Mayans and Texans and RDA Consultants….

It is possible that once upon a time in the not too distant past, selling magazines from the newsstand was an easy thing. Maybe once upon a time in the world, everything was shiny, new, clean, smooth running. Maybe all businesses were local and savvy. Canny, but honest. Everyone was polite. All children were well scrubbed, happy and bright.

But all that must have ended the day I went to work full time.  A few days into my new job as a “Regional Sales Manager” for the former Capital Distributing Company, my trainer from Texas got up to take a bathroom break and left me sitting aimlessly at our work table trying to figure out the giant stack of carbon forms in front of me and wondering why properly filling them out would make a difference to anyone. One of the grand old timers of the crowded, very noisy and very, very busy Chas. Levy “Rep Room”, got up, walked around the maze of tables and came up to me. He leaned down and placed his forearms on the table in front of me.

“Let me ask you,” he said, a smile on his face, “What are you doing here?”

When you’re three weeks out of college, horribly homesick for the green hills of upstate New York, and only sure that you wanted to be “out there” somewhere, doing something other than going to grad school, you don’t have a handy or snappy answer.

“Learning the business, I guess” I replied with some hesitation. “You know, I think I told you I grew up in it.”

“Go do something else. This business isn’t like it used to be.  It’s no good anymore.” He rose and straightened his back.  “Smart guy like you should go get another job. Think about it.” He waved and weaved his way back through the maze of desks and tables to his spot.

My Texan came back from his break. He wore thick eyeglasses as a result of recent cataract surgery. He was one of those guys who didn’t let a thing like near blindness get in his way. He was always on the move, happy, quick with a comment on whatever was in front of him.

He sat down, adjusted his glasses on his nose, picked up his magnifying glass, and gestured at the stack of printouts that were in front of us.

“So,” he drawled, “Where are we?”

“Ummmm”, was all I could say.

Where are we is an excellent question for the first week of the second quarter of the year when everything is supposed to end (According to the Mayans).

Let’s fast forward ten years. By now I’ve worked for a national distributor, a publisher, a consulting firm. A few of the mid-sized national distributors have merged into larger companies. One of the most venerable distributors actually went out of business and that unprecedented event left many publishers scrambling. A month before my marriage, the consulting firm I work for shuts down. It is one of the first notable victims of the end result of the many leveraged buy outs of publishing companies. I strike out on my own.

One of the publisher representatives I worked with back then I named the “Sighing Man” because, well, he sighed a lot.

The “Sighing Man “ would  spend much of the day sitting at his spot at the tables, morosely picking his way through his printouts, commenting on the ineptitude the world in general of his company in particular and of course, what he saw as the ineptitude of the wholesaler who housed the representatives who worked there. Late one afternoon, he picked up the big bound stack of bulk sales reports, poked at the keys of the balky Windows equipped laptop his company supplied him, sighed heavily, and proclaimed to everyone in the room, “It just doesn’t get any better than this! Does it?”

“No,” we replied in unison.

All of this comes to mind as we pass that point in time where we can see patterns in the shadows. We may have a clue about how this no longer new year will pan out.

Leaving aside the advent of digital publications in more forms and types than we have fingers, there is no denying that the business is very different from when I started. Or even three years ago. Leveraged buy outs created bigger but more fragile publishing companies. Twenty years ago, even the most inept magazine wholesaler could earn a reasonable profit. Now the only family owned operations that survive remain in business because the family members and their employees work harder than any of their predecessors could ever have imagined. The three big national wholesalers struggle to be profitable and that struggle makes the newsstand distribution process even more fragile than the most heavily stressed national publishing house.

So what can be seen from the foredeck?

  • Sales will be down, just not by incredibly horrible numbers.
  • However, we will still be plagued by plenty of “The End is Nigh” articles and “What Does This Mean?” analyses and “What All Of Us Should Do” commentary. If you’re in client services, this means, “Brace for Impact”.
  • Pass Through RDA is a boon to retailers. It can be helpful to wholesalers. It won’t open up the authorization process for publishers. It will hurt like hell if you’re an RDA consultant. If you’re a national distributor, I imagine it will hurt if you charge your clients for RDA auditing, and would make the audit process more complicated.
  • Which could be a problem if you’re a publisher. But overall, Pass Through should be neutral at best.
  • The Comag/News Group merger could sooth the troubled waters of the industry as described by more knowledgable people than me. However, I wonder, if more mergers occur, or if the channels “behave better” as is often described, who will advocate for the smaller publishers? Who will have the clout to correct the top heaviness of the larger publishers and distributors?
  • There will still be plenty of new launches, re-launches, specials, annuals and all the rest hitting the racks this year. But the threshold of entry is getting very high, and we’re having a harder and harder time giving publishers a compelling reason to be on the racks.

Not because print is no longer compelling. The hour I spent last week wandering Around The World News in Manhattan proved that. However the process is so tangled, so difficult and so convoluted. The solution still isn’t smaller racks and fewer titles, it’s a more flexible system that does a better job of marketing, distribution and presentation.

If the Mayans are wrong, we’ll see if we figure that one out.

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