If you are unfamiliar with David Atkins and his business newsstand.co.uk, he is almost certainly not unfamiliar with you. Newsstand, the world’s largest print newsstand online, has over 4,000 magazines available with same day dispatch, worldwide.
The Pandemic Roundtable—Joe Berger, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham, Samir Husni, Bo Sacks, and me—welcomed him to our group to talk about his operation, the movement to print-on-demand, and the opportunities for publishers moving into online sales.
David’s business began in 1898 as a family wholesaler business, JG Palmer. Changes in the industry, with the consequent losses of many independent wholesalers, led the company to reassess what the needs of the customer were, and how they could help. The result was the shift to online, beginning with subscriptions and moving to single copies in 2011. Today, their online strategy enables publishers to get their publications into the hands of the reader through internet sales and online orders as economically and as quickly as possible. Through their concierge service, they are able to offer publications to readers based on their area of interest.
Joe: When did your shift to online take place?
David: We stopped being a wholesaler in 2006, dabbled with projects for Tesco’s and national newspaper publishers and started concentrating on online sales in 2009. We started working with independent publishers in 2015. It’s been a nice journey. We get our copies from the wholesalers, various distributors and directly from the publishers themselves. We sell either subs or single copy at the same price point, it’s the same thing to us with the only difference being the frequency of the purchase. We’ve gone from 100% subs to, today, about 50/50. It’s slowly tilting to single copy. Maybe 10% of customers will buy more than 1 copy and we have some voracious customers.
Joe: How different is your warehouse setup now from when you were a retail tieline?
David: Very different. We had a huge packing machine, unique on the planet, that packed into boxes for 4,000 retailers, in every day, out every day. Now we have endless shelving! It’s tricky for staff working with packing lists with 65 different issues rather than the one. It’s an investment in equipment, an ongoing process but still a mainly manual one.
Bo: You have a great site--functional, easy to use, one-click purchase; it’s a brilliant setup.
David: Thank you Bo! I’m really all about function over form; but we want to make sure the process is as smooth as possible. Of course there are always improvements to make to the website but we tend to place more importance on the service that the image, there’s always work to be done in either direction.
Samir: How did your business change with the pandemic?
David: It’s had its plusses and minuses. The pandemic initially strengthened our sales, which were spiked to two to three times greater year over year. At the same time, it led to other companies, both at home and abroad, focusing on online, so we needed to work harder to maintain our share of market. On the other hand, more people also have discovered they can buy single print copies online.
Internally, there are all the challenges of keeping the people on site (in the warehouse) happy, as well as helping others to transition to working from home. It’s not easy and I am keen to get everyone back into the office soon. General anxiety in the population reflects in how people interact with customer service; in our case, emails into customer service went up 400% and not all of them were pleasant.
Sherin: We’ve all had to up our game. Amazon set the standard for delivery. Publishers need to learn to keep up with that. We have to turn everything around in a day or two. The pandemic has taught us to be faster, smarter leaner and deliver to our customers so they keep coming back.
David: You’re right about that; we went big on getting copies to the customer tomorrow. The rest of the industry was still going with 10-12 weeks. You can get a refrigerator tomorrow but have to wait 3 months for a magazine; it doesn’t make sense. We’ve been busy changing that.
Joe: What are you seeing in terms of new launches?
David: Quite a lot in the indie market, with what feels like weekly launches. Literature titles are very popular.
Gemma: I launched a book magazine, Oh! Reader, in 2020.
Joe: The phrase “crazy brave” comes to mind.
David: Great! Crafts are also popular; we sell a lot of UK craft magazines in the US and a lot of US craft magazines here.
Gemma: In the US it’s very difficult to sell single copies online.
David: We do work with some US publishers, and also export publications to the US.
Sherin: shipping to every country has different rules. You have to work back from on sale because it takes different lengths of time for each country. Copies are stickered. You have to learn about each individual country. And the cost of shipping is very high.
David: Print-on-demand might help with that at some point. It would be good to hear from US publishers keen to experiment with UK distribution via POD.
Samir: the day will come when we will print on demand at home.
David: We are about to launch a POD printer. I’m very excited about it. We’ll be able to go to publishers and distribute their publication without the shipping costs and delays. We’ll have more to say in a few weeks, when we’re up and running with it. It’s still going to be expensive for now.
Joe: Now. Five years from now, maybe not.
Samir: Fifteen years ago I spend $10,000 on a laser printer. Today they sell for $49.
David: We’re starting with the saddle stitched titles. The high quality perfect bound magazines will come later.
Bo: The quality of POD printers can be outstanding.
Sherin: Having online points of distribution has got to be good. It’s something we’d like to see grow with the Almanac.
Joe: If the publisher is being paid. I see publications on Amazon that appear to be coming out of someone’s return room and being sold on Amazon stores with no remuneration to the publisher. There are a couple of online newsstands here but they don’t seem to have much traction. I feel the best people to set up effective online magazine sales would be the wholesalers. They have the warehouses; they have the magazines. What they don’t seem to have as yet is the technology.
David: We’d like to be involved with that (not Amazon) - we’re involved in a few conversations in various locations. Crucially, we have software that can maintain the product. Bo called that out; but in many cases, the importance of effective software is vastly underestimated in this industry.
Bo: It was the first thing I noticed about your site.
Samir: The US postal service is undependable, and worsened by pandemic; this is a factor that makes selling online single copies difficult. And postage rates are unbelievable.
David: In the UK as well; it’s shocking how many copies were lost in the mail during the worst of the pandemic here; and since we replace copies no question for all our customers and publisher partners, it’s cost us a good bit this last year.
Samir: We did a study and found that people buying mags on the newsstand really just the one or two issues. They don’t want the others, even if the entire year is offered at the same price.
David: Yes precisely, we’ve tried to upsell single copies to lower-priced subs, but it hasn’t happened. People are less interested in moving over. They want next day delivery of the magazine they want and the issue they want. Many people just don’t want to commit to a subscription. They don’t want any commitment whatsoever. It’s a wholly different group than the subscribers.
Joe: What do you see in the coming years?
David: We’d like to work with international wholesalers to help them launch their online businesses; we want to move into becoming an industry knowledge and information base as we have more experience than anyone in what we do. And we want to keep doing what we’re doing, trying to improve, and getting as many magazines out as we can. We’re also getting ready to shout about it a bit more – we’re not very good at that so watch this space.