As we head to the end of the first month of the new year I think I’ve now read enough reflection on the past one – all that ‘best of 2018’ stuff, the various lists and all the expert predictions for what’s ahead. It used to be mostly editorial filler but the staggering proliferation of new media channels means there’s now a surplus of opinion on just about everything. I therefore limit myself to a few trusted authorities on music and the tiny handful of sage observers who regularly update us about print stuff. When it comes to magazines it seems there’s much useful discussion about design and subject matter, but it’s essentially always rattling around the same corridors. It would nice if someone opened the door marked ‘What magazine buyers think’.

I’m not talking about ‘feedback’ (How was your experience navigating to this page? What could we do to improve your journey?). God forbid. One of the joys of working in Magalleria is the quality of unsolicited opinion. The people who buy magazines are by and large extremely knowledgeable about them and often fiercely loyal. So, as I look at our shelves and tables on this midwinter day, I notice how many magazines we have purposefully placed out of harm’s way because of their high cover prices. Almost unlike anyone else in this business we buy most of our magazines on a firm sale basis, so if they get damaged it’s our loss. We have a lot of magazines retailing for £18, many over £20 and a record number at around £25. Our favourite interiors magazine landed last week at a new price of £24.95, up from £16.50.

Are magazines becoming more expensive? I don’t know. We’re just retailers in Somerset, not industry researchers. But we now have over 1,200 different magazines in stock at Magalleria and I sense a creep upwards. Obviously Brexit doesn’t help.

Price is important in terms of looking after our constituency. There is another issue, but let’s get this one out of the way. I don’t know how many times a week someone will pick up a magazine and gasp at the price. Most of the time we’re looking at something costing £10 because I think (unscientifically I know) that’s the most common cover price in Magalleria. The problem here is mindset or perception, not price. People assume that magazines are cheap, but they’re thinking about mass market titles such as Vogue or Cosmopolitan – titles that will only set you back a couple of pounds. It’s easy, too, to believe that books offer far better value. I’m of an age where I still think that the average paperback costs around £5, but without silly deal prices a novel isn’t far off a tenner and a non-fiction paperback lurks in the region of £12. These are mass-run, low quality, sadly often single-use objects destined to furnish the charity shop bookshelves of the land (if they have room left), whereas magazines like RakesProgress (£10) or Design Anthology (£7.99) are premium enough to grace your shelves and coffee table for all time. Is there a more extraordinary print publication than Beauty Papers available to buy for only £9? Or a sub-£30 photography book that can compete with Water Journal (£10)?

I’m sensitive to price and intrigued by the vast spectrum of titles that £10 will buy. In the end I don’t think publishers are greedy or in any hurry to burden customers with increasing costs, if these exist. And their customer base is loyal and intelligent; they understand that a quality magazine is a special thing and will look past the cover price. But they’ll also look past something else that seems problematic to me and something that impacts significantly on magazine buyers, and that is the craze for split-run covers. 

This is the provision of different covers for the same magazine. It’s a device that became noticeable in the 1980s and began to really get traction in the 1990s when, interestingly, they were seen as a way to appeal to regional tastes or audience segments. A line follows to more recent times when The New Yorker split its covers between Hilary and Obama to ensure that both the Democratic frontrunners received equal billing.

The magazine cover is part of a design trilogy with book and record covers that’s informed our pop culture literacy from the mid-20th century to the present day. Even in this digital age an arresting cover image is the magazine’s best tool for getting your money. At the outset of this business I was intrigued by the device and it seemed to breathe a little excitement into new releases. 

Today the thrill has gone, or at least I now feel conflicted. As a retailer they provide us a with number of problems, particularly an unnecessary element of choice that opens the door to losing the sale. If we don’t stock the cover a customer specifically wants or simply must have (say, the cover with the Virgil Abloh headshot-in-a-hoodie and not the one that pictures the polymath in his slogan t-shirt, nor the other two) then it becomes a real prospect that they’ll opt to try their luck elsewhere. Frustration is wedded to helplessness, because we generally have no control over the covers we’re sent. All too often we receive just the one variant (Virgil Abloh in his slogan t-shirt) when there may be several available. Once, after a run of single cover deliveries, I requested the full set of four covers from the distributor. They said they would try, but we were eventually informed that we would have to pay a fee to cover the time it would take for warehouse staff to pick them from different storage locations. None of the non-publishing players in the chain are to blame, but we don’t have to be here.

Still, when we do get a full set of covers, or a decent selection, they certainly display impressively and they’re undeniably enticing. We’ve had real fun with several great sets recently. And in truth we can’t complain when a collector or completist walks into Magalleria and buys the lot. But such people are usually strong supporters of print magazines and I truly wonder if it’s right to exploit our loyal community by offering so many extra versions of the same thing. Sports Illustrated ran a football World Cup special that gave an individual cover to each of the 27 squad members. We don’t stock Sports Illustrated but we’ve had V Magazine which frequently publishes multiple covers and often a myriad of collectable editions. When magazines sell out they reprint the most popular covers and charge more for them – the V99 Lady Gaga versions were sold at more than double the original price.

So are split covers a folly? I wouldn’t make that pronouncement, but our customers – those with a strong attachment to specific titles – are feeling the strain of spending more than they can really afford or should necessarily have to. I see their eyes roll as they reach for their wallets (serious collectors are almost exclusively male). 

I like what the The-Art-Form does. This clever art magazine is bound in four distinctive covers by four established artists, each in a limited edition of 300. This imparts a sense of really getting something for your money, it’s in keeping with magazine’s raison d'être, and seems to recapture some of the excitement of the original idea. Last year US photography magazine Aint-Bad divided itself into three distinct volumes themed on the three largest American cities. To buy all three was some way more costly than the regular edition for sure, but you've bagged for yourself a slick and quietly elegant suite of contemporary photographic works. 

This is the kind of perspective we’d like to explore more in 2018.

Daniel McCabe

Magazine retailMagazines