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Publishers Bet Big on ‘Special Editions’

Bookazines and special interest publications offer struggling print magazines high-margin revenue opportunities and the promise of new readers. But are they cannibalising the already-dwindling audience for monthly editions?
Source: BoF
  • Chantal Fernandez

NEW YORK, United States — Kim & the Kardashians ($13.99), Vogue It Girl Style ($12.99), InStyle Home & Design ($4.99). These are just a few of the many fashion-focused "special edition" magazines vying for attention amidst the glossy monthlies, news weeklies and celebrity tabloids at airport newsstands around the world as consumers gear up for the holiday travel season.

Traditionally, special interest publications — known within the industry as SIPs — have been dominated by “bookazines,” book-like magazines about historical events or famous deaths (such as Time magazine’s 2014 Robin Williams tribute), that do not include advertisements or prominent magazine titles on the cover. But as newsstand sales and advertising revenue for traditional magazines continue to decline, publishers are getting more creative with high-margin print products that feel like premium magazines, mining their archives for photographs and articles that may have already been published in a monthly edition to create fresh, collectible issues devised with consumers — and brand advertisers — in mind.

“It’s content that the magazines have already produced, so they’ve paid for it once and they’re making money off of it twice. And they are making a lot of money off of it,” says Aileen Gallagher, associate professor of magazine journalism at Syracuse University's Newhouse School.

"It's primarily a source of revenue," says Leah McLaughlin, director of special interest publishing at Condé Nast. "We produce publications that are specifically for consumers, so [on] really niche topics, generally around a single personality or a single cultural event." The company, which is currently restructuring around five new operational groups instead of its traditional magazine brands in an effort to improve efficiency and consolidate costs, is investing in the approach. Its content development group published 34 special editions in 2016, many of which combine content from different titles. "We are definitely producing more this year," McLaughlin says. "We've always produced special issues, but generally they were few and far between."

The key to these non-subscription issues is topical specificity, as well as quality elements that encourage collectability. “We either call them bookazines or megabooks — they are more like the poor man’s coffee table book,” says Samir "Mr. Magazine" Husni, founder of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi.

Husni posits that the average price of a SIP has doubled over the last five years, with some costing as much as $15.99. “[Publishers] are continuing to test the waters and see how much [readers] are willing to pay,” he says. The steep cover price, combined with low editorial cost, makes for an easier profit. (While securing rights to republish some content can pose a challenge, everything has already been photographed, fact-checked, etcetera).

It's content that the magazines have already produced so they've paid for it once and they're making money off of it twice.

“One publisher told me that even if they sell only two copies out of every ten [produced], they make money,” says Husni. The typical print run is similar to that of a major magazine’s monthly circulation, at about 100,000 to 150,000 issues, says Husni. (Vogue, for example, averaged 137,975 single copy newsstand sales in the first six months of 2016.) A SIP that sells anything more than 60,000 copies is considered a success, according to industry sources.

But Husni believes special editions cannibalise the monthly issue audience. “It’s a sword with two edges,” he says, arguing that someone who buys one of these high-priced issues might not buy a monthly for several months. The publishers disagree. “I think it’s a different audience, and again I go back to the single topic,” says Raúl Martinez, creative director of Condé Nast. “It really is so specific and it speaks to a cultural moment. That also is the reason why [readers will] pay a little more for it.”

SIPs are easier to find in 2016 than they were in the past, but the distribution is still focused on airport terminals and bookstores, where shoppers who are not interested in subscriptions might make their only magazine purchases. “They are not trying to develop a new generation of readers, they are not trying to get subscribers,” says Gallagher. Indeed, readers will find no subscription blow-in cards popping out of special-edition spines. Publishers are hoping to tap into a group of readers who might not even care about magazine brands at all.

Take, for example, Condé Nast’s special interest Kardashian and Taylor Swift issues. Just like the publisher’s Game of Thrones and Harry Potter-focused editions, they were not produced under the brand identity of a specific magazine (nor, like traditional bookazines, do they include ads). “Condé brands think of themselves — and are portrayed as — very high end and discerning,” says Gallagher. “To put a Taylor Swift special edition in the grocery store, that’s pretty low brow for Condé Nast.”

It may be more low brow than Condé Nast’s usual fare, but the typography, design, photography and articles set it apart. The front covers do not even feature any title names but they feel decidedly like magazines, just with better-than-average paper quality. “Our content is at a different level than what you would find from [other] Taylor Swift kind of content out there. We make it as beautiful and as appealing to that consumer as possible,” says Martinez.

The special edition is part of a new generation of interest-driven issues being produced by Condé Nast. A prime example is its Prince commemorative edition, on newsstands less than two weeks after his untimely death in April. “We take great pride in the turnaround,” says Martinez.

It's a sword with two edges.

Condé Nast continues to produce branded SIPs supported by a couple of ads from a single brand, like Vogue's "It Girl Style" issue, sponsored by Stuart Weitzman and fronted by the shoe brand's latest campaign star, Gigi Hadid. Glamour's "Fashion For You" issue, sponsored by Lane Bryant, is part of an ongoing relationship between the magazine and the retailer and focuses on plus-size style. Both SIPs were available on newsstands for a similar premium price and featured some new content, according to the company.

Meanwhile, Time Inc, which dominates the bookazine market, is holding steady with its fashion and beauty-related SIP offerings. This fall, InStyle published its first Ikea-backed “Home & Design” issue, which landed on newsstands and in the mailboxes of select subscribers, chosen by zip code or income bracket. Previous InStyle SIPs (“Your Look” and “Beauty”) were also sponsored by single advertisers. The majority of the content is republished, but the issues look and feel more like magazines than, for example, StyleWatch’s 2016 hardback bookazine entitled “Play Up Your Shape.”

One of the first magazines to pioneer the style manual as SIP — and turn it into a franchise rather than one-offs — was Esquire, which debuted the Big Black Book as an annual in 2006. Now the biannual issue has a distribution of 155,000 issues, 80 percent of which are sold at newsstands for $9.95, while the rest are sent to select subscribers, private jet terminals and luxury hotels. Unlike other SIPs in its class, the style guide’s ad-to-editorial page ratio is similar to that of a monthly magazine.

“I think Esquire and Nick Sullivan, 10 years ago, looked at the market and saw this opportunity and also a desire among Esquire readers … to go deeper, and in some ways wider, on style coverage,” says Michael Hainey, executive director of editorial at the Hearst title. “This was started to really complement the mothership, as we call it.” The majority of the content is original to each issue.

While there is crossover between the Esquire subscriber and the purchaser of the Big Black Book, the SIP is also meant to serve as a gateway to the monthly magazine. “Our mission is to widen the circle of who’s aware and who’s reading Esquire,” Hainey says.

It attracts a slightly different set of advertisers too, including Dior, Hermès and others. “There are more fashion specific brands. Our partners in Milan and Florence really look forward to being part of Black Book,” he says. “They see someone who’s going to hold onto it for three months.” Or even longer: Hainey suggests that it’s not unusual for readers to have a collection of all ten years of the Big Black Book issues.

Advertisers are seeing potential beyond traditional ad pages, too. McLaughlin’s department at Condé Nast is applying the SIP approach to branded content, and in September, the company produced its second lifestyle-and-shopping publication for Simon Malls. In March, it produced an issue for Chevy called “What’s Next?” that combined archival content from every title around the theme of the “unexpected.” Both were sent along with the publisher’s titles to a sub-group of subscribers.

“We have done a lot of work combining our brands in new ways and creating new products in which all of our brands can really work together harmoniously,” says McLaughlin, adding that there is more opportunity to bring that approach to advertisers in the future. Her department often works in tandem with 23 Stories, the Condé Nast branded content studio.

But as legacy publishers continue to struggle in today’s increasingly digital media environment, will SIPS one day eclipse traditional monthly or quarterly publications? Gallagher thinks the format can only ever exist as an amplification of the core product. “If you have a magazine that doesn’t have any brand identity, it’s not a magazine,” she says. “[Advertisers] want that brand identity in selling their product.”

However, publishers certainly seem to think that the SIP segment of the business can continue to grow, especially if they are made more readily available beyond the physical newsstand. Condé Nast’s are already available on Amazon, while Time Inc. has a site for back-issue purchasing. “I think there’s definitely a case to be made for these being digital products as well,” says McLaughlin.

In the meantime, there's always the airport newsstand. "That's one thing [Hearst president] David Carey told me," says Husni. "As long as we have airport terminals, we are going to have print magazines."

Editor's NoteThis article was revised on 29 November, 2016 to correct the release date of the Condé Nast's "What's Next" issue. 

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