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Publishing Pandemic Roundtable: For magazines, Barnes and Noble is holding up nicely

Krifka Steffey, Director, Merchandise, Newsstand at Barnes & Noble, Inc. returned for the second time to deliver an update to the Publishing Pandemic Roundtable—Joe Berger, Samir Husni, Bo Sacks, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham, and me.

And the news she brought was this: despite the year we’ve been having, Barnes and Noble is holding up nicely. Currently sales are only down 26% year over year. Stores are open. People are shopping.

This is not to say that the pandemic has been without impact. Some stores still have shortened hours; fire and flooding impact retail space. Some publications went on hiatus; others may not come back.

Krifka:: Since January Barnes and Noble has lost 500 titles, representing $25 million in retail sales. Some of those titles were coming from the UK. We lost the entire TEN Portfolio, that was a huge number of titles and Retail Sales Dollars for us. Oprah magazine, despite rumors of closing, is still publishing, but they’ve changed their frequency from monthly to quarterly.

Samir: it was the media who said they were going away, but from Day One the publisher said they were going quarterly. I visited a few stores, where I found a hefty magazine selection. You do see a decline in foreign titles, although some of the mainstays—British Vogue, Italian Vogue—are still out there.

Krifka: Imports are an interesting situation. Future Publishing stopped printing for a number of months, their publishing schedule in terms of number of titles has gone way down. The cost of gearing up again may prevent some of the smaller ones from opening.

Sherin: A more severe lockdown is coming in England.

Joe: When a big service title goes from monthly to quarterly with a higher cover price, what do you see in terms of overall units?

Krifka: Ultimately the retail dollars is what we’re focused on—and with those changes they perform better for us. The lower priced titles are by and large the ones that our customers subscribe to. Coastal Living, for example, went quarterly, and we saw increased unit sales.

Sherin: In a sense the media did magazines a favor by threatening scarcity. People are showing more devotion to their favorite titles. The Old Farmer’s Almanac, for example, is way up year-over-year; in some chains as much as 80%.

Joe: So lower frequency, higher prices is a good thing.

Krifka: The monthly turn of titles is so quick, it doesn’t allow us to get the full sales benefit of each release. At one point we had NO new product and still were selling 50% compared to prior year. We were selling titles several months old. We were just moving too fast. Magazines are luxury, and they deserve the opportunity to be seen.

Samir: They are a luxury and no longer an impulse buy. It’s a decision—you are going to spend $20 to buy this magazine. When I pick up a copy of GQ or Vogue, a subscription card—the dandruff of the industry—drops on the floor saying, you stupid Samir, you are paying $9 for one issue, and you can get the whole year for $10, and get a canvas bag along with it!

Joe: But you’ll have to wait 12 weeks for it to show up.

Samir: But they’ll send you back issues too. Even the one you bought and send your card in from. Until we get rid of guaranteed circ there is no solution.

Sherin: No advertiser pays the full rate card, so rate base should be obsolete anyway.

Bo: The upper tier of our business is still on rate base. The top 5 aren’t going to change; it’s working for them. The rest of the industry has no intention of having a rate base.

Samir: I picked up Bicycling and Runner’s World. American magazines have finally discovered Black people, they are on the cover of all the magazines. Even the upper tier publishers are starting to change the way they are presenting their magazines to the public. Krifka, have you seen this? Will the trend continue?

Krifka: It is unprecedented the number of covers featuring Black Americans—every category, even fall fashion. We’re not seeing any kind of drop in sale as a result. Sales if anything are gaining. Oprah, VanityFair, with Breonna Taylor—they are sell outs.

Linda: What can you tell us about your new distribution strategy?

Krifka: We’re in contract negotiations now regarding our distribution split between ANC and Media Solutions. Working with the two wholesalers will have the effect of forcing collaboration. Our industry badly needs some stability, and so far, everything’s looking promising.

Linda: Publishers are receiving two sources of POS data, which are not in compatible formats, and it creates a challenge tracking sales in the chain.

Krifka: This might be an opportunity for MagNet—they do receive our data. This would be a chance for them to merge the two together, creating a single source of reporting.

Samir: How are the fall fashion magazines doing?

Krifka: Doing well, trending lower than last year, but we’re seeing some typical buying behaviors. For a while there was an odd mix with anomalous titles spiking. Now it seems to be normalizing. We’re still seeing strong performances in football, fall fashion, the Economist in the midst of everything. I’ve heard coloring had a resurgence—but not at Barnes and Noble. Puzzles, though, are doing great. Cooking did OK, but closer to its usual level, we’re not showing a big spike in the category such as it showed in the grocery class of trade. Breathe, from the UK, has popped up into the top 5. Specials at $14.99 doing well too, and not pulling sales from the parent title. Transportation has fallen off a bit. But we’ve lost titles across the board and in strange places, so even the frequency changes have created change. But our top titles have come back to being the top titles.

Samir: What about children’s magazines?

Krifka: We’ve been focusing on pulling new kids and teen magazines in for years now—it’s important to start people reading in the category as early as possible. There isn’t a lot in there—Many of the new titles in in the kids section are imports. But in the UK they attach a toy to everything—the print part tends to be flimsy, so it isn’t exactly where we would like it be with the quality of the magazines. I believe the publishers struggle with who the buyer is and don’t look to see what is trending so they don’t take the chance. Centennial Media has done very well with Fortnite magazine and looking at trend publishing.

Joe: Many of those mags are not on the newsstand, and have small print runs.

Sherin: The Old Farmer’s Almanac for Kids is also growing this year, double digits over the last issue; its biggest retailer is Lowes

Joe: We need a buyer’s cooperative for them.

Sherin: We’re going to partner with the independent publisher we met with a few weeks back, who does cooking for kids.

Samir: Who does the planograms for the mainlines?

Krifka: As the title mix has been changed so drastically since January of this year, the mainline planograms and assortments for each store now need to be updated. For example, if there are fewer men’s magazines, they need less space on the mainline, and the map of it needs to change. Look out for more expansions in the new year as we rework to maximize the publishing we do have. Additionally my team, as we always have, is working with our publishers on new content ideas- be it stories in current books or brand new Bookazines as well as Exclusives that you will only find at B&N. This supports our leadership’s plan to return to being specialist booksellers. For example, each store will have a Bookseller who is a social media specialist so they’ll be able to go round the store and find what’s new and interesting and amplify its display. More local buying on the book side as well, so each store will become more unique as assortments are developed locally.

by Linda Ruth

This commentary originally appeared on Bo Sacks daily newsletter and is re-published with kind permission. You can subscribe to Bo’s e-newsletter here.

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