When you're supposed to say yes...

Thank you for the incredible response to my reader survey last week—your comments and opinions were incredibly helpful. With thousands of participants, not only did it provide good data about who my readers are, but also what they think and feel.

Wondering what it was all about? Respondents from the United States were asked, "Do you think having UPPERCASE available at Barnes & Noble is a good idea? Why or why not?" 

As I mentioned, I was going in circles over an "opportunity." The distributor for Barnes & Noble had contacted me, expressing interest in UPPERCASE, initially for a few hundred to a thousand copies. At that quantity, I would lose money on every issue. I was prepared to say no and walk away, but coincidentally around that time an independent circulation consultant got in touch who was very generous with her knowledge and contacts. Samples were sent to the head newsstand buyer who was impressed with the quality of UPPERCASE magazine and the desired quantity was upped considerably: 4,000 to 5,000 copies.

Now that's certainly a flattering request! Particularly since I've been steadily working on UPPERCASE for nine years and have never received such an order. Not even for the year or so when Anthropologie stocked UPPERCASE some time ago. (That was a great opportunity, brief though it was—Anthropologie paid for all copies that went to their stores.)

And while this quantity certainly changed the figures in my calculations, an order of thousands would not automatically be profitable. The cost of an increased print run, freight costs, distribution fees (including reshipping fees based on the weight of my fairly hefty magazine) not to mention the percentage off the cover price that goes to the distributor and the retailer... And then you factor in the sell-through rate—even optimistically at 60% of all copies sent to the retailer would be sold... the profit margin diminishes and the risk goes up. Even at an above-average distribution rate that the circulation consultant was able to negotiate.

But aren't you supposed to say yes to opportunities like this?

Wouldn't it be good for exposure?

Don't you have to spend money to make money?

How does a business grow without taking risks?

You can see my dilemma.


It's not that I'm risk-averse. I would say the opposite, actually. I thrive on taking risks. But only the right ones. Situations in which I have a good amount of control. Situations where I know that my own hard work and guidance help reduce the risk.

"Yes, the question is "why not?" — I don't see any downside.....am I missing something?"

It would typically take two cycles of magazines (and print bills!) before I would see payment for the first copies sold through the distributor. So I would have the burden of spending a lot more before seeing any funds recouped, if a profit. That is a financial strain that could potentially negatively affect the projects I want to pursue this year and the ongoing health of the magazine. It would definitely add stress on me personally, too.

The sell-through rates are of concern, too. 40% of what I would send (2000 copies) could potentially be destroyed. (I like doing things at 100%—it goes back to my nerdy, bookish days in school where I strived to get perfect scores.) I would have no control over the display of the magazine in their stores.

"I don’t know what the return rate is on unsold copies, and I believe returns on old issues are handled by destroying the copy/removing the cover, so there would be no resaleability / back issues available."

"Not really [a good idea], unless it is a slam dunk for you. I think there is a lot of waste, which you are obviously trying to avoid. UPPERCASE is a cut above the other mags offered there....more meat than the rest..."

The newsstand distribution model is wasteful. And with my pledge this year to plant a tree for every new subscriber and renewal, I can't stomach the waste. My babies!

And what would it mean for UPPERCASE, this magazine I have lovingly grown over the years, to be in a big box store? Respondents worried that it might change the community and family feel of the magazine. I can truthfully say that UPPERCASE's content and ethos would not change, nor would I start putting advertising in its pages. But the perception that UPPERCASE would change because of such a deal was of concern to me:

"If having UPPERCASE there would lead to compromises like inviting advertising, creating crazy deadlines for yourself, or changing the format, I'd say let it pass. It has to be enjoyable for You. I consider the mag to be the most down-to-earth, inspiring publication that I know of. I'd hate to see it change!"
"Possibly - UPPERCASE is wonderful and should be shared with others. At the same time, I'm worried it would change. There's something about the quiet exclusivity of UPPERCASE that is appealing. I love the community behind the magazine and all the amazing people that bring this magazine to life. As long as that never changes and the magazine remains true to its roots, I would 100% support the light being shone on UPPERCASE in a retail store like Barnes & Noble."

There was plenty of support for UPPERCASE to be in Barnes & Noble (48% percent of US-based respondents), but it was often tempered with words of caution.

"Lots of times I see these beautiful types of publications and they are leafed through, picked over and returned to the magazine rack that is bulging full. I love Barnes & Noble, but I am not sure it's the best place for UPPERCASE—at least in the magazine stacks. I see it more in high end paper and art stores. I am sure it's hard to find the right line between accessibility and profitability."
"Personally, I have been wishing B&N would carry UPPERCASE, since it would be in front of so many more people. (It seems somewhat like a hidden gem) I've found a few other very cool mags lately that I never would have seen otherwise and have not seen anywhere else to date.  Hopefully, wide distribution won't cause you to include ads in your mag. That's part of the beauty of UPPERCASE."   
"It seems to me that more people READ the magazines at Barnes & Noble than BUY them. I suppose that being at the store would give you more exposure."
"I do count on B&N to offer a large selection of boutique magazines from all over the world. Their variety of arts magazines has exploded over the last couple of years and I have welcomed it and I’ve purchased many. I would be concerned that UPPERCASE would not lose its handmade, artisanal quality, and continue to avoid advertising while nurturing its community of makers and promoting the ideals of design, and the creative life." 
"I would like to see the magazine at B & N but worry what it would mean for the contents.  Once the big boxes get their clutches on mags I have seen too often the content decline in quality and be replaced with ads and other nonsense.  One of the great things about UPPERCASE is that there are no ads and the content is original and I would hate to see that change. Sometimes bigger isn't better and more exposure can lead to unfortunate changes." 
"I really miss having good magazines available at "the newsstand" and today that means bigger chains. But I wish more people knew about UPPERCASE and this would bring it to a wide audience and make it more accessible if someone can't do the whole subscription price. I feel like I got lucky that I found a copy in a crafting space/retail store in Pasadena on a trip— otherwise I might still be in the dark! Your magazine has truly ignited my creativity during a time that I could easily have just let it wallow." 
"It's hard to answer this intelligently without knowing the cost involved to 'enter' B&N and obtain shelf space. That being said, it seems like a worthy experiment. UPPERCASE would be in the company of similar-yet-different publications that appeal to countless people who still prefer to support a bricks-and-mortar store versus shopping online. Such a consumer may be considered rare, but UPPERCASE is a rare kind of reading / inspiring / motivating / enjoyable / guilty-pleasure kind of read, which may lead to a match made in heaven. Here on earth. For you. For us. And for B&N." 
"As co-founder of a mag that closed down, newsstand is fickle. You might get good visibility, but not always guaranteed. We happened to sell well at most B & Ns, but it always irked me that the remainders at other chains were just trashed. Total waste of resources and killed a few trees. Sometimes newsstands will arbitrarily slap on surcharges for obscure reasons, and if you want to stay there, you have to pay them. B & N was the most effective for us but if we were back in print today with a no-ads book hybrid model, odds are we would not do any newsstand at all, or only B & N." 

The "exposure" we're talking about through distribution is actually access to potential subscribers and the hope that someone browsing would pick up an issue, purchase it, fall in love and subscribe. UPPERCASE has always been supported by subscriptions; that is the model I've stuck to since the very beginning and why UPPERCASE is still going strong all these years later.

"It would be good exposure, but I am worried that the magazine is not main stream enough. And the price point is high which would deter “non-industry” readers to buy it. I love uppercase just the way it is and wish there was a good way for others to discover the magazine."
"That is business decision... based on return policy not sales and placement in racks...loyal subscribers are better than point of sale purchase... exclusivity is often times better than exposure..."
"Very important for your business to reach as many people as possible."

The survey asked what customers might be willing to pay for a single issue. 74% said that $18 would be an acceptable price (but I didn't offer any prices lower than that in my survey and there were lots of comments saying that the cost of UPPERCASE is simply too high. But any cover price below $18 is impossible to offer.) I would have to charge at least $22 per issue sold at B&N for it to be worthwhile. The cover price everywhere else would not change, so the magazine would be the most expensive at B&N which doesn't seem sustainable either.

"Are B&N shoppers bargain-conscious, and unlikely to understand the value? Or would they find your magazine, like the treasure it is, and be delighted?"
"If I saw UPPERCASE for $18 or more I'd nick a subscription card and not buy the physical mag."
"Buying a single copy now and then feels more affordable than a commitment to annual subscription."
"$18 is pretty high. I know most global magazines cost around that much, and it's difficult to justify. I would probably just subscribe."
"Yes, wider visibility. But the price is still too high."

Subscribers also provided their opinions on the matter.

"I don't like the idea of having UPPERCASE in Barnes & Noble because one of the reasons that I subscribe to UPPERCASE is because I feel I'm supporting a small business like myself and feels like I'm a part a little family of subscribers."   
"I suppose that it is a good idea from a marketing standpoint. It would expose more potential readers to the magazine, not as good advertising as word of mouth, but still a broad audience. I personally would still buy a multiyear subscription for a number of reasons. 1: I try not to buy much of anything from chain book stores unless I absolutely have to. 2: I think that you will get more of the money I spend if I buy directly from you. 3: Even though the readership of UPPERCASE is fairly large, I still feel like I have a personal relationship with you when I buy it directly through a subscription." 
"I would rather subscribe directly from you. I imagine you profit more that way. Magazines tend to cost more when you purchase them individually."
"UPPERCASE is exquisite. People will love it anywhere they find it. Personally I love subscribing because I don't shop often."

I appreciated the genuine thought that many readers put into their responses:

"I think I am on my fourth year and have learned to thoroughly appreciate you and the whole philosophy behind this wonderful project called UPPERCASE. I think it would be hard to describe all that in one issue. Subscribing to it a bit like a relationship that has grown over the months of receiving the magazine and appreciating you and all the artists that contribute as well as being exposed to new forms of creativity. It's hard to get all that from one issue."
"I feel that special, meaningful things, inspiring things like UPPERCASE, are worth searching for, worth the hunt. Having Uppercase at Barnes & Noble would certainly expand its reach, exponentially, but I would fear for the integrity of what you've worked so hard to achieve. However, I'm not the one that has to round up funding each issue, and that certainly must be a burden, a constant stressor."

Further demonstrating that my readers are generous and thoughtful, a surprising number mentioned that they would like to be able to pop into a store in order to purchase the magazine as a gift but that they themselves prefer to subscribe.

"I'm always telling people about your wonderful magazine & it would be nice to have it more accessible." 
"When I answered YES to buying UPPERCASE at B&N, I wouldn't let go of my subscription, I meant that I would likely buy an additional copy on occasion as a gift.  It would be terrific to be in the big store so you could reach more people who don't yet know about this unique publication. I came across my first issue at Anthropologie and often wished I could still pick up a duplicate copy of an issue to send a friend (or two). I can imagine the increased work involved in going from "boutique" to "mainstream" is a risk so I would hope that the rewards outweigh the risk.  To be honest, so many bookstores have closed in my area that it getting to one is inconvenient and the habit of going has changed from a weekly visit, to a quarterly visit."

Many of you counselled that I should "follow my gut" and some of you gave me your gut reactions, too!

"I think the exposure could be great, but you’ve already built a platform online. My gut says it’s a risky move, especially if you have to put a lot of money into it."
"My instinct is no... there is a certain cache to subscribing to such a well respected magazine that is only available out of the main stream .. it feels kind of special." 
"My gut response is no because I think that the demands of dealing with the terms of the contract would be stressful and I would think the monetary return would not be worth it."  

This commenter said something that was really astute and can apply to so many instances of the "doing it for exposure" debate: 

"I don't think it's worth the time, money and effort. If the internal convo you're having with yourself is "but the exposure!" then walk away. That convo always ends up benefitting the seller far more than the maker (that's you!) I also think that your target audience would be far more likely to be found in local, independent bookshops rather than a behemoth like B&N. Just my 2 cents!!"

Many people expressed their love for independent booksellers and small boutiques (yes!) and I wholeheartedly agree that these are lovely places for UPPERCASE to be. Thank you for the many suggestions of potential stockists! And thank you to the couple of stockists who responded honestly to the survey. 

"Please stay true to who you are. That's the beauty of UPPERCASE."

And so, as surely you've guessed by now, I've decided not to pursue having UPPERCASE available through Barnes & Noble. I have no disrespect to that company, but rather that the current model of magazine distribution makes it unfeasible from financial, idealogical and ecological reasons. 

I've decided to continue US distribution on our own, simply and directly to independent stockists—and to concentrate our growth via subscriptions, the model that has sustained the magazine these many years.

And as the hundreds of considered comments from respondents attest, UPPERCASE really does have the best readers in the world.

YOU are the most valuable part of my business.

Thank you.