But what was detectable was a clear consumer trend shaped by the recession. People are staying in, counting their pennies and watching soaps if the latest Audit Bureau of Circulation figures are anything to go by.
Titles that have done well in the current climate are niche, such as cookery and cycling magazines. The relatively strong performance of Future Publishing is a sign of this. In addition, soap opera titles were buoyant. Business magazines fared well as consumers tried to make sense of the world's financial woes. Customer magazines showed growth of 16 per cent, according to the Association of Publishing Agencies, with the top eight magazines by circulation now customer titles, one more than was the case six months ago.
However, figures from the PPA showing a decline in actively purchased sales of 8.6 per cent - a steep drop on the 1.1 per cent decline for the same period last year. The men's and celebrity markets took another hit and the recession affected sales of house and home magazines.
Vanessa Williams, the head of press at Mindshare, says: "There are a lot of publishers who are pleased to have just limited declines. 'Flat' used to be the new 'up', but now 'slightly down' is the new 'up'. Titles do need to innovate and move on. They need to ensure that the editorial content is what readers want and is relevant to them."
On a more positive note, agency pleas for greater transparency around ABC figures are being addressed. An ABC-audited monthly breakdown of several major publishers' circulation for the June to December 2008 period will be released on 12 March.
Also, new ABC rules will ensure that multipacks (magazines that are packaged or banded together with other issues or publications as a unit) are separately and clearly identified on each title's ABC certificate for January to June 2009 figures. The next round of results should make for very illuminating reading.
IPC Media, currently getting its house in order after a management reshuffle, suffered a year-on-year decline in sales but sold more magazines in the second half of 2008 than the first.
The publisher, under the new chief executive, Evelyn Webster, saw its men's titles take a hit with its weekly title Nuts declining 13.3 per cent to 234,034. IPC's other lads' title Loaded saw a slide of 21.7 per cent to 90,071. Marie Claire, its women's glossy, experienced a decline in circulation of 4.8 per cent to 314,259.
On the upside, its women's monthly Woman & Home showed a healthy rise in circulation and the fashion weekly Look defied a tough market to increase its circulation by 2.9 per cent to 314,329. What's On TV, the second-largest-selling consumer title in the UK behind TV Choice, suffered a 5 per cent circulation fall to 1,318,093.
IPC continued its investment in its multiplatform products throughout the latter half of last year. The publisher launched a website for Look and its gaming site Mousebreaker.com saw an overhaul with new ad formats and a redesigned homepage. There was also a relaunch for the Nuts website, which IPC claims has earned it a 90 per cent boost in unique users. Nuts TV was not so successful, however, and ceased broadcasting on Sky and Freeview.
Since June last year, the company has seen its fair share of change at the top as well a restructure of its advertising unit. Since taking the helm, Webster, who replaced Sylvia Auton, appointed Fiona Dent, a former managing director of IPC TX, to run the women's weekly unit IPC Connect. Charlie Meredith, a former publishing director of What's On TV and TV Easy, took Dent's old role.
The new advertising division, IPC Unite, was overhauled with the aim of offering more cross-brand cross-platform solutions for advertisers. Caroline McDevitt, the managing director of IPC Advertising, stepped down from the role last December and is not being directly replaced.
The company, which sold off three of its motoring titles towards the end of last year, is expected to undergo a major structural review later this year under Webster's stewardship. She says: "IPC has outperformed the market in both circulation value and volume, which is testament to the creative talent within the business. Going forward, we will continue to concentrate our focus on the creative development of our brands across platform, to extend our reach."
Bauer Consumer Media also saw some of its titles lose readers in a challenging market. The Bauer titles Heat and More! were in the firing line in a tough women's market, but managed to suffer less steep declines than previous periods.
Closer overtook OK! to grab top position in the celebrity market, despite a decline, while Grazia, the fashion weekly, which had seen impressive growth since its launch, stayed flat on the year with a circulation of 227,156. A repositioned, and more upmarket, FHM kept the top spot in an embattled men's market. However, its circulation fell 13.5 per cent to 272,545.
The publisher, led by the chief executive, Paul Keenan, invested in both print and digital platforms in the latter part of 2008. Bauer Media brought back its health and fitness magazine FHM Bionic, seven years after it closed the title. More! magazine had another relaunch with a £5 million redesign.
Bauer also launched a fashion retail website Cocosa.com to rival Netaporter.com and Asos.com, and FHM.com was relaunched. The publisher invested in digital marketing with the appointment of Silverpop, the e-mail marketer, to automate personalised communications to Bauer's subscribers.
Bauer's digital radio platforms suffered, however, and Mojo Radio, the Mojo magazine spin-off, was closed. Bauer, which was a shareholder in the 4 Digital Group, put the launch of Closer Radio on hold following Channel 4's withdrawal from digital radio.
The publisher, which underwent a management restructure last year, will be relying on the strength of its brands in 2009. Keenan says: "Audiences and advertisers will move to the shelter offered by trusted brands. In times like these, it's the trusted brands that will win. We are telling our teams in editorial and advertising to get out into the market and fight alongside agencies to unlock as much money as they can."
Bauer's weeklies division, H Bauer, under the managing director, David Goodchild, saw a decline with its listings titles taking a dent in sales. While TV Choice kept its position in the top TV listings spot and biggest-selling newsstand title, TV Quick suffered the biggest fall in that sector. In contrast, Bella, which had moved to reverse its sales by investing in content under new editor Julia Davis, saw its efforts pay off with a rise in sales.
THE NATIONAL MAGAZINE COMPANY
In common with other leading publishers, The National Magazine Company used words such as "difficult" and "competitive" to describe the magazine market during the second half of 2008. Despite this, and the fact that sales of its titles were down by an overall 6.8 per cent year on year, there were some notably strong performers within the NatMag stable.
Leading the way was the NatMag-Rodale title Men's Health, which broke through the 250,000 sales mark with a 4.1 per cent sales increase. Its circulation of 250,094 took it above the IPC Media weekly Nuts into second place in the men's paid-for market, a strong performance in a sector that is in overall decline.
Seven of the 19 main NatMag titles saw year-on-year sales growth. These included Esquire, Harper's Bazaar (which grew 0.4 per cent to 109,468 on the back of a subscription drive and strong promotional activity) and Zest.
Cosmopolitan, NatMag's flagship women's lifestyle title, saw a 2.1 per cent decline in circulation to 450,836. NatMag described this performance as "solid" in a tough sector and pointed to a 38 per cent increase in subscribers (to 59,000) as evidence of increased loyalty towards the magazine.
NatMag's difficulties came in the women's weekly market, where Real People was down 19.4 per cent to 217,241 and Reveal, despite a relaunch, by 17.2 per cent to 270,014.
In leadership terms, NatMag is going through a period of change following the announcement that Duncan Edwards, its chief executive, is moving to the US to become the chief executive of Hearst Magazines International. He will continue to be involved with NatMag as its vice-chairman, but a new chief executive is set to be appointed, with the managing director, Jessica Burley, among the contenders.
During the past few months, NatMag has invested in online content with the relaunch of Company's sister website Getlippy.com, one of its more prominent ventures. Edwards expects this to continue over 2009. He says: "Creativity and innovation remain the focus of our business and we will continue to invest in these areas, producing world-class content and highly sought-after magazines."
Although BBC Magazines claimed a strong performance in the second half of 2008, its successes were more than offset by large circulation declines among its home and gardening titles, sectors which have been especially hard hit by the downturn.
Circulation of BBC Good Homes was down 23.2 per cent to 97,725 as conditions in the housing market worsened. Sales of Gardeners' World declined by 7.3 per cent to 221,180
Food titles also suffered as readers tightened their belts. BBC Good Food lost 1.7 per cent of its circulation, which was down to 359,772. Olive was also down, by 1.4 per cent, to 88,944.
However, other parts of the BBC Magazines portfolio held up well. Despite severe problems for the car market, sales of BBC Top Gear were largely unaffected as the title added 0.2 per cent to its circulation, which now stands at 200,756. The success of the Top Gear TV programme may partly explain this success, but there is also some evidence that motoring titles with more of a lifestyle feel are performing better than the weekly motoring titles.
Radio Times, the UK's third-best-selling title, experienced a 2.9 per cent fall in circulation but stayed above the one million mark on 1,023,255. The magazine increased its market share to 21.6 per cent and also became the largest weekly magazine by subscription with 142,912 copies going out via subscription.
The BBC's youth and children's titles found the going tough with sales of Doctor Who Adventures, Girl Talk and Match of the Day all down. However, circulation of Top of the Pops increased by 0.6 per cent to 125,558 on the back of a series of special issues and covermounts.
In common with other publishers, BBC Magazines has made cutbacks in its commercial department (in December it announced that it was closing its centralised sales team and making ten redundancies from its sales team).
However, Peter Phippen, the managing director of BBC Magazines, says that he is pleased with the circulation results: "The continued robust performance of our many market leading titles, including Radio Times and Top Gear, and the growth of some of our more specialist titles, demonstrates that audiences will continue to buy quality magazines that feed their interests and offer value for money."
"Steady as she goes" seemed to be the phrase to sum up Conde Nast's performance in 2008. While overall sales of Conde Nast titles were down slightly year on year (though they improved over the second half of 2008), most of its key titles held their own.
Glamour, the market-leading women's lifestyle title, saw a very slight (0.4 per cent) decline in its circulation to 547,607. However, Conde Nast claimed this was a solid performance as actively purchased copies rose by 0.2 per cent and subscriptions grew by 12.6 per cent to hit record levels. Martin Donnelly, the press manager at Universal McCann, says that a strong covermount strategy helped Glamour to hold its own, with its Nails Inc giveaway with the December issue performing well.
GQ posted another marginal increase in its circulation, the upmarket men's title rising 0.4 per cent year on year to 130,094. Vogue's sale was static at 220,386, while Vanity Fair recorded its highest-ever UK circulation, up by 1.8 per cent to 101,169.
The most notable exception to Conde Nast's solid performance was Easy Living, which experienced a 5.6 per cent decline in sales to 185,115. Media agencies predict that, going forward, the title could be squeezed amid strong competition in the "middle youth" sector.
Earlier this month, it was announced that Geordie Greig, the editor of Tatler, who is leaving the title to helm the Evening Standard, will be replaced by Catherine Ostler, the editor of the Standard's ES Magazine. She takes charge of a title that, despite relative stability in the luxury sector, has seen a 4.9 per cent decline in its circulation, which now stands at 86,107. Greig's gambit of featuring younger celebrities such as Peaches Geldof on the cover does not seem to have paid circulation dividends.
Looking forward, Conde Nast has ambitious plans to launch two titles (the fashion magazine Love launches this week and the UK edition of Wired in April) and says that it intends to invest in "building quality" on its websites.
Nicholas Coleridge, the managing director of Conde Nast, says: "We are expecting it to be a challenging year for our advertisers, and we are prepared for this. We have no intention of cutting editorial quality, either in journalism or production terms, and we will emerge strongly at the end. Several of the upcoming issues look particularly juicy."
Publishers ranked by total ABCs
Publisher Total ABC Period-on-period Year-on-year
% change % change
IPC Media 7,489,968 14.9 -6.3
Bauer Consumer Media 4,171,450 28.0 -8.5
H Bauer 3,628,469 7.9 -4.9
The National Magazine 3,150,694 0.2 -6.8
BBC Magazines 3,017,496 -3.0 -4.3
Conde Nast 1,628,982 2.4 -1.2
Future Publishing 1,558,704 118.6 -2.9
Northern & Shell 1,219,792 -8.2 -16.1
Hachette Filipacchi 1,146,394 -1.6 -1.2
Dennis Publishing 796,435 79.3 -6.5
Haymarket Consumer Media 732,414 67.0 -9.5
Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations, July-December 2008
THE UPS AND DOWNS OF FIVE TOP TITLES
Circulation Dec 2008: 1,369,088
Circulation Dec 2007: 1,404, 950
Year-on-year % change: -2.6
H Bauer's TV weekly maintained its position as the top-selling UK consumer magazine, holding off competition from IPC Media's What's On TV. The magazine's slight fall in circulation was typical in a sector that saw several declines.
Circulation Dec 2008: 547,607
Circulation Dec 2007: 550,066
Year-on-year % change: -0.4
Conde Nast's women's monthly continued to be the leading title in the women's lifestyle sector, growing the gap on its rival Cosmopolitan, despite a small fall in its circulation. The women's monthly sector performed better than expected, but was still down.
Circulation Dec 2008: 470,475
Circulation Dec 2007: 533,034
Year-on-year % change: -11.7
Sales of Bauer's Heat were down significantly as titles in the women's weekly market, and especially celebrity focused titles, found the going tough. Northern & Shell's OK! also suffered a large decline in circulation, although Hello! bucked the trend with a rise.
Circulation Dec 2008: 250,094
Circulation Dec 2007: 240,315
Year-on-year % change: + 4.1
The NatMag-Rodale title recorded an impressive rise in circulation, showing that not all men's titles are facing the declines suffered by lads' magazines such as Nuts, Zoo, Loaded and Maxim. Conde Nast's GQ and NatMags' Esquire also posted sales increases.
Circulation Dec 2008: 186,995
Circulation Dec 2007: 181,374
Year-on-year % change: +3.1
Circulation of The Economist's UK edition continued to rise as local and global political and economic events gripped readers. The credit crunch and US election process were good news for business and current affairs titles, which showed strong growth.