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The Old Farmer’s Almanac At 225 Years: Still Useful With A Pleasant Degree Of Humor, And A Fresh New Look – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview With Sherin Pierce, Publisher, The Old Farmer’s Almanac

August 4, 2016

old-farmers-almanac-2017“It’s been the kind of product that’s been passed down from generation to generation and print was how it was passed along. And I think that’s been essential to the longevity of the product, because you have the history of the product in print going back to 1792, those original editions. And there’s something so tangible about a product when you can feel it in your hands and look at the date and see an edition from the 1800s or the very first edition, and you’re holding it in your hands. So, print has been the most essential element in keeping this product alive.” Sherin Pierce

 

When readers pick up the 2017 Old Farmer’s Almanac, they’re going to be pleasantly surprised by the subtle changes and nuances that have been implemented with the new, polished design. As the Old Farmer’s Almanac, North America’s oldest continuously published periodical, celebrates its 225th edition, the time-honored publication also extols a few updates that have given it a fresher, sharper focus and look.

Sherin Pierce has been publisher of the Old Farmer’s Almanac since 1994 and is very familiar with the beloved publication, more so than just about anyone else. I spoke with Sherin recently and we talked about the reasons for the enhancement and polishing that brought about this revitalization. With their digital footprint growing daily, Sherin said they felt that the time had come to set up the visual presence for the next 225 years. The challenge was to do that without being disloyal to the brand’s legacy look and feel. As Sherin put it, “Why fix something that isn’t broken?” That’s why a “fixing” wasn’t called for, just a bit of refurbishing. After all, how many other publishers can say they work for a publication that’s celebrating such a milestone as a 225th anniversary? How about, no one else?

And now, without further ado, the Mr. Magazine™ interview with a woman whose magazine definitely doesn’t look its age, no matter the couple of centuries or so that it has been around, Sherin Pierce, Publisher, the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

But first the sound-bites:

sherinOn what keeps the print edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac going after 225 years of continuous publishing: The simple answer is the incredible love and affection that people have for the Old Farmer’s Almanac and that love started in its print form. Of course, that’s how the Almanac began back in 1792 and it developed a reputation of being credible and trustworthy, and something that people welcomed into their families and homes.

On whether she can think of any other product that has stood the test of time the way the Old Farmer’s Almanac has: Maybe some food products, such as Baker’s Cocoa. They were some of our first advertisers in the Almanac. And Arm & Hammer, which is also in the Almanac, however it’s morphed into being more of an ingredient in laundry detergent and toothpaste rather than baking soda. I think the difference is that these products may have lasted as long; they’ve stood the test of time, some molasses brands and baked beans and things like that. But how much do people hold them with real affection? I think that’s part of the charm of the Almanac. People really have a great reservoir of love and respect for the product as well.

On the magazine’s recent redesign: We called it polishing the brand because we didn’t change anything; we took that cover engraving and illustrated it again. The font was something that we had developed as a custom font for the Almanac, and that was one of the most dramatic changes, but if you look at the 2016 Almanac versus the new one, you’ll see that it just brings everything into a sharper focus.

 On making it fresher, rather than a complete redesign: If it isn’t broken, you don’t fix it, so we enhanced it rather than a complete redesign. It’s such a recognizable cover and you don’t want to do anything to damage that, but you want to, again, enhance certain elements that may have faded a bit over the past decades.

 On the tagline, useful, but with a pleasant degree of humor: That was from Robert B. Thomas and he wanted to make sure that all of the intimation that we had was useful, whether we talked about the weather, the planets, stars, food; whether it was anecdotes or pleasantries, gardening, just whatever we talked about had to be useful information. But at the same time we wanted to have a pleasant way of presenting that information, so it wasn’t like lecturing people.

On the biggest stumbling block that she’s had to face and how she overcame it: Well, because the Almanac is sold at retail and it just dominates so many markets, I think one of the biggest challenges was the whole change in traditional newsstand. With the Almanac we have bookstore distribution and we have direct sales distribution into all of the hardware chains, so we had amortized our risks, but still the newsstand was the major source of distribution for the Almanac.

On the fact that the Old Farmer’s Almanac trademark of the hole in the upper left-hand corner of the magazine can’t be recreated online: (Laughs too). No, but you know what, we have the ‘hole’ story and we tell it online, but it’s not the same. See, that’s why when people said that print was dead, we always knew that for the Almanac to survive, we had to have print. We just had to. People need that and they want to see it.

On anything else that she’d like to add: When we looked at the Almanac this year, part of the reason that we wanted to look at the brand again was because the online presence and the social media presence has been growing by leaps and bounds. Our Facebook is at 1.4 million; Instagram is about 70,000; Pinterest and Twitter; all the ways in which we’re communicating on a daily basis and finding new people to come to the Almanac brand. We wanted to make sure that whether it was online, social media or print, every time someone accessed us they knew they were coming to the Old Farmer’s Almanac. We wanted to make that very clear, visually and in tone and voice.

On what someone would find her doing if they showed up unexpectedly to her home one evening: I’m on my road bike cycling. And then when I get home I go to a Zumba class or a yoga class. After being behind a desk all day, I cycle to work as well, in the summertime, not in the wintertime; I’m doing something very physical and active. I exercise and then I come back and garden. And at the end of the day I usually read.

On what keeps her up at night: What keeps me up at night are deadlines that may be missed. Also, I sometimes wonder why we can’t be more decent and civilized to one another. We’re all in competition as publishers, but we’re civil to one another. And I wish the way we all work together professionally could carry over into our daily lives. The divisiveness and the rhetoric that we’re hearing now are very upsetting and it’s hard to imagine that our lives are so governed by negativity.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Sherin Pierce Publisher, the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Samir Husni: Congratulations on reaching such a milestone, the 225th edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Sherin Pierce: Thank you.

farmers-almanac_0Samir Husni: After 225 years of continuous publishing and in this digital age, and I know that you’ve expanded and are everywhere, from the web to mobile, but what keeps the print magazine going after all of this time?

Sherin Pierce: The simple answer is the incredible love and affection that people have for the Old Farmer’s Almanac and that love started in its print form. Of course, that’s how the Almanac began back in 1792 and it developed a reputation of being credible and trustworthy, and something that people welcomed into their families and homes.

So, it’s been the kind of product that’s been passed down from generation to generation and print was how it was passed along. And I think that’s been essential to the longevity of the product, because you have the history of the product in print going back to 1792, those original editions. And there’s something so tangible about a product when you can feel it in your hands and look at the date and see an edition from the 1800s or the very first edition, and you’re holding it in your hands. So, print has been the most essential element in keeping this product alive.

It has morphed into other platforms, but it really all started with print. And that’s something that we understand and respect. For many of our readers who still want the Almanac in print, we’re always going to have a copy for them in print as well as our other platforms.

Samir Husni: For a magazine historian like me, the Almanac started just 51 years after the very first magazine was ever published in the United States; can you think of any other product that has lasted through thick and thin like the Almanac has? That’s still as fresh as it was 225 years ago?

Sherin Pierce: Maybe some food products, such as Baker’s Cocoa. They were some of our first advertisers in the Almanac. And Arm & Hammer, which is also in the Almanac, however it’s morphed into being more of an ingredient in laundry detergent and toothpaste rather than baking soda.

I think the difference is that these products may have lasted as long; they’ve stood the test of time, some molasses brands and baked beans and things like that. But how much do people hold them with real affection? I think that’s part of the charm of the Almanac. People really have a great reservoir of love and respect for the product as well. So, besides the longevity, we also have that going for us.

Samir Husni: You’re in a unique position; you’re the only publisher that I know of that can go to someone in the industry and say, we’ve been publishing this magazine for 225 years, especially this year with the redesign and everything that you’ve done. What’s different now with the redesign?

Sherin Pierce: When we looked at the cover of the Almanac, we looked at just polishing it a bit. It’s like when you have your reading glasses on and they’re a little foggy, you clean them and then you look at something and you see everything with clearer, fresher eyes.

We called it polishing the brand because we didn’t change anything; we took that cover engraving and illustrated it again. The font was something that we developed as a custom font for the Almanac, and that was one of the most dramatic changes, but if you look at the 2016 Almanac versus the new one, you’ll see that it just brings everything into a sharper focus. It’s still the familiar yellow cover; it’s still the familiar engraving; the four seasons; Ben Franklin and the founder, Robert B. Thomas, look like real people. And you can actually see the engraving of the four seasons. Everything has just come to life and in a sharper focus.

It looks very much the same, but just polished. And it’s just so much clearer and so much more eye-catching. It’s something that we needed to do; we really needed to polish the magazine a little. Developing that font was essential because we use that font now across all of the products that we do and online and on Facebook, so that’s the recognizable font of the Old Farmer’s Almanac. It’ll be across all print, social media and online as well.

Samir Husni: When I saw the new redesigned cover, I was pleasantly surprised by how fresh it looks, but I didn’t feel I was looking at a stranger; that this wasn’t my old friend, the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Sherin Pierce: That was part of the challenge. If it isn’t broken, you don’t fix it, so we enhanced it rather than a complete redesign. It’s such a recognizable cover and you don’t want to do anything to damage that, but you want to, again, enhance certain elements that may have faded a bit over the past decades, and just bring it into sharper focus, so that when people look at it they can still see the same Old Farmer’s Almanac, but with a clearer, fresher look.

And I think we achieved the pleasant surprise that we wanted. We didn’t want it to be unrecognizable; we just wanted people to feel that there was something a bit different about it that they couldn’t really put their finger on, but that there was something fresher about it.

Samir Husni: The tagline: useful, but with a pleasant degree of humor…

Sherin Pierce: That was from Robert B. Thomas and he wanted to make sure that all of the intimation that we had was useful, whether we talked about the weather, the planets, stars, food; whether it was anecdotes or pleasantries, gardening, just whatever we talked about had to be useful information. But at the same time we wanted to have a pleasant way of presenting that information, so it wasn’t like lecturing people.

We wanted to have a pleasant degree of humor, permeate everything we do with that humor. We don’t take ourselves seriously, but we take our work very seriously. So, we want people to feel good about getting the information from the Almanac, because humor is so essential in life. If the information is just dour and straightforward facts, people aren’t going to come back to the magazine time and again to get this information. Let’s be honest, you can find this information anywhere if you search long and hard, but we curate it in a way that’s useful and we add a special tongue-in-cheek sense of humor in everything that we present. So, it makes people feel good. They have the information and they enjoyed the entire process of getting it.

And whether we do it online or in print, it’s a touchstone for us. Anytime that you have a touchstone that you can go back to and ask whether something really lives up to what the founder wanted 225 years ago; I think that’s remarkable. Everything we do is governed by those few words: useful, but with a pleasant degree of humor.

Samir Husni: You’ve been the publisher since 1994 and you’ve seen a lot of changes; what has been the biggest stumbling block that you’ve had to face over the years and how did you overcome it?

Sherin Pierce: Well, because the Almanac is sold at retail and it just dominates so many markets, I think one of the biggest challenges was the whole change in traditional newsstand. With the Almanac we have bookstore distribution and we have direct sales distribution into all of the hardware chains, so we had amortized our risks, but still the newsstand was the major source of distribution for the Almanac.

And when the newsstand began to implode in the 1990s, with The Anderson News grabbing the chains and you start seeing all of these mega wholesaler groups forming, the demise of the small wholesaler, the smaller stores that sold the Almanac, all the small mom-and-pop stores that the smaller wholesalers could send copies to; when they became these big wholesaler groups, all they were interested in were the big chains. That’s all they could service, and losing all of those tens of thousands of smaller towns and the smaller wholesalers, it hurt us.

And so many of our customers in those C and D counties, there are no major chains, this is what they depended on, the smaller wholesaler service these smaller towns. That was a big challenge for us, to have to figure out with people losing the ability to buy the Almanac locally, how could we get it to them? So, we did start marketing the Almanac more aggressively and began shipping it to people. So, that was one way we overcame that whole thing.

And we went online in 1996; almanac.com was established 20 years ago. And we learned very quickly how to take the Almanac and not just put the whole issue online for free. We took elements of the Almanac and built our website to reflect all of the different sections of the Almanac. So, you could get a sense and a feel and an up-to-the-moment look at the Almanac, but the print was still the annual publication and it was different from what you got online. And we also developed a way to sell the Almanac as an online publication as well.

So, I think that transition, especially when everyone kept saying that print was dead; we never gave up on print, but that transition showed that we could coexist. Print and online could coexist; there’s no reason one has to die for the other one to live. We developed our E-book versions for Kindle and iPad; we kept our page-turner version on almanac.com, but we continued in print as well.

We went from a high in the 1990s in print of about 6.3 million and now we’re holding at 3 million. And most of that is due to the challenges of distribution on the newsstand. With the number of wholesalers you can’t put more copies out there, the capacity just isn’t there. And that was one of the challenges that we had to face. As wholesalers get bigger and bigger, the demands get greater. And for an annual publication, we have to have everything working perfectly because we have one chance every year. We have one chance and we have to get it right, so all of the planning and printing and distribution; it all has to come to fruition and it has to work. We have several redistributions, obviously, but everything depends on that one opportunity to get the job done correctly.

The average newsstand sale is not 26%; we’re regularly in the high 30’s and even though we look back nostalgically at the days when we were in the 40’s and even 50’s, it’s still pretty good, given the amount of copies that we put out. Every year we begin with zero orders and we have to build that whole print order year after year. Nobody ever gives you anything; you have to fight for it. Every year you have to plan and think about what you need to do and that’s going to be the ongoing challenge. Also with scan-based trading and Pass Through RDA, every year more and more pressures are put on publishers who sell at retail. There is a lot of pressure and again, it’s constant evaluations. Those are the challenges that are going to be ongoing.

The good news is in certain chains, like the specialty accounts, such as Lowe’s, Tractor Supply and Home Depot, we do very well. When you’re selling in the 70% in those places, it offsets some of the other issues you have on the newsstand.

Samir Husni: I know you’ve recreated a lot on digital and online, but what do you do with that trademark of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the hole in the upper left-hand corner? You can never create that in digital, can you? Nobody is going to drill a hole in their computer to make that. (Laughs)

Sherin Pierce: (Laughs too). No, but you know what, we have the ‘hole’ story and we tell it online, but it’s not the same. See, that’s why when people said that print was dead, we always knew that for the Almanac to survive, we had to have print. We just had to. People need that and they want to see it. We have several versions of the Almanac; our hardcover version doesn’t have the hole, but it’s a collector’s edition. It’s sold with the one hundred year or two hundred year and the current Almanac, so we do the reprints of those. For instance, in 2017 we’ll reprint the 1817 and the 1917 editions. It comes as a package. So, you’ve got 200 years of Almanac publishing. So, that’s a collector’s edition.

People want that familiar hole; the more things change, the more people want some things to remain the same. It’s that kind of stability in this ever-changing world. You’re bombarded with so much and then there’s this little yellow book that stands for simpler times. And it’s still so relevant.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Sherin Pierce: When we looked at the Almanac this year, part of the reason that we wanted to look at the brand again was because the online presence and the social media presence has been growing by leaps and bounds. Our Facebook is at 1.4 million; Instagram is about 70,000; Pinterest and Twitter; all the ways in which we’re communicating on a daily basis and finding new people to come to the Almanac brand. We wanted to make sure that whether it was online, social media or print, every time someone accessed us they knew they were coming to the Old Farmer’s Almanac. We wanted to make that very clear, visually and in tone and voice.

And I have to say, we’re not owned by a big, mighty conglomerate; we’re a small and independent publishing company, but we have really talented, hardworking people. Everyone has a focus and a great commitment to what they do. And with those words of advice from our founder and such a committed staff; a hardworking, smart and talented staff, I think we can really keep this brand and give it all the accolades that it needs for 225 years, and then also position it for the future as well. I won’t be here for the next 225 years, but that’s OK; we’ll leave it in a good situation so that someone else can take it forward. Honestly, it takes a village. (Laughs)

And whether it was what happened inside this building or outside, it’s the people who helped us with the redesign, illustrator Steven Noble, Sam Berlow and David Berlow of The Font Bureau, Ben Scott and Lainey Fink at Bluerock Design, and all the other people who helped, it really took a village. Everyone wanted to be a part of keeping this historical legacy going. I’m very lucky to have the support system that I have.

 Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly to your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing; reading a magazine, reading your iPad, watching television, or something else?

Sherin Pierce: I’m on my road bike cycling. And then when I get home I go to a Zumba class or a yoga class. After being behind a desk all day, I cycle to work as well, in the summertime, not in the wintertime; I’m doing something very physical and active. I exercise and then I come back and garden. And at the end of the day I usually read. I read the paper that I’ve read for the last 30 years, the Wall Street Journal. I might watch some TV; I love comedies and I love watching some of the political shows as well, so I will watch a little TV. But it’s really a variety of things. More or less, as I get to the end of the day, I switch off the electronics and unwind with print.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Sherin Pierce: What keeps me up at night are deadlines that may be missed. Also, I sometimes wonder why we can’t be more decent and civilized to one another. We’re all in competition as publishers, but we’re civil to one another. And I wish the way we all work together professionally could carry over into our daily lives. The divisiveness and the rhetoric that we’re hearing now are very upsetting and it’s hard to imagine that our lives are so governed by negativity.

I’m an optimistic person and I’m always trying to see how I can do things better and how I can learn. I’m very curious; I love to learn. I love history and I try to look at it as examples of the mistakes that have been made and I try not to repeat them.

I hope that in some small way the work we do makes people’s lives better and brings them to a place of a bit more peace and tranquility. When you’re looking at the things that are the most essential, you can look at the sky and the beautiful moon every month and understand more about nature and figure out who we are in the context of nature. It’s a time of a little introspection. And to take away from some of the anger and angst that seems to govern our lives every day.

I just hope that the Almanac can bring that because that’s what I hope for people. I would like to make the anger and violence disappear and try to introduce a level of tranquility into their lives. And I think we do that with the little yellow book. And that’s what I hope to accomplish. I have kids and I want this world to be a place where they can flourish and live in safety and harmony. That’s what I hope for.

And unfortunately, I think the web has given people an opportunity to be so anonymous in a way, there’s no face-to-face, the things that are said online when you read some of the comments; it’s horrifying. If you were face-to-face with someone, you would never say that. Behind that wall of anonymity, people say whatever they want. We have to have filters and to think about the impact of what we’re saying.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

 

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