Online subscription agencies

Image taken from

Image taken from

Over the past few years third party agents have produced growing numbers of print subscriptions from online “subscription stores” with a corresponding growth in their share of publishers’ acquisition budgets. There are north of 350,000 orders a year generated via the sites listed below, which is estimated to be  more than 10% of all new subscriptions. It’s clear that publishers need to manage their agents to get the most from the opportunities – and to ensure that ROI is sustainable and that the orders being produced are both genuinely new subscribers and ones which renew profitably. All the stores operate on a CPA model, but with publishers paying either a flat rate per order or a percentage of the sales value, there is a substantial amount of money going from publishers to the agents.

Most of the stores are fishing in the same pool to a certain extent, with orders being generated through PPC, SEO, affiliate networks and emails to the agents’ own and third party data. This can mean that the agent is also competing with the publisher’s own efforts, so we have seen (in particular) restrictions on the PPC terms that publishers permit the agents to use, or on the amount of the bid, and making sure that the agent doesn’t use Google’s product listing ads to feature titles.

This has meant that agents have had to be more creative in finding new sources of orders that publishers cannot, so for example iSubscribe and ThreePM have developed a number of partner relationships, and Unique and iSubscribe supply libraries and schools. Newsstand and Unique also supply single copy sales and fulfil some subscriptions themselves rather than having a direct relationship with the publisher (as these subs are fulfilled from the retail supply, they don’t feature in publishers’ subscription figures).

I’ve listed the agents and their stores below, in order of the number of direct-to-publisher subscriptions (as opposed to those fulfilled by the agents themselves) that come through the stores or white-label versions of the stores. It doesn’t include orders from single-title sites such as those offered by Jellyfish and iSubscribe (e.g. National Geographic or BBC History).

The market is dominated by the first two companies in the list, who between them produce two-thirds or more of the subscriptions produced through the stores. The order of the other agents is based on conversations with publishers and with bureaus, so may not be totally accurate. [I need to declare an interest here. I helped launch and run ThreePM for a number of years and worked at iSubscribe for the past two.] Entertainingly, three of the companies on the list each claim to be either “the largest” or “the leading”

iSubscribe. The biggest of the agents, both in terms of the number of subscriptions it generates and the number of titles on offer (although Newsstand may take the crown here). The range benefits from a substantial number of overseas magazines via Comag, and Australian titles from iSubscribe’s parent company. As well as producing orders through its main site, iSubscribe also has partnerships with W H Smiths, in the US, Easons in Ireland and the iSubscribe sites in Australia and New Zealand. The company also has a library supply service, and supplies corporate and school orders.

ThreePM. Although it may have lost ground in recent years, ThreePM is still the second largest generator of agency orders. Owned by Dennis publishing, ThreePM operates the site, as well as having a range of partnerships with other online retailers such as Very and Woolworths. The site has also recently introduced some sort of widget called MagBox (I’m presuming through one of its affiliate networks) to plug into charity, school and club sites as a fundraising wheeze. is the retail store window of Jellyfish, and as such it is big in the PPC channel, as well as being on an affiliate network and using its customer email database. Jellyfish originally ran a ThreePM white label site, then partnered with LetsSubscribe, before setting up publisher and bureau relationships direct. The store generates fewer orders than Jellyfish’s main single-title business, but is known to do particularly well at Christmas when there are considerably more people searching online for magazine subscriptions.

Unique Magazines was formerly the online arm of a North East retailer, but became a separate company a few years ago. It has a mix of direct publisher relationships and subscriptions which it fulfils itself out of the retail supply chain. It has tried to have a presence in as many sales channels as it can – libraries, schools, corporates – but for most publishers it is one of the smaller players. It has recently concluded a deal with Magzter to offer digital subscriptions as well as print, and is the only store to do this at any scale at present, although it is known that several other of the agents are working out ways in which this might be done.

LetsSubscribe is part of Aditus Audience Acquisition (formerly Subscriptions Marketing Ltd) who are one of the biggest players in subscription telemarketing. Although the site is nice enough to look at and has a range of a few hundred magazines, it doesn’t seem to have the marketing muscle – and hence the online visibility – of some of the other sites, although it is able to leverage Aditus’s corporate links to provide magazine subscriptions to business customers.

Newsstand has very few direct publisher links (although this is a side of the business that is being grown) with the bulk of its sales either being single copy orders or subs fulfilled through Newsstand’s own warehouse. It does have an extraordinary range of magazines, from big and indy publishers in the UK and around the world, and it will be interesting to see if it does develop a direct-to-publisher order facility with the main publishing companies and so be able to offer the discounted offers that the other agents’ stores provide.


If you’re a publisher and want any help or advice on managing your relationships with subscriptions agents (ex-poachers make the best gamekeepers) drop me a line or contact me via


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