A look behind the scenes at Newsstand and its 4,000 titles
Newsstand is probably the best place to buy magazines in the UK. On top of their brilliant online shop offering thousands of titles to readers, Newsstand is the engine powering fulfilment for a range of magazines that you may be familiar with (Cereal, Lagom, Rakesprogress, Real Review) and even businesses like Stack Magazines.
I've always been impressed with Newsstand's selection and their oh-so-quick delivery (next day if you're in the UK). In this interview, owner David Atkins takes us back to the start of the company, explains how Newsstand has adapted to the rise in independent publishing, and how they can keep their prices low and delivery so fast.
A magazine, in my view, should be something that can handle several sittings, to harness that fuzzy feeling when you skip through articles that you can't wait to come back to later on.
Dan R: Can you tell me about the origins of Newsstand in the mid-nineties? What was the market like back then and what was the trigger that started Newsstand?
David A: Back in 1995, we were the wholesalers for a large part of Kent for all newspaper and magazines into the newsagents. This had been going on since 1898 and was originally started by my great, great grandfather. As you can imagine, the world wide web was a pretty novel and awkward animal in the mid 90's; there was little e-commerce and certainly no magazine subscriptions sold by the UK publishers online. The internet was also about as far removed from the efficient but decidedly un-glamorous process of news distribution as you could imagine.
My father was in charge at the time and he was extremely innovative, deciding that we should engage with this newfangled route-to-market to see where it would lead. I refer to the internet archive as a reminder of how entrepreneurial it was and indeed how badly we were at design (highly limited by the technology though we were).
To think we started at much the same time as Amazon is a source of pride as well as missed opportunity. We didn't really promote or focus on Newsstand until 2009 and it was very much a side project for the business.
DR: You now boast about 4,000 titles in your catalogue, including a large range of indie titles. How many of your current orders are made up of indie mags? Have you seen noticeable growth in sale and/or number of titles being bought in recent years?
DA: We're adding more all the time and as you know, the constant stream of new "indie" titles is great news for the industry. We've been growing sales across the board ever since I started working on Newsstand in 2009, but due to highly evasive skills, we still maintain a convenient lack of pie charts and graphs detailing this. As things stand, it's heads down to keep driving the industry forward in the best ways we know how.
Having said that, I suspect our indie sales are around 10-12% of overall, which is pretty good as they'd be well below that across the industry. This is partly because we have started to work more closely with independent publishers on their fulfilment and promotion, but also because we have been selling single copies online for many years now and this does lend itself to the indie mag consumer.
(It's worth adding that we see a magazine on its own merits; whether it is strictly independent or not is largely irrelevant.)
DR: Newsstand offers—quite uniquely—both single issues and subscriptions of the titles you sell. What's the ratio between the two when it comes to sales figures?
DA: Well, again I have to admit I don't have a firm answer to this but we might not be far off 50/50 I would guess. The single issue market is something that we initiated in 2011. It's interesting because Newsstand was always consumer facing as opposed to working for publishers.
We felt the subscription market had a little too many strings attached for a large swathe of readers and we also knew that the distribution system was, although quite amazing, still very challenging for those publishers not willing or able to pay to be in large retail chains. As a result it wasn't easy for readers to find magazines outside of the top one or two hundred.
That's why we started single issues with first class post, to give customers access to the long tail of UK publishing.
It's been successful and the unique efficiencies we have developed are now, conversely, serving indie publishers very well, I think.
DR: I'm really interested in the fulfilment and logistical part of Newsstand. What happens to an order once it's completed on the website?
DA: The back end systems of Newsstand have been developed ongoing since 1995 (with some rewrites in there too, of course). This has meant that our systems are bespoke and work brilliantly for the vagaries of the magazine supply chain.
Orders can be accepted in several different ways; transactions on the website, imports from Subsail or publishers directly via their e-commerce systems. These, subject to a few caveats and internal settings, appear directly onto our packing platform which is manned for 19 hours each day, allowing the copies to be packed and sorted immediately. The postal sortation we carry out means we can be very cost effective for smaller publishers.
Generally, we will manage their subscriptions and post out their orders more cheaply than they could themselves, so they can simply concentrate on producing the next issue.
We hold stock on around 3,000 magazines at any one time, which means the customer is normally reading their purchase the very next day. We also use the fastest overseas delivery we can; customers are often showing their appreciation from overseas about how quickly their deliveries arrive.
We are thinking about open days to our warehouse; we are tentatively confident we have more "relevant" magazine issues in our building than anywhere else in the world. It would be a wonderful place for magazine enthusiasts to browse!
DR: As we've mentioned, alongside your online shop, Newsstand offers a fulfilment service. What benefits does this bring to publishers?
DA: Publishers are a great bunch, we'd be the first to say, but certainly in the indie sector they need some help with the distribution. It's not often in life you find people blessed with creative gifts alongside the more business orientated angle of distribution. We've been involved in distribution since 1898 and for me since the early 90's, so the company's view on the whole industry is unique.
I'd be fibbing, though, if I said that working with the indies has not been a learning curve for us too. It was originally such a simple idea that has turned into a complex and IT-heavy process. By their very nature, indie publishers have different ideas on how and when their magazines should be delivered; that's what makes things interesting but also a challenge that we have taken on with wide eyes and open minds.
When we started with the indie sector in 2012, we offered something that was innovative and new to the industry. Since then it has been replicated a number of times but I still feel we lead the way and therefore the advantages of using Newsstand still stand.
The main premise is that a single copy online should be viewed in the same way as a subscription, and the process, the data and the pricing should be largely reflected.
It's been quite a push to promote but now it's done, it opens up a whole new segment of readers. If you can take the barriers away from an impulse purchase then you've a good chance of increasing sales. For example, we price single copies with free, next day delivery so we've removed the need for a customer to go off in search of a copy that may or may not be in stock at retail.
Regarding our fulfilment services, its simple for the publisher to set up their issue and the fulfilment is taken care of, with invoicing and reports available for them to track progress. Above all and as alluded to earlier, it's exceptional value for smaller publishers. We also handle retail distribution and we've some exciting developments due this year which we'll be shouting about in due course.
We also have a huge database of customers and their preferred interests thanks to our Concierge concept. What's key to this is that all our customers have paid full price and often postage for their magazines, and as a result its incomparable to the industry norm of a discounted subscribers database with regards to value and sales potential.
DR: What are some of your favourite titles that you see passing through your system at the moment?
DA: I don't have the time to read all those that I'd like to, and I think I have developed a knack in spotting a potentially successful title even if I'm a million miles away from its subject matter...
Schon! magazine has the best fashion photography I have seen, whilst Bloom has a wonderful balance between design, photography and useful content. Yuca is awesome and I make time to read The Idler and Berlin Quarterly. In reality I'm shooting fish in a barrel as we see several hundred magazines every day!
Newsstand currently have a pop-up in Canterbury, UK, bringing some of their thousands of titles to the high street.
If you're a Subsail customer, you can have new orders sent to Newsstand automatically using our Newsstand integration, so they can be sent out the same day ✨