19 November 2006

Magazines, Part II

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

About a month ago, I posted a short piece inviting readers to fill out a small survey about magazine subscriptions. It’s been more than the promised two weeks since I return to this subject, largely because the response has been weak, to say the least: only 5 people have taken the time to complete the survey. Before moving (rapidly!) on to other, more engaging subjects, let me at least finish the point I started in that original post.

Anyone who follows news and trends in the publishing world knows that magazines can be a risky and unprofitable business. The costs are high, advertisers (usually the largest revenue source) are fickle, news agent sales vary widely and often according to the sensationalism of the cover, and annual subscriptions don’t generate much money. It is hard to be sympathetic, however.

When I launched the survey, I mentioned the nuisance of receiving two differently-priced renewal notices for The Economist. Meanwhile, about eight weeks ago, I took out a subscription to The Atlantic, signing up on line for (I thought) faster service than sending in a postcard. After 5 weeks, my first issue of the magazine had yet to arrive – but I had already received a renewal offer. Talk about chutzpah! A few years ago I canceled a subscription to a magazine I no longer wanted. The magazine then hired a collection agency to try to bully me in to renewing, arguing that I “owed” them money for a subscription I had actively canceled (and for which the publisher had stopped providing magazines in return). That goes well beyond chutzpah.

All this is to say: I think the magazine publishing industry makes it harder on themselves, to their detriment and ours. Much as retailers seem not to realize that they create holiday shopping exhaustion and ennui well before consumers reach any holiday (e.g., with Christmas promotions beginning after Thanksgiving, if not before), thus affecting how much people shop and how they feel about the experience, magazines have in the last few decades moved in the same direction. Monthly magazines publish with title dates typically a month ahead, so that (for example) the June issue is on the newsstands in early May, presumably to make readers feel like they’re getting the newest thing. Subscription renewal notices begin six or eight months before a subscription actually ends, thus killing any sense of urgency to renew and inuring subscribers to the process – and resulting in those final notices that offer renewals at even greater discounts, thus affecting the publisher’s bottom line.

The magazine world is trapped in an unhelpful cycle, and someone needs to reset the clock on all this: to publish according to dates that match the calendar the rest of us live by, and to start treating subscribers as more than mere numbers that help demand higher advertising revenue. How burned do I feel over that extra $20 for my subscription to The Economist? Not enough to cancel – but enough to know better for next year’s renewal, certainly. In the meantime, I’ll keep throwing out the renewal notices, the publishers will keep losing money by sending them, and the annoyed-but-patient consumer will benefit in the end. Some system.


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