How The Magazine Business Can Easily Save Itself (Without Changing a Page)

Reading magazines is a timeless pleasure, but the process of ordering and renewing magazine subscriptions is amazingly out of date.

If Publishers want to save the magazine business, they need to revamp the business of ordering magazines.  Let’s step back and take a look at the present state…

Subscription cards.  Really?  They expect me to fill out a card with all my personal info, mail it in and write a check later? That’s the model of efficiency?  It’d be quicker to send the publisher a cookie-gram, with my mailing address written in icing.  Guys, I get impatient if I don’t get my Amazon confirmation email in 30 seconds, so there’s no way I’m comfortable seeing if a new magazine just shows up in the next month or two.

Most magazines still require 6 to 8 weeks delivery for the first issue.  In 2010? I can get my genome sequenced in 6 to 8 weeks (literally).  You can’t drop a copy of “Time” in the mail, in half that time?  Guys, I feel like you don’t really care about me.

Do you know when my Entertainment Weekly subscription runs out? Neither do I.  I start getting renewal notices 2 months after I sign up, so I ignore them until the subscription ends, then I’m back to square one (see “Subscription Cards” above).  The only way to know in advance is to burn the unread magazine as soon as it comes in the mail. If the smoke is white, it’s time to renew.

It seems like a magazine renewal is more expensive than the introductory rate. So whenever a renewal is close, I feel it would be cheaper to let the subscription lapse and then start a new one.  I don’t have an MBA, but something tells me that’s bad business.

So that’s the current state.  But does it need to be this way?  I don’t think so.  These are problems that are unbelievably solvable, if the publishers were to focus on the problem.

Instead, in March of this year, publishers Time, Hearst,  Condé Nast, Wenner Media and Meredith announced a joint plan to devote 90 million dollars of ad space to a "Magazines, The Power of Print" campaign.   Alternatively, the same coalition could create a centralized web interface for ordering, renewing and updating info regarding all magazine subscriptions (at a fraction of the price).  Let’s call it  Just imagine:

  • One website, one login.  Enter your personal information at, including mailing address and credit card info, once.  Want to add a magazine? Click one button. Done.  iPad, online or Zinio editions, another button.  Done.
  • Signups on immediately trigger a mailing of the latest issue.  Yes, the publisher will eat it on the mailing cost of an individual magazine, but in this instant gratification world, “now” is the only business model customers are interested in.
  • Real-time subscription status, so a renew warning has meaning and consequence.
  • Standardized prices with a low price guarantee, so you don’t feel like there’s a better deal elsewhere. And renewals should be cheaper than original subscriptions.  If I know I’ll save money, I’m more likely to renew my subscriptions rather than letting them lapse.

But that’s just the beginning.  A website with subscription data across multiple publishers could drive a powerful recommendation engine. Imagine getting this message in the mail every 6 months: “We have found that people who subscribe to ‘Entertainment Weekly’ and ‘Wired’, also like ‘Make’, so please enjoy this complimentary issue.  If you like it, log on to subscribe.”  I know me…I’d be impulse subscribing to new magazines all the time, a concept so foreign to the magazine business that the term doesn’t currently exist.

This is my last thought to publishers:  I love the new Wired iPad edition, and I appreciate the Entertainment Weekly online extras.  But please listen to me, these advances won’t save your industry, because they are attempts to fix something that doesn’t seem to be broken.  I don’t want extras, I want a feeling of control.  If you upgrade your interface with us, we’ll reward you with many, many new subscriptions.

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