How to Attract The Newsstand Subscriber
Way back when I first began working in magazine publishing, I sat in a presentation by Jim Gregory, head of circulation for Charter Publishing, now Meredith magazines. Jim spoke about the newsstand subscriber, the individual that does not buy an annual subscription to a magazine because he does not want every issue. Chances are the content of 9 or 10 issues a year of a monthly magazine will have no interest to them.
I listened with a great deal of interest and stored this bit of information away in my mind.
Personally, over the years going back to my freshman year in college, I began an on again/off again subscription to Esquire, primarily because of its’ absurdly low subscription pricing. I would not renew, then I subscribed again because of the low introductory price and when I thought about it, just to read two issues: “Women We Love” and “The Dubious Achievement Awards”. After doing this for too many years to count, Jim’s presentation shouted loudly to me: I was a newsstand subscriber. I only wanted Esquire for two issues. And today, even though you can purchase a one-year subscription to Esquire for $5.00 on Amazon, $.99 cheaper than the single copy cover price, when you only want two issues, why buy ten to put eight immediately into recycling?
The question I pose to publishers and editors then is, if you have strong selling single copy sales on particular issues, and conversely, consistently poor selling issues on a particular subject, why repeat the editorial of the poor selling issues as the lead story?
Oh, I did it, I blamed editorial for the possibility of a poor sale. But looking at single copy sales of ALL magazines, we can see from distribution reports that issue after issue, basically, the same number of copies go into the same number of stores. Why does one issue sell 45% and another 20% of the distributed copies?
Was it a delivery problem? Did a storm close all roads? Did all stores have lousy in store merchandising?
When you can build on the editorial with a proven sales history, then you’ll appeal to the two-issue newsstand subscriber and potentially increase them to three or four.
Kardashians & Sex Don’t Always Sell on Newsstand
Women’s Wear Daily in January 2016 pointed out that magazine covers with any Kardashian were much softer in 2015 than 2014 when a Kardashian was on the cover — and generally speaking, Kardashian issues were softer than the average sale. I went through celebrity magazine back issues and did not find any Kardashian cover after March 2016. Kim was the last one I could find on US Weekly.
In the 1990s while working on Vegetarian Times, issues with desserts or the mention of sex on the cover were disasters. Yet, we did three covers in 1996 on these subjects (two desserts, one sex). The editors felt that they liked the topic and therefore, so would the reader. Each issue we ran with either subject of sex or desserts, sales were half that of an average issue.
“Healthy Romantic Dinner” and “Herbal Love Potions” in February 1996 was a remarkably bad issue, disproving the old adage most magazine editors quote “Sex Sells.”
Sometimes the editors are too close to their subject or writing for themselves and their friends that they might be out of touch with the newsstand subscriber who may be a neophyte to the topic, who has the potential of becoming a regular subscriber (or more frequent newsstand subscriber).
How Bowhunter Upped Special Issue Newsstand Sales
Moving to an entirely different category, Bowhunter — in the 1990s the leading bowhunting magazine sold on the newsstand — published eight issues a year, six general issues devoted to bowhunting and two annual special issues. One was the Bowhunter Big Game, and the other was the Bowhunter White Tail Deer.
The Big Game issue always sold 4,000 to 6,000 copies more than the regular issue and these sales lifts were profitable since the cover price was $1.00 more than the regular issue. But the White Tail issue always lost about 6,000 copies versus a regular issue.
At a staff meeting we reviewed the markets where the White Tail Deer issue lost sales for the three years. All sales losses happened west of the Rockies: Denver, CO; Salt Lake City, UT; Missoula, MT; Fort Collins, CO; Seattle, WA; Glendale, AZ, to name a few. Each agency had significant losses.
Production and editorial wanted to remove these agencies from distribution because they could not sell the White Tail issue, but in the world of order regulation, this could be disastrous to the parent title using the same bipad. In discussions at editorial meetings, I found out (as a non-hunter) that there were no white tail deer west of the Rockies. There are Coues Deer and Black Tail Deer, but no Eastern White Tail Deer.
The only headlines on the cover and the name of the magazine spoke about White Tail Deer. There were features on the Black Tail and Coues Deer in the issue. Much to the chagrin of the editors who felt putting a Black Tail Deer headline on the cover would hurt the focus of the special issue, the publisher, Harry Myers said, “Highlight the other deer on the cover.” Headlines were added about Black Tail Deer and Coues Deer (a smaller white tail found only in Arizona and New Mexico) and we sold 7,000 copies more than a regular issue, exceeding the net sales for the Big Game Issue … a pickup of over 13,000 copies, or in 1993 dollars, over $65,000.
In other words, we added 13,000 new monthly subscribers.
Improving Upon Past Magazine Covers & Editorial
How does this apply to other publications? Whether you create spreadsheets on your computer or hang covers in the hallway, get at least three years of covers. Under each cover put in the draw (copies distributed), final sales numbers, and percent sell through. You can also add, objectively, the theme of the cover. And rank how each theme sold. You’ll get a very quick overview of how each cover performed by theme, season, and even colors used.
When planning upcoming issues, even though it may be February and your heart of hearts wants to do a sexy, sweets-filled Valentine’s cover, if there is an editorial on another subject that performed well in the past, highlight that if sex and sweets performed badly.
Don’t ask your internal editorial group of professionals what interests them. They are so well versed in the field that they may not be able to grasp the perspective of the average consumer. Think of the 90% of browsers that are looking for inspiration and facts about something they enjoy and want to know more about. Ask yourself, how did you initially become interested in the category? You did not begin life with an expertise on the subject.
This is how you can grow your audience. . . and attract the newsstand subscriber, the new reader, and the expired subscriber who stopped receiving every issue.
John Morthanos is a circulation consultant specializing in niche and
special interest publications. He was Vice President Specialty Sales at
Curtis Circulation Company, Vice President Single Copy Sales at Primedia
Special Interest Publications and Cowles Magazines, Circulation Director
at Viare Publishing, and Circulation Marketing Director at Ziff Davis