So much for all the talk about raising prices.
Magazines' average subscription cost slipped to $1.65 per copy in the 12 months ended last June, down from $1.69 in the prior 12 months and a high of $1.79 in the 12 months ending in the summer of 2006, according to an Audit Bureau of Circulations analysis of publishers' most recent reports.
The decline seems to belie publishers' oft-stated intention to charge consumers more for subscriptions and reduce their over-reliance on advertisers in the process.
Digital inroads among advertisers and the steep plunge in ad pages during the recession have both given magazines every incentive to increase subscription prices.
"If you look at the revenue stream of a magazine, there are two significant ones: advertisers and consumers," said Gary Foodim, VP-consumer marketing at Conde Nast, which publishes magazines including Vogue, The New Yorker and GQ. "You want to set yourself up so you can withstand any cyclical changes. You don't want to rely too much on any one source of revenue."
But decades of using low prices to chase big circulations, all the better to reel in advertisers and their dollars, have made price hikes a risky proposition. As much as the recession hammered home the peril in depending too much on advertising, it made asking consumers for more money a tough prospect as well.
"It's not an easy task," said Dave Leckey, exec VP-consumer marketing at American Media. "It's slow in coming. But we feel we need to support our business model by getting the consumer to pay its fair share."
There is some progress. American Media increased introductory prices on Jan. 1 by 16% at Star, 20% at Shape, 25% at Natural Health, 50% at Men's Fitness and 80% at Fit Pregnancy. Rodale said it has increased subscription prices for Women's Health and Runner's World in the last month.
Meredith, the publisher of magazines such as Family Circle and Parents, said it is testing some higher subscription prices but declined to elaborate. Other publishers also regularly test pricing.
But cheap remains the prevalent price point. Last week you could find deals on Amazon valuing Redbook at 25 cents an issue -- or $3 a year -- as well as Entertainment Weekly at 29 cents an issue and SmartMoney at 42 cents an issue, as long as you agree to let the subscription automatically renew.
"This price is a limited online offer we make from time to time to attract new subscribers who agree to an auto renewal program," said Entertainment Weekly Publisher Jason Wagenheim. "From our experience, there is great long-term value with these subscribers and this introductory offer is considered an investment against a future relationship with them."
Special deals aside, current introductory offers still ask just 33 cents an issue for Parents, 36 cents for Time, 50 cents for Better Homes & Gardens, 53 cents for Woman's Day and 55 cents for Esquire.
Publishers say their best hope for increasing prices is to bundle in digital access, the way Sports Illustrated began doing with the All Access package it introduced in February. For $48 a year, All Access includes print, web and Android app editions. Sports Illustrated's introductory print-only subscription, by comparison, costs $39 a year. The title plans to eventually eliminate the print-only subscription option.
"It's difficult to take existing products in this kind of environment, with some consumers watching their spending carefully, and raise prices without adding value," said Steve Sachs, exec VP-consumer marketing and sales at Time Inc.
Publishers might also promise their premium subscribers special one-offs for tablets that wouldn't have been economical to publish in print. "These platforms are the first time we have an opportunity to offer targeted apps, targeted content, in a way you couldn't do before," said Mr. Foodim, the Conde Nast consumer marketing VP.
Tablets could reshape our perception of subscription prices, which consumers typically evaluate in annual terms. "The App Store has created a different consumer perception about pricing: monthly instead of yearly," one magazine exec said. Charging $2.99 or even $1.99 a month is still a discount from the cover price, but would add up to a higher annual price.
If publishers, abetted by an improving economy and new digital platforms, do eventually succeed at increasing subscription prices, the next question is whether they stick to it.
The industry is constantly rebalancing between chasing advertising and healthy circulation economics, said Thea Selby, principal at Next Steps Marketing. "There might be a little bit of a float up in prices in the next year or so. And then depending on how strong advertising kicks back in, there's a real pressure on circulators to get more readers. And the easiest way to get more readers is to drop your price."