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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

Copy of Entertainment Weekly
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.

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.”





Is There A Light At The End of The Tunnel (Or Is It Just An Oncoming Train)?

The musical accompanyment for this post is brought to you by Martha’s Vineyard, Carly Simon, and progress. Slow progress, but progress nonetheless.


For the past few weeks my Facebook feed has been offering me a $5.00 for a one year subscription to a Time, Inc. magazine. This is a pretty good deal. My annual sub to EW Magazine runs over $20.00. A single copy of that magazine at the airport is $4.99. Time Magazine itself? You will pay $5.99. You want their number one magazine, People? A copy from the newsstand would cost you $6.99.

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 9.46.07 AM.png

So if a major national publisher is heavily invested in selling low priced introductory subscriptions, that must mean that they have given up on that antiquated newsstand distribution system. Right?

Clearly, I can’t speak for Time, Inc. But they obviously want to ramp up their circulation numbers and they’re not doing it through the newsstand. For what it’s worth, some of the publishers that I work with are less than enthralled with the system that we operate within.

But why don’t you wander down with me into the engine room of this old steamship and see why I think there are actually a few signs that the system may be transforming. Into something good? Maybe? Into something worse than it is right now? That’s possible. The free market we operate in is run by people and even well intentioned people can mess things up.

Let’s just say that I am modestly optimistic.

What’s been happening since the start of the fourth quarter is that we are experiencing some changes that we’ve known were coming for fifteen or more years. If there is an upside to these changes, it’s that no one is panicking or acting like the world is about to end. Frankly the people who are grumbling about these transitions usually grumble anyway.

Here’s what’s happening and why I consider them mostly positive:

1. We’re moving to POS (Pay On Scan) based reporting. At the beginning of October, TNG (The wholesaler formerly known as The News Group) announced that they were moving to this system with the retailers they service who are already on Scan Based Trading (SBT).

SBT does not necessarily pick up issue codes and there is the issue of shrink. But as an industry we’re acknowledging, finally, that retailers base their sales data on what went through the cash register. They no longer care about sealed boxes of returns. They don’t pay their bills with premature returns. That’s not how the major national chains that account for most sales work.  SBT is how they operate.  Feel free to grouse but it’s how they want to do business and if we want to reach our ultimate customer, a reader, who is in their store,  who will pay full cover price for our content, we have to treat the retailer like a customer.  So let’s quit the bitching and do business the way they do business.

Why are we finally moving to this form of reporting? Because a national wholesaler, not a publisher or a national distributor, took the bull by the horns and said, “We’re doing this!”

2. We’re getting rid of an antiquated RDA system. That will, in the long term, save money for wholesalers and national distributors, make a little more money for retailers, force publishers to re-think cash flow for a quarter or two. In the end, things should be just fine once we re-arrange how we think about RDA.

2a. In my opinion.

2b. Until some circulation person at one of the big six sits down at a conference room table, takes a big sip of his/her afternoon latte and says, “Hey, I have this great idea! Let’s offer retailers a quarterly 10% cash bonus…….”

3. Most of the mainstream wholesalers in the system right now seem financially stable.

As to the negatives like declining sales and lost space:

Are we losing space? Yes. We have lost some space. But you can’t shed the amount of circulation we’ve shed over the past five years and not expect to lose retail space. Can we get it back? Most likely not. Will sales go up? Maybe. Maybe they will go down more.

It will depend on what actions publishers take and if they can actually impact people’s reading and leisure habits. Maybe we can. Why not try?

Why do I feel optimistic? For one, we’ve seen wholesalers take some proactive measures and in the end, that may be good. I also see some publishers doing things that suggest that they are also re-thinking the newsstand.

Here are some examples:

1. Hearst Magazines repeated their fashion box in September and got it into retail. Even better, they created a buzz about it through the press and in social media.

Hearst created a “mag mobile” and drove it around NYC selling the magazines. Did they sell a lot of copies? Who knows? They haven’t said and frankly I don’t know if I care that much. What they did do was generate publicity for their magazines, their brand.  And they may have indirectly impacted sales positively.

Of great interest to me (and it should be to everyone in this business), is that they did it without the benefit of their national distributor or their local wholesaler.

As I point out to my clients, “Why would print all these magazines and just hope that someone walks by the newsstand in the back of a national chain and decides they want it. Let people know it’s there and give them a reason to go and find you!”

2. One of the Dollar store chains sells both books, and “book-a-zine” type publications. They sell a lot of them. Like hundreds of thousands of multiple releases. This is off the grid and I admittedly don’t know much about this system. But hopefully publishers that participate are using it to generate subs, create awareness of their full priced brands and inspire visits to their web and mobile sites.

3. Many regional magazines have a small amount of “direct to retail” business. Sometimes it’s something that could be handled within the wholesale/national distribution system, but often it’s local restaurants, bars, salons, etc. This has been around for a long time and I continue to be pleasantly surprised that it has not gone away.

4. Of equal interest to me are the specialty publishers who have developed their own newsstand systems outside of the national distributor/wholesaler system. This was reported by my “blogging colleague” D. Eadward Tree this past week but here are some of the examples I gave to him.

For example: Kinfolk Magazine, can be found in B&N (my guess via Ingram), but also in Anthropologie. I don’t know if that’s direct or through a book distributor, but you don’t see that every day

Anthology Magazine: This is a distribution that appears to be a series of indie bookstores and many, many craft stores and art studios.

Cereal Magazine: Admittedly, as an international priced at $25 a copy, you wouldn’t expect to find many here but like Kinfolk, one that has some business at B&N, but also local indie shops and bookstores.

UpperCase Magazine: A Canadian indie that follows the same path.

The Great Discontent:  A $20.00 indie that can be found in B&N and Urban Outfitters. They have also built up a network of many non-traditional stores.

5. Retailers taking independent action: On Black Friday, B&N’s newsstand department is discounting all magazines at 30%. They’re going to advertise this through e-blasts and special signage in the stores. This is a one day sale. The publishers are expected to cover that 30%. So while some publishers may be grouse, from my perspective, it seems to me that if you want to move product, you have to periodically discount it. Why not do that if more people than usual are in the store. And how many do you really sell in one day in one chain?

If I were a publisher, I would  let followers know that the magazine is available in the store on that day at 30% off. Maybe you’ll get a new gift sub. Maybe someone who only follows on social media and gets stuff for free will finally go and pay for something. Maybe a long time reader that was wavering, buys one more copy.

In other words, someone (in this case B&N) is doing something. That’s good.

6. Through much of this year, and last, Kroger banners were involved in intensive re-racking or PTS (Pay To Stay re-logo) programs which changed around their front end. To their credit, they were flexible and were often looking for magazines that were not previously involved in front end merchandising. PTS programs are often  less expensive due to their duration and TNG’s front end managers operate the program on a quarterly basis so the upfront monies involved are not too steep. For one of my clients it was a great opportunity to test their front end salability for a national and regional spin off.

So the question remains: Is this ship sinking? Are we all going to drown? I honestly don’t know. But I do know that this year, I see more evidence of people taking action, instead of reacting. The critics who think this is a business stuck in 1978 don’t know anything about how we do business in 2015.

So How Are Your 2016 Retail Promotion Plans Coming Along?

If by some chance, your magazine media company prints one of those old school print magazines, someone on the production team is probably working on the 2016 production schedule. If they’re a rock-star production manager, the schedule is complete.

And if, by some chance, your print magazine has paid circulation, you may have some newsstand circulation.

And if you have newsstand circulation, you may even have someone looking at the production schedule and the editorial calendar and trying to figure out what issues should be promoted.

The sales of premiere retail space took off in the last decade as publishers looked for a way to distinguish the display of their magazines on the crowded mainlines and prop up sagging print orders. In a corner of the industry where planning and analysis used to be very ad-hoc, the advent of Pay on Scan data and the online accessibility of Order/Regulation reports has greatly improved our ability to target markets and classes of trade.

Even so, old habits are hard to break. With newsstand circulation now accounting for smaller and smaller pieces of the audience pie, it sometimes hard to get publishers to focus and commit to promoting a special issue.

Fall will be here in a few weeks and by that time, ideally, you should have your production schedule and promotional plans in place for the coming year.

Or at least an outline.

Or maybe an idea of what you’d like to do.

Or a hint of an idea.

With that goal in mind (As well as a craving for pie), I took a very informal survey of some colleagues and asked them how their 2016 planning was coming along. These were their responses boiled down into six typical categories:

So, have you got your plans in place?
So, have you got your plans in place?

A Bounty of Book A Zines

We’ve seen numerous reports of the remarkable growth of the Book A Zine category since the beginning of this no longer new decade. Most of the reports marvel at the tremendous elasticity of the category, the unit sales growth and the wide variety of titles that publishers are pumping out.

But unless you really go and look at a magazine rack today, you wouldn’t really see and feel the impact of what this “new” category is doing to the rack.* Oh you can talk about it and read all about it, but until you really go and look and see, you might not understand it.

As our former Secretary of Defense and eloquent wordsmith Donald Rumsfeld once said:

When there were more wholesalers to visit, distributions to work and territories to see, I always made it a point to spend a few hours at retail. Unlike some of the traveling pooh-bahs of the time, my goal wasn’t to find an issue to use as a cudgel on the local rep. I really wanted to see and know the town. It was the only way I felt that I could know, understand and own what I was working on. The only way to know what I knew and know that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

If you know what I mean. Because otherwise it was just a bunch of numbers.

We don’t have that today. When was the last time someone other than the local merchandiser was in the Martin’s on Route 20 in South Bend, IN?

The other day I spent some time getting acquainted with a new supermarket in the wake of my neighborhood store closing. While I still go out to retail, these days I’m usually just looking for one or two client titles. It was good to really stop, look, absorb, and spend time at the rack. It’s a great way to learn a store.

And look how these “zines” have taken over the rack:

Who said "General Interest" is dead?
Who said “General Interest” is dead?
Cooking, cowboys...and ice fishing? Well, it is January, this is the Midwest.
Cooking, cowboys…and ice fishing? Well, it is January, this is the Midwest.
Maybe there was nowhere else to drop the bridal mag?
Maybe there was nowhere else to drop the bridal mag?

While this part of the market is doing well, they can strain the distribution chain. If the store is part of chain that has “SBT” (Scan Based Trading), then the wholesaler owns that merchandise. These are annuals. Those are high cover prices and a long on sale. That’s a lot of inventory to own.

There are fewer turns on the rack unless the publisher is pumping out a bunch of ‘Zines. And while some publishers are (cough, cough) pumping out a ton of ‘zines, it’s not enough to replace the lost sales we see in the higher volume categories.

Lastly, not all magazine categories are naturals for these “Zines.” And, more importantly, there are some economic issues to be concerned with. Without some existing clout behind you, a brand that is well established and has a significant newsstand presence, these aren’t that cheap to produce nor are they that cheap to launch in the blind.

In the comments section of Dead Tree Edition’s post about Book A Zines, industry guru Bo Sacks wondered if we would get too greedy and kill the category. I’m inclined to think not. Unlike a regular frequency title, you don’t repeat a special edition if it doesn’t work. It’s just too costly. Unlike a monthly, you’re not going to leave it on life support because there’s no ad or subscriber revenue to prop it up.

Where will the category go? I don’t know. But it was nice to stop and look, really look at the rack.

*For the record, back in the day, we called them annuals or SIPS. There just weren’t as many of them, and they didn’t have good press.