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).

1210-lrmp-01-o+december-2012+cover

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…

Is our DNA Keeping the Newsstand Industry From Making a Sale?

A longtime friend and colleague has often said that “ Single copy sales is a very simple, practical, complicated, business.”

He’s right. The goal is simple. Sell stuff.

No sale here

It’s the selling of the stuff (magazines), however, that is often complicated. Product has to be shipped at just the right time. The content has to look appealing. It has to be displayed just so. It has to get to just the right mix of stores in just the right quantities so that all the links in the chain can make some money from the sale (A lot of people dip into that $4.99 cover price before the publisher takes the final cut).

All along the way, one simple blooper, one simple slip up can mean the difference between front shelf displays or a missed on-sale date. Between a small profit, break even, or a loss.

Some things are unavoidable. Adults who conduct business prepare for mishaps and deal with them. You know what you have to do when the printer mis-ships sub copies to a wholesaler. You’re going to have to sticker new UPC codes onto the cover and it will cost you. If the road to the break up agent gets washed out in a tornado, you’re going to have a delayed shipment. If the union at the grocery chain goes on strike, you may have trouble getting your product in the door. If your editorial and art team once again decided not to include you in the cover reviews and produced a stinker for what is supposed to be the biggest issue of the year…Well, that happens.

We handle that all the time.

What’s strange is the strange, the absurb, the unusal roadblocks that we now place in front of ourselves on a daily basis. How did this come about?

Here’s some examples from my daily notes. All every day occurrences that make this publisher’s representative and his colleagues (many of these were shared with me by my colleagues) wonder if we really, truly, honestly want to sell stuff anymore.

  • Require new retail authorizations to buy a “Promotion” or pay extra RDA (Retail Display Allowance) in order to gain authorization to the chain.
  • Have wholesalers deny access to any more than 10% of the newly authorized chain account (even though the market is much bigger) because….well, “because”.
  • Lose a chain authorization that you paid up front promotional monies for after one year because you were denied access to the proposed distribution by your servicing wholesalers issue after issue after issue because your sales did not meet the threshold….well, “because.”
  • Have your national distributor send out “distribution assignments” without your pre-approval or knowledge.
  • Have the national distribution assignment that did not meet your approval include competitive titles and/or goals that do not meet your publishers goals, objectives or competitive titles.
  • Have a cover review meeting with your publisher, editor and art team. At the close of the meeting have the art director note that “This was a waste a time.” and “In a year we’re going to be all digital anyway so who cares what the newsstand cover looks like.”
  • Have your circulation department spend hours re-keying sales data from industry information suppliers, wholesalers and national distributors because each link in the chain provides data in a different format and none of them match how you review and interpret the data.
  • Sit in a meeting and listen to an editor berate the “middle men” who suck all the profit from magazines. “We’d be better off dealing with Amazon and Apple,” he proclaims, “That’s where all the kids go anyway.” He neglects to connect the dots. Apple and Amazon are “middle men.” They sell other people’s stuff for a cut.
  • Pay tens of thousands of dollars in promotional monies in order to achieve circulation targets and have those targets washed away almost immediately in “scale back” allotments that do not take into account actual sales in promoted accounts.
  • Have your distribution managed by individuals who are not familiar with your title, it’s regional strengths, it’s seasonality, or the editorial content of your magazine.

IPDA released an encouraging report this week from Kable Media’s Jim Roberts detailing the interesting and innovative things some of their clients are doing in order to maintain and grow their single copy sales.

Right now, I am in the middle of a pretty extensive relaunch effort with a multi decades old publisher. The publisher has partnered up with some web based entrepreneurs who like the melding of print and digital and they are excited about their prospects on the newsstand. People still want to do this. This is good.

Doug Stephans, the president of consulting firm Retail Prophet, asked in his blog post last week, “Is the companys DNA killing your brand?” In his post, Stephans examines the numerous missteps that Avon cosmetics has made since the later part of the 20th century and their inability to adapt to new retail challenges and the 21st century’s trends in social media and retail marketing.

This is a piece of our DNA

Is our own industry’s DNA is hurting our ability to sell our product? Have we mutated into something that hurts our ability to grow? Four links in a distribution chain with differing methods of measuring sales and financial success. Perhaps our industry DNA is so mutated after all the changes in the past two decades that we’ve lost sight of our one simple goal:

Sell magazines.

Editor’s Note: This post sat in my edit que for about six days. Since it’s first draft, others in our industry have also written about our struggles to get out of our own way. 

I’d encourage you to read John Harrington’s  excellent history of how the newsstand business consolidated in the 1990’s via BoSacks.com.

For additional perspective from another industry consultant, check out Linda Ruth’s additional thoughts on magazine display by clicking on the link above.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can improve our industry.

Things Placed in Front Of The Magazine Rack: Part 4 of…

For those of you who are paying attention, the correct title for this post should actually be “Things Placed in the Book A Zine Pocket”. But let’s not quibble.

This submission is from Mark White, the head of Specialty Marketing at US News and World Report.

On the plus side, texting and college goes together like chocolate and peanut butter.

Over the years, I’ve come across everything from empty candy wrappers to unopened cans of pop and discarded prepackaged seedless grapes in the mainline pockets. So while not shocking, this find certainly is amusing.

Don’t forget to keep sending in your photos of “Things Placed in Front of The Magazine Rack.” And while you’re at it, please follow this link to printbuyersinternational.com and check out the recap of Mark’s presentation at the Publishing Business Conference and Expo in New York last month where he discussed how US News broke the “11 Unwritten Rules” of Book A Zine publishing. It’s well worth the side trip.

Who knew our industry was so big on oral tradition?