Digital subscriptions – no investment, no sales

Comment by Tim Dawson.

The publication of the first audited circulation figures for digital magazine sales did little to make the case that online subscriptions are the future.  Only two magazines have sold more than 1,000 subscriptions – Men’s Health and Hello!  And neither of them had sold enough to give much cheer to those who mourn the forests of trees needed to feed the UK’s magazine habit.

While these figures do demonstrate that magazine buyers are unlikely to migrate to digital subscriptions unprompted, I don’t believe that they are conclusive evidence that there is little or no market for such products.

Anyone who has ever worked in a magazine subscriptions department knows what hard work it is making sales.  Direct marketing campaigns are poured over for their response rates; staff are deployed up and down the country to pursue ‘product sampling opportunities’ and the postal details of ‘prospects’ sifted from muddy streams of personal data like nuggets of gold.

It is hard to find a single magazine in the UK that has deployed similar efforts to sell their digital editions.  Indeed, most appear only to have been drawn to the notice of readers when ‘house’ advertisements were needed to fill empty space. 

Very few fingers are needed to count the number of publishers that have put much effort into their digital editions.  The vast majority are selling facsimile editions produced and sold by third parties on their behalf. 

There are two consequences of this state of affairs.  The first is that the market remains wide open.  Anyone who thinks that they could make a decent fist of online magazine sales should either get into the market now – or be knocking on the doors of the big publishing houses to make their pitch.

The second is that, for the time being, News International’s paywall remains the only seriously resourced attempt by a mainstream consumer publisher  to create a product that is good enough to persuade consumers to part with any money.  Looking at The Times iPad edition the other day, I was reminded of what a brilliant product it is.  Whether it is paying for itself, as some at News International suggest, is hard to say.  It is such a pleasure to use that for the time being it is the benchmark.

No doubt we will be consuming printed magazines for many years to come.  It is hard to believe that the sector will not continue to witness a slow decline in sales – particularly on the newsstands, which appear to have been particularly hard hit in recent times.  If publishers want to see their titles really thrive in the future, they will have to find new ways to make sales – and that will require imagination, hard work and investment.

Digital ABCs at August 2011

Men’s Health ; Natmag Rodale : 1,746

HELLO! ; Hello! Ltd : 1,165

Stuff ; Haymarket Consumer Media : 981

Esquire ; Hearst Magazines UK : 825

Harpers Bazaar ; Hearst Magazines UK : 622

Wired ; Conde Nast Publications Ltd : 622

GQ ; Conde Nast Publications Ltd : 574

Tatler ; Conde Nast Publications Ltd : 359

House & Garden ; Conde Nast Publications Ltd : 351

New Scientist – US/Canadian Sales ; Reed Business Information Limited : 349

Autocar ; Haymarket Consumer Media : 348

Cosmopolitan ; Hearst Magazines UK : 259

Vogue ; Conde Nast Publications Ltd : 185

Four Four Two ; Haymarket Consumer Media : 178

World Of Interiors ; Conde Nast Publications Ltd : 168

Conde Nast Traveller ; Conde Nast Publications Ltd : 102