Are Magazines Getting Bookish?
Are newsstands the dinosaurs of distribution? Don’t tell that to U.S. News & World Report. Although focused on building a strong digital business, the publisher is committed to using this time-tested means of putting its print products before the masses—though in an innovative way.
At the Publishing Business Conference in March, Mark White, vice president of specialty marketing at U.S. News, spoke about his company’s marketing of bookazines— hybrids of books and magazines that hold promise for publishers looking for new ways to reach niche audiences with repurposed content.
Bookazines combine all that people find pleasing about magazines—the glossy pages, beautiful photos and easy-to-read layouts—with the permanence, niche appeal and price-point of books. As White noted, an empty-nester couple looking for recipes is more likely to pick up a special edition of Cooking Light magazine focused on cooking for two, rather than the monthly magazine, which may have one article on that topic.
In a presentation entitled “11 Rules of Bookazines—and Why We Broke Them All,” White redefined what these products can mean for legacy magazine publishers.
Bookazines, White said, are normally defined as products sold exclusively on newsstands for impulse buying, outside the normal publication schedule, with little or no advertising (and no rate base). While enjoying a longer shelf-life than magazines, they are available for a limited time only. They are traditionally seen as not suitable for libraries, bulk sales or controlled distribution, and are normally spinoffs of a subscription magazine.
U.S. News has a number of bookazine products, including annual guidebooks based on its popular rankings: “Best Graduate Schools,” “Best Hospitals” and “Best Colleges.” It also publishes special editions on topics such as “Amazing Animals,” “Secrets of Your Brain,” and “The Real Jesus.” Challenges to newsstand distribution (including the loss of Borders Books as a sales outlet and declining numbers of trips to supermarkets in response to high gas prices) have led U.S. News to go from a “newsstand-only” to “newsstand-plus” strategy. The publisher sees more than 15 percent of its bookazine sales from non-newsstand sources (Amazon and the Web) for some of its titles, and plans to expand sales channels to include e-editions (launched recently on Nook), bookstores, historic sites and science museums. Two of the annual rankings guidebooks are offered on newsstands for nine months instead of the traditional three.
The publisher offers an audited rate base on four of its bookazines: 75,000 for “Best Graduate Schools,” 100,000 for “Best Colleges” and 150,000 for “Smart Money Moves.” The rate base for “Best Hospitals” tops 250,000.
Schools want copies of the “Best Colleges” book to offer prospective students. Companies that sell products to hospitals want the “Best Hospitals” book with a custom cover wrap to give away at trade shows. “[Customers] know people in that market want that consumer book, which they’re using to deliver a message,” White said.
“We found ourselves breaking a lot of rules and changing things around. Not really setting out to do it, but I think all of us [in publishing] have had to re-think our businesses.”
National Geographic has also seen bookazine opportunity in its extensive content archives geared toward niche interests. The publisher’s National Geographic Magazine Collector’s Editions, exploring topics such as cats and dogs, the history of the swimsuit, the cosmos, natural disasters and religion, sell for $11.99 (the magazine retails for $5.99).
“Originally, when we conceived of them, we took some of our key content areas—the core group of stories that people have consistently been attracted to, for example, ancient cultures like Greeks, Romans, Mayans—and came up with a special issue,” notes John MacKethan, vice president of retail sales and special editions at National Geographic. “We collected all of the materials that we had historically in our archives on the Maya, and put them together, and freshened them up with new material—any of our latest research or anything new from our explorers in the field, to come up with a fresh package of Mayan culture and what it means to us today.”
Dressed up with the “house mark”—the iconic yellow border—the editions, now expanded to over 30 topics, have proven popular on newsstands. “The general barometer of success for one of these is greater than 100,000 copies sold,” MacKethan says. That means well over $1 million at retail.”
“Basically the thinking is that the newsstand distribution footprint is a lot broader and deeper than a bookstore-only footprint,” he says. “These could be in bigger drug chains or supermarkets. We have some on the checkout [line] right now, which is a new venue for us.”
National Geographic has experimented with putting bookazines in other areas of stores, such as placing an edition about digital photography on photo counters at Ritz Photo and Wal-Mart. Publishers and distributors would like to do more of this type of targeted placement, such as putting food magazines in the produce section of supermarkets, but the difficulty can be in getting retailers to go along, he said.
MacKethan points to the ability to target niche audiences as key to bookazines’ appeal.
“The reason more people are diving into this segment of the market is … that people have a very limited attention span these days,” he says. “So you can get 100 pages of cats and dogs quickly versus a 500-page hardcover, and you can specialize. You’re encapsulating a tight bit of content into a compact package, whereas a traditional magazine would have six or seven different stories and a handful of departments and whatnot.”
“You’re getting the advantage of book-quality editorial and book-quality packaging with the expanded footprint of a magazine and a lower price point than a hardcover,” he adds. “So you’re getting a lot more reach with a high-quality product.” Plus, with new books retailing at around $20, “you’re at about half the price of a hardcover.”
The special editions are softcover and perfect bound, like the magazines, but use thicker, higher-quality cover paper. “It’s got to stand up for 12 weeks [on the newsstand],” MacKethan says. “That does not mean we are guaranteed that much shelf space, but that’s what we intend [for it] to do.”
As for advertising, MacKethan says National Geographic has had success with single sponsors who “buy out the issue for a nice sum,” which involves the back cover and four or five ads inside. “As far as selling single pages, that’s been a challenge,” he notes.
On the other side, up-front costs are relatively low, because pre-existing editorial channels are utilized. Travel-oriented bookazine editions, such as “100 Journeys of a Lifetime,” draw from content produced for the National Geographic Traveler magazine and website, as well as some book content. If a book-azine needs map-oriented content, the resources of the association’s maps division are drawn on as well.
“Having multiple different editorial contributions is definitely key to success,” MacKethan says. “Most people—including us—are trying to do this with limited incremental investment, so the model works with using existing staff rather than creating a new publishing unit.” PE