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Quality Doesn’t Ensure Success for ‘Best New Magazines’

• March 17, 2010 • 4:24 PM

High quality doesn’t ensure longevity in the tumultuous print magazine industry.

Since 1986, the Library Journal has contributed an authoritative annual compilation of the “Best New Magazines of the Year.” Recent publications lauded include Lapham’s Quarterly , Monocle, BBC Knowledge, World Affairs and, yes, Miller-McCune. Singled out for their overall high-quality, forward-looking ethos and excellent writing and editing, these fledgling magazines had the honorable distinction of getting their first, tentative steps right.

New research, conducted by The College of Saint Rose librarian Steve Black (author of the Journal‘s 2007 and 2008 “Best New Magazines of the Year” column), finds that “high quality” does little to prevent many of these new magazines from failing within their first five years.

His study, which covered 224 publications Library Journal honored from 1986 to 2006 as the “Best New Magazines of the Year,” isn’t intended as a representative sample of all new magazines. But it does provide a telling snapshot of the success or failure rate of presumably good ones.

In results that the author is careful to clarify, the study finds that 34 percent of these newly launched “best” magazines failed within the first five years, with 13 failing within their first year alone. And while another 37 percent of these magazines are still being published, Black notes that this number is skewed because it includes some launched as recently as 2006.

Failure rates for all new magazines are scarce, so as a reference point, the study highlighted a 2002 research article co-authored by Dr. Samir “Mr. Magazine” Husni (a Miller-McCune editorial advisory board member), which found a 90 percent overall failure rate of magazines launched between 1985 and 2002, and a 50 percent failure for new launches within the first year.

With these dour numbers in mind, the Journal‘s “Best New Magazines” seem to be doing swimmingly in comparison.

Still, Steve Black’s research finds that the fail rate for even the “best” magazines has increased incrementally since 1986. This is due, in some part, to overall diminishing returns in the industry (an assertion with which the Magazine Publishers of America takes exception). Between 1986 to 1994, an average of 34 percent of the magazines failed within five years, he writes, while the percentage rose to 54 percent between 1994 to 2003.

Black suggests the fail rate may be higher because many of Library Journal‘s highlighted magazines include literary journals, little magazines and a few scholarly journals (i.e. publications that do not emphasize big, advertising-driven returns).

The reasons for these failures are, obviously, varied. One prominent aborted magazine highlighted in the study, Conde Nast’s Portfolio, simply wasn’t able to find an audience despite being launched to “great fanfare” by a well-capitalized corporate parent and having generally well-written articles.

There are bright spots. Smaller publications like the recently launched and very narrowly targeted Brick Journal and Meatpaper are “off to good starts because they are edited well, have sustainable business models not hampered by excessive debt, and contain good writing appropriate to their intended audiences.”

Other results from the research included a very weak link between a magazine’s life span and frequency of publication, suggesting that magazines that published fewer issues per year lived slightly longer. The study found no link between subscription price and life span (The author does note that the prices of magazines have stayed remarkably stable over the last few decades).

In a follow-up study that may be published later this year, Black will expand his work and include data on Web magazines and venerable print magazines that have ceased in print but have forged on in digital form.

One can only guess the number of webzine startups that have disappeared into the online maw.

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Erik Hayden
Former Miller-McCune Fellow Erik Hayden recently graduated from Pepperdine University with a B.A. in Political Science and a minor in Religion. He regularly contributes for a variety of publications including the Ventura County Star and the alt-weekly, VCReporter.

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