Covers Sell

Covers Sell

Archive for May, 2010

Q & A with John Macfarlane

Posted by Scott On May - 27 - 2010

Q. At the 2005 National Magazine Awards gala, during your acceptance speech for the prestigious Outstanding Achievement Award, you talked about how “the plumbing” might be evolving, with respect to circulation acquisition through the net, and delivery vis a vis the web, but that quality content and packaging was still and would always be the keys to success. Do you see the IPad as a game changer?

A. I see the IPad, and similar technologies, as “game changers” in the sense that I think they’ll allow publishers to distribute magazines on another paid-circulation platform. This will help fix the business model. But I continue to believe, notwithstanding the internet, that content continues to trump plumbing.

Q. As editor of Toronto Life, you launched their first two Special Interest Publications: Eating & Drinking, followed by Shopping. Both were huge newsstand success stories. Both featured upgraded cover stock, perfect binding, and were premium priced. Clearly, these grew organically out of your “Red Book” concept. Tell us how you convinced the publisher to invest in these high quality vertical brand extensions, and why they continue to sell so well at newsstand.

A. Actually, it wasn’t difficult to convince the publisher to invest in the SIPs because the numbers were so attractive. The costs were relatively low, since we’d already paid for the content, and we knew we could get a premium price at the newsstand, making the reward more than worth the risk. As for why they continue to sell, it’s easy: they provide the consumers with useful information they can’t get anywhere else.

Q. As Editor of Toronto Life, what are your 3 favourite covers, and why?

A. Choosing three covers from more than a hundred and fifty is tough. And I have to admit that the ones I liked the best weren’t always winners at the newsstand.
So I’m going to cheat and pick six: Doug Gilmour (March 1994)a beautiful black-and-white photograph by Nigel Dickson; Best Restaurants (April 1995) a whimsical hand-tinted photograph by Nigel Dickson, who used his children as models; Dalton McGuinty (March 1999) which I like because it’s bold and cheeky; Ben Johnson (March 2000), another great photograph by Nigel Dickson, although it probably bombed on the newsstand (athletes don’t sell for Toronto Life); Stephen Lewis (December 2006) Nigel Dickson does it again, making a potentially boring subject playful; and Conrad Black (October 2007) while illustration is normally a no-no on the newsstand, this one (by Anita Kunz) sold very well—which proves what?

Q. The Walrus has always sold remarkably well on the newsstands. It punches above its weight class with respect to “thinky” books like Harpers or Atlantic Monthly? Why do you think that is?

A. The novelist John Irving has pointed out that the Canadian best-seller lists are more up-market in literary terms than American ones. Apparently, Canadians are more interested in good writing than Americans, and I think the same applies to long-form narrative journalism. And it’s not a recent phenomenon. When I published Saturday Night in the 1980s, it had a greater penetration of the Canadian marketplace than Harper’s, the Atlantic and the New Yorker combined had in the United States.

Q. You’ve invited readers to choose the cover for your upcoming Summer Reading issue. I know that you are a gambling man….so, do you have a bet going with your Circulation Director, Stacey May Fowles, on which cover will emerge and how well it will sell?

A. No, we didn’t make an actual bet, but we were on opposite sides of the fence. I liked the bear, and she liked the girl. Happily for me, the bear won. I just pray it does well on the newsstand.

Q. Name 3 Canadian and 3 U.S magazines that you look to for inspiration or that you admire. Who is doing great covers, in your opinion?

A. Canadian magazines I admire: Explore, for its literary ambition; Vancouver, for the precision of its editor; and Toronto Life for reasons that should be obvious.
American magazines I admire: The New Yorker for its literary achievement, New York for its innovative flare, and Vanity Fair for its prowess at playing high-low.

Q. Greydon Carter at Vanity Fair (a Canadian) gets cameos in Hollywood movies. George Lois at Esquire is lionized as a celebrity in the Untied States and gets book contracts.  I think brilliant editors and art directors are the superstars of any great magazine. And by them being held up as celebrities, it brings a certain swagger and sex appeal to the magazine medium, which I love. So why do you think here in Canada, brilliant editors such as yourself, and great art directors, like Ken Rodmell, aren’t treated like celebrities in Toronto, our media capitol?

A. First of all, I’m not sure I’d compare myself to Graydon Carter, David Remnick, Kurt Anderson, Clay Felker or any of the other American editors I’ve admired over the years. But the reason they get treated like celebrities is that they’re more powerful and, like professional athletes, they make more money. They’re more powerful because they have larger audiences. And they make more money because in a market of three hundred and fifty million people their success generates big profits for the companies that employ them. In Canada, a much much smaller country in which magazine publishing has always been financially marginal, it doesn’t work like that.

Q. Speaking of Ken Rodmell, he used to talk about great covers that were “clichés with a twist.” When pressed, he talked about plugging into peoples “collective memories” and using that power of stored up equity. He created covers that tapped into that reservoir, but always did it with style and verve. Tell us about your favourite Ken Rodmell anecdotes, pithy sayings, and fabulous covers.

A. Ken Rodmell is a born teacher. He loves to figure out how things work and then pass that knowledge on to others. He trained a generation of Canadian art directors, and one of the most important things he taught them is that at the newsstand you have about three seconds to reach the prospective purchaser so your message better be clear and bold. Most bad covers simply require too much time and effort on the part of the newsstand buyer.

Q. You’ve always fought the good fight for investing in editorial quality. I remember vividly your passionate arguments to invest in the best writers, illustrators and photographers possible, to protect editorial page counts, and to invest in upgrading cover stock, going to perfect binding, and fighting passionately against any trim size cuts or downgrades in quality. Given the cut backs recently on the advertising side of the ledger, do you still believe that the best way forward is quality content and quality packaging?

A. It seems so obvious to me that that’s still the case. My favourite metaphor in this debate is the automobile. The people who buy Mercedes couldn’t tell you the thickness of the sheet metal in the body or the grade of leather in the car’s interior, and it’s probably the case that in any given year the company could cut back on these and other things without consumers noticing. But if they did it year after year the buyer would eventually catch on—and at that point they’d have destroyed the meaning of the brand and lost the discriminating buyer forever.

Q. You’ve always been a circulator’s dream editor. By that I mean that you embrace the idea that newsstand sales, and renewal rates, are the best barometers of editorial success. How important are great covers in achieving your goals as an editor?

A. Covers are important, obviously, but at the end of the day it’s the content of the magazine that determines whether a reader is likely to buy the magazine repeatedly, either as a newsstand buyer or subscriber. On the other hand, a reader isn’t going to try the magazine in the first place if its covers aren’t in some way compelling. The question is: what makes a cover compelling? How important is design? How important are coverlines? No one really knows, of course, but my own view is that subject trumps everything else.

Breaking News…New Look for Maclean’s

Posted by Scott On May - 26 - 2010

As hinted at by Ken Whyte on, Maclean’s magazine, is unveiling a new look this week.

Encouraged and inspired by the outstanding sales success of the Maclean’s Olympics SIP, the new look features a white border, a re-worked sky-bar area treatment, and uses both a starburst and cover slash device.

The issue is on sale in Ontario, Thursday, May 27th, British Columbia and Quebec on Friday, and all other Provinces on Monday.

The cover price remains the same, at $5.95.

Circle of Life

Posted by Scott On May - 25 - 2010

Coyote’s have been making the news a lot lately.  In my neighbourhood, The Beach, in Toronto, for eating people’s pet dogs, and out east, for attacking and killing a female musician.  There seems to be a perverse fascination with the wily Coyote.  What a perfect symbol for the Annual Environment Issue…Nature’s Ingenuity…as this species evolves and adapts to us.

The cover uses the core real estate effectively to focus on the predator, the main sell line is broad, to widen the market appeal, and the supporting sell lines use the left-hand space well.  The gold frame helps focus the eye, and suggests that this issue is indeed worth buying.

The June 2010 issue is scheduled to hit newsstands on June 7th.

Built to Sell

Posted by Scott On May - 20 - 2010

This cover may not win awards for edgy design, but my guess is it will sell lots of copies at a premium retail price.

Like a Greatest Hits album, this SIP is packed with the editor’s favourites.  The issue promises and delivers value.

Using the upper left real estate to maximize the main selling feature, it trades effectively on its brand reputation.

Christine Martel, of Presse Commerce, sells thousands of copies of Dwell in her fine retail outlets, so I asked her to offer up an opinion:

“I like the altered cover treatment for this special issue of DWELL.   The clever use of quadrants (which is quite retro) makes it really stand out from their regular issue. Still, this is definitely keeping with DWELL’s style: fresh, clean, modern and organic photographs.  This will be a collector’s item for any design aficionado.”

Biggest Summer Issue Ever

Posted by Scott On May - 18 - 2010

The Pink Bubble Burst proudly proclaims that size does indeed matter on newsstands.

The Summer issue of Fashion is pleasingly plump with a page count of 202 pages.  Nice to see such a big thick issue packed with great ads and fantastic editorial.  Readers are going to devour this one.

The Cover Girl features Sex and the City’s Sarah Jessica Parker, looking fabulous…great hair, great eye-contact, great clothes.

The issue hits newsstands May 24th, perfectly timed with the debut of Sex and the City 2, the movie, which is released on May 27th.

This cover is flawless.  The less-is-more colour scheme is stylish, powerful, and elegant.  The eye travels effortlessly from hook to hook.  This cover easily competes with the best Cosmo covers (sans sex tips).  We love the playful confidence Fashion shows by weaving Sarah into their logo…creating a fantastic 3D effect

Watch for this issue to shatter some sales records!

Cover of the Year Nominations

Posted by Scott On May - 13 - 2010


What do you think?

The nominations are in, and as usual there are some very “artsy” covers nominated.

The great Paul Jones once quipped that the best way to win this award was to create a cover that was “Art with Logo.”  This was Paul’s witty way of saying that Gold Winners were often pretty, but perhaps had little or nothing to do with the primary job of a cover (for most consumer magazines) which is to help sell copies at newsstand and help generate a renewal to a subscription.

So I asked Paul, winner of the prestigious NMAF Outstanding Achievement Award in 2004, to comment on this year’s covers competing for Gold.

“Implicit in the judge’s selections is a disregard, bordering on disrespect, for words.  No cover lines.  Tiny cover lines that suggest words are an inconvenience or an embarrassment.  Big cover lines in which words serve mostly as indecipherable design elements.  Was the Vancouver Magazine cover the only deserving nominee with substantial, legible cover lines?”

According to the NMAF web site, since 1998 the Gold award for Cover of the Year has been won by controlled circulation magazines 6 out of 11 times, or 54.5% of the time.  Report on Business has won it twice and so has Saturday Night, with FQ winning in 2004 and Shift in 1998.  FQ, Saturday Night and Shift (4 of the 11 winners) are sadly no longer publishing.

Wayne Leek, publisher of Food & Drink, who used to work for Shift said, “We were delighted, but amused, because the award-winning cover was such a poor performer at the newsstand.”

By way of disclosure, I have twice been a judge for the Cover of the Year.  I was one of three judges.  Both years I was involved, my top pick for Gold didn’t even make the short-list of the top 5 covers in the first round of voting.

Now, take a moment to Vote for the cover which you think should win this year?

For Magazine Junkies Only

Posted by Scott On May - 12 - 2010

I was sitting in the front-hall waiting area of my daughter’s piano teacher’s living room.  Jane, the piano teacher, provides a rich assortment of magazines for parents of her students to read while waiting.

Hello, Maclean’s, Canadian House & Home, and other quality Canadian brands.  Hidden under the pile was Vogue Living Australia.


Like Canadian House & Home has demonstrated from inception…high quality content and superior production values are critical.  Great cover and interior stock. Glossy.   Thick page count.  Oversized trim and packed with eye-candy for style-minded voyeurs addicted to interior design.

Cover price?  $11.99

When Jane emerged from the lesson with my daughter in tow, I asked her:  “Vogue Living Australia, Jane?”  Her response:  “Isn’t it fantastic?”  I agreed, but quizzed her by saying, “But $11.99, Jane?”  To which she responded:  “Yeah, I’m a junky, but look at it, it’s so worth every penny.”

I love magazine junkies, don’t you?

Quality = Addicted = Happy to Pay a Premium

Playboy Goes 3D

Posted by Scott On May - 11 - 2010

British Columbia Magazine, Summer 2009 Record Breaker

Posted by Scott On May - 9 - 2010

British Columbia Magazine chose to celebrate their 50th Anniversary in style with the Summer 2009 issue.

“We increased trim size.  Added perfect binding.  Enhanced cover stock.  Invested in Gold metallic ink.  Used both a starburst and cover slash.  Bold typography was employed. Created a 9-page cover fold out featuring every cover published over the past 50 years. And we promoted aggressively at point of purchase.”


  • Best-selling issue ever in their 50 year history.
  • Best sell-through efficiency ever achieved…67%

This cover just won an ACE AWARD (Award for Circulation Excellence) at the 2010 MagNet event for Best Retail Cover Large Circulation category.

Esquire, Quiz 1

Posted by Scott On May - 7 - 2010

Simply choose the cover that out sold the others.

Click on the cover to see full image.



About Me

Scott Bullock is a veteran circulation expert with over 38 years experience in both Canada and the United States. He has worked on trade titles such as Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, School Library Journal and Small Press in the USA. In consumer magazines, Scott was the Circulation Director for D Magazine (the city magazine of Dallas, Texas), and in Canada he was the Circulation Director for Toronto Life, Fashion, and Canadian Art. From 2000 to 2004, Scott was a partner at Coast to Coast Newsstand Services. Scott has also held the post of VP Sales & Marketing, for CDS Global, Canada. Currently, CoversSell.Com is Scott’s circulation consultancy. Active clients include: Fly Fusion, Canadian Geographic, Canadian House & Home, Canada’s History, Canadian Real Estate Wealth, Canadian Woodworking, Canadian Cycling, Canadian Running, Canadian Scrapbooker, Legion, Harrowsmith, SkyNews, and SuperTrax.



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