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If you weren't paying $5.99 for Vogue’s mighty September issue last year, would you pay $9.99 for this year’s issue? That's the hope behind part of Vogue’s new publishing strategy, as laid out in Business of Fashion in mid-April. The May issue is a physical inch wider than past issues, $1 more expensive on the newsstand, and select pages are printed on a heavier paper stock. The summer issues will shrink back down to standard sizing, but in September, Vogue will again increase its size and nearly double its price on the newsstand.
Vogue isn’t the only one debuting a larger size. Over at Hearst, Elle and Marie Claire transitioned to the same wider format in March, and both Town & Country and Harper’s Bazaar have been publishing bigger physical issues each month for several years.
In fashion, legacy print media’s struggle to sell physical magazines is a well-worn story. Condé Nast layoffs have become a regular occurrence, and magazine sales on newsstands keep hitting new lows. According to the Alliance for Audited Media, Vogue reported a 37 percent decline in newsstand sales from 2010 to 2014, falling from an average of 343,614 copies sold per month in 2010 to 214,283 copies sold per month in 2014. Harper’s Bazaar’s newsstand sales declined 21 percent in the same time period. Marie Claire sank by 41 percent, from an average of 258,110 copies sold per month in 2010 to 149,916 copies sold in 2014, and Elle plummeted by 50 percent over the same time period.
Vogue’s brand name has a lot of cache, inside and outside of the fashion industry, especially when it comes to the September issue. Pound for pound, it's the most anticipated issue of the year; the ad pages are counted meticulously to compare against competitors and whoever is chosen for the cover will undoubtedly make headlines. By presenting the magazine as a more upscale, luxurious product for that month, Vogue may be hoping that consumers will be more apt to buy it and keep it on the coffee table for awhile.
"It's not a terrible idea," says Aileen Gallagher, a magazine media professor at Syracuse University, "The September issue is a special issue of Vogue and if they market it almost like an annual, then you can get away with charging more for it because it might also draw the untraditional Vogue reader, not just your standard subscriber," she explains. "They may have a great success where that one issue sells much much more — it's already their best selling issue every year anyways, but you can make more revenue off of it if you position it in a different way."
"Is it crazy for the September issue of Vogue, which is hundreds of pages and kind of biblical in its identity? For 10 dollars, that could be something that people will pay for."
The fact that the magazine will be nearly double its regular price in September shows that Vogue clearly places a lot of value on the selling power of that one issue. "The price point is interesting because that's the price of a movie, or a drink — in New York, anyways — or a book," says Gallagher. "I think people would say that's crazy for a magazine to cost 10 dollars, but is it crazy for the September issue of Vogue, which is hundreds of pages and kind of biblical in its identity? For 10 dollars, that could be something that people will pay for."
A Hearst spokesperson noted that since all four of the company’s luxury magazines (Harper’s Bazaar, Town & Country, and now Elle and Marie Claire) have transitioned to a larger size, the new direction has resulted in "material revenue growth and very positive reader response."
Specifically at Marie Claire, the magazine’s VP and publisher Nancy Berger Cardone says that the new size and upgraded paper stock helps deliver a better all-around product experience for both readers and advertisers. "Just because you’ve done it a certain way in the past doesn’t mean you always have to do the same way and I think it’s always good, both for our audience and also for our advertising partners, to continually invest in our product," says Cardone. "By always enhancing it and making it better, it creates a better consumer experience and if you have a good consumer experience, then you have advertisers that want to be a part of that."
"To me, it’s very validating when I see a magazine like Vogue, which some might have thought to be a leader, and they are actually following."
When she heard that Vogue was trying out a more premium look after Marie Claire had already converted over months earlier, Cardone took it as a vote of confidence in what Hearst’s magazines were doing. "I’ll tell you when you know it’s a good decision: when other people try to copy it," says Cardone. "To me, it’s very validating when I see a magazine like Vogue, which some might have thought to be a leader, and they are actually following."
From an advertising perspective, a bigger, higher quality magazine could draw in more fashion clients. Elizabeth Spiers, founder of The Insurrection and a digital media consultant who's held a number of positions in the industry, saw similarities to a change she made when she was running The Observer. Spiers moved the paper from a tabloid to a mini broadsheet format to give it a more upscale feel (think less New York Post, more Financial Times). The hope was to appeal to more luxury advertisers — and it worked.
"If you're having problems with advertisers, if they think that you're moving downscale, picking up a bigger trim size or better paper stock has helped with that because it gives the publications a little bit more of a premium feel," says Spiers.
A bigger magazine can’t solve every problem, though.
Earlier this year, The New York Times reported that Condé Nast brought in over $1 billion in revenue in 2015, the large majority of which was still funneled in from the company’s print ventures. Since print is still bringing in the bulk of the revenue at a place like Condé Nast, it makes sense that Vogue wants to do all it can to preserve the actual magazine, along with launching podcasts and a news app and firing up Facebook Live like everybody else.
A bigger magazine can’t solve every problem, though. Lucky (RIP) tried to go down the premium route last year — right before it folded. After the brand spun off from Condé Nast’s stable and launched the doomed LuckyShops.com e-commerce platform, it continued to publish a monthly magazine until May, when Lucky’s former owner Josh Berman announced plans to switch the magazine to a quarterly production cycle, expand the size of the magazine, and print it on higher-quality paper.
Berman told Adweek that the new quarterly would have a more "premium 'collectible' feeling," but readers (and advertisers) never got a chance to see the new magazine. Lucky’s print operation folded within the month and the e-commerce site shut down soon after.
Johannes Reponen, who teaches fashion media criticism at the London College of Fashion, likens the larger physical look to the wide variety of independent magazines that have been thriving, especially in London. "[Independent magazines] have thicker paper stocks, thicker covers, and usually play with this scale and really try to think about the physicalities of the publication, which is what the mainstream magazines haven't really done so far," says Reponen, who also runs his own independent magazine. "In that sense, to me, it feels like Vogue is perhaps sort of taking some steps and the bigger size is an experiment, but I think they are perhaps really trying to justify and make the case for why print is special and why do we buy it and how is it different from what we consume online."
Indie magazines in particular haven't struggled as much with asking readers to pay more for the print product, because there is clear value in the purchase. Readers are paying for content not easily found elsewhere, and it’s delivered in a high-quality format. Mainstream magazines like Vogue and Elle generally have a harder time proving that value. "Online, you get a lot of content for free and the newsstand in particular has really struggled with that model of ‘what can I get for free,’" says Reponen. "On the other hand, what can we get people to pay for?"