Zombies, Mutants & Resurrection: Magazine Publishing in 2019
For magazine publishing, 2019 has been a year full of births, deaths, mutants, zombies – and even a resurrection.
The glass-half-full crowd will point to the findings of Mr. Magazine (Dr. Samir Husni) that the total number of magazine titles in the U.S. is at a record high.
The half-empty folks will note the loss this year of so many well-known magazines – Family Circle, ESPN the Magazine, MONEY, National Geographic Traveler, Mad, Auto Week – the list goes on. Just last week, TEN Publishing added 19 magazines to the dead files.
And then there are such titles as Glamour, Seventeen, Cooking Light, Traditional Home, and Rachael Ray Every Day that became “zombies.” That’s my term for magazine brands that ditch their subscribers and their monthly publication schedules but continue to produce occasional single-topic, newsstand-only special issues.
Those high-priced zombie-branded “bookazines” are selling well, in contrast to the declining retail sales of traditional magazines. It seems that nothing can stop the zombies as they roam the country sucking up precious shelf space, draining the life from monthly titles until they, too, join the ranks of the undead.
Husni attributes much of the growth in magazine publishing to advances in digital printing, which have made it feasible to publish ultra-niche magazines with print runs as low as 1,000 copies. Social media and sophisticated digital marketing have also provided new ways to develop a “tribe” of highly engaged followers.
But not all of the new titles are mom-and-pop affairs. Meredith Corporation, which hasn’t shied away from killing or zombifying underperforming titles, says its 2016 release of Magnolia Journal “is one of the most successful launches in magazine industry history.” Now it’s following the same template with another print spinoff of a popular HGTV show, the Property Brothers’ Reveal magazine.
Most of the action in launching large-scale magazines is coming from outside the publishing industry. Netflix, Staples, Bumble, the REI co-op, Uniqlo, Vince, and Third Man Records are among the companies that decided to take a seat at the Cool Brands Table this year by publishing their own ink-on-paper magazines.
The Dollar Shave Club’s irreverent, sometimes NSFW online MEL Magazine is also considering a print version, because somehow learning what sexual activities guys should avoid after getting a nose piercing just isn’t the same unless it’s seen as ink on paper. (Here’s some free bro-vice from Mr. Tree: No worries. If your significant other is anything like mine, getting a nose ring will put an end to all sexual activity.)
With the landscaped littered with so many dead and undead magazines, why would profitable, growing companies that are mostly excellent digital marketers bother with something so old school as a printed magazine?
The hey-let’s-publish-a-magazine-trend is a logical outgrowth of the content-marketing craze. Brands that needed to move beyond bombarding jaded consumers with inexpensive digital ads started using web articles and other digital content to engage with them more deeply.
Putting a physical publication into the hands of select consumers takes that engagement to a whole other level, creating a sense of exclusivity and membership.
Don’t dismiss these “mutant” magazines as glorified catalogs or puff pieces. They often use top-notch writers, photographers, and designers to produce truly engaging publications. And some of these mutant publishers rarely even mention themselves in their own magazines.
Dying or Growing? Yes
So it’s been a strange year for magazines, full of dying business models (especially for advertising-dependent, mass-market behemoths), weeklies going monthly, shuttered magazine-oriented printing plants and paper machines, and iconic titles becoming zombies. But it’s also been a banner year for growth – of new titles, new entrants, and new approaches to the business.
Perhaps the most 2019-ish magazine story is Coastal Living, a former 650,000-circulation Time Inc. title that Meredith zombified last year. The Coastal Living $12.99 bookazines have sold so well that Meredith is now resurrecting the title from the undead, selling $20 annual subscriptions to the quarterly.
Though Coastal Living lives again, its old business model is still dead and buried. This time around, it’s aiming for circulation of only 150,000 to 200,000. And I’ll bet that $20 subscription price for four issues is much higher than what many Coastal Living subscribers used to pay for 10.