The moment I heard of the flare-up between newsstand distributors,
wholesalers and publishers, whereby one party demanded higher fees or
else, another stumped for status quo or else, and the other just made a
lot of noise, I was reminded of Reservoir Dogs, the gory Tarantino
crime caper famous for, among other scenes, its “Mexican standoff

That’s the classic spaghetti western situation in which each
character has a gun pointed at another character’s head, forming a
literal deadlock and ensuring that, should anyone pull the trigger, all

One characteristic of a Mexican standoff is that it can only emerge
if all players are focused exclusively on each other with no thought
spared for exogenous items such as law enforcement, the clock,
passer-bys or, in the case of magazine sellers, customers.

To those in the standoff, such concerns are potentially lethal distractions.
that’s why the Mexican standoff is such a potent allegory for
self-centered oblivion, especially if you take into account that a
major precondition to such a standoff is the participants’ inclination
to ignore all but their own gun’s aim.

Washing Hands

leads me to wonder: How many industries have such a hold on their
customers that they can ignore them and continue to thrive? We know how
that went for the music industry, stand aghast at how it’s turning out
for American banks and car makers, and have an inkling of how it might
end for cable.

So with everyone in the single-copy supply chain focused on his or
her own immediate interests, all are willing to gamble with the
customers’ happiness, washing their hands of their role in the ultimate
outcome. “Not my fault if people can’t get their hands on their
favorite magazine. The other guy is showing tremendous bad faith.” This
will be cold comfort should retailers choose to replace magazines with
frozen yogurt or, worse yet, if readers begin to feel they can live
with the alternatives to what they would have liked to purchase, but
couldn’t find on the shelves.

The industry that can’t find a way to start serving new customers
before “four to eight weeks” has thus outdone itself: Whether you’ll be served
has devolved to “maybe, maybe not.”

Now that the conflagration is smoldering out, having claimed a major
wholesaler in the process, it may be tempting to take a deep breath and
pronounce the damage minimal, the whole episode an anomaly. Thanks to
heroic efforts by some people in the field, a degree of normalcy was
restored relatively quickly, and only a small fraction of customers
were frustrated for only a short time.

But this won’t wash away the fact that key industry players were
willing to take bets that impacted customers. Although minimum
long-term damage may have been done this time (unless of course you are
one of the 2,500 laid off Anderson News employees), the parties’
willingness to even take this kind of bet is distressing. If you know
what’s good for you, you never bet on your lifeblood.

Admittedly, from the perspective of a publishing company with
subscription-heavy titles, it’s easy to claim the high moral ground and
advocate that customers must always come first. However, it’s also
clear to me that it takes neither courage, nor creativity to reach for
one’s gun whenever conflict arises.

With all that’s threatening the magazine publishing industry,
couldn’t the players who hold the most influence show that they deserve
it and display stewardship as opposed to machismo? Serious negotiating
is never easy, but it can’t be done productively if the parties are
only concerned with preserving their own piece of the pie and give no
consideration to tactics that make everyone a winner—or at least
prevent system-wide losses.

Now is Our Chance

In the past few years, several level-headed solutions have been
proposed, including reevaluating how many titles should be offered at
newsstands, rethinking how payment flows ought to be structured and
investing in 21st century information technology. With the latest
conflict having resolved nothing, wouldn’t now be the time to launch a
pilot program or two?

Everybody knows that the channel’s current equilibrium is
unsustainable and that reverting to status quo can only lead to a
recurrence of flare-ups like the one we just experienced; this is
tantamount to saying we are comfortable continuing on a course that’s
detrimental to our customers.

In most movies, likely out of distaste for unhappy endings,
directors typically find creative ways to resolve Mexican standoffs. In
Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino chose to let events run their course. Let’s
just say that there will never be a “Reservoir Dogs II”—at least not
with the same cast.