A typical newsstand in New York City.
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Journal publishers, take note — frequency is a dimension of your operation that is very much under threat.

You need look no further than the consumer magazine space, and three facts:

  1. The Grim Reaper at Magazine Death Pool has been very busy starting 2009, with more than 15 separate titles shutting down, not counting the implosion of DoubleDown Media after the Wall Street meltdown. Nearly all these titles were monthlies, or the modern version (10x/year or thereabouts).
  2. Samir Husni at MrMagazine.com notes that “magazine” titles are up in 2008 and 2009 from 1988. However, if you only count titles that are published 4x/year or more often, there has been a clear decline. What has made up for it are the special issues and editions published under magazine brands.
  3. Folio reported just the other day that two major consumer magazine wholesalers are shutting down. This puts more than 50% of newsstand distribution up in the air.

What does this all mean? I think it means that frequent, serialized publication is going away as the Internet becomes an even more pervasive and reliable resource for all kinds of information.

I like to think of the underlying cause as “deja news.” It’s the feeling I get when I pick up a newspaper and realize I read all the news stories the night before, online. It’s the feeling I get when I receive a copy of a journal and realize I’ve already received the email table of contents and browsed the articles I wanted. It’s the feeling I get when I receive a magazine and realize I’ve already heard about everything in it — perused comparable movie reviews, read the news, received updates on the scandals.

Yet, magazine brands and glossy special editions still work. They’ve increased by an 8x factor since 1988, and account for the growth in the sector.

People do value print, but in a different way and for different reasons than in the past. Observers of this space are watching readers adjust and the market follow.

Meanwhile, according to people in the printing industry, STM journals are swelling with pages. Online submissions have uncovered more good science, and editors have been loathe to reject it. So, they’re publishing it, making for fat print issues.

At least so far. With shrinking endowments and a dire economic climate, fat page budgets are likely going to go on a crash diet. It will be summer before we see the effects, but it’s coming.

Are you prepared to follow your customer? Respond to economic trends? Or will you hold on to a fading print model (fat and frequent)?

Or is this all “deja news” to you?

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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.

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Discussion

10 Thoughts on "The Morphing of Magazines"

I don’t really see much parallel. Unlike magazines, journals don’t use the expensive and wasteful retail channel (high street shelf space, high returns, and all that). Most journals already publish on an article-by-article basis, and publishers are ready to drop print in an instant as soon as subscribers will let them. (The most recent projection I’ve seen from from a major publishers is for 75% electronic-only subscriptions by 2010.) Some journals have already dropped the print page-numbering from their online versions and others will surely follow suit rapidly. Publishers are only too happy to have the content read ahead of the issue publication date (and indeed work hard to achieve this, e.g. by offering RSS and email ToC alerts, SEO, cite-track alerts, etc.).

I don’t think I know any serious STM journal publishers who are holding on to a fading print model – may be different in humanities, I suppose?

I disagree. A lot of scholarly publishers are holding onto their print revenues (subscriptions, advertising), print production systems, and print mentalities. I’ve been talking with many parties in this market over the past few months, and print journals are getting fatter, some publishers are considering additional print spin-offs and editions, etc. They have a mental model that is very print-centric. It seems the governance structure is creating latency in the decision-making — older members rise to the top, and don’t see what’s going on with digital and networked publishing. As for the waste, I think most society journal publishers would be shocked to learn what percentage of the recipients actually read what they’re sent. It’s likely in the single digits. The society subscription model may be even more wasteful than the newsstand model.

You’re right that some forward-thinking publishers are moving aggressively in this direction, but I think the tide hasn’t turned yet to encompass the majority. In fact, it seems like some are headed in the opposite direction.

Thanks for a the comment. Clearly, there’s a shift underway.

On the subject of waste on the part of print journals, one of my favorite moments at an SSP TMR was during a presentation as few years ago by Guy Dresser of Allen Press, who was lamenting the ironic situation that they still had to print and mail journals to specific libraries (or their agents) which they KNEW no longer wanted the print copy. I pointed out at the time that they could save all that mailing cost by simply installing a shredder at the end of the binder in their plant and shred those copies as soon as they come off the line. . . .

I agree with much of what you say, but as a journal publisher the costs of ‘fat issues’ are so much less as a percentage than for magazines, then the equation of a little extra print costs in favour of more content/revenue is a very favourable one. Expect bigger issues and more and more journals to come.

I’d be interested to understand this model. I’d wager that your postal costs are low, which I’d infer to mean that you are mailing mainly inside a small country. Also, your print runs must be on the low side. You’re right, then, because each journal is more like a special issue. But why does printing more articles yield more revenue? Given the small advertising revenues of most journals, a few articles at most are needed to fill out an ad-based issue. The rest could be published online, removing paper and postal costs. So, why does printing more articles yield more revenue for you?

Is it possible that page charges or other fees the authors pay actually DO cover the incremental costs? Open access has made the “author-pays” model more visible and viable (at least in some disciplines). And for any business, getting paid up front is way more appealing than trying to attract advertisers and keep subscribers. In this scenario, more articles would clearly be better.

I still wonder. Why print them? Why not publish them online? Or is print the value, not the citation? At Pediatrics, more authors now publish online than in print. PLoS is mostly an online enterprise. So, why print?

Good point. I was looking for a reason–IF you were going to print–why more articles could possibly be better. The only way I can think of would be to cover the incremental costs with page charges or the equivalent. But sure, if you’re going to be able to get those page charges anyhow, even if you don’t print, then you’re exactly right–why print?

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