Yves here. While Condé Nast screwing up taking a paid subscription in an impressively costly manner won’t dent the giant publishing house, whose titles include Vanity Fair, Vogue, and the New Yorker, it does suggest that the business side is run like a candy store. Maybe that’s not true generally and is only the case for the neglected stepchild subscription operation. Maybe the recent bloodletting has led to job reassignments and confused reporting lines. Maybe Condé Nast has done a particularly poor job of implementing “stay at home” procedures for some of its business units. But regardless, to botch getting revenues in when you are hemorrhaging employees is not a good look.
Condé Nast defenders might argue that the problem results from Olenick being a foreign subscriber. That is clearly the proximate cause, but no excuse. No other pub he’s subscribed to turned itself into knots not giving him account. Even this tiny blog has no difficulty taking contributions from overseas by PayPal; our difficulties come when loyal readers abroad don’t want to use PayPal, since US anti-money laundering rules have made other channels both cumbersome and pricey.
My guess is that Condé Nast’s subscription system was built for its print product, and they’ve done a poor job of adapting it to online subscriptions.
By Michael Olenick, a research fellow at INSEAD who writes regularly at Olen on Economics
Condé Nast doesn’t want me as a subscriber. I’m not sure what I’ve ever done to them but they’re just not into me. Some background…
Over a hundred thousand Americans are dead, the economy is the worst in US history, police are acting as an armed branch of Trump Inc., the courts are stacked with MAGA sycophants, and Congressional oversight is nonexistent. The only institution left to check the power of the aspirational orange dictator is the press which, thanks to Covid-19, social media, and relatively cheap Google ads is hemorrhaging cash and reporters. Alternative press can pick up the slack to some extent but, at some point, professional paid reporters are vital to a functioning democracy.
In that spirit I try to subscribe to publications that I read. I don’t subscribe to everything but keep a rolling list of stuff, turning off auto-renews to most so a widespread list has access to a few dollars here and there. It won’t keep the lights on but definitely doesn’t hurt. There’s the predictable subscriptions to the New York Times and Washington Post but also lots of lesser known ones to publications like Medium, a bunch of blogs, and a few magazines.
Which brings me to my point: Condé Nast refuses to take my money even while laying off people. Granted, the majority of their income comes from ads but I’d imagine the ad prices are influenced by paid subscribers who are presumably more tuned-in than randos scrolling Twitter or Facebook.
I was sheltering in place reading a Vanity Fair article when a banner popped up suggesting I subscribe for $8. Sounds reasonable to me, I though; let’s give Condé Nast a hand. I clicked and subscribed with PayPal, which I use for purchases like that since they make canceling auto-renew super simple. Normally, that’s the end; you get an email, no limit on articles, no need to use private mode, and a few Satoshis of positive karma. Advertisers see larger subscriber figures and pay more. Reporters get fed. Everybody is happy.
Not this time. Nothing happened. I was charged but couldn’t log in. Suspecting a glitch, which happens infrequently, I searched until I found the contact email, email@example.com. That bounced back with an address not found so I found a few more. An auto responder promised me somebody would get back to me.
The next morning, a friendly French woman wrote to me in perfect English. I live in France, though I hadn’t mentioned that in my email. I’ll admit it odd to have French customer service be the fastest and most responsive but we live in odd times lately. However, she couldn’t find my order. I sent her a receipt from PayPal and she told me I’d subscribed to the US version and would forward my inquiry to them. She also seems to have credited me back the $8 since that showed up in PayPal.
The next day I got a longish hand-written profusely apologetic email from London that the US office sent my inquiry to the UK office which handles international subscriptions. They had an account number and case ID but told me they can’t do anything. They refunded me an additional $8.
Two days later, I received a form letter from Vanity Fair in the US telling me they couldn’t locate my subscription and asked me for my account number which, their email said, is located above my name and address on the mailing label. This was odd for a few reasons, the first being the bottom part of the email they sent was another email obviously forwarded by the international offices which included, among other things, my account number. Besides, even if I lived in the US, I’d still subscribe electronically because of the carbon footprint and personal preference.
Not wanting to be a further financial burden on the already troubled organization, I didn’t reply to that email on the assumption an email response would yield another $8. Besides, counting them up, I’d already received eleven emails from Condé Nast or their auto responders.
Just a few weeks ago, May 13, Condé Nast laid off 100 people and furloughed another hundred. They’ve reduced pay by 10-20% for people making over $100,000. Granted, this makes more sense than at least one organization I heard of that reduced pay only for people making less than $100,000 but, in pricey New York City, the cuts still no doubt sting.
An easier way to protect revenues would be to easily, efficiently, and gracefully enable people to subscribe. Like I said above, I have lots of subscriptions. They’re usually super simple. It’s one of the few areas where you can even still call and a real person promptly picks up the phone. No matter their editorial slant, quality of writing, or location in the world, publications are usually happy to take your money. Even in better times, magazines used to like it when people subscribed.
I could theoretically continue writing to various people around the world about my misbegotten subscription but I’m old enough to take the hint and know when I’m unwanted. Lots of rejections don’t come with why’s, and it’s sometimes unreasonable or even creepy to ask for one, but – in this somewhat unique case – asking for a reason why I can’t subscribe seems reasonable. I suspect most Condé Nast staff members would want to know too, especially those who lost their jobs but also the ones still there. If anybody at Condé Nast wants to process my subscription, or take their extra $8 back, please let me know: my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.