Some Things About Magazines

Posted: May 12, 2010 in Braak, Threat Quality
Tags: , ,

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.

  1. Very nice indeed. This belongs in Blogger’s Digest, or wherever things get anthologized. I know why magazines go into their own section: they are floppy. And people want a newsstand, even if they’ve never seen a real one.

  2. braak says:

    Well, most Borders stores actually have small, modular, portable magazine racks that can hold seven or eight magazines without them flopping over. They’re usually kept in the stock room so that no one can put them to any kind of use.

    And I’ve got to admit, I worked at that store for a year before I even realized why they referred to magazines as “The Newsstand.”

  3. Dmart says:

    I think it does make sense to separate things by medium, but you’ve seen how this makes it hard to go from for example SF books to SF magazines. So why doesn’t Borders organize two-dimensionally? Genre/subject on one axis, medium on the other, so you go down the aisle to move from SF novels to SF comics, and over to the next aisle to see fantasy novels.

  4. deb says:

    Here’s a thing. When I go to the bookstore looking for maybe a particular knitting book, I don’t necessarily want to go look at magazines. So, yeah — why not put, say, a few copies of the various knitting magazines over where the knitting books are? I’m likely to buy several, actually, if I remember about them. So you’ve not only increased your magazine sales, which is good for magazine publishers, but you’ve also increased your STORE sales, which is good for Borders. But they won’t do it because they have some crazy corporate floor designer who tells them how to arrange their stuff so that it is most aesthetically pleasing — which is a stupid way to arrange a bookstore, if you ask me.

  5. braak says:

    Also, it can’t really be that it’s aesthetically pleasing, because no Borders that anyone has ever gone into has ever been anything except generic-decor and fluorescent-light hideous.

  6. Jeff Holland says:

    You know what I miss? Gene’s Books at the King of Prussia Plaza. That place skirted the magazine/books dilemma by having their stock be like 90% magazines.

    Also they had seats that came from planes. I liked that. “You can sit while you read, but we’re not bending over backwards, here.”

  7. Nerd: I09 Spillover says:

    Hey Braak nice post. I totally agree with you about the magazines. I used to work in a bookstore a while back, and hated dealing with them. You have 5-10 regular customers and end up sending back 80% of your inventory.

  8. Mary Jones says:

    I worked at Gene’s Books, independent bookstore back in the late ’90s, and we did shelve magazines in their respective sections–it worked great, made a lot of sense.

    And of course, since it was an independent bookstore (worse yet, at the King of Prussia mall), it went out of business in 2001.

  9. Mary Jones says:

    Oh crap, Jeff already mentioned them. But damn, I miss that place.

  10. Mladen says:

    Informative article, thank you. The idea for the magazines is a good one and makes absolute sense. They also always stock the loose comics with the magazines instead of with the graphic novels or manga, where they should be.

    The Borders in my town (Perth, Australia) has a habit of stocking damaged and press-error books. I think its an issue with mishandling by staff, because the people who read the books in store couldn’t possibly do THAT much damage.

    Its particularly noticeable in the graphic novel section, where the books are typically scuffed around the edges, folded across the cover, feature ripped pages, trim and plate errors in the books themselves, box-cutter slashes, bent corners, unglued spines, etc.

    Oh, and they don’t mark them down in price, they still charge the ludicrously overpriced markup they always charge on graphic novels.

  11. Jeff Holland says:

    Word up, Mary.

  12. Steve York says:

    I’ll wager that many stores DO sell those fire truck magazines, and that most of them aren’t sold to cities buying fire equipment, but individuals with an interest in the subject. That said, nobody is going to buy it if they don’t know it exists, so it belongs in the transportation system.

    Another puzzler is that in most stores, science fiction story magazines are shelved nowhere NEAR science fiction and fantasy entertainment and culture magazines. Generally, the fiction magazines (mystery too) are shelved in the obscure “we don’t know what the hell to do with these” sections.

    I blogged my own post about the problems of the magazine business last year. Find it here:

  13. Steve York says:

    Whoops, Freudian typo there. Should have said “belongs in the transportation SECTION,” not “system.” Not proposing we start selling magazines on buses (though it’s an interesting idea).

  14. Shay Guy says:

    How much does this vary from one country to another?

  15. braak says:

    @Mladen: That’s interesting. I wonder if that’s something to do with the way books are shipped internationally? Does Australia just generally get all the damaged inventory?

    @Shay Guy: Another interesting question, I don’t know. Generally, Borders Corporate mandates a particular arrangement of inventory–according to legend, the Borders floor design was created by special marketing engineers, who determined the precise layout needed to create a glyph of the name Shub-Niggurath, so that every customer would inadvertently participate in blasphemous worship. But I don’t know how true that is.

  16. […] Thoughts on how we sell magazines, from an ex-staff member of Borders. […]

  17. Mike says:

    The reason managers wouldn’t let you stack magazines anywhere in the store you wanted is because the newstand positioning is negotiated with publishers. The reason certain magazines appear on the front shelf, rather than tucked away in the rear, is because their publishers are paying a premium fee. Same goes for specialty racks away from the newstand. You see these in Barnes & Noble — certain magazines are stacked by the cashiers or on their own racks. That is all paid for.

    It’s not about logic. It’s about contracts. 😛

  18. braak says:

    I don’t know how it is everywhere, but at the Borders only the cashwrap titles and the premium-space titles at the front of the newsstand (usually sixteen to eighteen titles, I think, set out from the regular ones) were mandated by corporate due to publisher contracts.

    I’d find it hard to believe, anyway, that SF/F was paying a premium for the shelf space they had–and if they are, then they’re totally getting screwed.

  19. V.I.P. Referee says:

    I agree. I think carefully selected and organized product is what draws and keeps people patronizing specialty stores. I don’t buy the soap I like from a little specialty bath shop because I can’t buy soap anywhere else; it’s because interesting scents and products have been researched, bought and organized in a way that will appeal to me, the customer; I get the nice-smelling thing I like without annoying my mail person or having to wait for mail time, they get an on-the-spot sale. I think people also like to see little representations of their “worlds” in these shops; to be surrounded by stuff they’d appreciate in neatly classified and organized spaces.

  20. V.I.P. Referee says:

    (add to last sentence)…it’s comforting and social.

  21. Todd Mason says:

    Well, where to begin. Yes, Borders has been managed as a chain by babboons since about the time they were bought up by the K-Mart folks, who were already doing so well with their primary chain, and with Waldenbooks, which they soon merged with Borders. The mighty battles with the IWW and then the UFCW unions, rather rosily painted in his way by Michael Moore in one of his films, was just one indication of how to be stupidly self-desctructive.

    Another is, for laziness’s sake, to never want to put the magazines near the books that have the same audience. Mike, your surmise isn’t very wrong, but it is muchly wrong–the planogramming at a Borders newsstamd at least used to be, and I’ll wager still is, very slight, in terms of publishers or distributors paying for certain slots. There are some paid slots at B&N’s racks, but the major attempt at serious merchandising (a mild attempt and not all that serious) was that of one jobber who struck a deal with Borders to hang some metal racks off the wooden newsstand shelves for FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION (not SF & F as Braak refers to it), ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE, and a few other smaller-sized magazines. These folks are not up to the supermarket level of sophistication in selling real estate.

    Sadly, Gene’s Books, which did indeed do things correctly in this wise (and a number of others), was felled mostly by the death of Gene, whose family didn’t feel like continuing in the book business despite it apparently holding its own financially. Similarly, some years before, the passing of DC’s fine Moonstone Bookcellars, the spot for a decade or so for fantastic and crime fiction and related things, which closed after the owner’s death and lack of interest in keeping it alive on the part of the heirs.

  22. I.W. says:

    This is such a shame that they throw those unsold magazines away! There are many teachers who would put those to good use in their classrooms for art projects or various therapy books (speech therapy comes to mind, where they make flip books for the kids to say the name of the item). Perhaps it would be good to put the word out to teachers to contact their local bookstores to ask for the magazines before they’re thrown out.

    As for the idiocy of their display, I offer the current redesign of the Wal-Mart floorplans underway as explanation; everyone I know has complained about the changes, and that the new layouts make absolutely no sense. But, some dipwad is getting paid big bucks to make that decision. I want that guy’s supervisor’s job.

  23. braak says:

    @Todd Mason: Tut, tut, it IS Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, isn’t it? I shall amend the article at once.

    @I.W.: When I finally left the Borders, they were actually shipping the whole magazines back to the publisher, rather than just the magazine stripped of their covers. I’m not sure what the publishers did with them after that (I assume they were, in fact, thrown out, since there’s only so many back issues of any given magazine that a publisher might like to have around). If there are still stores that are stripping and trashing magazines, you’ll find that the chain bookstores are not amenable to giving away the old issues. I believe Borders was not permitted, according to their contracts with the publishers, to give away the stripped mags.

    I will, I admit, made much use of old magazines for my assorted graduate school projects. I also discreetly looked away when I knew someone was angling for one of the boxes of stripped mags I inadvertently forgot to toss into the Dumpster.

  24. […] Some things about Magazines […]

  25. escargot says:

    I work for a small magazine about art in a town in Argentina where an important art-university is located.
    We release monthly an issue with interviews, comics, reviews and all that can be somehow related with art and the local artists.
    Anyway, we are considering, instead of selling it hand to hand as we usually do, check some place where we can leave it to sell, somehow libraries aren’t really interested in having them in their shelves, despite the fact it will surely sell really well, since it’s price is really (really) insignificant.

    I suppose now I have a new approach to face those illiterate book (ha!) salesmen.

  26. TLS says:

    Don’t blame Borders.

    What you need to do is learn a little history of magazine wholesale distribution. The retailer doesn’t get to pick how many or even sometimes what mag titles they get to carry. Their wholesaler does. They make the deals with the mag publishers. To them it is essentially the same cost to ship three copies as it is one.

    The reason such a large percentage of excess mags are tossed is so that there are extras when a new buyer comes in to get a mag. They want to make sure they don’t miss a prospective buyer. Back in the days when there was no internet you didn’t know what was available until you went to the newsstand. The cost of those extra copies is built into the price of the mag.

    The reason magazines are racked together is because someone coming into a store looks for mags where the mags are racked, not in with the books or the DVDs. They will walk out without their mag if there isn’t one in the mag section, but if it is in where the books are. Your assumption is that everyone comes in looking for mags in with the books.

    What you don’t realize is that the retailers do not control the system, the wholesalers do. Its tradition and the wholesalers don’t want to change it because it is incredibly profitable for them. It has been screwed up in this manner since distribution started back in the 1800s.

    Your suggestions are logical without knowledge of how the system really works and who controls it. You don’t even mention how distributors have resisted computerization of the whole system for decades. You’ve only scratched the surface of how it is badly screwed up.

  27. braak says:

    These are irrelevant considerations. Borders wants to sell magazines, or it doesn’t. If it wants to sell them it needs (as I have shown via experiment) to move them. If it doesn’t, it needs to stop carrying them.

  28. […] more and more disenchanted I start to become with fantasy, in particular with epic fantasy. (Though other reasons for Realms‘ failure could be involved).  Not only is it everywhere, but it’s all the […]

  29. […] issued via anonymous e-mails.  But you can’t actually DO anything.  If you wanted to reorganize the magazines, for instance, or if you thought that the Science Fiction section should be nearer the front door, […]

  30. […] Some Things About Magazines « Threat Quality Press Posted on Wednesday, June 29th, 2011 to miscellania | Leave a […]

  31. Todd Mason says:

    Well, it’s THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, these days going by FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION on the the cover and spine for brevity’s sake.

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