Print magazines: hunting down and alienating the remaining customer base

In these days of declining print subscription, you’d think that the print magazine business model would do its level best to make its remaining customers stick around. Wouldn’t you?

It’s stuff like this that makes me say to people: “When you are looking at organizations you think are surely more sophisticated and know things you don’t, and assuming you must be missing something because they could not possibly be this stupid, guess what. They could. They are. It’s not you. They are stupid.”

At last count, I take Mother Jones (a hellraiser mag that drew me in with its first subscription pitch, which used naughty words and seemed as independent as it got), mental_floss, PC Gamer, Smithsonian, Consumer Reports, Strategy & Tactics, and Modern War. Until recently, I took The Week. I also get the UW alumni magazines for free, but since they’re free, they don’t really count here. I’ll keep MoJo, CR, S&T, and MW. The rest, I’m done with.

Of course, all the mags hope that you will do all business through their websites, so most of them make their phone numbers kind of hard to find. They send out numerous resubscription and gift subscription offers, often in deceptive envelopes (“IMPORTANT INFORMATION ENCLOSED”, OR “IMMEDIATE PAYMENT DUE”), and one thing I notice is that they keep getting better at munging the printed date of your subscription’s expiration. On top of that, the issue date is typically a month and a half in the future. It all seems calculated to make you think your subscription is about to expire, when it probably isn’t. They’ll start shelling you with offers months before expiration, to the point where you forget whether you’ve actually renewed. There’s a good chance, if you weren’t paying too much attention, that they will get you to double-renew. That happened with The Week, and it annoyed me.

Rarely will the renewal pitch entertain you. While MAD went way downhill as the old guard retired, it had a great renewal pitch. “When you subscribed to MAD, you proved you had bad taste. Now it’s time to show that you don’t learn from your mistakes!” Mostly it’s false urgency, a lot of self-gratification, and firm assurances that the rate will never be lower. None of it rings as anything but Standard Marketing Crap.

If you plan to renew by credit card, get a fine point pen. It’ll take one to write all sixteen numbers in that tiny space. And if you renew saying Bill Me Later, some will get very grouchy when their bill arrives two days after your billpaying day, and they simply have to wait a month. Recently I tried writing to one Leslie Guarnieri, listed as the consumer marketing director at m_f, who had just sent me my ‘third notice’ (when I wasn’t even sure there’d been a renewal, and definitely hadn’t seen a first or second notice) worded in collection agency tones. I decided that if Ms. Guarnieri could allow her name to be signed to threats, she could take time to discuss them, so I attempted to call and speak with her. Not that I imagined I’d be able to; it was just a necessary prelude to a letter. m_f is supposed to be a brainy magazine, so I figured they could not be that stupid.

They are. By the way, Leslie’s name is on the notices for another mag I get. I forget which one, but since I’m not renewing that one either, I do not care. Anyway, I decided it was time to rattle Leslie’s cage a bit. Even looked her up to make sure I got the salutation right:


July 27, 2015

Ms. Leslie Guarnieri, Consumer Marketing Director, mental_floss Magazine

8051 Mayfield Rd, Chesterland, OH 44026

Re: threatening notice

Dear Ms. Guarnieri:

Please see the attached ‘3rd Notice’ threatening to discontinue my subscription. Since your name is ‘signed’ to it, with no evidence of falsification, I take it as coming from you.

I attempted to phone you, to discuss why you would send me a third notice when I had received neither a second nor a first notice, but the representative I spoke with could or would not assist me. I find that very bad business. You shouldn’t allow threats to be sent out under your name unless you’re willing to face the music for mistakes.

Many magazines send out subscription offers that imply that one’s subscription is nearly over, when in fact it remains good for another year and a half. For this reason, one cannot even take the leap of faith to assume that the USPS, by incredible coincidence, managed to misplace the first two notices. What is certain: I did not simply ignore a clearly labeled first or second invoice in proper form. I did not obtain a gleaming credit rating by being the deadbeat that a ‘3rd Notice’ implies, and I resent the notice’s implication.

That said, let’s put the cards on the table. Right now, I stand offended, and inclined to simply write ‘cancel’ on the ‘3rd Notice.’ I like the magazine, but it presents the pretense of higher intellect, with which this entire handling is inconsistent. Also, lately, I’m not so sure I’d miss the magazine. The paid print magazines can ill afford to lose subscribers from the dwindling number of literate Americans who still want to read a paper magazine, so it’s up to you to determine if or how it’s worthwhile to make this up to me.

According to your letter, by August 17 this all becomes moot. Too bad. If I’d received a normal invoice, I’d have paid without delay or complaint. I dug through my records and can’t even find where I sent in a resubscription request, but surely you would not just send invoices without first determining whether a client intended to renew. That would be unthinkably dishonest in a reputable business, so I am sure that did not occur. Thus, I take on faith that you have evidence on file that I ordered a renewal in the first place, and that the action has slipped my mind over a few months.

Your move.

J.K. Kelley


You don’t suppose I’ve heard back, do you?

The print magazine industry will not rest until it has hunted down every vestige of good business and kicked its ass, tracked down every remaining customer and invented some way to alienate him or her.

I’m done with it, for the most part. I don’t like it, but they worked at it, and hard work does pay off.


6 thoughts on “Print magazines: hunting down and alienating the remaining customer base”

    1. Thank you, sir. I realized there was a quixotic element to it, but it felt good to do, so I figure that’s enough. If nothing else, when people search for Leslie Guarnieri, this’ll come up.


  1. We get The Week and Mother Jones and the Hawaii Tribune Herald. I know what you mean about The Week’s “notices!” I loved your beautifully described brain dance (renewal, expiration etc.) that I think I alone do. lol


    1. Thank you, Christi. I would like to take a daily paper, but papers have such a hard time with reliable delivery (and I understand why) that it just doesn’t work out well for me. With The Week, I fatigued of the Frankenconversations; you know, the political ones. One can predict them. “If Party A hadn’t caused this in the first place, Party B would have already fixed it!” “Party B sucks, said the Daily Fifthgrader. Party B people will never truly grasp how much they suck.” “Fine rhetoric coming from Party A mouthpieces, said the Bismarck Evening Stormtrooper. Party A always makes arguments like this. And it’s full of meanies!” “When Party B grows up, said the Missouri Weekly Ruffian, maybe it will no longer need diapers.” And so on, and so on. Blech.


  2. Leslie appears to have toned down her level of threat since 2015, at least judging by the letters I’ve gotten. But she has new tricks, including trying to get me to renew “my own subscription and my gift subscription” (I’ve only ever given the magazine as a gift).   


    1. Interesting, Kurt. I am somewhat surprised she’s still out there pretending to dun people, however less overtly. But what does not surprise me is that she’s trying new angles to get people to buy things they didn’t intend to buy. Appreciate your update!


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