The Pollyanna of the Aussie magazine world, an upbeat Notebook: is defying the economic doom and gloom to bring readers an innovative yet risky new production concept, replacing its trademark tabbing system with a set of five perforated bookmarks, starting with the May issue, on sale today.
It's the second major change for the magazine under editor Caroline Roessler, who left her post as managing editor of ACP title The Australian Women's Weekly last year to oversee Notebook:'s September 2008 issue relaunch, which has positioned the former homemaker title in the women's general interest market.
GWAS talks to Caroline about bookmarks, covers, circulation and reader reactions...
GWAS: Part of Notebook:'s relaunch last year was to introduce models to the cover, which was previously the domain of a vase of flowers. What's been the reader reaction? Fantastic. Initially, we did get emails because people generally don’t like change, and for many people the flowers were the distinctive thing about Notebook: and what set it apart from everything else. But it did send out the wrong message – women were thinking it was a homemaker magazine, so it ended up with the homemaker titles. By putting a woman on the cover, it’s opened it up and changed the positioning in newsagents, so it’s up with the women’s magazines. The latest circ figures from July to December 2008 showed an 8.4% increase, which is quite extraordinary given the economic climate.
Do you think that’s an indication that women are perhaps focusing more inwards and on home life and personal issues and family issues right now? It’s certainly that, but also I think we deal with these issues in a positive way – it’s not doom and gloom. It’s all about embracing the issues that do exist and talking about them in an inspirational and positive and honest way, rather than focusing on the negative, and finding ways to change your life to suit the conditions.
Also, it’s because we don’t have a celebrity on the cover. The women we have are models but they’re not your quintessential fashion model. We try hard to use models who have that girl-next-door positive energy and aren’t intimidating – we just want them to be friendly and to capture a moment in time.
In that respect, could you draw a parallel with Women’s Health’s cover strategy? Their cover models embody that wholesome, healthy, girl next door… Certainly on that level. But the other point of difference is the motif of the flower. Having a floral element to the cover each month gives it a completely different dynamic again. Keeping that floral emblem gives the covers that point of difference. It’s a strategy that we’ve had to evolve to keep the DNA of the magazine but at the same time trying to open it up to a whole new bunch of women.
Notebook: is obviously a celebrity-free zone. Do you try to infuse the magazine with personality through your contributing writers? While it’s a celebrity-free zone, we still feature women in the magazine, and talk to women, who are well known or could be considered celebrities. When we decide on the subject for the month, like friendship, we talk about what areas of friendship we’d like to look at. We generally have a story by a psychotherapist who will talk about the emotional side of the issue, then we like to talk to well-known women writers to get their take. These women are intelligent and funny and have great life experience. I, like many other women, are interested in hearing what they have to say. So what we do is set the topic first, then we determine which women would suit that topic to open up the discussion and make it more interesting. We’ve had amazing writers over the past few months, like Germaine Greer, Wendy Harmer and Ruth Rendell, dealing with issues from ageing (September), to happiness and women and food (in terms of their feelings).
The tabbing system, which divided the magazine into five sections, was well-loved. What do you think the reader reaction will be? I think it’s going to be fantastic, but that could be wishful thinking! It wasn’t a decision that was made lightly. We recently did an online survey to gauge reaction to the magazine after the relaunch in 2008. It was an interesting exercise. We found that a lot of women didn't like the tabs – they said they made the magazine too much like a manual, too heavy, and not very user-friendly, because you couldn't flip through it in a store.
When the magazine was conceptualized, it was a brilliant idea – the whole premise around it was that it was a notebook and very organised. It was a first in Australian publishing and it gave it a real distinctiveness and point of difference. I had never quite understood the tabs myself, though I grew to like them when I started editing the magazine [in March 2008]. I could see how they have the magazine a different user experience.
Certainly in this climate, and in the cultural mood, there’s very much a need for value for money and providing something different and useful. So instead of diving the magazine with the tabbed sections, we came up with the idea of having a gatefold on the inside back cover, in the same stock as the cover, and it’s perforated along the edges of the back cover and then it has four more perforations you can tear along to give you five bookmarks. Each bookmark reflects a different section in the magazine. The Calendar one has a to-do list; the Your Life bookmark, which represents the emotional heart of the magazine, has an inspirational quotation; Fashion & Beauty and Home Life will have hints and tips. Fabulous Food’s first bookmark for May is a shopping list; the one following is a quick glance at conversions and measurements, which you can keep on the fridge in the kitchen. They're something readers can use which feeds into our ethos of making the most of what you have.
In terms of production, has it been costly or does it compare with the tabbing? It’s not as costly as the tabs, let’s just put it that way. It’s not a climate in which you can throw money around. Everybody has their eye on the bottom line, in the workplace at and home.
I think it’s wonderful that in the current climate you’re using your creativity, and working within your budget, to do things that are innovative to draw the attention of new readers… The thing is, I don’t believe you can take things away from your readers and not replace it with something that’s better. If you change something in the magazine, there will be some readers who are upset; there will be some readers who’ll love it more; some won’t care. It’s very hard to keep everyone happy all the time. But if you’re going to change something – whether it’s a magazine or a vacuum cleaner – you have to replace it with something that you believe will provide a better service.
What about cover-mounting? I don’t know how you survive at the moment without giving your readers something extra – there’s just so much out there. Everyone has a tee-shirt, mascara or a lipstick or a bag, so you have to compete. For us, I’m just mindful that the cover mounts are very much on-brand, because there needs to be a certain quality and integrity around them to suit the Notebook: brand. Our production values are very high.
It sounds like you’re having a creative time on the mag when a lot of other magazine are operating under an ominous sense of doom and gloom and are playing safe as houses. That must be exciting? Well, everyone is very aware of what’s going on but the joy of being a part of a magazine team is the creativity. And I think that shows in the product. Ideas are free.
Girl With a Satchel