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Contract Publishing

Richard Sharpe, November 2006

Client publishing, customer magazines, contract publishing – it goes by various names but the reality is unmistakable. All magazines are going to be influenced by the huge and still expanding volume of this new kind of print publication. The extent and growth of this sector is sketched here for the first time.

This paper opposes the tendency among some professionals to dismiss customer magazines as ‘not proper magazines’, pointing out that they use the same craft, often to good effect.

But Editorial will never be the same again. Contract publishing re-configures the politics of the publishing house with consequences for all magazines, not only those produced for corporate customers.

Contract Publishing

Client magazines gave grown into a third leg of magazine publishing in the UK to complement consumer and business magazines. Client magazines account for about 5% of the revenues from the magazine sector.

Clients use them mainly to build the awareness and loyalty to their brand of products or services among consumers. Client magazines nine of the top 10 are the highest circulation magazines in the UK.

Client magazines are published by a spectrum of publishers from specialist publishers, through the arms of more conventional publishers, to marketing/advertising operations, to in-house teams. The advent of client magazines changes the relationship between journalists and the content they generate for readers. Client magazines introduce, for the first time, a hegemonic centre of control over the content into an area where the content was generated by the contest between different groups
none of which, edition by edition, exercised a hegemony. His breaks one of the working myths of the magazine sector that they serve the reader. We have yet to
see if the reader cares.

High life kicks it off

Contract publishing started in the UK 32 years ago in 1973 when Cedar Publishing launched High Life for British Airways (BA). BA’s executives wanted a publication distributed on their aircraft which would reinforce the marketing messages BA was then promoting in order to sell more aircraft seats to existing passengers. It aimed to make travel, particularly business travel, enticing and to increase the appeal of using BA flights.

There is no settled term for the contract magazine: it has also been called a client magazine and a customer magazine, depending on the perspective of the observer. The term customer magazine emphasises the target readership of many of these magazines. The term contract magazine emphasises the relationship between the client company and the publisher and their employed journalists. In addition to the relationship of publishing through a contract, the term client magazine emphasises the role which the magazine plays in promoting and reinforcing the brand image of the client to the readership, whether that be a customer or another commercial
organisation in the supply chain of the service or product of the client. I therefore prefer the term client magazine as it looks at both the relationships between the client and the publishers and journalists, and the aims of the client in publication.

The third arm of magazine publishing

In the first 30 years of this sector of client-magazine publishing grew into a sector with a turnover of £313 million in 2002 [Mintel 1]. It made a third leg of magazine publishing, adding to the legs of consumer magazines and business magazines.

It has grown so large that the companies publishing contract magazines have formed themselves into a body in the UK to promote the further use of contract magazines, the Association of Publishing Agents.

This client-magazine turnover is made up from clients paying publishing companies to produce their magazines; in some cases a cover price; and, in some cases, the additional advertising income some of these magazines generate. In the five years to 2002 the turnover of the sector increased 90% as more clients entered the market seeking their own magazines. The client-publishing sector is just over a tenth of the size of the conventional consumer magazine sector in the UK by turnover, and growing at nearly twice the rate.

In comparison, the conventional consumer magazine sector in the UK generated a turnover of £2.8 billion in 2005. Growth in the previous five years had been about 50%. The conventional business magazine sector is even larger at £3.3 billion turnover in 2005.

Customer focus on brands

The travel trade remains one of the three largest commercial sectors using client magazines: it has 10% of the market. Retailing and distribution account for 15%, as does the financial sector. Airlines, banks, supermarkets, TV networks are high spenders in all forms of marketing to customers and potential customers.

All of these clients use client publications as one element in a mix of marketing. TV and other media of advertising may be aimed at creating wider markets by winning new customers. The most important aim of client publications is to connect with existing customers in order to retain customer loyalty and to entice existing customers to use more the client’s products or services. This is the stated aim by 78% of corporations with their own customer magazines [Mintel 1].

Prospective customers are the next important audience targeted by 42% of customer magazines. Client publications are also now being used to communicate with employees (16%). They are also being used to gain and retain the attention of other parts of the supply chain on which the client is dependent: 15% of contract magazines are for business partners; 10% for dealers and distributors.

Clients would only pay for client magazines and customer-publishing companies only publish them if readers read them. Consumers are the core target of readership. Sixty-one per cent of consumers interviewed by Mintel in 2002 said they had read between one and three client magazines in the previous three months. Nearly a third, 27%, said they had read between four and 20 titles. Nine of the UK’s top 10 magazines by circulation of all types are client magazines. Sky Customer Magazine for the satellite TV network has a circulation of 5.2 million. The AA Magazine from the car recovery and services company has a circulation of 4.4 million. The Boots
Health and Beauty magazine from the cosmetics and pharmaceutical retail chain has a circulation of 3.3 million.

In comparison the largest circulation of a conventional magazine is What’s on TV with a circulation of 1.7 million. Second comes the Radio Times with 1.2 million; third Take a Break with 1.2 million. When these circulations for magazines were presented to a group of journalists on conventional magazines recently, some objected to the use of the term magazine to cover Sky Customer Magazine, the AA Magazine and Boots Health and Beauty. But these are magazines: they are in magazine format; they use many of the same approaches of conventional magazines; they are published periodically; and they are often read by the same readers who read conventional magazines. The objection by the journalists may show more of their attitude to the status of their colleagues in the client-magazine sector.

Spectrum of publishers

The client-magazine sector is served by a spectrum of publishers. It starts with independent publishers focused only on client magazines; through the client-publishing operations of conventional publishing companies; through to the client-publishing operations of marketing and advertising agencies and consultancies; and the spectrum finishes with the in-house publishing operations of clients themselves.

Redwood Publishing is a key example of an independent focused publisher of client magazines. These are sometimes called publishing agents. Redwood was launched in 1983 by a publisher out from the Haymarket magazine group and a national-newspaper journalist. It launched Top Gear, Homes and Antiques, Gardener’s World and Good Food for the BBC. Redwood has a £13 million income from advertising sold into the 53 million magazines a year it circulated in 2005. [Redwood]

Clients are attracted to the independent focused publishers of client magazines because of their track record in this sector; and their ability to handle client relations.

In the middle is a publisher such as Haymarket: a publisher of conventional consumer and business magazines with a contract-publishing operation. Haymarket publishes for the British Army as well as for a range of sports and motor-sport clients.

Clients are attracted to the client-publishing operations of conventional publishers by the association with their existing titles and therefore the proven skills in attracting readers.

Clients are attracted to the client-publishing operations of marketing and advertising corporations because of the way in which such organisations can shape a whole campaign for clients around the different activities of marketing and advertising including direct mailing; TV, radio and poster advertising; media relations; and product-packing design. Cedar, which kicked off the client-magazine sector with its BA High Life contract, is now part of the Omnicom marketing and advertising corporation. The very term Omnicom emphasises that the corporation covers the spectrum of communications.

Corporations sometimes use their in-house publishing operations of corporations wishing to reach out to consumer and business partners, where they have an in-house operation. The general rise of outsourcing all but core operations has made this the least favoured option for client publications.

Clients use this in-house route where they have existing expertise and where they want a tighter control of their messages than can be gained by outsourcing. This part of the sector has been called in the past industrial publishing and created a separate strand of journalists called industrial editors. Client publications also use the full spectrum of distribution models used by conventional magazines. Some are sold on the news stands, and, if in retail, specially prompted near checkouts.

Others are distributed through controlled circulation, through the membership of a club or as a customer of the client. Others are distributed more freely by local distribution in the target area; local authorities, for example, often use this method for the local magazines.

Changing relationships

All magazine publishing involves a set of relationships and conflicts between different values between groups with different objectives. The publisher, both the company and the individual named on the masthead, may likely have the view that the publication is a money-making operation.

Their focus is on profits from the different strands of income. For some publishers this is one part of the equation while their genuine interest in the subject matter of the publication is another.

This is often the case with highly focused publishers or of publishers who are on the fringes of publishing, brought to it through a passion for their subject. Other publishers are using the magazine as a communications media to potential readers for the set of ideas they wish to promote. Readers have an interest in the complete content of the publication. They may be dedicated readers who constantly turn to a publication which helps them form their view of their professional world or their world of their personal interests, such as a hobby or sport. These are the readers of Campaign, Computer Weekly, Vogue, FI Racing or of Motor Cycle News. They may be occasional readers looking for light entertainment and a view of the narratives of the world around them; such are the readers of Take a Break, Chat and Pick me up.

Advertisers have an interest in the readership of the publication. They are sold the attention of readers by the publisher and will select the publication by both the demographics of the readers and the tone of the publication.

Those involved in advertising sales in publishing promote the publication to these advertisers and form the bridge between the advertisers and the publication.

Publishers are increasingly interesting in “brand extensions”, websites, exhibitions and others ways to develop the brand of their magazine.

There are often also institutions in the business sector which have an interest in the publication of magazines. They are not the formal clients of the publication, but they may have a relationship with the publisher to include their members in the circulation.

There are the editorial staff on the publication. Journalists with their special interests and skills and knowledge of the subject area or in their role as the gatekeepers of style and language. Design staff with their interests in the layout of the publication. Stylists with their focus on the look of the publication. And production staff with their interests in the throughput of the publication and its timely production to quality standards. There are also editors, of the whole magazine, of sections or in different editing roles. Further there are supporting editorial staff: PAs to editors, editorial assistants etc.

Outside the publishing company there are other interests: freelance staff used for writing, photography and the like, repro houses, printers, distributors and retailers. The relationships between these interest groups are historically in flux – change as a result of the dynamics between them – and also are formed differently in different publishing operations. Many magazine publishing companies, for example, routinely recruit publishers from the advertising sales side and focus on the profitability of the publications. The editorial staff are employed to gain the eyeballs of the readers to be sold on to advertisers. The relationship between publishers and editorial staff is therefore fixed by the culture of the publishing house which can be slow to change. Yet with increasing emphasis to gain more revenue from readers, publishers are becoming increasingly interested in “brand extensions”: offering more services to readers than just the magazine in order to reinforce the role of the magazine and provide different sources of revenue. Here Web sites and reader events including exhibitions play an increasing role.

Client Control

The new interest in all of these relationships between interest groups in the client-publishing sector is the client. Instead of being one among many commercial interests outside the publication, or even a dominant advertiser, the client can control the complete content of the publication in its attempts to fulfil its own interests. The interests of the client, the single corporation with the contract or using its in-house operations, are an hegemony. If the publisher does not operate to the client’s brief, there are other publishers. If the editorial staff do not produce a publication to the client’s liking – whatever their knowledge of the world of magazines – they can have it changed issue by issue or go to another publisher which will provide the client with the content is wants. If other sources of advertising support clash with the interests of the client, they are to be avoided, not included in the magazine and denied the attention of the readers which the client is aiming for.

The model of behaviour through which the client operates is one of control. Perhaps quite senior executives within the client’s operation will exercise that control, as is the case often in motorsport client publishing. Or perhaps the people exercising control on behalf of the client are relatively low down in the marketing and communications department, as can happen in the retailing sector. Whoever exercises the control function in the client organisation, however it is exercised, it is still the hegemonic control function on the position, content and distribution of the magazine.

The main contested area of control is the content of the magazine. Editorial staff are used to contesting this area with publishers, advertisers and their agents inside and outside the publishing company, some institutions and some readers. Some publishing companies and some individual publishers exert or attempt to exert detailed control of the content. Their ultimate weapon over the editorial staff is the sack. Often the most contested area of the publication is the cover. Some publishers sell the cover to advertisers. Others have to negotiate with the agents of the celebrities on the cover what images can be used and with what messages. Editorial staff are used to seeing parts of the total content of what they consider to be their publication handed over to others, to a greater or lesser extent. Advertisers buy a page and within the legal and regulatory restrictions put onto the page what ever they like. This may clash with the tone of the publication. Editorial teams exercise what control they can through the placing of these advertisements through their detailed control of the flat plan. Increasingly advertisers try to make their copy appear to the reader as a seamless part of the editorial content through advertorials. Or through sponsorship of parts of the publication. Magazines which review products and services are also subject to some degree of control by the vendors of the products and services which they review. The vendor can deny access to new products, or favour magazines which appear to the vendor to be favourable to the vendor’s products or services. Publishers are also increasingly interested in “extending the brand”, offering other revenue-generating services to readers such as exhibitions, Web sites, special offers and the like. Into this contested area of control which editorial teams are used to in conventional magazines comes the client in the client magazine. Here a single dominant force of control can be exercised.

Editorial staff, on senior and junior levels have, so as to survive in this area of magazine publishing, to become client handlers. They have to negotiate with a force which they know is hegemonic. This daily fact of life for editorial teams on client publishing magazines destroys a central framework of values which journalists pay homage to or may even actively try to implement: their relationship with the readers.

“Serving the Reader”

All of these groups contesting for control of content have frameworks of values or models through which they state their intended purpose or through which they justify their behaviour.

A key framework is the relationship between the editorial team and the readers. This key framework of values, an organising myth which magazine journalists often subscribe to and refer to, is their role in “serving the reader”. Whatever the commercial interests of the publisher, their employment as journalists gives them the opportunity to cover a subject area for a reader so that the readers’ interests are served. Indeed, many journalists on specialist consumer publications were the readers before they became journalists. They came to journalism through their interest in, for example, angling, motorcycling, motorsport or fashion.

This key framework of values created through the relationship with the reader can motivate editorial teams beyond their own need for employment and beyond the need for the editorial staff to express itself through the exercise of its different skills. This value is stated and contested; it may clash with the values of the publisher; with advertisers and their agents. But it often remains a contested area, not a dominated one. This area of contestation is severely diminished in the sector of client publishing. There was no golden age of the free editorial team serving the reader in any sector of magazine publishing or any form of media.

It has always been and will always be a contested area in which the powers of the different forces will shape the contest. In client publishing, however, as never before, a hegemonic force for control outside the editorial room, the office of the publisher, the advertising sales team and the commercial sales teams has been created and is being exercised. We still have to discover whether the other side of that relationship, the reader, cares, is interested or is indifferent to this change. It is quite possible that readers never felt particularly served by the editorial staff of publications. Many may have felt patronised, ignored, lectured or even misled – certainly if you judge by the letters columns of many magazines. But the development of client magazines does
introduce a significant change of control, never the less, and it does require a different set of values among editorial staff which itself changes the nature of the client magazine compared with the consumer or the business magazine.


Academic readers may be disappointed about the quantity of references for this paper. This is because contract publishing has not been a subject of academic research. The paper was written from a professional interest in contract publishing which has lasted over 10 years. It is researched from professional sources in many discussions and debates which, because they were not undertaken with the object of writing an academic paper have not been recorded in a way which would be appropriate for references by the author.

Mintel:Mintel figures on the site of the Association of Publishing Agents in the UK:

Redwood: from the Redwood corporate site:

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