Print is dead, right? Readers have moved on to websites, social media, tablets, smartphones – and yet a core of print publications still exist. So how are the UK’s magazine giants keeping their brands alive?
Earlier this year, figures from the Audit Bureau of Certification showed that monthly sales of specialist games magazines fell by 55,000 in 2011.
And with a comparatively quieter release slate this year, few surprises in the way of blockbuster game announcements and next to no word on new home consoles, the press has been hard pushed to put anything on the cover that will help issues retain existing readers.
As a result, 2012’s half-year ABC figures – which publishers these days avoid disclosing – are all but guaranteed to show further decline.
But that’s nothing new right? Surely, the extinction of the media world’s paper dinosaurs is long overdue now that the majority of avid gamers seek their news online or on smartphones and tablets?
Even former Future publishing director Simon Maxwell admits plummeting magazine readerships are unsurprising.
“It’s to be expected as people’s shopping habits continue to change,” he says. “There are less people on the High Street, which means we have to reach those people via digital channels. For the majority of publishers this is purely through a website. However, for us the web is only one part of the equation.
“In the UK, Future has managed to completely offset its print decline with digital growth.
“We have achieved this by building proprietary software, FutureFolio, which is an Apple-approved wrapper that allows us to create not just flat PDF versions of our magazines but fully interactive editions such as Edge and Total Film.
“Both of these products showed a 70 per cent increase in sales as a result of becoming interactive.”
Indeed, Amazon recently claimed that it now sells more digital books than physical ones – it stands to reason that magazines will follow suit.
That’s not to say the UK’s games media has lost all hope for print. There are publications that buck the trend, that still pull in tens of thousands of readers every month – and no one can afford to neglect an audience of that size.
“If you produce a high quality magazine, often readers will stick with you, and that’s certainly the case with titles like Retro Gamer, which has seen its circulation increase by 12 per cent this year,” says Imagine Publishing’s managing director Damian Butt.
“Where we are seeing print declines, we are managing them closely and at the same time improving efficiencies, building companion digital circulations and ensuring that we don’t hasten any decline by dropping quality or penny pinching.”
A prime example of how Imagine is adapting its games portfolio is the recent merger of its X360 and 360 magazines – a business move that was in response to “a quiet Xbox games market”, according to Butt.
Similarly, Future’s PSM3 and Xbox World are all but identical in terms of content. Essentially, they are one magazine sold as two, but with format-specific features tailored to each title’s audience.
However streamlining your portfolio isn’t enough. Media firms must be constantly on the lookout for growing trends, changes in consumer spending habits and unique platforms that lend themselves to print brands.
Maxwell says: “New publishing models will emerge and our products are evolving to see how we can either hold volume or retail sales value. We constantly test price and promote to see how our consumers react, as we try to maintain print circulations.
“I think we will see continued decline in the market and if you have a one-dimensional business that is focused purely around print, then you are going to find the next year a tough one.
“Although magazines are not going to disappear, in my opinion there will be fewer around and only those brands that are operating on multiple formats will see it through the next 12 months.”
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The number of magazines made available digitally has exploded over the past year as more consumers gravitate towards tablets and eReaders. But that doesn’t mean downloads are the perfect solution.
“Don’t jettison everything you’ve worked for in favour of digital at the first sign of trouble,” warns Butt. “Digital publishing is fantastic, make no mistake about it, but it’s not a substitute business yet.
“If you start slashing paper quality, badly redesigning print magazines so that they look better on tablets, and slashing editorial teams, you’ve only got yourself to blame when the core of the company collapses before digital has come of age.”
That coming of age is closer than some would think. Digital readerships are growing, as are the revenues they generate, fortifying downloadable issues as the most stable future for magazines.
“Between Apple’s Newsstand launch in October and May of this year, Future generated over £3m of revenue through digital magazines,” says Maxwell.
“And this is still growing as more iPads and iPhones come onto the market. We’re also well placed to take advantage of other tablet platforms as they come on stream.
“We are in the process of showing advertisers the incredible possibilities within the medium, as it offers far bigger opportunities than purely print or online if advertisers are prepared to be creative.
“Flat PDF versions will only get you so far and our sales figures and research prove that in key markets the consumers expect a much greater degree of functionality and emersion.”
So magazines are not extinct yet. Brands like Edge, Retro Gamer and Future’s Official magazines are too popular to disappear completely, but it’s not yet clear what form they will take in future.
What is clear is that the monthly publications we know face difficult times in the years ahead. All they can do is adapt and prepare for a digital future.