Thursday, September 05, 2013

The gob-smacking "sales" figures of Rolling Stone

Nobody else has remarked on this so I've got to. Rolling Stone's decision to put the Boston bombing suspect on their cover was judged a success because they sold twice as many copies on the news stand as they usually do.

Twice as many. That's quite something. Magazines *never* double their sale issue-on-issue. How many copies was that?


That's the number of copies they sold in the whole of the United States on the back of immense publicity. 13,232. I've worked on magazines in the UK that have lost that many copies down the back of the sofa.

The really interesting thing was this was twice as many as usual, which means that the average issue of Rolling Stone, no matter what superstar, nymphet or American icon is on its cover, no matter how fabulous the cover concept, no matter how expensive the photographer, actually manages to motivate just six and a half thousand Americans to go to the news stand. That is considerably less than the average home gate of Yeovil Town.

Presumably Rolling Stone sold more than that ten years ago but it still can't have been all that many. It must mean that UK magazines, which traditionally have a terrible chip on their shoulders when it comes to their American cousins, regularly outsell them, even in a market that's only a fraction the size.

All circulation figures involve a certain amount of smoke and mirrors but American figures are more opaque than ours. The overwhelming majority of copies are on subscription and most of those are sold at a risibly low price in order to secure the number of readers the publishers need to deliver to the advertisers. There's an interesting piece here on an American site that explains why they've recently stopped bothering.

Rolling Stone's current rate base is 1,450,000.


  1. It's an astonishingly low figure which prompts the "How on earth do they make money and keep going" question.

    That in turn prompts the even more astonishing thought that they must be making money from the web site. That takes things way beyond mere astonishment.

  2. A little out of date, I know, but many many UK magazines are outperforming Rolling Stone Hell, 'Even Monkeys Fall Out Of Trees' is outperforming RS Sorry David, I couldn't resist

  3. As you say, though, it's all about the subscriptions for American magazines. The cover will have provoked media coverage - essentially free advertising - but newsstand sales don't really matter.

    I read quite a few magazines, but in the main I'm happy to pick them up in the supermarket, because UK publishers rarely make it worth my while to pony up for a year or more in advance. (I subscribed to The Word, of course, but that was a gesture of commitment.) On the other hand, my subscription to The New Yorker is ludicrously cheap compared to the cost of buying it in a UK shop.

  4. Rolling Stone's total circulation is supposed to be about 80,000, as 95% of copies normally go to subscribers. Still, that means that its circulation is about the same as that of Mojo!

  5. If I had had to guess how many copies they sell, it would have been many more than this. Incredibly small number. I had a quick look at their website and a US subscription for 30 issues (one year plus four free) is just less than $20, ie 67 cents a copy. Surely it costs more than that to print and post it.

  6. Lots of people are remarking on this, but they're all reporting it as a huge "145% increase in sales!" success. Never mind the numbers, just feel the spike.

  7. I always described The Word as "what you hoped Rolling Stone was instead of a fashion magazine". No justice.

  8. For the avoidance of doubt, American magazines traditionally sell most of their copies on subscription, which are often offered at very low prices in order to boost circulation and maintain "rate base". Rolling Stone "sells" far more than 13,000 copies if you count the subscription copies. But the news stand copies have always been important because they're sold at full price and indicate the magazine's popular appeal.

    UK magazines traditionally sold most of their copies on the news stand and, with a few exceptions, comparatively few on subscription. This is starting to change.

    There are lies, damned lies and circulation figures but if you want to know how healthy a magazine is, look at how cheaply you can buy a sub.

  9. What's fascinating about this is that there are usually a couple of copies of Rolling Stone in every supermarket, airport newsstand, 7-11 and book shop in the US. Given there's - what, conservative estimate, at least 100,000 outlets like that... that implies a lot of pulping.

  10. In the mid-80s if you sold 50% of the copies you put out in the USA that was regarded as a technical sell-out. All the distributors were also paper pulpers.

  11. I live in the States and was offered a three-year to subscription to Esquire for a measly $10. The letter actually said that they would be losing money at this rate but I was the sort of reader/demographic that appealed to their advertisers.

    When I worked at The Atlantic they made the shocking move of raising their subscription rates because they would rather have quality than quantity when it came to readers. Obviously this was a business move too, they could point to their subscribers as being more upmarket and attractive to ad buyers.

  12. "If you want to know how healthy a magazine is, look at how cheaply you can buy a sub." Fair enough, but how do we interpret that?

    If the sub is cheap, does that mean the magazine is doing well and it can afford to do that, or it's struggling and desperate to attract new punters?

    If the sub is expensive, does that mean the magazine is doing well and can charge a premium from a healthy customer base, or it's struggling and desperate to raise as much as possible from a dwindling readership?

    David, it's over to you.

  13. The cheaper the sub is the more they need you. If a magazine charges a premium it's confident that its readers really value it.

  14. Well, I'm going to contradict what Simon Hayes Budgen said, but you literally cannot buy Rolling Stone in my town. There are two places here that sell magazines and neither of them stock Rolling Stone. I doubt that my town is atypical of other American towns of this size (population @ 7500).

    So, I think it's safe to say that, if you live in much of small-town America and want to read the paper edition of RS, you're going to have to subscribe.

  15. Thanks for clearing that up, David.