There is cause for rejoicing: Our circulation has doubled in the last two years, to about 14,000, as of this writing. This jump forward has largely been made possible by the providential kindness of those of our readers who make donations above and beyond the subscription price, because donations enable us to purchase ads that bring us new subscribers.
Rather amazingly, this leap ahead has been accomplished without resorting to direct mail, more commonly known as junk mail. Like George Kennan (see his article in our June 1993 issue), we’ve always had an aversion to junk mail, not wanting to visit upon the public even more unwanted missives. But lest our halo blind you, we must admit that we can’t afford to do direct mail. Most people don’t realize that direct mail is a far more expensive, and therefore risky, way of finding new subscribers than full-page ads. But there’s another aspect, which we mention at the risk of sounding snobbish: The thought of getting into the tacky junk mail game bores us, but we very much enjoy creating full-page ads, and people seem to enjoy reading them — and talking about them. The most recent public comment came from Richard John Neuhaus. In a summer issue of First Things, he rather generously noted that the NEW OXFORD REVIEW “is known to run articles sometimes as interesting as the advertisements it places….” Of course, in the very next issue of his formidable magazine, he reversed field and lampooned the theme of many of our ads as perhaps being “not very intelligent.” However dumb our ads may be, they do get noticed — and they do get results.
But it’s an illusion to think that a circulation of 14,000 guarantees our viability. Christianity & Crisis, the prestigious biweekly founded by Reinhold Niebuhr, collapsed this year, while its circulation stood at a respectable 13,000. Yes, the NOR is almost 17 years old, but longevity is no guarantee either. Christian Herald died last year, after a whopping 115 years of publication. Magazine publishing is a high-risk venture, especially for independent periodicals like the NOR, which are not backed by corporations or foundations, and are not subsidized by a university or church or (as with public radio and television) the government. And the risk is compounded when the economy is as troubled as ours is today, and when a video-oriented culture increasingly imperils literacy and literary values — not to mention basic Christian values. It is depressing, and alarming, to note that the number of weekly and biweekly periodicals in the U.S. dropped from 2,258 in 1987 to a dismal 837 in 1992.
One might think that because the NOR’s circulation has doubled, our bottom line has doubled too. Not so. Our bottom line has essentially remained the same. For three basic reasons: (1) We consider a full-page ad a success when its total cost is matched by the revenue it brings in from new subscriptions, which is generally what happens. So the bottom line does not improve. Actually, not only has there been no improvement, but in our last fiscal year our total expenses exceeded our total income by a modest amount. Yes, an increasing number of subscription renewals should help us later on down the line, but the percentage of our subscribers who renew tends to decline as our circulation goes up –indeed, we’re seeing this happen right now — and so we cannot place a lot of stock in revenues from renewals. (2) There are unforeseen expenses. Recently our computer’s hard drive crashed and we had to purchase a new computer. Not quite unforeseen is the increase in second-class nonprofit postal rates (under which the NOR is mailed to subscribers) which is, as of this writing, looming large. (3) Growth is costly. Because we’re printing and mailing many more copies, our printing and mailing costs have increased substantially. Moreover, we’ve been snowed under with new subscriptions and bogged down with handling renewal notices. Plus, we now get twice as many phone calls and knocks on the door, as well as letters and inquiries of all and sundry kinds. So, we needed help, and had to hire a new person. Nan Rohan, who comes to us from the San Francisco Catholic, is a wonderful and wonderfully competent Christian woman. She is working with us on desktop publishing and circulation, which means we must add a new workstation for her. And of course she must be paid. In addition, our phone system urgently needs upgrading, and soon we’re going to have to relent and buy a copier and a fax machine, especially the latter since operating without one is becoming a real handicap.
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