Monthly Archives: August 2011

Horticulture and Publishing, part 4

Yesterday, writer Rob Salkowitz offered a very serious assessment of the current expansion by DC Comics into the digital market. He notes that the the comics industry’s current horrible sales are partly due to the logjam imposed by the big companies moving out of newsstand sales into direct sales to comic shops, and the subsequent issues with getting people to deal with the denizens of bad comic shops. (Mr. Salkowitz uses the comparison to Comic Shop Guy in The Simpsons: I’m less charitable, so I simply use the term “Cat Piss Man“.) The move isn’t just an attempt to bypass extensive piracy of comics back issues, but to encourage a new audience that has neither time nor inclination to deal with comic shops, comic conventions, or comics collectors. At the same time, DC and other comics companies can’t afford to tick off its core audience, because if they go as well, it’s all over.

And how does this affect gardening magazines? There’s absolutely no similarity between Green Lantern and Fine Gardening, is there?

If only. Pay attention to what’s going on in the comics business right now, because that’s exactly what’s going to happen to the gardening magazine market within the next couple of years.

Let’s look at the current magazine distribution system. Many regular magazine readers assume that each store carrying magazines deals directly with publishers to get each issue. Instead, a new publisher negotiates with a distributor (these days, usually Ingram Periodicals), and if the distributor agrees to carry the new magazine, solicits orders from participating retailers. Those retailers state that they’d like to carry x copies of the latest issue, and submit their orders. The distributor asks for x copies and parcels them out based on the orders, billing the retailers for a percentage of the cover price. That’s usually half of the cover price, but that depends upon whether the magazine is returnable (able to be sent back to the distributor for credit) or nonreturnable (the retailer is responsible for getting rid of unsold copies). Nonreturnable copies usually get left on shelves for longer, but the return for the publisher is usually much smaller in return. The distributor usually takes about 10 percent of the cover price as its fee, leaving the publisher with a return of anywhere between 20 to 40 percent of the MSRP. That, right there, helps explain why magazines are so expensive these days.

Anyway, in a perfect system, the retailer receives the magazines and puts them up for sale. (Some retailers have all of the placement and organization handled by the distributor, but others have managers whose responsibility is to put up new merchandise and remove the old.) If the magazines sell out early, some retailers will put in additional orders, while others figure that they’ll stick with what they already had. After a predetermined time, usually when the new issue is available, the manager or distributor pulls any unsold copies and sends an invoice or payment for sold issues versus unsold ones. With returnable magazines, the whole magazine may be sent back to the distributor, but often just the front covers are ripped off and sent back to show the retailer had them in the first place, with the rest going into the recycling bin or into the trash. Once the invoice is paid, the distributor pays the publisher its cut, and presumably the publisher uses that money to pay writers and photographers, solicit new content, and print the next issue.

By now, you’re probably thinking “20 to 40 percent? That’s all that’s left? How can the publishers afford to stay in business?” That’s a valid point, and that’s where magazine subscriptions come in. Most magazines these days come with multiple subscription solicitation forms, either “blow-ins” (so called because they’re literally blown into the magazine as it’s being collated) or ones bound with the pages. The idea and fervent hope is that someone perusing an individual copy will see one of those cards, decide “If I can’t get this magazine forever and ever, I’ll shoot myself in the head with a grease gun” and send it off in the mail. To make things easier for the casual peruser, most have that little box reading “BILL ME” so the reader doesn’t have to hunt for a stamp and an envelope for a check or money order. In these enlightened times, that card usually has the magazine’s Web site URL on it, so the reader can get online and make a payment via credit card or PayPal. Along with advertising revenue, subscription revenues are the main source of income for a magazine, because that one-year or two-year subscription means the publisher gets the whole cost of the magazine (usually discounted a bit to make subscribing more financially inviting than buying individual issues) over the entire subscription run. It’s a tough balancing act: offer subscriptions for too long a period, and rising production costs might wipe out any advantage over a five-year or ten-year period. Don’t offer a return for longterm loyalty, though, and the subscription might expire at a time when the customer can’t afford to renew.

The secret to subscriptions is that getting that first subscription is usually extremely expensive compared to renewals. Back in the pre-Web dark ages, companies such as Publisher’s Clearinghouse sold one-year subscriptions to entice new readers, usually at lower prices than anything offered by the publisher. (More than a few magazines died because the Publisher’s Clearinghouse price was so low that customers waited until the company’s annual mailing arrived and renewed that way instead of through the publisher.) Today, while direct solicitation mailings are rare, they still happen, and that’s combined with online specials for the first one to two years. Some magazines actually count on subscribers letting their subscriptions lapse after two years: the only people renewing subs to bridal magazines, for instance, are either industry professionals or crazies who knit disco suits for their cats. Others depend upon collectors: one of the reasons most of the remaining science fiction magazines still in print are in a digest format instead of a regular magazine format is because they’ve been published that way for decades, and many of their subscribers have specially constructed bookcases to store complete runs. (At least, that’s how it was explained to me. I won’t call shenanigans only because it sounds depressingly reasonable.)

Now, the dirty secret of all this is that while many publishers treat their subscribers like hand-spun gold spiderweb, others seem to do their best to drive off their base. You have the ones that send off renewal forms before the customer receives a first issue. You have the ones who mail subscriber copies as much as a month after the newsstand copies go out. (Or, in the case of Chile Pepper magazine last year, one issue went out to newsstands, but subscribers received neither the issue nor an excuse for its absence.) You have the ones that offer all sorts of freebies and incentives for newsstand sales, but bupkis for the subscribers. (I used to both write for and subscribe to one such magazine, and when I brought this up with the assistant publisher, he literally laughed at me for caring. That’s one of many reasons why I wouldn’t write for it again.) You have the ones that beg their subscribers to renew just before shutting down forever and promising refunds “one day”. You have the ones that don’t actually shut down, but go “on hiatus” and continue to take new subscriber money. And then there’s the eternal situation where the subscription solicitation team is a gang of top-notch professionals, but the actual subscription fulfillment and customer service team is a gaggle of bottom-of-the-class English Lit majors who want to work in publishing but don’t want to do anything because they’re not being paid enough to care.

The big promise of E-publishing for magazines is that a lot of these problems disappear. Copies go to E-mail boxes, or URLs to the pertinent files, appear the moment the new issue is available. Standard distribution nightmares, such as hiring companies to ship and mail those individual issues, are gone. The post office is no longer involved. Payment can be made right away over the Web, or deducted automatically from a bank account. Again, that’s the promise.

The reality is that unlike many other magazine genres, gardening magazines are always going to need a print form. This isn’t just to placate the people who get paranoid about having a physical version of a purchase, or for people who don’t want an E-magazine because they’d have to download it via AOL. Many subscribers need print copies to show clients, for cutout material for garden layouts, or so their kids have plenty of colorful photos for art projects. Others, myself included, may end up referring to an article while armpit-deep in potting mix, and a print magazine page covered with peat and water is less expensive than a similarly encoated iPad. The print edition will most likely become a perk, usually offered for an additional fee for the subscribers that want it.

One really nice side to the E-magazine edition, though, is that this suddenly makes the market for back issues more profitable. Some people may remember the long-dead science fiction movie magazine Starlog and its absolutely insane collection of back issues, all of which filled a New Jersey warehouse until a fire about three years ago. Considering the cost of maintenance and fulfillment, you can understand why Reptiles magazine went E-zine with its back issues a while back. (Hence, when people ask me about my article on carnivorous plants in herp enclosures in Reptiles, I can just send them to the link.) All of the reference, and none of the slowly flaking pages of Seventies-era newsprint. The Carnivorous Plant Newsletter already offers all of its back issues on CD-ROM, and this is a publication that’s begging for an additional tablet presence to give its photography a fair view.

And now what remains is a serious discussion on how to reach new readers. Unfortunately, the impression given by many garden magazines of their core audience being (to paraphrase Gayla Trail of You Grow Girl) female retirees with inexhaustible spending money is true. It’s not necessarily with the content, but with the typical placement of the magazines. In standard newsstands, the gardening magazines are all jammed together in the bottom of the display rack (generally known as a “waterfall,” and thank you very much to my old friend Aaron Davis for passing that on), usually under either the cooking or pet magazines. The covers look depressingly alike when clumped that way, and the word “Garden” tends to merge and fuse like something out of a Hunter S. Thompson hallucination. The content may be great, but in this case, you really need some sizzle.

Now, since the rest of the standard magazine market is probably going to crash or mutate in the next five years, let’s go for a change in promotion, rather than a change in covers that just gets horticulture magazines jammed in with High Times and Bound By Ink. (Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, mind you. I’d just like to see more horticulture magazines closer in style to Make or ImagineFX and written for a similar audience.) Everyone in publishing complains about getting younger readers into the habit, so what’s wrong with passing out access codes for one free online issue to grade schoolers at schools with community gardens? How about getting the Future Farmers of America involved in subscription drives? What about giving out cards good for a free online issue at garden centers that carry the print editions, and make a point of noting in that online issue to promote those garden centers? Why not get more botanical gardens and arboretums involved, if only by making a dedicated promotional presence at seasonal events and festivals? If I, an absolute pisher with a background in science fiction publishing, can come up with a good dozen alternative methods to get the word out on horticulture magazines, what could dedicated professionals who want to see their publications survive to the Twenty-Second Century come up with if they really think about it?

Again, this is part of a collection. More observations and suggestions to follow, and I may even attempt some of them myself.

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Horticulture and Publishing, part 3

Okay, enough hinting around. It’s time to discuss an uncomfortable truth about the publishing industry, or at least the side that covers horticulture and gardening. The growth of the big-box chain bookstore both created and metastasized the current dire situation, and the recent bankruptcy and liquidation of Borders only made the situation more noticeable. This discussion will probably infuriate a lot of old-time readers, writers, and publishers, but that’s like stamping your foot in anger at a supernova.

The reality of the matter:

Most horticultural magazines and book imprints aren’t going to survive the next five years A.B.L. (After Borders Liquidation) in their current form.

The horticulture magazine as we know it today probably won’t exist at all in another five years.

The current book and magazine distribution system supplying readers with literature probably won’t exist in its current form in another five years.

Any publisher depending upon its current distributor or audience base probably won’t last the whole five years ABL.

For all of the noise about urban chicken-keeping and the like, making a sudden push for a nebulous “young audience” will probably accelerate any collapse.

Believe it or not, this is the good news.

The reality right now is that you have too many books vying for bookstore shelf space. You have too many books desperately trying to snag the attention of too few readers, and far too many redundant titles competing against each other. That’s just with books in general, of which horticultural and garden books are a subset of a subset that’s lucky to get its own marked subsection in most bookstores. With online sales, not only is everyone drowning in excessive content, it’s that much harder now to tell if a particular book answers a customer’s needs. Bookstore owners and employees understandably complain about their stores being used as Amazon.com showrooms, where customers come in, browse the selection, and buy their selections online. The stores are simply caught in an artifact of the big chain store days, where customers have been trained that if they wait a little bit, they can get the same book for significantly less. This speaks just as much about the decline of discretionary spending in a typical household as in customers not wanting to pay top dollar for a book that may be completely obsolete within five years. In ten years, the idea of people hanging onto huge book and magazine collections due solely to their initial cost is going to be as quaint as keeping music purchases on vinyl.

It’s even worse with magazines, and not just because of the amount of content online for free or damn close to free. The model for magazine sales was that newsstand copies built up enough interest to encourage readers to buy subscriptions, and the subscription money and advertising revenue brought in enough income to pay for printing, production, and administration. Either that, or the magazines ran on the trade publication or weekly newspaper model, where the individual copies were given away for free or at a drastically reduced price in order to get a minimum guaranteed circulation for advertisers. As magazine distributors folded or were assimilated, the number of available venues willing or able to sell magazines kept crashing, until now it’s nearly impossible to buy most print magazines outside of a big-box chain bookstore. At the same time, Borders management in particular encouraged customers to come inside and use the magazine section as a reading library. Some publishers saw actual subscriptions coming in this way, from either the blow-in subscription cards that littered the bookstore floor like autumn leaves or from the constant “Subscribe now!” house ads within the magazines. A lot of others, though, died, especially when Borders followed its usual invoice practice of paying for sold magazines”when we bloody well feel like it”. The current shutdown and liquidation of Borders only accelerated a shell game that was going to fold anyway, sooner or later, and many magazines couldn’t afford to wait upwards of four years for payment for issues long-sold and counted on Borders’s balance sheets. (And that’s with actual sales. Several former Borders employees have related the ridiculous number of magazines with covers ripped off and returned to the distributor for credit, with returns well above 70 percent on many titles. Even with big magazine publishers such as Conde Nast or Time Warner, this sort of expenditure was unsustainable, even if the idea was to get readers who may subscribe at some time in the future.)

With these factors, change is inevitable. Failing magazine publishers can no longer talk about “going on hiatus”, or presume that some rich benefactor is willing to throw away thousands or millions of dollars on supporting a publication that will never be profitable. Oh, it can happen, as with the recent purchase of Newsweek. It’s just not going to happen with the thousands of others. (With the ones whose business plans include either a purchase by an eccentric millionaire or a purchase by a big publishing conglomerate, rotsa ruck. In a few cases, as with one former science fiction magazine editor of my acquaintance who regularly whines about the unfairness of a universe that won’t supply said rich benefactor to keep him employed, the only real response is “Sometimes, very occasionally, the invisible hand of the market is both just and fair.”)

A lot of this change is going to be even more painful than it already has been. A lot of individuals in publishing who have kept gainful employ in the field are going to fight, the way newspapers fought against the Web as being “just a fad,” as one big newspaper publisher put it in 1996. In the last fifteen years, the potential market for newspapers has dwindled to the point where the average reader age is well above 50, and anyone under the age of 20 looks at the idea of getting news and information from a newspaper with the same incredulous awe as the idea of listening to AM radio or using a television with a manual channel selector dial. Books and magazines are going to go the same way, but only if we let them.

In the following collection of essays, I’ll try my best to look at viable options for horticulture publishing, but I’m definitely staying away from the one-fit panacea “We’ll put it online.” E-book and E-magazine publishing is an option, but it’s not the only option. The technoweenie fantasies of Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow, where you give away everything for free and somehow make up the cost in volume, aren’t going to work, at least without other mechanisms available to pay contributors and staffers. Neither is simply saying that publishers need to embrace some nebulous younger market, without talking about how that’s going to happen. I don’t expect to have The Answers, or even some answers. All I want to do is light a fire under a few of the right butts, because I don’t want to see a collapse of my favorite publishers any more than you do.

Horticulture and publishing, Part 2

I’m still revising that observation on the state of publishing and horticultural subjects over the next five years, but the fact that blog writers are getting as much acknowledgment as standard print writers on gardening subjects is something else to be added to the stew. It’s probably seriously premature to assume that we’re going to see a revival of the zine now that e-publishing for tablets makes niche magazine publishing even more plausible and reasonable. However, I can say that existing practices with print magazines are going to have to change. Those magazines are going to need some pretty compelling content to justify paid subscribers getting their copies three weeks to a month after the latest issue hits the newsstands (and yes, Horticulture, I’m looking right at the bottom-of-the-barrel English Lit majors you keep hiring to handle subscription fulfillment). They’re also going to have to pay a lot more for contributors to put up with control-freak editors and “when we damn well feel like it” publishing schedules when said contributors can put the same content on their own blogs and get the same number of readers.

As mentioned before, I don’t expect a return of the zine, for a lot of reasons. I figure, though, that this is a great time for gardening societies and independent nurseries to look at the requirements for E-publishing. Let’s also say that this might be a great time to try something new that wasn’t plausible or sane under standard distribution models, such as

More books

I never want to give the impression that I have an extensive horticulture library. I just find that my collection’s mass is starting to warp space-time. Now it’s time to add some more of Stewart McPherson’s outstanding carnivorous plant guides to the edge of the event horizon:

Right about now, the Czarina worries about my selling body parts for new reading material, especially since I’m still taking notes from Carnivorous Plants and their Habitats, Volume Two in efforts to raise Roridula in Texas. Of course, that’s because she knows that I wouldn’t sell my body parts.

Review: Saikei and Art – Miniature Landscapes by Lew Buller

(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any
conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Saikei and Art: Miniature Landscapes by Lew Buller. Lew Buller, 2005. 178 pp., $39.95 US. ISBN 0-9772443-0-X

The obvious appeal of bonsai lies with its ability to simulate, in a reasonable scale, the incredible variations in trees when stressed by the elements. Most bonsai practitioners work to include the area around the roots, but actual landscapes? For short-term arrangements, the traditional Japanese form of bonkei works well, but the concept of saikei, the art of arranging miniature landscapes for longterm enjoyment, was first displayed and taught by Toshio Kawamoto in 1963. Today, saikei may not be as universally known as bonsai, but in a time when miniature gardens are starting to gain popularity, this is probably going to change.

If the name of Lew Buller rings any bells, it’s probably for his involvement with co-writing Mountains in the Sea: The Vietnamese Miniature Landscape Art of Hon Non Bo, the only English book so far published on Hon Non Bo design and management. His followup book, Saikei and Art, is a compilation of various essays and articles written on the subject for magazines such as Bonsai Today and International Bonsai, combined with new material and followup photographs.

Because of its origins in magazine articles, Saikei and Art has a small problem with jumping around and repeating itself from time to time. This is sometimes aggravated by the unorthodox layout of some sections, where it’s difficult to ascertain where, on a new page, the text starts from the previous page. Some readers may also have issue with the fact that Buller’s landscapes are predominately influenced by his life in the San Diego area, and recreations of Southern California might not jibe with other saikei practitioners’ ideas of arrangements.

Ignore those worries. Any serious miniature gardener, whether formally trained in saikei or not, needs this book in his or her library. Instead following the lead of far too many general horticulture books, where the book goes step-by-tedious-step into allowing readers to make an exact replica of an artist’s project, Buller uses his projects to illustrate the tenets and requirements of saikei, and then encourages readers to go their own way. He dedicates an entire chapter to texture, both in the importance of variety and in continuing a particular theme. In addition, while he understands that each artist’s particular styles may encourage the use of artificial additions such as “mud men” figures, he emphasizes that the focus of a proper saikei depends upon the balance of the complete arrangement, not just on one or two elements. Add one slightly incongruous element, whether a particularly stunning rock or an intriguing figure, and all focus goes to that element instead of to the rest of the landscape. In a diorama, this is a success. In saikei, this is a sign of bad design.

Right now, I’m preparing several large miniature garden arrangements for an upcoming plant show. Before each big show, I gather a series of reference guides to get me into the right frame of mind before starting. I already have such titles as Sheperd Paine’s classic guide How To Build Dioramas and Buller and Lit Phan’s Mountains in the Sea in the pile, and Saikei and Art is going right on top.

Horticulture and publishing, Part 1

The bright side: this was the first birthday in five years where I wasn’t dealing with a photo shoot, a television interview, a newspaper interview, or a medical emergency. (Well, manufactured medical emergency.) The dark side: the aerogel that we laughingly call Dallas air is getting so thick that four months of allergy shots are probably the only reason I’m still alive. The air isn’t too thick to breathe. It’s too thin to plow.

Anyway, one of the benefits of spending a three-day weekend in allergy-induced hallucinations is gaining insane insights into the universe, and having lots of horticulture -related reading material by the bedside definitely helped. This was compounded by being functional enough by Sunday to get up and around, and I decided to test this by visiting one of the local Borders bookstores being liquidated. I’m still concentrating observations and impressions based on what the implosion of Borders entails for the publishing industry, especially the horticulture and gardening components, and they should be coherent enough to share by this week.

One absolute, though, based on multiple visits to multiple putrefying Borders stores over the last six months. When someone finally chronicles the exact whys and wherefores of why Borders went under, I suspect we’ll get a lot of answers to various surreal questions. “Why did so many employees assume that working for Borders was ‘working in the publishing business’?”, for instance, seeing as how you didn’t hear Steak & Ale frycooks insisting they had to stick with a dying company because they wanted to keep “working in the ranching business”. The biggest one I have, though, is what Borders ordering rep was responsible for the company’s incredible selection of marijuana growing guides. Each store’s selection was already famous, and the current liquidation just accents how many copies of The Cannabible must have been stockpiled in the back of each store for years. Was this selection the result of a lost bet, or was someone in the ordering staff in Ann Arbor really, really projecting on their career plans after they left Borders?

Have a Great Weekend

It’s a bit early, but here’s leaving you with a bit of Abney Park. One of these days, I’m actually going to catch a live show: I would have done so a couple of years back when the crew played in Dallas, if not for a medical emergency. It takes real effort for a bad pre-show DJ to drive me from a live show, but the toad blasting Beck’s “Loser” (apparently, his theme song) loud enough to give the Czarina heart palpitations somehow managed to pull it off.