Writing on the MediaWorks channel on the Advertising Age blog, Nat Ives recently compared single-copy sales in the Canadian and U.S. markets.
The most recent data (second-half 2011) showed U.S. single-copy sales down 10%, while Canadian sales dropped 2.4%. Ives uses recent sales comparisons to bolster an argument that “long-term reader demand is only part of the problem“.
It’s true; the Canadian economy isn’t as depressed as the U.S. economy. A bad economy certainly isn’t good for impulse purchases.
But (as Ives points out), aggregate single-copy sales in the U.S. have not increased in years. That’s a trend that covers a period of booms as well as busts. It also predates the iPad.
If reader demand is only “part” of the problem, it’s a big part. Every print vertical faces competition from the web as well as cable television, which has splintered into hundreds of special-interest channels.
Publishers have also dug a deep hole of their own. In the U.S., at least, you can buy a subscription for little more than the price of one or two single-copy purchases.
We’ve all received offers for something like “86% off!” if you subscribe. Publishers give those discounts because they want to keep rate bases where they are.
Along the way, “reader demand” has devolved into a proxy for “anyone who pays“. In a rate base world, that’s reality.
But don’t fool yourself into thinking that people who try a subscription for $5 will become single-copy buyers when the economy improves. We’ve taught a generation of readers to devalue content, and we’re still at it.