Tuesday, November 3, 2009

100 New Magazines Launched in October? How Many Are Worth Keeping?

Mr. Magazine, aka Samir Husni, writes that he notes 100 new magazine titles were on the stands in the month of October. From the sampling posted on his blog, I'm amused by some of these magazines. Does the world really need Angels and Miracles? or Men Fetish? Couldn't those two titles have been combined into a new-age evangelical gay leather magazine? After all, it's all about niche marketing these days, isn't it?

Anyway, Herr Zeitschriften says there are two interesting things about this avalanche of launches: There are lots of one-shot magazines, and the cover prices are somewhat hefty (a rough average of $8.66). He makes a good case that one-shots are not going to save the magazine industry, but I'm not sure that's necessarily so. Some one-shots are indeed produced simply to soak up newsstand space, or to steal the thunder from a market niche rival. But other one-shots are test magazines, and if they're successful, they can go on to long, happy periodical lives. Starlog magazine started life as a one-shot dedicated to Star Trek; when the distributor wasn't interested, it was bulked up with other science fiction articles and it went on to be a science-fiction media behemoth for three decades and the flagship of an enterprising (forgive the term) magazine company. That same company relaunched Comics Scene in the mid-1980s as a one-shot; it did so well, it was launched as a quarterly (that became a bimonthly that grew to a nine-times-a-year frequency) and lasted something like eight years.

So I welcome a one-shot publication. If it's well done, and it doesn't look like a cheap knockoff (such as, oh, a hastily assembled "tribute" to a recently deceased celebrity, for example), then I think it actually boosts the claim of magazines as a viable market where ideas can be floated, launched, retooled, and enjoyed.

As far as the high cover prices, I'm actually all for that, as long as we get our money's worth. That's been a theme of this blog for some months, in fact. I've urged a number of publications to take that route, as part of a way of freeing themselves from the addiction to the fickle (and shackling) advertising dollar. If you have a weak editorial product and you're third in your market niche, then this strategy won't work. If you're already a second- or third-buy decision for your potential reader, then boosting your cover price from $6.50 to $8.99 is going to give those people several incentives not to purchase it. But if you're the market leader or a strong second in your niche, a higher price that comes with quality and quantity -- more pages, added investigative or long-form journalism, new columnists, a beautiful redesign -- then you might just save your magazine in the long run.

Think about it. Playboy is still charging just a couple dollars more an issue (by cover price) than it did a quarter century ago, and its subscription price is pretty much the same (and even less, in some of its offers). Yet it just cut its rate base by nearly 40 percent. If they know they're going to be losing readers, why not boost the cover price a couple dollars -- yes, a couple whole dollars -- and deliver more and better editorial in the process. Their readers, in particular, will reward them; Playboy has famously loyal readers.

Starlog could relaunch at $9.99 an issue and boost the page count from what it was in its late run (around 84, including covers). After all, the science fiction media magazine field is no longer dominated by American publishers selling $7.00 or $8.00 magazines. American publishers are barely visible in the SF media magazine field these days; it's dominated by UK publishers, whose magazines sell for $9.99 or even $11.99 -- and deliver a lot more pages and editorial content. Those are the new competition, and there's no need to try to undersell them. They've raised the bar, so compete with them head-on.

On Sunday, I bought two magazines, neither of which is a regular buy for me but instead an occasional buy: Empire and SFX magazines. The cover price of both of them was $9.99, and each had more than 145 pages of full-color content. Why did I buy them? Well, I wouldn't buy an American mainstream film magazine because I find them to be boring and unimaginatively written, but Empire has spirit and great reach into the industry and a vast array of content. As for SFX, I would buy an American competitor if there was one out there worth reading. But with Starlog out of print (along with fellow casualties such as Cinefantastique), I've finally given up looking for an SF magazine not published by Titan magazines or Future, both from the UK. (Hmm, maybe this is the magazine I should be trying to launch ....)

But the $9.99 cover price didn't scare me off, and neither magazine shows any sign of imminent death. So how long will it take for magazine publishers in the United States to stop trying to do cheap-and-weak magazines and start doing pricey-but-quality magazines? If Samir Husni's blog is any indication, we might be headed in that direction at long last.

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