Despite challenging print sales, Writer’s Digest has built a strong online community, with almost half its revenue now coming from online education. Mary Hogarth speaks to Editor-in-Chief Amy Jones about how developing valuable services has helped the publisher nurture reader engagement and rebound from the pandemic.

Writer’s Digest Editor in Chief Amy Jones (Jason Hale Photography)

Having celebrated its centenary last year, Writer’s Digest, published by Active Interest Media, is one of the oldest writing magazines still in print. 

“Our core mission is to provide that great writing instruction and inspiration,” says Jones. Being reader-centric and building the community around the magazine is an essential part of the brand’s ethos. 

I think it makes readers feel invested in what [the magazine team] are doing. If they know that you are looking at their writing, looking at their submissions, then they are going to feel invested in the community as well.”

Analysis of the title’s provision shows substantial online growth over the past decade. According to the media kit, its website now has more than a million followers across their social channels, and 1.65m page views monthly, demonstrating an ability to build a community among their discerning audience. To me, such robust KPIs are down to having a solid team dedicated to helping writers move forward.

Rebalancing the deficit

These are indeed challenging times. Following the pandemic, the magazine’s print sales have dropped significantly from 60,000 to 44,000 in the 18 months. 

Despite a downward spiral on the newsstands, Jones remains optimistic, attributing the drop to a combination of three factors, all of which are now improving. 

“In 2019, our former parent company went bankrupt, resulting in the suspension of many marketing efforts, such as direct mail subscription campaigns,” she explained. “Then as COVID took hold in 2020, the big newsstand sellers were forced to close due to lockdowns.

“Those were hard months for the magazine. We ended up combining our September and October issues into a single, expanded issue.” 

Moreover, their 2021 media kit incorporated data from those two tough years. Fortunately, Jones reports that sales are now on the rebound. 

“As we update our media kit for 2022, our total circulation – newsstand and subscriptions – is now up to 47,500.” 

A third factor was losing the combined print plus digital subscriptions offering, which was withdrawn when the company changed distributors. Its parent company, Active Interest Media, is currently working with the distributor to “reinstate that option”.

As the publisher recovers, Jones’s priority is to “ensure Writer’s Digest is a magazine that feels welcoming, helpful, and inspiring to all types of writers”. 

“This means continually re-evaluating what we include in the magazine – expanding our self-publishing advice, introducing regular columns on craft, pitching and children’s books. So, every writer will find something in each issue that will help them. I’d like to think this editorial strategy will ultimately impact overall newsstand and circulation sales positively.” 

The team now produce six issues per year, allowing editors greater flexibility in their workload. 

“From a production schedule viewpoint, creating an issue every two months allows the editors to contribute to the other parts of our brand, including planning live and virtual conferences, judging our competitions, working on our website, and more.”

Engagement through services

Writer’s Digest has a highly educated and affluent readers demographic, with 68% being four-year college graduates and 30% having a post-graduate degree. This audience wants and needs more than just content. 

With 66% of readers aspiring to make a living from their writing, services are critical to this magazine’s raison d’etre. This is an aspect which no doubt has helped to create a strong community among this audience. 

Its service provision is prolific, including feature events, webinars, courses, competitions, merchandise and a university – all of which Jones attributes to being a staple of the brand’s community. This is also something that has expanded the magazine’s reach.

“People learn in different ways, so if reading an article on the website or in the magazine doesn’t quite work, perhaps listening to an instructor and doing a workshop in one of our Writer’s Digest University courses will help instead,” she explained. 

Conferences, which have been on hold due to the pandemic, are also a critical component of that service provision. “They offer incredible opportunities for readers to meet up with agents, editors, and other writers to find supportive communities,” Jones outlined.

But I’m keen to know which service has the most impact on both the brand and its audience. 

“Each part of Writer’s Digest helps support the other parts. We see that play out on a micro-level with our contributors,” reflects Jones, adding that all strands of the provision work together. 

“For example, we will ask writers to write for the magazine or website, and then they’ll end up teaching at a live or virtual conference. Alternatively, a writer who wins a WD competition might use that as one of the ways they build their knowledge and brand, then write for the magazine or teach for us.”

During the interview, I asked for a breakdown of revenue streams and was surprised to learn that 45% came from online education, while events equated to 14% and competitions just 13%. Interestingly ad sales made up just 10% of revenue, whereas magazine sales – subscriptions and newsstand – achieved 18%. 

These statistics support my theory that offering the right service is now a vital tool for a specialist title to thrive.

My verdict:

This title is a lesson on diversity, innovation and how to provide value. While the magazine may change considerably “because of some new technology that we aren’t even aware of yet,” its ethos will remain strong. 

Writer’s Digest works because it has a clear value proposition to offer its audience, but it also has a soul.

Educator, media specialist, and writer, Mary Hogarth, MD of The Magazine Expert Ltd, has more than 20 years’ industry experience. Her consultancy practice specialises in new title launches, audience intelligence, editorial development and sustainable business strategies. She has written numerous articles, three books and has recently embarked on a PhD.

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