5 Ways Magazine Publishers Can Maximize Postal Savings

By: D. Eadward Tree

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A big party I recently attended illustrates a principle behind what I’ve consistently found to be the greatest source of waste, the greatest source of potential cost savings, and the biggest differentiator between competing printing proposals for all but the smallest-circulation magazines.

And because of likely regulatory changes, new opportunities for postal savings (or waste) are likely to arise, even for publishers that already have their houses in order.

As we entered the celebration, my companions and I were directed to a row of tables to pick up our preprinted, must-be-worn nametags. We acted on instinct: Ms. Bush veered to the left toward the beginning of the alphabet, Ms. Leaf headed straight toward the middle, and I bore right toward the end of the alphabet.

It’s then we discovered why so many people were milling about and calling out to each other: The 300 nametags were placed on the tables in random order.

The simple solution, of course, would have been to presort the digital list of attendees in alphabetical order before printing the nametags. In the same way, it’s much easier for a publisher to presort its mailing list so that addressed copies can be grouped by metropolitan area, ZIP code, and letter-carrier route than it is for the U.S. Postal Service to sort through randomly addressed magazines.

When the postal presort process works well, most copies end up in bundles that contain at least six copies for the same carrier route. If the printer has enough volume and a strong transportation network, most such carrier-route bundles are placed on pallets and dropshipped to a USPS facility close to the final delivery addresses. Freight and handling are minimal for the Postal Service, except for the letter carrier who opens a bundle, sequences the copies with her other mail, and delivers them.

USPS rates and discounts reward such efficiency, charging only about 25 cents to deliver each half-pound (about 140-page) magazine under this scenario.

But for a nationwide mailing list of only a few thousand addresses, most copies end up in sacks (the Postal Service hates sacks), are handed off to the USPS far from their final destination, and go through multiple handlings before being delivered. The postage for that same140-page magazine under this scenario could cost 65 cents.

Contrary to what some critics have charged, the deck is not stacked against small-circulation publications. Printers often use co-mail or other mail-consolidation techniques to combine multiple publications into one large, efficient mailing. And larger publications often have multiple versions that can split their mailing into numerous small, inefficient lists.

The Postal Regulatory Commission’s recent proposal to bail out the Postal Service with additional rate increases is likely to be challenged in court. (See USPS Bail Out Could Hike Postal Rates 41% in Next Five Years.) But one part of the proposal makes perfect sense -- forcing the Postal Service to provide rate discounts more in line with its resulting cost savings.

The incentive to move copies into carrier-route bundles would increase by at least 25%, perhaps moving add-a-name from an exotic tactic to the mainstream. Enhanced discounts would up the ante for printers, perhaps leading to better dropshipping or more multi-title firm bundles.

Here’s a guide to getting the maximum savings out of your postal presort and to being prepared for the coming regulatory changes:

  1. Be choosy about printers: Unless postage is less than 25% of your production costs or your audience is geographically concentrated in one area, use a printer that produces enough magazines to offer mail consolidation and an extensive dropshipping network. A less specialized printer can’t save you enough on printing to make up for the lost postage discounts.
  2. Make postage part of any printing negotiation: Give the competing printers a copy of your mailing list (under a non-disclosure agreement) and see what kind of postal savings they project or will even guarantee. Not all presort tactics or co-mail programs are the same, and in some cases such alternatives as selective binding may work better.
  3. Combine all your address sources: Some publishers have multiple address lists – e.g. subscribers, advertisers, VIPs, and hair salons. Unless one of these groups gets a distinct edition, present them to the printer as a single list, even if they’re going to be co-mailed. Otherwise, you’ll end up paying the printer for some false savings – savings that you could have achieved on your own just by consolidating your mailing list.
  4. Optimize your versions: I once worked with a title that had more than 40 different versions because of regional and demographic sections. Some versions -- such as the one for women in Southern California who got a “last-copy” cover wrap -- were sent to a fraction of 1% of the entire mailing. A few simple rules -- such as creating only one edition for each cover wrap -- cut the number of versions by more than half, generated huge postal savings.
  5. Press for creative solutions: The 10-cent postage reduction for each copy moved into a carrier-route bundle, plus the benefits of dropshipping, are so great that printers often stop there. But if you often mail multiple copies to the same address (as happens for many trade publications), firm bundling can yield significant savings even if it means pulling some copies out of co-mail. With add-a-name, carrier routes with exactly five copies get an additional copy, resulting in a lower postage bill despite mailing more copies. With a bit more work, large co-mail pools may be able to achieve more savings from high-density carrier routes and from dropshipping to USPS delivery units.