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Marketing magazines for the small publisher

The dread words “range review” spread fear and panic amongst many a small publisher. Chris Ashton argues that publishers need to take control of their own destiny, think laterally and stop seeing WH Smith et al as the be all and end all of magazine sales.

By Chris Ashton

Over the last few months the newstrade and third party distributors have been awash with tales of woe regarding the WHS range review; specifically its plans to reduce its range of magazines and concentrate on high volume, high profit titles. It now appears that the distributors have actually won round one. The final review was not as drastic as WHS had lead every one to believe, although it still represented a big cut in availability for smaller magazines.

WH Smith is doing what any other business would do when faced with mounting debts and declining sales. Cutting out the things that don’t make money, and concentrating on the ones that do. Basic business sense, but are they doing the correct thing?

The long-term outlook for the small publisher is very bleak indeed. WH Smith has built its business on providing a range of magazines covering the spectrum of consumer interest. For years WHS profited by people venturing to their stores with a good chance of picking up their magazine of choice, and probably another one as well. The advice ‘You will get it at Smiths’ was given by many a newsagent, friend or distributor. Newspapers and magazines were the mandatory item at ‘Smiths’; it was their raison d’etre. They were THE newsagent on the national high street.

We now see WHS flexing its arm with distributors and publishers. It is now moving towards paid for positions and mandatory stock. ‘Pay for placement’ in all stores is now closer to being a reality. It does not concern large publishers with large circulation magazines as much as the smaller publishers. It is worth it for them to have more frontages, more copies, a reduced range and less detritus on the shelves clouding the purchase pattern for them. However will the public still go there?

Other retail chains now have an opportunity to take WHS on as a range retailer. One doing so on a small scale is Borders. They have only 22 stores and are primarily in the southeast, but it’s a great experience. I recently visited the Oxford store (I didn’t go there specifically, but wandered in with the kids to avoid my wife’s extensive shopping stint) and I was taken aback by the volume and range of magazines and books on their shelves.

The whole experience was fantastic; there is a large bookstore as well (more books than I had ever seen in a WHS) and a coffee shop! People were having a coffee and flicking through potential purchases at their leisure. It was a real literary pleasure. If only they could take this concept further and on a national basis, they would clean up.

New outlets

What we, as publishers, need to do is think laterally. We must dismiss WHS as the be all and end all of magazine retailing. We are years behind the rest of the world in the subscription sector and we rely too much on the newstrade for selling our magazines.

As a small publisher, most of our revenue goes on printing and salaries, and there isn’t much left to spend on promotion. Most small magazines pay little attention to the marketing and promotion of their magazines on the newsstand as they generally can’t afford it; they expect their distributors to do it.

Sadly it’s not really their job to do so. However distributors do need to look at new ways of making our magazines available. New stores come and go, but these stores cannot be all things to all magazines. By definition many are general retailers with high footfall volume but no specific interest sector.

Alternatives include the non-federated specialist retail outlets. These must be the priority of the specialist magazine. Wine International is a vertical interest magazine. If you don’t have a keen interest in wine, you are not going to buy Wine International or any of its competitors! So what we have tried to do is place the magazine in outlets where people will be buying wine. We have done this in two forms; firstly with national chains (Majestic Wine Warehouse and Oddbins stock our magazine in all of their stores) and secondly with independent wine retailers. We furnish these two distinctly different groups via Worldwide Magazines based in Birmingham.

Know your reader

If you have not done a survey of your readership – DO ONE! How can you market to a new readership if you don’t know who they are, what they do, how old they are, etc? For example I know Wine International readers are 73% male, 91% over 35, 35.7% earn over 40k, 89.5% homeowners, 71% married and so on. I have a complete demographic profile of what my readers do, where and how often they holiday, what credit cards they use, newspapers they read etc etc. With this information our readers are no longer just wine enthusiasts, they are high earning older consumers, and are an attractive target audience for other businesses.


With this in mind, every opportunity must be taken to cross promote your magazine with outside businesses who share similar customer profiles. For instance get customer lists from your advertisers to sell them subs. There are also plenty of non-competitive magazines with a similar reader base; the trick is to find them and do a deal. Swap lists and insert subs forms into each others mailed copies to save costs. Swap subs pages in each others magazines, but make sure that you specifically design the advert for the new reader that may not have seen you before.


Subscriptions are the lifeblood of the small publisher. This is the only way that small publishers can expand their circulation in the long term. There are many different ways to do this but it’s very hard to get someone to part with £30 or £40 up front. And beware; if you discount in year one, they will always expect it.

Rewarding customer loyalty is great, but I prefer to add value to a subscription. Your advertisers will no doubt have products that they want consumers to sample in return for a page of advertising (in the form of a subscription page – not a free ad page!). Get them to give you the value of your page in product, and if you get them to mail the gift to your new or renewing subscribers they can put in a brochure as well!

Groups, clubs and societies offer opportunities for some great subs deals. You can allow them to use your subscription mailing every month to send leaflets and information to their members. Even with charging for the increased postage and handling, it will still be cheaper for them to do it this way. They get a deal and you get customer loyalty and more subscribers. However there are other issues to be aware of. The big boys can do this on a grander scale; I recently received a subscription form for Maxim. It was a great offer – 2 years for £9.99 – 41p an issue. I can’t print Wine International magazine for that, never mind post it and manage the subscription!

Placement of copies

Advertisers are always looking for ways to reach a wider audience. Nowadays there are great magazine placement schemes run by several companies that can place your magazine in specified locations for free distribution. We have Wine International available on Eurostar trains and in all the business lounges. For that we pay a placement fee per copy. It’s a lot cheaper than posting copies out every month to prospective new readers and there is a high volume footfall that could potentially bring advertising or subscriptions. A similar programme can be done for airlines, airports and trains.

We also place copies in five star hotels in central London and around the country to ensure that our magazine is sampled by the correct potential reader. This can be done directly, as in our case with The Hotel du Vin, or via Gold Key Media who can place copies in hotel bedrooms around the country or even abroad for a placement fee.

Maximising revenue

Publishers also need to be more imaginative in thinking up new revenue streams. With each issue mailing, why not get the bags or envelopes sponsored? Turn a cost into a revenue. Plastic bags / wraps are great for this as they can provide a low cost advertising opportunity over a long period. The cost per thousand is minimal, and could make a significant bottom line contribution.

Small publishers account for the bulk of magazines published in this country. But just like newsagents, put ten in a room and you will get ten different answers to the same question. But we do need to start to work together. More communication could bring new readers, new subscribers, new revenue and a bright future, but we must do it ourselves.