Two longtime publishers agree: If you run a magazine or newspaper business that's not yet selling custom publishing, you should start now.
- Why publishers should be selling custom products.
- How custom publishing fits into your existing workflow.
- What kind of margins and percentage of revenue you can expect.
Why Start Selling Custom Publishing?
Todd Lemke sits at the helm of a successful city-regional magazine. And to him, custom publishing is a natural, profitable addition to what the magazine world is already doing with their main publications. Put simply, custom publishing plays to publishers’ strengths. “We already have the reputation of great storytelling. Advertising agencies are great at copywriting and crunching numbers, but can they design, print, and distribute?”
Another key difference between publishers and ad agencies: in-house sales teams. Todd points out, “Magazines also have sales people to cover at least some of the cost of the publication itself. This is a very unique position.”
Ross Furukawa, on the other hand, runs a successful daily newspaper. To him, custom publishing is key to growth and cashflow. Ross mentions that, “[custom publishing] is a great bottom line revenue tool. It’s a great tool to cross-sell and sell something new, and it opens up markets.”
To illustrate his point on opening up markets, he uses a hospital as an example. When you produce a hospital’s custom magazine, you make connections within the hospital that can help your business in the long run.
Ross is also in agreement with Todd that custom publishing is likely to save business clients time and money—an important fact to remember when selling these products.
“If you’ve started or re-launched a publication, [you know] it’s hard. It’s kind of the same thing if you’re starting a custom publishing product—except you’re not acquainted with the industry. Imagine how hard that would be.“
Custom Publishing Can Fit Into a Busy Publishing Business
You may be reading this thinking, “Our designers are maxed out. Our sales team is maxed out. Is this something we can take on?”
Todd and Ross both agree that it can be done—and it’s worth the scheduling work to start doing it as soon as possible.
Todd divides his business operations into three buckets: design, sales, and editorial. And to him, it all comes down to efficient scheduling. He breaks it down like this:
“For editorial, we have almost unlimited capacity with freelance writing. For sales, they are hungry for more opportunities. I haven’t found a sales person yet that says ‘I’m too busy to sell this.’ Once a year, once a quarter, or once a month - it’s all recurring revenue for sales reps.
With design, it can be a bottleneck. We are very efficient with production, and we pencil [custom publishing projects] in when there are holes in our pipeline. One of our custom jobs is actually weekly! We’re very efficient, we know for the entire year when our writing, our design, and our sales period is going to happen. You can schedule vacations or add additional projects around a well-thought-out schedule.”
Ross attacks custom publishing products regularly, despite his hectic daily print schedule. He explains:
“There’s always capacity. From a production standpoint, we find capacity in an hour here, two hours there. Depending on the shift, there’s always time in production...We slot in workflows in our current production cycle to ensure [custom publications] get done. It’s all about good project management.”
Custom Publications Are Focused and Easy to Sell
Ross believes that selling custom publications is often easier than selling your core publishing product:
“The sales cycle is key. These publications are relatively easy to sell. They’re very concept driven, and people really understand what they are. Sales people really like to have a direction and chase it. For a hospital magazine, you say, ‘go chase doctors, and they go get it!’”
From Todd’s perspective, selling custom publications is straightforward thanks to their urgency. From an advertiser’s perspective, it’s easy to find a budget for a product with a special focus.
Selling Custom Publications: What Margins Can You Expect?
Both publishers focus on two main models:
- The customer pays for the publication (often including production, printing, and if applicable, mailing) and the publisher can sell ads around it.
- The customer prefers a partnership model with no outside advertisements.
While both agree that the profit potential is bigger with ad sales, advertising isn't the only factor in the pricing equation. You should also consider contract duration and frequency. His advice:
“If it’s an annual, get a 3-5 year contract. If it’s a quarterly or a weekly, sure I want a 3-5 year contract. But I value the more frequent custom pubs more than the annuals. I know my hard costs - printing, mailing - with internal labor [factored out]. Then I multiply that hard cost by 3-5x.
Say someone comes to me and says, ‘I want a quarterly, and I want it to be x number of pages.’ My hard cost is $10,000. I would charge them $30,000. If we sell the ads, it’s a risk we take that can make it much more profitable.”
Todd and Ross’ Final Thoughts On Selling Custom Publishing
Todd attributes custom publishing as a key factor in his publication’s growth. He says, “My custom publishing allowed me to bring in enough income to hire an in-house staff. If you’re successful now, it’ll allow you to scale. Your numbers go up, your printing prices go down, and your credibility skyrockets.”
Ross, too, believes that all magazine and newspaper publishers should dive into custom products. “You build this engine that can sell, produce, print, and distribute. There’s no reason not to leverage that.”
Both issue final words of caution, though. In the end, your reputation in publishing is earned on the merits of your work. As a result, you can’t let anything fall through the cracks—both on your core product and your custom work.
Todd echoes this sentiment rather succinctly. “Whether you have a one-time contract or a ten-time contract, you have to perform, and make it effortless, and not give excuses. [If you do], you will have that customer for a long time.”