Publishing Pandemic Roundtable with Jim Bilton publisher of MediaFutures-
By Linda Ruth
Mon, Dec 14, 2020
“We Forget How Exciting Our World Is”
On Wednesday, almost a full year after the onset of our pandemic, nine months from the first Pandemic Roundtable, hosted by Joe Berger and attended by Bo Sacks, Samir Husni, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham, and me, we met again to review the state of our industry. Our special guest was Jim Bilton, the publisher of the annual mediafutures market analysis and the wessendenbriefing, the 7x newsletter covering print and digital trends and analysis.
While the scope of his business is international, we were particularly interested in hearing about trends in the UK, where his business is based, and how they relate to trends in the US and the rest of the world. Our conversation took us to the continuing strength of print, the re-dedication to print on the part of key retailers, and the excitement that our audience still finds in the world of print.
Jim: I was interested in reading in a past Roundtable about the direction Barnes and Noble is taking. That is such a huge part of your market; we have nothing like that in the UK. WH Smith was formerly number one in the UK, but they expanded into travel, which seemed a good move at the time, that has backfired; now magazines aren’t their main thing, stationery is. Tesco, a supermarket chain, leapfrogged over WH Smith.
Barnes and Noble is interesting because of its connection, through James Daunt, to Waterstones. But the size of the store format couldn’t work in the UK, where the rents are so high; we don’t have the big out of town malls to the same extent as in the USA. The interesting aspect, to me, is what Krifka said about focusing back on bricks and mortar, on print, and moving away from a strong digital focus.
Joe: We’re interested in getting your perspective on the effects of the pandemic on UK publishing, and where you expect it to take us from here.
Jim: During lockdown magazines did worse than newspapers. Sales dropped by 30% YoY, although they came back, and overall are now down about 17%. The travel sector fared much worse, of course, going into virtual hibernation initially and are still now about 80% down.
Here many UK publishers overreacted and slashed draws more than they needed to. Supermarkets held up; and independents have a bigger share than ever before. And there’s a background issue about the health of print—in terms of physical health; copies have been taken out of waiting rooms and shops because of health concerns and people have been made to feel uncomfortable about browsing at the magazine racks. This obviously hits impulse sales and discovery at retail.
Samir: In the US, we’ve seen a big increase in people of color on magazines; are you seeing the same trend in the UK, and is it helping or hurting sales?
Jim: Yes, we are seeing the same trend, but the impact on sales is difficult to size given everything else going on in the marketplace. One launch I can point to is Cocoa Girl magazine, celebrating Black girls. We’re generally seeing lots of small launches, specialty launches, and a bit of a trend from digital to print.
Bo: Last time I was in the UK most publications had cover mounts(Polybagged magazines with attached products of one sort or anohter) ; is that still a trend?
Jim: Yes, though not quite as much as before. There’s a big sustainability issue, and issues having to do with returns. Publishers are learning to move premiums closer to content, so they relate more directly to the content of the magazine. The same has been true of events—although of course that’s less of an issue now. But we haven’t realized how exciting our world is to our readers. Everyone’s got a wine club; but audiences want the unique content a publisher has to offer.
Another trend we’re seeing is publishers varying cover price depending on content and pagination.
Sherin: Varying price issue to issue is something you really couldn’t do here.
Jim: Yes, retail hates it, it causes problems.
Joe: Have your retailers adopted Scan Based Trading?
Jim: We’re getting it in progressively through the back door—WHS and Sainsbury have a soft version, supermarkets are getting ready for it, although each has a slightly different version. The pandemic has had the effect of creating more demand for it from retailers, who are asking for it to mitigate the demands made on their in-store personnel.
There has always been resistance from publishers, who demanded much lower shrink levels before it would be considered. Yet the industry, led by Future Publishing, has decided to take the lead - they see it as inevitable and choose to manage it up front, to take the initiative rather than being forced to do it. Now other publishers are coming along. Wholesalers say this will be margin neutral—that retailers will concede margin but make cost-saving gains. In the US the situation got out of control, everything went the wrong way all at once. By contrast, in the UK the negotiations are tough, if the retailer wants SBT they have to give something.
Joe: In the US some publishers have seen an uptick in subscriptions with the pandemic. Have you seen that in the UK?
Jim: Subs are booming—mostly print subs. With publishers worried about their future at retail, many made the mistake of going crazy with front end acquisition. Now Hearst UK, for example, has been firming up sub prices. They, like lots of publishers, were doing short-term low-margin offers to build their files. They were overwhelmed by the response and are trying to back off on that. There were a lot of people in the funnel already, and all the cut-priced subs have done has been to shovel them in more quickly, and less profitably.
Joe: What percentage would you say subscriptions have increased?
Jim: Acquisition activity increased massively, but much of this was based on short-term, big-discount offers, which are now converting at quite low rates. When all this churn is taken into account, my sense is that total subs file sizes will end up being flat year-on-year in 2020. But that’s a big improvement on the 8% year-on-year drop seen in 2019.
Bo: What trends are you seeing digitally?
Jim: Financial people like digital editions; readers don’t so much. Newspapers are going into a digital black hole in terms of revenues apart from a handful of high profile brands like the New York Times or the UK Times and Telegraph. But what digital means to magazine publishers is very different from what it means to newspapers. Magazine publishers are still wedded to the issue rather than website accessed article level streams, which is the core of the newspaper digital offer.
Samir: It requires constant upkeep to maintain a digital file, a digital list. Publishers constantly collect and re-collect names, contact information. Has anyone found a way of making money?
Joe: For example, one of my publishers had 20,000 subscribers spread across the platforms; without constant upkeep, attrition can be rapid, and they’re down to a fraction of that now.
Sherin: Our only monthly publications, the OFA Extra, is digital. We send them a notice when an issue drops, and only revisit them for renewal annually. We keep it as simple as possible. People start with so many barriers, but you have to simplify that.
Gemma: We make our digital version free to print subscribers.
Jim: That’s why most legacy publishers are holding on to print. Hearst Premium—making best out a bad situation—has lower frequency, higher pagination, and a higher cover price at its core. Digital is still a thin medium that consumers aren’t prepared to pay a full amount for. To make this difficult field profitable, we might look to e-commerce. How high can print cover prices go?
Bo: Much higher than you might think.
Gemma: Magazines are still really underpriced.
Bo: We have to continually make the transformation from a perceived commodity product to a necessary luxury product worth paying for.
Jim: In the UK, everybody is putting their prices up.
Linda: What do you see as the effect of Brexit on exports.
Jim: A lot of UK publishers are going digital-only for export sales rather than shipping print across borders. And anyway, our really big export markets are the USA and Australia, not so much Europe. The Brexit issue more has to do with cover mounts and where your paper comes from, where you’re printed, what borders are crossed on the way to creating the final finished product. For example, a garden title with cover-mounted seeds had problems getting across borders. And it varies from country to country. In France and Germany, the supply chain is tightly regulated. But as we go into Brexit, everyone has their Plan B and Plan C.
In the UK, every link in the chain is under pressure. Publishers are feeding less product into the market. Retailers are cutting ranges and the space allocated to newspapers and magazines. Yet the recent focus has been more on wholesale. We only have two mainstream wholesalers now – Smiths and Menzies – with Smiths recovering from a disastrous persification programme which caused them some serious financial issues. In response, some of the newspaper publishers had been looking at a newspaper-only distribution network – although this has gone quiet now. If we ever went down that route, then magazines would lose many of their current advantages - five- or six-day a week magazine deliveries, sales-based replenishment and national on-sale dates.
Samir: Vogue sold out its Harry Stiles issue in Barnes and Noble. They had to replenish.
Jim: Print still has immense power in the magazine business. Look at Amazon. Around their major markets, they offer print and digital, single copy and subscription. They understand that magazine consumers want print as well as digital. Print is still the “gold standard” and is still part of the “magazine experience”. At least for the foreseeable future. Yet there is no single, simple business model that works across every market. It’s all about understanding your own audience and delivering what they want. Not what you think they want.