The key functions that distributors fulfil are marketing and physical distribution and it is the former that I want to focus on. Strictly speaking the distributor provides advice, guidance and actioning of promotion. The real marketer should be you the publisher - marketing is much more than promotion.
A pet hate of mine is when publishers turn to their distributor and say "you’re the marketing expert." You, the producer (the publisher), should know your market better than anyone, certainly better than a distributor, otherwise you shouldn’t be producing it! The publisher should be in charge of what happens not the distributor. The distributor is there to exploit the marketing channels but you should advise them on where the magazine might be best placed in terms of region and type of outlet.
At the end of the day there is not an awful lot to choose between distributors: how well they perform depends to a large extent on how well you manage the relationship as much as how "good they are". Specifics like remit and size of distributor obviously come into it, but for me one of the key factors is the quality and quantity of data provision. Good data is essential to producing good marketing.
Broadly speaking you can break the data down into two categories: market intelligence and data on your own titles.
1. Market intelligence
This can relate to individual titles or it can cover groups of titles: sub-sectors (eg boating), sectors (eg leisure) or industry-wide data. For individual titles the following are all available: index data, RSV rankings, tierings and box handling.
Index data from wholesalers will show you movements from one issue to the next and allow year-on-year comparisons: if you had poor sales for one month, was it just your title or were others down?
RSV rankings provide a ranking by retail sales value of all titles sold through the wholesale group that provides them. Thus, for example, Waterways World is ranked 577 by WHS News at the time of writing. That makes it the 577th highest generator of news-stand revenue amongst titles sold through WHS News (it is an average over the last twelve months). Again movements in rankings can show how your competitors are performing – are they climbing the rankings or falling? Remember they are revenue based but it is possible to interpolate circulation figures from them: take a title that is ABC audited, look at its ABC newstrade sales for the coincident period on the rankings and you can then use this to calculate movements and circulation for non-audited titles. This is not a perfect indicator for a variety of reasons. You need to adjust for cover price and frequency for example, a higher cover price will help to increase RSV over the previous twelve months, lower frequencies can depress RSV in comparison with titles with greater frequencies.
With both index data and RSV data think about your regional bias when interpreting data. If a title sells strongly in Ireland where WHS News do not operate, or in Scotland where Menzies are particularly strong, WHS index data and RSV rankings will not necessarily give a full picture.
Tiering data (ie in which tiers of a multiple a title is listed) is available on your competitors (and of course they can see how you are tiered). Keep an eye on them when ranges are reviewed.
Box handling data on competitors is obviously invaluable. Are there particular retail groups where they are well represented in comparison to you? If so, you have the opportunity to try to do something about it.
There is more available and it is worth pressing your distributor to see what they help with.
RSV and index data provide industry-wide information. When you look at a particular sector, you are not looking at one title but all of your competitors. If all of the titles in a sector recorded poor figures for a particular month it suggests a sectoral factor. Some distributors will also provide sub-sector, sector performance and overall market figures as well and once again this is useful. If a sector performed badly was it down simply to that sector or was it a wider problem?
2. Data on your own titles
Apart from the top level data of total supply and sales by issue the following are the key areas for each title:
* Breakdown by wholesale house by issue for supply, returns, number of stockists and number of sell-outs
* Same breakdown by retail groups
* EPOS data from multiples
* Box level data
I’m personally not sure that box level data is worth analysing by a publisher – that’s a distributor / wholesale function. Whenever I’ve tried to look at it you realise the fluidity of sales and the futility of trying to match supply to demand perfectly. Just as soon as you see an outlet selling out of its twenty five copies supplied each month and think why on earth doesn’t the wholesaler increase supply, they will then have a run of selling only fifteen per issue. The newstrade supply and copy management systems may not be perfect but if you think you can do better, then I’m afraid you’ll be wasting a lot of time for no material gain.
The detailed breakdown by wholesale house and by retail group are probably the most important sets of information. The key is to receive this information on a continual basis to allow you to analyse where changes are occurring and thereby give insight into strategy. For example, if sales were up by 20% for a particular issue of a title, where did that growth come from? If it was all from one particular retail group and the rest of the market was static, that could tell you that your promotion with that group was highly successful without affecting any other group. Strictly speaking it doesn’t – you don’t know what would have happened in the other groups if you hadn’t promoted in one. But that’s verging on over-analysis and it gives you a broad level of understanding of what is going on. You will also want to be able to conduct similar analysis at wholesale level – you might identify that certain regions are under-performing or that all the effort you put into increased activity in a region to tie-in with a major show was a waste of time!
Frequency of provision
The frequency of data provision is also critical. I tend to want to perform analyses quickly once I’ve identified a need and expect to receive data very quickly. More generally it is crucial with some data to receive data regularly and frequently. If you track your returns patterns at a top level you will soon learn that at 14 days after off-sale you can start to predict accurately the final sale figure for an issue. You may be able to trim that to 12 days and in certain cases 7-8 days. For example, consider the following table. The final sales figure for the January issue of a particular title was 10,192 or 94.7% of the figure at 7 days after off-sale of 10,766. Typically the 7-day figure is 94% of the final figure. Not totally reliable as the March figure shows, but the 14 day figure is very reliable. This means you don’t need to wait for the close to know sales figures very accurately.
|Nett sales after
|as % of final
|as % of final
|as % of final
EPOS data needs to come weekly (assuming that your distributor can provide it). For some groups there may be a delay in its provision, but for WHS High Street, for example, I receive data on the Monday giving me sales for my titles in the previous week. By recording this data over a long period to build up patterns (comparing issue-on-issue and year-on-year) it means that you can have a very, very clear indication of how an issue is going to sell before it goes off-sale. Indeed, it is usually the case that on the Monday after a title has gone on-sale on the previous Friday, I get a strong and accurate signal of how well the issue will perform.
If you have to wait for an issue to close for returns to know how well it is selling, your decision-making process is badly affected. It means that you already have another issue published after it and are pretty much committed on the following. With EPOS data in particular (and it only works if WHS or other multiples have a major share in sales of the title) you can know very quickly and allow strategy to be adjusted and set at an earlier date.
The format of the data is important. If you want to perform your analysis it needs to come in spreadsheet format and by email – though this seems to be the norm for anyone these days. An internet based format with continual updating of data is also widely on offer now and is a great aid to instant access to information.
Finally, if you are not keen on analysing your own data then be sure that your distributor can analyse the data for you and explain to you what they are doing! For me data is king in marketing – make sure you get everything you can, in the format you need it and when you want it.