When you are in the consumer business as long as MrConsumer has been, you think you’ve heard everything until something comes along that makes you shake your head in disbelief.
That happened a couple of weeks ago when Angela T. wrote complaining about a letter she received from the publishers of Every Day with Rachel Ray magazine. It said, in essence, that their November issue was so fat with content they they were going to count it as two issues against your subscription (and thus shorten your subscription by one month).
They do say that if you call to complain, they will restore your original subscription length.
Fast forward about 10 days, and Mouse Print* received another complaint about a magazine subscription being shortened, but this time it was Family Handyman. Here is the letter that Brian F. received:
Same thing — we’re sending you a really big November issue, so we are going to count it as two issues against your subscription unless you file a complaint with us.
Is it a coincidence that two magazines are pulling the same stunt at the same time? Not at all. Both magazines are published by the same company — a subsidiary of Readers Digest.
It is interesting to note that the following fine print footnote appears on the current subscription sign up pages online for both magazines:
Each 1-year (11 issue) subscription includes a special issue, which counts as 2 in your subscription. Please allow 4-6 weeks for delivery.
Does this mean that your “year” of the magazine is really 10 issues because one of the 11 is a double issue, or is it just an explanation of why there are 11 issues and not 12? More importantly, was such a disclosure made to old subscribers before they signed up, or did they believe they were signing up for 12 separate issues a year?
Mouse Print* asked the publisher of both magazines some very pointed questions about their letters and their seemingly unilateral decision to cut the number of magazines they would deliver to their subscribers.
Here, in part, is their reply:
“For any magazine in which we have provided special content so that the magazine issue counts as two, we have provided an explanation in a letter to every subscriber and polybagged it with the magazine. In the letter, we encouraged subscribers, if they were not completely satisfied, to contact us so we could address their concerns immediately by either extending their subscription expiration date or issuing them a refund for the balance of their subscription. We’re happy to report that, so far, most subscribers are happy with the bonus content.
Many magazines give notice in their solicitations that they may publish special issues in place of or in addition to regular issues of a magazine as part of someone’s subscription. The promotional materials for all of our publications, including Every Day with Rachael Ray and The Family Handyman, contain such notice provisions.”
The publisher ignored most questions posed to them, including whether old customers were actually told clearly in advance of signing up for a subscription that their subscriptions could be cut short when special issues were published. If they were, then the magazines would be within their rights to do so.
However, if that warning was not there, the publisher may be on weak ground. It generally takes at least parties two parties to form a contract (or modify one) after agreeing to all terms. In a number of states, the consumer’s silence does not constitute acceptance of a contract’s terms, as their letters would like to assume. (“If you don’t call to complain, we assume shortening the subscription is okay.”) If silence constituted acceptance of a contract, then car dealers, swimming pool installers, and everyone else in the world would be sending you letters that said, if we don’t hear from you by November 1, we are going to deliver a car to your front door, install a swimming pool in your backyard, and sign you up to receive these 100 magazines. And you have to pay for it all.
Hopefully, a sharp state Attorney General or the Federal Trade Commission will open an inquiry into whether the publisher was within its rights to shorten readers’ subscriptions in the manner they did.