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March 18th 2020
John Mennell is throwing a party, and we are all invited. In fact, John says, he wants every industry stakeholder—every printer, shipper, distributor, retailer and publisher—to join him in celebrating literacy.
John joined the Publishing Pandemic Roundtable--Joe Berger, Samir Husni, Bo Sacks, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham, and me--on Wednesday to talk about his vision.
Joe: Tell us about what you do. Where does this vision come from?
John: It’s modeled after food banks; I have a history with this model, and I thought, it’s important to feed people’s bodies, and we also have to give them the opportunity to feed their minds. So I got the idea of adding literacy banks, and literacy newsstands to the current foodbanks. The idea is to support existing programs with literacy materials.
Joe: How is the Covid crisis impacting your program?
John: Demands on food banks are exploding, just trying to feed all the people. And Covid is moving the pickup to curbside. So that was a setback for ready access to our literacy newsstands inside food pantries. For example, there is a food bank network in Columbus that feeds 600 families per day. We’d been on the point of putting three literacy newsstands into this Columbus location for weekly families, walk-ins seeking emergency food, and for a children’s corner; but at the rate they must fulfill the curbside needs, they have only 38 seconds per car. We asked ourselves: how can they include our literacy distribution --
Joe: Maybe by pre-packing?
John: --and that’s the exact solution we came up with. Like packages of food from a deli counter, we’re including pre-packaged bundles of consumer and children’s magazines along with the food packages.
Sherin: Are you able to get unsolds from the wholesalers?
Sherin: They can get a tax writeoff
John: Our ambition is to get them from every link, to rescue every expired copy throughout the supply chain. We get them from publishers, from consumers, and we’re in a pilot program with Barnes and Noble to retrieve their expired copies. We’re starting with stores in Columbus Ohio and rural Alabama; eventually we’ll have ability to rescue these magazines nation-wide.
The other major source of magazines are consumers. They have bought the magazines they love, kept them in their collection for many years, and they want to share them because they love the idea of supporting children and families. They can’t bear to see these magazines destroyed.
And yes, there are ways of writing off the costs, and currently there is a huge opportunity cost to NOT providing magazines. When we introduce ourselves to the local Barnes and Noble, the staff is so happy to find readers for the expired mags rather than having to destroy them. Expired magazines no longer have a monetary value, you have to pay to dispose them. By passing them on, we create supply chain value and give the product a new life by creating new readers, a new audience for these precious publications. We are creating readers who will grow up with these brands.
This is in the interest of every industry partner at every point in the distribution channel. By providing copies to at-risk children, we are creating tomorrow’s readers. And I am convinced that a consumer who is inspired to purchase a gift subscription for an at-risk child, for a job-training program, for a kindred spirit, that consumer will forever be connected to the magazine through the good they have achieved. The possibilities for connection are endless in every interest group. Getting these publications into at-risk homes has enormous positive impact on developing readers and no negative.
Sherin: It connects them to the magazine, and also to the advertiser’s brands. The brands you are accustomed to as a child, they stay with you. It gives the advertisers a reason to participate as well. CLICK HERE FOR THE COMPLETE ARTICLEFind out more at https://magliteracy.org/
BoSacks Speaks Out: Sometimes I have to put the bourbon aside and deliver a sobering report to the industry. I do this because I love the magazine media industry, and I don't want anyone to misinterpret the facts and actual conditions of our industry.
In turbulent times, turbulent things happen. What I have to report tonight is a reflection of the turmoil of the times we live in. I was asked by those in the know not to say what I am about to tell you, and I would have kept that promise, but we live in an instant messaging age. A person I do not know tweeted today that Folio: Magazine is no more. Because of that tweet, I feel I am relieved of the responsibility of keeping my silence.
The demise is unfortunate but understandable. Our industry is under extreme duress, and so too are trade organizations that track our industry. Clearly, FOLIO: needed serious revenue to complete their journalistic task of monitoring and educating our industry. The logical choice before COVID 19 was for them to focus on the conference and awards business, a decent plan if not for the pandemic. Their plan was one that many publishers leaned towards to replace lost advertising revenue—a good idea except for the fate forced upon us by an epidemic.
What happened? Part of the answer for FOLIO: was vendor consolidation. In the mid-2000s many companies were spending serious dollars with FOLIO:, and there were in those days dozens of printers trying to reach the print publishing industry. That revenue stream went from lucrative to zero almost overnight. Other sectors of the industry also dropped out of sight. Gone were the fulfillment companies, telemarketing companies, and investment banks. Gone too was the revenue from the many reprint companies. Add to that the shrinking number of media companies. Years of magazine closures and layoffs left fewer brands and fewer people to enter the awards business and attend their events.
It is all a reflection of the realignment of the content distribution business formally known as publishing.
I must at this point add that Publishing Executive Magazine, the other magazine publishing trade publication, has stopped tracking the industry and is no more. Their site has not published anything new since mid-June. The only conclusion is that they are gone too, and the excellent staff displaced to new possibilities.
It costs a lot to host the staff necessary to track an industry. I believe that both publishers had a chance to make it in these crazy times and be prosperous if not for the pandemic. Now both are gone.
What does it mean? Everything and nothing, is my answer. The world will go on, and the publishing industry will go on too. Eventually new organizations and new trade publishers will grow and arise from the ashes of the old publishing community. You've heard me say a dozen times that entrepreneurs hate a vacuum. When the dust settles, there will be a huge trade vacuum that needs filling.
We are on a strange road toward what will be. It has twists and turns, dips and mountains yet to climb. Yet when we get to wherever we are going, if we will look back quickly, we will see nothing but a straight and level path to how we got here, wherever that new destination is. That is the way of life and business. The road is only evident when you arrive and not a moment before.
Someday we will all look back on this period of technological and pandemic turmoil and smile. Yes, I think we may quite possibly smile. We will laugh because we survived multiple tsunamis that the world had never seen before and persevered.
There are more ways than ever to consume media and more media than ever to consume. I see that as a good situation. I will only worry if and when people stop reading. If they don't' stop reading, then there is an opportunity for our industry to sell relevant thought for a profit. If there is a profit to be made, then that is an ideal place for a thoughtful and inquisitive publisher to be.
A few weeks ago, I reported that it seems apparent that COVID has placed us in a time machine, a machine that accelerates whatever was happening before. If your business was in decline, that decline is now accelerated. Sadly our trade magazines have suffered under the stress and conditions of the unforgiving time machine. My heart and best wishes go to the staffs of FOLIO: and of Publishing Executive magazine.
Jim Bilton: Our UK supply chain comes in for a lot of criticism because it's perceived to be a messy fudge that nobody really controls it. There is an old adage - there's half a link to many in our supply chain - but it's knowing which bit to take out. But that fudge has created a funny stability. We are midway between France and Germany who have really structured supply chains, where publishers have a legal right to distribute. And the Wild West of America, where you flipped and you flipped on your wholesale structure, your retail terms and pay-on-scan all at the same time and handed over control to the retailer. So, why have UK publishers been so scared of SBT? Is it because of the USA. Your complete package of absolute madenss all came together at once. So, what the UK has been trying to do is to find non EPOS based ways to reduce shrink and to try and streamline in-store processes in a more collaborative way. But we've got the added complication of newspapers and magazines going through the same chain. And they've got totally different dynamics.
One of the issues - because absolutely everything is on the table now during the pandemic - one of the big issues is whether to unstitch newspapers and magazines. Again, we're different in the UK. We have a very strong national newspaper market which is obviously based on 7 day a week deliveries – magazines are 6 days per week. So, there are things we can do in the UK, like daily sales based replenishment of magazines, which we can do because magazines piggyback on the national newspapers. Which the national newspapers hate!
The national newspapers are a fairly aggressive bunch in everything that they do - editorially, circulation wise, everything. And they've got a different system in two ways. Firstly, they negotiate terms direct with retail. Secondly, they are on a per copy handling fee, not on a percentage of cover price. They made that flick years ago. Magazine publishers are still on a percentage of cover price and they hide behind wholesale. So whenever retail comes and says we want to move off of 25 percent, magazines say that’s nothing to do with us. It's those nasty wholesalers who set terms. You've got to negotiate with them.
So, you've got two products that are completely different in their pulse rates. National newspapers clearly just go straight in, straight out, whereas magazines are about copy allocation, about storage, about ring-fencing copy for sales based replenishment and so on. Yet the fear is that if you pull the two apart, they'll be a massive explosion. And there are economies of scale of both going through the same network, So one of the Plan B's - or perhaps it's Plan C! - for the national newspapers, is that they deliver direct from their regional print sites to retail, and in some locations, direct to the consumer.
Sherin Pierce: They come right from the printer?
Jim Bilton: That’s one possible model for the future.
Sherin Pierce: Magazines still come through the wholesaler then?
Jim Bilton: Currently yes. Both newspapers and magazines currently go through the same wholesale network. There are a number of hub-and-spoke houses so there are smaller magazine-only houses and there are big hubs that handle newspapers. So, it's a funny mix. News UK has always been the most disruptive newspaper publisher and they do direct-to-retail through their own operation in London, at a loss everybody assumes. But if News UK got together with one of the other big newspaper groups and they shared their print sites around the country - that's one of their options, to pack, label and deliver straight from a satellite printer direct into retail.
Joe Berger: Who owns the magazine wholesale companies in the U.K.? Does it have anything to do with the magazine publishers or retailers or just independent companies?
Jim Bilton: They’re independent companies. And there are only two companies left – Smiths and Menzies. Which has pros and cons in all sorts of ways. Being a wholesaler is not a growth business that you’d mortgage your house to get into. So, there has been some talk about publishers buying out or supporting the two wholesalers in order to preserve a robust route to market.
Samir Husni: Aren’t the U.K. newspapers, the national ones, becoming more like magazines in terms of their style, their coverage, their writing and the analysis? It feels like whenever I get my hands on a copy, I am reading a magazine rather than something that tells me what happened yesterday. I always give the example of the UK newspapers as how the future of newspapers should be. It's more like a magazine on a daily or weekly basis.
Jim Bilton: There is a view that weekly is the ideal print frequency. Sunday was always our big weekly read day. Yet Saturday has become the new Sunday. Sunday, which had all the big supplements, has now shifted to Saturday. And Saturday is a stronger day of sales than Sunday. So, all the big supplements and big reads come out over the weekend. And if you look at the individual days during the week, there are some really weak days. Interestingly, the Financial Times is one newspaper that has some very high peaks and troughs in sales during the week. You wonder whether it could go digital-only on, say, two days a week, which some of the American regionals have done?
Samir Husni: Not a single newspaper that has kept its frequency is doing good. People are in that habit, they don't want to think about it. Do I have a paper today or not? Especially if they were used to a daily paper. But my other question is what's happening with Condé Nast and all the other media companies? I see it was the Me Too movement this year, then Black Lives Matter after Covid. Any of that taking place in the U.K. or are we the only ones?
Jim Bilton: Yes. These are big issues in the UK too. Perhaps not as extreme as in the USA. Remember that we are very British and tend not to go around shooting people too much. So, these are big issues. But to be honest, for media companies the really big issue is working from home. That's the massive change for publishing companies in where and how they operate. Lots of people do not want to go back to working in an office every day. Particularly in a big city like London. The reality is how do I get into the office? Where am I going to sit when I get there? Will I have to queue for the toilets? Are they going to be gender-specific toilets or not? It’s these practical pragmatic issues that are on people’s minds at the moment. CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL ARTICLE
BoSacks Speaks Out: Two weeks ago our Publishing Pandamic Roundtabe of Joe Berger, Samir Husni, Bo Sacks, Gemma Peckham, and Sherin Pierce was joined by Jim Bilton. Jim Bilton is the Managing Director of Wessenden Marketing. Jim’s knowledge of the UK and the European media supply chain is amazingly complete and thorough. This is admittingly a long but interesting and worthwhile conversation that I have broken up into two parts. Jim puts together a comprehensive monthly newsletter about the media supply chain with analysis of ongoing trends and observations. He has offered our readers a free issue, and I suggest you get one to see what is happening in the UK. I assure you you will walk away better informed with useful information you can use here domestically in the US. Just drop Jim a line at email@example.com.
Bo Sacks: Jim, did I read correctly in your last newsletter that the Travel sector was down 91 percent?
Jim Bilton: Actually it is 97 percent. WHSmith's Travel division only kept shops open at hospitals. Everything else worldwide, they closed down. They're beginning to open back up again and their High Street operation is also starting to come back. The health of WHSmith is a big deal for UK publishers – they account for around 14% of total magazine sales. But their whole business model has been turned upside down by the pandemic. A year ago, they were being praised for their smart strategy – investing in Travel, which has included some big acquisitions in the USA, and squeezing costs out of their declining High Street operation. Now everything has flipped. The High Street is the main way of keeping cash flowing through the business until Travel can come back on stream. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Joe Berger: Is this an example? This also showed up on my LinkedIn feed today. Weirdly enough, Hudson Retail just opened up two new stands in LaGuardia at Terminal B. I would guess, seeing as how there's nobody around, it's pretty easy for them to do all the work. This is a store called Madison Avenue Market, and it does have a fairly good size mainline rack and a fairly good availability of paperback books. But the rest of the store, as you can see, is just full of every other kind of tchotchke in the universe. This is another look at the Madison Avenue Market. And again, notice in a traditional Hudson retail store, this area around here will be covered with magazines. That's gone. Here's the outside of the Madison Ave. Market.
Bo Sacks: So, the reason they may be there at all is that the terminal is newly opened. They may have been legally committed to be there and open rather than actually wanting to be there and open?
Joe Berger: Probably. I would imagine that's the case. So, anyway, that's life here in the States with with us Zoom neophytes and all of the weirdness with our with our wholesale system.
Jim Bilton: Have you had a hard lock down over the same kind of period that we had? It was week 13 that we started.
Sherin Pierce:Yes, I think maybe in New York it was early.
Joe Berger: You might have a week or two earlier than here in Chicago. But I believe it was that New York locked down on a weekend. And Monday morning, our governor here in Illinois said, OK, everybody, stop it.
Sherin Pierce: In New England, we locked down on March 27.
Gemma Peckham: The last day open was March 17, which I think was a Thursday. And then we took Friday off and we haven't been back since.
Jim Bilton: And in the U.K., any shop that sells newspapers is classified as an essential retailer, selling an essential service - news. Magazines have ridden on the back of that. As a result, we lost only about 10% of our retail universe at the peak of lock-down. Yet that’s just the number of outlets, irrespective of their size. A chunk of that 10% included some big multiples – the biggest being WHSmith. The nightmare scenario is that WHSmith never fully comes back on stream again.
Bo Sacks: Italy declared any place that sells publications as essential.
Joe Berger: Well, not here in the States.
The other questions that I've been finding fascinating, and I put it in our pre-meeting notes, was, we're obviously very interested in the parent company of Barnes & Noble and how things look for Waterstones. And does this company that's now invested in B&N have the financial wherewithal to bring this chain back to life and make it a better Publishing corporate citizen?
Jim Bilton: Waterstones is a actually a very small magazine stockist. It has a very limited range. Not all their stores have got magazines. So, they're a bit of an irrelevance in our magazine business. But they seem to be doing the same kind of thing as B&N, which is to self-heal the print products. They go into the storeroom. They don't go straight back on the shelf. And the Waterstones’ outlets generally are a lot smaller than B&N. So, they're not reorganizing in a fundamental way as they don’t have that much space to play with. Coming back to WHSmith, space is their issue too. In their High Street business, they’ve been squeezing more and more margin out of their shops. They shove the gondolas closer together. The gondolas go up in height. Some of their smaller shops are really horrible places to shop in - claustrophobic. All this makes socially-distanced shopping a real challenge for them.
Bo Sacks: Is that a new situation or did it exist before Covid?
Jim Bilton: Oh, no, they've been doing it for years. They've been squeezing all the time. They've been performing the absolute impossible. As their top line has gone down and down and down, they still manage to squeeze more and more profits. Their High Street trading profit margins are now well into the double digits, which is a staggering achievement! Their star category is now stationary – high margin and taking up more space in-store. Their book range is tightly edited – with a focus on best sellers and travel and juvenile. Yet it’s newspapers and magazines that they’re still known for.
They're also into electronic items - peripherals, headphones, earbuds - that they're plonking in the front of the store and they're playing around with other things too. They'll do limited ranges until they sell out. They sell umbrellas. They push chocolate in your face at the tilI. I remember a few years ago when they started down this route, one of their store managers told me that when he started, he’d joined a quality retail operation: “Now it’s turning into Woolworths” CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL ARTICLE
By Linda Ruth
This week, to talk about the effect of the Pandemic on books, Jane Friedman, author of The Business of Being a Writer, joined the Pandemic Roundtable—Joe Berger, Samir Husni, Bo Sacks, Gemma Peckham, Sherin Pierce, and me.
Jane began by talking about how surprisingly resilient book sales have turned out to be. Compared to early 2019, 2020 sales are only down half a percent year over year. But bookstores themselves aren’t seeing the same resiliency. Sales in bookstores were down 33% in March, with more sales happening online, on Amazon, in Target and Walmart, and in other accounts that are not exclusively books.
In the same time period, dollars declined a bit more than units. This reflected the increased purchase of juvenile fiction and nonfiction; this category has a lower price point. The sales of ebooks as opposed to print also lowered the overall dollar volume. But that too has stabilized.
Joe: What percentage of book sales come from the independents?
Jane: That’s around 5%. These stores are still important in terms of their influence, they are courted by publishers and seen as tastemakers, but they’ve been hit hard, with overall sales down by a third so far. The migration of book sales online has been a challenge for independent bookstores.
Sherin: Our book distributor is asking for delayed billing for the independents to help them get back on their feet.
Joe: Hasn’t there been an increase in the number of independent bookstores, though? It’s one of the bits of good news we hear.
Jane: That’s misleading, in the sense that they’ve been tracking more types of stores as part of the category—used books, antiquarians, the Half-Price chain. So numbers of indies are up, but it doesn’t mean they’re robust.One huge happy story is the initiative James Patterson launched for indie bookstores, donating $500,000 to keep them going.
BoSacks: Have prices of books come down as a result of market conditions?
Jane: It would make sense in this environment. The big 5 have lowered some ebook prices but they haven’t promoted the discounts well, so it isn’t as widely known as it should be. Also, as a temporary measure, when the Pandemic hit, they cut the price on library licenses and made it easier for libraries to acquire digital materials.
Sherin: The library market is complicated—the big publishers are shortsighted in not marketing to them in a systematic way. It would help educate our population, elevate everyone in an affordable way.
BoSacks: What genres are doing well currently?
Jane: That’s morphed as the months have passed—originally it was children’s education, then it shifted to entertaining, cooking, baking. Anything in home, DIY, gardening, cooking, home repair—it all has taken off in April and May. Adult fiction was initially depressed but has now returned to normal with an emphasis on escapist fiction, like crime/thrillers.
Joe: So people like me reading pandemic/dystopian fiction are outliers.
Jane: Well, there was an upsurge in titles like Camus’ The Plague. Also classics have spiked—people are taking advantage of this time to finally read all of Ulysses.
Gemma: Anti-racism books have been selling out.
Jane: Yes, that’s correct, 15 of the top 20 on Amazon. An image has gone viral of all the books you’re supposed to read, and people are buying them.
Joe: What is the feeling about the new management of Barnes and Noble?
Jane: There is so much hope. People want the chain to continue. They’ve had 4 or 5 CEOs in 5 years. James Daunt is a respected figure in the bookstore world, although there is some criticism of how much Waterstones [in the UK] pays employees. No one knows how the chain will recover.