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On Paper Trail for Subscription Glitch

December 12, 1985|DON G. CAMPBELL | Times Staff Writer

Question: Along with half a dozen catalogues from local department stores, every day's mail this month (and last) has also brought at least two or three "holiday" magazine subscription offers--soliciting renewals for my own magazines, of course, but also making a strong pitch for me to enter Christmas gift subscriptions for friends or relatives or to renew gift subscriptions that I have given in the past.

I have no objections to this--in fact, it's rather helpful to be reminded of what I have given in the way of subscriptions in previous years. But I've run across something that's a little baffling, and I'm sure that if it's happened to me it's probably happened to a lot of other people too.

Two Acknowledgements

I have just received acknowledgement and the bill for a gift subscription to Vanity Fair that I did, indeed, reorder recently for my daughter-in-law. At the same time, though, I also received a similar acknowledgement and bill for renewal, for the same daughter-in-law and myself, from Smithsonian magazine, which I did not order.

The thing that is baffling is that, except for the different type faces and different post office box numbers in Boulder, Colo., everything else on the bill is identical--the same subscription amount ($22 for the two subscriptions) and, in particular, all of the computerese coding identifying both me (as the donor) and my daughter-in-law (as the recipient).

I'm curious to know how such things happen and, in particular, whether this means that my daughter-in-law is going to get a year's subscription to Smithsonian as well as Vanity Fair.

I'm tempted to send in the $22 to Smithsonian, even though I didn't order it, because I think the real subscription price for Smithsonian is probably more than the $12 charged for my subscription and the $10 for the gift subscription--total, $22.

But, at the same time, I'm uneasy about the prospects of being dunned, month after month, for two subscriptions I didn't order in the first place.--J.T.

Answer: Indeed, the Christmas season is bargain time in the wonderful world of magazine subscriptions, because the "list" price for a single yearly subscription to Vanity Fair is $24 and $18 for a single subscription to Smithsonian, which makes your bargain offer lessthan half price for Vanity Fair and about 60% off for the regular Smithsonian price. Both are published monthly. In this strange merchandising field--as the offer you received typifies--replete with "holiday" specials, "midsummer" specials, "Valentine's Day" specials and "Just-Because-You're-Such-a-Great-Subscriber" specials--the "list" price for a year's subscription to a magazine has about as much relevance to its "special" rate as head bumps have in determining a person's character.

One of the miracles of the magazine publishing business is not that those fat, slick periodicals roll off the press every month (or week) on a predictable schedule and with relatively few boos-boos incorporated in their contents, but that they ever get delivered. Subscribers move constantly, change their names, subscriptions expire, new subscribers come on board, and the whole process involves tons of mail quite apart from the volume of the magazines themselves--renewal notices, expiration notices, payments, changes of address, complaints, responses to complaints and on and on. How all of this was handled before the dawn of the Computer Age boggles the mind.

What keeps the whole thing from falling apart are the "fulfillment houses," which take all of these nitty-gritty circulation chores off the backs of the individual magazines. And it's not really a coincidence that both of your mailings came bearing Boulder, Colo., return addresses because that's where one of the large fulfillment houses is located: Neodata Services--a peg or two down from General Motors in the name-recognition department.

In all, according to executive vice president Tom Mines, Neodata acts as the alter ego for about 120 magazines--not only Vanity Fair and Smithsonian but also Playboy, Popular Science, U.S. News & World Report, Esquire, the New Yorker, Vogue and so on--with a combined circulation of about 45 million.

All of which doesn't mean that Neodata is physically mailing all of those magazines.

"We print the labels and mail them to printers all over the country who affix them to the magazines as they're printed," Mines says. "In some cases they go out in the form of magnetic tape. The technology keeps changing."

Processing Fee

What Neodata gets out of this is a processing fee that can range from 45 cents to $2 a year per subscriber--depending on the frequency of the mailing and the other services required--but which averages out to $1 a year per subscriber--or a gross to Neodata of roughly $45 million a year.

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