Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Stuck at the Borders: Magazine Publishers Have Failed to Explore the Amazon

Magazine publishers’ inability to sell their products in online bookstores makes them especially vulnerable to the demise of Borders and other traditional booksellers.

The bankruptcy reorganization and downsizing of Borders, announced today, may hit some magazine publishers harder than book publishers. As more and more book buyers took to the Web, book publishers followed, becoming less reliant on brick-and-mortar booksellers. Not so with magazine publishers, at least not in the U.S.

Walk into any Barnes & Noble store and you’ll see an entire section offering the current issue of hundreds of magazines. But good luck finding those same magazines at; a search of the titles will mostly turn up subscription offers.

Single copies of magazines are sold at, but only as second-class citizens. The giant Internet merchant doesn’t sell single copies itself -- not even iconic special items like the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue that was released this week. Only independent merchants with “storefronts” on Amazon offer magazines.

Single copies of most of the major U.S. consumer titles, including the 10 most circulated magazines, are not consistently available for sale on Amazon. (I’m not counting Kindle editions, which are generally awful bastardizations of real magazines.)

To get even the most recent print issues of popular magazines via Amazon, you’ll have to rely on such independent storefronts as “soxfan44883”, “lolita30”, and “Power of 2 minds” – which typically operate and ship from someone’s home.

And if you find the issue you want, which is not a certainty, you’ll probably pay $3.99 per magazine for shipping because Amazon only offers free shipping on items it sells or fulfills.

Dead Tree Edition could find only two publishers that seemed to be actively marketing their print magazines on Amazon, and neither is a typical magazine publisher.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac is considered a magazine by brick-and-mortar retailers because it has a magazine UPC code, is distributed and displayed with other magazines, and has a specific on-sale period. But Amazon treats each of the annual editions as a book, keeping it on sale for at least several years.

U.S. News & World Report abandoned the print magazine business last year, but its well-known Best Colleges and America’s Best Graduate Schools annuals are still considered magazines by retailers. The company has its own storefront on Amazon (with a Seller Rating of “Just Launched”) that offers the most recent edition of the two products, using “Fulfillment by Amazon” to make them eligible for free shipping.

Magazines and books have always been merchandised separately and differently, even when sold in the same stores. Although “bookazines” and rapidly produced books are blurring the line between the two types of products in the consumer’s mind, the merchandising distinctions between the two have carried over from the brick-and-mortar world to the Internet world.

Amazon, for example, will sell single copies of magazines, but only if each one has “an ISBN or EAN that is printed on the book and a scannable bar code printed on the back of the book.” Putting a barcode on the most lucrative advertising space in the publication is a problem for most magazines.

But publishers are also to blame for their no-show on Amazon. It’s a problem of mindset.

The departments that used to be called “Circulation” are now known as “Audience Development” or “Consumer Marketing” in acknowledgement of their role in bringing customers to Web sites, e-newsletters, and other non-magazine products.

But the “newsstand” people are still “newsstand” people, which means Amazon is not on their radar. Their focus is on marketing impulse buys to people who are actually looking for something else.

The idea that someone might intentionally look for a specific issue of a printed magazine to buy is foreign to the American magazine industry.

A note about the Amazon ads and links: I included ads for three magazines so that my readers could easily see how they are marketed on Amazon. It was also an easy way to illustrate the article without worrying about copyright violations. Yeah, I might make a few bucks from the ads (and from the links to the independent Amazon storefronts), but based on my experience with Amazon ads it will be a pittance.

Other recent commentary about the magazine industry includes:


Anonymous said...

Very good article. I wanted to follow the links but they didn't work. You might want to check out why.

D. Eadward Tree said...

Thanks for pointing out the bad links. Amazon apparently made changes that broke some of the links. I fixed what I could and removed the others.