Fixing the Broken Retail Magazine Distribution Channel

John Harrington is pulling no punches talking about the current state of the magazine industry. In a recent letter in BoSacks’ Media Intelligence newsletter, the industry veteran asks a simple question: Is there a future in the magazine retail distribution channel?

“In the spring of 2018, there are essentially two paths that the once great magazine retail distribution channel can go down,” Harrington writes. “One, it can continue to drift along as it has done essentially for the last twenty-plus years, and survive merely as a means for the major publishers to launch new titles and gather new subscribers by getting their publication into a limited number of retail outlets, primarily mass merchandiser checkouts, and larger displays in terminals and large bookstores.

“Or two, and less likely, major publishers can commit to restoring retail as an important part of their circulation mix, which will require a resolve and focus they have not demonstrated for a long, long time,” he continues.

Over the last 20-something years the industry has been besieged, starting around 1995 when the wholesaler model began to crumble and again in 2008 when retail sales collapsed, followed by the fall-off of ad sales. 

Throughout all of this, Harrington asserts, publishers have by and large done little to shore up their retail sales. 

“When retail sales collapsed in 2008, initially blamed on the Great Recession, publishers’ focus was again distracted by advertising, but this time by a simultaneous downturn in advertising, as steep as and maybe even more serious than the newsstand numbers,” he writes.

“Before any level of publishing could recover from the Recession, the warp-speed development of digital technology was changing the magazine publishing business model more rapidly than, arguably, any previous period. So much so, that when one of the four wholesalers, with a 25% market share, exited the business virtually overnight in 2009, publishers noticed; but did not make any recognizable shifts in their newsstand operations. Five years later, when another wholesaler, with a 30%-plus share, collapsed, the response from publishers was little different.”

It sounds harsh, but he’s correct. For the most part, publishers have swung with the trends to try to stay current and solvent, pouring money into digital efforts and opening new channels. Some have found success, to be sure. Yet there has been little-coordinated efforts to work to build a new retail channel structure. 

If it’s going to happen, it has to happen now. 

“Is it possible, that major publishers – those remaining – might refocus on retail? After all, it will remain a key element in new title launches, and is still a good, maybe smaller, but still good source of subscriptions,” he says. 

“Of course, it would take a concentrated and cooperative effort on the part of the largest surviving magazine publishers, the kind of dedicated response they have not mustered during a period that cried out for their attention,” he continues. “However, things have never been as desperate as they are now, so the time may have come.”

He proposes a putting together a task force, to include major publishers, and the remaining wholesalers, to “first evaluate the potential for success, and if agreeing that there is a reasonable hope, enter into a partnership to build a reconfigured retail magazine distribution channel that will be a valuable cog in a new magazine financial model.”

We hope the publishers are listening.