When magazine subscriptions attack

Publishers Clearing House is known for its prizes. You've seen the commercials. The prize patrol is driving around, looking for you, hoping to give you a big fat check for entering its sweepstakes.

Well, television consumer reporter John Matarese, very well known in my neck of the woods (Cincinnati, Ohio) for looking after the little guy -- has an interesting report about how collections letters from magazines are becoming increasingly common.

Nice guy, too. As a former features writer for the now-defunct Cincinnati Post, I used to run into Matarese, who works for ABC's Channel 2, downtown occasionally. But I digress.

Matarese interviewed a Cincinnati man, Matthew Roberson, who received a letter saying he owed $61.92. Roberson was puzzled, certain he hadn't ordered any magazines, and so he contacted Publishers Clearing House, only to learn that a Reader's Digest subscription of his, which had been a gift from his mother-in-law, had lapsed, and he didn't renew it -- hence, the stern letter making it sound like he owed them money.

Roberson didn't feel he owed anything else, and to PCH's credit, they did close his account and agreed to stop sending letters. And Matarese himself notes that he recently received a letter from Hearst magazines after he left his subscription lapse to SmartMoney.

Letters stating that you've let your subscription lapse is one thing -- perfectly reasonable, I think most people would agree -- but a letter that comes from a "collection manager" about your "delinquent account," as happened with Matarese, it's pretty maddening.

Not that this is that new of a development. I think just about everyone encounters this sort of thing, and have for years, and it got me to thinking...

How magazines collect their money might be even more of a problem than the influence of the Internet.

Certainly, giving away your magazine articles online does make a reader pause and think, "Why should I pay for a print version of the same thing?" But unless you have a Kindle or an equivalent reading device, it's still not easy to curl up in a chair or sprawl out on a bed and read a magazine online the way you can with a print magazine.

The reasons may be diminishing, but there are reasons why people would still want to subscribe to a glossy, paper, non-digital magazine.

But when you think you're going to be trapped, paying for a magazine indefinitely, and punished if you decide to opt out for a few months or a year, why not stop subscribing altogether? That's why I subscribe to fewer and fewer magazines these days, and I'm a long-time magazine writer. In fact, my entire career has been built on writing for magazines, although I've diversified in the last decade.

And it's not just the way magazines collect their money from their current customers that's a problem. The industry isn't being helped by the way new magazine subscribers are being recruited. For years, there have been people knocking on doors, selling magazine subscriptions. That may have worked out fine in 1950 when we all knew our neighbors and spent a lot of time hanging out on our front porch, anyway. It's not such a great idea in 2009 when we're all more than a little leery about strangers.

We're also trying to save more money than we used to, and most of the people doing the selling are teenagers, saying that they're trying to raise money for college or whatever. The prices are always inflated, at least they have been during my experiences, when I used to give door-to-door magazine salespeople the time of day. But, like many people, I suspect, I paid, figuring I was doing a good deed.

But even if you don't mind helping some affable, enterprising teenager out, it's almost impossible not to wonder if you're going to be scammed in the process. There have been plenty of magazine scams to come out of the shadows over the years, and in fact, WalletPop's Mitch Lipka wrote about this issue earlier this year.

The atmosphere for a good, reputable magazine seller has been poisoned. For instance, earlier this week, the sheriff's office in Spartanburg, S.C., released a warning to people saying that the community has had a lot of groups of young adults being dropped off and going door to door, selling magazine subscriptions. The office couldn't say for sure if the young salespeople were legit or not -- they just advised people not to buy from them. That's the type of environment the magazine industry finds itself in.

And you can't blame the sheriff's office for being wary. The Times Herald in Port Huron, Mich., just put out a story with the headline: Magazine salesman raped me.

It was a hot day when a 44-year-old woman invited the salesman into her air-conditioned home, and, well, the headline explains what happened.

A few other products and services, like lawn care, have people selling their wares door-to-door, but it's become increasingly uncommon, and maybe there's a reason for that. Like, you antagonize more people than you bring aboard.

Really, it's just time for the magazine industry to find another way to sell magazines -- and if the customer wants out, let them go without a hassle. As the hackneyed saying goes, if you love something, set it free. Let a magazine reader leave without them worrying how departing will affect their credit score, and when they miss curling up in a chair with their favorite magazine, you never know... they just might come back.

Geoff Williams has been writing for magazines since 1992. He is also the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).

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