Because of all the doom and gloom about the U.S. newsstand system (you know it’s bad when an industry consultant’s blog is called From the Foredeck of the Titanic), Dead Tree Edition decided to launch an in-depth investigation. Which means I ventured out to the magazine sections of three stores.
I was trying to figure out why, as MediaPost reported recently, the combined retail sales of 68 major magazines are barely half of what they were a decade ago. It wasn’t hard to spot one of the culprits.
At first, all seemed OK when I eyed the prominently placed magazine section in a big discount store. There were lots of familiar titles – National Geographic, TIME, Us, Readers Digest, and Better Homes & Gardens. But a closer look showed they were imposters.
Beyond 9/11: Portraits of Resilience.
Mook sales are usually excluded from the industry statistics reported by the trade press.
The intruders mostly have the same characteristics – little or no advertising, glossy high-quality paper, perfect binding, relatively high cover prices, and on-sale periods of about three months instead of the one month or less typical of real magazines.
Much of the retail space once dedicated to prominent weekly and monthly magazines has been given over instead to these magazine spinoffs. Also taking oxygen away from the sales of real magazines are SIPs published by such non-magazine brands as Pillsbury, the Mayo Clinic, USA Today -- and Life.
Three times Time Inc. has killed Life magazine, only to resurrect it for such bookazines as 100 Photographs That Changed the World and El Papa de Juan Pablo. No wonder they call if Life: This zombie just won’t stay dead!
Also enjoying living-dead status is U.S. News & World Report, which closed down its only print magazine late last year but in one bookstore had four different mooks – Best Colleges, Best Graduate Schools, Best Hospitals, and Amazing Animals. (Wait, shouldn’t that last one be Best Animals? Or maybe Best Veterinary Hospitals? How about Best Obedience Schools?)
The "Best" books all deviate from the usual bookazine model by running ads -- lots of ads in the case of Best Hospitals, way more than the real magazine used to have. My contact at U.S. News says the new 344-page Best Colleges book is the company’s largest “issue” in at least two decades, and maybe ever. It sounds as if the magazine business is looking pretty good for U.S. News now that it’s out of the magazine business.
One-shots used to be the province of enthusiast magazines testing out ideas for a new title: Sportscar Convertible is doing well, so let’s try a SIP called Corvette Convertible. If the response is good enough, we’ll solicit subscriptions and start publishing bimonthly.
But that door is closed. The beleaguered newsstand distribution system no longer has the patience to give untested niche titles a shot.
Bookazines from well-respected brands are another matter, and the big publishers are happy to play along even if that diverts attention from their periodical issues. Consider the economics, as exemplified by Better Homes & Gardens: The 232-page October issue is priced at $3.99, but its 144-page SIP siblings – I saw three in one store – sell for $9.99 each.
Here’s my analysis: As consumers have gained greater ability to find exactly the information they want or need, the traditional mass-market magazine with its mishmash of loosely related articles is looking increasingly irrelevant to them. (The October issue of National Geographic has articles on the teen brain, surviving cancer, whale sharks, and Ansel Adams. Who's the target audience?)
But in an age of link-baiting and belly-fat ads, consumers still trust respected magazine brands. When those brands offer content -- whether a mook or an app -- that’s laser-targeted to their needs or interests, suddenly the wallets come out. (A National Geo mook called Wildlife: The Greatest Photographs? Let me see that.)
I was one of those who snickered last year when the Magazine Publishers of America changed its name to The Association of Magazine Media. Now the name is actually starting to make sense.
Just don’t ask me to define “magazine media.”
If you actually made it to the end of this article, you might enjoy suffering through these other Dead Tree Edition analyses of the U.S. magazine industry:
- Is Apple's 30-Percent Solution Really So Bad?
- Stuck at the Borders: Magazine Publishers Have Failed to Explore the Amazon
- App-oplexy: Magazines on the iPad
- The Yellowing of National Geographic: Will Today's Copies Age Faster Than That Stack in Your Gramma's Attic?
- Viagra to the Rescue? Postal Regulations Are Taking the Life Out of Tabloid Magazines