A candid and personal examination of the Philippine comics scene from a social, cultural, economic and business point of view.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

What comics can learn from Reader's Digest

As of May, 2004, Reader's Digest (RD) has been printing 12.4 million copies in the U.S. and is read by 44 million people. Globally, it has a print run of 21 million copies and read in different foreign languages by 100 million readers. RD's revenue from global circulation constitutes 50% of its total trade volume. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Digest's accomplishment of maintaining its million copy circulation for almost a century despite a commensurate and progressive decline in its foreign and local circulation, is a lesson to be valued by print publishers (especially comics publishers) plagued by today's ongoing phenomenon of media demassification.

Since it began in February 5,1922, the Digest's basic format and overall content has not changed. RD's late publisher and founder, Dewitt Wallace, started printing approximately 5,000 copies of RD in his home's basement while recuperating from war injuries. His objective was to include in one issue of his general interest magazine, one article for each day of the month, making sure that each article is of enduring value and interest; its tenor largely pro-American, conservative, and upbeat. Its target marget as a general interest wee booklet size magazine were ALL readers interested in informing and improving themselves, in getting ahead in the world. This target market never left Dewitt Wallace's mind and in the hundreds of notes he made, the following is testament to his focus and vision:

"Printed Matter: Never fear, there is a strong undercurrent of desire for knowledge. Supply it and every dollar's worth of printed matter will come home to roost."

To this day, we still see the same sections of the Digest intact: laughter the best medicine, moralistic tales or articles compatible with the judeo-christian belief, political articles that favor conservative Republican philosophy, medical or health articles, human interest and survival stories, short biographies, articles on family relationships, and of course the standard condensation of popular books and bestsellers.

Circulation of the Digest was limited geographically when it began in 1922, being sold exclusively through direct mail solicitations. It was in 1929 amidst a looming economic depression (similar to the economic and political crisis facing the Philppines right now) that the Digest was first offered for sale in the newsstands. 62,000 copies were sold and six years later in 1935, it grew to approximately one million copies. SInce then, RD has maintained its million copy circulation both domestically and abroad.

How did that happen? What makes Reader's Digest's circulation different from all other print publications, especially "entertainment based" comicbooks?

From the previous data provided, it is apparent that RD is controlled by a company, the Reader's Digest Association, Inc., that focuses all its energy and resources into the production and successful circulation of its print publication. It doesn't just collect articles, put them on the stands, and wait for them to sell. There is more to it than that.

Unlike other print publications, RD's subscription solicitations from old and new readers is intensely planned and executed to a tee, almost akin to a military style campaign. Data is gathered from subscribers, statistical/mathematical formulations using "regressive analysis"follow, then business analysis, until marketing strategies are devised, modified, and implemented.

For a more detailed discussion on this fascinating subject, please visit: www.baselinemag.com/article2/0,1397,1835224,000.asp and read the Baseline Magazine article: "Data analysis: Reader's Digest: The Longest Goodbye".

This kind of focus and dedication is absent from most American comics publishing houses like DC or Marvel. These two companies in fact, are now owned by parent companies that don't specialize, much less give priority to, comics publishing.

Marvel today is owned by a toy company, TOYBIZ, who gets its revenue mainly from toy sales, and licensing mostly from movies, video games, cartoon shows, and other merchandize. DC on the other hand, is owned by AOL-TIME-WARNER who obviously gets most of their revenue not from comics publishing, but from movies, television, video gaming, and licensing. The other smaller comics companies like Dark Horse, Image and others are relatively small operations that do not have the same intense dedication to promoting comic print publications at par or on the same level as Reader's Digest.

And then there's the content. Note that in a single monthly publication, RD articles appeal not to children or angst-ridden, power-fantasy starved teenagers, but to responsible, mature, young adults and older people FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD. What is more, and this is pivotal, the articles in RD are diverse and though entertaining, have INFORMATIONAL OR USEFUL VALUE AIMED AT BETTERING ONE'S LIFE; qualities that are absent in most American and globalized FIlipino comics today. In short, RD promotes a culture of literacy, of continuous self-learning and of the world at large.

Its not simply a matter of providing good "entertaining" content. Its not a question of simply putting out good stories and art either. In creating a widely circulated magazine as a piece of respectable "media", one must take a look at the circulation strategy involved. And on this score, Reader's Digest has a very interesting story to tell.

Briefly, the Digest does not wholly depend on newsstand sales for its circulation and revenue. Rather, it concentrates more in its direct mail solicitations for SUBSCRIPTIONS. This was in fact, how the first issue of the Digest was circulated.

"In his gloom,he saw anew the brilliance of a suggestion given to him by a fellow worker--why not sell the magazine directly to readers, by mail? Immediately Wally (Dewitt Wallace) went back to his rented room and his portble typewriter. The big publishing houses would go hang. He began pounding out letters soliciting subscriptions. He scrounged lists of people--teachers, professors, nurses, prechers, women's club members. From college catalogues, for example, he got names of faculty members.

The pitch had to be particularly good since what he was peddling existed only in his mind. But he offered a provisional commitment--the subscription could be canceled and all money refunded if the reader wasn't satisfied. For four months he wrote and mailed out letters, each with an individually typed first page. xxx His direct-mail approach established a personal connection, a kind of companionship between editor and readers. The promotion letter you got was from the man who originated and produced the magazine, exhorting you to subscribe for your own good. Other magazines beginning about the same time aimed at millions of readers and got them eventually. The upstart Reader's Digest aimed at the individual, and outsucceeded the whole pack." (Source: "Unforgettable Dewitt Wallace" by Charles W. Ferguson, Reader's Digest, March, 1987 issue)

The strategy continues even to this day. Pick up any copy of RD from whatever year, or whatever edition, and you will ALWAYS find a subscription card promo offer. Here, the reader is usually offered a one-year or 12 month subscription but with a discount of two issues given for FREE.

In the November, 2005 Asian edition for instance, we find that RD in the Philippines costs Php 140 or Php 1,680 a year. But with the subscription offer, you pay only Php 1,395 which translates to a savings of Php 285. This also means that you get two issues free. On top of the subscription discount, you also get a free gift, in this case a nifty backpack convertible into a folding chair.

In the 1970s, I personally remember that just before Christmas, the Digest would always give a subscription offer with a whopping 50% discount or six issues free if the new subscriber refers the Digest to a friend as a gift subscription. This same beneficiary of the gift subscription also gets the same 50% subscription discount. On top of all this, the first subscriber/referror gets for his referral, a free gift like a diary or silver pen or a sweepstakes ticket entitling him or her to join the grand draw. Knowing human nature, (and guided by the Digest's marketing and statistical data) a lot of people wouldn't want to pass up this opportunity. People in the millions to be exact.

Revenue from subscription actually solves crucial publishing and circulation problems. For one thing, a portion of the advance subscription money would answer for the printing and production costs of future isues, while the other portion answers for present and future administrative expenses and profit. RD writers and researchers are reasonably and timely paid too. Another thing, is that through subscription, the publisher is assured of a readership for at least one year who will hopefully convert into a loyal subscriber the next year after being exposed thoroughly to the contents of the publication. And on this score, the Digest has other strategies to maintain that subscription in the second year, third year and fourth. But perhaps the biggest reason why RD could afford to give that two issue discount is that the cost of those two issues usually amount to the newstand dealer-distributor's fee. RD in effect is eliminating the middleman's participation and share in the distribution process which all the more looks attractive to the purchasing RD reader.

Curiously, when DC and Marvel in the U.S. were originally owned by publishers who really specialized and concentrated in promoting wide million level circulation of a printed comic, subscription offers were almost always found within its pages. Take out a DC or Marvel comic in the early 1960s and you're sure to see that subscription offer. Marvel in fact, was more aggressive in this area with its 1960s 'Merry Marvel Marching Society" ad campaign. When company ownership changed hands in the late 1960s, those subscription offers started to dwindle. Today, you don't see subscription offers in the pages of a DC or Marvel Comic. What does that tell you?

Even here in the Philippines, we almost find no such subscription offers in the pages of Filipino komiks especially those published by the Roces monopoly. Think about it. This may be idle speculation at this point, but if the Roceses had aggressively implemented a subscription campaign tailored specifically for its low-income bakya audience, it would have lessened the rental of its komiks by banketa newstand dealers the proceeds of which deprived the Roceses of significant income.

Advance revenue from the subscription campaign would have also helped improve the financial demands of its impoverished yet aspiring new batch of writers and artists, and not have their talents blocked by the old guard who took most of the money. But as luck would have it, the Roceses or at least the subsequent generation of Rocesses were not that interested in improving what was started by their pioneer forefather, Don Ramon.

We see the same thing repeating itself with most of the licensed, or so-called "independent", largely photocopied, and globalized Filipino comics of today that rely solely on sales (usually from the few comics specialty shops around) for revenue. Most of these comics publications have no well-thought and aggressive subscription campaign either that would assure a captive and continuous readership. A captive readership subscription base attracts advertisers who are another source of additional revenue. This is what the Digest achieved who eventually had advertisers in the 1950s.

Caveat ends.


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