Housty, is it time for magazines to stop cover-mounting?

Each month we pose a question to the brilliant Peter Houston, co-host of the Media Voices podcast, who will answer in his fabulously inimitable way. This month’s question came from The Week Junior‘s Editorial Director Anna Bassi.

Housty, we have a problem

Peter Houston

Is it time for magazines to stop cover-mounting?

Yes – probably past time.

They’re a disaster environmentally and whatever other arguments can be made against them, stopping the climate crisis is as compelling as it gets.

I’m not actually sure anyone really likes covermounts. The logistics of design, manufacture and delivery are a nightmare. They’re a pain for editors and art directors tasked with showcasing magazine content. And did I mention the climate crisis?

The only people I can imagine being truly happy about covermounts are Chinese factory owners. Oh, and some readers… some readers absolutely love covermounts.

In sectors of the magazine market – kids and crafts in particular – free gifts are still de rigueur. Remove the freebies and watch your newsstand clientele shift allegiance to the next publication along the shelf, the one with the free stuff on the cover.

Peak covermount

The peak of the magazine covermount obsession passed long ago. With publishers now using compostable potato-starch bags to pimp their planet-friendly credentials, sticking landfill loot on the front of their magazines would be somewhat counter-productive.

And the should-we-shouldn’t-we conversation isn’t new. Dylan Jones was writing about it in The Guardian in 2004, alleging The Mail on Sunday could probably claim to be the biggest manufacturer of CDs in Europe. He railed against the practise while admitting to his own hypocrisy; in the month he was writing, GQ had a freebie Hunter Thomson novel on its cover.

The eye of the storm was about a decade ago when even The Independent found it necessary to report on women’s magazines resorting to the gimmickry of covermounts. And it wasn’t just the ladies; from chocolate biscuits to condoms, lads’ mag Loaded loved its covermounts.

It got so competitive at the peak of the Great Giveaway Wars, Loaded offered £100 and a crate of beer for the best covermount idea. The magazine’s problem was a 20%+ sales decline sparked by cheaper weeklies and free digital content. But as the Loaded story illustrates perfectly, no amount of free stuff can save a magazine whose time has come.

The climate conversation

The conversation is very different now. With COP26 just around the corner, climate change is right at the top of the news agenda. The negative press that a free pair of flip flops would bring doesn’t bear thinking about.

The biggest challenge now lies with publishers in the Children’s and Craft sectors, many of whose readers still make their buying decisions based on the free gifts they’ll get with their magazines.

Kids magazines are starting to face up to the problem, spurred on by moves like Waitrose banning titles with free plastic toys from its shelves. Their decision was sparked by a young reader from Gwynedd who launched her own campaign to persuade publishers to stop giving away the disposable toys in magazines. Hell hath no fury like a 10-year-old climate activist.

While no publisher I know of has sworn off plastic toys the way McDonalds has, publishers are getting involved in recycling initiatives. Several, including DC Thomson and Immediate Media, recently signed up to the Recycle to Read campaign, aimed at creating a more circular economy for children’s toys. In return for recycling toys and reusing tech, schools and communities are rewarded with books and reading resources.

Stopping the arms race

Giving up covermounts might be harder for Craft magazines.

It’s easy to say, ‘your magazine should be good enough without free stuff’, but the Craft market is complicated. People don’t have the same brand loyalty that they have in other sectors of the magazine market; most crafters buy magazines for the project that the free yarn or papercut dies let them make.

In a corner of the magazine market where sales rely on attention not reader loyalty, covermounts represent a tangible added value. Readers complain about there being too much plastic with magazines, but my Craft magazine contacts tell me that when publishers have tried to ditch the free gifts, sales have suffered. Even switching to paper bags had a negative impact.

The real point of difference with Craft magazines is that readers really use the covermounted gifts – they see them as valued additions to their toolkits. With many titles, readers get everything they need to start immediately on a project – inspiration, instructions, materials and tools.

For Craft magazines, eliminating, or at least reducing, the use of covermounts may have to follow a similar trajectory as moves made to introduce greater diversity to magazine covers. Initially, publishers were wary that audiences would be ‘put off’ by plus-size models or models of colour. But making the decision to be more inclusive with cover art has led to change that the vast majority or readers appreciate.

Removing covermounts completely might require the magazine equivalent of the Paris Climate Accords. Firstly, publishers could agree to get rid of the most damaging plastic freebies. Then slowly but surely remove all but the most environmentally-friendly free gifts from the newsstands.

Without broad publisher cooperation, short of banning the gratuitous distribution of plastic dinosaurs, make up kits and branded day-glo flip flops, I’m not sure how we reconcile the conflicting objectives of both sides of the covermount discussion. If you have experience with covermounts, or just a point of view, I’d love to hear what you think.

Peter Houston is one third of the Media Voices podcast, a magazine publishing consultant and trainer, and a freelance writer.

Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

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