Over the 20 years I’ve been a magazine publisher, I’ve learned a lot about how things should run by attending magazine conventions and reading trade magazines. But many of those grand ideas only work great in a world without competition and greed. When things get down to it, the real world application of newsstand principles are gritty, dirty and sometimes just plain unfair.

My first looking-glass experience was when an Orlando, Florida-based wholesaler contacted my distributor to say that they would no longer distribute Alternative Press because it was "offensive." When I asked my rep why, he said the wholesaler singled out a black-and-white ad in the back of my magazine of a dominatrix-type of woman with a piece of duct tape covering her breast. It was an ad for a goth band’s new record.

I understand why a retailer might complain about that. But this was in the pre-Wal-Mart days, when the West was young and anything went. And it came from the wholesaler, not the retailer. I asked my rep to call the wholesaler back and ask if they distributed any titles like Penthouse or Playboy. If so, this was restriction of trade and they would be looking at a lawsuit. Within a half-day, I heard back from my distributor that the wholesaler apologized and blamed the misunderstanding on an employee.

Who Pays the Most, Gets the Most

This really had nothing to do with offensiveness at all. It was because I was an indie, single-title publisher trying to prove our sales potential by increasing our presence in that wholesaler’s market and they didn’t want to be bothered. We’re dealing with the newsstand business, after all, where it’s usually all about the bottom line and whoever ends up paying the most gets the most.

I knew of another title that was in almost every major chain but selling anywhere from 15 percent to 40 percent. I couldn’t understand why any chain would not have order-regulated the title back when it had a 15 percent to 25 percent consistent sell-thru from issue to issue. Later, I found out that the magazine never suffered an order-regulation because the publisher, which had 12 titles, was paying the wholesalers an extra 10 percent to keep their titles from getting cut back.

So despite what everyone says at the industry conventions, it’s typically every publishing house for themselves. As long as I don’t get hit with extra distribution fees by my wholesaler, I don’t care what everyone else does.

The larger houses with more power have more negotiating room, while the smaller publishers are the ones that suffer the most. Unless you have the deep pockets to pay for access into key chains, your title is left to fend for itself in a series of dusty-shelved convenience store accounts;and you’ll pay a higher return fee allowance.

What the Little Guy Can Do

My biggest advice to new publishers is never, ever do one of those shotgun-blast programs offered by some wholesalers. The ones where $15,000 gets you 35,000 copies blasted all over the place for three issues. In my opinion, those programs are just a one-way ticket to printer debt. Wholesalers should offer programs for publishers to target and customize these programs with their retail outlets. Some do but some don’t. If Wal-Mart and Borders can do it, why can’t they all?

I’m a pragmatic publisher. I realize that my title should not be everywhere. I don’t want it everywhere. I understand that AP isn’t right for all chains, and any smart publisher should know that about their own title too. Just because you’ve spent your life savings building your title, it doesn’t mean it should be in Walgreens and Target.

I do lots of reader research. I ask my readers where they buy magazines;down to the chain name. And those are the only ones I target. If my readers don’t shop in convenience stores, I don’t push my title into them. What’s the point? Oh, that’s right, rate base-addicted publishers want them. Thanks a lot, guys. We’re all paying for your "problem" now.

When we do get into a chain, I promote it on our Web site. Or if we’re doing an event in a particular market, we hand out cards promoting a chain in an area I want sales boosted in. The chain loves the increased sales and free promotion and I don’t have to worry about order-regulation. Or we request to match our subscriber Zip Code database with the wholesaler’s accounts. Those wholesalers that actually want to distribute magazines for a living realize the good sense of doing this. Those that are nothing but unregulated toll-booths in the distribution system don’t care.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of very reasonable people working in newsstand. At all levels. These saviors of our industry understand how to work the system, or work around it, or just work without it. Very often you’ll find these people just as frustrated as you are with the current system out there.

Mike Shea is founder and CEO of Alternative Press, a music magazine based in Cleveland. He can be reached at shea@altpress.com.