Niche titles the answer in a tightening market

The recent number of magazine closures suggests the market has seen the last of the boom years, at least for the time being. The only thing publishers can take comfort from is that size does not matter – large or small, every publishing house has had to face some harsh realities.

Five years ago, ailing titles would have been subsidised by their more profitable sister titles within a company, as it was seen as a sign of competitive weakness to close a “brand”. Not so now.

The talk of potential recession has no doubt fanned the flames, but as the market has become fiercely competitive the major publishers are being challenged by an increasing number of new players.

The current “downsizing” in the market has, and will lead to a lower-risk launch policy from publishers. Cabal’s announcement to delay its eagerly awaited launch of Crime Weekly is a further indication that it’s now imperative to get the formula completely right from issue number one.

Consumers don’t stay with launch titles if they do not deliver. Advertisers and agencies want firm guarantees of performance and are not prepared to accept poor sales.

The market appears to be taking two directions. For the established players it’s now about creating highly focused titles which fill the gaps in their current portfolio.

The general acceptance is that creating and sustaining large, mass-circulation publications is becoming a lot tougher, and over-promising the market will only lead to trouble.

The potential market size is also finite; just because there are more titles in the market does not mean circulation for that sector will expand. Of course there will be exceptions to this, but even the very best performers will end up taking share from their nearest competitor.

The larger publishers are probably best placed to exploit the niche title concept. A good example is EMAP, which seems to have a very clear strategy for keeping readers inside its camp. The launch of Red last year was a prime example of giving its readers somewhere to “move up” to, instead of losing them to the competition or the magazine market altogether. EMAP also recognises if something is not right, you have to make way for a new product – Neon being the latest EMAP casualty.

The less established publishers have a much tougher call. For them it’s more about what I would call disposable magazines – titles which are given either a very short shelf-life of say two to three issues, to establish a foothold. Or they might start as one-off test titles to assess market demand. In a boom market these publishers can flourish, but when the economy looks doubtful, support for this approach is limited. The good news for publishers is that most advertisers and agencies are now more receptive to lower volume, more focused products. What they want is consistency of editorial, and not a roller-coaster ride.

The next 12 months are going to be testing for the industry and it looks likely there will be further casualties, as publishers continue to re-evaluate the market potential for each of their titles and target sectors.

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