Covers Sell

Covers Sell

Right on, John!

Posted by Scott On May - 28 - 2012

Great article by John Harrington….

Some Lessons for a Challenged Publishing Business:

It Was Magazine Covers That Were The News This Past Week

By John Harrington

Magazine covers are often featured in the news, but it’s usually when they are reporting on a newsworthy event. This past week, it was magazine covers that were the news. The front pages of Time and Newsweek were feature items across the broader media world, providing coverage and discussion on television, radio, the internet, social media, and probably a whole list of formats that this Luddite is not yet aware of. It was not the article about child-rearing that had the country talking about Time magazine, it was the provocative cover photo of an attractive, fit mother breast-feeding her well-beyond-toddler age child. Likewise, it was not the news that President Obama had come out in favor of gay marriage, but Newsweek’s imaginative interpretation that made the magazine a focus of the national conversation.

It is important to raise several key points about magazine covers being the news, not covering the news. If Time and Newsweek no longer had newsstand sales and were only delivered to their subscribers, does anyone think last week’s covers would have generated so much buzz? Not a chance. And, don’t even pretend that they would have gathered any attention if they were only published in digital formats. Which raises the question, do digital magazines really have covers? Time and Newsweek were in the news because they were displayed across the country, actually the world, on magazine racks in terminals, bookstores, drugstores, supermarkets, and frankly everywhere magazine single copies are sold.

Beyond that, the news-making covers generated excitement and profits for two titles whose brands are virtually symbols of the magazine business to most of the public, but are at the same time viewed, at least by those of a certain age, as representatives of “old” media. Their recent circulation histories may even justify that opinion. For the most recent available audit reports (second half, 2011), Time averaged 75,000 single copy sales per issue and 3.2 million subscriptions; and Newsweek’s numbers were 40,000 and 1.5 million respectively. Again, to emphasize an earlier point, it was those relatively few retail distributed copies, compared to the mammoth subscription numbers, that put Time and Newsweek on the national agenda last week.

Beyond creating some publicity, did the publishers gain anything from their covers, or to use a relatively modern term, were they able to monetize the attention? Time’s editor-in-chief, Richard Stengel, reportedly said that the attention resulted in record subscriptions sales on the internet. It would not be surprising that Newsweek had a similar experience. But what about newsstand sales, which advertisers still look to as a measure of a magazine’s vitality? According to figures released late last week by Magazine Information Network (MagNet), the Time “Mom Enough” issue outperformed the magazine’s 26 week average by over 40%. Using the same measure, Newsweek’s “First Gay President”newsstand numbers were up by more than 50%. That’s pretty good “vitality” for two representatives of “old” media.

Generally, the retail sales of a particular issue of a magazine are measured against the sales of the same issue from the previous year. The irony for Time and Newsweek is that one year ago, their covers featured the death of the terrorist, Osama Bin Laden, and each generated some of their best numbers ever. That means that last week’s demonstrations of outstanding vitality were actually lower than the demonstrations of spectacular vitality of a year earlier. So much for “old” media.

Some Lessons for a Challenged Publishing Business: Yes, Time and Newsweek had a good week, and subsequently, so did their national distributors, their wholesalers, and their retailers. However, last week’s success contains a broader and longer-term message for the entire publishing business. Covers are the signature identity of every magazine, they define the nature of the title. When they do that well, by capturing the publication’s excitement, its unique nature, they enhance the magazine, and the entire magazine business. And where do they do that more than anywhere else? On brick and mortar newsstands!

The New Single Copy does not generally get into critiquing magazine covers, but we will broadly state that most publishers could do more to enhance their brand by using their covers to more consistently demonstrate their content’s excitement, depth, and value. The editorial in last week’s Time and Newsweek most certainly was equal to their normal high standards. What was different was the effort they made to convey that message on their covers, and it clearly was rewarded. We hope that they continue to do that with future issues, and that other publishers will do it as well. It is not just a matter of good covers. We are well aware of the time that goes into the covers of all major titles. It is more properly an increased focus on the newsstand, of the potential that is there, not just for improving single copy sales, but for the enhancement of the entire magazine business, or perhaps more appropriately today, magazine media.

Yes, retail magazine sales have been dreary for an extended period, beginning with the onset of the Great Recession; and now continuing even as the economy gradually recovers. Newsstand has always had some ups and downs, but deeper readings reveal that the cycles have been inordinately impacted by the performance of a few titles, or a single category. Growth in the early and mid-1980’s was generally inspired by the surge in men’s adult titles. Softness in the late 80’s and early 90’s could be attributed to the long decline of TV Guide, which once averaged of 10 million copies sold a week. The stable sales of the mid-2000’s was easily credited to the growth of the celebrity category, which has fallen sharply since 2008. However, one constant which sustained the business throughout the years, at least till the most recent tough times, was the entry of new titles, from publishers of all sizes. That is not what is happening today. With a few exceptions (Hearst’s The Food Network and HGTV come to mind), major publishers have not been bringing new magazines to the newsstand. We hasten to point out the substantial success of the two aforementioned new titles, which has been matched by their subscription success, as well as their ad growth, both of which grew from their newsstand success. We also hasten to point out last week’s newsstand success for two “old” media publications, which inspired a broader publishing success for both of them.

Once more, in the words of the CEO of a major publisher, words that should be part of every discussion of magazine retail sales, “The retail channel remains the cornerstone of our business!”

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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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