Borders’ Newsstand Blues

Store closings spell trouble for niche magazine titles

Just like plenty of other Borders shoppers, Kevin Walter has been getting messages in his inbox from the bankrupt book behemoth, reminding him to hurry in and take advantage of the storewide clearance before all 399 remaining Borders stores are liquidated in September.

But for Walter, the associate publisher of Mother Jones magazine, these e-mails signify a lot more than a shopping opportunity. The liquidation of all the Borders stores leaves behind a gaping hole in his magazine’s reader outreach efforts and revenue stream. “Newsstand is an important part of our business,” says Walter. “It’s invaluable in terms of people happening upon our magazine, people who it may not otherwise reach.”

While Borders’ closing has prompted various reflections about the future of the book industry, magazine publishers, particularly smaller outlets, have also been forced to consider their future. Small publishers have long relied on Borders to get their magazines in front of news consumers who might not otherwise know that they exist. The exposure that the magazine rack in a store like Borders provides is especially important when your product doesn’t wallpaper the checkout line in grocery or drug stores. After all, the magazines featured alongside the Snickers bars and Tic-Tacs aren’t exactly literary fodder; they’re primarily light, advertiser-supported magazines which sell a lot of copies for their food-market hosts.

Take Meredith Publishing, the corporation behind Better Homes and Garden, Family Circle, and Ladies’ Home Journal, among many other titles, almost all of which fall into the female-oriented consumer category. These are the types of magazines we’re used to seeing as we buy a quart of milk, and, indeed, this is where these types of magazines thrive. Mark Peterson, the vice president of retail sales for Meredith Corp., says that 66 percent of their retail sales occurs in grocery stores, drug stores, and supercenters. Peterson said a total of one percent of their retail sales came from Borders.

But for most small publishers, getting into a grocery store isn’t in the cards. Anne Newkirk Niven and her husband own BBI Media, which publishes Witches and Pagans, Sage Woman, and Crone. She says Borders’ closing leaves her at a huge loss because there are very few outlets interested in stocking magazines which are specifically aimed at “pagans, witches, and goddess worshippers.” “I’m not checkout stand material,” says Niven. “People aren’t necessarily going to want to see a magazine about witches next to their gum.”

Another problem for smaller publications with limited resources is that the magazine industry is a pay-to-play business. Magazines are printed and distributed to retailers; publishers get paid later in the game, after retailers tally up the number of copies they sold. (Publishers are not reimbursed for unsold copies.) The amount of money and risk that this requires is a huge consideration for small publishers. Nobody is quite sure what’s going to happen to the magazines already sent to Borders before it announced it was closing. Borders did not respond to requests for comment, but Niven and Walter are expecting their magazines will take the financial hit for the magazines sent that don’t sell before liquidation.

Brian Frank, the finance and technology director for Bitch magazine, says the risk of continuing to send magazines to Borders was just too high to justify. In the beginning of this year, Bitch cut them off preemptively, for fear that the whole operation was about to go under. “The writing has been on the wall for a long time,” says Frank. “We were anticipating this liquidation and thinking, well, in twelve months there’s not even going to be anyone in their accounts payable to send us that check.” Frank says it was a huge decision for Bitch to make, but they knew if Borders closed it would be a devastating blow. “We can’t afford to have these big risks where a store goes under and suddenly we’re left with 30,000 magazines we can’t sell,” he says.

Niven says that even though there were signs that Borders was on its way out, she kept sending them copies. “We didn’t want to cut them off because so many readers were going there to buy them,” she says. “We didn’t want them thinking we went out of business.” Due to her witch niche, Niven describes her customer base as one that “isn’t really excited about getting on lists.” The amount of magazines she was sending to Borders was equal to roughly her entire subscriber base, and she says with the store’s closing, she is out between $15,000 and $30,000.

Even though Niven says this is a huge amount of money to make up for, she adds that it’s nothing she can’t fundraise her way out of. She has been letting her readers know about the monetary loss from Borders closing, and says her readers donate because they care about the survival of the magazine. “Basically, we’re back to where we started twenty-five years ago, which is we are living and dying on our subscriber base,” says Niven.

At Mother Jones, Walter is continuing with the newsstand push, and is exploring new markets. They have recently seen success with newsstand sales in Canada, and plan to keep using newsstands as a way to reach out to new readers, “There are people out there who want to buy single copies on the newsstand, and I think that’s going to continue,” says Walter.

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , , ,