Yesterday, writer Rob Salkowitz offered a very serious assessment of the current expansion by DC Comics into the digital market. He notes that the the comics industry’s current horrible sales are partly due to the logjam imposed by the big companies moving out of newsstand sales into direct sales to comic shops, and the subsequent issues with getting people to deal with the denizens of bad comic shops. (Mr. Salkowitz uses the comparison to Comic Shop Guy in The Simpsons: I’m less charitable, so I simply use the term “Cat Piss Man“.) The move isn’t just an attempt to bypass extensive piracy of comics back issues, but to encourage a new audience that has neither time nor inclination to deal with comic shops, comic conventions, or comics collectors. At the same time, DC and other comics companies can’t afford to tick off its core audience, because if they go as well, it’s all over.
And how does this affect gardening magazines? There’s absolutely no similarity between Green Lantern and Fine Gardening, is there?
If only. Pay attention to what’s going on in the comics business right now, because that’s exactly what’s going to happen to the gardening magazine market within the next couple of years.
Let’s look at the current magazine distribution system. Many regular magazine readers assume that each store carrying magazines deals directly with publishers to get each issue. Instead, a new publisher negotiates with a distributor (these days, usually Ingram Periodicals), and if the distributor agrees to carry the new magazine, solicits orders from participating retailers. Those retailers state that they’d like to carry x copies of the latest issue, and submit their orders. The distributor asks for x copies and parcels them out based on the orders, billing the retailers for a percentage of the cover price. That’s usually half of the cover price, but that depends upon whether the magazine is returnable (able to be sent back to the distributor for credit) or nonreturnable (the retailer is responsible for getting rid of unsold copies). Nonreturnable copies usually get left on shelves for longer, but the return for the publisher is usually much smaller in return. The distributor usually takes about 10 percent of the cover price as its fee, leaving the publisher with a return of anywhere between 20 to 40 percent of the MSRP. That, right there, helps explain why magazines are so expensive these days.
Anyway, in a perfect system, the retailer receives the magazines and puts them up for sale. (Some retailers have all of the placement and organization handled by the distributor, but others have managers whose responsibility is to put up new merchandise and remove the old.) If the magazines sell out early, some retailers will put in additional orders, while others figure that they’ll stick with what they already had. After a predetermined time, usually when the new issue is available, the manager or distributor pulls any unsold copies and sends an invoice or payment for sold issues versus unsold ones. With returnable magazines, the whole magazine may be sent back to the distributor, but often just the front covers are ripped off and sent back to show the retailer had them in the first place, with the rest going into the recycling bin or into the trash. Once the invoice is paid, the distributor pays the publisher its cut, and presumably the publisher uses that money to pay writers and photographers, solicit new content, and print the next issue.
By now, you’re probably thinking “20 to 40 percent? That’s all that’s left? How can the publishers afford to stay in business?” That’s a valid point, and that’s where magazine subscriptions come in. Most magazines these days come with multiple subscription solicitation forms, either “blow-ins” (so called because they’re literally blown into the magazine as it’s being collated) or ones bound with the pages. The idea and fervent hope is that someone perusing an individual copy will see one of those cards, decide “If I can’t get this magazine forever and ever, I’ll shoot myself in the head with a grease gun” and send it off in the mail. To make things easier for the casual peruser, most have that little box reading “BILL ME” so the reader doesn’t have to hunt for a stamp and an envelope for a check or money order. In these enlightened times, that card usually has the magazine’s Web site URL on it, so the reader can get online and make a payment via credit card or PayPal. Along with advertising revenue, subscription revenues are the main source of income for a magazine, because that one-year or two-year subscription means the publisher gets the whole cost of the magazine (usually discounted a bit to make subscribing more financially inviting than buying individual issues) over the entire subscription run. It’s a tough balancing act: offer subscriptions for too long a period, and rising production costs might wipe out any advantage over a five-year or ten-year period. Don’t offer a return for longterm loyalty, though, and the subscription might expire at a time when the customer can’t afford to renew.
The secret to subscriptions is that getting that first subscription is usually extremely expensive compared to renewals. Back in the pre-Web dark ages, companies such as Publisher’s Clearinghouse sold one-year subscriptions to entice new readers, usually at lower prices than anything offered by the publisher. (More than a few magazines died because the Publisher’s Clearinghouse price was so low that customers waited until the company’s annual mailing arrived and renewed that way instead of through the publisher.) Today, while direct solicitation mailings are rare, they still happen, and that’s combined with online specials for the first one to two years. Some magazines actually count on subscribers letting their subscriptions lapse after two years: the only people renewing subs to bridal magazines, for instance, are either industry professionals or crazies who knit disco suits for their cats. Others depend upon collectors: one of the reasons most of the remaining science fiction magazines still in print are in a digest format instead of a regular magazine format is because they’ve been published that way for decades, and many of their subscribers have specially constructed bookcases to store complete runs. (At least, that’s how it was explained to me. I won’t call shenanigans only because it sounds depressingly reasonable.)
Now, the dirty secret of all this is that while many publishers treat their subscribers like hand-spun gold spiderweb, others seem to do their best to drive off their base. You have the ones that send off renewal forms before the customer receives a first issue. You have the ones who mail subscriber copies as much as a month after the newsstand copies go out. (Or, in the case of Chile Pepper magazine last year, one issue went out to newsstands, but subscribers received neither the issue nor an excuse for its absence.) You have the ones that offer all sorts of freebies and incentives for newsstand sales, but bupkis for the subscribers. (I used to both write for and subscribe to one such magazine, and when I brought this up with the assistant publisher, he literally laughed at me for caring. That’s one of many reasons why I wouldn’t write for it again.) You have the ones that beg their subscribers to renew just before shutting down forever and promising refunds “one day”. You have the ones that don’t actually shut down, but go “on hiatus” and continue to take new subscriber money. And then there’s the eternal situation where the subscription solicitation team is a gang of top-notch professionals, but the actual subscription fulfillment and customer service team is a gaggle of bottom-of-the-class English Lit majors who want to work in publishing but don’t want to do anything because they’re not being paid enough to care.
The big promise of E-publishing for magazines is that a lot of these problems disappear. Copies go to E-mail boxes, or URLs to the pertinent files, appear the moment the new issue is available. Standard distribution nightmares, such as hiring companies to ship and mail those individual issues, are gone. The post office is no longer involved. Payment can be made right away over the Web, or deducted automatically from a bank account. Again, that’s the promise.
The reality is that unlike many other magazine genres, gardening magazines are always going to need a print form. This isn’t just to placate the people who get paranoid about having a physical version of a purchase, or for people who don’t want an E-magazine because they’d have to download it via AOL. Many subscribers need print copies to show clients, for cutout material for garden layouts, or so their kids have plenty of colorful photos for art projects. Others, myself included, may end up referring to an article while armpit-deep in potting mix, and a print magazine page covered with peat and water is less expensive than a similarly encoated iPad. The print edition will most likely become a perk, usually offered for an additional fee for the subscribers that want it.
One really nice side to the E-magazine edition, though, is that this suddenly makes the market for back issues more profitable. Some people may remember the long-dead science fiction movie magazine Starlog and its absolutely insane collection of back issues, all of which filled a New Jersey warehouse until a fire about three years ago. Considering the cost of maintenance and fulfillment, you can understand why Reptiles magazine went E-zine with its back issues a while back. (Hence, when people ask me about my article on carnivorous plants in herp enclosures in Reptiles, I can just send them to the link.) All of the reference, and none of the slowly flaking pages of Seventies-era newsprint. The Carnivorous Plant Newsletter already offers all of its back issues on CD-ROM, and this is a publication that’s begging for an additional tablet presence to give its photography a fair view.
And now what remains is a serious discussion on how to reach new readers. Unfortunately, the impression given by many garden magazines of their core audience being (to paraphrase Gayla Trail of You Grow Girl) female retirees with inexhaustible spending money is true. It’s not necessarily with the content, but with the typical placement of the magazines. In standard newsstands, the gardening magazines are all jammed together in the bottom of the display rack (generally known as a “waterfall,” and thank you very much to my old friend Aaron Davis for passing that on), usually under either the cooking or pet magazines. The covers look depressingly alike when clumped that way, and the word “Garden” tends to merge and fuse like something out of a Hunter S. Thompson hallucination. The content may be great, but in this case, you really need some sizzle.
Now, since the rest of the standard magazine market is probably going to crash or mutate in the next five years, let’s go for a change in promotion, rather than a change in covers that just gets horticulture magazines jammed in with High Times and Bound By Ink. (Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, mind you. I’d just like to see more horticulture magazines closer in style to Make or ImagineFX and written for a similar audience.) Everyone in publishing complains about getting younger readers into the habit, so what’s wrong with passing out access codes for one free online issue to grade schoolers at schools with community gardens? How about getting the Future Farmers of America involved in subscription drives? What about giving out cards good for a free online issue at garden centers that carry the print editions, and make a point of noting in that online issue to promote those garden centers? Why not get more botanical gardens and arboretums involved, if only by making a dedicated promotional presence at seasonal events and festivals? If I, an absolute pisher with a background in science fiction publishing, can come up with a good dozen alternative methods to get the word out on horticulture magazines, what could dedicated professionals who want to see their publications survive to the Twenty-Second Century come up with if they really think about it?
Again, this is part of a collection. More observations and suggestions to follow, and I may even attempt some of them myself.