Not Just Another Pretty Face: Why Your Magazine Needs a Brain… and You Need a Spine

“Man, there’s a ton of magazines on newsstands out there…”

anna-mae-mcgrathI first heard that in 1981 when I began working for the Hearst Corporation in Chicago. During the 1970s and 1980s, the number of consumer magazines on newsstands grew quickly; from approximately 1,000 to almost 4,000 in any given month. Back then, Samir “Mr. Magazine” Husni ( estimated that every year, about 800-900 new magazines were being launched. After 1 year, about 80% of those new titles would fail, and after another year, about 50% of the remaining titles would cease publication, making a 2 year attrition rate of 90%.

And yet, the same thing is happening today. The new titles keep coming.   The only difference is that a lot of these new titles are being created and then posted digitally using Issuu or Zmag or whoever, and sold (or given away) on Amazon, iTunes, or HP Magcloud, etc.

And, based on what I can see, many of them are just a ‘pretty face.’ That is, they are nice-looking, but they have no plan for their circulation or reaching an audience, or sometimes even making a profit. And that’s what astounds me. Magazine publishing can not only be fun, it can be highly profitable, if you do it right. If you use your brain.

I enjoyed reading the letter a few years ago from David Carey, President at Hearst Magazines to the troops in his “State of the Union” speech. You can read it here at, thanks to MediaBistro.

I enjoyed it because, even though Hearst, arguably the best magazine publisher in the world, has a ton of new online initiatives, and pageviews and unique visitors are growing, they haven’t abandoned print. No, in the very first line of the 3rd paragraph, he states that Hearst is “thrilled by consumer response to the new print products we introduced…”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating here for print-only. I think that each magazine should find that optimal mix of print and digital and content channels and blend them to optimize results and achieve their respective goals. But what I’m saying is that new publications need to have a brain, or something that goes along with having a clear editorial mission and compelling design (aka, A Pretty Face). A brain means finding, building and serving a devoted audience through Circulation Marketing and fulfillment efforts, and partnering with advertisers and stakeholders to mutual benefit.   A brain means that you have an understanding of the costs, revenues and cashflow issues a young publisher faces, so that you will get through to Year 2 or Year 3 and beyond, so you’ll still be standing, so you won’t be part of the 80% or 90% that fail.

And havng a ‘spine’ means not just the physical spine of a print magazine, but a strong back, so you can carry around all that money you’ll make if you are Not Just Another Pretty Face.

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