Have you ever wondered why you can buy almost anything over the Internet and it will show up on your doorstep in a few days, but if you place a magazine subscription, your first issue might not arrive for three months? Well, I have. I always thought that if you start a subscription for a monthly magazine, having to wait any longer than a month for your first issue to arrive means the publisher is just being lazy.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. Brian D. Foy, editor of The Perl Review, explains that the long delay is due to the extremely short shelf life of magazines. Unlike books, DVDs, and other products you can buy online, magazines can’t be stocked up in a warehouse somewhere. If a publisher prints too many copies of an issue, the unsold copies are money down the drain. To avoid this problem, publishers give a long lead time for each issue so they know exactly how many copies will actually sell.
Foy describes the situation in more detail in his response to Erica Sadun’s blog posting:
What you’re seeing is the long lead up in the production cycle to actually preparing an issue. Big magazine publishers typically have their subscription lists processed a couple months before an issue is due to be mailed. You’ll notice the same lag if you try to change your address. This is also why they start sending you renewal notices so early. Several other factors impact this, too, none of which the publisher likes.
For the two weeks, that’s probably just the normal batch processing. Instead of sending every new transaction immediately, they send a bunch at once. Not only that, there are several middle men. You buy the subscription through Amazon, but Amazon is getting it from a distributor. The distributor in turn has to then pass that stuff on to the publisher. There are a lot of market inefficiencies in the process. Publishers hate all of this but have to tolerate it because they can’t do it themselves. Amazon doesn’t want to deal with publishers individually, so publishers are stuck with distributors. Distributors want to make as much money as possible, so they do things as cheaply as possible. This is the same situation for buying a book through Amazon too, although distributors such as Ingram can stockpile books in warehouses. Magazines can’t do that, as I’ll explain in a moment.
If you want something faster, order it directly from the source to cut out the middle men. Mother Nature can send you things quickly because they have the product ready to go. Magazines don’t work the same way since they have to rely of all those middle men, making their margin quite thin. Their business model is completely different. That’s also why the direct subscription rates are so low: the money that would go to the middle men is taken off the price.
Along with that, various postal regulations come into play. If you look closely at most magazines, you’ll see a declaration outlining their print run, how many copies went to subscribers, how many to newsstands, and so on. The percentages of those numbers relative to the total print run matters to the Post Office, so the publisher tries to keep them as high as possible. That means they don’t print more than they are going to need (plus a little extra) and that there isn’t a big stack of them lying around. The lifespan of a copy of a magazine is very short, unlike books or other products. If you don’t buy it within the period that it’s current, it’s no longer sellable. That’s part of the reason they process their lists a couple months ahead of time: they have to plan their print run. Unsold magazines cost them the same as the sold ones, but bring in no revenue. Publishers have to minimize that cost if they want to survive.
Now, once they have their print run planned, they have to report their rate base (that’s basically how many people pay to get the magazine) to advertisers. Advertisers care about how many people are going to see their ad, and most magazines can’t live without the ad revenue. When I sell an ad, the advertiser wants to know how many people are going to see it. It’s one of the first questions they ask. Of course, advertisers want to pay as little as possible. Along with that, there are auditing organizations (such as the BPA, that verify all of those numbers. Again, there’s some lead time there because they have to know the subscriber base well in advance to sell the ads.
So there you have it. The mystery of delayed magazines has finally been solved! Publishers aren’t being lazy; they’re being frugal.