Magazine publishers use smoke and mirrors to mask slow recovery

If examples of bundling and bulks are stripped out of the latest magazine ABC analysis, the performance of the magazine market is not as strong as it first appears

Northern & Shell bagged New! and Star with OK! to boost sales
Northern & Shell bagged New! and Star with OK! to boost sales

The pronouncements following the release of the February ABCs indicated a new mood of optimism, with publishers using words such as "excellent", "robust", "strong" and even "outstanding" to describe their magazines' performance.

Magazine publishers do indeed have reason to be cheerful: ad revenue may be down, but consumers' demand for magazines remains as strong as ever. The UK public bought more than one billion magazines in 2009, and the circulation of consumer magazines fell by just 1.3% in the second half of 2009, compared to the same period in 2008.

Douglas McCabe, press analyst at Enders Analysis, says: "You can almost hear a huge sigh of relief from the boardrooms of the five or six big guns that the magazine market seems to have stabilised. If the trends of 2009 had continued, we would be starting to get into really scary territory."

Overall, the rate of decline has slowed and there is more optimism than pessimism in the July to December 2009 ABC results. The celebrity weekly market has found a new lease of life, with strong results for Hello, Now, Reveal and Bella, and the efforts of new editors are paying off, with Sam Delaney at Heat, Mark Frith at Time Out and Colin Kennedy at FHM all presiding over encouraging circulation figures.

Another positive part of the story is the women's lifestyle market, up a healthy 9.2% period on period overall, with strong individual performances from Woman & Home, Essentials, Good Housekeeping, Company, Grazia, Red, Vogue and More.

Evelyn Webster, chief executive of IPC Media, reports that sales of the women's lifestyle titles are "going like a train", as women refuse to give up on their weekly or monthly "must-have-treat". She says: "We have been seeing more positive sales results in the second half of this period, so we are cautiously optimistic for 2010. The market will not contract this year, and we expect ad revenue to pick up in Q3."

But behind the froth and the fanfare of this period's improved results lies a different story, with publishers using smoke and mirror tactics to mask the inconvenient truth that the pain is far from over. More than ever before, media owners are using price promotions, heavily discounted or free copies, and bagging - the practice of bundling two or more magazines together at a reduced rate - to massage their figures.

Northern & Shell's New, which was sold as part of a fortnightly multipack with OK and Star for 12 of the 25 weeks in the audit period, posted an astonishing 50.1% rise period on period. Elsewhere, Bauer bagged Empire with FHM, and NatMag bagged women's glossy She with men's monthly Esquire - a pairing that rival publisher Jamie Bill at Conde Nast's GQ dismissed as "the most incongruous thing I have witnessed since Liz Taylor married Larry Fortensky".

But Conde Nast is no angel either. While it has undoubtedly done well to launch technology monthly Wired in a tough market, the title's headline circulation of 48,275 masked 10,000 free copies, 10,528 UK subscriptions sold at a lower rate and 8,219 overseas sales. Its remaining UK newstrade sales of 19,447 (of which only 19,280 were at a full rate), would arguably not guarantee it a place on as many media schedules.

These sales strategies are within - if not in the spirit of - the ABC law, and even if examples of bundling or price promotions are stripped out from the ABC analysis, the results still indicate the market is starting to stabilise after a rocky 2009.

McCabe says: "Given the pressures of the tough retail environment and the fact we have been through a torrid time, these are good signs. These figures show people are turning to magazines even when household expenditure has been cut back."

Nicholas Coleridge, managing director of Conde Nast, adds: "There are clear signs of recovery, and the further upmarket you go, the better placed you seem to be. You won't find Katie Price on the front cover of Vogue, not at any price."