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.

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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.

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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.

On Quidditch and Newsstand Sales

A few days ago, I was sitting on a couch in my parents’ family room with my brother and our discussion wandered into a conversation about life, Harry Potter and the sport of Quidditch. My brother said that if the sport really existed, and you played it the way that magical people were supposed to play it, it would prove to be the most difficult sport ever played. I think he may be right.

Muggle sports are pretty straightforward and linear. Kind of like the way we usually think about our lives. You move the ball down the field. Put it in a net of some sort. Score. Players move around bases, down the ice, swim back and forth in the pool, bike or run from point A to point B.

Quidditch is very different. You fly on a broom. The field is up, down, diagonal. It’s three-dimensional. You can put your ball (called a Quaffle) not through one hoop, but one of three. Could you guard three hoops while balancing in the air on a broomstick?

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Kind of like that.

All the while, the defensive players on the opposing team are trying to knock you off your broom, not by “tackling” you, but by whacking giant, heavy balls called Bludgers at your head.

And just like life can be unfair, your team can be ahead 110 to 50 and still lose. How, you may ask? There’s a player called a seeker whose one job is to catch a small winged ball called a snitch. If she catches it, her team gets 150 points and the game is over. So, she catches the snitch, you lose 200 to 110.

When you think about it, life, and most of our activities are linear. We’re born and the stages of life are straightforward: Infancy, child, teen, young adult, adult, middle age, and old age. Activities, especially games, are the same way and for many of us, our career paths are very linear.

Bludgers and snitches are like the bumps you experience in life. You exercise, eat thoughtfully, live right. And one day, a small bit of plaque comes off an artery and you have a heart attack.

Or one day you get called into the Senior Executive Vice President’s office and he says, “We like you fine, you do good work, but our consultants’ review of the company says, we don’t need you anymore. Here’s your severance package.”

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The consultants said that revenues would go up 10% if we cancel Quidditch.

And now that I think about it, the single copy sales of magazines are a lot like Quidditch.

For example: Sorry about that hurricane that hit the southeastern US last week while you were launching your new title. What a shame it impacted 38% of your launch allotment.

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Where’s that Feature Pocket we bought for the new launch?

For example (This is a real example): Well, we production guys thought we were saving the company a few hundred bucks when we put this UPC code on the cover that we found online. Too bad it doesn’t scan at the wholesalers or the retailers. Sorry you have to re-sticker an entire launch allotment of 175,000 copies at a minimum of $0.50 per copy and miss the on-sale date of all those promotions you bought for the new title. It’s too bad the costs have to come out of the newsstand department’s budget because…accounting rules?

For example: The distribution of the new title is perfect. Retailers match the magazine readers demographics. All of the major national chain retailers are authorized and have magazines distributed to high volume stores. The promotions line up with peak season activities. The problem? The art department locks the newsstand team out of cover meetings and covers are beautiful works of art that have nothing to do with selling magazines at retail.

In other words, retail sales, and Quidditch are three-dimensional and often not fair. There are so many things that you have no control over that can impact how you play the game.

So what do you do? Like any good Quidditch player, hold your Quaffle tight to your chest, keep you head down and your eyes on the look out for rogue Bludgers. Head towards the golden hoops and try to score. And make sure you have a really good Seeker (who creates beautiful covers).

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But it’s really great when you win!

 

 

 

Dear Cover Design Team

Dear Cover Design Team,

It’s pretty mind boggling how much the magazine business has changed in just the past few years, isn’t it? I mean, we now work in what is called “Magazine Media”. There’s all kinds of new players in the field. The big companies aren’t safe havens anymore. And we’re constantly told that we need to change and we need to be the future and if we don’t we’re going to get downsized and we’re dinosaurs and all that.

Wow! Right?

It’s amazing how much our jobs have changed and how many new skills we’ve acquired. How many times has your job description and title changed? Was your pay cut? This is what number job since the big crash of ’08?

So, here’s the thing. I work in circulation (OK, let’s call it Audience Development or whatever) and one of my portfolios (or buckets, or folders) is newsstand. And even though the business is entirely different from what it was even five years ago, who really likes newsstand anymore? Really.

VanityFairMarch2017Cover
Vanity Fair, March 2017

Stick with me here, for a minute.:

  • Newsstand is a bucket where money comes in. Companies need money.
  • Newsstand is the public face for our magazine. It’s how people identify us, even if they don’t buy or subscribe and only see a social media feeds or a mobile site. They know the logo.
  • Even if they don’t buy the magazine, there are more than 100,000 retailers in the US and Canada where the magazine could be displayed. Face time.
  • If someone buys the magazine on the newsstand, they are paying a premium price for your work. Therefore, shouldn’t they have a premium experience when they pick it up?
  • If they like what they paid a premium for on the newsstand, they just might buy a subscription. That means the magazine gets money up front for one or two years.
BOston Mag April 17
Boston Magazine, April 2017

So I have to ask you: Why won’t you let someone from newsstand in on the cover design meetings? Why don’t you accept some of the recommendations when we present a simple sales by cover analysis report?

I get that there are a lot of pressures on cover design. Advertisers may be expecting one thing. Subscribers another. There may be a major editorial or artistic talent contributing an article and she’s expecting an entirely different thing.

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Chicago Mod Magazine, Launch Issue, March 2017

But I have to ask, if you’re trying to sell your publication to the general public, don’t you want to put the best possible face on that product and sell more copies? And if you’re trying to come up with something to appeal to the audience, wouldn’t you talk to people who have to sell what you designed to that audience?

Here’s a simple equation for you: >Copies Sold=>$s.

And the converse: <CopiesSold=<$s

Finally: <$s=A visit from the accountants and the “consultants”.

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Women’s Running, Jan/Feb 2017. The publisher holds an annual contest for a reader to be on the cover.

Also, it’s not just the general public who looks at your magazine and makes a judgment. That cover you’re designing also gets looked at by these folks:

  • The people in the warehouse. Do you have the right UPC code, issue code and cover price on the magazine?
  • Do you understand the requirements and best practices for a UPC code? Can you accept them (and understand that maybe they are for your benefit)?
  • Do you realize that people in the wholesale warehouse handle your magazine and that they make a judgment call about it’s appropriateness?
  • Do you realize that a merchandiser who may work for a third party company puts the magazine into the rack? Does the title on the cover match how the magazine is listed in the retailer and wholesaler’s authorized file?
  • Is there uniformity in your logo? Can merchandisers and wholesalers and others recognize your title from issue to issue? If you did a redesign, did you let your suppliers know and show them a before and after for easier indentification?

In case your wondering, we really admire your mad design skills and we’re not looking to drag you down. We also think you’ll find that circulation (or Audience Development or whatever) people are some of the nicest , easiest to please and eager to please people in the magazine media world.

Love Mag Spring 17(1)

Love Mag Spring 17
Love Magazine, Spring ’17. Eight unique covers.

So please, open the door a crack. Let your circ people drop in for a few minutes. Nine times out of ten the response will be, “Hey, that looks super! Thank you!” And occasionally you’ll get a suggestion that may sell more copies.

Remember: More copies sold equals more money in the pot. The accounting team will love you for that!

Yours sincerely,

 

 

 

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.

 

#TheFirstWeekOfFall

Editor’s Note:  If you’re lucky, you get to meet someone during your career who can inspire imaginative thinking, offer a calming influence and when necessary, some very funny late afternoon riffing. This post was inspired by a long time friend who called to blow off a little of that late afternoon steam and crack wise about the magazine “media” industry.

This is for you my friend. A thanks for the friendship, the fun, and the ability to laugh at the absurdities of our business.

The first week of Fall is upon us. Kids have been back in school for a while. Leaves are starting to change color and some are already falling from the trees. There’s no frost yet but maybe the air where you live is a little cooler. There’s that anticipation that the holiday season is just there, just a little bit beyond the horizon. You may be too busy to think much about it, but it’s starting to push its way into your thoughts.

Here in the shallower pools of the publishing industry. That place where magazines get sold at full retail, most people have their production schedules set. They know if they have promotional dollars. They know if they have a job. Or if they’re going to get outsourced. Again.

But more importantly, if you work in newsstand, you may already have a pretty good idea of what those second half AAM, BPA and MagNet reports could look like.  For those of us who dare to dream we have a pretty good idea what upper management might ask when we’re seated around the conference room table sometime just before the holidays.

Picture yourself in that conference room. Maybe the meeting will go something like this…

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What do you think the end of the year will bring you? What’s your outlook for 2017?

Every Picture (Doesn’t) Tell A Story

 

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An infuriating, but not entirely accurate juxtaposition.

I saw this picture in my Facebook and Twitter feeds last week. It’s pretty powerful and tells a story that is true. At the same time however it’s not exactly accurate.

Oh great, now I’m going to come off like I’m mansplaining. Well, here goes.

I spend my life in the magazine world. For the past year I’ve had the really terrific privilege of working in the children’s category with a noted and well-respected children’s publisher.

I also used to be a Boy Scout and a subscriber to Boy’s Life Magazine. So I’ve kept an eye out for the magazine and watched their evolution for a long time.

So I get the anger that the picture and accompanying article is expressing. I get the point. It’s the 21st century. Why are we still telling girls to be pretty and cute and love pink and purple and wait for their prince instead of go out and have adventures?

This is a no brainer.

But the question I wanted to ask when I saw the picture was: Why the hell were those two magazines put side by side in that library? Don’t those librarians pay attention to content?

Boys Life Magazine is the official publication of the Boy Scouts of America. The magazine is about and for boys. Boy Scouts: Camping = rockets, experiments, social projects. Boys.

Girls Life Magazine is a publication that is run by a privately held company that publishes a consumer-oriented magazine aimed at girls aged 10 – 16 who are raised in what I guess some might consider consumer oriented families? On it’s web page it says without any apologies exactly what it is all about: “focusing on fun stuff like fashion, beauty, and celebs along with real information and advice on friends, family, school, tough stuff and more.”

So, yeah, there you have it. The publishers are very up-front about who and what they are. I’ll leave it to any reader who passes by to decide if they want to judge that.

The question, then is are there magazines that are aimed at pre-teen and teenaged girls that aren’t all about fashion and celebs and beauty?

The most obvious example is Discovery Girls. This publication considers their readers to be “curious, strong, and enthusiastic about becoming the very best they can be.”

Discovery Girls
Perhaps the best in the category.

And while some people aren’t thrilled with some of the consumer aspects aligned with its parent company, Mattel,  American Girl Magazine magazine says that “In a culture that tends to pressure girls to fast-forward through their childhood, American Girl tells its readers: “It’s great to be a girl!”

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It’s great to have a deep pocketed parent company.

I think that New Moon Girls Magazine is probably the closest thing to what the author is looking for. I would hope that the library where this was spotted carries the publication. New Moon was founded in 1992 as a magazine and on-line community for and about younger girls. The fact that it’s survived independently for 24 years says a lot about its editorial strength. I’ve read this magazine. It’s great.

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24 years? They’re doing something right don’t you think?

There’s a new entry into this category and I’m really excited about finding a copy in the wild.  Kazoo Magazine  is a brand new quarterly magazine for girls who want to “make some noise.” Regular features in this new magazine will include “…science experiments; comics; art projects; recipes; interviews with inspiring women from Olympic athletes to astronauts…”. Frankly, I think this may be the most interesting children’s magazine launch of the decade.

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Go make some noise! A lot of noise! And sell a lot of copies!

 

Interestingly, most magazine that are published for younger children, such as Highlights, Ranger Rick, Cricket and Ask are not sex specific.

What about atypical launches for adult women? There are always some really great new launches each year. Perhaps the most interesting one I’ve seen is the print version of “Misadventures Magazine,” a quarterly print publication that started life as a web site, sprouted an e-commerce store and then it’s first print edition a year ago.

MisAdventures Mag
Great cover. Great launch. Great niche.

So, yeah, here we are, well into the second decade of the 21st century. A decade that has seen “typical” social patterns, sexual stereotypes and the like shattered. It is both sad and upsetting to see that in a place of learning, a library where clearly the librarians should know better, that a “typical” boys magazine is placed next to a “typical” girls magazine and implies that they are equal. They’re not and this is especially true when the two magazine have next to nothing in common with the exception of some very old tropes.

A deeper look at the whole of the category shows that there is more out there, for girls at least, than celebs and mean girls. The durability of titles like Discovery Girls, New Moon Girls and the exciting launch of Kazoo shows us that.

So maybe the question should also be, “Where are the alternative niche boys magazines?”

 

Thing Placed (Yet Again) In Front Of The Magazine Rack

There are admittedly many advantages to the way the newsstand sales business is organized these days. For example, if I have a decent wi-fi signal I can quickly find out exactly where my magazine is selling. And where it isn’t. With a few mouse clicks, I can download sales history, competitive sales history, class of trade data, top performing stores and more. With a few more mouse clicks I can send off a note to a distributor or retailer and make a presentation about why my ranking should be changed or a certain issue is being promoted.

On the other hand, there are few compelling reasons outside of curiosity or a desire to travel, for me to get into a car or board an airplane and jet off to Louisville, KY (Once the home of a decent sized wholesaler) to see what the displays in that town look like.

So I was pretty thrilled a few weeks ago to get in my car and drive for a few hours to meet with a regional publishing client face to face. In fact I was so happy to get out of my oddly shaped office that the day before the appointment I did something I hadn’t done for years outside of my own home base: I set up a retail check-up route, left hours before the appointment and spent the morning checking stores.

The trip had some nostalgia to it because this town was once home to one of my favorite wholesalers. To be fair, the wholesalers who now manage the retailers in this town do a good job. Most displays were perfectly fine.

But….

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Got milk. But got no magazines!

And then there was this:

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No whining just because you can’t get to your favorite magazine now…

And a few others I didn’t capture very well on camera. To be fair, most displays were perfectly fine.  But the ones above are memorable and they occur far too frequently for comfort in an industry that is constantly under assault.

A few weeks ago, fellow consultant John Morthanos put up a post on Publishing Executive where he argued for expanding the title mix at checkout. He posited, correctly I think, that the checkout was dominated by seven publishers. Most of these titles had experienced significant circulation declines so wouldn’t it make sense to experiment? Try out new titles, new categories? Shouldn’t we make the checkout more, well, democratic and meritorious (my interpretation)? He went so far as to suggest, to the apparent horror of some of our colleagues, that one checkout in each store should be designated for these up and coming titles.

John is on to something. Without diving deep into the data, it’s probably fair to say that the crash of newsstand sales over the past seven years has come mostly from the checkout. The celebrity weeklies are the biggest culprits. The uptick we see in the sales of book a zines, adult coloring books, and niche titles like The Backwoodsman and so many regional city books, guns and survivalist titles  can’t make up for the hundreds of thousands of lost units in weekly celebrity and women’s service magazines if these trending titles are relegated to the back row of a twelve-foot mainline.

There are opportunities opening up in some chains. Over the past few years, most Kroger owned banners have either re-racked their stores or opened them up to a program called “Pay to Stay”. For the record, that title, “Pay to Stay” is not nearly as ominous as it sounds. “Pay to Stay” or PTS for short, is a one-year checkout program where the retailer does not install new racks, but does ask all the titles on the rack to pay for a relogo program – or give up their space. Open pockets are then offered to other titles – often titles that are growing and ranked highly on the mainline.

The cost for this program is significantly less than a new rack program. In the last cycle, I was able to move a client who had a national publication and multiple regional titles into many markets where in the past we were relegated to the mainline and could only dream of putting the titles onto the checkout.

The program is managed by TNG’s RS2 division. It is interesting to note that the program is billed in quarterly increments and publishers can opt out if they give notice one quarter in advance. This was a huge plus in gaining the participation of my client. And no, they didn’t opt out.

Since then I have come across more programs like this. You don’t always get in. You don’t always get what you want. But it’s a small step in the right direction.

I am seeing more and more requests from retailers for publishers to be more active in promoting their titles on the newsstand and partnering with the retailers to promote their magazines in their stores. A recent letter from the Costco buying team comes to mind.

For my part, I have always encouraged the publishers I work with to announce the on-sale dates of their titles, feature their cover images and stories and promote the availability of the magazine in national and local retailers in their social media feeds and e-blasts. Why wouldn’t you try to make a sale?

Of course, we can and should do more. No matter how wonderful home delivery, drone delivery and and driverless cars may be and become, people are social animals. We need to interact. We like to get out of our homes from time to time. Anyone who works from a home office can tell you about that.

In the meantime, a recent tour of some local retailers over the July 4th weekend showed that we still have a long way to go.

While Whole Foods, has and always will get props from me for their unlogo’d checkouts, last weekend they popped a bunch of mobile carts in front of their checkouts. On the one hand, you can’t blame a retailer for wanting to boost impulse sales over a busy holiday weekend. But to me, it’s a chilling reminder of how tenuous our hold on the checkout is. It also makes you wonder why our industry didn’t approach them with an idea for the busy holiday weekend.

The local Jewel Supermarket was selling t-shirts at their checkouts.

Jewel1
Go Cubs Go!

As bricks and mortar retailers come under increasing pressure from on-line retailers and changing customer patterns, our industry would be wise to continue to reinvent how we do business. John happens to be right. We need to experiment more.

But we also need to make sure that there are fewer things in front of the magazine rack.