Why Do New Magazines Fail?
by John Chilson
Every year many new magazines and newsletters are started by good people, intelligent people, usually with a sound editorial concept and often with strong financial backing. Every year most of these new publications fail.
It seems to me there are four primary causes of new magazine failure…
1. Failure to Listen and Learn
This is the greatest and most common failure. Because people believe in their ability to write about a given subject, they believe they can publish a magazine. Although I can appreciate a lovely home and even decorate it attractively, yet, I would never try to build one without learning as much as I could before I started.
Magazine Publishing is like no other business in the world. It has the word "publishing" in common with Book Publishing and that is all. The financial dynamics, the promotional and fulfillment requirements, the editorial and production processes are unique to magazines. Therefore anyone even thinking about magazine publishing must first find good tutors, listen to their advice and learn everything they can.
As a magazine publishing consultant I am frequently asked for advice regarding some aspect of starting a new magazine. Often the advice I give, which usually agrees with advice they also received from other sources is totally disregarded. Either they don't believe the advice applies to their situation or they cannot believe the recommended actions are really necessary. They are usually wrong in their thinking and, consequently, have difficulty growing their magazine.
2. Failure to Focus
One magazine title cannot be everything to all people. EVER! Even Reader's Digest, Life and People magazines are focused. They do one thing, they provide one type of product and they remain true to their product.
I was recently asked to evaluate a Christian magazine that was having problems. Within the same issue there were articles on evangelism, politicians and breast-feeding. Where was the focus? Who was the magazine trying to serve? By trying to serve everyone it ended up serving no-one.
Some time ago I met with another publisher and his staff to evaluate their magazine. I started the meeting by asking, "Who are you?" I could not tell by reading their magazine who they were, who they were trying to reach, what they were trying to say. The magazine closed down three months later.
3. Failure to Plan
Several years ago I was approached by a "would-be" magazine publisher for help distributing his magazine. He was an architect and his wife was an interior designer. Together they had decided to publish a new magazine covering these two areas. It was to be an over-sized publication with lots of four-color photos and printed on heavy, glossy paper. Expensive!
They knew their subject. They knew where to find advertisers. They knew where to find funding. They didn't know how to distribute their magazine. Therefore they didn't plan for it.
When they finally contacted me, they already had 100,000 copies of their first issue printed and waiting in a warehouse. Their question was "How do we distribute these?" I had to tell them they were three to six months late as it would take that long to set up either newsstand distribution or a subscription promotion. And money! They had no money budgeted for subscription promotions. They left with a sad face and I never heard of them or their beautiful magazine again.
It's sad because with a little more planning they could have anticipated what was needed and been prepared.
4. Failure from Fear
Fear is the hardest failure to overcome. The fear usually begins after several articles have been published and the realities of magazine publishing begin to become real.
There is always another deadline for the next issue. There are always more articles needed for future issues. There is always more advertising to be sold. There is always more money needed to promote subscriptions. There is always the cost of printing and distributing the next issue. There is always a staff that needs to be paid.
Fear usually causes common reactions…
5. Failure to Control Overhead Costs
Magazines do not normally generate a significant profit, especially in the early years. Yet I often visit offices of new publications that are obviously expensive and overdone. The monthly rent alone adds a substantial burden to an overtaxed budget.
I have also known publishers who feel they and their top management should be paid top salaries, just as they were in whatever industry they recently left. Besides the increased burden on the budget, this can also create hard feelings with the remainder of the staff who were hired as cheaply as possible in order to control costs.
In the early days everyone and everything must operate on a shoe-string. The only place where costs should be less inhibited is in the quality of the product and the marketing budget.
It's easy when starting a new organization of any kind to look at all the investment money waiting to be spent and to forget how far it has to go. Also, magazine subscriptions are a real "cash cow", bringing in tons of cash. However, as you should know, that usually isn't income but "deferred income". Sure you can spend it but watch out. Some day soon those people will expect to receive the magazines or newsletters they paid for.
Starting a new magazine or newsletter is not for the weak or faint-hearted. However, when done successfully it is a wonderful, exhilarating experience.