MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON: SMALL PUBLISHERS - Cutbacks at Frank bode ill for glossy market’s small players/Can small publishers still compete with the market’s giants, Alasdair Reid asks

The Apple Macintosh was expected to herald a cultural revolution in publishing. It was going to ’let a hundred flowers bloom ... a hundred schools of thought contend’ - as Mao Tse-Tung, executive publisher of the Little Red Book, might have said, had he lived long enough to see it happen.

The Apple Macintosh was expected to herald a cultural revolution in

publishing. It was going to ’let a hundred flowers bloom ... a hundred

schools of thought contend’ - as Mao Tse-Tung, executive publisher of

the Little Red Book, might have said, had he lived long enough to see it

happen.



Magazines, which involve more creative thinking and design than process

management, could be plotted from the back bedroom. Buy yourself a

couple of Macs, get some mates round, pluck some cool ideas from the

ether and just maybe you’ll be in business. In theory, it would be

possible to match the high production values of mainstream glossies

while doing what big publishers can’t even hope to do - run with some

exciting or even dangerous ideas.



The Mac, in short, would usher in a ’small is beautiful’ age. Moribund,

committee-run monoliths with generic names like the International

Publishing Corporation, could start numbering their days.



Well, it hasn’t happened, has it? And the latest blow to the theory came

last week with the news that Wagadon (one of the coolest ’small is

beautiful’ players, with a heritage stretching back even to pre-Mac

times) was effectively pulling out of the glossy women’s magazine

market. Its Frank title will no longer be a monthly - this summer it

will mutate into a quarterly.



And this is the second calamity to strike Wagadon in recent months. Just

before Christmas it announced the closure of Deluxe, its tilt at the

supposed gap between Loaded and GQ.



Wagadon’s editorial director, Nick Logan, stated last week: ’As an

independent, it has been hard to make an impact on the women’s monthly

market.’ Should the demise of Frank be mourned?



Some point out that Wagadon’s problem is that it isn’t really a small

publisher - Conde Nast used to have a stake, remember. And when it comes

to overheads, it acts like a very big publisher - in all areas except

marketing, that is.



For some observers, this is what really sorts the sheep from the

goats.



You can match big publishers in other areas, but when it comes to

marketing, you’re competing against their deep pockets, nerve and native

cunning.



What sets big companies apart, in any sector, is that they are prepared

to buy market share.



Frazer Riddell, the account director on Mollin (another smallish

consumer magazine publisher) at MediaCom TMB, doesn’t believe that has

to be so.



He says: ’If you can command the resource to publish, you can raise the

funds to market it too.’ And, he adds, unlike the newspaper market, wars

of attrition are rare in magazines: ’If you’re a big player, you will

see threats coming from all over the place. You can’t afford to mount a

defence against them all.’



Other agency observers agree that you can’t draw strong conclusions from

Frank’s retreat - the niche Frank was aimed at just wasn’t big enough

and, in any case, the product just didn’t ’have it’.



Tim Kirkman, the press buying director of Carat, says that would be an

unfair analysis. ’Frank had a stronger unique selling proposition than

most magazines from the bigger publishing houses. Economies of scale do

have a bearing - even if it’s in something simple like ensuring you can

buy in the right face for the front cover. And that is vitally

important. There are awful magazines that keep going on the strength of

their covers,’ he says.



Kirkman would like to think that it’s still possible for a small

publisher to flourish in the mainstream. Anything, he states, to stop

the market’s seemingly inexorable slide towards bland conformity and

commodity thinking.



Many, though, remain sceptical. As one buyer puts it: ’Small outfits

feel they have a duty to be esoteric - and esoteric is by definition the

opposite of mainstream. What many small publishers don’t have is

discipline. It’s still eminently possible to produce a mainstream

magazine from a small publishing house - but they have to really, really

want to do that.’