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.

18881959_10155326042889120_6886036106399145609_n
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.

Unknown
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.

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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?

200
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.”

200-1
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.

Wisconsin 3
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!

 

 

 

Put This One in the “WTF” File!

Back in the day, back when there were more than 300 magazine wholesalers and eight or nine national distributors, the coveted jobs were often the ones where you worked directly for a magazine publisher. The big publishers: General Media, Playboy, Conde Nast, Ziff-Davis, all had people out in the field. According to an old “Bunny Book”* from 1990 that I found in a recent sweep of my office, Playboy Magazine had at least eleven people working in the newsstand department: Five people in the field, one in marketing, and another five in the corporate offices.

If you were a national distributor rep toiling away for Curtis, Kable, Select or ICD, a job with one of those publishers was a ticket to more pay, travel and career success.

Even smaller publishers often had people out in the field. I worked for Outside Magazine, a single title publisher and we were a department of two. When I wasn’t working on specialty sales I was sent out once a month into the countryside where I would call on upwards of five or more magazine wholesalers in the course of a week. I recall a US News and World Report representative joking that he worked for two magazines: “US News is one. World Report is the other,” he quipped. I guess you could call that rep room humor.

Which brings us to the unexpected news from late Thursday afternoon: Harris Publications is closing it’s doors. This forty year old publisher may be one of those companies where you might have recognized the title, but never realized how many titles the publisher actually produced. Harris published upwards of 75 different magazines running the gamut from The Harris Farmer’s Almanac to Celebrity Hairstyles, Who’s Who in Baseball, Survivors Edge, Naturally Danny Seo and Dog News. If a trend got hot on the newsstand, Harris wasn’t far behind with a new title launch.

In fact, I had a running joke with myself whenever I came across a new magazine on the newsstand that I didn’t recognize: I’d pluck if off the rack and before I turned to the staff box to see who the publisher was (and if they had a consultant), I’d say, “I bet this is a Harris special!” I was often right.

Back when there were more wholesalers and distributors and field people, I frequently ran into Harris reps. Aside from being really great people, I was always impressed with how much they knew about the wholesaler system and the retailers that were serviced. They knew which buttons to push, which retail buyers were open to new titles, how strict certain distribution managers were with authorized lists, who the best route supervisors were and which general mangers you wanted to stay as far away from as possible.

So is it surprising to see that Harris is going to “wind down” it’s operations? Well, initially I’d say yes.

In fact, the headline for this post is exactly what I said. “WTF?”

But on reflection, maybe it wasn’t that surprising.

It seems to me that Harris was always something of a “newsstand first” type publisher. While that may not be impossible to do even in today’s market, it is certainly a risky way to run your publications in the first year of “Off Invoice RDA” and POS sales reporting. In 21st century publishing you need a lot of revenue buckets to make things work. I could be wrong, but Harris titles never seemed big on subscriptions or advertising and I wonder how big their digital efforts really were. In a letter to industry partners, Stanley Harris acknowledged the changes in the publishing industry and then said,

“We have tried mightily to persevere against these forces, but have been unable to overcome these challenges.”

So perhaps the management at Harris felt it better to fight how the industry was changing rather than hop on and try to wide the waves?

Most people don’t really like change. I can understand that. One of the things that I find interesting about the newsstand industry is that it is constantly changing. When I entered it in the early 1980’s there were some long time employees in some of the rep rooms I worked in who lamented that things hadn’t been good in the business since the 1970’s when “They started hiring all those women and bringing in those computers.” Now those gentlemen were real dinosaurs. Nice guys, often, but dinosaurs.

The loss of Harris is a blow to this business. We need the numbers and revenue from those titles. We need them on the checkouts and mainlines. We need them in feature pockets and flex pockets. Harris’ distributor is certainly going to feel pressure from this closure and that is not a good thing. Hopefully the better titles can be salvaged and made competitive for today’s market and their employees can find new homes and continue to work in magazine media.

In the meantime, I’ll stay on the foredeck and wax my surfboard.

I'd rather be here...

 

*: The Playboy Bunny Book was the official listing of all “Playboy Approved” magazine wholesalers in the US and Canada. It was a coveted possession because it had the address and phone number for all of these wholesalers. As an added bonus, it had phone numbers for the wholesaler sponsored “Rep Rooms.” How else could you reach your traveling companions in the days before cell phones? For those reps who were looking for new employment, it also included listings of all the national distributors and their key personnel and phone numbers. In the early 2000’s Playboy ceased publishing this directory.

Bunny Book 1990
A scan of the cover of the 1990 Playboy “Bunny Book”

 

The Newsstand World: 90 Days After Source Interlink – In Chart Form

With apologies to Ann Friedman for not being that original…

It’s the first week of a new month and it’s also, mercifully, Friday. Most of us are still here in some semblance and we’re far enough down the road now to get a peek at what may be coming next. So with my calendar about to announce my final call of the day, here’s what some of us newsstand denizens might be thinking….

 

90 Days Post Source

 

 

So what are your plans for the weekend?

 

The Saddest Little Magazine Rack

This just in from a West Coast correspondent:

There's no way to prettify that....
There’s no way to prettify that….

This rack is located in a store in Northern California and despite its small size, if it looks this bare now, perhaps it sold a decent amount of product when it was serviced.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found it easy to be caught up in the moment. After all we’re busy with all of this. The bigger retailers are signing up with the remaining wholesalers at a fast pace. Service seems to be getting restored quickly to the major chains. It looks like over 70% of Source’s retailer base is now signed with a new wholesaler. I’ve seen some excellent work from my national distributors when it comes to figuring out how to get the distributions and copies transferred accurately. But let’s not kid ourselves. Accounts were not serviced. For several weeks. If you don’t refresh your product, it gets stale. The formula is very simple:

No fresh product=No sales=no revenue

Selling magazines is not like selling a eight-pack of brand name bath tissue. It’s more like selling fresh endive. People have to see it, want it, justify that want, then pick it up. You need toilet paper. You may need fresh vegetables, but you have to want endive. Leave it on the rack too long, it’s not going to be pretty. The people in our industry have performed some great work over the past few weeks under some very difficult circumstances. Anyone who has witnessed this should be impressed. But let’s not forget why our colleagues have had to work so hard in the first place.

And let’s get some fresh magazines onto that sad little rack.

 

Net Neutrality, Innovation, And The Newsstand

If I were the CEO of a major internet provider such as AT&T, Verizon or Comcast, I’d totally be in favor of ending “Net Neutrality”. The prospect of being able to sell two tiers of service: One premium for the companies that can afford premium service, and one for everyone else. It makes sense.

Just like it makes sense for airlines to take what used to be a mildly uncomfortable experience, and make it miserable. Want to get on the plane quicker? $35.00 please. Want to put that bag in the overhead? $35.00 please. Want that aisle seat over the wing? $47.00 please. Oh, and we’ll periodically interrupt your work or entertainment to talk endlessly about all of the snacks, headsets and drinks we want to sell to you while you’re stuck in the air with us for two hours.

Net neutrality is just like that. The only people who seem to be in favor of it, aside from the CEOs of major internet providers are their flunkies who jabber and sputter away on cable TV news channels and try to insure the rest of us that this will be all fine and dandy and in no way would stop “innovation”.

Would Google have prospered if it had to try to build its user base in the slow lane? Highly unlikely. How about You Tube? It was coming up at the same time as a Google created video service. Users preferred You Tube. Google bought You Tube.

images

Where is the next Snapchat or Instagram going to come from in a multi tiered internet? Along with being easy and fun to use, those two apps did well because they could be accessed just as quickly as any other app out there.

Snapchat-Logo

Let’s drop in on that shallow, shrinking sea called the newsstand. What are the new launches that have grabbed the public’s attention and have grown into significant titles?

There are some stunning successes such as HGTV Magazine. The Food Network Magazine, the conversion of All You into a national title. Bauer brought Closer Magazine to these shores.

What can we say about these successful titles? They all came from major publishing houses that have deep pockets. The titles are either attached to a major brand that has mass appeal, or a title that already exists as a brand somewhere else. This is called brand extension. It is not innovation.

Where will the next Lowrider come from? Before it was bought by Primedia, it was a LA home town success story. It grew because there was nothing out there quite like it. The magazine reached out and spoke to a growing culture. It blossomed because the system was open enough at the time to allow it to grow (without the purchase of expensive promotions).

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Where will the next Computer Shopper come from? This title grew from a little yellow newsprint tabloid into a thick four copy per bundle behemoth at its peak. Yes, it peaked and then fell. That’s the life cycle of magazines sometimes and sadly that’s what happened to this magazine.

So along with all of the other issues we see on the newsstand, you have to wonder: Is all we’ll see moving forward either small launches from the indies, endless “zombie” book-a-zines from the larger publishing houses, and an occasional behemoth launch tied into a behemoth brand like Dr. Oz or HGTV?

Dr. Oz checking in.
Dr. Oz checking in.

I don’t know. I was around and worked on the launches of Computer Shopper and Sassy. I worked on building Lowrider up and had a great experience attending Lowrider shows. Perhaps print “innovation” is moving to the margins of either major home runs, or short hops to first base for the small indies.

As the cable guys would say, “Time will tell.”

Editor’s Note: Net Neutrality is a very serious issue and the creation of a two tier internet benefits no one, really. It’s a short-sighted attempt to generate larger profits, nothing more.

Agree or disagree with that statement, you have an opportunity to make your voice heard by posting a comment to the FCC by clicking here: http://www.fcc.gov/comments

I urge you to do so, and while you’re at it, let your local congressional representative and senator know how you feel about it.

 

Brides Goes Back to Bi-Monthly. Why are We Surprised?

It was big news when Conde Nast shuttered Gourmet, Cookie, Modern Bride and Elegant Bride Magazines. Conde is one of our premiere magazine publishers. As someone who never had the opportunity to work for one of the bigger New York based publishers, I can only imagine what it would be like to work for a publisher with that kind of editorial strength and industry clout. So when the recession struck with brute force, it was a little shocking to see a premium publisher respond by closing some property.

Back to the 6X frequency!

Brides Magazine, the remaining bridal magazine in the Conde portfolio then went to a monthly frequency. And that strategy lasted until this week’s announcement.

Of course, the trade press immediately jumped on the news:

Brides Switched to Bimonthly

Brides Overhauls Strategy

Brides to go Bimonthly

Conde Nast Taking Brides Bimonthly Boosts Mobile Interaction

The gist of each article is that the publisher is ramping up it’s digital strategy after being disappointed with single copy sales results and advertising revenue.

Yes, and….

No doubt, the bridal market is a tough one. On the newsstand alone, I’ve seen more than thirty titles with some sort of national content. In the bookstore market, the competition heats up with some excellent imports from the U.K. If you’re working in the regional market, something Conde also abandoned in the past year, I’ve counted at least one hundred or more regional titles all across the country.

I can only imagine how hard an bridal advertising rep has to work to make a sale. That seems like an impossible job.

If we add the competitive print market to the wireless way many brides to be live today….

Well, then the strategy makes some sense. That’s some shocking news, eh?

But I also can’t help wonder if it may also have something to do with the publisher finally fulfilling the subscription liabilities they took on when Modern Bride and Elegant Bride were folded. After all, at one time Modern Brides had more than 200,000 subscribers.

No one mentioned that.

Brides is also on the checkout. It often shared pockets with it’s sister title. If you paid a lot for your pocket, and you were a bimonthly, and you don’t want to leave copies sitting in a pocket that long…

Care to share?

Go monthly, right?

So, yes, declining advertising revenue, declining newsstand sales, brides being more mobile. We get it. Been there, heard it all before.

But I can’t help wondering if it you combine that trend with  major national retailers starting to re-do their front ends, subscription liabilities coming to a close. You know, circulation stuff…