Nor is it getting any easier. The big driver of print sales has for years been subscription models, getting people tied in to regular payments while retail sales provide the extra shizzle on top – extra sales, new customers and so on.
For years that retail trade has been in slow but steady decline. It affects not only their immediate income but also their pipeline to more valuable subscription customers, so the challenge is ongoing.
I bring all this up because I think all of us on some level are consumers of bike industry publications. We all have our favourites, we have the ones we tolerate and the ones we’re really not impressed with but they all serve a useful purpose in getting people drawn in to the cycling world.
The ABC sales figures for magazines were released last week for 2020, a year as challenging to print magazines as it has been for everyone else. I was both surprised and unsurprised by the results.
According to Cycling Industry News, Cyclist Magazine was a ‘winner’, with a circulation of 21,353, an increase of 3.1% year on year. Of these, three quarters or so (15,275) were to subscribers, showing just how valuable those sales are with only 5,972 sales coming from off the shelf sales. A quick bit of math tells you that with a retail price of £5.99 that’s a turnover of just under £128K per issue. That’s… sobering isn’t it? But over a 12 issue year, it’s £1.5m so it’s not to be sniffed at either.
A bigger turnover comes from Cycling Plus, which manages 28,925 sales per month, giving it a turnover of £173K a month or £2.07m a year. Again, a big chunk comes from subscriptions at 19,564 and 9,388 retail sales. What’s alarming is while subscription levels have stayed steady, retail sales have fallen from 17,439 in 2018…
Closer to home perhaps, Mountain Biking UK is at a similar level in terms of sales to Cyclist Magazine, with 21,465 sales per month, of which 14,505 are subscriber-based and just 6,960 are off the shelf. That overall figure has again fallen from 27,382 in 2018.
So the trends are clearly downward in general, but in each case bringing in £1.5m to £2m a year in sales is not small beer. The question of course is profitability and that much harder to determine. Certainly print costs have risen but then it’s fair to say each publication is pushing for more and more digital subscribers. The greater question is a Covid conundrum; was 2020 an accelerant to the future of print sales, or a blip?
One thing is for sure and that is there’s an awful lot of digital competition out there, from riding groups and commenters like the Moles, to some pretty slick outfits. The Pinkbike/Cycling Tips group are bloody good (if you get past their horrible homepages), Flow Mountain Bike in Australia are decent as is the evergreen Bikerumor. Road.cc has a strong and respected niche and even off-road.cc manages to get eyeballs despite being the Grauniad of the digital world and offering relatively lightweight reviews. And then there’s Singletrack; an outlier itself with a loyal following but non-traditional digital offering.
You would think with interest in cycling clearly growing that publishers would be thinking innovatively; for example the Wiggles of this world often hand out packets of Haribo with purchases. They are a little boost to buyers on opening their boxes. Why not throw in copies of magazines – perhaps from the month previous if you have stock, or vouchers to take to newsagents? Or do a deal with physical shops and put a copy in with every bike sold; not to clinch a deal (hardly) but to keep the ecosystem ticking over.
What’s important is bringing new people in to the cycling world. I’m not sure any of that is easy to do without getting magazines – physical magazines – into people’s hands to be passed round, read and re-read or flicked through in newsagents, barbers and so on. Magazines with inspiring stories, glorious pictures and detailed product pictures.
I hope print finds a level where it can continue to contribute because falling sales are of no use to anyone.