Wednesday, July 28, 2010

In B2B publishing the strongest advocates of sales will thrive, the rest will simply just try and survive

The news from the consumer magazine front was positive -- at least for some of the larger publishers -- ad pages are up!  So you would think that things were improving overall in the magazine business. But trade publishers continue to face three big obstacles to success: one, trying to recover from one of the worst economic environments since the Great Depression; two, trying to adapt to the new electronic publishing realities, while at the same time trying to save their print products; and three, trying to recover from their own slash-and-burn strategies that have reduced (or sometimes eliminated) their sales teams. Overcoming obstacle number three may prove the hardest.
Leafing through the pages of some magazines that hit my mailbox, then swiping through some flipbooks online, it is clear that while declines may not be as bad as 2008 and 2009, the worst days are not over for some publishers.

One publisher who has been sold by Yudu posted a July issue of a magazine very familiar to me (wink, wink, nod, nod). The July issue didn't look half bad (but let's not talk about that 1950's styled cover and layouts, OK?). At around 27 pages or so of advertising the owner was probably pretty pleased with the results, especially assuming the page rates have held up. The bad news is that this issue from one of the best months of the year for the industry barely matched the same issue from the December issue of ten years ago (or so), meaning that a good month today equals a poor month a decade ago. But the reality is that today is today, so comparing a print issue in 2010 from the late nineties or early naughts is probably a waste of time. The bottom line is that the issue looked healthy enough to not worry about the magazine's fate.

But sadly this was one of the healthiest looking magazine I read. Yesterday I received a landscape magazine from a publisher who generally gets positive press from Folio: -- a sure sign that the publisher will soon declare bankruptcy. The book used to be fighting it out for the number one spot in a crowded field. In the industry the magazine serves July is considered a poor month, so it is normal for fat magazines to thin up a bit in summer. But the 48 page folio was a shock.

Another group of magazines I looked through were so weak that one can only imagine that pride is the only thing keeping them alive. When a book is published where you can count the ad pages on one hand . . . well, something is seriously amiss.

The variation in the magazines, though, can not be explained away by the economy, or by the rise of electronic medium. None of these books I looked at face any competition online, or certainly not on tablets or smartphones, as the entire industry fights tooth and nail to remain in the last century. The explanation, therefore, has to be that each company's approach to sales.

This was reinforced by the news that Moose River Media has acquired American Nurseryman. The Stagnito's have always been aggressive in sales -- even being accused of being boiler room advocates. But it is hard to argue with their track record. I would not generally like to be a reader of a Moose River or Stagnito Media, but their rather luke warm support for the editorial side of the business has not prevented them from continuing to keep their magazines afloat.

A lot of publishers are looking forward to the Fall planning season, just as they did last year. Things, after all, have to improve, right? But most publishers don't like to go through the little mind game I used to like to play. Imagine for a moment that all your competitors went away -- imagine that the economy was healthy -- now imagine all the ad pages your magazine might be able to sell.

What would this scenario look like from a sales team prospective? Most publishers like to think that when the floodgates open up they will be able to ad to their sales staffs, but in the meantime they'll make do. There is, in other words, a complete disconnect between sales results and sales staffing. Results in their minds occur first, staffs are built later. I've never understood the mindset, but there you have it. In the meantime, many B2B magazine staffs are thin, just like the print magazine they are publishing.