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October 24, 2011

Magazines Shorten Fixed-Length Subscriptions

Filed under: Uncategorized — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:48 am

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.

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  1. Who gets magazines anymore?

    Edgar replies: For example, Every Day with Rachel Ray, mentioned above, has a circulation of 1.7 million. That is not exactly nobody.

    Comment by Tom — October 24, 2011 @ 10:06 am
  2. I can’t believe Tom made such a [ ] comment. Thanks Mr. Ed, for pointing out discrepencies.

    Comment by Dennis — October 24, 2011 @ 10:16 am
  3. I guess these guys figured if ice cream manufacturers (for example) can reduce the size of their containers from 2 quarts to 1.75 quarts to 1.5 quarts, why not apply the same logic to magazines. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this magazine start to print two ‘special’ editions a year with 10 mailings. Eventually all editions could be ‘special’ and a subscriber would only receive 6 months worth. Then the publisher could promote a ‘new, larger subscription size’ that gets back to 12 issues over 12 months. Why not? Everyone else is routinely pulling these stunts!

    Comment by John — October 24, 2011 @ 10:24 am
  4. I have been a loyal reader of Family Handyman for years, but it took me all of 2 seconds after reading that letter to be on the phone with their customer service letting them know that I don’t appreciate changing the terms of my agreement without my consent. They politely credited my account, and I politely let them know that I will be ignoring their renewal notice the next time it comes.

    Comment by Mike K — October 24, 2011 @ 10:45 am
  5. Readers Digest did this a few months ago, with a letter packed in with their usual junk mail bundle telling of the change. When they say “We’re happy to report that, so far, most subscribers are happy with the bonus content,” it really means that most subscribers were unaware of the change, & therefore did not complain. Underhanded, at best.

    Comment by Cliff — October 24, 2011 @ 11:23 am
  6. Sounds like they decided to improve their bottom line by the end of the year at the expense of existing subscribers. The “if you call and complain, we’ll fix it” tactic is designed to trip up a larger percent of their subscribers who either won’t read the letter or won’t care, thus erring on the side of extra money for the publisher. The smaller number of subscribers that ask for reimbursement would be considered “breakage”, a cost already calculated to be well worth pulling the stunt.

    Comment by spstanley — October 24, 2011 @ 11:25 am
  7. They did this with the Country magazine as well, counting the “America” issue as a double. I didn’t read the letter thoroughly enough to notice an opt-out.

    Comment by Francis B — October 24, 2011 @ 12:12 pm
  8. What does this do to the magazine’s advertising revenue? I’ve always assumed that most broadly-based periodicals generate their revenue from ads rather than subscriptions. If the magazines are giving up a month of ad revenue with this double issue, they’re shooting themselves in the foot. However, if they’re doubling the charge to their advertisers because of the “special” issue, then the advertisers are getting screwed.

    Comment by Bob K — October 24, 2011 @ 12:12 pm
  9. There will not be any advertising loss as they will still have an issue the next month. They are just counting one issue as 2 against the consumer subscription. The advertisers will still keep their monthly payments to the magazine. It is the end consumer who is losing out here on one month less to their original subscription unless they call in to complain.

    Comment by Martin — October 24, 2011 @ 1:10 pm
  10. Family Handyman is already on my sh#t list and this just adds to it. They are contstantly contacting me via phone or US mail to renew my subscription when it is already paid up through Feb. 2013.

    Comment by Tim S — October 24, 2011 @ 3:25 pm
  11. This is as bad as signing up for a magazine and they send you “old” issues. Who wants to get a Christmas issue in January?? This has happened to me in the past.

    Comment by Nancy-The Frugal Dietitian — October 24, 2011 @ 7:07 pm
  12. If the mag does put out 12 issues/year at the rate of 1/month with one of them being a special jumbo issue while cutting subscription length per Martin’s comment, then “each 1-year (11 issue) subscription includes a special issue” is deceptive. It’s a 11-month and not a 1-year subscription. If you produce 12 issues/year, you can’t deliver 11 issues and call it a 1-year subscription. You can only call it a 1-year subscription if you deliver 12 issues (or if you do in fact produce only 11 issues/year). If Martin’s right, it ought to say “each 11-month (11 issue) subscription includes a special issue.”

    Comment by anonymous — October 24, 2011 @ 11:37 pm
  13. I have noticed that the special subscription offers that have come in the mail lately have also been for odd numbers of months. I guess that I can show my disappointment, by not signing up or not renewing my subscriptions now. I’ve found it hard to get all my reading caught up anyway and some of the issues haven’t really had much worthwhile in them when I did get it read!

    Comment by Judy C — October 24, 2011 @ 11:43 pm
  14. Dennis and Edgar, I appreciate that people still get magazines but my question remains, why do you “need” to get a magazine. I can guarantee you that everything in said magazine is very easy to find online and you won’t be, you know, killing trees to read it.

    I guess I should have said “why does anyone get magazines anymore”?

    Comment by Tom — October 25, 2011 @ 1:02 pm
  15. [ edited]

    I’ve caught rental companies pulling a similar stunt in the past. They advertised monthly rental rates, but their monthly billings cut off every four weeks. I called them on this, stating that they were essentially billing me for 13 months a year using this method. They eventually started calling their monthly rates 4-week rates.

    The magazines are in fact screwing the customer by using this method. You could try to explain it by saying they are giving you twice as much content so you should pay twice as much for the special issue, when in fact the advertisers are the ones paying for the extra content and the publishers are just pocketing the extra cash from the deal.

    Comment by PCnotPC — October 26, 2011 @ 3:47 pm
  16. As to “why does anyone get magazines anymore,” the problem is at the PC end. I live in a small mining town in the SW with ~k$31 median household income where PCs and the internet are show stoppers in many conversations. The town has no website and the county’s is rudimentary though the local paper’s is OK. Until recently, our small public library (has ~dozen PCs donated by (I think) the Gates Foundation) used to be opened M-F and it was a struggle to have it open M-Sat. Some people here can’t even afford cell phones, let alone PCs. Business is pretty brisk at the local food bank. Welcome to rural America.

    Comment by anonymous — October 26, 2011 @ 3:50 pm
  17. Not everyone is comfortable holding a Laptop/iTablet while doing #2. You don’t have to worry about dropping your fancy gadget while wiping your a**.

    Comment by Mike — October 27, 2011 @ 1:57 am
  18. Playboy attempted this last year……….upon receipt of my voiced displeasure, they credited my subscription with an additional issue.

    Comment by Larry Reavis — October 31, 2011 @ 2:05 pm
  19. If I recall correctly, now that you mention this, Taste of Home did this with their November issue. They said it was going to be bigger, and therefore was going to count as 2 issues. I do not recall it saying anything about if I was dissatisfied with this… They got you comin and goin!

    Comment by CATHY — November 1, 2011 @ 12:18 pm
  20. I received the letter with my Family Handyman. I attempted to contact the email in the letter, and delivery failed. I visited their website and saw a different phone number than the one on the letter. I called the website customer service line, and they said that customer service doesn’t have an email account. I sent a letter to them demanding a response in writing that they credit my account. I also filed a claim with the Federal Trade Commission as well as my state’s Office of Consumer Protection. Depending on interpretation, this could be a case of Bait and Switch. We were sold a set number of issues but the number changed. Another interpretation could show this to be a case of unsolicited merchandise (I didn’t pay for a double-issue, but they sent me one and “charged” me for it anyway). This issue was 28% larger than the next biggest issue this year, but they charged 100% more for it.

    Comment by Jason — November 3, 2011 @ 9:20 pm
  21. They get away with this because people just don’t read. Strangely, that trick works even for a MAGAZINE….

    I wonder how many people actually call/write/etc. to get their extra issue, and if the costs of paying the customer service reps to process the complaints is less than it would cost to just send everyone 12 issues. I’m guessing it’s cheaper since most magazine prices don’t even cover the cost of printing which is why they’re full of so many ads.

    Comment by Jacob — December 4, 2011 @ 11:59 am
  22. i subscribe to the sporting with a ending date of march 12 2012.I receive a card telling me they would merge the sporting news with the sporting news yearbooks and continue to be called the sporting news.I was told i had $4.55 remaining on my subscription and i would receive 1 more issue and my subscription would end on nov 7.T was cheated out of 10 bi-week issues

    Comment by charles krummerich — December 21, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

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