Every now and then, when our own newsstand landscape begins to look too homogenous and our cover formulas too tired we look overseas to shake us up a little.
Or a lot—the polybag premium craze that swept our consumer publications a decade or two ago (but who’s counting) was sparked by one UK company.
Polybag premiums to some degree have, after many years, run their course here in the U.S., but any publisher with a serious commitment to a UK distribution is aware that it is still the vernacular on the English newsstand.
Partworks are a UK newsstand innovation that take the practice of polybagging premiums to a new level. They offer expensive, high-quality premiums on every product and, as the name indicates, each premium is a part of a much greater whole.
At a meeting not too long ago Ian Bridgman of Comag UK walked me through the history of partworks, produced mostly by a handful of multi-title international publishers.
Here’s how they work: Each issue of a newsstand release will contain one part of a model or a collection. To get the complete collection, or every part needed to complete the model, it is necessary to purchase every issue. Ian tells me that many give a gift away each week, some to build large scale models which, when finished, are very impressive. A James Bond Austin Martin made of proper metal that takes four years of collecting to finish. A human skeleton (at £5.99 per week) that takes two to three years to collect and build, piece by piece.
What an investment these partworks are for their collectors! By project’s end they might have spent £600 to £1,000 pounds collecting the pieces.
And what a variety of topics to choose from! A collection of insects, or action figures, or precious rocks. A Victorian doll’s house, a Hello Kitty party, an entire season of CSI on DVD. Product tie-ins galore—Dr. Who, DC Comics, Star Wars.
The partworks series is usually launched after the first of each year, supported by TV advertising, and with a temptingly discounted price for the first issue or issues.
As you might expect, the sales drop off considerably after the first few issues. And here in the U.S., where distribution is so much broader and efficiencies commensurately lower, returns would certainly be a problem. In the UK they manage the return issue by collecting the unsolds and shipping them overseas in staggered launches. France and Italy have proven to be markets for the unsolds, as has, to some degree, Canada.
Could it work here? It’s hard to see how it could work on the newsstand—our high rate of unsolds, the necessity for a large investment in copies to cover a broad geographical area, the difficulty of processing quirky premiums in the wholesale agencies, and the difficulty of getting full-copy returns (undamaged) all combine to make it an unlikely revenue source for U.S. publishers.
But as a direct sale from the publisher? Why not?