5 Things Books Should Learn From Magazines

They show me and tell me about stuff I would never think to look for myself. They take me to places in their pictures that I will never get to but so enjoy looking at. I’ve turned down the corners of many a page after finding places I want to visit, books I want to buy, or stores I want to shop from (online). There is an open copy of Garden and Gun sitting right by my computer right now.

Why Magazines Won’t Die, Maria Rodale

I love magazines, and Garden & Gun is one of a handful of favorites — along with The Atlantic , Harvard Business Review and Writer’s Digest — for many of the same reasons Rodale notes in her optimistic ode, not the least of which is that “sometimes, I just want things to FIND me.”

Like my favorite writers, the magazines I truly value introduce me to new things, or show me new angles on the familiar, that I’d not have come across on my own. In my own series of posts for Folio: a few months back, I made the point that content + context = value, declaring that magazines that nail the equation will survive. That same math is also valid in the conversation about the future of books.

I’ve worked with magazines for the past 15+ years, most recently as Advertising Sales Director and Publisher & Editorial Director for Horticulture, and over the past year of learning the book side of the business up close, I’ve noted 5 key things it could/should learn from its periodical siblings:

1) Be diversified. The most sustainable magazines are not primarily advertising dependent, but offer enough value that their subscribers are willing to pay a premium for them, whether on the newsstand or via subscription. Magazines that chose to play the high-stakes ad game, giving away subscriptions and bundling online ad inventory as a value-add, devalued themselves and ended up in a vicious cycle of deeper discounts every year, a disastrous race to the bottom that didn’t work out so well.

*** For book publishers, being overly dependent on major retailers like Barnes & Noble, Borders and Amazon is akin to being primarily ad supported. Treating eBooks as value-adds instead of their own distinct format reminds me of the early days of online advertising. Factor in half-hearted outreach to independent booksellers and almost no direct relationship with their readers, and it means their fate is largely out of their own hands, especially when the economy takes a nosedive.

2) Be distinctive. Pick a notable topic of interest, and there are likely more magazines serving that niche than you can name, few if any offering truly distinctive editorial features. In that scenario, pricing often becomes the distinction, for subscriptions and/or ads, and advertisers often end up deciding who survives.

*** For too many book publishers, it’s all about trends. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, I was surprised by the number of Twilight derivatives, official and rip-offs, that are being published around the world. Business books are another copycat category, the most personally annoying segment du jour being social media, where every doofus with a blog is putting their own spin on The Cluetrain Manifesto (available free online) and getting their five minutes on the NY Times Bestseller List. Being niche isn’t enough; you also have to serve that niche with distinction.

3) Be confident. Good magazines have strong personalities, both figuratively, via their tone, and literally, via their editors and contributors. I can’t stand Chris Anderson, but credit where due, he is an excellent representative for Wired, a magazine that arguably should have been one of the first victims of the Internet and its thirst for “free content”. Check out Mediaite’s ranking of 97 magazine editors, the majority of whom most people have heard of and have a vague sense of what they represent.

*** For book publishers, can anyone identify even 10 editors with ANY name recognition or influence at all outside of the industry? Every author is expected to have a platform, why not editors, too?

4) Be relevant. Being distinctive and confident isn’t enough; unless it serves a really small, passionate niche and has no competition, a magazine needs to be relevant, too. Knowing your audience, existing and potential, is critical to setting realistic expectations for success and meeting them.

*** For book publishers, relevance is a tricky balance of trendspotting, advocating new ideas, and most importantly, distinctive and confident curation. None of this can be done in a vacuum, though.

5) Be connected. Long before email, blogs and Twitter came along, magazine editors were connected to their readers via mastheads and Letters to the Editor sections. (In comics, there were also the fanzines.) Subscriptions solidified that relationship, both psychologically and financially. As new channels became available and popular, many magazine editors have embraced the opportunity to more effectively, and more frequently, engage their readers.

*** Other than Twitter, where they mostly talk to each other, when and where do book editors connect to readers on a regular basis? How can they position themselves to be influential curators, someone readers can trust to help good books find them instead of always having to seek them out?

Photo: Stool, Sunlight by Voxphoto via Flickr

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14 thoughts on “5 Things Books Should Learn From Magazines

  1. For the second time in not very long you've stumped me for finding something to add, Guy. This is a fantastic article that everyone who cares about the industry should bookmark. There's sound advice for just about anyone, combined with detail, which makes it a killer post.

  2. When I think back on 2009 and the “crisis-mode” that exists in the world of produced contet, both real and imagined, one story that constantly pops to top of mind is how Food Network Magazine was growing its circulation, well exceeding its launch goals. The Hearst methodology is fairly simple, dont give away your content online, augment it.


  3. I agree, Marian. The point about book editors having a platform is a good one, though it may be difficult to implement.

    Book editors have traditionally been “invisible” to the reader. Unlike magazine editors, who have the freedom to rewrite and sculpt content to fit the voice of the publication, book editors are supposed to let the author's voice shine (even if the editor had a heavy hand in revising the book.)

    Also, the books and/or authors in an editor's list may have different styles and stories. This means a book editor's curated collection of works may be very eclectic, if the publishing company allows the editor to acquire for multiple purposes (e.g., non-fiction, women's fiction, romance, etc.) Finding a common thread on which to base a platform–besides the simple fact of an editor's personal taste–may be difficult.

    That said, I think Guy is right. This is a worthwhile experiment to take on, and the way to begin would be to interact with readers.

  4. Great post. I'm not sure what I have to say is exactly related, but coincidentally, (or maybe not), I found myself thinking about magazines today too. I had sent home to myself a two foot stack of magazines that had been collecting in my inbox at work for months. I couldn't bare to throw them out, and yet, I didn't have time to read them during my every day life.

    HOWEVER, (I swear to you, I almost tweeted this out out today except that I didn't want to leave my heavenly zone) when I sat down on my couch with a cup of tea and my stack of magazines, I thought to myself, I'm in heaven. It was peaceful and relaxing in a way that the internet isn't (for me).

    The other thing I want to say about magazines has to do with Vogue. Did you see September Issue? I loved that movie because it made me realize that Vogue is art more than it is “media,” and I think it has more of a chance of surviving this digital revolution than other magazines such as PW or the NYTBR. I thought the same thing when I got to my copy of The Believer today. Art, not media.

  5. “Art, not media” is the perfect mantra because it implies the message is the focus not the medium. The eyeballs for advertisers approach of most magazines leaves them vulnerable to the fickle tastes of advertisers and their unimaginative, CPM-driven agencies.

    Since posting this, I've discovered Monocle magazine and have added it to my short list of “Print Done Right!” A beautiful example of what print can do best.

  6. So okay: you crushed this post.

    I'm on my second reading and I'm still connecting circuits. An excellent comparison, but also a great blueprint for starting a mag-based mag or web-based mag. (Both of which I'd like to do.)

    One suggestion, however:

    “I can’t stand Chris Anderson….”

    Try not to be so subtle.

  7. The most common answers I've heard is that book editors are too behind the scenes to be influential, and that corporate policies limit their direct engagement with readers. The first, of course, is sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy (obscurity is a choice, IMO); the second is more realistic, but also assumes an editor's platform should be about the publisher and not the person, which I wholeheartedly disagree with.

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