UK magazines

UK magazines are mainly based in London, though some publishing groups, such as Future in Bath and DC Thomson in Dundee, are based in other cities. The Periodical Publishers Association represents about 400 publishers operating in Britain, accounting for some 2,300 consumer, business and professional magazines - 80 per cent of the UK magazine market by turnover. There are more than 8,000 titles published in Britain and they can be categorised as belonging to one of these sectors:

  1. consumer (general and specialist) sold in newsagents;
  2. business / trade / professional / B2B - for people at work;
  3. customer publishing / contract publishing /custom - produced by publishing agencies for organisations to give to their customers as a form of marketing;
  4. staff magazines: produced by a company's internal communications team or a publishing agency to inform staff about their company
  5. newspaper supplements - come free as part of daily or Sunday paper;
  6. part works - a set number of issues builds up into an 'encyclopedia' on a specific topic;
  7. academic journals - for university-level discussion of all sorts of arcane topics.

Consumer magazines

Consumer magazines make up the bulk of the titles for sale in Britain's newsagents. They may be general titles that aim to entertain and inform (such as GQ, Elle, Radio Times) or consumer specialist titles aimed at a specific interest or hobby (Car, Total Film, Gardeners' World). There are about 2,800 UK consumer magazines.

The biggest consumer magazine publishers (by newsagent sales revenue):

  • Bauer (German group that took over the 2nd largest group, Emap, in 2008): 26%
  • IPC (Time Warner): 20%
  • Burda (another German group that acquired Immediate Media, publisher of Radio Times, in a deal worth £260m in 2017): 8%
  • National Magazines (Hearst): 7%

Most UK magazines for consumers - about 90% - are sold through newsagents or supermarkets. Smiths News, owned by Connect Group, is the biggest distributor with a 55% share of the UK market It delivers 35 million newspapers and 11 million magazines to 30,000 retailers each week. The UK is much more reliant on newsagent sales than in the US and continental European countries, where subscriptions are more popular.

Total sales of such magazines have been falling since they peaked in about 1960 (with far fewer titles) as the role of magazines and newspapers as the main purveyor of information and entertainment in Britain was usurped by television. Figures from the Advertising Association put total sales at 2,100 million copies in 1970, a figure that fell steadily to under 1,200 million in 1992. However, there was a slow rise to 1,339m copies in 2004 before dropping back to 1,000 million by 2017. Overall, sales are falling at about 5% a year.

Launches in the past ten years have numbered 421-602 annually, according to WH Smith.

The industry directory British Rates and Data (Brad) divides consumer titles into 23 subject areas, from buying and selling (113 titles) through home interest (107) to youth (205). These subjects may be further divided, for example, the youth area has 12 boys magazines, 21 for girls and 26 teenage and pop titles.

Magforum has case studies of the subject areas listed in Table 1.

Profiles of consumer magazine publishers

Table 1. Subject case studies on Magforum
Business Cars Computers
Extreme sports Men's magazines Men's weeklies 
Homes and interiors Money & finance News magazines
Property Teen titles Travel & holiday
Women's glossies Women's weeklies Yachting & boating

Business / professional / trade / B2B To top

Business magazines, which may also be called trade or B2B (business to business) magazines are for people at work. There are about 5,100 such titles in the UK. Brad lists 44 subject areas, including aeronautical (60 titles), energy (75) and veterinary (26).

Profiles of business magazine publishers


Customer magazines

Customer magazines, which may also be called contract or custom magazines, are produced by publishing agencies for companies to give to their customers as a form of marketing. This sector has expanded greatly since the mid-1980s.

Contract magazines are usually given away free to customers in very large numbers. Print runs for the biggest titles exceed those of even the best-selling consumer titles. Magazines produced for the National Trust, Tesco and Asda all had free circulations of 2.3-1.7 million copies in 2017, compared with sales of TV Choiceof 1.2 million. The most widely distributed contract title in the past 10 years was Sky the Magazine, which was sent free to subscribers of the satellite channel and had a circulation of 7 million copies a month.

Profiles of customer magazine publishers


Newspaper supplements

Newspaper supplements come free as part of a daily or Sunday paper. Most national newspaper in the UK actually publish more than one magazine each week.

Profiles of newspaper publishers


Partworks

Partworks, unlike mainstream magazines that aim to be published for as long as economically possible, have a set number of issues. They often build up into an 'encyclopedia' on a specific topic in, say, 25 parts, and are usually launched just after Christmas, when television advertising charges are at their lowest.


Academic journals

Academic journals aim to encourage university-level discussion of all sorts of arcane topics. Their identifying feature is that their subject matter is controlled by an academic board. Members of the board act as referees to vet all the articles. Authors are not paid; rather, they gain academic credibility. However, this is a very profitable industry for the publishers behind academic journals, which have a guaranteed market in university libraries. Probably the most famous academic journal is Nature. The earliest periodicals were, in fact, journals such as these.

Magazine history


Best-selling UK magazines

What's On TV July 2007
What's On TV magazine had an ABC figure of 885,595 in 2017

The Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) vets the circulation of 500 paid for and free magazines. Twice a year it publishes the official figures for magazines (in February and August for the previous 6 months). Most of the top UK circulations - 5 of the top 7 - are claimed by customer magazines from companies such as Tesco and Asda. However, these are given away ('monitored free distribution' in ABC jargon), rather than being bought ('actively purchased'). Television listings magazines such as TV Choice and Radio Times tend to be the best-selling UK magazines with historical circulations in excess of eight million copies a week in the 1950s, but down to 900,000 in 2017. Women's weeklies are the next big group, led by Take a Break (half a million copies), with the likes of Chat, Now and Heat in the region of 100,000-250,000. The biggest monthlies are Slimming World (640,000 in 2017), Cosmopolitan(404,000), Glamour (276,000) and Woman and Home (303,000). The trend has been downward for most magazines since 1960, though two notable exceptions are The Economist, now selling 235,670 copies a week in the UK and 1.5m globally, and Private Eye, which saw sales exceed 250,000 in 2016.

Historically, Radio Times had the highest sales, at 8,832,579 copies in 1955 - a figure it claimed as 'the largest sale of any weekly magazine in the world' at the time. The women's weekly Woman was selling 3 million copies for Odhams.

Women's magazine sales 1938-59

Best-selling UK magazines by ABC figure in 2007 and 2017
Title Publisher ABC 2007 (UK & Eire) ABC 2017 (UK & Eire)
What's on TV Time Inc UK (IPC) 1,421,645 944,644
TV Choice H Bauer (Emap) 1,390,376 1,219,097
Radio Times Immediate (BBC) 1,041,705 684,922
Take a Break H Bauer 1,009,795 542,786
Reader's Digest Vivat Direct 709,152 106,335
Saga (mainly subs) Saga 657,264 305,657
Closer Bauer 561,869 223,342
Heat Bauer 542,280 136,470
Chat Time Inc UK 499,626 248,288
OK! Northern & Shell 500,121 189,270

Best-read UK magazines Back to top

FHM 2007 March
Before it was wiped out by online competition, FHM was read by 6 people for each copy sold

Most magazines are read by more than one person. They may be read just within a household or company, or passed on to friends, or end up in a doctor's waiting room or hairdresser's. So each year, the National Readership Survey (NRS) interviews about 30,000 people to find out what they have been reading.

Among the best-read titles are:

  • What's on TV is read by an estimated 2.2m people, so has two readers for every copy sold; for Radio Times, the figure is 1.8m, three times its sales.
  • Among the monthlies, BBC Top Gear, BBC Gardeners' World and Men's Health each have a readership estimate of over a million.
  • Among the free customer magazines, the top two are: Tesco Magazine (circulation 1.931m; readership 3.696m) and Asda Good Living (circulation 1.840m; readership 2.203m). For NRS purposes, three are regarded as women's monthlies.
  • An interesting comparison with the free customer magazines of the big grocery chains is Sainsbury's Magazine, which is a sold magazine. Its sales are just 191,000 a month while its readership estimate is 1.976m - a whopping 10 readers per copy (however, I suspect that such a high figure is more about brand recognition rather than actual readership).
  • Among the mainstream women's monthlies, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, Vogue and BBC Good Food are the four titles with a readership figure of 1.2m-1m.

NRS website


The oldest magazines

Spectator cover from 2001
The Spectator claims to be the oldest continuously-published magazine in the English language
Lloyd's List is a weekly trade title for people in shipping and insurance. It was founded in 1734 and is one of the world's oldest magazines. The Spectator was established in 1828 and claims to be the oldest continuously-published magazine in the English language. (There was also a newspaper called the Spectator founded in 1711 by Steele and Addison.) Some titles, the women's fashion monthly Tatler being the most prominent example, make spurious claims about their age. It claims to be 300 years old, but has only been published for half that time, much of it in very different formats, and has no direct link to the first Tatler.
Profiles of B2B magazine publishers

Foreign control of UK magazines

Most UK consumer titles are owned by foreign groups. The largest publisher in the UK was formed when German-based Bauer took over Emap in early 2008. IPC Media, since then the second-largest publisher, is owned by US group Time Warner. Also, Conde Nast and National Magazines are offshoots of US companies. The largest British-owned companies are now Future and Dennis (which sold its US arm in 2007). All of the top 5 consumer publishers are controlled from overseas.

Of the top-selling consumer magazines, many are actually British versions of overseas magazines. This is particularly true of women's monthlies, with Glamour, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, In Touch, Vanity Fair and Good Housekeeping being US-offshoots. Elle is a French title. The biggest-selling women's weekly, Take a Break, is German-owned. Other big US titles include Rodale's Men's Health, Reader's Digest, which sells about a million copies a month and is a top 5 title, and National Geographic (also US owned). Unusually for the UK, the final two are subscription-based.
Profiles of customer magazine publishers


The best UK magazines

Judging the 'best' title is a subjective decision. It is extremely difficult to compare, say, Hello! with New Scientist or Reader's Digest. Such a decision might be based on sales or readership or market penetration (what percentage of the total potential market a magazine actually reaches).

There has been strong growth in the independent magazines sector, which has different values and aims. Many titles are short-lived and many are not commercial, in that they are not run to make a profit.

The best designed magazines are frequently discussed, but such judgments tend to be limited in scope. Historically, magazines such as Town, London Life (Tatler) and Nova from the 1960s are often lauded for their design, but none of them was a great commercial success.

Each year, there are several industry awards for magazines:

In these, panels of practitioners attempt to make judgements about the quality of magazines compared with their peers.