Southern Living removes the staples. Remember New Coke?

(If you’re not an over-the-top magazine geek, you may want to go ahead a skip this post. I am such a geek, and this post proves it.)

In what is perhaps the most significant change in the print-production approach of a major magazine title since October, 1985*, Southern Living has changed from saddle stitch binding (the kind with staples) to perfect binding (squared-off along the spine) with its March issue arriving in homes today. My colleague (and long-time Southern Living subscriber — and food blogger) Laura Creekmore just wrote about receiving her March issue on the Custom Media Craft blog at Hammock.com.

Saddle stitching is expensive and technically challenging for a magazine like Southern Living that has 300 or so pages and is published in a vast array of local and regional editions. Perfect binding greatly reduces the mathematical challenges required to match up various versions of pages in the front and back of a magazine. I’ll skip going into the challenges more deeply, but if you do more reading on the topic, you’ll learn why the trade magazine of the magazine industry is called Folio.

Why did Time Inc. allow Southern Living to stick with saddle stitching for so long? (Other than the obvious reasons that SL is a cash-cow and many SL alumni are now executives at Time Inc. and they understand the nuanced down-side involved in such a decision.) I know there are some Southern Living alumni who read this blog occasionally, so I hope they weigh in with the real reasons, but here’s my semi-educated guess: Time Inc. has been afraid to anger the tens of thousands of readers who have vast collections of past issues of the magazine displayed on bookcases. Ironically, perfect bound magazines probably display better in such a collection (think National Geographic), but once you have a few decades of stapled magazines displayed (and if you grew up in the south, you’ve seen such), it may come as a shock when the March issue of the magazine shows up in the mailbox and it no longer lines up like the old issues.

Again, that’s a theory. Surely, the Southern Living folks went beyond the typical reader research to isolate collectors of the magazine to guage what their response will be. They did, surely? If not, this should be a very interesting experiment in what happens when one ignores the obvious.

Sunset magazine, another magazine owned by Time Inc., switched to perfect binding in the mid-1990s. Frankly, I don’t recall if there were controversies or protests from readers. Whatever the response, the magazine survived and the earth continued to spin.

Personally, I would have done it 20 years ago, but, then again, I actually liked the taste of New Coke.

*Magazine trivia buffs may recall that October, 1985, was the issue when Playboy switched from saddle-stitch to perfect binding. Additional fun fact: Madonna was on the cover of the last saddle-stitched issue of that magazine.

  • Hmm. I never thought about it, but don’t think I’ve ever seen a Playboy that wasn’t saddle-stitched. Then again, I quit looking at my father’s hidden copies long before 1985. Fast forwarding to my years as a publisher, the decision whether to perfect-bind or saddle-stitch was financial. Once a book grew to a certain size, it got itself a spine (with the bonus of creating another position we could sell or use as added value).