Friday, September 25, 2009

The Bane of Mailing Labels: Better off With Them?

In 1983, writer Harlan Ellison wrote a column for the LA Weekly in which he described his lifelong hatred of mailing labels affixed to the covers of the magazines to which he subscribes. Reprinted in his collection An Edge in My Voice (1985), the column included Ellison's complaint:

But when you try to peel the labels, you find they don't put them on with a light-application glue that frees the paper without damaging the magazine. You wail at discovering they use a hideous concoction I suspect is made of unequal portions of flour-and-water mucilage, Elmer's Glue, stucco epoxy and ... cassowary jizzum. What is left on the cover are (a) bits of attenuated label paper, (b) ripped slick cover stock and (c) at least two thick, sticky lines of blue- or pink-tinted glue.

He then details how he has learned to remove the labels and try to limit the damage of the glue. Find the book to learn how (really; it's a great book). But you get the point. Mailing labels deface magazines, and it's a royal pain to undo the damage.

I have a pet theory of my own that accounts for a change in this disrespect shown to the subscriber. Over the past few decades, even after accounting for inflation, many magazines have become more expensive, and -- especially for those magazines that aren't totally paying their bills with advertiser dollars but rely heavily on subscription funds -- subscription costs have increased to the point where many magazines are now mailed in protective sleeves or in paper or plastic envelopes, thereby eliminating the need to glue anything directly to the cover of the periodical itself. If you're shelling out $40 or $55 for a one-year subscription, it darn well better arrive in pristine condition.

However, now a different crime is being perpetrated on some subscribers. Many publishers who do not enclose their magazines in such nice protection have done away with gluing labels onto their covers and instead print a large white box directly on the cover, and the subscriber's address is printed in that box. It's a double crime: Not only is the white box a part of the cover and therefore unremoveable, but the white box is even larger than the old mailing labels, so you're losing more space than you did with that stupid old paper label. Buy the magazine at a store, and there's no white box; instead you get the full cover image unblemished by a publisher's bad decision.

Subscribers should get better treatment than newsstand buyers. (It used to be not uncommon for subscription copies to have no stupid UPC symbol on the cover, so subscribers could get a truly unruined cover image.) But now subscribers of those magazines that do the Mammoth White Box of Hell are worse off than newsstand purchasers.

Of the magazines that arrive in my mailbox, five are mailed in protective envelopes, and the other nine do not. Those nine either still affix rotten old mailing labels or print that Mammoth White Box of Hell for the mailing address. So the forces of good are still outnumbered.

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