now. But we haven’t realized how exciting our world is to our readers. Everyone’s got a wine club; but audiences want the unique content a publisher has to offer. Another trend we’re seeing is publishers varying cover price depending on content and pagination.

Sherin: Varying price issue to issue is something you really couldn’t do here.

Sherin Piece, Publisher Old Farmer’s Almanac

Jim: Yes, retail hates it, it causes problems.

Joe: Have your retailers adopted Scan Based Trading?

Jim: We’re getting it in progressively through the back door—WHS and Sainsbury have a soft version, supermarkets are getting ready for it, although each has a slightly different version. The pandemic has had the effect of creating more demand for it from retailers, who are asking for it to mitigate the demands made on their in-store personnel.  

There has always been resistance from publishers, who demanded much lower shrink levels before it would be considered. Yet the industry, led by Future Publishing, has decided to take the lead – they see it as inevitable and choose to manage it up front, to take the initiative rather than being forced to do it. Now other publishers are coming along. Wholesalers say this will be margin neutral—that retailers will concede margin but make cost-saving gains. In the US the situation got out of control, everything went the wrong way all at once. By contrast, in the UK the negotiations are tough, if the retailer wants SBT they have to give something.

Joe: In the US some publishers have seen an uptick in subscriptions with the pandemic. Have you seen that in the UK?

Jim: Subs are booming—mostly print subs. With publishers worried about their future at retail, many made the mistake of going crazy with front end acquisition. Now Hearst UK, for example, has been firming up sub prices. They, like lots of publishers, were doing short-term low-margin offers to build their files. They were overwhelmed by the response and are trying to back off on that. There were a lot of people in the funnel already, and all the cut-priced subs have done has been to shovel them in more quickly, and less profitably.

Joe: What percentage would you say subscriptions have increased?

Jim: Acquisition activity increased massively, but much of this was based on short-term, big-discount offers, which are now converting at quite low rates. When all this churn is taken into account, my sense is that total subs file sizes will end up being flat year-on-year in 2020. But that’s a big improvement on the 8% year-on-year drop seen in 2019.

Bo: What trends are you seeing digitally?

Jim: Financial people like digital editions; readers don’t so much. Newspapers are going into a digital black hole in terms of revenues apart from a handful of high profile brands like the New York Times or the UK Times and Telegraph. But what digital means to magazine publishers is very different from what it means to newspapers. Magazine publishers are still wedded to the issue rather than website accessed article level streams, which is the core of the newspaper digital offer.

Samir: It requires constant upkeep to maintain a digital file, a digital list. Publishers constantly collect and re-collect names, contact information. Has anyone found a way of making money?

Joe: For example, one of my publishers had 20,000 subscribers spread across the platforms; without constant upkeep, attrition can be rapid, and they’re down to a fraction of that now.

Sherin: Our only monthly publications, the OFA Extra, is digital. We send them a notice when an issue drops, and only revisit them for renewal annually. We keep it as simple as possible. People start with so many barriers, but you have to simplify that.

Gemma: We make our digital version free to print subscribers.

Gemma Peckham, Editor Rova Magazine & Oh, Reader Magazine

Jim: That’s why most legacy publishers are holding on to print. Hearst Premium—making best out a bad situation—has lower frequency, higher pagination, and a higher cover price at its core. Digital is still a thin medium that consumers aren’t prepared to pay a full amount for. To make this difficult field profitable, we might look to e-commerce. How high can print cover prices go?

Bo: Much higher than you might think.

Gemma: Magazines are still really underpriced.

Bo: We have to continually make the transformation from a perceived commodity product to a necessary luxury product worth paying for.

Jim: In the UK, everybody is putting their prices up.

Linda: What do you see as the effect of Brexit on exports.

Jim: A lot of UK publishers are going digital-only for export sales rather than shipping print across borders. And anyway, our really big export markets are the USA and Australia, not so much Europe. The Brexit issue more has to do with cover mounts and where your paper comes from, where you’re printed, what borders are crossed on the way to creating the final finished product. For example, a garden title with cover-mounted seeds had problems getting across borders. And it varies from country to country. In France and Germany, the supply chain is tightly regulated. But as we go into Brexit, everyone has their Plan B and Plan C. 

In the UK, every link in the chain is under pressure. Publishers are feeding less product into the market. Retailers are cutting ranges and the space allocated to newspapers and magazines. Yet the recent focus has been more on wholesale. We only have two mainstream wholesalers now – Smiths and Menzies – with Smiths recovering from a disastrous diversification programme which caused them some serious financial issues. In response, some of the newspaper publishers had been looking at a newspaper-only distribution network – although this has gone quiet now. If we ever went down that route, then magazines would lose many of their current advantages – five- or six-day a week magazine deliveries, sales-based replenishment and national on-sale dates.

Samir: Vogue sold out its Harry Stiles issue in Barnes and Noble. They had to replenish.

Jim: Print still has immense power in the magazine business. Look at Amazon. Around their major markets, they offer print and digital, single copy and subscription. They understand that magazine consumers want print as well as digital. Print is still the “gold standard” and is still part of the “magazine experience”. At least for the foreseeable future. Yet there is no single, simple business model that works across every market. It’s all about understanding your own audience and delivering what they want. Not what you think they want.