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someone told me, in all seriousness, that the single copy sales business was: Terrible, horrible, corrupt, inefficient, outdated, out of touch, wasteful, mobbed up, operated like the mafia, doomed, too busy ripping off publishers, retailers, wholesalers, consumers – to do a good job,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.” 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. 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.

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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.

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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…

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…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…

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…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.

Maybe We Should Rephrase The Question

 

 

The next round of AAM and BPA reports are due out soon. Come on, you know where I’m going with this opening paragraph. The numbers will be released. Then the writers for Folio and Media Bistro and all the others will jump in and recite the numbers and, no doubt, newsstand will not look good. Someone will publish something that gives us all a stern warning.

Someone will ask, “Where’s the bottom for newsstand? ”

People will get defensive.

An industry thought leader will write, “How can they maintain these losses? Surely no one is going to the newsstand anymore!”

So I am thinking, maybe we should rephrase the question. Because, frankly, at this point, who knows?

So let’s not ask, “Where is the bottom?” and instead ask:

“What is working?”

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This is not working.

“Why is it working?”

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Clearly that didn’t work.

“How do we replicate that?”

“How do we engage our publications’ audience and encourage them to buy a single copy?”

We know single copy sales are a declining industry. But even within that decline, there are sparks of light. Why is that? Was it luck? Deliberate?

There are publishers who are innovating and seeking out new markets. Some are in non-traditional markets, others within the tried and true. Who are they and what are they doing? Is it niche specific? Title specific?

Can we turn this around?

I think it’s highly unlikely that we will see some sort of massive turnaround. As a business, we shouldn’t be looking for or hoping for the next TV GuideCosmopolitan, or People. Instead we should be looking for the next Backwoodsman or grow an emerging category like adult coloring books.

Keep in mind, our industry has adapted to and accepted many changes that some traditionalists thought would never change. So the next challenge is to adapt to the new realities we face (and share) at retail, the same ones that other marketers are facing, and see how we can continue to attract an audience.

So my question to you is:

What’s working out there? How did you do it and can you do it again?

 

 

The Top Ten Magazine Covers of 2015: The Completely Biased, Highly Subjective, Unscientific List

Well, that’s (almost) over. Depending on what list you look at, either we had a giant bumper crop of magazine start-ups, or we held our own. Print subscriptions are getting sold for next to nothing, digital subs are going nowhere, and newsstand circ is somewhere in the neighborhood of Hades.

If anyone can find a 24 foot mainline in their neighborhood supermarket, let me know.

But the actual magazines. They looked great. Lest we forget while we drool over the digital gee-gaws and debate pricing policy, in the end, it’s all about the written word, the way the written word is laid out, the way the pictures help tell the story.

How do we attract our readers? With great covers.

Other “Top Ten” lists demonstrate the best sellers or look at the top titles from the top companies. Here on the Titanic, with the deck now listing bow down at 40 degrees, the rules are the same as they were in the past two years: What grabbed my attention as I walked by? What made me stop, back up, take another look and pick it up.

For complete transparency: in a few cases some of these selections were brought to my attention via an internet based article or news release. In those cases, I went out in search of a copy (I’d highly recommend using MagNet’s “MagFinder” app) after seeing the great cover in pixels. The future of bricks and mortar retail will be in how we use digital to encourage people to leave their homes.

Please stay tuned because in the next post  I’m giving you four “Runner’s Up” and for the first time ever on the Titanic, a brand new award: “The Year’s Most Egregious Cover”. Is it going to be clickbait? Oh, you bet.

The Ten Best Covers For 2015

#1: Time Magazine May 5, 2015

Here’s a great case where black and white and white and limited cover lines tell the story. How stark. How immediate. How recognizable. The point is quickly made and simple to understand.

Time May 11 2015
Is this Ferguson in 2015? Or 1968?

 

#2: Hi-Fructose Magazine Spring 2015

Timing is everything. About the time the movie Big Eyes about the artist Margaret Keane arrived, Hi-Fructose Magazine put a perfect demonstration of a perfect illustrated cover onto the rack. Again, all of the cover lines rules are broken, but in this case, they are not necessary.

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The illustration says it all.

#3: Paleo Magazine June/July 2015

Food magazines continue to thrive on the newsstand. Take a look at any sized mainline and what you will see is both regular frequency and book-a-zines taking up more and more space. I have to admit that I didn’t know much about the “paleo” diet movement. After stopping, backing up, picking up, and then buying the June/July 2015 issue, I learned something new. And come on, that salmon looks really good.

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Seriously, that looks really delicious!

#4: Hour Detroit Magazine August 2015

All city magazines have “Food” issues and “Best Restaurant” issues and “Best New Chef” awards. They sell well, everyone likes them, and they’re a great way to show the world something unique about your community. But doing a good food cover is not easy. Hour Detroit accomplished that feat this year. Who knew vegetables could look so good?

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None of those vegetables came from my garden.

#5: Wonderland Magazine March 2015

While I don’t think I match the target demographics of this UK lifestyle import, I look for every issue at my local Barnes & Noble, follow them on Instagram and just find their editorial and their social media very intriguing. For the second year in a row, Wonderland gets placed in the top 10 covers. This year they break the rules about black and white covers. Successfully.

Wonderland Feb-Mar 15
Kristen Stewart was featured in the March issue.

#6: Tie – Ebony Magazine November 2015 & New York Magazine July 27, 2015

How many covers did the Cosby Show snag back in the 1980’s? How many young men and women wished their dads had the wit and wisdom of Clifford Huxtable? The sheer immensity of the rape allegations against Bill Cosby and the betrayal the black community felt because of them is clearly, poignantly and brilliantly on display in both of these covers.

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A sad story, powerfully told.

#7: Tie – The New Yorker  January 19, 2015 & Bloomburg Business Week April 6, 2015

It takes a moment to remember that before this Fall’s terrible terrorist attacks in Paris, there was another attack in Paris on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine. This illustration says everything with just a simple twist on the iconic Eiffel Tower. No cover lines are necessary. On the other hand, Business Week’s cover says everything with the image. But the headline, “The IRS Sucks” will fool you unless you read the tag line and realize that they’re talking about the people who work for the embattled tax collection agency.

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Two eloquent covers, one with words.

#8: Redbook Magazine September 2015

While “authentic” is an overused and abused buzzword in the world of marketing, Redbook went with it anyway with their powerful Fall cover that featured “Real Women” (Not actresses or models). Did it work? You bet.

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Real women, real fashion.

#9: Dazed & Confused September 2015

I have to admit that this difficult to find UK import was one I didn’t find on the racks. I follow them on social media and this issue made me click through to see the cover. I think it’s a perfect example of how the alternative fashion ‘zine world completely obliterates all of the rules about successful newsstand covers, and is still successful. If I’d seen this on the racks? I would have stopped and picked up a copy.

Dazed September Covers
Click on this!

 

#10: Canoe & Kayak  June 2015

This activity magazine from the publisher formerly known as Source Interlink hits all the right high notes with their traditional but engaging cover. Beautiful blue serene waters? Check. Great cover lines focusing on the “Best” and even “26 Best”? Check. Does anyone know the science behind the trend of three separate topics in the skyline? I see it everywhere and I actually like it.

Canoe Kayak June 15
Admit it, you want to be there.

And there you have it. A completely subjective list of the best covers of the year. In the comments below, feel free to chime in with your selections for the best things you saw out on the newsstand.

Next up! The runners up for best cover and the first annual “Most Egregious Cover of The Year.”