Getting to grips with the real substance of magazine circulation data has much in common with the sport of eel wrestling. What's the truth behind the ABCs?

Since the Audit Bureau of Circulations introduced the distinction between active and non-active purchase of magazines three years ago, "bulks has been a dirty word for the UK's press buyers.

Bulks have acquired the reputation of statistical chaff, thrown up to confuse press buyers and media journalists and disguise the true state of a magazine's health. Every six months, these figures emerge to clutter up an otherwise simple ABC concurrent release report. Appearing in any one of six columns and ranging in size from one to 50,000 or more, their precise meaning is rarely obvious.

Calls for greater transparency have resulted in several ABC reforms, aimed at clarifying the distinction between bulks and actively purchased copies. ABC now publishes a list of the top 100 titles arranged by the number of copies sold directly to consumers in the UK, via the newsstand or subscription. This is a record of sales as the man in the street, or in a client's marketing department, would understand it. However, these are not the figures that take pride of place in the main ABC report and get reproduced in trade journals and media sections. The figures that set the agenda, and dictate the position of magazines within their respective sectors, continue to include bulks, overseas sales and give-aways.

But what if bulks and the rest no longer came into the equation?

As a favour to those press buyers and publishers who insist they're really only interested in the UK newsstand and subscription numbers, Campaign has reformatted the ABC results for three of publishing's most high-profile markets. In these tables, showing circulation in the women's weeklies, women's lifestyle and men's lifestyle sectors, the first "top-line figure is the number of actively purchased copies in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The percentage of subscription sales is shown next. The period-on-period (P-o-P) and year-on-year (Y-o-Y) changes are based on a comparison with actively purchased UK sales in July to December and January to June, 2001.

The total ABC figure is included further along the row, along with the number of bulks and the number of frees. The positions of the titles are dictated by the actively purchased figure.

So what changes? For starters, things get a lot more dramatic. Several titles come away looking significantly better than they did in the traditional figures. For others, a stable performance starts to look distinctly wobbly and, in some cases, downturns turn into disasters.

The running order of magazines in each sector also goes through some significant changes, challenging some longheld assumptions about which titles are the key players. This is most evident in the women's weeklies market. In the new "league table", Hello! slithers toward the bottom, while its bitterest rival OK! drops from fourth to tenth.

In contrast, the traditional weeklies look far more robust when bulks and foreign sales are discounted. Chat, Woman's Own, Woman's Weekly and Bella all move above OK! in terms of UK sales.

But there's more to reformatting the circulation figures than knocking reputations. By focusing attention on organic growth, we get a clearer idea of the underlying health of titles. Often it shows latent strengths in unlikely places. Loaded's static performance in the traditional figures turns into a 10 per cent year-on-year gain. It's an achievement that has enabled IPC to strip away the majority of Loaded's bulks (30,000 a year ago) without any drop in total ABC and appears to be a sign of rude health. On the other hand, FHM hasn't yet turned around a decline in its active UK sales, as it appeared to do in the conventional ABC figures.

Elsewhere in the men's market, the problems faced by luxury titles in positioning themselves on the newsstand is evident from the active-sales erosion of GQ and Esquire. Furthermore, Front, on the face of it a more newsstand-friendly title, also seems to be suffering more than the conventional ABCs implied.

It should be no surprise that these figures are both more dramatic and less predictable than the conventional ABC numbers. They're what a casual, interested observer would focus on when discussing the UK magazine market - the month-by-month and week-by-week battle for newsstand superiority, the tension between customer loyalty and customer seduction that makes the industry such a fascinating one.

However, while this view of circulation appears to make things more transparent, appearances can be deceptive. Having done away with bulks, are we any closer to understanding the true value of circulation to advertisers? For every press buyer queuing up to denounce bulks, there's a publisher or an industry figure ready with a considered defence.

"There's a feeling that bulks are not valid, which I don't accept, Phil Cutts, the Periodical Publishers Association's marketing director, says. "They offer an opportunity to get campaigns in front of a targeted audience. I think there is a need for them to be clearly shown on the ABC and it was a PPA initiative that introduced the actively purchased category into the report. I don't think the main report is misleading because it states quite clearly what is actively purchased."

IPC Ignites managing director, Mike Soutar, agrees. "The big question is: are they of value to advertisers or are they just an underhand tool used by publishers to deceive them? he says. "Their value is somewhere in the middle and to take either extreme view is naive.

"To say they are worthless would be to undermine the whole concept of customer magazines and yet that's a very successful part of the publishing business, he continues.

Perhaps, then, we should be making more of an effort to understand bulks.

"The distinction is that a bulk copy is purchased, but not by the reader, Martyn Gates, the ABC's director of newspapers and consumer magazines, explains. "The rules require that the copies are sold and sold to an independent company. The deal has to be bona fide."

The distinction between a bulk and a free, a copy that is not sold to anyone, was the subject of controversy a year ago when Richard Desmond began to package copies of OK! with The Express. Since he owned both titles, this could not qualify as a bulk deal. Desmond was initially able to put a nominal price on the OK! issues and include them as lesser-rate newsstand sales but ABC rules were subsequently changed to define such copies as "free".

Nevertheless, Gates points out, most deals with newspapers would qualify as bulk deals - and, according to him, newspaper/magazine tie-ups are an increasingly common form of bulk.

"There are two types of bulk sales, he continues. "Regular bulks and issue-specific. The issue-specifics have to be sold to an intermediary for at least 20 per cent of the cover price. Regular bulks can be sold for as little as a penny but there have to be four issues in any period and there has to be a contract up front."

The need for bona-fide deals means publishers cannot simply "stand outside Highbury and give copies away", as Soutar puts it, and count them as bulks. However, press buyers remain suspicious of unscrupulous publishers flogging cheap deals at the end of the month to push up their top-line ABC.

In the ABCs of January to June 2001, which proved fairly brutal for the men's market, the sector leader, FHM, which had included almost no bulks in its previous ABC certificate, reported some 17,000 extra copies - just enough to keep it above the 700,000 mark.

Coincidence it may well have been, but the arrival of the bulk deal seemed convenient. Gates, however, says such a boost to the figures would only benefit a publisher in the short term.

"The difficulty with bulks is that, if you put them on an ABC, you've almost got to continue with it because if they come off you'll get a drop, he says. "It's been described as a merry-go-round that's difficult to get off."

However, a survey of the number of bulks included by the four major publishers in our three key markets suggests publishers are more inclined to get off that merry-go-round - or avoid getting on it in the first place. All show period-on-period declines and three of the four have reduced their bulks year on year.

It could be that the downturn in the ad market is reducing the role of bulks without any need for them to be cut out from the ABCs. Selling copies at 20 per cent of their cover price - or even less - is an expensive business. It's also the case that advertisers themselves are demanding more accountability from their press buyers and consequently from the publishers themselves. The focus on the validity of circulation has intensified following the massive bulks included by Hello! and OK! in the June 2001 ABCs.

Since then, ABC has introduced measures to bring greater transparency to the bulks themselves. The organisation's website now offers ready access to ABC certificates that give some idea of where bulks were distributed - and which issues they apply to.

Measures such as these lead Cutts to argue that press buyers can now put a value on bulks. Soutar adds that it should be self-evident when bulks seem unnatural. "If 10 per cent of the total is in bulk then advertisers should at least be aware of it, he says.

However, putting a value on different forms of circulation remains a thorny business - and not just where bulks are concerned.

The value of foreign newspaper sales has been questioned following last month's ABC release. Could the same be said of magazines' foreign sales? Are the copies of OK! that are distributed with The Express, and marked as "free in the ABCs, any less likely to be read than the secondhand copies that contribute so much to magazines' National Readership Survey figures? Are the cut-price subscriptions that boost the circulations of magazines such as Glamour any less valid because they're sold cheaply? And are any of these categories worth any less than the vast numbers of magazines sold at fullprice on the newsstand but bought largely because of the expensive covermounts adorning them?

Judgments such as these are difficult in any medium - and the UK's magazines are no exception. It's tempting to cut out any numbers with a question mark over them, but that may not leave the press buyers and advertisers with much data to work with. The reformatted figures presented here at least give a clearer idea of what's happening on the ground in the UK, but even this does not amount to a fully transparent view.


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