publishing industry

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).



Shard Experience

riig33xvdvgvgui3v5myTo The Shard! (I think it should always have an exclamation mark) on a crisp March morning for a presentation and a breakfast by Readly.

Readly are the new “all you can eat” subscription service for magazines. You pay a tenner a month and get to access to all the magazines – current issues and back issues – on their service. That’s currently 400 different magazines from across Sweden (where Readly launched), the US (now live) and the UK (which is launching in the next few days). There seem to be around 120 UK titles on the site at present, with IPC and Haymarket being the two larger publishers present. More publishers and titles will presumably be added over the next few weeks.

The editions are ‘just’ flat PDF versions rather than anything more sophisticated. I’ve always had reservations about this way of going digital (and I go back over ten years here, when the Telegraph were looking at producing page-turner editions using Olive software), but Per Hellberg, Readly’s CEO, made a strong case for this type of product as the best option for a “magazine buffet” service.

Primary among the reasons is to give the customers a standard experience – any title they read or browse on the service will have the same navigation and the same features; there’s no need to have to come to terms with different publishers’ preferred UX. Second is consumer conservatism – despite what us publishers might want, many readers like (or don’t actively dislike) the consistency of experience between print and digital.

A third reason is ease for publishers. A standard format from the press-ready print files means no extra work to get titles live and allows for back issues to be uploaded without any format conversion. The whole subject of back issues is important, and I’ll come back to this in a second.

Per’s overarching philosophy is this – there’s nothing wrong with the content that’s being produced, so why would Readly want to change that (“Netflix don’t re-edit movies they show”) – the challenge for the market is in distribution, accessibility and marketing. And on customer acquisition over the next three years Readly are planning to spend £100 million across the UK, US, Germany and other territories. (Bloody hell, that’s a marketing budget.) (more…)

Where I try to build a website

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 12.48.02The first of two new things of mine is about to go in front of an unprepared world as I go live with

This is basically a venture to chase up more freelance work in subscription marketing. (If anyone asks I’m claiming that the domain name is ironic.) Whether you want analysis of your strategy or help on specific campaigns, drop me a line and we can talk through what you’re trying to achieve. More details are on the website (oh, you wanted to be reminded of the address? No problem, it’s

I built the pages using a template-driven site builder on 123-Reg. On the plus side it was fairly quick to do – what you see took around 4-5 hours in total – but I wouldn’t recommend it for anything substantial. There are lots of counter-intuitive functions, not many decent templates, and a lack of documentation and help (at one point the site was ready, but moving an image threw everything out – I mean everything. There was no way of reversing the move.) Venture number 2, which will be sprung in the next couple of weeks, is likely to have its site built in WordPress (like this blog, but on its own domain), which I suspect will take considerably longer, but produce better results.

But at least the courses in Analytics that I’ve been doing have been worthwhile. Tracking code is embedded and working, filters are set up – now all I need is some traffic…

The iSUBSCRiBE subscriptions report

REPORT-GRAPHIC-social-mediaOnce again I’ve gone toe-to-toe with the ABC returns and pulled out data galore on subscriptions. Tables! Graphs! Charts! with a bit of analysis, comment and speculation thrown in for good measure. It runs to around 20 pages and you can download your free copy here.

To whet your appetite, some key facts are:

  • Saga is still the number 1 subscription title in the UK, but Radio Times has now moved into the number 2 spot
  • There are 7,146,375 print subscriptions reported
  • Print subs are now nearly 25% of actively purchased magazine sales
  • 15 companies have over 100,000 subs on file
  • Glamour added over 21,000 print subscriptions last year

An interesting/complicating factor this time around is ABC’s inclusion of digital editions. This isn’t all digital editions, just those that are basic facsimile versions of the print product (so it excludes a lot of apps and other editions), but even so there are a further 413,740 subs to add to the print total.

Uniquely (genuinely, you won’t find it anywhere else) the report shows the top 100 subscription titles using the combined print and digital edition figures, and the combined figures for the major publishing companies.

Follow this link to download your free copy, and please email me or post questions below if you would like more specific information.

Transferable Skills

Like policemen, the winners of the Customer Direct awards seem to get younger every year. Most of the people collecting their gongs this time round were almost certainly in short trousers the first time I picked up one of these trophies.

That’s good, as it means that the industry has a number of bright, young, dynamic individuals coming into it and setting new standards. This is the generation who have grown up with the interweb and haven’t had to shoehorn analogue attitudes into a digital present. Again, that’s good, but it contains the danger that as skills become more transferable between industries, so publishing will have to work harder to keep its best performers.

Publishing always used to score highly with graduates because it was interesting, you were in a cool business (“I’m in publishing” always had more cachet than “I’m in accountancy”), you got given more responsibility earlier, and you got invites to some great parties. Yes, the money was terrible, but that didn’t seem to matter too much; if you wanted to earn more there were plenty of other publishing companies that you could move to.

It’s a bit different now. Yes, we still take in lots of bright young things and give them lots of work and responsibility and pay them bugger all, but the horizons for all of us in the industry have narrowed. There are fewer companies, fewer jobs and fewer perks (and fewer parties). I rarely meet people in publishing firms who are actually having fun.

Looking through my LinkedIn contacts, a lot of the twenty-somethings that I knew have left publishing. Their marketing skills and their digital knowledge means that they can find work in all sorts of ecommerce businesses – retail, finance, travel, property, technology. They get more money, more holidays and perks, and have a more defined career path.

In some ways this might be the hidden threat to the future of magazines. Transferable skills mean that people do transfer, and if they’re paid more, get better conditions and are in a growth industry, who isn’t going to move?

Why print still matters

Over on the shop site we run for magCulture there’s a unique publication on offer. Called My Favo(u)rite Magazine, it’s a one off where 88 ‘people who make magazines’ choose their favourite-ever single copy of a magazine. It’s been produced to raise funds for Bob Newman.

There’s an entry by Richard Turley, the creative director of BloombergBusinessWeek that encapsulates why people love printed magazines. A colleague of his had stumbled across an old title from 1971 and absolutely loved what he’d found. After they’d both looked at it and talked about it for a while Turley’s colleague said “Sadly, no one will ever stumble upon an old iPad app.”

“That tiny sentence was both a kick in the teeth and an awakening. That tiny sentence made me want to fight for magazines – for print – harder than ever…Because the magazine legacy that we’ve all inherited is too rich, too brilliant, too important to shrug off.

We can’t let print drift into irrelevance on our watch.”


Subscription bureaus – the Round Table report

Last week I chaired a discussion for iSUBSCRiBE where five of the leading subscription bureaus talked about the challenges they are facing and the associated opportunities for their business.

If you’re a publisher you’re either using a bureau to manage your subs or you’re doing things with in-house software. The massive (and possibly terminal) decline in newsstand means that subscriptions are increasingly important to your survival, and the fact that you have a one-to-one relationship with your customers is an opportunity for much deeper engagement (= you can find out more about your readers and sell them more and different stuff).

The discussion will be written up in a future edition of inPublishing, but there were some key points that came out of the conversation that are worth sharing now.

The first is to do with what bureaus charge publishers. We’ve seen the development of the bureaus from being the providers of a range of 20th century physical services – opening mail, banking cheques, answering ‘phones – to being the suppliers of software services. The old roles were “commoditisable”, the price being constantly driven down by competitive quotes, and bureaus operated on very low margins, relying on volume to make money. Supplying software services is potentially more lucrative, but the development costs are huge and many publishers remain in a 20th century mindset, regarding the bureau as something that needs to be constantly beaten down on price and being unwilling to fund new development for their titles. All the participants mentioned that their non-publishing clients paid more, yet still regarded the service as good value. (more…)

Magazine industry veteran in optimism shock.

Last Friday I came out of a meeting with a group of publishers feeling vaguely optimistic about the future of the industry – which is something that I can’t say has happened for quite some time.

I was moderating a user group meeting for one of the subscription bureaus and present were clients representing B2C and B2B publishers, big and small titles, UK and international.

The details of what was discussed aren’t important (and are anyway bound by the secrecy of the confessional), what was encouraging was the attitude. Although many of the people there talked about a ‘digital first’ strategy, what they were actually pursuing was a ‘customer first’ strategy – they want to deliver their product however the reader wanted to consume it, whether that was in print, digital, bundle, web, app, whatever.

“Agnostic marketing” was a termed that was used – it wasn’t a matter of promoting one particular delivery channel, but promoting the brand. And the brand in all its forms – magazine, products, events, add ons. Again the details aren’t important, it was the urge to innovate and to test that came across most strongly: “we don’t know what’s going to work, but we don’t yet know what’s not going to work, so we want to try as much as we can and see where the data lead us.” (more…)

Will digital save print?

Some interesting conversations with publishers last week about digital editions of magazines. The excitement of the launch of these products has settled into a realism about their use and about their limitations.

There are still a few publications where the digital version is being set up as the replacement for the print edition, but in many more cases the new medium is viewed as supplementary to the old.

As the Dovetail Digital Subscriber Survey shows, the number of “digital only” subscribers (i.e. ones that have no print product subscriptions) is vanishingly small (<1%). It will grow, but the much greater number are those mixing print and digital products.

This chimes with publishers’ experience. They had initial euphoria as large numbers of shell apps/sample editions were downloaded, but this growth wasn’t (indeed couldn’t be) sustained or turned into digital-only revenue streams. Digital only subs are still growing for most publishers, but these growth rates are much slower and, in some cases, have completely levelled out. The potential for substantially expanding a title’s market through digital editions is much more limited than publishers first thought. (more…)