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.
The following article has been edited and contains minor corrections from the original release in the Heard on the Web newsletter dated 5-31-2020
Scott Mortimer of Meredith Corp. joined Joe Berger, Bo Sacks, Samir Husni, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham, and me for this week’s Publishing Pandemic Roundtable. BY LINDA RUTH
In the course of the current fiscal year (July through June), Meredith will have published 320 titles. These include a mix of one-off titles under major brands and also several with publishing partners, including, for example Chip and Joanna Gaines at Magnolia Journal.
In a down market, Meredith continues to put out new SIPs. How is this model working?
Scott: Coming into 2020 we were doing very well, on track, in fact, to increase 4-5% over prior year. The pandemic changed that, for us as it has for many; but in the last three weeks we find that sales are approaching pre-covid numbers.
Samir: I recently saw that Meredith is offering subscriptions to a series of SIPs, wherein you sign up for the series without actually knowing what topics will be covered. Is this a new initiative?
Scott: Yes, we’re testing it to see how it goes. LIFE had its best bookazine year ever in 2019, so we’ve been aggressive in putting out product under that brand. And you’re right, our subscribers won’t be able to choose the topics, they have to take what comes. We know the LIFE brand has tremendous equity and history, so we’re testing the idea, and will see how it goes.
Bo: brilliant idea.
Linda: A goodie box or grab bag.
Joe: where do you see your sales ticking up?
Scott: Primarily supermarkets, pharmacy, and big box. We have more pockets at checkout than we’ve ever had. Now it’s our job to put great products in those pockets; then we need the people to go past them. This is where we’re finding cause for optimism; in the last 3 weeks our past SIM buyers store visits were up 8% over the prior.
Gemma: What are you doing to support your customers now?
Scott: We wanted to focus on content that would support people at home—health and wellness, food, home, a PEOPLE Puzzler, all of these are in the sweet spot of what we do. We tried to be nimble and adjust. But we’re seeing gains across the portfolio.
Samir: you said your customers vote with their pocketbook, and overall we’re seeing magazine prices moving up. Do you see a cap on this, or is this the future model?
Scott: You’re right about that. At Meredith, most of our special interest content is $10 or higher. I do think as an industry we can charge more for our content, although we have to provide the value to support the prices. We’ll see if the current trends of unemployment slow it down at all. I’m sure there’s a cap but we haven’t seemed to hit it. Even very recently, our Kobe Bryant tribute specials did great at $14.99.
Sherin: Although you could argue that Kobe Bryant isn’t representative of the majority of specials. People love dead celebrities. In the current economy people are struggling. One of the first things they are likely to cut spending on is magazines. Have you adjusted your schedule in response to this?
Scott: I think you’re right, it may be a slow slog. As incomes become more tight that impulse buy might go by the wayside. Time will tell.
Sherin: Also people tend to hold back on spending due to uncertainty in an election year.
Scott: Over the last 3 weeks we’ve done a lot of scenario planning, and we’ll continue to work on scenarios based on what actually happens. If levels of sale are soft, we might not put as many releases out. Every issue goes through P/L and if it doesn’t work we won’t put it out.
Bo: It’s important to acknowledge that there are tiers of readership: the Bauer tier with its pricing and sales levels, along with other tiers with other levels of sale for higher-priced product. When we transform the perspective of the public that these are luxury items we’ll be better off.
Samir: Just recently in one of our sessions, Krifka of Barnes and Noble said they do treat this category as a luxury.
Scott: We’re fortunate to have content leaders with their fingers on the pulse of what people want.
Joe: Even as we transition to higher-priced, higher-value magazines, the underlying distribution framework isn’t set up for healthy or a luxury product. How do we let the public know that we have product for them at higher prices?
Scott: Agreed, we’re only as healthy as the channel. Discovery is the biggest challenge. A store might have 15 checkout lanes, of which six might be open, and your product might not be in every lane. How can we be sure people get to see it? Digital outreach is one way of driving awareness, and sending people to the store. At Meredith we have a database we can mine for good. Our partners are great at getting the word out, too. FOR THE COMPLETE ARTICLE CLICK HERE
By Linda Ruth
This week’s Publishing Pandemic Roundtable, a weekly group of BoSacks, Joe Berger, Gemma Peckham, Samir Husni, Sherin Pierce, and me, welcomed Tom Keeler. and Andie Behling of Morgan Murphy Media.
Morgan Murphy, headquartered in Madison, WI, operates TV and radio stations, a print magazine, websites, apps, and a digital marketing agency across its seven locations.
What effect has Covid-19 had on your companies?
Tom: Prior to the pandemic, while TV was still our most substantial source of revenue, our print property, Madison Magazine, was growing. In fact we had such a successful first quarter profit that was more than we’ve profited on an annual basis for years. Then Covid-19 hit, and everything changed.
What accounted for the success of your first quarter?
Tom: Part of it has to do with the consolidation of our sales efforts. Each sales person represents all our properties to a given account. They sell TV, radio, print, digital. And we cross-promote all properties across platforms, so you’ll see our events mentioned in the magazine, hear about our upcoming issues on TV, and so on.
Some companies treat their separate business entities as competitive entrepreneurial companies. IDG is an example.
Tom: Early on, as we acquired companies, we acted more like individual competitive units. Now we collaborate across platforms, with an approach that we’re all part of the same family of companies, and we find that approach works well for us.
Getting back to Covid-19, how have you responded to the enforced changed?
Andie: The team had to be nimble and committed. They had to move fast. We created all new content for upcoming issues of Madison Magazine—no easy matter in a business that works 4 months out. For example, our Road Trip Issue’s content had to be completely changed. One of the new features was Tune In to Take Out.
We updated our subscription messaging: Stay Connected. We encouraged our audience to stay connected to the community, through us, despite being socially distanced. We only have two weeks of data so far, but it’s looking like a successful initiative.
BoSacks: Sounds like you’ve built a strong foundation with the multiple platforms, and you are rolling with it.
Tom: That’s right. We’re continuing to broaden our revenue streams. Digital remnant exchange, for example, has become a good source of revenue for us.
What changes are you implementing that you see continuing after the crisis?
Andie: We’re moving most of our work to digital. As a result, we’re cutting down paper use and moving toward zero waste. This is how innovation happens: You’re forced to do something, and create a new system, a better system. We’re not going to go back to the way we used to do things, we’re working digitally due to the times and it’s working.
BoSacks: Covid has placed us in a time machine; it’s accelerated everything. If you were failing, the failure is accelerated. If you were robust before Covid, you are finding new ways of moving into the future.
Andie: When a competitor went down due to the crisis, we said: Let’s open up our pages to anything they want to publish. They submitted a feature about a local needle exchange program; Madison worked with them to get it seen and read—it was a six-page spread in our June issue, crediting Isthmus.
Joe: That’s a good model for city and regional publications to follow. As retailers consolidate, with small local chains getting absorbed into larger national ones, we need to present as a city and regional community to retailers. We need to use our combined retail power, which is considerable, to place city and regionals at front end market by market across the country. People might no longer want celebrity weeklies, but they want magazines about their community. This is worth bringing up with CRMA.
Digital press manufacturers have been for many years in a constant hunt to entice magazine publishers to print their magazines as a digital product and not an offset product. It is a fascinating and flexible technology, and I have seen copies that rival offset in quality. It works wonderfully for catalogs and direct mail. But magazines are a different breed.
Most magazines are already specialized niche products. I would postulate most magazines don't have enough edit to make personalizing printed magazines to each reader possible or profitable. I would also suggest that most magazines don't have a detailed database of their readers, although that is rapidly changing with the growth of surveillance capitalism.
There are circumstances and some companies where digitally printing a magazine could work quite well, but on the whole offset is still less expensive. And with the creative binding processes that are available, variable editorial based on reader interest has been obtainable for almost 50 years.
My favorite example is Farm Journal. They have used what is called a Selectronic binder, which is, of course, computer driven binding from a database. It has been around since the 1980s. It works like this - If you are a farmer and you grow corn and wheat and also have some chickens, you will get printed signatures with those editorial pages and ads that match your farm's profile. If your farm grows soy and alfalfa and you have cows, you too would get a different set of signatures and a different personalized magazine. Pretty cool right? This is accomplished while binding the entire magazines press run in one pass. I saw this process in the last century, and I have always loved the creative solutions to the manufacturing process.
Sadly, the magazine industry neither trained nor compensated their sales forces to learn the technology, thereby diminishing a pretty cool and advanced process to a mostly underutilized "could have been" in the annals of publishing missed opportunities.
There are always exceptions, but unless you have a strong database on your readers as Farm Journal does and the vast editorial will to produce multiple stories for each issue, a digital press, however wonderful, is at this point a technological exuberance for most printed magazines.
That doesn't say we shouldn't keep our eyes on the progress of digital printing. There may come a time soon when it is priced at or near offset. At that point why not go digital even if you use the process sparingly? I'm sure every publishing house can and will come up with creative uses for the process in both advertising and in edit. Who knows, perhaps Yoga Journal for the Left Handed reader is in the works as I write this?
Lastly, I implore any and all digital press manufacturers and publishers to start a dialog here in these pages. Consider it an opportunity to reach out to the perfect publishing audience.
William Ford Gibson is an American-Canadian writer who has been called the "noir prophet" of the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction. It was Gibson who coined the term "cyberspace" in his short story Burning Chrome. He is also responsible for one of my favorite quotes, which I often used to open my lectures in the early 2000's, "The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed."
In our industry nowhere is that more evident than at the Digital Innovators Summit (DIS) held each year in Berlin. I have had the privilege to attend it for seven years. In doing so I have witnessed the digital transformation of publishing media firsthand and with a global perspective. It is partly this experience that enables me to speak with authority about our industry and its future.
Publishers Are Finding Profits in Diversification I think the most obvious takeaway from almost every presentation is that the crisis of confidence is over, and we are now in a better state than we were five years ago.
There is now overwhelming proof from multiple global sources that digital can supply revenue and profits. Subscriptions are real and readers, especially those that trend younger, are willing to pay. Parallel to that is the formula of: Quality + Specialization = Premium Pricing. CLICK HERE FOR THE ENTIRE ARTICLE