Should Magazines Keep Sending Issues to People Who Unsubscribe?

LeBron James Sports Illustrated Cover

One of my favorite covers ever

Last month I decided not to renew my subscription to Sports Illustrated. I love the photography. I love the feature stories. There is probably one “great” story every other week, and at least one “absolutely amazing holy crap I have to tell everyone about this” story ever year. BUT since it’s a weekly publication it costs ~$100/year, a very steep price for a magazine. Especially one that you can read online for free.

As far as I know, my subscription ended at the end of May. Which is why I was surprised to see an issue of SI in my mail box this week. Granted, I realize that magazine companies do this all of the time, either to try to convince you to stay or because their billing just hasn’t yet caught up with their distribution.

After I picked it up and started flipping through, I began to wonder: would they be better off if they just kept sending me the magazine anyway? It’s no secret that the subscription fees barely cover the cost of printing. The real money is in the ads, and for ads you need eyeballs. Declining subscribers = declining ad revenue.

When Fortune Small Business bit the dust I wrote about the old school magazine business model:

They charge essentially nothing for subscriptions (many times $10/year or less) and instead rely on hefty ad rates to subsidize the ever-increasing costs. The model used to be brilliant. You charge to create perceived value – both in the mind of the customer and the advertiser (it stands to reason that people are more likely to read something that they pay for). It’s not working anymore.

Well, maybe a solution is to keep your former subscribers around. It’s not the same as a free magazine in the sense that just anyone would be getting it. The advertisers would still see value in me because I was a long time subscriber and clearly have interest in the subject matter, even it it’s a little less than it used to be.

Not fair to the paying subscribers? Maybe just send me every other issue. Or send them a week late. You could send the overstock from the bookstores and supermarkets…speaking of which, what happens to that anyway?

Either way, the decline of the magazine industry continues to fascinate me. The more I think about it, the more I think they are blowing it. I still like reading in print. There’s something “better” about it. I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way. The key is to 1) stop producing content that’s super time-sensitive (the web has already won), and 2) make it worthwhile enough for me to pay something for the content when it’s available for free online (or, make it really awesome and don’t publish all of it online).

$10/year for Inc. Definitely. I’d probably pay $30 or $40. But $100 for SI. Sorry.

6 comments on Should Magazines Keep Sending Issues to People Who Unsubscribe?

  1. Tom Marx says:


    It would definitely be interesting to see a business model for magazines with no subscription fees that relied completely on ad revenues. I am not sure the model would work with both paid and free subscriptions – I think you have to go one way or the other. I just don’t think there is enough incentive to offer the consumer to make the paid subscription worth it in perceived value. With a completely free model though, SI could potentially increase their subscriber base to the millions. I don’t know what sports fan would not want to receive a high quality sports publication for free every week. Granted the number of ads in each issue would probably increase to compensate for the lost subscription revenues, but the increased ad revenue would theoretically offset this. Definitely not a realistic option for SI, as the publishing industry is still stuck in the stone age and would never consider something like this, but none the less a very interesting hypothetical.

    As an aside, why were you paying $100 a year for SI? I only pay $39/year, which works out to 70 cents per week, which I find pretty reasonable for such a quality publication. I double checked on, and they are currently offering the $39 rate along with an NFL tee shirt and NFL jacket. Just thought I would let you know, since you say at the end of the post that you would pay $30 or $40.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Good pts Tom. I have no idea why my renewal was $99. I don’t think it was that much in the past. This year I got the bill and was like “no way.” I may just wait a few months and re-subscribe at $39. It may be one of those things where you get that promo rate for the first year and then they jack it up after that. Either that or I didn’t read the renewal notice correctly and that was for 2 years πŸ™‚

  2. Adam McFarland says:

    Some comments also over on the Brazen Careerist

  3. Magazines shank advertisers and still categorize you as a paying customer, since the term is so malleable. For example, as far as you knew, you were paying $100/yr. But as far as SI was concerned, they could have been running their accounting numbers such that the $100 covered 15 months, and your renewal at month 12 was simply an advanced payment on their books. This specific example is purely speculation, but from everything I’ve ever read on the subject, magazines dupe advertisers in one way or another, and I imagine some shady practices must come into play.

    Virtually every magazine does this. I typically pay for 1-2 years of a subscription to almost every magazine I get, and then end up getting another 1-2 years for free without ever re-subscribing. I’m still getting a couple subscriptions I haven’t paid for in 3 years – no joke. And the irony is that if they called my bluff, I’d probably pay them to send me more. But why pay when they’re offering it up for free?

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Good point lol. I suppose from their standpoint it makes more sense to just lie and count you as a paying subscriber.

  4. […] Sports Illustrated. They’ve sent it every week since I canceled a few months […]

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