Publishers are upbeat about the slow decline in magazine circulations. But should retailers share their optimism?

Magazine publishers have become used to putting on a brave face and fixed smile over the past few years as ABC time rolls around and they face their biannual trial by circulation.
So the usual show of bravado at the unveiling of the Audit Bureau of Circulation's figures for the second half of 2007 was no surprise, with publishers quick to point out that they were, with a few exceptions, not that bad.
The few spectacular circulation falls could be put down to a market which simply carries too many similar products - suggesting that a few more closures, such as those of New Woman and First last month, might not significantly affect overall sales at the newsagent. The lack of a major news stand launch in the past six months may also suggest we will soon see fewer titles fighting for a reasonably steady readership in the main sectors.
True, other media continue to chip away at the magazine audience, and free titles are cropping up to disrupt the established retail pattern. But even Emap's titanic decision to abandon ship, selling its consumer division to H Bauer after, it has been suggested, months of underinvestment in its titles, doesn't seem to suggest that convenience retailers should worry too much that there are other icebergs around.
"The latest ABCs show a stable market with significant growth for many titles," says Phil Cutts, director of marketing at PPA, formerly the Periodical Publishers Association. "After a number of strong years for the weekly performances, the monthly market has upped its game, resulting in heavy six-month figures. What is particularly encouraging is the good performance across a variety of diverse sectors, showing tremendous vitality of the market as a whole."
Total annual actively purchased sales were slightly down by 1.1% on the previous six months, with overall annual consumer expenditure on magazines staying flat at just under £2bn. Sales of monthly magazines over the period were up a mere 0.5%, but 8.6% year on year.
However, on the news stand, titles reporting over the whole year were down 1.8% period on period and 4.8% year on year.
There's a warning to retailers about the frequency with which publishers refer to brands rather than magazines - a demonstration of how they see the future of publishing moving from paper, and therefore the newsagent's shelf, to digital media.
IPC chief executive Sylvia Auton chose to highlight the company's digital launches, including housetohome.co.uk and goodtoknow.co.uk, as extensions of "pioneering brands", and called 2007 "a transformational year, with the business continuing to leverage the power of IPC brands through strong multi-platform growth - that will continue to be at the heart of our business strategy".
And Robert Price, chief executive of Future UK, listed a focus on "targeted investment in our print portfolio, along with continuing progress against our cross-platform strategy" as reasons for its successful figures.
Until publishers find a way to transfer magazine-levels of advertising revenue to their other formats, and persuade the public to adopt new media, it's unlikely we will see the bottom fall out of the newstrade sector. Indeed, despite a challenging market, the monthlies appear to be holding out, and in many cases have halted the steep declines seen in the first six months of 2007.
Winners among the women's monthlies were Essentials, Psychologies and She, all sitting pretty with healthy year-on-year gains; while More, Top Santé Health & Beauty and Yours are most in need of a makeover. Men's monthlies, some of which were expected to crash and burn after the last audit, mainly managed to pull out of the nosedive, although Arena, Loaded and Maxim, all of which shed about a third of their readers in a year, are still flying dangerously low.
It's in the weeklies that the crowded market, and the shelf of any c-store, is starting to sag under its own weight. The strain is starting to show among women's titles, where Star (13.4%) and Grazia (8%) could claim significant gains year on year, but even safe bets like Heat, Closer, Now and Bella felt the drop.
Men's weeklies have been taking a beating for a while - young men being the most likely adopters of digital formats, as seen in the continued rise of Monkey, a free, internet-only title now boasting 271,000 subscribers. That and the introduction of the free Shortlist - 462,731 average circulation in its ABC debut - has dealt a heavy blow to the lads' mags, with both Zoo and Nuts looking punch-drunk on the news stand, but propped up by their own online versions.
Listings magazines continue to top the best-sellers list, with TV Choice overhauling What's on TV for the No 1 spot. But even here's there's sign of slippage, with six out of eight titles recording circulation dips.
There's promising territory for magazine retailers in the specialist categories, with readers apparently deserting the more general titles for those which target their specific hobbies and interests. Future Publishing, which concentrates on special interest magazines, reported strong performances by titles as diverse as Digital Camera, Cycling Plus and Simply Knitting.
So, fewer big names, but more niche titles appealing to the individual - happily for the smaller retailer, that's a model which suits them rather better than it does the pile-'em-high supermarkets.


Who's in charge?


John Lennon, Managing director, Association of News Retailers

Can the carriage charge increase of nearly 4% recently announced by the newspaper and magazine wholesalers be justified? With inflation running at 2.1%, how can Menzies Distribution, for example, announce an increase of 3.68%?
Certainly, the news industry has seen declining sales in newspapers and, at best, a stagnant magazine market over the past 12 months. But to slash retail margins to increase your own profitability is not on, particularly as retailers cannot pass this increase on to their customers as newspapers and magazines have a fixed cover price.
Why are publishers turning a blind eye to these increases? Could it be because wholesalers have publishers' tacit approval? After all, if wholesalers are increasing their profit at the expense of retailers, then publishers need not worry.
The three monopoly wholesalers are now between them raking in £90m in carriage charges - nice work if you can get it. Oh, but of course no one else can get it - newspaper and magazine wholesaling is a closed shop.
Wholesalers are asking the OFT to effectively cement their monopoly position, and they are asking that retailers support their request, as they claim that the current distribution chain is the best there could be. But, ask yourself, in a competitive environment would wholesalers be able to increase their charges well in excess of inflation, or would competitive pressures keep costs down and improve service?

Shelf stars


Only seven of the top 20 magazines are available from newsagents.
Only 18 titles made their ABC debut over the period - including The Beano and The Dandy.
TV Choice displaced What's on TV as the top-selling news-stand title with 1,403,512 copies sold.
The biggest growth over the period came from Golf International and The Week, both up by more than 40%. Easy Food proved appetising with a 32.2% increase.
Over the whole of 2007, Period Living and Dr Who Adventures Magazine posted the healthiest percentage gains.
OK! magazine topped the table for its period-on-period volume rise, adding 109,706 copies.
More! took the biggest volume drop over six months. Bella saw the biggest volume fall over the year.
Source: Comag

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