There is no doubt that the physical distribution channel for magazines in the US is in major crisis. In the last month some of the major distributors have pulled out of the market, and it is now being reported that circulation of consumer titles through news stands collapsed in the second half of 2008. Audience Development offers an Analysis:

In the last week the fragile newsstand distribution system has essentially broken down. Two of the four major wholesalers have, in effect, exited the business. Publishers and the remaining wholesalers are scrambling to pick up the scattered pieces. If this wasn’t enough, the recently released second-half 2008 ABC and BPA newsstand sales data revealed (based on a preliminary analysis) that the unit sales of audited publications fell a devastating 14.9 percent and the revenue declined a record 6.7 percent.

The story behind the dysfunctional newsstand distribution business is so convoluted that it makes Tim Geithner’s stimulus plan explanation seem clear by comparison. But regardless of its complexities one thing is sure—there is plenty of blame to go around for the collapse of the distribution channel. It includes wholesalers seeking massive unilateral price increases and a ranting former channel partner that apparently would rather sue than try to find a reasonable solution. Equally culpable are the publishers and their National Distributor representatives that have allowed, largely for competitive considerations, channel conditions to reach these devastating proportions.

The system is very broken, and a major part of the problem is that the news stand sales for magazines (and for newspapers) have been barely profitable, even loss-making for years. News stand sales matter much less for the dollars and dimes that are generated from circulation, than for the way they build an audience for print-based advertising. Magazines that sell for a dollar or two on the news stand generate negligible revenue for the publisher (‘returns’ from unsold stock run at roughly 50% – -consider the cost of that). So this crisis in news stand sales comes just when the advertising market is already falling fast.

There is no quick and easy solution, but there is a solution and building digital subscription revenues and digital circulations has to be a key part of the response of the magazine industry. The British consumer magazine has not become as over-dependent on advertising as the American market, but it is suffering from the same general malaise. Advertising revenues are slowing fast and revenues from subscriptions and news stand circulation have been neglected in recent years. Obviously digital subscriptions can now play a key part in rebuilding the audience and generating profits from circulation.