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January 02, 2006

Resubscribe ... or Not?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I don't subscribe to many magazines these days, but boy do I get a lot of subscription-renewal mailings.

Maybe I should keep better track of these things, but my impression is that some magazines start coming after me six months or more before the current subscription expires.

Michael is in a better position to explain this, but let me toss out a few plausible reasons anyway.

Even in our fast-paced, computer-driven business world, subscriptions seem to take a long time to get processed. For example, after mailing a renewal check maybe a month before my subscription ran out, I found the next few issues arriving in the mail a couple of weeks after they appeared on news stands. (Normally these appearances would be less than a week apart.) In fact, once in a while I'll buy a magazine from a stand fearing the Postal Service lost my magazine, only to have it turn up in my box a few days later.

On the other hand, it's possible that I actually re-subscribed so late that it was processed as if it were a new subscription, thus accounting for the delay. If you examine the mailing tag on a magazine or your address block on the renewal form (these are the same, or nearly so, in most cases) you'll find the final issue is indicated: for instance, "SEP 06." So I might take it that I can wait until August before sending my check. But this would probably be running things too close because the "September 2006" date on the magazine is there to tell news stands to remove that issue come September. Better that I should mail my check in July.

But what's in it for me to re-subscribe to a SEP 06 bingo-date magazine in February, when the first notice darkens my post office box? In theory, the $19.95 I'd be sending them represents a loss to me of untold wealth to gained by investing it until the last possible re-subscription moment. And it would be the magazine company, not me, that would be reaping that rich reward.

In addition to front-loading revenue, an early renewal would lower marketing costs in that further solicitations would be unnecessary. Again, I haven't made a tally, but it seems that I can get as many as four or five notices -- especially if I fail to renew. These notices each probably cost between 50 cents and a dollar to send; this can amount to 15-20% or more of the amount of that renewal check they're trying to pry loose.

I should add that it's no secret that large-circulation magazines push heavily-discounted subscriptions in order to attract advertising dollars, their real source of any profits given that subscription and news stand sales income do not cover operating costs. Media buyers (who a friend of mine in the media data trade characterized as having "the intellect of a peanut") tend to use circulation counts and advertising costs per thousand pairs of eyeballs as criteria for ad-space buying, so apparently the cost and effort of mailing me those notices can be somehow justified.

But what about me? What do I do when those renewal notices come?

I think.

I ask myself if I really, truly want another year or two of that magazine. And, over the years, my answer increasingly has been No.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, I subscribed to two automobile magazines, three computer-related publications and perhaps two or three business-related magazines -- not to mention three or four publications I got because of professional-society memberships. On top of all that, I would buy another 3-4 magazines per month at new stands.

Of course not much of that wad of material got read. So I began to pare down magazines.

One ploy I found useful was to let a subscription lapse and then pay attention to how often I would buy an issue at a news stand. If I found myself spending about as much at the news stand as I would for a subscription, I'd get a new subscription. And if I seldom or never was tempted to buy, well that was proof that the magazine wasn't worth subscribing to.

In case anyone's interested, here is my present relationship with magazines. I subscribe to only one car magazine ("Automobile") and annually renew with increasing reluctance. I dropped computer magazines entirely, though I still get a programming-language journal ("Vector" from the British APL Association). I take one politically-oriented magazine ("Commentary," which has fairly high subscription prices because they are a true revenue stream). And I waffle with "Forbes," the business magazine, often letting a subscription lapse and later getting a new one; presently I'm in a lapsed state. As for news stands, I'll buy a car magazine at airports to kill time waiting for flights and occasionally buy others if I find their content interesting enough. Ditto for aviation magazines and art magazines.

All things considered, I've shifted my reading from magazines to the Internet. Which is too bad in a way, because down-deep I'm quite fond of magazines.



posted by Donald at January 2, 2006


I think about these same subscription issues, too. But also a few other angles.

One of the problems with moving to a small village is that the library subscribes to almost NO magazines. In a big city one can save a lot of money by reading mags at the library or even standing at a good magazine sales rack. Here, if I want to read Sculpture Review, I must subscribe. The closest newsstand is 80 miles away and doesn't carry this magazine.

I have a friend in Hollywood who sends me subscriptions for Christmas presents. For years he's sent "Vanity Fair." I tried giving away my old copies here and discovered that even the high schools were shocked to the core! (I think they thought the F-word was their own secret code.) Even the ones with pierced noses and low-rider jeans. Now he's added "The Smithsonian." There are no real articles in the Smithsonian. I look at the photos of hippos and dump it into the trash. This is one of the mags that the library and the school subscribe to: patriotic, inoffensive, natural history lite, history sunny-side up. At least he didn't stop "Vanity Fair."

For many years I subscribed to high-end shelter mags. Something wonderfully soothing about them, esp. the "country" themed ones. For a long time they had no people in them. Then lately they began to have the home-owners, usually a committed pair of cute guys with high incomes. Since the Sixties these mags have gone through many phases and stages. One issue can be so different from the next that I'm much better off waiting until I get to the big town and looking through the issue before I buy. Anyway, they used to cost $2.95 -- now it sometimes gets close to $10. I've gone as high as $20 for an international interior decorated magazine. But now I have a house, such as it is, and no money to spare. What I need is a home repair guide.

From what I read, the point of magazine subscriptions is not to get people to read the magazine, but to compile a list of people sorted by demographics for the convenience of advertisers. In fact, now and then I run across a magazine that is frankly a catalog and maybe that's fair. Maybe advertising demographics are not my problem. I'm retired but not affluent, I don't travel, I don't need any new clothes, my politics are not trendy, etc.

Mostly I'm a consumer of ideas. Who has any ideas these days? (present company excepted.) Magazines that are supposed to be for old women who live in the country feature grandchildren and pies. Or they're still messing around with "New Age" circa 1970. I just dump all the renewal cards. I have enough book marks.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on January 2, 2006 9:37 PM

Mary, if I only knew: 3 hrs ago I dumped on the sidewalk my entire stash of Interior Design, Architectural Digest, "Elle Decor and Metropolitan Home, 1994-2003 - along with Buyer's Guides and Market issues (professional subscription). I'm "moving house", as British say, and storage is limited in my new place.

It's raining now.

Posted by: Tatyana on January 2, 2006 9:51 PM

I too have cut my magazine subscriptions way down. From a high of about ten titles back in the late 1980's I'm now down to, well, a goose egg. And not missing anything, I may add. With few exceptions magazines just aren't very interesting.
Every so often I'll pick up a copy of a magazine at the newsstand, usually to read on the train ride home. It might be the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Men's Health, it all depends on the featured articles and mainly on my mood at the time. None of them do I purchase frequently enough to make a subscription remotely worthwhile. And on even more infrequent occasions, I'll pick up a copy of one of the bodybuilding/weight training mags like Flex or Muscle & Fitness. Those magazines are unintentionally hilarious, consisting mainly of multipage "advertorials" for worthless supplements;* training advice articles that appear to be recycled on about a six-month rotation (and very seldom offer anything of value); and the daily training and nutrition regimens of various pro bodybuilders, which curiously fail to mention the enormous steroid/human growth hormone intake of the featured bodybuilders.

* = the greater the number and length of the (pseudo)scientific terms used in a supplement ad, the greater the supplement's worthlessness.

Posted by: Peter on January 2, 2006 10:21 PM

Tatyana, how generous! But it's rather like the gentleman who, when I expressed a desire for a greenhouse, offered me his. It had no glass, which was not the problem. The problem was that it was in Chicago and I'm in Montana.

Anyway, I solved my interior mag addiction by tearing out the articles I really liked, putting them in plastic sleeves, and sorting them into 3-ring binders. I still have that A-frame with the copper roof built out over the cliff in Big Sur -- you remember it? And the House Beautiful "shibui" article explaining Japanese aesthetics? By now the binders are crowding me a little, but they're worth it.

Best of wishes for your move! SOMEONE will find those mags in NYC and love them. They won't even have time to get wet.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on January 2, 2006 10:47 PM

Egads, Mary--I thought I was the only one who did that sleeves-in-binders thing. My own personally culled collection of lifestyle porn.

I subscribe to a couple of "bathtub" mags--really trashy reads that are light enough to hold above the water for an hour, and a few meatier pubs: computer mags, mostly, the New Yorker, that scandalous Vanity Fair, my local ad rad (aka Los Angeles). I got around the cost guilt by subscribing as an educator. I mean, I feel like I'm sort of an educator, especially as far as the demo's consumer profile goes, so it's fair all around: they get eyeballs, I get cheep pubs. And as soon as I get any mag, I wail through it and rip out the most egregious ad inserts or the articles I want to read/save, and recycle the rest. There's a great deal of pleasure to be had from all that ripping.

Posted by: communicatrix on January 3, 2006 1:32 PM

It's always interesting to learn about how people are making do and getting by as far as media-consumption goes, isn't it?

My own habits have changed too. I don't seem to subscribe to mags long-term any more. I'll try out a subscription for a year and let it lapse, then move on to another magazine. And I seem to be enjoying the buying-it-at-a-newsstand ritual more than I used to. For some reason I find it more fun to buy an individual issue than to receive it in the mail. Maybe that's partly because I enjoy browsing magazine stands and buying one mag is my way of saying "thanks" to the magazine store for letting me kill time there. But I'm certainly also doing a lot more web-reading than ever, and I only seem to do more, and it's always at the expense of traditional publications.

Scary times for the newspaper and magazines businesses both.

FWIW, I'm told that "media buyers" (the people who decide where ad money should go, and thus the people whom magazines are catering to) are often extremely young. Which if true would explain a lot ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 3, 2006 1:35 PM

For me, a 43-year-old woman, magazines delivered to my home are a cheap diversion. I'll never enter the glamorous fashion world, but I can read Vogue, Elle, Harper's Bazaar, Self and Allure and at least find out about interesting movies, books and style trends.

I have no children, and reading Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping often makes me glad for that, but I also get recipes and housecleaning tips.

My nerdish tendencies are addressed by Harper's, Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker. (By the way, Donald, did you know that all 4,196 issues of The New Yorker are available in an 8-CD set, for just $100? Incredible!)

My love-hate relationship is with Vanity Fair, or as my husband calls it, the National Enquirer for people who have been to college. But Graydon Carter's increasingly strident anti-Bush tirades and the loss of Dominick Dunne make me question its relevance.

I may be old-fashioned, but I still get a tiny thrill when I open the mailbox and see a new magazine. I give each month's stack to my aunt and the local women's shelter.

Posted by: beloml on January 3, 2006 1:35 PM

My experience working as a secretary is that bosses receive many, many resubscript solicits - that are redundant. The classic horror story is the tale of the guy who couldn't keep track of them, so he simply sent a check every time he got one of these solicits. When he was audited, it was discovered that he had almost a decade's worth of subscription money in each mag.

Magazines WILL and DO send resubscript solicits to people WHOSE SUBSCRIPTIONS ARE NOWHERE CLOSE TO EXPIRING (apologies for shouting). If you look at these closely, you will see they do not contain the actual words "your subscription is due to expire soon" or any words to that effect; they merely say "get another year of our great magazine - hurry!" And these aren't rags; they include some of the tonier professional mags. In short, scam alert!

How many years or decades do you really have on your subscriptions...?

Posted by: DR on January 3, 2006 2:17 PM

Yeehaw! I'm one who tears as she goes, too. Esp. Vanity Fair, which puts all the puffery and perfume up front. (I put the perfume bits in my underwear drawer.) I flip through once, then start in the beginning again and go through ripping. Poor Dominick -- I always stop to read him if he's there, but I think he may have stepped over the edge. As for Graydon, I love the harangues against Bush.

In a half hour, I've got the mag down to a fourth of what it was and settle to read every article except about rock stars or athletes. Usually the best is at the end. I particularly like that the articles are mostly kept together instead of strung out through pages.

I've given up on Vogue and Harper's Bizaare, as they seem to be for babies now. But I must smuggle in my brag that my left ear once appeared in a society column in Vogue. It was a banquet at the opening of the new Whitney Gallery of Western Art in Cody, Wyoming, and I had gaped open-mouthed at Mary Lou Whitney in her St. Laurent blue gypsy outfit until a man came over and told me to stop staring. Or else.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on January 3, 2006 7:06 PM

beloml -- Yes, I knew about the New Yorker CD package. Alas, I think the book hit the skids after Harold Ross. (I wonder if they'll package, say, a 1925-1950 CD version for Rossophiles such as me.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 3, 2006 8:55 PM

I made my first magazine subscription last year. "Please 6-8 weeks for the first issue" the subscription form said. As you point out, in the world of overnight book delivery, such delay is absurd, unless ...

My guess is that the delay is artificial -- reason being that you are now forced to renew much earlier than when your subscription ends. This helps the magazine get better estimate subscription numbers for the following year and charge advertisers accordingly (my understanding is that advertising space is sold in bulk, well ahead of when the space is actually used, and can then be resold through some sort of trading game.)

Posted by: anon on January 8, 2006 8:06 PM

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