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 – 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. 

We Have Always Been at War with East Asia…And the Newsstand Has Always Been, Um, Challenging?

If I had made an entry in my diary every time someone told me in all seriousness that the single copy sales business was: Terrible, horrible, corrupt, inefficient, outdated, out of touch, wasteful, mobbed up, operated like the mafia, doomed, too busy ripping off publishers, retailers, wholesalers, consumers – to do a good job, that we should all be in jail for taking advantage of publishers…

… Then I would have a memoir considerably larger than a Brandon Sanderson novel.

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That’s a mighty big book! (Source: BrandonSanderson.com

 

Nothing New Under the Sun

There is a verse in Ecclesiastes that says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” King Solomon wasn’t being a cranky old cynic when he wrote this. He was talking about the cycles of nature in life, not the rat race of the 21stcentury world. But while the complaints about the newsstand business are often the same year after year, the simple truth is that today’s newsstand sales business is not your fathers’ newsstand business. Or mine. And my father was in the newsstand business.

Last month industry guru and prophet Bo Sacks released two opinion pieces in his newsletter. One from former Ziff-Davis circulator Baird Davis and another from former consultant and industry leader John Harrington. Take a moment and check them out.

Both articles point out things that are very clear about the newsstand:

  • Sales are down dramatically
  • Sales for leading AAM audited titles are down even more
  • Retailers are cutting back on available space at the newsstand
  • There is continued consolidation at retail, wholesale and national distributor levels

I worked for Baird when I consulted for Ziff-Davis in its earlier print life. He is a good person and not someone I think of as gloomy or full of doom. In fact, I remember him as hard working and rather clear eyed. He succinctly points out the tremendous losses we have seen at the newsstand, especially with larger AAM audited titles. There is no denying the fact that a business that was generating about $5 billion in retail sales before the big crash in 2008 is now generating less than $2 billion. Harrington, who is also on the list of good people, is the former president of the Council for Periodical Distributors of America and a retired consultant. He points out that different participants in newsstand distribution have very different goals when it comes to profitability.

But We Knew This Already, Didn’t We?

Are industry leaders going to get together and “solve” the problem of the newsstand? Probably not because there are still too many competitors vying for space on the publishing side*. Moreover, all publishers, small, medium and large have a lot of other things to focus their attention on these days. Finally, it doesn’t seem like anything will happen without the seal of approval from the major wholesaler, TNG, or the largest national distributor, CoMag.

Captain Optimist Arrives

Earlier this week, fellow consultant John Morthanos tossed a bit of fuel on the fire in an opinion piece in response to Baird’s op-ed on Bo Sacks.  John makes the case that we should look beyond AAM numbers (I heartily agree). He cites the remarkable change in title rankings at chains like Barnes & Noble and Books A Million where traditional top ranked AAM audited titles (Think Cosmopolitan or House and Garden) have been supplanted with recent launches like Magnolia Journal.

He’s right. And as someone who is addicted to publishing stats, I’m endlessly fascinated by the report. But is that the point?

Single copy sales, the sales of print magazines at retail are down. Dramatically.

And,

Retail and wholesale consolidation has reduced a publisher’s ability to be profitable at the newsstand.

And,

If a segment of your business is not as profitable as it once was, and there is little chance of it returning to the same level of profitability, you tend to cut back your participation level and focus your attention on the parts of your business where you see opportunity.

It’s true that new titles continue to be launched on the newsstand. Some, like Magnolia Journal, Pioneer Woman, and the Centennial Media SIPs sell incredibly well. However, they don’t make up for the tremendous losses we see from former market leaders. How often can we rely on high level brand awareness to create winners at the newsstand?

New Industry Leaders

Let’s be realistic. Chains like Barnes & Noble and Books A Million are walled gardens. Their customers are actively looking for something to read – something in print. The B&N newsstand is well run and managed by a terrific magazine oriented staff. So is Books A Million. But that doesn’t mean we ignore the troubling signs that chains like Barnes & Noble have publicly experienced over the past few years.

Captain Skeptical?

It would be nice to think that every time a retailer chops a mainline in half or cuts 15 pockets from a check out that our wholesalers, national distributors and publisher quarterbacks rush in with the latest study from MBR and walk out with even more space. Half of it allocated to new, up and coming indie titles.

Maybe that does happen, sometimes. There are a lot of great people in our business and they do work hard to promote the category and maintain our space and viability.

But facts are facts and we’ve lost space. Despite some very visible, exciting and promising bright spots, sales are down overall.

From where I stand (I have a standing desk these days), these battles will continue to be hard-fought. We will never get away from the fact that store traffic is down. We have to acknowledge that there are a lot of distractions fighting for the public’s attention and money these days. Those of us who work in newsstand have to fight even harder to get the attention of the managers of magazine companies and the affiliated partners in the distribution chain because we are now a part of the magazine “media” business.

So, what to do? That’s easy.

Work hard. Vie for attention. Create your own promotions. Check your data. Prove your worth. Cooperate with others in the distribution chain.

Can you be both an optimist and a skeptic?

Yep.

*I am very much in favor of competition. Just in case you were wondering.

Dear Time, Inc. Don’t….Just…Don’t

According to a report published in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, July 11th, Time, Inc. is considering re-branding itself under a new corporate name. The thinking is that a new name would show that the company is a digital media and video firm rather than an old school legacy print publishing company.

According to the story, executives at Time, Inc. have already met with “branding firms” (The fact that such corporations exists suggests to me that I have been in entirely the wrong sort of career) and have held preliminary discussions about a name change.

Of course Time, Inc. would not change the names of their magazines. That would be silly. Just the company name would get a refresh.

I completely get why the executives at Time would want to do this. Time, Inc., as it exists today is not the Time, Inc. that we were familiar with years ago. The magazine division, what we’re talking about today, was spun off from the rest of the company in 2014 and kicked off into the corporate world loaded down with millions of dollars in debt (Sound familiar, Source Interlink veterans?).

The media world is filled with story after story after story about the decline and fall of the print magazine world. Apparently, no matter how hard we try, how much we diversify, the image of magazine publishing is firmly locked in “old school” in the eyes of the advertising world.

In fact, according to current business speak rules, we’re no longer in the magazine publishing business, we’re in the magazine media business.

Screen Shot 2017-07-12 at 8.36.45 AM
This does not mean what you think it means.

So I get it. New name. New focus. New business plan. Maybe even a whole new crop of steely eyed executive vice-presidents who can look at the big picture from 30,000 feet with a singular focus and dispassionately decide which cars to park and which cars to drive. With a new name and a new brand to show the world, the whole paradigm will shift and they will find amazing new synergies with which to delight their customer base. Just watch. The ad dollars will pour in once again.

In other words, Time, Inc. Please don’t. Don’t jettison your history, your roots, the meaning of who you are. You’re a magazine company (Even though that does mean something different now). The media business. You inform and entertain. People know who you are. We know that what you write (and video, and blog, and tweet and snap and gram) is accurate and trustworthy because that is who you are. Your history is your future. Believe in yourself. You can sell this.

Because here’s the thing. Corporate “re-branding” in the publishing world usually doesn’t go all that well. Remember when Petersen was sold to EMAP and became EMAP-USA?  Is that something you do when you’ve got a fish bone stuck in your throat on the 4th of July? K III? Which iteration of Primedia should we discuss?

You see, this…

Screen Shot 2017-07-11 at 3.36.28 PM

…is a legendary, world renown publisher of magazines and digital content that needs to find its way in the new world that we live in. We all experience identity crisis in our lives. We either find our way and thrive. Or we won’t. Would a new identity celebrate the foundation? The roots that make the Time, Inc. reputation for journalism shine?

I wonder. Because this…

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…was a well-respected publisher of newspapers and national and local content (including digital and video) that decided to rename itself.

This is what they “re-branded” themselves and became…

Screen Shot 2017-07-11 at 3.37.35 PM

…which apparently means something and is supposed to look cool. But really, it looks like one of those Starbucks Frappucinos and sounds like the noise a pygmy unicorn makes when it passes gas. Have you found anyone who has anything good to say about it? Takes this company and it’s legacy as seriously as they did before the “re-branding”?

Do you really believe that the marketing world won’t immediately jump on anything Time, Inc. comes up with and turn it into a vicious Twitter meme within minutes of the reveal?

Please, Time, Inc. Save yourself some money, some headaches and your reputation. Don’t do it. Just don’t.