Six ways to grow revenue with digitally-printed magazines

Here, D. Eadward Tree, a pseudonymous magazine-industry insider who provides insights on publishing, postal issues and print media on his blog, Dead Tree Edition, examines profit-boosting ideas for magazine publishers.

 Magazine publishers typically develop informal rules of thumb. These can include:

  • Don’t go back to press with an issue unless you can justify printing at least 10,000 copies.
  • You have to charge overseas subscribers at least three times the domestic rate because of the additional shipping and mailing costs.
  • Never propose an insert or edition with fewer than 5,000 copies – you’ll never make enough money to cover your costs.

A new (sort-of) technology has made many of those rules obsolete. The technology, for example, enables Cobblestone Living to thrive despite a circulation of only 540, all unpaid. It also powers Farm Journal and its 8-page advertising inserts that are customized according to each subscriber’s purchasing history. The cost of creating a special edition for just 450 prospects was low enough that one publisher gave it a shot – and generated an estimated $50,000 in incremental revenue. It’s the same technology that has enabled direct mail to grab a larger share of the print-advertising market from our industry. And that’s boosting book publishers’ profits and printed unit sales at the same time that print has become “a basket case” for magazines. Here’s a breakdown of the ways magazine publishers can use digital printing:

  1. Short runs of individual sections. With today’s emphasis on targeted advertising, a B2B publication can charge an advertiser as much for a cover wrap going to 300 select subscribers, as for a full-page ad sent to all 30,000 subscribers. Digital printing has made such small print jobs economically viable. And remember that now, you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to create versions of an article or ad for each province/state or job title, renewal cover wraps for different types of subscribers, or special covers for copies to be given out at an event or to potential advertisers.
  1. Data-driven sections. Using information from the recipient – name, ZIP code, occupation, interests, purchase history, etc. – a cover, insert, or other section of the magazine can be customized for each reader. The personalization can be as simple as putting the recipient’s name in an article or inkjetting a brief message onto their cover. Or, it can be as complex as including census information about their neighborhood or a map showing how to get from their home to the nearest dealership. (Suggestion: If your printer produces catalogues or direct mail, ask for samples showing how it’s personalizing those pieces. Those industries are much further along the mass-customization road than publishers are). You can even serve different ads to different people on the same page. That could open the door to truly programmatic print advertising – where, for example, advertisers bid high CPMs to have their ads placed on the inside back cover of particular subscribers’ copies.
  1. Small print runs of entire magazines. Unless your title’s circulation is below roughly 2,000 copies, traditional offset printing still beats digital printing for efficiency. But even for large-circulation titles, being able to print copies digitally can come in handy. One consumer magazine publisher figured out that it costs about $200,000 to produce a 200-page issue with 350,000 copies using offset printing – and about eight times that amount for digital printing. But when a major advertiser needed 800 copies of an already-produced issue, with a revised version of its ad, digital printing got the nod with a total print and paper bill of $4,000. Going back to the original presses and binder that produced the issue would have cost about $10,000 – and the copies would not have gotten to the advertiser in time. It’s not unusual for a publisher to print 5,000 extra copies of an issue, but to use an average of only a few hundred of them. A corollary to Murphy’s Law says that the one time you cut back on such copies, you’ll get a request for several thousand for an advertiser, event, or newsstand agent. With digital printing, you can eliminate the waste and storage charges of “just-in-case” copies, knowing that you can always print just-in-time copies if needed. Digital printing means you don’t have to break the bank to create prototypes of new or re-designed titles. And you can produce international copies in-country rather than shipping them from halfway around the world.
  1. Print-on-demand. The ability to print just one copy for well under its selling price is a major reason digital printing is revolutionizing the book industry. Launching a new book no longer requires upfront investments in printing or shipping. Worldwide networks of on-demand book-printing plants have made international distribution practical for even niche books. Titles no longer go out of print – they simply shift from being printed in advance to being printed only when someone orders a copy. With no investment in inventory, magazine publishers can use the same tactic to sell back issues, ‘bookazines,’ article compilations and hardcover commemorative editions on their websites and on sites like Amazon.
  1. Fully customized magazines. For the vast majority of publishers, the ability to customize every page of every issue is a solution looking for a problem. It just doesn’t make business sense. Still, there may be opportunities to create subscriber copies for CEOs, opinion leaders, or elected officials containing additional information relevant to them – especially if there are advertisers wanting to target those VIPs. If you publish online newsletters, you probably have lots of click-through data on some subscribers. You could send them a complimentary collection of your print articles on the same subjects, with personalized ads custom-selected based on their interests and web browsing – as well as a subscription offer for your magazine(s).
  1. Non-magazines. Don’t limit your vision just to publications. Digital printing is already widely used for article reprints. Invoices and renewal notices can be personalized to boost response rates, upsell or cross-sell. And programmatic direct mail – containing offers targeted to people based on their recent online shopping habits – seems ripe for our industry.


Tony Curcio is the editor of Graphic Arts Magazine.