Covers Sell

Covers Sell


You’d think that in the Sports & Fitness category, the ASME nominations might have something to do with winning or losing readers.  After all, the ABC numbers still matter to advertisers in the game of publishing.  And newsstand sales are a great scorecard of success, when readers actually vote with their wallets.

Let’s blow the whistle and break down these nominations, shall we?

Reality Check on ESPN Cover:

Some of the greatest covers ever produced (see Hall of Fame section of have been illustrated covers.  In my experience, they typically don’t work at the newsstand, but when they do, they sometimes score big wins.  Not so much with this nomination.  ABC statistics report average single copy sales for the Jan/Jun 2010 period were 17,034 copies, yet this candidate for an award sold 15,516 copies, or 9% worse than the average.  Newsflash:  the whistle has blown and this cover was a loser.

Reality Check on Field & Stream Cover:

According to ABC statistics, the average sale for Field & Stream during the Jan/Jun 2009 period was 35,987 copies. The June 2009 nominated cover sold only 33,625 copies.  That’s 6% below their average sale.  Compare and contrast that to their block buster February 2009 issue which sold 47,046 copies…40% better than the cover nominated for an award.  Strange, don’t you think, when winning paid readers is more important than ever?

Reality Check on RollingStone Cover:

Love Shaun White.  He owned the Winter Olympics.  But, while he is a great american sports hero,  I suspect Mr. White is not known for his singing ability while playing air guitar.  According to ABC statistics, RollingStone averaged 79,940 single copies per issue, during the Jan/Jun 2010 period.  The nominated cover sold only 71,558 copies.  That’s over 10% below the average, and placed ninth out of twelve covers in the rate base management event.  Certainly not worthy of a gold medal celebration.

Reality Check on Sports Illustrated Cover:

This cover certainly is worthy of an award.  According to ABC statistics, the Pictures of the Year cover sold 90,000 copies.  The average for the Jul/Dec 2009 period was 60,345.  Therefore, the nominated cover sold 49% better than the average issue in the rate base period.  However, two other covers during that stretch sold even more.  Why were they not nominated instead?

Reality Check on Garden & Gun Cover:

Until now, I must confess, I had not yet stumbled upon this interesting offering on newsstands.  If awards have a place to help elevate awareness of new magazines that are creative, that are experimental, and that are keeping our category fresh, then this is my winner.  The nominated cover from Dec 2009/Jan 2010 sold 13,270 copies, according to ABC statistics…their best ever performance since ABC began auditing the title.

(Note:  New York Times Magazine is not ABC audited)

Canadians Love Donuts

Posted by Scott On September - 2 - 20101 COMMENT

Love the new cover from Maclean’s.

According to Cover Designer, Jason Logan (more on that in a moment) the Tim’s cover was conceived and worked on well in advance of publication, unlike so many covers that have to be produced very quickly, as one might imagine for a weekly dealing with newsworthy subject matter.  Many Maclean’s covers simply don’t have the time for luxurious photo shoots, like this one, by Christopher Stevenson.

“Having time and some control over the shoot allowed us to create an image I hope hit both the delicious and disturbing notes. And I should add, it felt important to use a real Tim Horton’s donut for those rabid fans out there,” said Logan.

Logan may have the best art role in the country.  His title, Cover Designer, says it all.  He works only on covers for both Maclean’s and Canadian Business.  At any given time he may have “hundreds” of cover concepts in the works.

This iconic cover is sure to stand the test of time in Canadian foodie history.

Bring on the Poutine next, eh?

REALITY CHECK: American Society of Magazine Editors

Posted by Scott On September - 2 - 2010ADD COMMENTS

When talking about what makes a sexy cover, former Toronto Life editor Marq De Villiers used to say: “Well, that depends entirely on one’s glandular bias.”
Of the six covers nominated for Sexiest cover by the ASME editors, only one features a male on the cover. One can’t help wondering what the glandular biases were of the nominating group?

As most advertising executives know, and as most circulators have learned  by trial and error, “sex sells”.  More to the point, sexy covers often sell better than covers that are, well, un-sexy. One of the major motivators to do a “sexy” cover is to help drive sales. So if any category should be judged by how real newsstand consumers voted with their wallets, this surely is it.

Reality Check on Vanity Fair Cover:

While I personally love this fetching cover featuring Penelope, apparently it didn’t work at the newsstand. It was the worst-selling issue of the Jul/Dec 2009 rate base period, selling 309,000 copies according to ABC statistics. The average for the period was 444,400, so this issue sold 30% less than the overall average. Ouch! Not the result Vanity Fair was hoping for when pouring her into that clingy dress.

Reality Check on GQ Cover:

While clearly a more fitting cover for GQ than the disastrous Bruno cover, GQ couldn’t have been too happy when newsstand sales registered just 177,000 copies sold. Only one other cover sold worse during the Jul/Dec 2009 period according to ABC statistics: (you guessed it…Bruno). The average of this period was 193,440 copies sold. Kind of shocking that GQ’s two worst performers have both been nominated by the ASME editors.

Reality Check on Sports Illustrated Cover:

Ok, we have to be honest, this issue is in a league of its own, and it is probably unfair to even pretend otherwise. This sexy cover sold a staggering 925,000 copies at newsstands, according to ABC statistics.
Last year’s Swimsuit issue sold “only” 875,000 copies, thus a 6% improvement this year.  Impressive. But considering that SI sold 1,080,000 in 2008 and 1,060,000 in 2007, one might argue not sexy enough, relative to SI’s own internal benchmarking,  to be a winner when readers voted by reaching into their pockets .

Reality Check on Bazaar Cover:

No one can possibly argue that Kate Hudson isn’t sexy. I wonder why, on this cover,  they didn’t really play up her name, or her face, rather than all those flowers. According to ABC statistics, this cover sold 170,613 copies, 7% better than the overall average for the Jan/Jun 2010 period. Not bad at all, particularly in a slow US economy. But I suspect that they were hoping for a slightly bigger result at the newsstand cash registers.

Reality Check on New York Cover:

Excuse me…but that is a  very sexy cover for a city magazine. I can’t recall Toronto Life ever daring something quite this luscious. Seems that this cover struck a nerve with their audience, as sales reached 24,901 copies, a 35% improvement from their average of 18,446 for the Jan/Jun 2010 ABC statement. That’s a big result.

Reality Check on Entertainment Weekly Cover:

Is that 12 pack for real? Or has this cover been photo-shopped? This eye-popping cover sure was popular at the newsstands. ABC statistics report that it sold 85,903 copies, a staggering 112% better than their average of 45,409 for the Jan/Jun 2009 period. Only one other issue (the Movie Preview) out of 23 published by Entertainment Weekly in this rate base season sold more copies. Despite my glandular bias in favour of New York, I think we have a winner!

Editors presumably have their pulse on what is controversial, right?

As all good circulation experts know, controversial covers can generate free media exposure in newspapers, on radio talk, on TV, and on the Internet with viral chat, which can drive single copy sales to record heights.
So let’s break down the ASME nominations in the Most Controversial category.  Just how controversial are these covers?

Reality Check on GQ Cover:

According to ABC statistics, the nominated cover sold 144,000 copies.  GQ’s average for the Jul/Dec 2009 period was 193,440 copies  Therefore this cover sold 26% worse than the average issue.  This cover was the worst-seller of all 12 issues published in 2009. In fact, all 12 issues in 2008 sold more.  All 12 issues in 2007 sold more.  All 12 issues in 2006, 2005, and 2004 sold more.  This cover is the worst-seller in over 6 years and 72 covers produced by GQ.  Newsflash:  Cover so controversial no one cares.

Reality Check on The New York Cover:

According to ABC statistics, the nominated cover sold 17,175 copies.  Their average for the Jul/Dec 2009 period was 17,388. This cover sold below average, so how much excitement did it really generate?  Please.

Reality Check on the New Yorker Cover:

According to ABC statistics, the nominated cover sold 37,000 copies.  Their average for the Jul/Dec 2009 period was 37,136.  This cover sold below average, so how much excitement did it really generate?  Please.

Reality Check on the Vanity Fair Cover:

According to ABC statistics, the nominated cover sold 317,000 copies.  Their average for the Jan/Jun 2010 period was 344,084.  This cover sold  8% below average, so how much excitement did it really generate?  The January 2010 cover, Meryl’s Magic, sold 447,000 copies, 41% better than the “controversial” Tiger cover in February 2010.  It doesn’t even come close to the sales Vanity Fair achieved with its truly controversial Demi Moore pregnant and nude cover in August of 1991, that sold 546,766 copies.  Now that was a controversial cover of epic proportions.

Reality Check on the Los Angeles Cover:

Labelling a popular Hollywood icon a “failure” is controversial, and risky in a town like LA.  A-list celebrities don’t appreciate being slagged.  It’s very negative, perhaps nasty, perhaps partisan.   Political covers rarely work for city magazines either, anywhere in North America.   Yet this cover, according to ABC statistics, sold 16% more copies than the average in period.  I think we have a winner.

(Note:  the Advocate is not ABC audited).

We will break down the other categories in future posts on  And report back with the results.

I love editors. They are very smart. They are super conversationalists at cocktail parties. They read more, travel more and typically have better expense accounts than most circulation professionals I know. Most editors know how to have fun. I wish I had been an editor. Frankly, I am jealous. That’s the truth.

{Terry Sellwood, whose wit is legendary, once said:  “Ad Directors get all the money.  Editors get the awards.  And Circulators get the complaints.” }

But when it comes to covers, something strange sometimes happens. Editors ocassionally stop having fun, become uptight, rigid, earnest and territorial. And when it comes to covers that editors nominate for awards, they are often not smart at all.

Too often the covers that win awards have no relationship whatsoever with achieving key goals: improving newsstand sales with core demographic targets; attracting a broader audience of new readers from newsstands; increasing subs from insert cards; creating controversy that generates free PR and drives newsstand sales and traffic to a magazine’s web site.

All of these things in turn drive renewal rates, make advertisers happy, which in turn generates money to invest in editorial.

I think it is great that ASME has partnered with  Very cool and smart, actually.  I love it.  Asking web browsers to vote on their favourite covers helps expand our reach and sex appeal.  Plus, Amazon is helping us sell product.  It’s great to see the collaboration between editors and circulators to expand our audiences.

But let’s face it, readers have already voted…with their wallets.   We can look to ABC statistics for some insights into what our customers actually did with their money.

Let’s start with the first category News & Business.  Here are the covers that the editors have nominated:

Editors presumably have their pulse on what is newsworthy, right?

Reality Check on Fortune Cover:

According to ABC statistics, the nominated cover sold 16,724 copies.  Their average for the 12 issues published in the Jul/Dec 2009 period was 25,438.  Therefore this cover sold 34% worse than the average issue.  Newsflash:  Fortune’s fortunes not improved.  Not newsworthy, not good for business.

Reality Check on The Atlantic Cover:

According to ABC statistics, the nominated cover sold 38,743 copies.  Their average for the Jan/Jun 2010 period was 39,950. This cover may be powerful visually, but clearly it failed to generate enough excitement for people to put down their TV remotes, get off their fat rear ends, and waddle over to the newsstand.

Reality Check on the New Yorker Cover:

According to ABC statistics, the nominated cover sold 31,400 copies.  Their average for the Jan/Jun 2010 period was 31,178.  Two issues later, New Yorker sold 54,700 copies, or 74% more copies.

Reality Check on the Time Cover:

This fabulous classic portrait of Steve Jobs hit the mark.  According to ABC statistics, it sold 93,300 copies.  Their average for the rate base period was 72,164.  Therefore this cover sold 29% more copies.  Of the 25 covers in this rate base period, only two others sold more copies…impressive.  I think we have a winner.

(Note:  the other two covers are not ABC audited.  I love the Advocate cover.  It could easily be nominated…and win…for the Funniest category).

We will break down the other categories in future posts on And report back with the results.

Dazzling Dahlias

Posted by Scott On August - 27 - 20101 COMMENT

The Fall 2010 issue of GardenMaking (the new launch by Beckie Fox and Michael Fox) hits shelves this week.
The third issue of the “reader-focused” gardening title is packed with inspirational advice, plant portraits, and breath-taking photography.
Look for retail promotions at Chapters/Indigo and Wal Mart.
Also note that on page 77, a full page ad gives gardening addicts a sneak preview on what issue #4 might look like.

Q and A with Paul Jones

Posted by Scott On August - 25 - 20103 COMMENTS

Q. I understand you have formulated some strong opinions about the principle of Church and State, particularly as it pertains to circulation professionals?

A. In 30+ years in publishing, I’ve never encountered a term more misunderstood than “Church and State”. It started out as a necessary and proper distinction between the respective interests of journalists and ad sales people. In some minds it has morphed into an extreme orthodoxy that journalists have no accountability except to their faith/craft.

Try telling that to the Bishop, who definitely wants bums in the pews!

So if we have to fit circulators into the simplistic Church/State model, it seems to me they’re doing the Bishop’s bidding and thus are on the side of the Church. Still, I’m sure I’m not the only publisher who’s been accused by a journalist of breaching the Church/State divide by insisting on the importance of newsstand sales.

Q. The Summer issue of Cottage Life features a “Peal and Reveal” cover, that when lifted up showcases an advertisement for Corona beer. Do you Love it or Loathe it?

Corona, I love it.

As to the cover, I think it’s a business decision, with one important caveat.
The only ethical imperative I’ve ever understood in ad/edit positioning and identification is that a reader of moderate intelligence and attentiveness should be able to discern with a minimum of effort whether the material being viewed has been created by editors or advertisers. Provided this rule is observed in the “Peal and Reveal” cover, I don’t have an ethical issue with it.
The business calculation is more complex. Some readers will love it; some will hate it. It may depress newsstand sales. It may up the bar in terms of selling future ads to this or other advertisers. It definitely puts thousands into the bank account today. Al Zikovitz is a smart and experienced publisher and I assume he’s made these calculations in the context of his own publication and its market.
Love it, no. Loathe it, no. Leave it to Al to decide, yes.

Q. What are your 3 favourite covers of Canadian Business while you were publisher from 1990 to 1999, and why?

A. Number one favorite: In the midst of the early 1990s recession, which was far more vicious for the Canadian economy generally than anything since, we did a feel-good cover, “The Good News about Canada”. We invested in metallic gold as the background colour surmounted by a bright red maple leaf. Not only did it sell gangbusters, but for the only time in my career I had fellow publishers thanking me for something we’d done. And the story was remarkably accurate. It correctly foretold Canada’s long-term fiscal robustness, something hard to imagine in those gloomy, deficit-ridden days. It’s also a salutary reminder that a contrarian cover doesn’t have to deliver a negative message in order to sell.

Second choice: “McKapitalism”, an insightful and hilarious story by the brilliant Peter Foster on the early years of the Big Mac in Moscow. Prior to publication we’d received legal letters from McDonald’s and had vetted the story carefully. While the magazine was on press, I realized that there was a clearly actionable sentence on the contents page. After speaking with the editor and legal counsel, we stopped the press, changed the sentence and started over. Bottom line: strong sales, top awards, thanks from the Board for having reprinted, and the knowledge that, to this day, the issues discussed in the article are still relevant to McDonald’s in Russia, notwithstanding the company’s admirable tenacity there.
Third choice: “Eaton’s on the Brink”, by Ian McGugan, later the founding editor of MoneySense. Another story for which we took a lot of unjustified flak until the penny dropped a few months later. This story came during the editorial tenure of Art Johnson, who argued forcibly that a business magazine worth paying for has to deliver prescient content.

Q. What are your 3 favourite covers of Maclean’s while you were publisher from 1999-2004 and why?

A. First choice: An illustration by Joseph Salina of a sassy beaver leaning over a backyard fence with the cover line, “The Know-It-All Neighbour” The article countered the popular view that Canada is the politer partner in the relationship with the US. Not only was the cover successful aesthetically and financially, but it was an object lesson to the editors of the day that you achieve more if covers are discussed and planned, rather than thrown together during the last 72 hours. A different illustration of the same wise-guy beaver had appeared on a very strong-selling cover of the Maclean’s Poll issue a couple of years earlier.
Second choice: The millennium issue, “Voices of the Past, Faces of the Future”. I stand to be corrected, but I believe this issue established and still holds the all-time Maclean’s records for editorial pages, ad pages and total size—at a time of the year when there’s normally bupkus by way of advertising. A great read and wonderful images. Only problem: it created a high-water mark that was hard to regain. For several years afterward, competitors were pointing out to the credulous our subsequent “decline” in ad pages.
Third choice: I’m going to cheat a little here by picking a spin-off. We did a special, newsstand-only edition commemorating the life of Pierre Trudeau. The price was an aggressive $9.95—and we eventually sold every single copy. It was recognized by the Hill Times and others as being streets ahead of any other Trudeau memorial. I especially loved the OBC—a photo of Trudeau’s back as he walked down the street away from the camera. Not a single facial feature was visible, yet the figure was still instantly identifiable. Iconic. I believe that at the time it was the all-time highest-grossing single issue of a Canadian magazine on newsstands.

Q. What are your top 5 rules for effective covers (assuming they have to compete on newsstands or to generate paid subscriptions and renewals?

A. I have a presentation on the top 12 rules. Any publication that consistently improves on the prior year cover in 8 or more out of 12 will see a significant increase in average newsstand sales, all things being equal.
But I will comment on the top three factors, as opposed to rules, that determine sales.
In the short term, the number one factor is your magazine’s identity. An obscure literary journal may put the celebrity du jour on its cover, but its sales are strictly limited by its tiny retail network, which in turn is a function of past sales history. Contrariwise, People could print a blank cover with logo and still sell more copies than 99% of the magazines on the market. Wholesalers, retailers, consumers, all have expectations about a magazine simply based on its identity. The least and most popular magazines on the newsstand vary by a factor of 1,000 in their average single-copy sales.
The number two factor for most magazines is the content featured on the cover in the main image and the primary and secondary cover lines. My experience is that the most appealing story badly presented will outsell the dullest story displayed dynamically. In this respect, content is indeed king. I’m not sure if these ratios hold for service magazines, but for business or news magazines, the best cover subject will outsell your worst by a factor of 4-5—even more if you have the flexibility to increase draw when you know for sure you have a once-in-a-decade winner. Variations of two to one are not uncommon in a typical year. In this regard, the biggest mistake editors make is putting the most important, rather than the most appealing, stories on their covers.
Treatment comes a distant third in this hierarchy, though it’s not to be sneezed at. The same content may sell twice as well if the cover lines sing and are well integrated with the image—though variations of 25-40% are more typical.
(A fourth variable is promotion. Returns from this vary from nil to humongous based on many, many factors.)

Q. Many magazines in Canada have undergone design makeovers recently. Why do you think that is? How important is it, in your opinion, to refresh a magazine’s look and feel, given how quickly things change in the wired world we live in today?

A. Surely no one can seriously doubt that there are too many magazine makeovers. Every new editor and/or art director seems to feel it’s essential to redesign within the first year. OK, if the magazine has a fundamentally new direction or if one’s predecessors were truly incompetent. But most of the time, that’s not the case. Design is fundamental and therefore change in design should be strategic, not personal.
There’s also the matter of reader comfort. Most of us don’t like change. As Peter C. Newman once pointed out, if you evolve 1% a week, you have a completely different magazine in two years without having put the reader through a wrenching change.
You mention that things change quickly in the wired world. Is that true in terms of design? How is the Google home page different today from five years ago? New features to explore, yes. But the look is unchanged—and for good reason. Visual continuity has been and will remain an important feature of the public face any of product or service, online or otherwise.

Q. Lately, there have been a lot of Publishers, with impeccable track records, who have been dismissed from their posts? As a former publisher, how do you interpret the signal this sends to a) advertisers, b) the staff and c) the readers?

A. These are brutal times. I doubt that readers notice or care when a publisher goes. Advertisers have the attention span of gnats with ADD—they’ve got their own problems. No doubt it can be hard on staff who lose a publisher, but what are their options other than soldiering on?
Is it a sign of the decline of the magazine industry? Yes. Has the industry as a whole needed to trim costs across the board, including executive compensation? For sure. Have the right people been let go? Here, you could argue that there’s been too much carnage among publication management and not enough at the various corporate “head offices”. But in any company head office gets to make these calls, so why are we surprised?
What worries me is that publications will be too light in management to make decisive and timely moves on the web and in response to any ad uptick. On many publications today, the only fully dedicated staff are editors, a group not traditionally known, or called upon, for entrepreneurial thinking.

Zoomer Levitates

Posted by Scott On August - 21 - 2010ADD COMMENTS

At the PBAA Canada 2010 Conference yesterday, Zoomer editor-in-cheif Suzanne Boyd talked a bit about covers.  Joining her on stage was Marisa Latini, Director of Consumer Marketing, and Craig Sweetman, Account Executive from Coast to Coast.

Apparently, this exclusive cover shot was taken over a year ago, and the folks at Zoomer have eagerly been awaiting the opportunity to use it.

“We are expecting great sales from the September issue — it’s got the winning formula of  a powerful photograph of an icon linked to a strong theme, bold cover lines and high-quality production.  We have done well with iconic celebrities on the cover…like the Queen or Gretzky,” says Marisa Latini.

The cover is very Vanity Fair-esque.

Boyd confessed that she is a magazine junky.  She also acknowledged that Vanity Fair is a magazine that she has carefully tracked and admired for many years.

Craig Sweetman noted that Coast to Coast was working closely with their wholesale and retail trading partners to get Zoomer merchandised alongside Vanity Fair on mainline racks.

I predict that this cover will be a winner.  It will be on sale September 20th.  Cover price $4.50

Peel & Reveal

Posted by Scott On July - 28 - 2010ADD COMMENTS

Cottage Life has done a “Peel and Reveal” cover featuring Corona Beer on their Summer 2010 issue (for both subscriber and newsstand copies).

It is seamlessly executed.

“This was an idea that our sales team presented to the client about a year ago. It was expensive to produce, and required five additional days to print, glue and die cut. This is a first for Cottage Life, but the creative was executed easily. We were able to work with the client while sharing cover and creative at early stages with each other. Positioning of the peel worked well along the edge, and our cover lines were not compromised. This isn’t for everyone, but the concept was a success and everyone was happy,” said Jodi Brooks, Production Manager.

The creativity demonstrated here illustrates just how exciting the magazine medium can be. It deserves high praise. Clearly the entire team, from advertising, editorial and art, circulation and production worked in collaboration to achieve this success.

I’ll drink to that.


Posted by Scott On July - 26 - 20101 COMMENT

Fly Fusion is a quarterly magazine focused on fly-fishing addicts, both in Canada and the United States.

We approached the cover design on this issue almost as if it were an SIP (Special Interest Publication).

You will note that the word “Steelhead” appears four times:  First in the drop down box, secondly as the main selling feature, third with a supporting sell line and fourth with the bottom reference to Trey Combs, steelhead author.  And in case you were wondering, yes that is a monster Steelhead that you are making eye-contact with emerging from the depths.

  1. Radical Clarity
  2. Committing to the Cover
  3. The 3-Second Rule

These were the guiding rules used.  The Fall 2010 issue goes on sale August 23rd.  Cover price $7.95.



About Me

Scott Bullock’s Newsstand Cover Quiz Show is legendary in the industry. Using covers as the catalyst, this interactive and entertaining format is a light-hearted but hard-hitting spin on Packaging 101. Testing the cover savvy of magazine professionals across disciplines, the Quiz Show pits publishers against editors, circulators against art directors, retailers against wholesalers -- ultimately leading to new common ground in the quest for better covers. Scott is the Owner of Circ3, Smart Circulation Solutions, a circulation consultancy.



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