Thursday, 28 October 2010

Free Ranges

The UK has one of, if not the, most impressive range of consumer magazines in the world. I’d be guessing, but it would be in the region of 4,500 different titles that are available to buy in the shops around the country.

But when I say available, I have to use the term very loosely, as things have been getting a little crowded in the newsagents shelves recently and something had to give.

In order to try and make these ramblings seem just a little sensible, I’ll need to offer some background at this point, stick with me. You see, the wholesale distribution system in the UK is also pretty “special”. Publishers carve up the country into areas of around 500-1500 retailers in size, and the wholesalers complete a tender process for each area. The prize? A vertical agreement that creates “mini monopolies” across the country, where the retailers have no say in who supplies their magazines, but where the wholesalers can provide an extremely time efficient service for the publishers.

There are distinct pros and cons to this system. One downside is that customer service to retail suffers, you only have to pick up a copy of Retail Newsagent magazine to see that things aren’t like any other industry. A plus side, however, is that all of these magazines had a level playing field when it came to distribution to retail. There was no real advantage to the magazines with higher circulation and titles that sold just a few thousand copies were able to piggy back.

However, over the last decade or more, supermarkets and large chain retailers have started to charge quite hefty fees to display magazines on their shelves, and publishers have started to take more of an interest in the number of copies each single retailer is sent. Without boring your socks off, this combination has meant that larger magazine retailers have taken the lion’s share of popular magazines and smaller newsagents have had everything else literally thrown at them, often without them wanting, needing or requesting it all.

Back to the point I was trying to make in the first place – Tesco et al only have the magazines you already know about and although the village newsagent often has all the more interesting stuff, you’ve no way of finding it as his shelves are just too crowded with all the magazines that cannot afford to get into the big boys’ shops. Added to this, the management of his stock is so difficult, that the virtually tireless newsagent gives up magazines or closes, creating even fewer shops for the 4,000 magazines to prize their way into. If he does stick with it, the actual customer (let’s not forget him) can’t find what he is looking for, and more importantly cannot possibly discover anything new to catch his interest as he can but see the spines of the magazines and no more.

Not good at all. In fact, current magazine sales overall are generally propped up by those publishers who can afford the TV advertising and/or a prominence in major retailers. Cue increasing gap between heavyweights (mainstream) and tiddlers (interesting niche mags). Niche publishers are hurling themselves at digital solutions and the print magazine market is suffering even more. We’re worried about how long this can last.

Brace yourselves for the TV listings analogy:

We all know there is a lot more, great quality programming available to us these days, yet you will consistently hear that “there is nothing good on the box anymore”. One theory goes that as programmes die out, viewers cannot find a replacement as there is just too much out there and the only good “introductory” systems are the trailers and ads on the telly that hook you into the next big thing. The other million and one programmes, as good as they may be, are surplus, unexplored and as a result “not worth watching”. Thus the viewer’s universe shrinks and shrinks and eventually he resorts to reruns of Bergerac, and Yes, Minister.

Back to the magazines and we’re trying hard to resurface the playing field at Newsstand. All magazines get the same airtime, we are adding more and more impartial information on magazines than ever before and we run, screaming from the notion that the best sellers list must contain all the quality.

As we add better browsing options to the site, we hope you’ll see more and more magazines that deserve to get discovered and that keep publishing as a result. The alternatives are grim for all magazine lovers; like the TV reruns, we really wouldn’t want to be selling dog eared back issues and not a lot else.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010


Sometimes the world of marketing just depresses, especially as the sunshine fades away and the cold grey clouds settle in for the foreseeable future. Winter brings out the worst of our house - it's holes seem to treble in size and the cold wind comes through like it owns the place.

Today we’re talking free gifts on magazines, and they grate. On the face of it, a free gift is just a bit of a nuisance to us (and when I say us, I mean everyone involved in the distribution and retail of magazines). Noone likes a pointless cardboard box, whether you are an anti packaging warrior or a village newsagent (not mutually exclusive, by the way). Add to this Newsstand’s additional task of posting out each magazine individually, and you get the picture.

Having said that, our overwhelming dislike of covermounted gifts is not based around the logistics, but perhaps more the marketing behind it and the landfill that it leaves behind.

We like to think that if you make a magazine good enough, then it should sell based on its magazine qualities (design, editorial etc etc), not because you’ve strapped a football to the front of it. We’ve seen bicycle pumps, cereal bowls, mudguards, cat food, condoms, daffodil bulbs and all manner of other unwanted products stuck onto magazines over the years. The larger of which we always greet with cries of amazement, followed by tears of disbelief. BTW, when we upload a magazine front cover to the Newsstand site, we always remove the gift beforehand in a vain attempt to increase the focus on the magazine itself. We still send all free gifts out to customers, unless (and this is extremely rare) the publisher has excelled itself and attached something that wouldn't fit through a post box in a month of Sundays.

Then there are the children’s magazines, where the gift quality, if not size, plummets to new lows. I’m not going to pretend I know where these toys are manufactured, but I’m pretty sure their airmiles are going to be quite impressive. They are invariably plastic, poorly made and have a useable lifespan of less than a few hours. Certainly the clock is well and truly ticking by the time little Billy has got his mits on them. Marketing to the kids, they excite and then deflate in quick succession. They are often, in a word, crap. If you want to sell toys, please, go and sell toys.

So we don’t need to have looked at the numbers to know they must put sales figures up enormously, I mean it’s not all done for fun, surely? And with this one thought, so the onus is nudged fiendishly back to the consumer, who obviously thinks far better of these little sweeteners than we do. "As long as you continue buying them, we'll keep glueing them on…” is the cry.

So, everyone’s happy? China – tick, Publisher – tick, Distributors – whatever, Parent – tick, Billy – tick. Perhaps other industries are missing a turn on all of this – how can it be that only magazines and Kellogs have cottoned on to this unbelieveable success story? It’s so obvious we should be sticking toys to books, trousers, first class railway tickets and sandwiches at once. Plus let’s get that log fire alight and enjoy a wee dram now the cosy nights are drawing in ‘til Christmas..

(One mission for early 2011 at Newsstand, will be to allow our customers to abstain from receiving free gifts with their magazines as they purchase online - the thought being that we'll get a good idea of how "wanted" they actually are. What we'll be able to achieve with that information is not entirely clear, but we will make sure the gifts removed go to where they are wanted.)

Tuesday, 12 October 2010


Now at Newsstand, we are either incredibly intelligent or we’ve completely missed the point.

You see, we’ve launched one of those android apps, allowing you to browse and buy over 3,000 single UK and overseas magazines, even current ones, as well as subscriptions of a length that you can choose yourself (more here).

I hope I know what you’re thinking….Brilliant, reading all those magazines on my phone, I’ll never have to rag around the shops searching for my favorito magazines again.

Only thing is… our app doesn’t let you buy the digital versions, oh no, we show you the front covers and let you buy the print version only – posting it out to you on the same day by first class post. What we don’t know, is whether your average app user is going to be excited about ordering old fashioned paper ‘n’ ink – or just think we’re daft.

Will they want digital only, will it all seem a bit backward – or will they relish the old and new combination like a steel kitchen in a 17th century steakhouse?

We deal only with print versions of magazines because we are traditional bunch, and for a couple of other, probably ill judged, reasons.

Firstly, we aren’t sure what digital magazines are for. They seem to have no more attributes than a website, and yet are still quite clunky to use, despite all the headway being made. When the digital magazine is finally perfected, will a big penny drop that they’ve actually just created a website? If not, we can only assume it’s a way of converting non paying website users into paid content customers (via digital edition subscriptions), as the likelihood remains that online advertising rates will forever stay in free fallen mode. What will be interesting is the relationship between apple and the publishers as the simmering control issues come to the fore…and of course whether in 5 years time, Newsstand has to start selling oranges.

The other reason we stick to print is just for the love of it; the further it falls out of fashion, the more we love it, (not a great business ethic but we’ll leave that to one side for now). Magazines are here for a long time to come, but they’ll have to evolve; what doesn’t? We aren’t clever enough to say which types of magazines will fare the best going forward, but the romantics division at Newsstand will tell you it’s the tactility, quality and thought provoking content that’s the key to longevity. Quite.

Then there is the publishing world trying to stay ahead of the fellow on his laptop as brilliant ideas such a MagCloud gather pace. The increasing ease with which websites, digital magazines and apps can be not only created but marketed across the web, means that publishers should be running in the other direction. Back to design, back to print, back to the things they know best.

We’re convinced that the printed magazine should rise above all this iNonsense, revel in its position as the oasis in a world where skimming across webpages has become the normal way of reading. The two things are barely comparable products.

As we are told, quite rightly, to re acquaint ourselves with slow and lovingly prepared food, so Newsstand starts the call for slow, relaxed reading with lovingly prepared contents. Where the words and ideas actually sink in, including even the ads. Yes, it’s more expensive, so just buy one magazine a week and make it a damn good one…

Monday, 11 October 2010

Newsstand Magazines blogs belatedly

To be honest, I have always disliked the word "blog", maybe it's an age thing, I don't know. I'd stick to "online diary" but then I'd sound like a complete plum, so that's not an option either (quiet at the back, please).

That isn't, though, the reason it has taken us at Newsstand several years to catch on and decide that we need to create one. You see, we've just been far too busy trying to break the mould and image of magazine sales online to be worried about gassing off to complete strangers.

Back in 1995, we created the first subscription website, certainly in the UK & Europe, as the wholesale distribution of magazines (of which we were part) had never been the most efficient when it came to the finer details. It has been harder and harder for magazines to get in front of their potential readers ever since. To be fair, the newspaper and magazine wholesale system in the UK, was/is an amazing process and back in the '90s we made a video of it which I will post here if can dig it up...The set up has uniquely allowed thousands of magazines to have their own route to market, regardless of their circulation and sales figures, and is unmatched across the globe.

However, and to cut an extremely long, complex (and sometimes bitterly unfair!) story short, it has become very difficult for smaller magazines to be noticed in the wider retail marketplace as chain retailers charge more and more just to have a magazine on their shelves and smaller retailers lose the will to battle with the inimitable paperwork and delivery charges they are faced with.

The result, publishers slowly start to develop their own subscription offers to customers, but this doesn't cater for those that want to browse and buy a single magazine and not get tied down to the direct debit and increasing charges subscription templates. What's more, these subscriptions are reduced more and more in price until they are even given away for nothing in some instances.

That's where Newsstand comes in. We stock current magazines, over 4,000 of them in fact. We show almost every current front cover and viewers can zoom in and browse over 15,000 covers - a number which grows daily. We've developed an android app (Pocket Newsstand) which allows our customers to buy easily on the move and we are working on many more developments in support of the printed magazine whilst others, including even some of those that produce them, appear to be consigning them to history well before time. And yes, we do make you pay for the magazines and even the postage and we make no apologies. Some of these mags are excellent, they're worth it and not only that - if you've paid decent money you might actually value them a little more...who knows.

Thinking about it, or motto could be: "Publishers meet Readers...Readers, Publishers"., as every magazine is now available through us, in every postcode throughout the world.

It's a tough time for publishing, there's no doubt, but we feel there's plenty to get excited about as British publishers produce some amazing magazines that you will have never even heard of...Newsstand just needs to let off steam every now and then...(which will be done via this online diary in the style of a grumpy old man).