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Bush Backlash Helps Harper's Resurgence

A combination of factors has worked to boost newsstand and subscription sales at Harper's Magazine, but perhaps none so effectively as President Bush.

“We're enjoying this boom that was partly Bush-related and partly because we're presenting our magazine better on the newsstand,” said John R. MacArthur, president and publisher of Harper's, New York.

“Because of the anti-Bush sentiment, that's helping us,” he said. “It's becoming more and more of a political magazine that does literature as opposed to a literary magazine that does politics, which is what traditionally the magazine's been.”

That shift has translated well in business terms for a monthly magazine that competes most closely with Conde Nast Publications' The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. It also has led to a renaissance at Harper's.

Consider the outsert, as the cover-wrap is called. It previously was fairly prosaic, sharing none of the tone or language found within the magazine.

Now, after a redesign, it is almost like a second cover, giving the publication's art director more leeway in presentation. Essentially, there is art on the front of the outsert, marketing sell on the inside of the flap and three tear-off subscription cards at the back.

The appeal is proven by the numbers. Two years ago, Harper's posted single-copy newsstand sales of 30,000 to 35,000. Now it tracks 45,000 to 55,000. Sell-through, the number of copies sold of those distributed at newsstands, is 50 percent versus 39 percent to 40 percent previously.

Harper's sell-through is nearly identical to that of Vanity Fair, a general-interest glossy magazine from Conde Nast.

All told, Harper's circulated an average of 232,000 copies in the first half of 2003 and 240,000 in the second, posting double-digit bonuses over the rate base, or the circulation guaranteed to advertisers.

According to filings with the Audit Bureau of Circulations, Harper's rate base for the first half of 2003 was 205,000. The second-half numbers are being submitted to ABC.

Newsstand plays an important part in boosting Harper's subscriptions, too. Magazine inserts, along with direct mail and the site at www.harpers.org, are key not only for acquiring new subscribers, but also for renewals.

“You've already printed the magazine, it's out there, so it's not a cost you would assign to circulation acquisition,” MacArthur said. “That's why everybody loves insert subscriptions. And the Internet's even better. It costs even less.

“If the newsstand sales continue to grow and the renewal rate continues to grow,” he said, “we may not need to mail [prospects] again until next year.”

Depending on the offer and time of year, Harper's charges subscribers $12 to $16 for an annual subscription. The price is higher around Christmas, when consumers spend more.

The renewal rate in the first half was 61.6 percent, a claim audited by ABC. Expectations for the second half are higher, 65 percent. The industry renewal rate hovers typically at 30 percent to 35 percent, MacArthur said.

Like many publications, there are many unidentified renewals — people who let their subscriptions lapse, then subscribe at the lower, new-subscriber rate. Harper's does not mind such subscribers.

“We pride ourselves on the quality of our circulation,” MacArthur said. “We're the only magazine in the country that promotes our circulation policy to our advertiser. We don't offer premiums, we don't use independent agents, we don't do any telephone marketing, we don't do any of the circulation hustle that everybody else does.

“So it's a very clean ABC rate,” he said. “[Other publications] have tried to compete with TV, which [largely] is free, and they gave away their magazines too cheap. And now Americans don't want to pay.”

But Harper's knows it cannot abandon marketing outreach as other magazines battle to build — some would say buy — circulation to meet guaranteed rate base rates.

The magazine's last mailing went this month to 200,000 prospects. A potential second round is slated for April, if necessary. It tests lists with affinity to its own readership base, like Amnesty International. And, of course, it reaches out to its own expires.

Publications are wont to test new mailers. But no matter what Harper's puts out there, it just cannot improve upon the control — a decade-old mail piece.

“We can't beat it,” MacArthur said. “We've tested other letters. Nothing beats this one. Of course, it helps if you mail less, because your response rates go up. No one's seen your mail for a while, and you're mailing to your highest responding lists.”

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