Is A Transformation Coming, Or Is Our Bow Underwater?

Those of us who worked on the front lines of newsstand distribution in the mid 1990’s made a few assumptions when rapid consolidation hit the business. One was that the ID wholesalers who remained in the business were there because they were tough, hard working and had more options than the colleagues who sold out. That’s still a decent estimation of their capabilities.

But we also thought that category of small wholesaler would rebound because we saw some small newspaper operators and adult bookstore suppliers jump into the mainstream newsstand business. The Detroit metro area, for example, saw four such wholesalers enter the market. Almost twenty years later, two remain. 

The other presumption some of us made was that both the large wholesalers (i.e.: Source, News Group, Hudson, etc.) and some new actors would make inroads into the “non-traditional” marketplace. This would be a good, but not large space for magazines.

That happened. Source Interlinks’ Retail Vision division has an extensive list of retail clients as does News Groups’ Select Media and Hudson News’ Hudson Direct. HDA in St. Louis jumped into the arena and serviced Michael’s Arts and Crafts and other stores. Ingram Periodicals has a good foothold in categories such as outdoor sports stores and art supplies.

For a long time, however, profits in newsstand distribution have been elusive.

Late last week, we heard news that international supplier PMG, a company that mostly exited US wholesale distribution market in the mid ’90’s consolidation was shuttering its overseas and Caribbean operations. Last month we received the shocking (to us veterans) news that Gopher News of Minneapolis, MN was closing its doors immediately and that Benjamin News was closing all of its Canadian operations this coming April.

Early this week, it was announced that specialty distributor HDA was shutting down.

Does anyone out there really think wholesalers can make a profit in this market?

In 2013 we lost two small wholesalers: Erie, PA and Pembroke, NH. The list of ID wholesalers continues to shrink so clearly our presumption about this being a growth category was very wrong.

To make a comparison relevant to this blogs title: Last year we sprang a leak.

This year, what do you think? Is the bow is down in the water about 15 degrees?

It’s been clear for a long time that the wholesale community is operating under some pretty miserable conditions. A colleague called last week and started to rant.  I had to interrupt and ask: At this point, who cares? Do we really need to argue twenty years later if this is a business problem of their own choosing? It really wasn’t and it really doesn’t matter anymore.

It’s also clear that our major national publishers will not or can not operate in any sort of concert to promote the sale of single copies at the newsstand. A few years ago, we saw the “Power of Print” video and a few of them will occasionally promote on social media or with a limited advertisement for a single title. But that’s the best they can do.

The national distributors are not only trying to stay relevant, they’re also still fighting a rather expensive lawsuit that dates back to the Anderson News debacle of 2009. Apparently the Anderson company maintains that the national distributors and their competitor wholesalers and some publishers met face to face to plan their demise and they’re willing to spend their remaining fortune to prove this.

My point: The ND’s are a little busy right now and can’t be expected to lead the promotion of the category.

Every link in this distribution chain has a different way of scoring their success and clearly what we are doing is not working if our goal is to sell more, not less. Publishers are reinventing themselves, national distributors have their attention focused elsewhere. Wholesalers are too financially stressed. Their innovations at the moment are focused on reducing expenses, innovating in the warehouse and out in the field. Let’s not forget, they deliver and merchandise the magazines on the rack. They don’t create the product they sell.

Retailers supply space and customers. We know magazines are profitable for them but it’s a very small piece of what they carry. Even national bookstore chains don’t (for whatever reason) advertise magazines much to their customers. While we may not have lost much space yet despite our lost unit sales, my guess is that the promotional dollars publishers now spend to prop up their unit sales goals are keeping the space available to us.

We do know that retailers frequently ask publishers to step up and participate in coupon promotions or ask publishers to come to them with “Out of The Box” ideas. My guess is that the response rate is less than enthusiastic. Most of what I have seen is either too complicated, too outside most small publishers niche, or too expensive for all but the most deeply pocketed publishers. The timing often has nothing to do with the publishers’ editorial calendar.

So here we are. Maybe the bow is now down 20 degrees. Is that cracking noise the keel?

This week and well into next, for better or worse, we’re may see a lot of ink and bytes about single copy. MagNet has released their data. It’s not good. Pretty soon AdWeekAd AgeFolioAudience Development and everyone else could weigh in on the “Continuing Problems of The Newsstand”. Numerous opinionators, prognosticators and harumphers are going to give us their deep thoughts on “What Should be Done About Newsstand”* and “Why Aren’t the Major Publishers Listening to Me?!”**

Last November I offered five and a half steps to “fix” the newsstand. Here’s a few more thoughts:

6. Stop selling other sources of circulation at the expense of newsstand. If you offer a deal digitally or via subscription, offer “deals” for single copies. Go ahead and test it. Be a part of the solution.

7. There is no reason anymore to wait for someone else to “promote” the category. Small, large and medium-sized publishers can, on their own, promote single copy sales of their own titles to their own audiences via a host of social media. Learn it. Do it. Be a part of the solution.

8. If you are a publisher and you are not satisfied with the responses of your national distributor or wholesaler or retailer with regards to your display or sales, go and make some noise until you get your answer. You’re the one who invested in the product in the first place.

No one person, company or idea can save the newsstand. You have to wonder if this year, we will have a fundamental transformation in how we do business because it was forced on us.

The demise of this industry was not set in stone in 1995 or 1997 or 2009 or even with the unsettling events of this year. It doesn’t have to happen.

Of course, we could continue to drift, bow down 30 degrees. Then we may see this:

*: It’s usually some variation on ‘Let’s all work together to solve this! Oh, and stop wasting so many copies. It’s disgraceful.”

**: Most likely because they are very busy right now trying to stay in business, thank you.

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Titanic, The Magazine

Editor’s Note: Please scroll down to see a copy of the May/June cover of Archaeology Magazine. This issue features a first hand account from archaeologist James Delgado who has dived down to the wreck and discusses the changes in the wreck over the past decade. Archaeology went on sale last week and can be found at many Barnes  & Noble Stores.

Readers who are new to this blog may remember that I started writing about the newsstand business as a tongue in cheek response to what felt like an endless stream of “you’re all doomed” articles and blog postings about our shallow little inlet of the great magazine sea.

It never actually occurred to me until recently that I would have the opportunity to blog on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. It would be a lie if I didn’t say it all felt a little strange.

So are there actual magazines out there covering the anniversary of the disaster? But of course there are. In our world, we cover everything. There is a niche for every niche.

This year, Smithsonian Magazine got there first with their coverage of the sinking of the Titanic in their March issue.

Where are the 3D glasses when you need them?

As a rule, I’m a big fan of illustrated covers and I love that this issue covered the story in a different way.

National Geographic has been on top of the Titanic story for some time and the April issue featured another illustrated cover with a startling portrait of the final moments aboard ship as she broke in two. The free poster promised inside the magazine is as dark, disturbing and ultimately engrossing as the cover.

So where in your bedroom would you hang the poster?

Not surprisingly, the good folks over in the Time/Warner building have pulled the dust covers off of Life Magazine, rolled her up from the basement storage locker and cranked out a $12.99 special. It’s worth every penny. If you’re into 100 year old nautical disasters. I am.

Worth it? Why yes!

But the default winner in the 100th anniversary disaster magazine niche category has to go to our “English Cousins” at Future who shoehorned the sinking of the Titanic into their quarterly special, Your Family Tree. As soon as I can dig out a copy, I’ll report back on just what, exactly, this is all about. But sight unseen (except for a cover image) this one wins and everyone gets into the lifeboat.

Your Family Tree - on the Titanic...

Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the German’s have a leg up on all of us with regards to the ill fated ship. They have a monthly satire magazine by the name of Titanic. That logo is just awesome.

Tell me you don't lover their logo.

If you come across any interesting Titanic displays out on the newsstands, don’t forget to send them my way to newsstandpromos at gmail.com.

The May/June 2012 photographic cover of Archaeology Magazine. Submitted by the publisher.

And remember, the “Things Placed in Front of The Magazine Rack” feature continues. Please send in your photos.