Last week, I asked whether publishers are anti-publishing. Perhaps a better question would have been why US and/or scholarly publishers are giving up on the subscription model. A recent post from Samir Husni’s Mr. talks about the “mass suicide” magazine publishers are committing by giving up on the subscription model. The same morning I saw this, I received an email from offering me $5 off magazine subscriptions that are already ridiculously cheap (Wired drops from $10 to $5, New York drops to $14.95, etc.).

As Husni writes in his blog entry:

I say we live in desperate times when it comes to the American magazine scene. Just days after returning from an overseas trip where I enjoyed seeing and buying magazines and newspapers that charge real prices for their content, I received an e mail from Hearst Magazines inviting me (being the valued subscriber who paid less than $7 to subscribe to all their magazines just a few months ago) to take advantage of “incredible savings” on all my favorite magazines. . . . It is time to CHANGE our ways of doing business. It is time to change our method of pricing and selling magazines. Maybe, for a change, we can start saying Yes We Can and start thinking of the readers as a good source of revenue.

Logically, the subscription model makes incredible sense — readers paying editors and publishers to work for them and provide valuable content or risk cancellation. It makes more sense than the advertising model, which is about an indirect relationship and about extrinsic economic realities more than intrinsic value economics.

From a business and editorial perspective, the annuity model at the heart of subscriptions allows for institutions that can endure the viscitudes of politics, economics, and taste, establishing important cultural landmarks and sustainable employment and revenues. Having a direct income stream from readers spreads the risk of the business, and puts it where it belongs.

Yet even some publishing people celebrate the low subscription prices, as if these prices are the salvation of print. They are not. Low prices devalue expensive finished goods. As James Gleick put recently in a New York Times Op-Ed:

Forget about cost-cutting and the mass market. Don’t aim for instant blockbuster successes. You won’t win on quick distribution, and you won’t win on price. Cyberspace has that covered. Go back to an old-fashioned idea: that a book, printed in ink on durable paper, acid-free for longevity, is a thing of beauty. Make it as well as you can. People want to cherish it.

In a world of cheap magazines (and books, in Gleick’s essay), editorial work is devalued, layout and art direction are devalued, photography is devalued, superb printing is devalued — in fact, with advertising as the de facto business model when subscription prices drop below the cost of fulfillment, the only thing of value remaining is the distribution. And for publications to compete on distribution in the age of the Internet is truly suicidal.

Print publications can exist and thrive even amongst online competitors. But as undervalued commodities selling audience to advertisers instead of content to readers, their fates are sealed.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


5 Thoughts on "Suicidal Subscriptions"

Kent, this makes complete sense. When I hear people say they don’t read the papers or the magazines anymore, it is NEVER about the price. It’s about time – they don’t have any.

Kent, well said argument. If only the OA advocates seeking to open the scientific literature would recognize the points made in your post. At a time when universities are laying off faculty and staff, university endowments are shrinking, and research budgets are down, the OA advocates are lobbying for the advertising model of publishing. A failed model that will destroy all that has been built up using the subscription model.

I don’t agree with the comment that with advertising, the only thing left of value is the distribution. The distribution is a direct reflection of the quality of the editorial. The only way to attract advertisers is to first prove you already have the audience they want to reach and then to prove through click throughs that your audience actually wants their product. If you can’t prove those two things, they move on. Thus, even with the evolutionary changes affecting magazines, the basic model hasn’t changed, it’s all about the content.

I wish I could agree, but there are incentives for inflating distribution beyond demand or even editorial purpose, and many of these incentives are based on advertising dollars. And the return is often hard to calculate, so is poorly analyzed. Editorial often plays no real role. Buying lists, mailing magazines to people who don’t want them, or offering them for free to inflate distribution doesn’t rely on the quality of the editorial, only the business model and incentives.

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