Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Magazine Death Spiral

Yesterday a door to door salesman came to my house to try and get me to 'sponsor' him in a magazine selling contest. Should he be able to accrue 5,000 points by selling magazine subscriptions, he will receive a trip to Europe. Had I been to Europe? How was it? It sure must be nice.

The pitch had nothing to do with the magazines and everything to do with helping this young gentleman achieve his dream of wooing the continental ladies (I'm paraphrasing here, but that was the exact gist of it.)

The list of magazines to choose from showed about 120 middle-tier magazines, each marked with points rather than a price. Should I choose one title, it would get him 350 points closer to his dream. Another gets him only 200, and so on. The value in making the purchase had nothing to do with what the value of magazine might be to me and everything to do with helping this young man get out and see the world. In other words, the magazines had become mere props for a tax deductible donation.

What really happens to the money and to the points is beyond my ability to know, but I do know exactly what the purpose of his visit was. It existed simply as an effort to bait me into subscriptions to bolster the rate base of a series of publications that can't get the boost they need any other way.

To demonstrate just how fubar this exchange is, let's imagine the conversation went in a completely different way.

"Hello sir, I'm a young entrepreneur and I am here to convince you to buy one or more of these fine publications, that will, on their own merits, enrich your life and be worth every penny that you spend."

Yeah, hilarious.

No, the purpose of this exchange was to eke out a bump in subscriptions by any means necessary so these magazines could continue to justify to their dwindling advertisers the value of advertising with them.

But let's look more closely at that. Let's say for instance, that I had decided to take three subscriptions, one for me, one for my wife and one for a gift. Even though I am constantly bombarded with exposure to these titles, I haven't so far subscribed to them. I see them on magazine stands, in airport book stores, in doctors offices, but so far I have felt no need to spend the nearly nothing they are charging for the privilege of having them delivered to me.

In other words, I don't really want them. But I buy them anyway. And thousands others like me buy them too. And the kid gets his trip to Europe. And in large part the magazines are a waste of effort and resources. They sit in my car unread. My wife barely opens hers. I send the gift to my mother, who already subscribes to her favorite titles. The net result here is an utter waste of time. The magazines get made but we're not reading them. At least not in any way that is significant.

But, there was a small success here, right? The publications got that bump in subscriptions that kept them alive another season. Is that a success? I don't care for the publication. I don't read it loyally so I don't see the advertising. The advertisers don't get what they are paying for which is exposure to me. The edit keeps getting watered down to try and keep subscribers like me. And when it comes time to renew, I won't re-up and I won't ever subscribe to them again.

In fact, under one of my car seats right now is a copy of the February 2008 issue of a magazine that I subscribed to on a lark. It was free and it still hasn't been read. But it keeps at least one of my two-year-old children happy as they slowly shred it or stick the pages together with milk and raisins.

The real crime here is in the damage it does to entire industry. I love magazine publishing. It is an amazing thing to be a part of an incredible publication with devoted and loyal readers. Standing next to a massive web offset press as the paper flies through a process almost the length of a football field at a pace that can produce a million books in a 24 hour period has to be one of the marvels of the world. When it is your team that made the book, it is even more incredible. Working all night on an issue to get on a plane in the next few days and find a copy of it in a distant airport... beautiful. Color theory. Design. Market research. Audience loyalty. Good editing. Great photographs. The tactile quality of a well designed product in tune with its readers. All are amazing things.

But dumping your subscriptions masked in a charity case does nothing useful for anyone in the industry. If the kid gets the European vacation, I hope it changes his life. At least some good might come out of it. What I really dream is that he might come back and try and sell me something from a list of 120 magazines that are worth buying outright, just because they are so important to have.

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