The NRS 2001, announced early this month, held a rather ominous note for magazines. While newspaper readership has grown, magazine readership has been stagnant at 51 million. Film and children's magazines have registered a significant drop in readership. The two biggest genres - general interest/current affairs, and women's magazines - have barely managed to hold on to their readers. What has actually gained significantly, and come up as the third biggest genre of magazines, is the special-interest category. No wonder, Tata Infomedia's Special Interest Publishing Division (SIPD) has turned in successes in five niches in five years. It is waiting to tap three more later this year. SIPD is already contributing Rs 25-30 crore to the company's total revenues of Rs 120 crore.
Rahul C Shah, deputy general manager, corporate and business development, Tata Infomedia, is in no mood to reveal anything. He does say though, that the magazines will be in the consumer space (not business). Alongside, he is also extending AV Max, his company's brand of magazine for the audiophile, to an exhibition. "The first audio-video exhibition will be held in Mumbai in October this year," is all he discloses. "The venue and other details are under negotiation," he adds.
The impetus for an AV Max exhibition has come from Tata Infomedia's (formerly Tata Donnelly) first magazine title - Better Photography. Launched in June 1997 to tap an emerging yet unexplored territory, Better Photography established itself as a magazine to reckon with within a few years. It sells a claimed 38,000 copies today.
Seeing the response, the company sought to leverage the brand franchise in a more interactive way as also to establish itself as the link between the industry and the enthusiasts. It launched Photo Asia, its first exhibition, by booking 3,000 sq ft of space in Pragati Maidan (Delhi) in 1999. About 48,000 visitors turned up in four days. It continued Photo Asia on a bi-annual basis. The next was held in March this year, again in Delhi. Visitor count rose to 74,000 visitors. So did the exhibition space - 5,000 sq ft.
While these may not be money-spinning propositions, Shah believes they do end up contributing some money into the business. But more importantly, they are a great occasion to enrich the brand's franchise, as also to sign up new subscribers. Being niche, most of Tata Infomedia's publications, barring Overdrive, rely on subscriptions. Search, a magazine for manufacturing and production professionals launched in 1998, sells all of its claimed 31,000 copies through subscriptions. Similarly, Auto Monitor, a fortnightly trade journal for the auto community launched earlier this year, sells all of its 12,000 copies through subscriptions. Even a more B2C magazine like Better Photography sells only 8,000 of its claimed 38,000 copies on newsstands.
Overdrive is one clear exception. If numbers are concerned, it seems to be breaking out of the niche category. In a span of less than three years, it has become the country's leading automobile magazine. Of Overdrive's claimed sales of 91,000 copies (ABC: 79,000), a whopping 62,000 take place on newsstands. Which is where Tata Infomedia's corporate set-up helps. With its Yellow Pages network in 12 cities, it fares better than other magazine publishers in pushing its magazines deeper into markets. "Overdrive is so successful not only because of its content but also because of the fact that we took great care to ensure its availability. It is widely distributed to even B & C class cities like Ahmedabad, Pune, Indore and the like," says Shah. "The fact that we have our offices in 12 cities gives us tremendous clout in monitoring IBH on distribution."
It may be a key reason for Overdrive's popularity. As Shah reasons, most publishers tend to circulate copies mostly in areas inhabited by advertisers. What also goes in Tata Infomedia's favour is certainly the printing-press business which ensures control over both costs and quality. A resource-sharing arrangement on promotions helps too. Additionally, Shah insists that costs are managed through lean editorial teams. "Since the subjects are so diverse, editorial teams are different, but extremely lean," he explains. "Overdrive, the largest-selling magazine, would have a strength of eight people or so."
It isn't easy launching and managing magazines on a one-every-year kind of rate. And Tata Infomedia is averse to losses, says Shah. He maintains that currently only Auto Monitor, being new, is in losses. "We hope to see it profitable by the eighth or tenth month," he says. Not every niche pays though. "We have to look at the reader base, advertiser base, and the need for the magazine," explains Ajay Asija, product manager. There have been niches that the company has chosen only to abandon it for commercial reasons.
But on a broader level, the time for niche publications, if executed well, seems to be ripe. "The special-interest readership is rising steadily," believes Girish Agarwal, director, advertising, Dainik Bhaskar. "We have supplements on films and women in our paper and we are taking them into niches as well. Our women's supplement, for instance, has to be as good as Grihshobha." Bhaskar points to the recent alliance between Deshdoot, a Marathi newspaper, with the Marathi weekly, Chitralekha, as a step in this direction.
"The NRS 2001 has pointed out one thing very clearly: all vernacular supplements have readerships more than the main newspaper, or at least equal to it," explains Agarwal. "What it tells us is that readers today are becoming very selective about what they read. Therefore, even magazines like Outlook or India Today, for instance, define each issue on a niche. So increasingly, the cover story dominates the whole issue." No wonder The Times Group has been actively working on what it calls the B2B domain. Watch this space for more!
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