Covers Sell

Covers Sell

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.

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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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