Do You Have an “Ugly Baby” in Your Magazine Lineup?
In episode 85 of the popular sitcom The Seinfeld Show, Jerry and Elaine have a conversation about ugly babies. In it, they agree that some babies are simply not that attractive, but they also agree that no one ever talks about it. It is an unwritten rule that you don’t point out the ugly babies.
In publishing, all too often we have the same mentality.
Recently I was part of an editorial meeting for a title that has had consistently soft sales, even though we participated in a number of full cover promotions and store expansions. During the meeting, if a question about poor sales received an answer that was not appreciated, the person doing the questioning was told they were not seeing the potential for the future and that the real problem was the team needed to “tighten” the package. In the end, editorial was added based on 200 responses from a recent survey. But months after the meeting and superficial changes, sales continued to hover at the same totals. The ugly baby was not discussed.
And similar conversations happen in meetings across the entire publishing world.
A major benefit single-copy sales offer marketers is the ability to target consumers based on competitive purchasing history of newsstand locations. A competitive magazine title probably isn’t going to rent you their list - they don’t want you stealing any paid readers, after all. But single-copy sales records are available for newsstand consultants, national distributors and wholesalers to create “make-alike” distributions. If a title wants to expand distribution, or if it is new to the newsstand, the wholesale agency can identify which chains, down to store level, successfully sell competitive publications in that specific vertical. You don’t want to send a food title to a chain that primarily sells automobile magazines, after all.
With this information in hand, we can model assumptions on the number of copies to be distributed, and the number of copies that have the potential to be sold based on competitive history. But this is only step one. We need to get authorization from the chain and wholesaler to have the new title distributed before outlets are selected. Once approved, the new distribution may require 3 or 4 copies per store where competitive titles consistently sell 1 to 2 copies. Once done and the new distribution is approved, copies of the next available issue will be delivered to the stores.
Identifying An Ugly Baby in Your Lineup
What should you do if the initial distribution results in very low sales? How do you know if your distribution just needs to be tweaked, or if it truly is the ugly baby, and needs to be seriously addressed on a more fundamental level?
Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Compared to your shelf mates in the category, was there sell copy on the cover? Did it promote the benefits and editorial content of the magazine?
- What is your “thud factor”? (Page count, paper quality and overall feel and weight compared to competitors.)
- When opened, was the magazine easy to read? Easy to follow? Did it deliver the cover’s promise?
From there, you tweak distribution, and if consumers continue to not buy copies, you probably have the most difficult thing for a parent to hear: you have an ugly baby.
When sales are poor, editorial and management often search for potential blame. Circulators tell them the magazine is precious and cuddly; that it just wasn’t put in the right retail locations, and the content is perfect. But the reality is that you will just be wasting money trying to dress up the ugly baby. Don’t be afraid to make some tough decisions and be objective, so the ugly babies in your lineup don’t create a financial burden on the truly adorable little bundles of joy.
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