Some Things About Magazines
I used to work at a Borders, and the wrath I experienced at that time — at the blithering corporate idiocy that was slowly running their company into the ground — is the stuff of legends. None of the mind-numbingly stupid things I had to do (alphabetizing dictionaries, switching all of the inventory on one bookshelf to another three times in two days) compared to the soul-killing hours I spent in charge of the magazines.
People talk about why magazines aren’t doing so well, and they’re definitely right that the internet is part of why all the magazines are folding. But there are a couple other reasons.
I mean, in the first place, we threw out between 30 and 50% of all the magazines that we got in the store. They just got trashed at the end of the month. And I couldn’t draw down inventory for the life of me — I spent half a year trying to get the Borders Ministry of Inventory to stop sending us three copies of Fire Apparatus every month (Fire Apparatus is a trade magazine for people that want to buy fire trucks or fire-hoses). No one ever bought these magazines. We couldn’t reduce the draw down past three (we never received fewer than three magazines of any issue on our lists), and we couldn’t completely eliminate a title without some ridiculous number of approvals.
So, every month, I dutifully threw out all three copies of Fire Apparatus magazine. Now, I know that the vagaries of that magazine industry are many, and probably some consultant assured the publishers of this fine periodical that there was a certain amount of inventory they could easily lose. But if you’re shipping three copies of your magazine directly to the trash every month, that can’t be an effective business model.
Anyway, though, one of the most serious problems with the magazines is, how do you find them?
Let me digress for a second. Bookstores are, generally, arranged by subject: you put the fiction books all together in one spot, and the science-fiction fantasy books all together in one spot, and the humor books all together in one spot. And this, generally speaking, makes a good deal of sense: if you like Jim Butcher, you’ve got a reasonably good chance of being interested in Simon R. Green. Even combining Science Fiction and Fantasy as a subject is fairly reasonable — there’s a substantial amount of overlap between the two demographics.
Weirdly, though, practically every bookstore also puts all of the magazines together in one place. And what’s weird about this is that magazines are not, actually, a subject — they are a medium. There is absolutely no reason, at all, to think there is any overlap between the people who read InStyle magazine and the people who read Primitive Bow Hunting magazine and the people who read Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine.
Now, when I was at the bookstore, we used to get four copies of Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine every month, and we usually only sold one (if you sell one copy of a title, you will get four the next month). After an enormous amount of effort, I managed to convince one of the many sub-managers to whom I reported to let me move F&SF magazine from it’s usual place in a corner of the magazine section (next to the Paris Review and a magazine about quilting) to a special display that I made near the actual science fiction books.
Lo and behold, we sold all of F&SF that month. Naturally, we were sent six the next month, but I was told I had to move the magazines back, for reasons never made wholly clear to me. Managers know that magazines belong in the magazine section, but they all have different and unsatisfying reasons for why this should be the case.
Anyway, I think that my experiment showed something very clearly: science fiction fans, at least, like buying magazines that represent their interests. Magazines are a great place to find short stories, which we ordinarily don’t get to see a lot of — I can’t tell you how weird it is to see collections of the best short stories every years (collections, by the way, that sell) but none of the periodicals that any of those best stories appeared in. You’d probably be able to sell a whole bunch of magazines like that if, instead of keeping all the magazines in one spot to fester, you took one of those magazine shelves and set it up by the books.
What this actually suggests a new approach for a chain like Borders. Rather than trying to function as comprehensive, Big Box stores with books and movies and music and cheap, crappy stationery — a model they’re sure to lose at, since correlating massive amounts of data/inventory is basically what the internet is FOR — they need to re-establish themselves as a center for carefully curated material. Since Borders can’t win at having more than Amazon, it needs to reinvent itself as a place that only carries better.
But, whatever, those guys are going out of business, anyway.