I wonder, does everyone know why the magazines you see in airport newsstands are there? It doesn't happen by accident. Mostly, publishers are forced to pay a placement fee or "space contribution" to get their titles put out on sale at airports, especially in the newsstands inside the security checkpoints. That's why you see lots of big titles—and lots of magazines of the type that depend on newsstand sales for the lion's share of their circulation, such as fashion and womens' titles, and football, automobile, and sartorial titles for men. You won't see much in the way of smaller, poorer magazines for sale in airports—nor many produced by small independent publishers, either. That would include a fair number of hobbyist titles.
But here's a new twist. Asda, a big U.K. supermarket chain, seems to be taking this peculiar form of extortion a bit further. Not only is Asda demanding that magazine distributors pay £10,000 per title to sell magazines in its stores—and not only does it want £2,500 additional per title, per store for new stores as they're built—but it's demanding that it receive two pages of free ad space in each of the magazines it stocks as well!
That's a new one on me. I've heard of set-out fees, but I've never heard of venues actually taking over content. What's next? You will turn over all your profits to us, or your workers will starve. Buahahaha! Bastards.
Your friendly favorite magazine
For whatever good it will do, I might as well repeat something I wrote in an editorial once at Photo Techniques. If you want to support a particular magazine, do the following three things:
1. Don't buy on the newsstand—subscribe. Why? Because most smaller titles don't make much money on newsstand sales, if any. You pay more, but more of it goes to the sharks, or is eaten up in costs. For some, newsstand sales might even be an expense—a net loss.
2. Subscribe for two years at a time. Why? Many magazines are set up such that their promotion and circulation efforts more or less eat up the first year's profits. Where they finally make money on is renewals. Renewals are subscribers they don't have to spend money to find. So make their day—give 'em a renewal right off the bat.
3. Send in your payment with your subscription. Why? Because billing and dunning costs are a big expense for most publications. Save them the hassle—send 'em a check.
I know the common argument—people say they like to leaf through an issue to see if enough articles interest them before buying. Just try this simple little calculation: divide the cost of a year's subscription by the newsstand cover price. I recently subscribed to 12 issues of a favorite magazine for $10—and the newsstand cover price is $6.99. That means that if I buy more than one single issue every year (which I do), I'm better off subscribing. For most magazines your break-even number is somewhere between two and four issues. At that rate, it doesn't really matter if you're interested in two articles per issue, rather than five, in the eight to ten issues you're getting "for free" as it were. You're still ahead by subscribing.
What's particularly tragic from a publisher's point of view is that some people deliberately buy their favorite magazines on the newsstand in the mistaken belief that, because they pay more, the magazine benefits more. Granted, there are some magazines—fat, glossy fashion mags, for instance—that do most of their business from the newsstand, and they don't really care if you subscribe. Not so for most smaller, struggling hobbyist titles.
Oh, and another thing? Don't buy your magazines at the supermarket or the airport. How would you find out about them, then? Well, here's one last tip most people no longer know: most magazines are happy to send you a sample issue if you request it. It might not be the absolute latest issue, but it will be a recent one. Just write and ask.
Mike (Thanks to Ailsa)
Featured Comment by Tony Boughen: "Mike, Asda may be a big UK supermarket chain, but it was taken over a few years ago and now advertises itself as 'Part of the Wal-Mart family.' So watch out, they might be trialling a form of corporate blood-sucking that will soon cross the pond!"
Mike replies: Oh, so they really are bastards, then. My condolences for my country infecting you with this particular plague of modern life.
Featured Comment by Thom Hogan: "A couple of things. First, Mike's viewpoint is from a smaller magazine viewpoint. Absolutely the small, independent magazines would prefer not to deal with newsstand circulation and all the issues that this brings up.
"However, from a large circulation magazine's viewpoint (remember, I worked for a company that was putting out millions of units a month) things actually work a bit differently. That $10 you pay a year for a magazine? That's actually a worse thing for the magazine than selling 30% of the magazines they place on the newsstand at $6.99. It has to do with the way ABC audits work, amongst other things. Basically, a magazine guarantees eyeballs to an advertiser. How those eyeballs are valued is dependent upon a lot of things, and the average price paid is one of the key differentiators in the big leagues. For instance, my magazine maintained an over $20 average for 9 issues, while one of my competitors was averaging less than $14 for 12 issues. Guess how that impacted ad rates?
"But newsstand sales do other things for magazines that are under-appreciated. One of the reasons I got the job at that company in the first place was that I could scan their covers and predict with a good deal of success how they'd do. Why is that important? Well, subscribers actually rarely give you feedback other than a blanket renew/no renew decision. Newsstand sales, if the person in charge of covers knows what they're doing, allow you to test assumptions about what does and doesn't attract readers. This, unfortunately, tends to get taken to the wrong extreme. Once someone finds something that ticks (Abs in a cover line on Mens Health, for example [no, I'm not kidding]), the magazine tends to repeat that over and over until it exhausts. The smart editor tests and probes with covers, and the percentage sell through tells them a lot.
"So it's not as simple as you might think.
"And since my name was used in a hypothetical question, I'll take it out of hypothetical. Yes, a magazine could certainly treat Nikon as thoroughly as I do. Indeed, we have some close at hand examples of why I say that: look no further than Photoshop User and the empire Scott Kelby made from and around that. With the right people making the right decisions, it could be done for any niche, including Nikon users."
Mike replies: Thanks Thom. It's true that I know very little about the business mechanics of putting out "millions a month." When I was in the category, though, no photography title was circulating in the millions. I think the best title was >500k, a couple were in the vicinity of 200k, and several strong ones were around 100k. We never made it as high as 50k. (Camera & Darkroom—the American one owned by Larry Flynt—had 16k subscribers when it went kerplooie.) I can tell you that none of our advertisers cared a whit for how much people were paying for the magazine! At least not that I knew of, and I was in all the meetings. In fact what they seemed to care most about was how many of those little reader service card requests they got, and that was already irrelevant even in my day. OTOH, our regular subscription rate was $20 for six issues, so maybe that counted in our favor, somehow.
I do have a few funny stories about cover testing. One I've told many times in talks and probably here too, so I apologize in advance to anyone who might have heard me tell it before. At one point the company hired a very well-paid "cover consultant" to help us at the newsstand. His services consisted of calling me once a month to bend my ear for 45 minutes with the same wisdom he'd imparted to me the month before, and providing a critique of every cover we actually put out.
After several issues' worth of rather tepid reviews from this fellow, I did a cover that pretty much went against everything he was telling me. (I do have a bit of a passive-aggressive streak, I'll admit.) It was a subject that no one would think was pretty—it was a picture by John Barnier of a cow skull, shot from the underside so that it looked vaguely like a face with eyes, to illustrate an article about the great English alt-process expert Michael Ware. There was only one color on the cover, and it was mainly dark; and the main blurb ran in the middle of the page. It said "The New Cyanotype" in a horrid faux-Goth face that still makes me chuckle under my breath when I look at it.
As you might imagine, the cover consultant went ballistic. He wrote a scathing, two-page letter to the publisher saying every nasty thing he could think of about my Cyanotype cover and calling me every sort of name. I think he even suggested I be fired!
In his usual gentle, soft-spoken way (he really was—is—a nice guy), the publisher had a long talk with me about his "concerns." So a couple of issues after that, I decided to put our consultant's ideas to the test. We commissioned a custom cover, a picture of professional model with a fair amount of skin showing, shot by a guy who had 750 magazine covers to his credit. He even used a wind machine(!). White background, just like the consultant said was sure-fire. Blurbs in solid colors, all on the left-hand side, according to the formula. (Sorry about the poor JPEG, but you can kinda get the idea.)
The consultant loved it. Praised it to the heavens, and closed by allowing as how there might be hope for me yet!
Well, you can probably guess the upshot. (Or else why would I be telling this story at all?) When the numbers came in, my cyanotype cover out-pulled the windblown-model cover on the newsstand. Pretty simple, actually: it appealed more to the darkroom workers who were the magazine's main audience. Our pretty model couldn't compete with the hundreds of prettier models on all the fashion, lifestyle, and womens' magazines; I'm quite sure it got lost in the store racks (and if it didn't, probably looked a little threadbare by comparison). But a darkroom guy would see that cool cow skull and go, oh boy, cyanotypes.
Oh, and Thom, if you ever want to make some real money without working too hard, you really should consider hiring yourself out as a cover consultant. I'm still amazed at how much that guy charged us!