Thursday, August 27, 2009

Support Your Favorite Magazine (But HOW?)

Most of my life, one of my greatest joys has been walking up to a newsstand and browsing the magazines.

When I was a kid, it was a world of wonders far from my small-town existence: the futuristic super-technology of Popular Mechanics and Popular Science (and long-defunct magazines like Mechanics Illustrated and Science and Mechanics, which bought my first professional writing sale back in the 70s), the world-spanning photography of Life and National Geographic, the distant-but-glamorous California car-culture represented in Hot Rod and CARtoons (the first magazine I ever sent a submission to), the sneaky and brilliant subversion of Mad Magazine, the glimpses at all those strange an scary movies I never got to see in Famous Monsters of Filmland, the fiction, writing and art of The Saturday Evening Post.

I'd always read science-fiction, but it was my discovery of Analog Magazine in the 70s that really brought me into the genre and showed me that it was an actual community, and not just a bunch of books with paintings of rockets and aliens on the cover. Later, a newcomer, Issac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine (now Asimov's Science Fiction), showed me a different side of science-fiction, more playful, sometimes less serious, but often more socially relevant.

Then came the combined lowbrow titillation and highbrow writing (yes, I actually did read the stories and articles) of Playboy, the in-depth coverage of news and culture in Time and Newsweek, and the more in-depth (more like "in-over-my-head" most of the time, but I loved it) science coverage of Scientific American.

Let's say it up front. I love magazines. Always have. Always (well, as long as they survive) will. Helping them survive, that's today's topic.

This morning at the grocery store I spotted the "Mythbusters" special issue of Popular Mechanics magazine that I'd been hearing about on Twitter, and had to pick it up. I quickly read the Mythbusters cover story and a good bit of the other content, and enjoyed it all quite a bit. (If you like Mythbusters, then you've got to have this issue, but it's good reading anyway. After a boring slump of many years, PM has turned into an excellent magazine again.)

Then (we get to the real subject of this post) I did something that I've meaning to do for a while, and which I should have done a long time ago: I got on their website and subscribed. Really, this was a no brainer. I pick up the monthly magazine on the newsstand more months than not, at $3.99 and issue, and the blow-in card in the magazine was offering a rate of $12 a year.

Yes, you got that right. A buck an issue. 75% off with postage thrown in for free.

I report this, not as a sales pitch for PM (though if you subscribe, good), but to illustrate the crazy nature of the magazine business, why it's so difficult to keep a magazine going these days, and why it's so hard to know how to best support the ones you love.

How can they offer the magazine so cheaply? Surely a dollar barely covers printing and shipping costs, if that. The answer (disclaimer, my info on the magazine business is second-hand and somewhat dated, but I think my information is essentially correct here) is that it's still CHEAPER than selling you an issue on the newsstand at $3.99 a cut.

I know you're scratching your heads here, but it's apparently true. They have to discount the magazine for wholesale in the first place, then the distributor gets a huge cut, and then they actually have to PAY to get the magazines positioned in major retailers. Even then, many of the magazines shipped aren't sold and are stripped for credit. And finally, any money that DOES arrive through the distributors is painfully slow in making its way back to the publisher. I've been told that most mass-market magazines lose money on every copy sold at retail.

So why do we have magazines at all? The answer, in most cases, is advertising. Popular Mechanics is an example of a classic advertiser supported magazine. Much, if not all, of their profit margin comes from selling ads, not magazines. This is true of most of the magazines you see in the grocery store or mass-retailers like Target or Wal-mart.

And advertisers like numbers. A magazine sent to a newsstand may or may not sell, but to advertisers, a subscriber is like gold. This is an audience they can measure and analyze, and figure out if they're getting their advertising money's worth. That's another reason magazines like PM are so happy to offer steep discounts to advertisers.

This plan works best though, for magazines with mass appeal and large circulations. There's a second-tier of magazines aimed at more specialized audiences, that still have lots of ads (for which they depend on heavily for income), but still depend on sales income to keep the lights on and the presses running. They can't discount subscriptions as much. They also can't afford big premiums to get their magazines out there, so they're harder to find.

A couple of examples of this that I often read are the infotrivia magazine Mental Floss (my mother-and-law has been giving us gift subscriptions for years, so I haven't had to worry about this one) and the technology/hobby magazine Robot.

Still rarer at those magazines that depend almost entirely on income from purchases and subscriptions. The previously mentioned Analog Science Fiction is such a magazine, as is Asimov's. For that matter, this is true of pretty much any fiction magazine you could name. (And there aren't many any more. Scott Edelman's late, lamented Science Fiction Age and sister Realms of Fantasy were the last fiction magazines I can think of with substantial ad income.) They can't discount their subscriptions at all, but they desperately count on those subscribers for their survival. Naturally, these are usually the very hardest magazines to find on newsstands, usually completely missing the mass-market outlets.

Obviously what I'm saying here is: if you enjoy a magazine, you should really subscribe. You support the magazine in a big way when you do so.

But what I'm also saying is, there's a flip-side to this, a Catch-22. One reason magazines still like to be on newsstands, even though it costs them money, is that its a way of reaching new potential subscribers. If people don't see their magazine, know why it would interest them, or even know that it exists, then they won't become subscribers.

This is where some of the fiction magazines in that last category have run into trouble. They aren't visible enough to get new subscribers, and their existing subscriber-base is (slowly) shrinking. Some subscribers slip away, or forget to renew. And even with the most loyal subscribers, they get older and yes, pass away. There's also the issue (no pun intended) that while catering to their graying, established subscriber-base, they may also be losing their ability to appeal to the younger subscribers that they desperately need to survive.

So the problem is, when you subscribe, you stop buying the magazine on the newsstand. If not enough people buy the magazine on the newsstand, it won't get stocked. If it doesn't get stocked, then it has a much harder time getting subscribers. You see the problem.

Okay, it's still better to subscribe. But there are other things you could do to support a beloved magazine. Tell a friend about it, or share some of your back-issues with someone who might be interested, rather than throwing them in the recycle bin. Sponsor a subscription for your local library (check first to see if they have such a program, and how it works). Give gift subscriptions to friends and family members.

Or maybe you could write a blog post peppered with subscription links, like this one. (grin)

So, what magazines am I subscribing to these days?

Well, Popular Mechanics and Popular Science, both of which have gotten back to their entertaining and informative roots in recent years. Mental Floss I've mentioned. I should subscribe to Scientific American, even though I liked it much better when it was written more like a scientific journal, and less like a soft-boiled version of Discover.

I really also should subscribe to Make, though I don't buy every issue at newsstand, and the subscription discount isn't huge. On the other hand, Make on the newsstand is an astounding $14.99 an issue, putting it in a category all its own, so any discount is welcome if you're interested, and I guess I am.

I'm a little ashamed to admit that I don't currently subscribe to any of the fiction magazines like Analog. I've subscribed to them off-and-on over the years, but somehow I seem to find far more time for reading (and writing) novels than short-fiction these days. Still, I should at least subscribe to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. I know I'm missing some good writing there, and I suspect I'm a little more likely to read mystery/crime short fiction for some reason.

Really, if money were no object, I should subscribe to all of them, just as a gesture of support to the genre. Maybe when the next best-seller check rolls in...

I might also be more likely to read these on my new Kindle, however the Kindle versions of these magazines are reportedly still a bit SNAFUed, with formatting problems, late arrivals, and subscription rates that are actually higher than the print editions.

Such is the brave new world of magazines, the direction where these hearty survivors may have to head in the years to come. It will take longer for photo, illustration (and ad) heavy magazines to find their way onto ebook readers in a big way. The technology isn't there yet.

But ebook readers are a hot item this year, and seem to be A wave of the future, if not yet conclusively THE wave. Like I said, I recently got a Kindle, and I just subscribed to my first magazine on it, The New Yorker. It isn't quite the same I'll admit. Those artful covers don't look the same in puny black-and-white form, and the subtleties of the cartoons are sometimes lost in the translation. But to me, The New Yorker is mostly about great writing, the words, and that makes it a good fit to the Model-T ebook readers we've got now.

It's also a magazine I've never subscribed to before, so I'm just not as aware of what I'm missing.

But if magazines do go all electronic, and if those ever-shrinking news-racks do completely disappear from our grocery stores and bookshops (if the bookshops themselves even survive), I know the things that I will miss: The excitement and anticipation of approaching the racks, stacked high, thick, wide and deep with colorful covers, all begging for attention, peeking out row-after-row like schoolchildren in a yearbook picture. The heady smell of fresh paper and ink. The Easter-egg-hunt excitement of looking for a new issue of a favorite magazine, or the thrill of finding something new and outside my experience. The slightly-guilty pleasure of flipping through the issues, one-eye peeled for a clerk come to tell you to "buy it or beat it!"

Those glory-days are mostly behind us now, unlikely to return. But if you love print magazines, and I do, there's still hope to keep them going a little longer. At least we can help keep our favorites alive to make the transition to electrons and epaper. Don't let them slip away without a fight.
FOLLOW-UP, September 2, 2009

In the last few days, the New York Times has run a trio of articles in their business section detailing the latest numbers out of the magazine industry. It confirms much of what I said about, but some of the numbers surprised me.

Some factoids:

Industry wide, sales are down, though a few individual magazines have showed gains. Many magazines have show increased subscription sales, but these generally weren't enough to compensate for slides at the retail. Women's magazine were especially hard hit. One (probably unfortunate) exception is All You, a magazine by Time Inc. sold in Wal-Mart stores.

Not surprisingly, given the economy, finance and luxury lifestyle magazines were down.

What shocked me was how much some well-known magazines depend on subscriptions. Ladies' Home Journal sells only 4.8 percent of its copies on stands. Better Homes & Gardens sells only 2.5 percent there!

Overall, sales have fallen 1.9 percent in the last year, which isn't that alarming. However, single copy sales have fallen 12.3 percent, which is of more concern. And while the articles mainly talk about the top magazines in the business, I'm more interested (and concerned) about smaller specialty magazines (including those that print short fiction). Anecdotal evidence is that the little guys have been very hard-hit in the last couple years, either pushing them out of business, or for all intents and purposes, completely off newsstands.


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