Pandemic Publishing Roundtable: The International Magazine Centre with Nikki Simpson

By Linda Ruth (Cross Posted at BoSacks.com

The first time I zoomed with Nikki Simpson, I knew that our little group—Joe Berger, Sherin Pierce, Bo Sacks, Samir Husni, Gemma Peckham, and I—had to have her as a guest at our Pandemic Roundtable. She’s got a great eventcoming up, and our Roundtable members will be there for it. And joining the Centre is the easiest thing in the world, all publishing people are welcome.

Nikki isn’t someone who sees obstacles. She sees only opportunity. So, when she noticed that publishers starting international offices in the UK were doing so, as a rule, in London, she saw an opportunity to welcome them to Scotland. What could be easier? Get a building where publishers can have space, office infrastructure, freelancers, and the support and inspiration of other publishers. In the meantime, while you’re working on that, there’s plenty of good you can bring the publishing community—training courses and events, ideas and introductions. 

Gemma: Is your Centre based in Edinburgh?

Nikki: It will be. We want to be somewhere it will feel natural to go to a coffee with a publisher. Now, while we’re saving money to open our doors, we’re doing as much digitally as possible. We’re currently working on an online training course, which will be free to our members.

Joe: This is a new and exciting concept.

Nikki: Yes, there are trade organizations, but they take a different angle. We in the publishing industry tend to be magazine geeks. We spend a lot of time talking to each other, but not enough, I think, talking to the people who read our magazines. We’re doing that. And we focus on the small publishers, something the few remaining organizations cannot afford to do to the same extent, given their business models.

The proposed exhibition space for the International Magazine Centre.

Bo: Till now there hasn’t been a real mechanism for the little ones. We as an industry need the small publishers, and they need support. I’ve spoken for years about the need to incubate young publishers.

Nikki: That’s part of what we’ll be doing. Sometimes it seems as if the industry is netting down to the top three publishers, but there are still a lot of very creative ideas, still a lot of up-and-comers.

Bo: When companies like Future buy out everyone else, it creates a vacuum that provides openings for new businesses.

Nikki: There’s still too much focus on audited circulation, because the big publishers generally use it, and, since the big ones newsstand-based, the message the advertisers get from these publishers is that the business is dying. This message trickles down to the advertising base of the little ones. So, every time the audit numbers come out, the advertisers lose interest in advertising, and the smaller advertisers who go to the smaller magazines also lose interest. It makes small publishers feel like imposters. You hear them saying, “Well, I’m not really a publisher, I’m not audited, I don’t go to conferences, I’m just someone putting out a magazine.” 

Bo: It’s a shame, because there’s a lot that can be learned at conferences.

Nikki: Not if most of the presentations are about things that don’t work on a small scale. As an alternative, we’re offering peer-to-peer support. We have a great mentoring scheme. We’re finding it’s making a difference; it’s changing the way people do business and making them more successful. 

Gemma: I started alone and built to four magazines. This roundtable has been a great resource. What you offer would be amazing.

Joe: So often when I work with small publishers, everything they do is self-taught. 

From Upper Left: Nikki Simpson (International Magazine Centre), Joe Berger, Bo Sacks, Gemma Peckham, Linda Ruth and Sherin Pierce.

Nikki: For me diversity is also really important. In the UK the industry is predominantly white and middle class. It’s only two percent black, for instance, which is ridiculous. As a business we pride ourselves on being easy access. But if you don’t know people, and maybe they all know each other, you don’t feel welcome. It’s another reason for the training course. You can watch it for free and pay a small fee to sit the exam. 

Sherin: Out of necessity, we small publishers must innovate. People who work for a smaller company get to do so many different things, it’s a great opportunity to learn. We can pivot. It’s nice to fly under the radar. It’s where innovation takes place. It’s more fun. We don’t praise ourselves enough, so you don’t hear so much about us. The press goes to the easiest thing. They don’t dig deep enough. 

Joe: I’ve got some robust publishers whose stories don’t get told because they aren’t audited, not counted. 

Nikki: Yes, for example in Scotland I discovered a publisher with 2 million pounds turnover, 20 people staff, and I’d never heard of them because they were digital and b2b. The scene is so much bigger than we imagine.

Sherin: All boats have to rise, and if small and independent publishers do well, we’ll have a much better industry. We’re always happy to share information with new publishers, and in the process, we might learn something too.

Nikki: That’s what I tell my mentoring people. They might know more, have more experience, but they can learn as well. We have a series of Hive events, in which one person will present a problem and then turn off their camera and mic and listen in while the others discuss. We mix the groups up, students with professionals, new publishers with more experienced ones, so that everyone gets a fresh perspective, a unique angle. 

Bo: What kind of problems do publishers bring to the Hive?

Nikki: It’s a real mix. Some people aren’t actually publishers but in adjacent businesses. They might ask questions like, “I’ve lost my Mojo over lockdown, what can I do?” or “How can I better connect with my audience?” Things like that.

Sherin: We’ll come to the Hive.

Gemma: What is your membership model?

Nikki: We’re funded through Patreon. I have about 53 patrons, most from the UK but also from the US, Spain, New Zealand, Italy. It’s nice to know people like what I’m doing enough that they want to support this effort. 

Bo: I did my newsletter for over 10 years without making a dime. Keep plugging away and you’ll be surprised what might happen.

https://www.patreon.com/InternationalMagazineCentre

Pandemic Publishing Roundtable: David Atkins of Newsstand.co.uk – Newsstand Concierge

By Linda Ruth, cross posted on Bosacks.com

If you are unfamiliar with David Atkins and his business, newsstand.co.uk, he is almost certainly not unfamiliar with you. Newsstand.co.uk, the world’s largest print newsstand online, has over 4,000 magazines available with same day dispatch, worldwide. 

The Pandemic Roundtable—Joe Berger, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham, Samir Husni, Bo Sacks, and me—welcomed him to our group to talk about his operation, the movement to print-on-demand, and the opportunities for publishers moving into online sales. David’s business began in 1898 as a family wholesaler business, JG Palmer. Changes in the industry, with the consequent losses of many independent wholesalers, led the company to reassess what the needs of the customer were, and how they could help. The result was the shift to online, beginning with subscriptions and moving to single copies in 2011. Today, their online strategy enables publishers to get their publications into the hands of the reader through internet sales and online orders as economically and as quickly as possible. Through their concierge service, they are able to offer publications to readers based on their area of interest. 

Joe: When did your shift to online take place? 

David:  We stopped being a wholesaler in 2006, dabbled with projects for Tesco’s and national newspaper publishers and started concentrating on online sales in 2009. We started working with independent publishers in 2015. It’s been a nice journey. We get our copies from the wholesalers, various distributors and directly from the publishers themselves. We sell either subs or single copy at the same price point, it’s the same thing to us with the only difference being the frequency of the purchase. We’ve gone from 100% subs to, today, about 50/50. It’s slowly tilting to single copy. Maybe 10% of customers will buy more than 1 copy and we have some voracious customers. 

Joe: How different is your warehouse setup now from when you were a retail tieline? 

David: Very different. We had a huge packing machine, unique on the planet, that packed into boxes for 4,000 retailers, in every day, out every day. Now we have endless shelving! It’s tricky for staff working with packing lists with 65 different issues rather than the one. It’s an investment in equipment, an ongoing process but still a mainly manual one. 

All under one roof and ready to ship!

Bo: You have a great site–functional, easy to use, one-click purchase; it’s a brilliant setup. 

David: Thank you Bo! I’m really all about function over form; but we want to make sure the process is as smooth as possible. Of course there are always improvements to make to the website but we tend to place more importance on the service that the image, there’s always work to be done in either direction. 

Samir: How did your business change with the pandemic? 

David: It’s had its plusses and minuses. The pandemic initially strengthened our sales, which were spiked to two to three times greater year over year. At the same time, it led to other companies, both at home and abroad, focusing on online, so we needed to work harder to maintain our share of market. On the other hand, more people also have discovered they can buy single print copies online. Internally, there are all the challenges of keeping the people on site (in the warehouse) happy, as well as helping others to transition to working from home. It’s not easy and I am keen to get everyone back into the office soon. General anxiety in the population reflects in how people interact with customer service; in our case, emails into customer service went up 400% and not all of them were pleasant. 

Sherin: We’ve all had to up our game. Amazon set the standard for delivery. Publishers need to learn to keep up with that. We have to turn everything around in a day or two. The pandemic has taught us to be faster, smarter leaner and deliver to our customers so they keep coming back. 

David: You’re right about that; we went big on getting copies to the customer tomorrow. The rest of the industry was still going with 10-12 weeks. You can get a refrigerator tomorrow but have to wait 3 months for a magazine; it doesn’t make sense. We’ve been busy changing that. Joe: What are you seeing in terms of new launches? 

David: Quite a lot in the indie market, with what feels like weekly launches. Literature titles are very popular. 

Gemma: I launched a book magazine, Oh! Reader, in 2020. 

Joe: The phrase “crazy brave” comes to mind. 

David: Great! Crafts are also popular; we sell a lot of UK craft magazines in the US and a lot of US craft magazines here. 

Gemma: In the US it’s very difficult to sell single copies online. 

David: We do work with some US publishers, and also export publications to the US. 

Sherin: shipping to every country has different rules. You have to work back from on sale because it takes different lengths of time for each country. Copies are stickered. You have to learn about each individual country. And the cost of shipping is very high. 

Pandemic Publishing Roundtable – from top left: Samir Husni, Joe Berger, Bo Sacks, David Atkins, Linda Ruth, Gemma Peckham, Sherin Pierce.

David: Print-on-demand might help with that at some point. It would be good to hear from US publishers keen to experiment with UK distribution via POD. 

Samir: the day will come when we will print on demand at home. 

David: We are about to launch a POD printer. I’m very excited about it. We’ll be able to go to publishers and distribute their publication without the shipping costs and delays. We’ll have more to say in a few weeks, when we’re up and running with it. It’s still going to be expensive for now. Joe: Now. Five years from now, maybe not. 

Samir: Fifteen years ago I spend $10,000 on a laser printer. Today they sell for $49. 

David: We’re starting with the saddle stitched titles. The high quality perfect bound magazines will come later. 

Bo: The quality of POD printers can be outstanding. 

Sherin: Having online points of distribution has got to be good. It’s something we’d like to see grow with the Almanac. 

Joe: If the publisher is being paid. I see publications on Amazon that appear to be coming out of someone’s return room and being sold on Amazon stores with no remuneration to the publisher. There are a couple of online newsstands here but they don’t seem to have much traction. I feel the best people to set up effective online magazine sales would be the wholesalers. They have the warehouses; they have the magazines. What they don’t seem to have as yet is the technology. 

David: We’d like to be involved with that (not Amazon) – we’re involved in a few conversations in various locations. Crucially, we have software that can maintain the product. Bo called that out; but in many cases, the importance of effective software is vastly underestimated in this industry. 

Bo: It was the first thing I noticed about your site.

Samir: The US postal service is undependable, and worsened by pandemic; this is a factor that makes selling online single copies difficult. And postage rates are unbelievable. 

David: In the UK as well; it’s shocking how many copies were lost in the mail during the worst of the pandemic here; and since we replace copies no question for all our customers and publisher partners, it’s cost us a good bit this last year. 

Samir: We did a study and found that people buying mags on the newsstand really just the one or two issues. They don’t want the others, even if the entire year is offered at the same price. 

David: Yes precisely, we’ve tried to upsell single copies to lower-priced subs, but it hasn’t happened. People are less interested in moving over. They want next day delivery of the magazine they want and the issue they want. Many people just don’t want to commit to a subscription. They don’t want any commitment whatsoever. It’s a wholly different group than the subscribers. 

Joe: What do you see in the coming years? 

David: We’d like to work with international wholesalers to help them launch their online businesses; we want to move into becoming an industry knowledge and information base as we have more experience than anyone in what we do.  And we want to keep doing what we’re doing, trying to improve, and getting as many magazines out as we can. We’re also getting ready to shout about it a bit more – we’re not very good at that so watch this space.

Season’s Greetings: An Update from the field from MagLiteracy.org

By John Mennell, founder, MagLiteracy.org

Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, the Pandemic Roundtable invited John Mennell, the founder of MagLiteracy.org to come and talk about his organization and the progress they’ve made during the pandemic in distributing magazines to the needy. Since then we’ve been in regular communication with him and received the note and pictures you will see below the fold.

As terrible as 2020 has been, what incredible success this organization has had in expanding their mission of bringing literacy through magazines.

An Update From The Field

Our new Mississippi MagLiteracy.org team covers the ground from Memphis to the Delta. They were inspired by Samir’s invite to Act 9 and it’s been made possible by the unstoppable Estella Dean and her daughter Courtney. 

Thanks to steady Barnes and Noble newsstand supplies we were able to ship a pallet of beautiful mags to the Delta from our Ohio Literacy Bank warehouse to get them started. They are already partnering with community orgs and the large Mid-South Food Bank in Memphis to feed children and families hungry to read in areas of the USA faced with the deepest historical poverty.

The Mississippi MagLiteracy team.

Estella mentions engaging Ole Miss and I can tell you that high school and college students fuel our successes in Madison, Wisconsin and here in Columbus. A group of Columbus high school students bundles mags for curbside food bank distribution. A club of 30 students to is already forming at OSU and assisting with our B&N store pickups here. 

Following on the 100,000 National Wildlife Federation kids’ mags that Quad delivered to launch our warehouse operations at the Atrium Company, we received 200,000 Cricket Media magazines. We are getting regular support from Kent Johnson at Highlights Magazine Publishing and Trusted Media Brands product via Milwaukee. The weekly Pandemic Roundtable helped expand our voice and got us noticed. We recently began to receive pallets from publishers like Dance Media via PubWorx.  Other children’s and regional publishers like the Dispatch Company, and Meredith are now sending us magazines to distribute.  

Magazines packed in with food deliveries.

I had the privilege and pleasure to receive some mentoring from Bonnie Kintzer of Trusted Media Brands earlier this year who emphasized the importance of focusing on high needs in middle America. We took that to heart and with the always unflinching support of Joel Quadracci of Quad Graphics and his team, and with Krifka Steffey  as tip of the retail spear at Barnes and Noble, we are getting in some good trouble supporting thousands upon thousands of eager readers. Many of our readers have had zero books or magazines in their home up until this point.

Tonight, I stood on a hill and wished upon two converged planets that 2021 will be the year that we all together plot a celebrate the enormous unique power of magazines for sharing the literacy love. This is our moonshot. Godspeed.

To help MagLiteracy reach their year end goals, please go to MagLiteracy.org.

Things Placed (Yet Again) In Front Of The Magazine Rack

There are admittedly many advantages to the way the newsstand sales business is organized these days. For example, if I have a decent wi-fi signal I can quickly find out exactly where my magazine is selling. And where it isn’t. With a few mouse clicks I can download sales history, competitive sales history, class of trade data, top performing stores and more. With a few more mouse clicks I can send off a note to a distributor or retailer and make a presentation about why my ranking should be changed or a certain issue is being promoted.

On the other hand, there are few compelling reasons outside of curiosity or a desire to travel, for me to get into a car or board an airplane and jet off to Louisville, KY (Once the home of a decent sized wholesaler) to see what the displays in that town look like.

So I was pretty thrilled a few weeks ago to get in my car and drive for a few hours to meet with a regional publishing client face to face. In fact I was so happy to get out of my oddly shaped office that the day before the appointment I did something I hadn’t done for years outside of my own home base: I set up a retail check-up route, left hours before the appointment and spent the morning checking stores.

The trip had some nostalgia to it because this town was once home to one of my favorite wholesalers. To be fair, the wholesalers who now manage the retailers in this town do a good job. Most displays were perfectly fine.

But….

Wisconsin1
Got milk. But got no magazines!

And then there was this:

Wisconsin 3
No whining just because you can’t get to your favorite magazine now…

And a few others I didn’t capture very well on camera. To be fair, most displays were perfectly fine.  But the ones above are memorable and they occur far too frequently for comfort in an industry that is constantly under assault.

A few weeks ago, fellow consultant John Morthanos put up a post on Publishing Executive where he argued for expanding the title mix at checkout. He posited, correctly I think, that the checkout was dominated by seven publishers. Most of these titles had experienced significant circulation declines so wouldn’t it make sense to experiment? Try out new titles, new categories? Shouldn’t we make the checkout more, well, democratic and meritorious (my interpretation)? He went so far as to suggest, to the apparent horror of some of our colleagues, that one checkout in each store should be designated for these up and coming titles.

John is on to something. Without diving deep into the data, it’s probably fair to say that the crash of newsstand sales over the past seven years has come mostly from the checkout. The celebrity weeklies are the biggest culprits. The uptick we see in the sales of book a zines, adult coloring books, and niche titles like The Backwoodsman and so many regional city books, guns and survivalist titles  can’t make up for the hundreds of thousands of lost units in weekly celebrity and women’s service magazines if these trending titles are relegated to the back row of a twelve-foot mainline.

There are opportunities opening up in some chains. Over the past few years, most Kroger owned banners have either re-racked their stores or opened them up to a program called “Pay to Stay”. For the record, that title, “Pay to Stay” is not nearly as ominous as it sounds. “Pay to Stay” or PTS for short, is a one-year checkout program where the retailer does not install new racks, but does ask all the titles on the rack to pay for a relogo program – or give up their space. Open pockets are then offered to other titles – often titles that are growing and ranked highly on the mainline.

The cost for this program is significantly less than a new rack program. In the last cycle, I was able to move a client who had a national publication and multiple regional titles into many markets where in the past we were relegated to the mainline and could only dream of putting the titles onto the checkout.

The program is managed by TNG’s RS2 division. It is interesting to note that the program is billed in quarterly increments and publishers can opt out if they give notice one quarter in advance. This was a huge plus in gaining the participation of my client. And no, they didn’t opt out.

Since then I have come across more programs like this. You don’t always get in. You don’t always get what you want. But it’s a small step in the right direction.

I am seeing more and more requests from retailers for publishers to be more active in promoting their titles on the newsstand and partnering with the retailers to promote their magazines in their stores. A recent letter from the Costco buying team comes to mind.

For my part, I have always encouraged the publishers I work with to announce the on-sale dates of their titles, feature their cover images and stories and promote the availability of the magazine in national and local retailers in their social media feeds and e-blasts. Why wouldn’t you try to make a sale?

Of course, we can and should do more. No matter how wonderful home delivery, drone delivery and and driverless cars may be and become, people are social animals. We need to interact. We like to get out of our homes from time to time. Anyone who works from a home office can tell you about that.

In the meantime, a recent tour of some local retailers over the July 4th weekend showed that we still have a long way to go.

While Whole Foods, has and always will get props from me for their unlogo’d checkouts, last weekend they popped a bunch of mobile carts in front of their checkouts. On the one hand, you can’t blame a retailer for wanting to boost impulse sales over a busy holiday weekend. But to me, it’s a chilling reminder of how tenuous our hold on the checkout is. It also makes you wonder why our industry didn’t approach them with an idea for the busy holiday weekend.

The local Jewel Supermarket was selling t-shirts at their checkouts.

Jewel1
Go Cubs Go!

As bricks and mortar retailers come under increasing pressure from on-line retailers and changing customer patterns, our industry would be wise to continue to reinvent how we do business. John happens to be right. We need to experiment more.

But we also need to make sure that there are fewer things in front of the magazine rack.