Circulation of British Journals
How they resort to the Limerick craze and other devices to keep up sales—Some anomalies of the post office system — English and American publications and their contents compared.
James H. Collins in Printers’ Ink
ABOUT twice a year the American newspapers find it necessary to reprove the British penny weekly for its unseemly methods of getting circulation. To-day it is the limerick craze, and yesterday it was buried treasure, and before that it was something else.
Our newspapers find these circulation schemes undignified and lowering, and no proper way to get circulation. They find them so editorially, at least, and editoriallv reprove John Bull. Then if the scheme really has some possibilities, . they import and apply it to their own circulation ends.
Rather strange that, with all this reproof, one hears little of the real reason why John Bull goes after circulation in such fashion.
The British Post Office—that is the reason.
Who hasn’t heard the American postal reformer dilate on the beauties of the British Post Office, with its telegraphs, its parcels post, its bank and life insurance features, etc. ? Who hasn’t wished that our own effete Post Office were something like John Bull’s?
Now, the British Post Office is, veritably, an efficient institution. It handles letters with speed often astonishing to a Yankee, and likewise neatness and accuracy. Its telegrams at six cents for twelve words are certainly cheap—if you don’t have to use twelve words for the address and your signature. The British parcels post is fine if you want to send something weighing about ten pounds for twenty cents, and the reverse if you have a lot of three-ounce samples to mail. In this country Uncle Sam would take
them for three cents apiece. But John Bull counts each a pound, and charges six cents.
It is largely a shortcoming of the British Post Office that breeds the buried treasure and limerick circulation scheme in England.
John Bull makes a profit exceeding $2^,000,000 a year on his postal business, and it is an important source of imperial revenue. Therefore, he is extremely reluctant to give a newspaper mail service like that given by Uncle Sam under our second-class matter regulation. He says he can’t afford it.
You can mail strawberries, fresh fish and eggs in England. A woman mailed a live baby to a charity home some time ago, and thus got rid of it as effectually as though she had left it on a door-step, for the sender could not be traced. And while the Postmaster-General complained against such mailings, and declared that they were irregular, very, you know; and it is to be hoped the public will not do it again ; nevertheless the baby, when delivered bv the Post Office, was peacefully sleeping in its box.
Try to mail a publication so as to make a profit on it, however, and the British Post Office is a most unserviceable institution.
It will carry a newspaper, properly registered as such, for one cent, and it may weigh anywhere up to five pounds, and have as many supplements as you please—the charge will be the same. But if the newspaper weighs only one ounce, like a penny weekly, a publisher must pay sixteen cents to mail a pound of them to sixteen subscribers, where Uncle Sam
would w eigh them in bulk and carry them all for a cent, and take them six times as far as the British inland service can possibly go.
The British Post Office, too, makes no newspaper rate on anything published less frequently than every seven days. That eliminates all the monthly and semi-monthly magazines, which have to go letter post, so that the English edition of Scribner’s—which is the American edition with but a few pages of advertising—costs six cents to mail. Uncle Sam would charge only two cents to carry three copies of such a magazine—weight ten and a half ounces.
John Bull knows nothing of weighing newspapers in bulk for mail purposes, and so there is in England hardly any such thing as subscription circulation, and thus all periodicals are sold on news-stands, and when one subscribes by mail they cost twrice as much ; and out of these conditions grow the limerick craze, and buried treasure craze, and similar expressions of the inner longings of the British circulation manager.
On the news-stand a monthly like the London Magazine—somewhat similar to McClure’s—will cost you a dollar for twelve issues. Subscribe to it by mail, and the publisher has to charge you two dollars. A penny weekly like Tay Pay’s cost $1.04 a year on the news-stands, and by mail $2.08, the subscription rate by mail in England being as high as that abroad. A daily business paper like the London Financial Times, costs $6.24 a year on news-stands, and $9.36 by inland mail.
Consequently, all circulation in Great Britain is news-stand circulation, except for a freakish low percentage sent by mail, and where our circulation manager has the benefit of stability in at least forty to sixty per cent, of his clientele, and knows that he has to persuade, convince and induce that many readers to subscribe but once in twelve months, the British circulation man is continually building his house on sand, and has to fight for his readers week by week.
Little wonder he beats a gong or runs a lottery to get them.
The number of letters received per capita in Great Britain last year was 64, post cards 19 , half-penny packets (advertisements, tax notices, etc.) 21. But the per capita of newspapers mailed was only four copies !
The result of this discrimination against periodicals by the British postal system has been to build up a magnificent news-stand and news company organization all over the Kingdom. Publishers favor the news companies, and the latter are so powerful that they can make or unmake a periodical—some years ago, for instance, they refused to carry a flashy “society” sheet, and it straightway died. Publishers even uphold the news companies and oppose reform in the Post Office newspaper mailing regulations, fearing that competition by the Post Office might injure them with the news companies. As distributive machinery the latter are as efficient and as cheap as any postal service could well be. But no consistent subscription building is possible where readers have to be led to buy the publication issue by issue. So all of the sensational methods in circulation getting are due to the lack of yearly subscribers, as well as much of the trashiness in the publications themselves.
The average Englishman has nothing but contemptuous words to express his opinion of American journalism as exemplified in our daily papers, and points to his own dignified newspapers in contrast—with perhaps an apology for his ha’penny press.
If American daily papers were as low as he fancies them to be, however, they would still stand far above the institution known as the British penny weekly.
The latter is fairly represented by periodicals like Answers, Tit-Bits, What’s On, lohn Bull, Penny Pictorial, etc. They are crudely printed on the flimsiest paper. Their illustrations are shockingly bad in quality. Their articles have neither timeliness nor continuity, being the cheapest rehash of encyclopedia information and
the most artless revamping of old jokes, and their whole menu is put together on a scheme that leads one to infer that their editors believe 'no reader can hold his or her mind on the same topic for more than thirty seconds. Some of the reformers who fought hardest for free education in England have expressed regret that the public was taught to read at all, if this is what it feeds on. Yet these snippet sheets pervade the whole Kingdom, and some are said to have in excess of one million circulation.
They are immensely profitable, beyond doubt.
We have nothing in the periodical line that will turn such a clear profit as the thirty-two pages of trash in the penny weekly. Take the New York Times literary supplement, pay two or three hacks to scissor out matter, print it on paper half as good. The Times supplement is given away with a one-cent newspaper, and makes a profit. The British penny weekly, though, is sold by itself for two cents. The profit can be imagined when one remembers that labor over there is cheaper, and that the British book publisher turns a comfortable profit on shilling books that could hardly be sold at three times the price in this country.
Taken as a potentiality, the British penny weekly is a thing in the publishing line full of possibilities even in this country. For here the logical price would be five cents.* With a public educated to pick up such periodicals week after week, and our superior resources for making them attractive and readable, an American publisher ought to find them well worth studying.
All the great English publishing fortunes of late years have been founded on the penny weekly, and are rooted in it as well. Lord Ñorthcliffe (Mr. Harmsworth) began with Answers, and has thirty of these periodicals to-day. Mr. Pearson started with Pearson’s Weekly. Sir George Newnes has taken many thousands of guineas out of Tit-Bits, his first periodical, and the first of them all. Many
smaller successes have been based on 116
jhïÊ form of publishing property, for m its beginnings evidently but little capital was needed to launch a penny weekly, and dozens of Fleet Street men took a gamble, and a fair percentage of them won.
The difficulty of getting a subscription following for these publications was probably responsible for sensational advertising that had, originally, no more wicked purpose than attracting readers and selling the paper on the news-stands week after week. But to-day these English penny weeklies are mere blinds for lottery enterprises —nothing more. Take away their prize competitions and force them to appeal to the public purely as reading matter, and they would probably be unprofitable properties, unless greatly improved in contents.
The limerick craze now at its height in England is fairly representative of all the similar crazes that have gone before. It started less than a year ago, and has rapidly developed into a gigantic gambling institution. Its mechanism is extremely simple. A penny weekly publishes, in each issue, a limerick lacking the final line, and cash prizes are offered for the “best” ending. The only condition imposed on competitors is that they send in a coupon from the paper and Sixpenny postal order with each ending submitted. Nothing is given for this twelve cents, except a chance in a lottery thinly disguised as a Competition in literary skill.
A few months after this pleasing pastime was invented there were at least twenty weekly and daily journals running limerick features. The average normal issue of sixpenny postal orders in Great Britain is about 100,000 a month. By July, last year, the issue had grown to 1,700.000 a month, and the daily average ran to nearly double the normal monthly issue. More than $60,000 a week was pouring in to the publishers who ran these competitions—three million dollars a year! The demand for sixpenny orders swamped the Post Office, and blanks ran out.
Insofar as profit is concerned, the publishers seem to look for it on cir-
dilation, charging a percentage for the work of handling the replies received. They make no very great profit on the lottery itself. One weekly, for instance, received in a recent week 100,000 sixpenny orders, $12,000, and paid out ten prizes of $950 each. Prizes aggregating $125,000 are said to have been paid out in a few months by another publisher. Great ingenuity was developed in offering rew'ards, some publishers giving an annuity for life to winners, and others a freehold house, with a weekly income for life.
Amusing incidents developed. They impose a tax in Great Britain on every person whose income exceeds $750 a year. One of the prize-winners in a limerick contest got word of his luck from the revenue authorities several hours before the result was announced to him by the publishers, for the revenue people saw his name listed for a large prize before he did, and promptly assessed him the usual five per cent. He had never paid income tax before.
Where bad faith is charged in these contests is in the method of determining whose limerick endings are “best.” Publishers maintain that decisions are made by competent literary judges, and wholly on merit. But it has been asserted with a good deal of logic that a true consideration of merit is impossible, that the number of replies received gives work to a large staff of clerks merely taking the sixpenny orders out of the letters, and that winners are picked haphazard.
The Attorney-General has decided that these competitions are “contests of skill,” and, therefore, legal. So the craze has grown and grown, extending beyond publishing and into trade. Many of the retail shops in London conduct limerick competitions, but with a straightforward merchandise sale as the basis. Thus, a brand of cigarettes is advertised by a contest in which $15 a week for life is the prize, but each contestant sends about sixty-five cents for a trial package of 100 cigarettes. Sir Thomas Lipton’s stores offer cash prizes, but require only that a wrapper from Lipton’s tea
be sent. Limericks in such cases are written around the goods advertised.
The original idea has been amplified in dozens of ways. Some publications, instead of limericks, base their contests on estimates of the number of births that will be shown in a given city in a given week by the official returns. Another penny weekly has a plan whereby each copy is numbered, and every week ten numbers are drawn, the readers holding those copies being paid a sum of money to do “circulation work” for the publication. This work may be merely chatting about the paper with friends, or distributing copies, or telling the editor how difficult it was to buy the paper last week in a certain village.
Many of the papers circulated by such schemes appeal to boys and girls, others to women. The “trust” idea is widely employed in getting new readers, boys and girls being given free copies and paid commissions for promises to buy the paper weekly. Large advertising is done in daily papers on behalf of these schemes.
Lately there is a pronounced demand in England for better reading, reflected in the success of publications like T. P.’s Weekly, which has real personality and solidity, and has grown without resort to schemes. But the British magazine as a whole strikes an American as being shallow, and without character, and one very much like another. The Englishman doesn’t seem to develop the art of manufacturing magazines as we know it in this country, and cannot begin to lay down periodicals as well printed and illustrated as our representative monthlies. Nor has he grasped the better principles of American magazine writing and editing. Where the American periodical is concerned with what is going to happen to-morrow, and has a strong element of timeliness, the British magazine deals extensively with the past. There must be plenty of present-day activity to record in England’s industries. But the magazines don’t record it.
In circulation work the lack of a
channel'through which the publisher can deliver his periodical regularly to the reader, selling it to him by the year instead of by the issue, is a grave handicap. It eliminates most of the circulation methods, clubbing offers, book premiums and other aids known in this country. One of the American managers who went to London lately is working on a plan whereby six magazines can be delivered monthly through a newsdealer, and thinks that it can be made successful with highgrade publications selling at a shilling. The penny and the shilling are standard magazine prices—two cents and twenty-five cents. Sixpenny weeklies are chiefly of a heavy kind, like the Spectator and Saturday Review. Punch, The Academy, and some others are sold for threepence. Above the shilling magazines come weighty reviews at two shillings and half-acrown, but of these it has been said, with a good deal of plausibility, that through them a few academic writers talk merely to the members of their own clubs.
Some of the American magazines are not circulated in England at all, except through direct subscription. The Ladies’ Home Journal, Saturday Evening Post, McClure’s, the Street & Smith magazines, etc., are unobtainable. Indeed, efforts are made to keep them out of the country owing to arrangements with literary agents, whereby stories and articles published in their pages are sold for publication separately in English magazines. It is said, though, that the Saturday Evening Post has 5,000 subscribers in England, chiefly English readers who are interested in business and have found the magazine and are bound ^3 have it. In view of this clientele of unsought subscribers, it would seem that the magazine might be profitably put on the news-stands over there. Mr. Philip S. Collins, circulation manager for the Curtis Publishing Co., says an English circulation has been considered a number of times. Subscriptions there, however, are now
taken at a slight loss, owing to foreign postage, so that English circulation would be desirable only as it affected results to those using the magazine’s advertising space. As advertisers are practically all Americans, and would not get returns from England, it appears wiser to build circulation in the United States.
One thing is certain when it comes to nationality in magazines, and that is that few periodicals written, edited and manufactured for the American market can ever appeal to a wide audience in England, or vice versa. That vague something which makes an English magazine slightly heavy to readers in the Lhiited States is just as evident in England when an American magazine is taken up, and gives it a superficial flavor. The brightest Yankee periodical, glanced at in staid London, even by an American, is apt to give the impression that its editor is bothering with a lot of super-heated problems that will be forgotten tomorrow, just as the English review, read in New York, seems like a discussion of issues that ought to be buried and forgotten. Canada’s Postmaster-General, in his wisdom, tried to give English magazines a preference by raising the rate on American periodicals and establishing a special classification for those from the home country. But if Canadians got London magazines for nothing they would probably still prefer those from the United States. The thing isn’t difference of price at all, but of a few thousand miles of ocean, and vastly different living conditions, and occupations, and aims. It’s nationality, and forms as definite a line of demarcation in reading matter as though the two countries spoke different languages. For this reason, circulation of an American magazine or newspaper in England, or circulation of English periodicals here, is always in the nature of a freak, and the most conspicuous success means only a small part of the public. The real public is never touched at nil.