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Why 2010 is a great year for print

30 December, 2009 (19:02) | branding, social media | By: Shannon Clark


2010 is a great year for print.

I have been thinking about print in the age of the web for a long time, earlier this year I thought about (and still may) starting a print publication of my own, tbnl magazine, but three items from the past week really struck me as to why I think 2010 could, contrary to most opinions, be a great year for print.

Item 1: McSweeney’s Panorama.

Item 2: a gift subscription to the amazing cookbook series from The Canal House

Item 3: podcasts from the best new magazine of the decade, Monocle.

Item 4 (bonus): a whole bunch of innovative print examples especially from the comics industry but also from other places  in the past few months – DC Comic’s Wednesday Comics series in broadsheet newsprint among others as is Andrew Sullivan’s recent self-published book of photos from his reader’s windows.

Item 1: McSweeney’s Panorama

Panorama is a huge experiment in what can still be done in the broadsheet, newspaper format. All told it is 320 pages of newsprint (w/two magazine inserts) as well bonus posters and other materials. Approximately 350,000 words, 218 contributors, 10 sections, 120 broadsheet pages, 22 comics, 3 posters went into the publication.

In a very fascinating insert to the publication, McSweeney’s details the overall costs for Panorama. They had a print run of 20,000 copies at a per unit printing cost of $5.57. With just one part-time ad sales person (first time McSweeney’s has taken ads) they sold $61,000 worth of advertising from a combination of local & national advertisers. Their unit costs factoring in editorial & art expenses as well as printing costs were $7.98/unit.

Their payments to contributors was about $40,000.

All told they published Panorama with a total direct capital of about $235,000, most of which they expected to recoup on the first day of selling Panorama (~1500 copies sold at $5/copy, 18,500+ at ~$16/copy)  when they expect to net about $300,000. Along with the $61,000 in ad sales that means a rough expectation of around $170,000 in profits. This is likely a bit high as the few 1000 copies sold in retailers would have some margin for those retailers.

I have not yet finished my copy of Panorama – indeed so far I have just skimmed it, read a few articles and took in the overall design and layout. There are many sections I think are exceptional and many which I think fall a bit short – the magazine background of many of the contributors shows with many pages and sections reading more like an enlarged magazine than a newspaper (specifically they rarely if ever have multiple stories on the same page – a design model common in newspapers but uncommon in magazines)

That said the overall process which McSweeney’s demonstrated with Panorama shows that there are still the mechanical and structural elements capable of publishing an amazing example of newsprint publication (as well as supplemental magazines) including much of the distribution all at costs which could be manageable for a small team to publish on a regular basis – likely with a higher print run than 20,000 copies, fewer pages, fewer special inserts and thus a far lower per unit printing costs (and also editorial costs).

In short McSweeney’s is demonstrating that there could be a future for newsprint if groups of creative people come together to explore it. A future which would probably be far more niche than today’s dailies but less niche than small local neighborhood weekly papers. The Onion is, perhaps, an example of what this future could look like – a niche paper with a mix of national and very local content and so strong of an advertising base that they give the paper away for free.

Item 2: The Canal House cookbook

My sister and brother-in-law (well technically they aren’t married but have been living together for a very long time and just days ago had my niece) gave me a subscription to The Canal House cookbook as a holiday present this year. Eventually the website may be a great resource for foodies, but for the moment the focus is the self-published cookbooks with plans for 3 cookbooks a year.

The books are $19.95 each or you can buy (or gift) a subscription for three issues for $49.95.

The physical design of the books is beautiful, one of the two woman behind The Canal House is a world renowned food photographer and co-founder of Saveur Magazine. Prior to The Canal House her photography had been a part of many other successful cookbooks.

They could have probably sold a traditional cookbook to a traditional publisher. Instead they have decided to self-publish.

So why do I think The Canal House illustrates the future of print?

To start, consider the economics. Every 1000 subscribers they sign up for the three book series represents $50,000 in revenue.

What about the costs?

They print each cookbook in China, so are likely not using a print on demand service, thus they do have to balance inventory and print runs, but here are some rough estimates:

– per book printing costs: $5-7/book ? (I suspect this may actually be on the high side though their book is full color)

– shipping costs $5-10/subscription (my subscription included the first two books shipped in one package for a cost of $3.16 + the shipping envelope)

Say that the total (rough) costs for a three-book subscription are $30 for printing, shipping & packaging. That means $20/subscription profit or $20,000 per 1000 subscribers.

Very few authors get advances which are more than $100,000, in fact very few get advances which are more than $50,000. The Canal House has two co-founders so any advance would have to have been split between them.

Doing it all by themselves if they sell 10,000 subscriptions they will, roughly, net $200,000 in profit or $100,000 per co-founder.

If they sell more than 10,000 (or if my cost estimates are high) they will make far more.

And very likely, given how great the first two cookbooks are, they will see many subscribers renewing for future subscriptions. So instead of negotiating a new book deal each year (very few publishers would have expected to get three books from a set of authors in a given year) they are building a business which will be sustainable for years to come.

I think there are likely dozens (perhaps 100’s) of other food authors as well as active food blogs/communities who could adopt a similar, print driven revenue model. Take the best articles, the best recipes from a given period of time and print them along side of tested recipes and beautiful photography and sell them. Ideally mostly via a subscription model which allows you to very closely estimate the print numbers you need in advance of actual printing (allowing you to negotiate with the printer and take advantage of volume discounts, per unit printing costs go down very quickly with volume).

My sister’s boyfriend, Peter Meehan recently published a major cookbook (Momofuku w/David Chang). They went the more traditional route with a major publisher, a large advance and a well supported and well attended press tour. Their hard work has been rewarded with a cookbook that cracked the top 100 on Amazon (as high as #32) and which will likely sell out the initial print run of at least 50,000 books (for a $40 book – yes that’s $2M at full retail pricing).

However they are by far the exception – a cookbook by a non-TV chef rarely sees numbers anything like what they are seeing.

Most cookbook authors, like the vast majority of authors of any genre, make fairly little from their writing.

Thus in 2010 I would suggest that any food writer thinking about making a cookbook consider strongly the DIY route enhanced by leveraging the web & social media to generate pre-sales (and/or adopt a subscription model such as The Canal House has) and use that to lower production costs while retaining far more revenue than traditionally received under a usual publisher’s contract.

Of course to do this well requires that you have access to great photographers, editors, writer and recipe editors/testers. Many websites, such as the fantastic Serious Eats would seem well positioned to do just that.

Item 3: The Monocle

I have been a huge fan of The Monocle since I discovered it a bit over a year ago. In a year which has seen many magazines close and print publications around the globe scale back their ambitions and international coverage, Monocle consistently creates a compelling if also hard to summarize global mix of coverage with original reporting from across the globe. The mix of a strong focus on design, combined with global coverage of the world including interviews with world leaders, extensive photojournalism and stories which cover the globe in depth and with richness and depth makes Monocle a long, but very compelling read.

It is also a great argument for the power and value of great design and the print format to tell a compelling story all while also demonstrating a very 21st century business model.

The components of the Monocle business model which, I think, are worth noting as components of the future of print in 2010 and beyond are:

  1. A high value (and equally high priced) monthly print magazine. Monocle has a $12 list price in the US and subscriptions in the US are actually a bit more costly (75 pounds sterling) than buying the magazine at retail – depending on the variations of exchange rates
  2. By focusing on a global audience but with a definite luxury and high design focus Monocle attracts global, luxury advertisers whose advertising budgets are less impacted by economic shifts. Additionally these advertisers seek specific audiences over mass reach.
  3. Monocle has a retail component – with actual retail stores in London and LA as well as an international online store. In the store they sell design collaborations with select companies from across the globe as well as limited edition books and prints. These range from postcards to dining room tables to travel bags. Over the summer they had a pop-up store along the Mediterranean coast as well.
  4. A growing range of audio and video podcasts. Supplementing and enhancing the magazine the Monocle’s online audio and video content is of an exceptionally high quality. Their video series are often sponsored by premier sponsors via tasteful (and short) embedded ads while the regular audio series serve primarily to be an audio discussion of the content of the current and future magazine issues.
  5. Regular special reports and inserts into most of the issues of the print magazine. These special reports on Travel, Aviation and many other topics are both great original content and highly targeted publications which attract specific advertisers who might otherwise not advertise in the regular issues of Monocle.

Monocle may not be an easily duplicated model. It is certainly a high cost, high value publication with editors and reporters across the globe and very likely a very high travel and expenses budget along with very high production value. But at a time when many magazines claim hardship and are closing Monocle stands as a reminder that it is still very possible to build a great (and by all appearances successful) magazine even in the 21st century.

Item 4: Examples of innovative print experiments

Though I have always been a geek and was aware of trends in comics growing up it wasn’t until earlier this year that I started to semi-seriously collect comics. What drew me to comics in 2009 was a combination of new media (podcasts/video podcasts such as iFanboy and Major Spoilers) and an interest in looking at how the comics industry has been responding to the challenges of the 21st century.

What I have found in 2009 in looking at the comics industry is a range of lessons which offer, I think, much to be hopeful about the future of Print in the 21st century and especially in 2010. Yes there are fewer big hit comics (though more than you might expect – with some breakout graphic novels especially manga titles making bestseller lists this year as well as many smaller titles selling out and getting reprinted multiple times).

But beyond questions of volume of sales what I am most encouraged by in observing the comics industry is the range of innovations I see there – with companies large and small exploring different mediums, form factors and many different publishing schedules and business models. The physical products come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, at a range of periods (from “one-shots” to bi-weeklies to monthlies to bi-monthlies, quarterlies etc). In addition to the comics sold in any comics store the industry also has branches selling – very successfully – comics in large bookstores (graphic novels and especially manga) as well as at school book sales around the country (Scholastic sells millions of comics books in such book sales every year – the colored editions of Boned for example sell exceptionally well).

And while there are exceptions, for the most part the comics industry creates physical print products which explore the limits of print. This summer, in a prequel of sorts to what McSweeney’s has done with Panorama, DC published a 12 issue weekly series, Wednesday Comics. Each issue was printed on large format newsprint and told 15 different serialized stories each told one large format page per week. Overall it was a celebration of the history of comics – a return to a classic format which predates the comicbook as we know it today.

A few years ago there was a book published which reprinted the Little Nemo comics from the early part of the 20th century in their original, large broadsheet format. Earlier this year the second volume of those Little Nemo reprints was published, Little Nemo in Slumberland: Many More Splendid Sundays, Volume 2 which is also gorgeous.

As 2009 ends there are many other examples of innovation in print happening. One in particular which I have enjoyed observing the process around is a photo book which blogger Andrew Sullivan published this year featuring a collection of photos from his reader’s windows. To launch the book he put out a call to his readers to pre-commit to ordering the book, in turn this allowed him to place an initial print order of 3000 books sold to those who had pre-committed at the lower price allowed by printing so many copies at once. That print run having sold out, the current books are available as print-on-demand from Blurb for a higher per book price.

A last example of where innovation is happening in print – is in the art print business – 20×200 is an innovative gallery in NYC and website which makes art prints available at prices starting at $20 (200 small format prints of each work are typically made available at a $20 price point). When 20×200 launched they would typically have 200 prints of a work at $20 and 2 prints of the work at $2000. In the past year they have expanded the range of price points and print sizes and now for a given work they may have as many as 4 or 5 print sizes, always in limited quantities. Some works could net over $75,000 or more if all of the prints sell out – as they frequently do.

What makes 20×200 work as with many of the examples I have listed is the curation behind each of these projects. As I noted in 2008 and still believe today the future of media is curation.



Pingback from first look to the future – my hopes for 2010 « Searching for the Moon
Time: December 30, 2009, 8:26 pm

[…] I will likely post a flurry of posts here and on Slow Brand (where I just posted 2500+ words on why 2010 is a great year for print). Some will be looking forward, others will be thinking about the past year (and decade) but to […]

Comment from Shannon Clark
Time: January 7, 2010, 5:50 am

For a real example of microscale newspapers, if you live in the UK check out – will print small scale newspapers at prices starting at 35 pounds – very nice model and I hope one which inspires other printers to try this around the globe

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