If you told me twenty years ago that I would be paying attention to the latest report by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the organization charged with computing the number of subscribers and other data for magazines and newspapers, I would have said you were one pocket protector shy of being an insane accountant. After all, who the hell cares, right?

It turns out that I care. A lot.

Although some of the figures put out today and seen in detail here are to be expected, some are bit more alarming.

Single copy sales from newsstands is tanking for most publications. One need look no further than the celebrity obsessed People magazine dropping 18.6% in year-over-year sales. And that comes at a time when our society has gone ballistic in anointing everyone (alligator wrestlers, tattoo artists, storage bin owners, repo men, and the quintessential lazy, collagen lipped housewives) a celebrity. In other words, it sure doesn’t look good for newsstand sales if People is plummeting.

There’s a continuing decline in print subscriptions overall. What that translates into, of course, is a continuing cycle of constriction for magazines still slugging it out in the, ahem, old fashioned print world. Constriction in terms of assignment volume, rates, fees, and any other means by which less money leaves the mag’s ledgers. But there are a few bright notes, even if we are using the word somewhat liberally. Consider AARP The Magazine, the obvious monthly of choice for the retired set. It grew a almost negligible .6%, but in a era of double-digit drops in readership, that number can be interpreted as a nearly double-digit gain. With over 22 million readers, the magazine managed to add a few hundred thousand in year-over-year analysis.

Similar good news filled the offices of Family Circle. Yes, you remember Family Circle, the magazine your grandma brought to the beach in the 50’s. Seems it’s still relevant, having posted a 7% gain in paid subscribers. The biggest gain was by the magazine that your teenage son probably has in his bedroom. No, not that magazine (do they even publish those dirty old mags anymore?). I was talking about Game Informer Magazine. What? Never heard of it? Me either, but I wonder if they assign any shoots or just have anime of video game heroes gracing their pages because it grew a whopping 37.2%. Go figure…….

On the other side is the digital growth. Pulling straight from the report, “For this period, 258 U.S. magazines reported more than 5.4 million digital replica editions (paid, verified and analyzed nonpaid). This accounts for approximately 1.7 percent of the total circulation. Digital replica magazines more than doubled from the first half of 2011 when 232 magazines reported approximately 2 million digital replica copies or less than 1 percent of the total industry.” Now, the way I see it, growth is growth and the digital magazine market, though still relatively anemic, is growing! The fact that digital magazines are doubling in volume (not subscribers) makes it abundantly clear that publishers are banking on the new platform as print continues gasping for life.What’s the significance? The need to license and maintain a fair standard for shooting/licensing images for digital magazines.

The desire from the publishers is mostly to count the digital publication as the little brother to the print. This perspective is identical to how the magazines and newspapers first saw the web in the 90’s. And the desire to give the content way on the web for free back then was the first deadly step on a path of destruction for print publications. Publishers learned from that and many have instituted pay walls and digital subscription models to stay relevant in the rapidly changing industry where mobile is now king. As a photographer (aka content provider), it’s important that we understand the reach of the digital magazines which, as today’s ABC report indicates, are growing. We need to factor in the subscription or circulation of digital models much as we have for print in the past when calculating licensing and assignment fees. If photographers fall victim to the belief that the digital magazine is nothing but a sidekick, we will be further eroding the ability to earn assignment/licensing revenue from them later as they grow into the main publishing platform.

A beacon of light did appear toward the end of the report. Recently, I was fortunate to work with the fine editors and designers at Costco Connection, the monthly magazine provided for free to Costco Wholesale warehouse members. The shoot of Sir Ken Robinson, a expert speaker, innovator and educator who proposes totally revamping education, graces the August, 2012 cover of Costco Connection. So, when I saw the audit bureau ranks the magazine as the top, nonpaid magazine with over 8 million subscribers, I was thrilled. I knew it had a large circulation base, but 8 million is a whole lot of people who saw my work! For that I am grateful.

(Please contact me for licensing requests of Sir Ken Robinson)

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