October 31, 2013 Last Updated 2:18 pm

Publisher’s statements show magazines with digital editions have something to celebrate

Data shows naysayers are jumping the gun and missing the whole picture when it comes to digital editions and overall circulation

When you have been in publishing for 30+ years you tend to get a bit cynical and to all-too-often let your snark flow out when reading the remarks of magazine executives and trade association managers. But my own natural negativity is nothing in comparison to the media observers who look at the latest AAM reports and instantly conclude that digital editions are just not cutting it. Digital circulation remains, it is said, a microscopic portion of overall circulation.

The critics are wrong for two big reasons.

seo_cw_productAudit reports and publisher’s statements reflect only a small portion of the digital publication universe – and an increasingly shrinking portion. Each week, more and more digital-only magazines are launched into the Apple Newsstand and online. In addition, many of the most popular digital publications inside the App Store come from new players that are not, as yet, choosing to have their readership audited by a third party – The Magazine, TRVL, The Loop Magazine, and others.

But, just as importantly, one can not look at a single set of circulation numbers and come to an understanding about what is occurring with publishers, tablet owners, and the way all this will be reflected inside the audit statement.

To get a better picture of what the numbers really look like, I looked at six major magazines in the space. Each of them is a popular title and with the exception of one magazine, has been a popular Newsstand title, as well. The Hearst and Condé Nast titles Cosmopolitan, Esquire, GQ, Vanity Fair and Wired seemed as good as any to look at. I suppose The New Yorker or other titles could have been chosen, but these five seemed to work for me. The other title is the Wine Spectator, a magazine that doesn’t really work on tablets because of its size, and because it comes from a publisher less eager to jump into tablet editions.

Looking at statements that go back to June of 2010, four years in all, one sees that only Cosmo had any significant digital circulation in their June 2010 statement. As these statements reflect the six months prior to the release date, it covers a time when the original iPad was launched, but do not include any app circulation at that time. Cosmo, it turns out, was already doing very well with its Zinio replica edition, which it was selling in combination with other titles.

The iPad is the dominant player, because the volume is there. What Barnes & Noble and Amazon figured out early was the 7-inch screen. Our men’s products did well on the 10-inch iPad, but our women’s products did not. – David Carey, Hearst Magazines

Each of the other four titles, who today are inside the Newsstand, were selling less than 20,000 digital copies a month in 2010. In fact, 2011, in turns out, probably is as good a year to use as a base, as none of the magazines make a major jump in digital circulation in their June 2011.

But there is a big change in the language found in the statements: starting in 2011 Zinio stops getting credit for the digital readership and instead the language reads like this: “The digital edition is available via a growing list of digital edition storefronts and is able to be read on numerous tablets, smart phones and e-reader devices.”

The 2012 statements are where, for the very first time, we see a jump across the board as Wired, GQ and the others suddenly appear to have significantly growing digital readership to report. That means that 2013 is only the second June cycle for major consumer magazines that are reporting through AAM.

The Wine Spectator does not even register any digital circulation until the June 2013 statement – and, no surprise, it is due exclusively to Zinio. That means that, as of today, that magazine publisher is two years behind.


When you look at overall circulation, the publisher’s statements show that none of the six titles here have significantly changed their rate bases – each title is distributing the same number of copies over the past four years to back up their rate cards. But with a growing percentage of the circulation now in “replica editions” – the AAM definition of a replica – a somewhat smaller portion of the overall circulation is through a printed edition.

Media observers may believe that five to ten to fifteen percent of overall circulation in digital formats is insignificant, but I doubt the executives sweating over their P&Ls do. But the chart above shows that there is serious momentum towards digital distribution, though we will need another year to see if the trend continues or whether the bumps in digital numbers is solely the result of newly launched Newsstand and Google Play editions.

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