Back when b-to-bs were called trade books, they were viewed by some onlookers as lesser forms from another editorial world. I can recall giving workshops on editorial positioning at FOLIO: shows back in the nineties, and the editor of B-to-B Monthly would come up to me during a break and say, "I really can’t relate to the problems at Sports Illustrated. Can you give us some examples from trade magazines?
"Well, that was then, this is now. That old distinction is so blurred it barely exists as technology drives both categories toward a similar model;and b-to-b is winning the race.
Though fewer in number;about 2,500, according to SRDS;consumer books have a larger readership collectively and therefore have a greater impact on what is perceived as a magazine today.
Most b-to-bs are controlled circ wherein readers must qualify in order to receive the magazine at no charge. SRDS lists some 7,500 business books. There are thousands more, but census keeping is imprecise.
To me, the most meaningful difference between consumer and b-to-b books today has nothing to do with their audience or their editorial attitude. Editorially and visually, for instance, b-to-b covers have to do the same thing that newsstand covers do, even though they are not on a newsstand. In fact, it may be tougher to come out of a day’s worth of office mail than it is to come off the newsstand. An editorial veteran in the medical publishing field once told me that the average American doctor receives 70 pounds of mail a week. "And the average doctor only has time to read five pounds of mail a week," he said. "Our goal is to make certain our books are in that five pounds of must-read material."
Meanwhile, consumer books have gotten a lot softer editorially, more promotional than journalistic. Newsstand sales are driven increasingly by that oxymoron for our time: Celebrity news. They are positioned for an undiscriminating audience that actually believes it is "news";not marketing;when a new Tom Cruise movie opens and Tom is oh-so-obliging for those softball interviews on the talk shows and the adoring cover stories.
To me, the key difference between consumer and b-to-b books is in the delivery systems. That’s it, plain and simple. If you are a consumer book, the reader comes to you. If you are a b-to-b book, you go to the reader. B-to-bs, at their best, are more straightforward with readers. Because they aren’t driven by sub or renewal revenues, they don’t have to pander. They are also straightforward about the realities of the publishing business: Magazines are advertising vehicles.
B-to-bs also know how to think small. Meanwhile, consumer mags are having big problems after many successful years of thinking big. TV Guide;once read by over 15 million TV viewers;is, at three million, barely a shadow of its old editorial self. Reader’s Digest is likewise on a slippery editorial slope. Hundreds more are scrambling.
Consumer mags are in decline because they are faced with a new audience reality. Readers do not go to the newsstand as an earlier generation did, because the newsstand itself is disappearing. When you do find a newsstand;in Wal-Mart or wherever;get ready for the fanzine parade. Beyond that, the young audience out there is not accustomed to paying for anything;it is an audience that is getting up to the minute content on the Web, in podcasts and video podcasts, in cell-phone formats and information delivery systems that are compact, fast, and cheap or even free.
Thus, the new technology is driving consumer books to a different model, one that b-to-b’s have been using forever;information free of charge, delivered to qualified readers directly, with advertising alongside the editorial aisles. Only, instead of a qualified audience, consumer books are turning toward the model of giveaway dailies and weeklies, such as those distributed in major cities;Metro, amNewYork, The Boston Phoenix, The Village Voice, and scores of others.
And so it is that while consumer magazines may have intimidated the b-to-b world of an earlier generation, the magazine designed for growth today is the b-to-b model. Now, if only we can figure out how to get Lindsay Lohan on the cover of B-to-B Monthly ah, yes.
John Brady is partner at Brady & Paul Communications, a magazineworks that rethinks and redesigns magazines with offices in Fort Lauderdale, New York City, and Newburyport, Massachusetts. He is visiting professional at the Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University, and can be reached at Bradybrady@aol.com.