Thursday, February 07, 2008

BoSacks: Why Do Good Magazines Die?

BoSacks: Why Do Good Magazines Die?
By Bob Sacks
Publishing Executive Magazine
Chuck Townsend, president and CEO of Condé Nast Publications, said in a statement, "Our investment in House & Garden throughout the years has been substantial, and we no longer believe it is a viable business investment for the company." Well, that is surely his call to make, but the public death by hanging of an old and cherished lady of publishing with a fan base of almost a million paid copies a month sets the stage for a review of what constitutes "success" in the magazine world, and, I think, makes a case for the impending doom of megalithic publishing empires.

House & Garden also had about 800 advertising pages per year-better numbers than many of its competitors can boast, and dream numbers for almost any publisher in this day and age. If I had those stats, I guarantee I wouldn't pull the plug, but rather find the leakage in the revenue stream.

I will assume that the operating costs were, from Condé Nast's perspective, too high to handle for long-term sustainability. But what the heck does that mean? To me, it is proof positive that they haven't the slightest idea what it means to be entrepreneurial. The time is now, if ever, for all publishers to focus on the entrepreneurial side of our business.

Sure, there is tough competition out there, and some of that competition is in the house of Condé Nast itself. So, what? What better way to command the market than to establish a beachhead with your own titles? And that's the thing-large corporations can't/don't/won't be fast, smart and agile. The fire of quick action is not in the belly of the corporate beast. And in today's world, corporate speed means life.

Condé Nast has everything a publisher could dream of: 100 years of positive branding, and a sweet printing contract based on high-volume, multi-title efficiencies and paper being purchased as cheaply as by anyone in the business. It also must have had a flexible publishing perspective, one that could adjust with the economy and economics of the times. If the economy is slipping, then so glides your editorial message to your constituency. House & Garden had almost a million paying readers, just waiting for its insights and instructional visions.

I also think youth contributed to this murder. It's an old publishing tale of buyers and planners who are too young and in the earliest parts of their careers, who don't yet have the tutoring to look beyond the numbers. These youngling buyers need the experience of years and the mentoring advice of seasoned professionals to look at the magazine business in a different light than other media. We are not an iPod. We don't claim to be one. We are not a download. We are print, and we have tremendous worth. We can reach market segments that are as yet untouched by the Internet. This will not last forever, but it is true for today for many titles.

The lesson here is one of choice. Chuck Townsend and Condé Nast chose to capitulate. Without all the facts, I think it was unnecessary. They could have taken this title in any one of a dozen other directions. Even though it was a competitor to some of Condé Nast's own titles, I believe the death was a revenue blunder. They angered a million paying subscribers and left millions of dollars on the table with no place to go but elsewhere.

I'm not saying that there are no titles that deserve a quick death. Many do. But this wasn't one of them.

Bob Sacks (aka BoSacks) is a consultant to the printing/publishing industry and president of The Precision Media Group ( He is publisher and editor of a daily international e-newsletter, Heard on the Web. Sacks has held posts as director of manufacturing and distribution, senior sales manager (paper), chief of operations, pressman, cameraman and corporate janitor.

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