Investigating the small mag business
I think it’s fair to say that the greatest woe of the small magazine business in Canada is that the newsstands throw away more than half of our beloved issues. That’s right—any unsold copies in bookstores are mercilessly pulped, despite the high cost of printing and the time and care put into their content. It’s terrible stuff, but that’s just how the system works and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Or is there…?
According to magazine business consultant D.B. Scott, change is possible, but it won’t be cheap. Scott was the presenter at last Wednesday’s Cultural Magazines Town Hall at the MagNet conference in Toronto. He was hired by Magazines Canada to investigate three questions about the cultural magazine business:
1. Can we move to a “no returns” system for retailing single copies?
By Scott’s calculations, small magazines are currently pulping 60% of the magazines they print because stores cannot sell them. Under the current system, a bookstore can send back the covers of the unsold magazines and recycle the rest at a loss to the publisher.
Scott suggested launching a pilot project in 2013 under the “Chinese Model”, which offers retailers a large discount to buy the magazines outright (‘no returns’) and then sell them as they see fit, offering discounts until every copy of the magazine is sold.
Although publishers would ultimately make less money in this situation, it means that their magazine is reaching a larger audience, which is arguably the goal of printing magazines. This system is also appealing to the Canada Arts Council, which offers grants to many small mags. “There’s no reason to believe that (the pilot project) would not be successful,” said Scott, who explained that the Chinese System would be most beneficial to more expensive, high-production-value mags (like TNQ).
In the post-presentation discussion, some magazine representatives claimed that larger bookstores (*cough* Chapters *cough*) don’t give cultural magazines prominence in their stores because they have no incentive to sell them. While some were skeptical about the proposed ‘no returns’ system, everyone agreed that the current system isn’t ideal. “I think the general consensus is that we should try to prevent the destruction of unsold copies and get more magazines into the hands of users at whatever price,” Scott said.
2. Can cultural magazines work together to attract national advertisers?
“Most literary and cultural magazines have an incomplete grasp on how attractive they are to national advertisers,” said Scott. He explained that the 120 cultural magazines in Canada have a “very small unduplicated subscriber base,” and most national advertisers believe that they are already reaching this audience in other ways. Scott’s report states that even if every cultural magazine was willing to join a collective (which he deemed unlikely), there just aren’t enough people reading these mags to make them desirable to large advertisers.
Another problem is that many cultural mags “are not up to speed on web presentation,” said Scott, and national advertisers expect print and online presence. He therefore doesn’t recommend launching a collaborative ad-sales project now, but does recommend that small magazines educate themselves on the business side of things.
3. Should Magazines Canada launch a separate direct mail campaign for small magazines?
Magazines Canada’s most recent “Buy 2 get 1 free” campaign left some small magazines feeling like they “got the fuzzy end of the lollipop,” said Scott. Many felt that large magazines were gaining more attention through this program than small mags. However, Scott’s research showed that small mags have done reasonably well in this campaign (16% of overall subscriptions) and he doesn’t think that a separate campaign would be beneficial. He instead recommended launched a “focused microsite” to talk about the strengths of cultural magazines and offer links to the existing 3-for-the-price-of-2 campaign.
While the town hall wasn’t all doom and gloom, the future of cultural magazines didn’t seem particularly bright, either. “I’m not in the puppy-stomping business,” said Scott. “There are still opportunities for cultural magazines to grow.”
For news on Canadian cultural magazines, visit http://www.magazinescanada.ca/cultural_magazines.