Monday, December 21, 2009

What's Wrong With The Magazine Business (Or, Biting The Hand That Feeds Me)

True confession: I don't really read magazines. Haven't for ages. Well, that isn't entirely true. I do read, or rather look, at magazines when they are hand-me-downs, or when there is a copy available for free at the office (that office being Condé Nast).

But it has been ages since I subscribed to a periodical, and ages more since I bought one on the newsstand; my last clear memory of doing so was four years ago, well before even the possibility of working for was real, when I bought my daughter a copy of Wired. Something on the cover grabbed her. I was horrified that the single-copy price was nearly the same as a 12-copy subscription. I mentally hemmed-and-hawed (being out of work, and all) but I didn't want to stifle her interest, so we took a copy home.

More recently I intercepted (*thanks, @MarketingVeep :) a list of magazine dreams my wife had intended to mail to Santa. And working through that list I realized that the traditional magazine fulfillment business is so archaic that the powers that be had better figure out a better way to deliver, because the cool kids won't stand for this. That means killer content will never reach an audience in print not because print is dead, but because the business of marketing and delivering that print is archaic and mean.

Let's start with a complete lack of transparency. I thought I'd take care of business just by going to which, I figured, would in the main have the best prices. Since I was going to subscribe to 10 titles paying a little less for one would mean I could pay a more for another. That plus the frictionless shopping experience would make it all worthwhile.

I got lucky fast: one magazine on the list was on sale that week — $5 for a years' subscription instead of $20. That would level lots of playing field. But at the (very) bottom of each subscription page on Amazon there were sponsored links, and the top was always from the magazine's publisher. And at the publisher's page the deals were almost invariably better. I got three years for a little more than the price of one in one instance, $5 off for paying now at another.

So, I had to shop the old fashioned way, because on one corner of the lot the dealer was selling at one price, and at another, it might be less. Also, the old model of "Come to me" simply won't fly for much longer, even when doing so is merely a couple of clicks. There has to be a marketplace and that marketplace has to have the best price available. I know that many publishers have a razor-thin margins, and that Amazon and other middle parties take their cut (and in the digital domain control the pricing by controlling the customer relationship, but that's another post). But don't make me come to your lame, proprietary, non-functioning web site if you want me to stay happy about giving you my money.

Then there is the matter of when the subscription begins. Invariably there is a health warning which tells the prospective subscriber that the first issue won't arrive for as many as two months. In that time one might forget one has subscribed, and do so again. If you are dying for content in this or the next issue, you might be compelled to buy single copies, paying the exorbitant newsstand cover price and thus diminishing any savings from subscribing.

The old model of delayed satisfaction is untenable. A single intern can probably mail a current issue to every new subscriber that signs up — with personal note of thanks from the publisher even. How many new subscribers do you get every week? Isn't the smallness of that number the problem? This is an opportunity. William Gaines, the fabled publisher of Mad Magazine, once told an interviewer that he and his entire editorial staff once went to the house of a person who had written to cancel his subscription. The guy was so shocked that he changed his mind. Cost to Gaines & Co? A half-days' work (if you can call being on the staff of Mad Magazine work).

Many publishers, even the best known, have subscription pages which don't work (I'd like to say "lie."). On one I encountered, there was an offer to get a tote bag with payment in full. Declining the inducement took me to another page which insisted on payment in full. There was no alternative to be billed later. Some customers might just say "What the heck" and pay in full. I said "What the Hell" and left.

The old model of enduring your customers rather than catering to them isn't enough anymore. You may have the only magazine in your niche worth reading, but I can lose interest in the whole thing just like that.
Finally, there is the payment scheme. It is unusual for a vendor to bill for something at the point of sale, letting you walk away without tendering payment, so that remains a lovely and quaint and (see below) necessary option. But (see above) this isn't really what's happening, since you won't get your magazine for as many as two months, and they will bill you before then.

Years ago I stopped paying for magazines with a credit card for one simple reason, even though I pay for everything with credit cards: by doing so, I accepted automatic renewal and the often difficult onus of stopping a subscription and getting refunded for issues not sent. This is the wrong dynamic, and an approach used mostly these days by scammers and online pornographers. Not exactly the best company.

The old model, which assumes you must hook a customer you have baited, is simply wrong. Sure, chasing down people to pay you every year is a hassle. Sending reminders is expensive, even to ask permission to charge for another year or so, although e-mil makes this much cheaper.

But it can be done, and it is the right thing to do. That intern you hired to send out crisp current copies to new subscribers? Add this to the job description.

I am among the few that believe both that print periodicals are far from dead (and perhaps even on the verge of a renaissance) and that tablets have a fighting chance to capture an audience in a way that high-end advertisers will continue to pay premium prices to reach.

But as publishers try to manage success in a new medium, they have some housekeeping to do in the old one. It amounts to this: Don't make me angry reading you in print.