Blurring the lines: where books meet magazines and magazines meet books

As the publishing industry is forced to ebb and flow in response to its authors, readers, and sales, various outlets have been experimenting with monetizing readership–for better or for worse. While this trend has not been exclusive to any specific arm of the publishing industry, there has been a rise in traditional book publishers launching magazines and magazine companies publishing books. Although blurring the lines between these industries could aid in generating revenue, a boundary must be established between the identity of trendy news organizations and book publishers. Without established identities, a publisher’s integrity to its stories is replaced by the drive for profit, ultimately leaving the perception of a company up for question.

In 2012, just before the merge of Penguin Random House, Random House of Canada launched Hazlitt online magazine.1 The magazine, which claimed to be the “first ever digital magazine initiated and curated by a Canadian trade book publisher”2 markets itself as a “home for writers and artists to tell the best stories about the things that matter most to them.”3 In this digital platform, the magazine presents itself as a place where Q & A transcripts live, longreads look a lot like longform journalism, and fiction is accompanied by beautifully illustrated graphics. Aside from the compelling content and well-designed web layout, the eye-catching names of the authors attached to the articles are almost sure to draw a reader’s attention. The authors are the award winners, the best-sellers and the ones that drive clicks. Scrolling through the various sections of the site, it is apparent that not all of the content is excerpted from chapters of already published titles, however it inadvertently guides consumers to invest in Penguin Random House’s authors, and more broadly, their company. While the Penguin Random House brand remains quite detached throughout Hazlitt, the overall strategy for the web magazine is to build brand awareness for authors and drive clicks to their project site, Strange Light. The edgy, new site is a re-brand of Hazlitt’s original platform, Hazlitt Originals, publishing Canadian and international titles and voices that “command attention and curiosity, offering readers the delight of the unexpected.”4 To purchase one of Strange Light’s titles, a simple click will jump users back to Penguin Random House’s retail site, further contributing to the culture of consumerism in publishing.

Perhaps it seems like a backwards approach to drive readers through so many sites in hopes of turning profit for content, but Penguin Random House’s roots, like many companies in the publishing industry, have longstanding ties to traditional advertising revenue. With advertorials (advertisements that look like editorials) dating back to the early 18th century, Hazlitt’s platform barely extends outside of the box to re-invent advertising revenue.5 Instead the site elevates brand awareness for Penguin Random House and in 2017, Hazlitt was even nominated for six National Magazine Awards6 and ended up winning two silver medals.7 Receiving this recognition for their magazine meant their niche publication was working; it was being noticed.

Despite challenges other print news organizations have been facing over the years, including Postmedia’s closure of six community newspapers in Ontario and Alberta and halting print at three other papers in Manitoba and Ontario,8 some outlets are reporting that the niche magazine is the way of survival. Overseas in Britain, growth in print titles have tripled in the past five years. This growth can largely be attributed to consumer consumption habits: some are rebelling against the fast-paced digital age, while others disagree algorithms should cherry-pick reading habits.9 But aside from the consumers, the producers of these magazines are “staying relentlessly focused on one specific category and by thoroughly understanding the types of content and information that their audiences want, need- and in some cases, what readers don’t yet know they need.”10 While it can be difficult to determine what needs to come next in the digital age for companies to stay competitive, more and more publications are relying on their niche offer to stay afloat.

Similar to Hazlitt, Canadian general interest magazine, The Walrus seeks to provoke “new thinking and (spark) conversation on matters vital to Canadians.”11 Although its revenue model differs from Hazlitt’s as it is a registered charity under The Walrus Foundation, the magazine has gone beyond its original offer and tapped into multimedia platforms to increase its brand awareness. In analyzing The Walrus’s 2018 annual report, only 35 per cent of the magazine’s earned revenue is sourced from circulation, whereas 64 per cent of earned revenue is sourced from events.12 The events, known as The Walrus Talks bring together industry professionals to share their knowledge on issues concerning Canadians in a philanthropic light. Since their inception the events have been presented in an accessible environment, aiding in the magazine’s ability to “foster more loyalty among the existing audience” and “expose new people to its brand.”13 The additional components of The Walrus magazine establish the outlet resembling more of a multi-faceted publisher. In furthering their brand recognition, The Walrus produces longform journalistic content and publishes fiction and poetry. However, it also sells merchandise, has a podcast, and as of September 2018, the outlet launched The Walrus Books. Publishing in partnership with The Walrus, House of Anansi Press, and the Chawkers Foundation Writers Project , The Walrus Books “supports the creation of Canadian non-fiction books of national interest.” The most recent of these publications is titled “The Walrus Book of True Crime” featuring true stories originally published during the magazine’s sixteen-year history.14 Therefore, despite the fact that “the death of print has been predicted since the end of the last century,” magazines have been reinventing themselves to stay alive and are becoming “brands that serve their audience via a range of channels, of which print is but one.”15

As a registered charity, The Walrus Foundation had an operating revenue of $6.4 million as of 2018, but the challenge with this revenue lies with the foundation’s position as a non-profit; it cannot make a profit, but that does not mean it cannot still advertise.16 Across the website and in the magazine, The Walrus fills space by advertising for its own events and additional ventures. Although, it is difficult to assert that the magazine has established various outlets purely for the good of disseminating news and prompts for conversation in Canada especially when considering their strong, mixed asset donor base.17 In looking at the politics behind the donors, one might be led to question intentions of donations and what that means on a publishing scale. Within their annual report, Penguin Random House is listed as a “bronze” level donor to The Walrus Gala, calling into question the magazine’s priorities in publishing excerpts of text within the magazine distributed by Penguin Random House. It is these relationships that can leave consumers feeling dismayed and discontent with publications, perhaps choosing to unsubscribe altogether.

Aside from the politics of the business, the notion of magazines and publishers capitalizing on their brand power has aided in altering perceived limitations of print. By extending beyond their platforms, “Canada’s magazine industry is expected to fare better than both the global and North American Markets.”18 Both Hazlitt and The Walrus offer such diverse content allowing audiences to feel like the brands can resonate with any of their beliefs, values and interests. However, it is through distributing this diverse content that publishers must remind themselves of their roots and their audiences.

In analyzing the publishing industry’s attempt to re-brand, re-pitch, and recreate, it is evident that publishers believe the most sustainable model for their outlets is to diversify their platforms. By diversifying a company’s brand to include alternative outlets for writing, like Hazlitt, or experimenting with podcasts and books like The Walrus, Canadian publishers are doing their best to find supplemental spaces for advertising that don’t exactly resemble advertising. These measures within the industry ultimately show consumers that there is no shortage of ideas when it comes to redesigning the industry, but those ideas will have to be modified and fostered until they can prove to be profitable. In turn, publishing is likely to see a plenitude of publications positioning themselves to stay alive and running, but there is a possibility it will be at the expense of ethics.

Bibliography

40th NMAs.” National Magazine Awards, June 1, 2017. https://magazine-awards.com/en/tag/40th-nmas/.

A Brief History of Native Advertising.” Contently, October 21, 2019. https://contently.com/2014/03/28/a-brief-history-of-native-advertising/.

About.” Hazlitt, September 11, 2019. https://hazlitt.net/about.

About Us.” The Walrus, August 26, 2019. https://thewalrus.ca/about/.

Bezuidenhout, Nick. “Magazine Publishing Trends for 2019.” WoodWing Software. Woodwing, February 6, 2019. https://www.woodwing.com/en/blog/magazine-publishing-trends-for-2019.

Company History.” Penguin Random House. Accessed October 29, 2019. https://global.penguinrandomhouse.com/company-history/.

Hazlitt Nominated for Six National Magazine Awards!” Penguin Random House Canada, April 21, 2017. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/news/477/hazlitt-nominated-six-national-magazine-awards.

Interim Update to August 2018 Profile.” Magazine Industry Profile. Accessed October 29, 2019. http://www.ontariocreates.ca/collaboration/research_and_industry_information/industry_profiles/Magazine_Industry_Profile.htm#footnote-d.

Postmedia to Shutter 6 Community Newspapers, Halting Print Editions at 3 Others | CBC News.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, June 26, 2018. https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/postmedia-cuts-1.4722693.

Strange Light: A Hazlitt Project.” Strange Light | A Hazlitt Project. Accessed October 29, 2019. https://strangelight.com/.

Thorpe, Vanessa. “Smart, Cool … and in Print: How Indy Mags Became All the Rage.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, July 22, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/jul/22/independent-magazines-buck-trend-for-print-decine.

Wong, Tony. “Random House Canada’s New Online Digital Program Puts Publishing Houses in Competition with Magazines and Newspapers.” thestar.com, August 27, 2012. https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/2012/08/27/random_house_canadas_new_online_digital_program_puts_publishing_houses_in_competition_with_magazines_and_newspapers.html.

2018 Year in Review.” The Walrus Foundation, accessed October 29, 2019. https://s3.amazonaws.com/walrus-assets/img/TheWalrus_2018_Year_In_Review.pdf

1 “Company History,” Penguin Random House, accessed October 29, 2019, https://global.penguinrandomhouse.com/company-history/.

2 Tony Wong, “Random House Canada’s New Online Digital Program Puts Publishing Houses in Competition with Magazines and Newspapers,” thestar.com, August 27, 2012, https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/2012/08/27/random_house_canadas_new_online_digital_program_puts_publishing_houses_in_competition_with_magazines_and_newspapers.html.

3 “About,” Hazlitt, September 11, 2019, https://hazlitt.net/about.

4 Strange Light: A Hazlitt Project,” Strange Light | A Hazlitt Project, accessed October 29, 2019, https://strangelight.com/.

5 “A Brief History of Native Advertising,” Contently, October 21, 2019, https://contently.com/2014/03/28/a-brief-history-of-native-advertising/.

6 “Hazlitt Nominated for Six National Magazine Awards!,” Penguin Random House Canada, April 21, 2017, https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/news/477/hazlitt-nominated-six-national-magazine-awards.

7 “40th NMAs,” National Magazine Awards, June 1, 2017, https://magazine-awards.com/en/tag/40th-nmas/.

8 “Postmedia to Shutter 6 Community Newspapers, Halting Print Editions at 3 Others | CBC News,” CBCnews (CBC/Radio Canada, June 26, 2018), https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/postmedia-cuts-1.4722693.

9 Vanessa Thorpe, “Smart, Cool … and in Print: How Indy Mags Became All the Rage,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, July 22, 2018), https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/jul/22/independent-magazines-buck-trend-for-print-decine.

10 Nick Bezuidenhout, “Magazine Publishing Trends for 2019,” WoodWing Software (Woodwing, February 6, 2019), https://www.woodwing.com/en/blog/magazine-publishing-trends-for-

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17 “2018 Year in Review,” The Walrus Foundation, accessed October 29, 2019. https://s3.amazonaws.com/walrus-assets/img/TheWalrus_2018_Year_In_Review.pdf

18 “Interim Update to August 2018 Profile,” Magazine Industry Profile, accessed October 29, 2019, http://www.ontariocreates.ca/collaboration/research_and_industry_information/industry_profiles/Magazine_Industry_Profile.htm#footnote-d.

One Response to Blurring the lines: where books meet magazines and magazines meet books

  1. amyj says:

    This essay argues that, as publishers continue in the neverending cycle of seeking new ways to maximize profits to subsidize their book production, the creation of magazine publications is a new trend. Focusing specifically on Penguin Random House’s Hazlitt and general interest magazine The Walrus, the essay examines the different ways that these magazines make profit. Largely it is not through circulation itself, but through events, advertisements/advertorials, podcasts, and, for PRH, driving customers to the PRH website to purchase PRH titles. For this reason, consumer trust in the publications may decrease. In fact, the conclusion states that it is at the expense of ethics.

    It seems to me that analyzing the source of a given company’s revenue is an important endeavor. For example, realizing that most of a magazine’s money comes from events would be important for any member of that magazine’s staff to know when making decisions, and it could also be important for staff at other magazines who are examining ideas for business models. The essay is meticulously well-researched in showing that these magazines and, by extension, the publishers attached to them are being forced to branch out in search of more revenue options.

    The only thing I’m still wondering about is whether these attempts *are* unethical, or decrease the perceived value of a publishing house. A lot of the revenue attempts here — creating a magazine or a podcast, hosting events — are tactics that I feel like we ourselves would joyfully employ for our own fake imprints in the book project (if we had enough fake budget to do so). Even if we can’t make our own magazines or podcasts, I know that my group at least is absolutely booking our authors on podcasts and trying to get magazine features for them. I also feel like if we were writing up a review of a new imprint and they *weren’t* hosting events and doing podcasts, we’d criticize them for that. And the public *likes* magazines, podcasts, and events; according to this essay, Hazlitt has even apparently won a plethora of awards for literary merit. My inner philosophy major wants to understand a little more *why* these things would be unethical or decrease a consumer’s trust in a publisher. Specifically with Hazlitt, maybe is it because they’re not explicitly branded as PRH, but still benefit PRH? Are their clickthroughs to PRH and using PRH authors not transparent enough as PRH-related? The part about contributing to the culture of “consumerism in publishing” was also an area that I’d need laid out for me a little more explicitly. As a staunch Marxist myself I definitely believe that there are times when consumerism is terrible, but I’m not sure that *any* time you buy a product it’s consumerism. So I might just be super dense, but I’d love something more explicit that explains to me why, in this specific context, clicking through to a book and buying it is bad.

    Of everything listed in the essay, advertorials are definitely the area in which I can most clearly imagine the argument for why they could be unethical.

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