Literary Magazines Talk About Single-Copy Sales

Speaking on the panel were Ian Brand, former periodicals buyer, Posman Books; Sheryl Carlson, Marketing Manager, Newsstand Sales Division, Barnes & Noble, Inc.; Phil Fried, editor, The Manhattan Review; and Faye Kosmidis, Vice-President, DeBoer Distributors.

If subscriptions are the bread and butter (albeit sometimes meager servings) of magazines, what role do single-copy "newsstand" sales play? It is questionable how cost effective they are and undeniable how difficult, so why pursue them and how? CLMP addressed these questions at a roundtable discussion entitled The Retail Market: A Conversation for Literary Magazines about Bookstore and Single-Copy Sales presented in New York City in early June.

Collaborating with magazine editors Rebecca Wolff, Fence, and Jenine Gordon Bachman, Literal Latte, CLMP assembled a panel featuring all sides of the single-copy sales triangle: literary magazines, booksellers, and distributors.

The panel focused less on how to get a distributor (which is the first hurdle literary magazines face) and more on how to manage the process and keep sight of the purpose of single copy sales. Here are a few salient points drawn from the discussion:
  • Unlike commercial magazines, who purposely take a financial loss on single-copy sales to increase circulation numbers and attract advertising, literary magazines operate on much smaller budgets and do not aggressively pursue advertising revenue. Literary magazines pursue single-copy sales to increase exposure and convert those sales into subscriptions. The vast majority of literary magazines must factor the expenses of single-copy sales into their general budget to determine the extent to which they can pursue these while still breaking even.
  • No two independent bookstores are alike--both in the titles they stock and how this stock is selected and maintained. Ian Brand, now of Labyrinth Books in New York City, commented that at independents the systems of periodical stocking, reordering, and returns are unpredictable, often depending on the knowledge and experience of one staff member.
  • Ten percent of Barnes & Noble periodicals stock is determined by the local seller, the rest is preset by the chain. So if you are self-distributed, there is hope in approaching your local chain sellers.
  • It was eye-opening to learn that Barnes & Noble groups literary magazines with science fiction and other genre titles, as well as trade magazines such as Poets and Writers, in the same periodicals category of "literature." The evening came to a grand finale when Sheryl Carlson read off the list of the week's top 50 best sellers in this category. Only a few literary magazines appeared in this list, after the likes of Writer's Digest and Ellery Queen. Considering that sales rankings affect everything from re-ordering to promotions, some wondered if literary magazines might fare better in their own category.
  • Two of the few literary titles in this top 50 were POETRY and Fiction. It would seem that magazines that are very literal about their content find a readier market in bookstore browsers.
  • Some distributors are more proactive than others in "selling" titles to stores, but all come up against the policies of individual stores. Faye Kosmidis has sent copies of magazines to stores in the areas where publishers and writers are located, but many bookstores do not want to be sent merchandise that they have not ordered.
  • Kosmidis often tells individuals ordering literary magazines from DeBoer to go to their local bookstore instead. A magazine's best chance of being reordered at bookstores is if the customer asks for it.

The roundtable was a component of the New York State Technical Assistance Program, a program launched a year and a half ago with support from the New York State Council on the Arts to provide resources, training and community building opportunities to literary publishers in New York State. This fall, CLMP will begin recording and transcribing the roundtables for wider distribution.

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