The circulation figures for the women's glossy market were, perhaps, not as bad as people expected - but they weren't exactly good. While the monthly sector as a whole was relatively flat with a net decline of less than 1 per cent year on year, and while the fashion titles were by no means among the worst performers, most of the high-profile glossies had underwhelming results.
Red was down 14 per cent year on year, Marie Claire down 11 per cent and Cosmopolitan down 2.2 per cent. The only good news was Elle, up 6.8 per cent. This is hardly likely to inspire market confidence. And hardly the best of timing either, given we've already entered one of the busiest periods of launch activity in the women's glossy sector.
First up was InStyle, a version of Time Inc's successful US celebrity, fashion and beauty title launched in the UK last Friday. In the US, the brand has an impressive pedigree. In its five years in existence, it has made impressive inroads into the market both in terms of circulation - it has a US sale in excess of 1.3 million - and in the advertising market, where it has taken a significant revenue share from rivals such as Vogue and Elle.
Meanwhile, Conde Nast's Glamour and Bauer's Project Helena wait in the wings. Project Helena, as its codename suggests, is an unknown quantity; but Glamour, like InStyle, has a pedigree. An even more distinguished one, actually, having launched back in 1939. The UK version will (perhaps bravely) adopt an A5 format and will be targeted at women who are 27 (or aspire to be 27), and although its launch print run is 200,000, it hopes to build a 400,000-plus circulation in short order.
Is there room for three new titles? What impact will they have on the rest of the market? Nicholas Coleridge, the managing director of Conde Nast, says he's very upbeat. He states: 'The first quarter this year has been incredibly strong for Conde Nast - the strongest ever in advertising. Glamour, in particular, is way ahead of expectations in advertising volume. Circulations too are rock solid. Traveller is performing well and the others are steady.'
But isn't he worried that the titles - including his own - will cannibalise circulation from other titles? 'The new launches are good news and our view is that they will actually give the market a shot in the arm,' he responds. 'We work in a dynamic free market system and I find that exciting. If there is a fight, we are ready for it.'
But is there likely to be a shake-out? Publishers are always reluctant to think in such brutal terms but one is prepared to share his private reservations off the record. He states: 'The truth is that there is more dead wood than anyone will ever admit. There are four or five desperately dull magazines out there and if they went under I absolutely guarantee that not a living soul would notice.'
In other words, a shakeout might be a good thing for all concerned. It has, after all, been ever thus in the magazine market. It's probably the most dynamic of all media in terms of new product and new thinking. The old regularly has to make way for the new.
Nigel Conway, the media communications director of Starcom Worldwide, believes there could be something in that. He comments: 'I'd say there's evidence that in the women's fashion monthlies, we've reached saturation point in terms of circulation. There are winners and losers, of course, but on balance the sector is static. Not so long ago publishers could look at launching a title that might have a target of half a million but that's just not going to happen any more. The biggest circulation you could be looking at for a big launch would be around 200,000 and the dynamics of the market now decree that to make a circulation impact you have to rob Peter to pay Paul. You've got to chip away at everyone else.'
But what's the bottom line? Will there be casualties? And where will they come from? Conway says: 'I'd expect them to be older, more established titles and they might come from other sectors such as women's weeklies.
I think there are some titles there that are most in need of reinvention.
Some of the older magazine titles are definitely on the cusp and there are some surviving purely on the strength of promotions. The titles that survive will have to market themselves more aggressively above the line.
And I think we'll see more publishers keener to tell us about the performance of individual issues and how that has been affected by promotional or advertising activity.'
Some observers say that one of the biggest problems these days is that it's difficult to develop a credible USP in such a crowded market. That, in turn, means that potential advertisers value blue-chip brands such as Vogue more than ever. People know that it's not just a fashion icon, it's a stable proposition. Its circulation is never going to go up dramatically but it's never going to go down either and it has a reliable advertising base.
On the other hand, even brands such as Vogue will suffer if circulation becomes an issue across the market. No matter how much advertisers want to buy into particular brands, cost per thousand could start to be a deciding factor. And advertisers may well want to be supportive of new titles coming into the market.
Dawn Bebe, the managing director of Emap Elan's women's media group, agrees that brands are the key. She states: 'We've already seen four launches in the past six to eight months which has already made the market more volatile than before, but Elle and New Woman have profited from that.
The three new launches are the biggest yet, with the most heavyweight budgets behind them and, arguably, that will increase the market volatility. But I think magazines at the top of their game can profit from that. We have strong products in terms of editorial expertise and targeting. Strong brands will always cut through the white noise at the news-stands and strong brands can profit from launch activity because marketing activity draws people to the news-stand. On the other hand, if you're not at the top of your game you could be found out. We don't know what's going to happen but we have to be pleased that our sales figures have been so strong.'
Do advertisers agree? Trudi Collister, the marketing manager of Calvin Klein, says: 'We're excited by all the new launches - but then I'm always excited when new magazines come along. We're not negative about the circulation situation because I know from my own experience that people will always buy magazines. People are always searching for the magazine that is just right for them.'