About that Better Mousetrap
I got a call today from an executive at a press, new to our industry and just wondering. How come, he asked, no one has ever tried to build a better mousetrap for magazine distribution?
Why indeed? I have often wondered, in the decades I’ve worked in this business, why, for example, we can’t do anything about those 21 days it takes to get from plant to shelves. What’s that all about? It was a problem for publishers back in the '80s, and it’s still a problem. With all the new technology, advances, challenges, you’d think we’d have found a way to solve this. We haven’t though―in fact, 21 days is aspirational in some cases.
And nowadays that appears to be the least of our worries. Source Interlink has just come out to publishers asking for new partnership ideas, which so far appear to be based on the idea of the publishers giving Source Interlink more money. Now don’t get me wrong, I am a believer in all the partners in a distribution channel making money off the product. And there are some, or perhaps many, titles that just don’t sell at high enough efficiencies to allow a wholesaler to take on all the expense of moving it through the distribution channel and handling returns, and still break even. What’s to be done about that?
So when the guy at the printer called, I was intrigued with the prospect of getting some fresh thoughts on a tired question. He’d been in this business long enough to already get what the problems are. Is there a way to reduce all the waste? How are we going to get people making money from the sale of magazines again? Wrestling over the revenues that are there is certainly an approach. But how about finding ways to increase revenues or reduce expenses so we can all stay in business?
He had some thoughts that he wanted to float. For example, what about using the supermarket distribution centers, the way that the food business does, and coupling it with an inventory-control system that works from sales back through replenishment?
Well. There are so many issues standing against this I hardly knew where to begin. There is the issue of forcing a display―the ugly little secret of magazine distribution that you will be seen if you put 10 copies on the shelf, but perhaps you won’t if you put two. There is the proliferation of special interest titles―many of which can sell a few issues per outlet per month, but not 10 or 15. Easy as pie, I explained, to regulate to higher efficiencies if you sell that kind of quantity.
How do you bring up efficiencies if you can only sell a couple of copies per issue per outlet, and then take into account the fluctuations in sale caused by the reader shopping in different outlets issue to issue, and your own cover and editorial content pulling better or worse?
Although, on the other hand, with the information currently available through MagNet, and the increasing number of retailers that use scan-based trading, we do seem to be getting some elements in place that would support changes in that direction.
"Look," said my new friend, "I don’t have any answers, just a lot of questions. And my main question is this: If the current model is completely inefficient, marginally profitable—and, at that, only profitable for some magazines—and not even always timely, isn’t it time to go back to the drawing board and get some new ideas?"
Right now our magazine distribution system is like trying to force a square peg into a round hole. It isn’t working. Our industry’s answer to that is to just hit that peg harder.
My printer friend knows that he’s new in this business, though for sure he has done well in others. He knows he’s probably just being naeive, or just plain dumb. But he’s wondering if a paradigm isn’t working, is there any way of changing that paradigm. And if so, what might that change be?
I for sure don’t know, but I promised him I’d ask. Which is what I am doing now. Thoughts, anyone?
Linda Ruth, as president of PSCS Consulting (www.PSCSConsulting.com), offers communication companies worldwide the keys to magazine launches, search engine optimization and audience development online and at retail. She is a pioneer in the fields of Online Audience Optimization (OAO) and gamification for content publishers. Her books, "Internet Marketing for Magazine Publishers" ; "How to Market your Newsstand Magazine"; and "Secrets of SEO for Publishers" can be found on Amazon. Find her online at Google Plus, Magazine Dojo, LinkedIn, and Twitter @Linda_Ruth.