The Strangest Thing I Saw This Week
How Good is Good Enough?

Rethinking Magazines

Mag_stack_2My magazine subscription stack is a fraction of the size it used to be.  Information I used to get from print magazines now often comes from blogs and sometimes the websites of the magazines I used to subscribe to.  Even though most magazines offer a deeply-discounted trial subscription to their print product, I've often wondered why they don't do more with e-subscriptions.

I'm unlikely to sign up for a trial print subscription that costs only a few dollars or is even completely free. Why?  Because I know at some point I'll need to cough up the full subscription price, anywhere from $20 to $40 or more per year.  I figure I can probably get by with other (free) resources instead, so why bother?

But what if every magazine suddenly offered a $3-$5/year e-subscription?  This e-subscription would include the following:

  1. An e-mail message that appeared in my in-box with links to every single article in the newest print issue; this message comes out either ahead of or at the same time the print issue hits newsstands.
  2. Enough customization services to allow me to configure my subscription to best serve my needs.  Since I'm only paying $3-$5/year I'm likely to have a lot of e-subscriptions.  If that's the case, I may not want that all-encompassing e-mail in item #1; instead, I could just provide keywords, company names, industries, etc., that I want links to stories about in those e-mail messages.
  3. A fully searchable archive.  Give me access to everything you've got.

If this service suddenly appeared tomorrow I'm quite certain I'd sign up for at least 10-12 e-subscriptions.  These are subscriptions that don't reach me in any format today, so it's all new income for those publishers.

So why would these magazine publishers want to compromise their pricing model and offer me this content for $3-$5 when they can get print subscribers to pay much more?  First of all, wouldn't they prefer to get something from me rather than nothing?  It's not just the $3-$5/year they're getting, btw.  Let's not forget the advertising income they'll generate when I click through to their content.  Also, I'd be totally fine if they wanted to capture all my click-thru's and sell my trends/habits to any advertiser or other party; yep, I've never had a problem with that whole privacy issue, especially if it saves me a few bucks.  There are probably other ways they could monetize this that I'm not thinking of, but you get the picture.

So what's the risk?  There's no doubt the magazine publishers would fear that all their print subscribers would convert to e-subscriptions.  Heck, I know I'd do that on one or two of my existing print subscriptions, especially if it meant cutting the cost this significantly.  But then again, I'm probably going to let those subscriptions lapse anyway, so they're about to get zero revenue from my household before too long (e.g., Sports Illustrated).  There are several magazines that I'd prefer to keep a print subscription for though.  Oh, and let's not forget that I'm likely to find one or more of these e-subscription products so attractive that I wind up converting them into...drum roll please...print subscriptions!  Yes, it's quite possible.

I don't claim to be an expert in the magazine business and I'm sure I'll hear all the arguments about how the CPMs for print are far better than online, but still...  If your business is shrinking you need to start experimenting with other product/revenue models before it's too late.  You can cling to those wonderful print CPMs and higher print subscription rates right to the end (and watch some upstarts swoop in and give customers what they really want).


Brad V.

Hi Joe! Interesting post. I only receive one magazine subscription now and I love it. Call me old fashion, but I still love getting stuff via snail mail.

But I also see your point. A lot of the information I receive nowadays is via the internet (I subscribe to lots of blog feeds, yours included). If the magazine I subscribed to offered an online version of the subscription, I'd seriously consider it - especially if it can save me some money.

I think as time goes on and people become more comfortable with reading digital content on their computers, more e-subscription services will pop up. Wouldn't it be great to easily manage all your subscriptions from one website?

Great post! Thanks!

Joe Wikert

Hi Brad. Thanks for weighing in. You're taking my idea one step further and it's even more interesting. Your model is similar to what Apple did to the music business. There's no device dependency in this case, but it seems the door could be open for a third-party to create a platform from which all these e-magazines could be subscribed to and managed from. It wouldn't surprise me one bit to see Google step in and build something like this, especially with their laser focus on building next generation advertising tools.

Steve Tiano

I have to agree with Brad–maybe not so much that I like getting snail mail; but that I prefer to read a physical magazine. And what if e-subscriptions got so popular that publishers decided to move books that way, too? Although I'm enjoying the hell out of reading Jon Evans’ Beasts of New York that way, I don't think my eyes'd want a steady diet of reading long pages of stuff online.

Michael A. Banks

I still like certain content in hardcopy form: fiction (as in Analog, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and others) and Popular Science, perhaps because I've been reading it in hardcopy since 1960.

Hardcopy computer magazines and car magazines, as well as most of the "men's" magazines are too cumbersome and ad-packed. Their contents are better online.

What I really want from most magazines are archives. Access to all the back issues of Time and The Saturday Evening Post (the latter complete with graphics), and a few other pubs isn't enough--I want them all!

Anthony S. Policastro

Hi Joe,
I agree with you about an e-subscription, but there are times that I like reading a paper copy of my favorite magazine and that is usually when I'm eating breakfast or relaxing on my deck. I often cart my laptop around with me, but sometimes it's not always convenient to read a magazine that is completely online. I think when someone designs the perfect digital reader (Sony has a decent one on the market, but many people are not totally satisfied with its performance and features)then we will see a quantum leap into online only subscriptions.

Simon Owens

I just recently subscribed to the print edition of The New Yorker, mainly because I love that magazine more than any other and I wanted access to the few feature articles they don't publish weekly online.

They have a great publishing model of holding some content for the print-only edition.

The only thing is, now I try not to read any of their articles online because I feel like I wouldn't be getting my money's worth in my print subscription. So I read my other blogs and magazines during the day and save The New Yorker for nights and weekends.

Joe Wikert

Interesting points from everyone. If anything, it only proves how different all our tastes and preferences are. But, keep in mind that what I'm suggesting isn't intended to replace the print experience. Again, if you really like your print subscription you'd keep it, as I'd plan to do with a few of mine. But there are some that I'd simply prefer to switch to e-subscriptions for and others that I'd like to try out as e-subscriptions.

Alice Rutyens


I used to subscribe to a lot of magazines and now I subscribe to none.

But my magazine collection is easily ten times what it used to be. Why? Because I have begun collecting vintage magazines. And I'm so shocked by the difference in quality. Not the layouts or design per se, but the actual CONTENT. ...

My old copies of Esquire, Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, Ladies Home Journal, etcetera, are just LOADED with great fiction. Ten minutes reading one and you'd agree that things have gotten pretty dumbed down. Today, I don't know what magazine you'd even BUY to find a dozen short stories in them. I'm sick sick sick of the "sassy" or "edgy" kind of vibe that new magazines continually foist over on us, as if every piece of fiction has to be full of crudeness and swearing and graphic sex scenes to make us read it. And then there's the Saturday Evening Post, which exists in name but in actuality it's this weird new age senior health thing now.

So ... my answer is, if magazines began to print smart fiction I'd buy and read them. Come to think of it, if web-zines began to publish smart fiction, I'd read them, too ...


Joe Wikert

Thanks for weighing in, Alice. You bring an entirely different interest and perspective to the discussion. My magazine interests are all focused on more time-sensitive content (e.g., tech and news magazines). It's interesting to hear the significant quality difference in the old vs. new magazines you're talking about. I can't say that same quality issue exists in the ones I read, but then again, it's been awhile since I've flipped through a vintage tech magazine.

Wayne C. Long

Alice mentions her hunger for smart subscription fiction on the Internet.
Well, Alice, click on over to for some of the coolest short stories you've ever read. There's even a free sample and a Pay-Per-View feature to wet your reading appetite!
What's more, from now until December 31, 2007, you can buy one subscription and get a FREE GIFT SUBSCRIPTION for that favorite someone!

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