Publishers, Don’t Trust Flatterers, Especially When It Comes to Newsstand Sales
It's easy to fall into the trap of flattery. Aesop made that clear in one of his famous fables about the fox and the crow. I've excerpted it below in case you need a fable refresher. And yes, this has to do with you, publishers:
A Fox once saw a Crow fly off with a piece of cheese in its beak and settle on a branch of a tree. "That's for me, as I am a Fox," said Master Reynard, and he walked up to the foot of the tree. "Good-day, Mistress Crow," he cried. "How well you are looking to-day: how glossy your feathers; how bright your eye. I feel sure your voice must surpass that of other birds, just as your figure does; let me hear but one song from you that I may greet you as the Queen of Birds." The Crow lifted up her head and began to caw her best, but the moment she opened her mouth the piece of cheese fell to the ground, only to be snapped up by Master Fox. "That will do," said he. "That was all I wanted. In exchange for your cheese I will give you a piece of advice for the future --
Do not trust flatterers.”
I thought it was worth revisiting the story and putting it in the context of newsstand sales and niche publishing. Niche publishers face all manner of flattery that can lead them away from their real goal -- serving the needs of an avid audience with a specific interest. With promises of newsstand success, some may advise niche publishers to change their covers, add more celebrities, or sex-up their headlines. But in the pursuit of mass appeal on the newsstand, niche publishers may end up losing the enthusiasts who brought about their success in the first place. Here are five flattering, but misplaced, pieces of advice that niche publishers should avoid:
1. You’re Special, I Can Take Your Magazine to Unebelievable Newsstand Heights.
Today's retail environment as we know is very challenging, so retailers and distributors are quick to latch onto success. They'll target niche publishers who have thrived on the newsstand in targeted retailers like Whole Foods, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, or targeted independent retailers (craft stores with no full line magazine rack), promising threefold, even tenfold, sales growth. They will provide growth charts with potential distribution and sales and offer an attractive long-term agreement. Is it too good to be true? What's the ROI you can expect and when? Are there alternatives?
Before the niche publisher finalizes a decision have commitments put in writing:
- How does my category perform in these chains? What sales are generated? What is the ROI?
- How many chains and outlets will be added in what period of time?
- What are the costs, if I want to reach these distribution goals?
- If I don't promote, what are my options for growth? Get action steps and specific dates to meet these goals.
When you have the goals, action steps, and costs, add in your costs of production and decide if this is the direction you want to move in now. Or do you want to build your distribution and sales at a slower, more controlled pace?
2. My Covers Are Works of Art. Why Do I Need Headlines?
I've written about this before. There are over 5,000 titles, not only from the U.S., but also from other countries, demanding space on the U.S. and Canadian mainlines. Your cover has to stand out. You don't have to be tacky to shout out why a consumer should pay $4.99 or $9.99 for a copy of your magazine. The cover is a direct marketing piece; use the space wisely.
If you are a food magazine you are competing with 200 other food titles; if you are a house and home magazine there are over 325 competitive titles. Look at how you stand out against the competition and other magazines. Even if you receive a mention on a local news program or Good Morning America, and people seek out your magazine at Barnes & Noble, they won't find your magazine if it blends in with the rack. Chances are, you'll lose the sale.
3. That Celeb Cover Looks Great! It Must Sell Great on the Newsstand
Celebrity covers are not sure-fire way to grow newsstand sales for niche titles. Are you using original photography or a stock photo to promote a famous personality? What does the celebrity have to do with your title and category? Has the celebrity been on the cover of mass market magazines (celebrity weeklies and news tabloids week after week)? Just like a macaroni-and-cheese-only diet, the celebrity on your niche title will be boring and your core reader may lose interest and look at you as a sellout.
Staying true to cover design is important. For example, when Country Journal, a niche magazine targeted to suburban gardeners was in circulation, a cover with line art drawings of vegetables and tools outsold staged photographs of local farmers standing or working in their garden. The sales difference? Line art outsold photos three to one.
And keep in mind that after a cover redesign, sales might fall off for a few issues. Consumers may be looking for the old cover treatment. If you have gone conservative with fewer big headlines and more monochromatic, your audience may not find you when perusing a newsstand carrying hundreds of titles. And the retailer might have placed your title in another category because they associate the new look with another out of category title.
4. Sex Sells. Add More Sexiness to Headlines.
Contrary to popular belief, sex does not sell. In the 1990s, as Vegetarian Times was growing from a limited distribution, non-mass-market title to a checkout title in chain supermarkets, we saw our sales grow, and we saw that shoppers in New York City's D'Agostino's purchased us at the checkout along with People or Women's World. We tried to emulate some of the sexy style of those magazines but we found out that the promise of improved romance from herbs or decadent Valentine's desserts bombed at D'Agostino's and every other venue. No sex did not sell and does not help increase sales for niche publishers.
5. Join My Family of Magazines & I’ll Make You Bigger Than Ever Before
Lastly, you’re the expert for your magazine. Cowles Media Company had an outstanding philosophy as they bought niche titles in the ‘80s and ‘90s. They recognized that the heart and soul of the magazine are the editors and art directors that take a title from a personal passion to a limited subscription and newsstand success. Cowles management maintained editorial and art in their original home location and moved circulation, advertising, and production to the corporate office to take advantage of better buys and strong backroom managers.
When Cowles broke up in 1998, many of the editorial functions were merged with other magazines in a centralized location. The unique passion that drove Fly Fisherman or Horse & Rider was lost -- and the readers responded. Sales are much lower now than before.
I pulled together an old ABC report for three Cowles titles, comparing reported average sales the First Half 1998 ABC statement to the recent First Half 2016 AAM statement:
For 1998, average sales were 38,338.
For 2016, average sales were 7,675.
Horse & Rider
For 1998, average sales were 27,703.
For 2016, average sales were 2,446.
For 1998, average sales were 40,448.
For 2016, average sales were 9,117.
It's Simple, Focus on Your Audience
Yes, the marketplace has changed. However, there is still reader interest and there is potential to regrow these titles, possibly not to the old levels but to new heights not reached in years. Unlike categories that have disappeared almost completely from the newsstand (computers and hobbies, for example), there is still a market for magazines that have the potential to reach readers’ needs and interests. There are hundreds of non-AAM-audited magazines that are making a mark on consumers by reaching out to special interests and building audiences by delivering content they want. ReMind, Civil War Quarterly, Gluten Free & More, All About Beer and MaryJanesFarm are new titles reaching audiences by providing editorial, inspiration, and information to niche audiences.
Magazines are powerful. We are in a very competitive arena, and niche titles don’t have to be where every other magazine is … they have to be where they have potential to sell, and they have to build on those markets and look for innovative ways to continue to grow.
Related story: Newsstand Promotions: A Cornerstone to Publishing Success
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