Most Editors Try to Respect the Reader’s Intelligence, Circulation Departments Not So Much

By Jack Limpert

The big way the Internet has affected magazines is pretty clear: There is a lot of readable content free on the web so why should I pay a magazine to mail me stories? Increasingly, a print magazine has to be really good—and have a sensible digital strategy— to survive.

But there’s another way the web has changed magazine circulation: It makes it clearer how the circulation departments of magazines operate and it’s not always pretty.

An example: I enjoy Sports Illustrated and have subscribed off and on over the years—mostly on. I think I let subs lapse mostly because the annual price seemed too high. A year ago I subscribed at $39 a year and checked the automatic renewal box and have enjoyed each issue.

This week the new issue of SI included an extra cover with an “Important Advance Notice” letting me know there’s nothing I need to do to renew and my credit card will be charged $55.44 unless I tell them within two weeks to cancel the subscription.

$55.44? Where did that number come from? I went on the SI website and it still offers a one-year sub for $39—a rate I happily would have paid. But the $55.44 number seemed off-key. And high.

So I took 10 minutes to navigate the SI website and cancelled, figuring I can always subscribe again for $39.

In the pre-digital days, I think readers were more inclined to pay whatever the renewal notice said was the magazine’s sub price but now everyone wants the best deal and it’s easy to find.
Another magazine I like is the New Yorker—a year ago I paid $99 for two years, a lot of money for a magazine sub but a lot of good reading. Alm0st as soon as the check cleared, I started getting renewal letters. It was like they’d fingered me as an easy mark and let’s see what else we can get out of him. I wish they’d stop sending  so many letters asking me to renew (I still have a year to go!) or trying to get me to buy two subscriptions, one for me, one for a friend, for $79.99. I’m a happy subscriber—get back to me in the fall.

And I recently re-subscribed to the Atlantic for $24.50 for 10 issues a year—I’d let a sub lapse because some issues didn’t get read but I admire what it’s trying to do. The January-December issue arrived before Christmas and I look forward to reading it. Then in early January I received the December Atlantic, the issue that went to subscribers back before Thanksgiving. And then came a note from the Atlantic thanking me for my subscription and making clear that the late-arriving December issue had started the subscription.

All this is to say that while good editors work hard to impress upon their staffs the importance of respecting the intelligence of the reader, that respect for the reader does not extend to the circulation departments of most magazines.

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