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Topix Media Lab’s CEO & Co-Founder, Tony Romando, On Reimagining The Bookazine: Innovation Is Key As Targeted Cover Mounts Present Positive Potential & New Hope For The Single Topic Magazine – The Mr. Magazine™ Interview

December 14, 2017

“While we’re gearing up for 2018, the truth is the glory days of just putting out a bookazine with the same old topic that everyone else has done, those days are over. There was a time when people would put out any bookazine and it did well, because it was a bookazine, and it was single-topic, and it was a novelty. But these days the market is so flooded and the consumer has gotten so used to the bookazine that if you’re not changing the face of what the bookazine is; if you’re not recreating the entire bookazine itself and the bookazine category, it’s just going to start to drop and plummet and it’s going to be catastrophic for anyone in the bookazine business.” Tony Romando…

“I can’t stress enough that if cover mounts work for kids, then it should work for adults. Whatever your single topic is, you have to find the cover mount that seems to be the right thing that appeals to the person who likes that topic.” Tony Romando…

Bookazines have been a very successful part of print publishing over the last few years, but as with anything media-related in this digital age, innovation and creative targeting are things that have to always be a part of the equation. No longer is there time to rest on the heels of success, not as rapidly as things change today.

No one knows bookazines as well as Tony Romando. No one. Single copy, no subscriptions, no ads and no digital, has been the story of his life for five years, since he began Topix Media Lab and started on this bookazine journey. And as well as he knows the bookazine business, he also knows when it’s time for change. In his words: “The truth is the glory days of just putting out a bookazine with the same old topic that everyone else has done, those days are over.” In other words, repetition is good in some instances, but not necessarily in the single topic magazine instance.

Enter cover mounts. Something that Tony has gotten heavily involved in (right down to manufacturing his own toys) to prove that sometimes you have to let that entrepreneur spirit rear its head and go a little out on that limb to find the next level of success.

I spoke with Tony recently and we talked about the “new concept” of cover mounts, something that publishing in Europe has been doing for years, and some here in the States have dabbled in. But as Tony put it, Topix is in it full-scale and nationally; a no holds-barred attempt at trying something different and making it work. And as Mr. Magazine™ believes that magazines and magazine makers provide experiences, the infinite possibilities of what lies ahead for bookazines is exciting.

So, I hope that you enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ interview with the man who is infinitely capable of providing those experiences and creating those possibilities, Tony Romando, CEO & co-founder, Topix Media Lab.

But first the sound-bites:

On the status of bookazines today: After five years of being a bookazine-only company, we also do books and other projects, but the epic rise of bookazines sales and high prices and bigger retail dollars has flattened, and there’s no way around that. The rise is not what it once was and we all know that, so between having conversations with Ingrid Jakabcsin at The News Group and Christy Jenkins at Wal-Mart, and as I talk to all of these people, we all realize that the real need here now is really innovation. What is the bookazine 2.0 or 3.0? More importantly, where are we going to be in 2019 or 2020 and beyond? And while we’re gearing up for 2018, the truth is the glory days of just putting out a bookazine with the same old topic that everyone else has done, those days are over.

On the solution to the bookazine challenge in today’s market: I think the bigger companies and the other bookazine companies are going to try and figure out how to reduce all of their costs, and that’s going to try and keep them up and running. But for us the only way you can really move the needle going forward, and I do see a long-term, substantial future in bookazines, is to change what a bookazine is. For us, we’re looking at hardcover bookazines; we’re looking at cover mounts on bookazines, things that might have been appealing decades ago that would have been put inside a magazine, such as a DVD or a CD, mounting those to the cover.

On why he thinks it took the U.S. so long to climb onboard with innovations such as cover mounts when Europe has been doing for years: There’s two parts to that. One is their sell-through’s are averaging 30 to 50 percent, there’s no way around it; they’re double what it is here. As to what took us so long to get onboard with this, after a year of putting this together; our first two cover-mount kid’s magazines come out around the last week of November. It took me a year to get there.

On whether he thinks he’s going down in history as the man who reinvented the American newsstands: I am going to go down in history as the guy who bankrupted a company on toys from China. (Laughs) I am never going down in any sort of publishing history, I hope. I’d like to continue to be a behind-the-scenes guy and sneak under the radar when at all possible. But the thing I do know is this, it’s been tried and tinkered with a little bit, people have thrown stickers and magnets and even little ski hats and stuff in their magazines, but when you’re going to do it and do it nationally at a 150 to a 180,000 print run; when you go full-scale and you’re manufacturing your own toys, there’s really no turning back for us.

On how he is going to market this “new concept” for bookazines: We are not going to market it, Samir. That goes against everything that a bookazine is, because 99 percent of the bookazines, whether they’re Hearst, Time Inc., Condé Nast, or Topix; nobody markets their bookazines. Nobody takes the mothership magazine for that. Time magazine is not marketing Time Inc. bookazines. They don’t do that; it’s a separation of church and state. No one markets them.

On anything else he’d like to add: I can’t stress enough that if cover mounts work for kids, then it should work for adults. Whatever your single topic is, you have to find the cover mount that seems to be the right thing that appeals to the person who likes that topic.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him: My goal is to be wise, not right. That’s the philosophy that I live by.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: This is going to sound very cliché, but I live an hour and a half away from New York City. I leave my house at 4:12 in the morning and I get back at 8:40 at night. And at 8:40 p.m., I have one hour before I go to bed and it’s spent reading Wild Kratts animal stories to my kids. And that’s what I do when I get home.

On what keeps him up at night: Honestly, what keeps me up at night is, and this is going to sound morbid, but it’s figuring out what day of the week it is and if anyone famous has died, because tribute bookazines, specifically tombstones or death issues, can change a bookazine company’s entire year with one or even two deaths. And I know that sounds really morbid and creepy and horrible, but what keeps me up at night is what day of the week is it right now, and if someone were to die today, would we beat Time Inc. to market.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Tony Romando, CEO, Co-Founder, Topix Media Lab.

Samir Husni: Topix Media Lab has been in business now for a little over five years; as we move forward into 2018, what do you think the status of bookazines is today?

Tony Romando: After five years of being a bookazine-only company, we also do books and other projects, but the epic rise of bookazines sales and high prices and bigger retail dollars has flattened, and there’s no way around that. The rise is not what it once was and we all know that, so between having conversations with Ingrid Jakabcsin at The News Group and Christy Jenkins at Wal-Mart, and as I talk to all of these people, we all realize that the real need here now is really innovation. What is the bookazine 2.0 or 3.0? More importantly, where are we going to be in 2019 or 2020 and beyond?

And while we’re gearing up for 2018, the truth is the glory days of just putting out a bookazine with the same old topic that everyone else has done, those days are over. There was a time when people would put out any bookazine and it did well, because it was a bookazine, and it was single-topic, and it was a novelty. But these days the market is so flooded and the consumer has gotten so used to the bookazine that if you’re not changing the face of what the bookazine is; if you’re not recreating the entire bookazine itself and the bookazine category, it’s just going to start to drop and plummet and it’s going to be catastrophic for anyone in the bookazine business.

Samir Husni: What do you think the solution to this challenge is? What are you planning to counteract this situation and stay on top of things?

Tony Romando: I don’t know what the solution is for other publishers, but I think the immediate solution for a lot of them is how they can reduce their cost and make it more efficient; the whole process, and figure out how to create the product in a cheaper way. And at Topix, we have been very good at starting that way, and doing it the cheapest way possible, so there’s no more blood for us to squeeze out of that rock because we started off being very efficient.

I think the bigger companies and the other bookazine companies are going to try and figure out how to reduce all of their costs, and that’s going to try and keep them up and running. But for us the only way you can really move the needle going forward, and I do see a long-term, substantial future in bookazines, is to change what a bookazine is. For us, we’re looking at hardcover bookazines; we’re looking at cover mounts on bookazines, things that might have been appealing decades ago that would have been put inside a magazine, such as a DVD or a CD, mounting those to the cover.

Though we’re not trying to get out of the bookazine business; we want to sell bookazines, but what we’re really trying to do as well is hide the peas and carrots underneath the ice cream, under the dessert. If for kids you have a toy cover-mounted, the child is going to typically look at the toy as the big prize and the magazine as a ride along. Whereas the parents are going to look at the magazine as the good part, it’s not an iPad or an iPhone; it’s not a TV; I’m getting my kid to read. Yes, he or she gets a toy along with it; he or she gets a toy with the process, but at least they get a magazine with activities and content to read.

So, for the kids’ magazine group, it makes a lot of sense. Big backlash on digital; big backlash on iPads, but this is the time to strike in that department. So, that’s the big focus, cover mounts with kid’s toys. And in the U.K. it’s been happening for decades.

Samir Husni: Yes, in fact, all over Europe. Why do you think it took us so long to get onboard with this?

Tony Romando: There’s two parts to that. One is their sell-through’s are averaging 30 to 50 percent, there’s no way around it; they’re double what it is here. As to what took us so long to get onboard with this, after a year of putting this together; our first two cover-mount kid’s magazines come out around the last week of November. It took me a year to get there.

And now I understand why no one has ever done it, because it’s hard enough to figure out how to create, produce, distribute and sell a normal magazine or a bookazine, if you add a toy to it, it becomes this impenetrable web of learning an entirely new business. So, for 22 years I was working on magazines. For the last year I’ve been working on becoming a toy manufacturer.

And that means getting up at four in the morning and talking to China and talking to someone else in Germany, then getting to work at 7:00 a.m. Talking to someone at DreamWorks in the licensing department about Troll toy packaging, and then going back to the printing plant in Wisconsin to find out if they have a special kind of glue that can pass a safety test. And as we learn the manufacturing and the legal sides, and the logistical side, whether it be customs or passing tests, because we just distribute magazines in America and Canada, if it goes to certain parts of Canada you have to put a French warning label on it. There’s real minutiae like that.

But on the backend, you’re putting toys on magazine covers that typically have a 25 percent sell-through rate. That means 75 percent or 100,000 copies are going to get pulped, wasted, thrown away, which we’re all very used to when it comes to magazines. We know that they leave Wal-Mart, they go into a tote; they go to some far off shredding facility and we never see or care about them again; that’s publishing.

But now we have 100,000 toys; can I shred them? Is it going to be a problem for the shredder? Could it cause a spark in the shredder surrounded by paper? Is the metal made of iron or is it an aluminum alloy which might not spark as much? Will the plastic stuff gum up the works? Is there a way to take those toys and pull them out of the shred line so that we can resell them at a discount?

So, I honestly think the reason why no one has ever gotten this far in the process is that there are so many steps along the way that are utterly discouraging and can bring a grown man or woman to tears at four in the morning, that you realize it’s almost not worth the hassle. There were moments in the last year where I just said it’s not worth the hassle; I can’t do this, it’s impossible. You feel like everyone is working against you; the U.S. government; the manufacturing facilities; just everybody.

We have two coming out at the end of November for the holidays and then we have five more on the runway for January, February and March, and those months are typically one of the best kid’s selling seasons; well, February, March and April. So, we have a bunch lined up.

What was really amazing about this process, while some other people may have not been able to do it, but we were able to do it now, is between the biggest retailers; between The News Group; between Jimmy Cohen at Hudson, having conversations with them, everybody; we all realized there has to be a change and innovation in bookazines if we want this to succeed.

So, maybe where someone would have said in the past, no, we’re not taking it, the price is too high, or it’s too hard to deal with, or the packing and the bundling of the issues is too hard for my people to do, or even the printers saying, we’re not going to hand-glue these; we’re not going to take them out of boxes from China; there was a time where people had the cushion where they could say no, it’s not worth the investment.

But I think it’s very important that now everyone is willing to test the market, go out of their way; all of the wholesalers and retailers, everyone has gone out of their way to really try and make this work. It’s been this group initiative. Ingrid Jakabcsin, Jimmy Cohen; all of these people have stepped up and are really trying to make this work for the first time in American history. So, we’re pretty excited about it.

Samir Husni: Are you going into the history books as the guy who reinvented the American newsstands?

Tony Romando: I am going to go down in history as the guy who bankrupted a company on toys from China. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: (Laughs too)

Tony Romando: I am never going down in any sort of publishing history, I hope. I’d like to continue to be a behind-the-scenes guy and sneak under the radar when at all possible.

But the thing I do know is this, it’s been tried and tinkered with a little bit, people have thrown stickers and magnets and even little ski hats and stuff in their magazines, but when you’re going to do it and do it nationally at a 150 to a 180,000 print run; when you go full-scale and you’re manufacturing your own toys, there’s really no turning back for us.

So, when I think about this whole process, much like any bookazine, it’s a true gamble, because let’s just say the average sell-through of a kid’s bookazine is 22 percent. If you double your costs and hemorrhage money, and the sell-through comes back after the first two tests and it didn’t move the needle at all, then we have problems.

We’ve increased the value of the toy, the cost of the toy; we’ve given the consumer something that we know works in other parts of the world. If it doesn’t move the needle, we’ve got problems. If it moves it two or three points; you kind of have a head-scratcher, what we do next? If it moves it 10 points, then you know you’ve got something, how fast can you do it; how many can you do and how soon can you do them?

And just so we’re crystal-clear, there’s absolutely zero percent chance of making a single dollar on our end. Everyone; there’s nobody who’s touching this, from The News Group on down; I don’t think there’s anyone who isn’t going to lose money on these first two tests. And the truth is, everyone gets it, because everyone wants to try it. We all want to see if it works. I’m fully prepared, and I can’t speak for anyone else, to take it on the chin for the first two test issues to see the data and see how we can then back up, re-approach this in February, March and April, and really dial it in. I think there’s a misconception that with bookazines you just throw them out there, scattershot, cross your fingers and hope it works for the best. And I think people have been doing it that way for decades.

Samir Husni: How are you going to bring this “new concept” to the marketplace?

Tony Romando: We are not going to market it, Samir. That goes against everything that a bookazine is, because 99 percent of the bookazines, whether they’re Hearst, Time Inc., Condé Nast, or Topix; nobody markets their bookazines. Nobody takes the mothership magazine for that. Time magazine is not marketing Time Inc. bookazines. They don’t do that; it’s a separation of church and state. No one markets them.

My point is, we’re not going to market it because we don’t market our kid’s bookazines now. And we don’t want to skew the data with any kind of marketing that would maybe give these magazines with the cover mounts a bump. We don’t want that. We want our control group to stay exactly the way it is now, which is, we don’t get any marketing now, so we don’t want any marketing for the toy, because bookazines are rare things. No ads; no subscriptions.

You have the truest form of success or failure with a bookazine, because if it dies on the newsstand, you lose a lot of money. If it succeeds, people wanted your product. And you can’t prop up a bad issue with ad sales or subscriptions; it is what it is. And that’s the only way. The retailers don’t care about subscriptions or advertisers; I am fully aligned with every retailer. They make money on a sale; we make money on a sale. We don’t care about subs and neither do they.

Topix is the only true publisher that is fully aligned with every wholesaler and every retailer, and what we want to do is put it out; put it in our checkup pockets; see where it works, and we want the retailers to understand when the needle gets moved, and it moves up a lot of points because of the cover mount, that this is the new premium product. And this product deserves the best placement and the most love. And the only way that we can do that is if we put it out organically and people buy it. If they don’t buy it, we’ll rethink it. And if they do buy it, line the runway up with as many as you can.

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

Tony Romando: I can’t stress enough that if cover mounts work for kids, then it should work for adults. Whatever your single topic is, you have to find the cover mount that seems to be the right thing that appeals to the person who likes that topic.

Samir Husni: If you could have one thing tattooed upon your brain that no one would ever forget about you, what would it be?

Tony Romando: My goal is to be wise, not right. That’s the philosophy that I live by.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Having a glass of wine; reading a magazine; cooking; watching TV; or something else?

Tony Romando: This is going to sound very cliché, but I live an hour and a half away from New York City. I leave my house at 4:12 in the morning and I get back at 8:40 at night. And at 8:40 p.m., I have one hour before I go to bed and it’s spent reading Wild Kratts animal stories to my kids. And that’s what I do when I get home.

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

Tony Romando: Honestly, what keeps me up at night is, and this is going to sound morbid, but it’s figuring out what day of the week it is and if anyone famous has died, because tribute bookazines, specifically tombstones or death issues, can change a bookazine company’s entire year with one or even two deaths. And I know that sounds really morbid and creepy and horrible, but what keeps me up at night is what day of the week is it right now, and if someone were to die today, would we beat Time Inc. to market.

We have a schedule for at what hour and what day of the week someone dies and how fast we can get to print, and whether or not we can beat Time Inc. to market by 10 days or 17 days. That is the last thing I think about before I go to bed, and the one thing that keeps me up until I fall asleep.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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