Doing something new is the Real test

H Bauer’s attempt to diversify from women’s weeklies seems to be in trouble. It wouldn’t be the first publisher to get its fingers burned

German publisher H Bauer seems to have taken a hit with its fortnightly glossy Real, after it stepped beyond its usual successful strategy of aiming weekly titles at the lower end of the women’s market.

Launched less than a year ago with an ambitious print run of 900,000, Real is slashing its cover price from £1.50 to £1 and changing format – from perfect-bound to saddle-stitched – in a move upmarket.

Press buyers are predicting that the next ABC figures will reveal a disastrous dip in Real’s sales – alarm bells started ringing as soon as the revamp was announced. Results are due on February 14.

Last year, Real issued a publishing statement showing sales of 360,000, which already suggested Bauer was struggling with this foray outside its familiar market. By comparison, the company’s Take a Break title sells more than 1.2 million copies every week (Audit Bureau of Circulations, January to June 2001).

Industry experts say that Real introduced not only a new “upmarket” title to readers, very unlike Bauer’s mass-market magazines, but also a confusing magazine hybrid.

A media buyer says: “The problem with Real is that it is a fortnightly title with the glossy format of a monthly and the editorial content of a weekly. It ends up both confusing and alienating readers. Real launched, alongside InStyle and Glamour, into a market which was already catered for by the likes of BBC’s Eve and EMAP’s Red.”

Another industry insider says: “Real has been an obscene waste – it launched with a 900,000 print run and it now has a circulation of only about 180,000. Bauer has found it difficult breaking out of its weekly mould – Real still feels so like a weekly.”

But Bauer is not the only publisher to venture outside its profitable comfort zone. Two years ago, the National Magazine Company (NatMags), publisher of monthlies Cosmopolitan and Esquire, used its acquisition of Gruner & Jahr’s titles as a stepping stone into the world of weeklies. However, the move has yet to pay off and critics have questioned whether NatMags can cope with the pace of the weekly market. According to the latest ABC’s, Best’s circulation declined by 5.2 per cent year on year.

Contrary to industry opinion, NatMags claims that the G&J acquisition has proved to be a “stonking success” for the company. A spokeswoman for NatMags says: “We are in a rapidly changing market and no magazine publisher can afford to stick to a single genre. The sales figures for our weekly titles are good and we relish being in that market. I don’t think there have been any massive cultural upheavals within the company.”

Talking of Real, Bauer publishing director Louise Newton says that the magazine’s new format, as the “first women’s fortnightly glossy lifestyle magazine in the UK” will reinforce the message that Real is a magazine to be read and not simply flicked through.

But Bauer’s price cut, or “price promotion” as the company likes to call it, might not go down well with the industry. The profits from a cover price are divided between the publisher, distributor, wholesaler and retailer and any decrease will hit everyone’s pocket.

MediaVest media communications director Nigel Conway says that, although it makes sense for publishers to stick to what they do best, they cannot stop publishing new titles just because they fall outside their current speciality: “What these publishers do best is publish magazines. Size matters, even more so during an economic downturn and the bigger players can take bigger risks. The closure of direct shopping title PS, for instance, didn’t really damage Dennis Publishing, which has a strong presence in the IT market, but the loss of John Brown’s Bare magazine must have hurt.”

PS was Dennis Publishing’s first foray into the women’s market and closed down less than a year after its launch. Bare, John Brown’s wellbeing magazine launched in August 2000 and closed a year later. This followed the sale of the company’s consumer titles, including Viz, to I Feel Good, allowing John Brown to focus on its contract portfolio.

Dennis marketing director Kerin O’Connor says that there always will be some sectors where magazines will be more susceptible to failure. He defends PS, however, saying: “PS delivered a good set of ABCs for us and it was an innovative magazine, not just a shadow title.”

Future managing director Colin Morrison says that innovation is risky even at the best of times, and for the biggest publishers. However, he is upbeat about the magazine market and maintains that the industry is not sleeping but simply resting its eyes, waiting for an economic turnaround before announcing new launches. Future, which has built up a reputation in the technology and Internet sectors, had its fingers burnt with some of its consumer titles. Last year it shut down six titles – including DC-UK and Video Gamer – following a disappointing set of ABCs.

Whether Real has a future will be determined by time and very possibly the next set of ABCs. They could prove a bitter-sweet Valentine’s gift indeed.

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