Do magazines matter? No

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Is there anyone in the magazine business who hasn't worked for a magazine that's gone under? Is there anyone in the magazine business who's worked for more successful magazines than failed ones? Is there anyone who has absolute faith that the magazine he or she works for now will exist five years from now-or even a year from now?

This is a graveyard business.

Music and movies are always said to be hit-driven (you're either mega or you're nothing), but music and movies are far more forgiving than magazines. Here, even an indisputable hit-The Industry Standard, for instance-can become an instant flop (the Standard is just one of the many graveyard magazines I've worked for).

Even in flush times, the magazine business is a stinker. It's zero sum. Every ad I convince you to put into my magazine is an ad you take from someone else's magazine (often from a magazine owned by the same company your magazine is owned by). It's always a tug-of-war. It's always a negotiation. It's always a worse deal.

What's more, it's not only a hit business, it's a one hit business (media buyers can't be bothered to look beyond the top of the hit parade). The No. 1 book in the category is successful; the No. 2 is struggling; No. 3 and beyond don't count. And No. 1 is hardly protected. Invariably someone comes along and strip-mines the market-gives sharper focus to the tenderloin of the target audience. A new category is thereby made and a new No. 1 created, which, by the process of constant balkanization, is a smaller success then the prior No. 1. Everything gets smaller in the magazine business.

Oh yes, and the single-copy business-which has been bad for a generation, with sell-throughs on an ever-downward curve-has recently gotten much worse. The patchwork of many wholesalers around the country has consolidated into an all powerful (not as if they weren't tough enough before) handful-meaning the wholesalers have virtually absolute power to negotiate any deal they want to negotiate.

And subscriptions. It used to be that the real villain in the magazine business was a thing called cheap subs. To make your rate base, you sold your magazine through Publishers Clearing House and American Family Publishers-i.e., the sweepstakes promoters-for practically nothing. Every consultant said the same thing about every magazine pro forma-if only there weren't so many cheap subs. Then PCH and AFP hit the skids, and it turned out the only thing worse than cheap subs was no way to sell cheap subs. Getting your magazine into the hands of a reader was suddenly not only an expensive proposition but, increasingly, an insurmountable one.

The answer to every problem became consolidation (briefly, very briefly, there was another solution called a "new media" strategy, but that's ended in tears for just about everyone). Any magazine that had any hope of survival had to be part of a stable in a greater magazine company; then, of course, every magazine company had to be part of a greater media company; then every media company had to become part of a multiplatform-synergistic international distribution megalopolis. The effect of this was that any single magazine became irrelevant to the company that owned it, every magazine became fungible, and, not incidentally, everybody in the magazine business came to hate their jobs.

And all of the above describes life in the magazine business in the best of economic times. In the worst, it's closings, distress sales, massive cuts in ad pages and a relentless, Darwinian struggle that some ass will invariably describe as, all in all, good for the business.

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