circulation and sales

One of my favorite passages from Raymond Williams’ cultural criticism and commentary is from his essay, “Communications and Community.” Encountering it in his book, Resources of Hope, it helped me realize the broader sensibility I wanted to take in my dissertation. I printed a copy of the passage and taped it to my monitor with “READ ME!” handwritten for emphasis above while I wrote to remind me to maintain its perspective. Its point, a response to post-World War Two developments in advertising, marketing, and culture and their academic study, remains relevant in contemporary considerations about social media in the age of the Internet.

“For it is a terrifying thought that most of the real work on communications is now being done by advertisers, to discover more effective ways of selling the products of whoever hires them. It is just as bad that almost all our terms for talking about communication come from America, where you among some good sociology a very largely debased and hired sociology. There nothing is an effect or impression, it is always an impact. People even are not people, they are mass audiences, they are socio-economic groups, they are targets. And the aggression within those terms, the aggression within ‘impact,’ the aggression within ‘target,’ is the expression of people who want to control. But the basis of a democratic system is that ordinary people should have control in their own hands, that they should not be targets for anybody.”

One place where Williams’ concern about the effect that advertising has had is in the language of publishers, specifically the idea of “circulation.” Circulation is most often associated with newspaper and magazine publishers, whose revenues derive from direct sales of their publications but also and substantially from their advertising content. In this context, circulation is a measure of copies of a specific publication, or rather, a specific issue of a publication that have been sold and is used to set the rates advertisers pay for placing advertisements in future issues. Establishing circulation’s meaningful measure, in terms that can be verified independent of devices to inflate or reduce it, is vital to the coexistence of publishers and advertisers, who are mutually interested, but on opposite sides, of the process. N.W. Ayers and Sons, an advertising agency originally based in Philadelphia, rose to prominence in the 19th century among other reasons because it compiled circulation figures for prospective clients and published them in annual guides that historians now use as reference volumes for historical circulation. With the explosive growth of national mass-market magazines containing advertising in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, publishers and advertisers created the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), an independent agency that established protocols for member publishers’ detailed self-reporting of sales and whose verification certified its annual reports.

What is often overlooked in these concerns is that circulation in this sense is not actually circulation; that is, of publications’ distribution and use. How many people read publishers’ publications, where and how did they get them, and what did they do afterward? Sales figures for magazine issues establish a baseline estimate for the number of people who read them if you accept the premise that everyone who buys a magazine reads it, but it is also an estimate that undercuts notions of distribution, use, and exchange implied within the idea of circulation. Indeed, it is an estimate that assumes no exchange at all. By comparison, in monetary theory, money supply—an economic estimate of a currency’s circulation—is calculated by multiplying the amount of available currency by the number of times it changes hands. Currency that does not circulate or circulates little reduces the supply of money and has deflationary and often desultory economic consequences.

The difference been circulation and sales was evident and relevant, ironically, to publishers in the early twentieth-century whose revenues derive from sales without advertising subsidies. Although publishers ideally preferred that every reader of a book or magazine purchased their own copy, books and magazines that were exchanged, that is, discussed, shared and read by people than the original purchaser, also generated word-of-mouth publicity, and indirectly, the possibility that someone who heard it might buy a copy or a future sequel or issue. A. A. Wyn, a publisher of pulp magazines, early 20th century magazines without advertising and sold for their fiction, often genre fiction, estimated in the 1930s that three people read each copy of a pulp that was actually sold. With roughly 10 million copies pulps sold monthly, this implied 30 million people, or a significant percentage of the American public read the pulps, which were considered “cheap” not for their actual cost, but for the reputation of their stories and the quality of the paper on which they were printed.

Any consideration of modern popular culture must take into account the concerns of its commercial character and context, like advertising, but it must also recognize that popular culture’s sociological and cultural influence extends beyond and are determined by such concerns. Advertisers’ and producers’ interest in sales aside, the circulation of cultural forms such as books, magazines, newspapers, and later, records, compact discs, and DVDs, involves their production, distribution, and use as well as their sale. As Williams reminds us, the language, statistics, and other information we use to discuss them need to reflect this broader perspective.