Some try to tap into nostalgia
From trains to tantric sex, there is a collectable magazine series to cover all hobbies. It's a market worth £180m, but few own up to buying them. So what is so-called partwork publishing all about?
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
Christmas is over, so what do you do to lift yourself out of the New Year slump? Learn how to stimulate your chakras, see into the future and give a massage, of course. All this just by buying the weekly instalments of Enhancing Your Mind Body Spirit magazine.
January is traditionally the month when the nation is bombarded with the launch of partwork magazines covering anything from science to sex, all collectable in easy instalments and stored in a handy ring-binder - if you're really lucky.
Dinosaurs 1.5m (1993)
Microwave Knowhow One 1.2m (1995)
Cake Decorating 1m (1983)
Blues Collection 990,000 (1993)
Musicals Collection 977,000 (1993)
Carrier's Kitchen 924,000 (1981)
Lion King 883,000 (1996)
Book of Life 864,000 (1969)
With the reputation of having a readership made up of lonely men who get their kicks building models of space shuttles in their bedrooms, few people admit to buying the mags.
But many obviously do, as the market is worth an estimated £180m in the UK alone - add on 50% again if you include subscriptions. Only TV listings magazines and women's weeklies are more popular.
For such a lucrative market, it is shrouded in secrecy. There are no official circulation figures, up-coming projects are guarded like state secrets in case they're pinched by a rival and most publishers are based abroad. Basically, the industry operates in a different way to all other magazines.
What is clear is that it's a cut-throat market, with huge amounts of money - and people's reputations - resting on a two-week window in which to get the public to buy into a series. There are no second chances when it comes to partworks.
New year, new you
The market can be traced back to Charles Dickens, who published many of his novels in partwork format, with a new chapter being made available each month.
The "modern" partwork started in Italy after World War II and took off in the UK in the late 60s, helped by the ability to reach mass audiences using commercial television.
January is the crunch month for the industry as most people are open to the idea of a new project in the post-Christmas slump, or thinking about some sort of self-improvement drive.
It is also the month when advertising costs are at their lowest, an important point when spending £1.5m in just two weeks on each new series that is launched, according to the Periodical Publishers Association (PPA).
And they have to get it spot on - the success of a partwork is sealed within in the first "vital" 14 days of being advertised. If a partwork doesn't hook readers with its very first issue, it never will.
No one will start collecting a series if they have missed the first few issues, especially if it is parts of a model. "It can be very costly if you get it wrong," says Suzie Cullen, marketing manager at publishers Eaglemoss.
As a result up to two years of intensive, highly-secret development work goes into a new title before it is launched. It is extensively tested prior to publication and redesigned if necessary.
A great deal more subjects are researched than are launched, but get it right and watch the money roll in. The average amount a reader will spend on a partwork across its full life is £319, according to the PPA.
But who buys them? Anyone and everyone, according to publishers. While the market has a bit of a nerdy reputation, there is no typical buyer.
"There was a stigma about partworks," says Ms Cullen. "I think that stemmed from the fact that early publications were all about self-improvement. But attitudes have changed and while you still get titles that appeal to a niche market, others have a broad appeal."
Some publishers are more ready to admit "a type". Buyers tend to be aged between 35 and 44, married, have children, are homeowners and employed in white collar work, according to research by partwork publisher DeAgostini. There is no division between the sexes - men and women buy them equally.
Ideas are kept secret
"I think there is a collector in everyone and that is why they sell," says partwork enthusiast Gerry Dean.
"I'm proud of my collections, especially my Lord of the Rings figurines, but for some it is still a bit of a guilty pleasure. They still think people will think they're some loony."
There is much mystery around circulation figures, with no official figures available because partworks don't take advertising and therefore have no need to subscribe to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. "To include advertising would diminish the value and collectability of the product," says the PPA.
But sales have been growing for years, give or take a few blips. This success is put down to a move towards collectables and away from educational series. "These items have value and are desirable," says a spokesman for DeAgostini.
Collecting can also be a cut-throat business. It takes dedication and money. Heaven forbid you miss a week, but if you do there are companies whose whole business is based around hunting down lost issues.
The biggest market for partworks is Italy and Spain, followed by the UK and France. Twenty partworks were published in the UK alone last year. A growing market is Eastern Europe, Russia and Ukraine, but the United States is the industry's Holy Grail.
Companies have tried on numerous occasions to break into the US market, but it has never really worked because it is too big. There are 200-plus TV markets with more than 2,000 stations, so reaching people is difficult and very, very expensive.
But it's their loss, say enthusiasts. "I consider my collectable magazines one of life's little pleasures," says Mr Dean.
Use sense and do the maths.
It's cheaper to buy books or normal DVD's than buy partworks, e.g. The Prisoner series box set in the shops for 1/5 of the partwork version.
Alan, North England
I used to buy partworks but I stopped some time ago. This is because of two factors. The first was because you never knew how many issues the collection would be - 50 or 500. The second was that the free gifts gradually degraded in quality. I recall a collection called Jazz Greats. It spanned 80 issues, but only the first 20 or so really had a "Jazz Great" (Billie Holiday, etc) as a theme. Then it just petered off into random subjects.
Alex MacArthur, Southampton, UK
I would actually really enjoy collecting partwork magazines (perhaps that's the sad lonely male thing), but as much as the first issue alwasy tempts me, it's the entertaining "FIRST ISSUE ONLY £2.99!" It's the "Normal price £10.99" smallprint that I find somewhat offputting (and a little underhand!).
Richard Reid, London, UK
Aw! Dinosaur magazine, I loved it when I was a kid. I wanted to be a paleontologist and everything! The only rubbish thing was none of my friends liked it so I had no one to share it with. Nowadays I like the Horrible Science/History magazines that my brothers read. They have so much random and interesting stuff in them.
I remember collecting a series when I was 10(ish) called Bugz about.. well... bugs! It was brilliant and I got a glow-in-the-dark skeleton model of a spider and a scorpion. I still have all the magazines somewhere too! But they're far too expensive these days, the £1.99 first issue price is always temping, but £7.99+ after that is always a rip off (especcially for the DVD collections where you could probably buy a whole series in one go at less than half the price)!
Having collected the original "Dinosaurs" Magazine as a child, I can say I thoroughly enjoyed the collecting and building of a T-Rex skeleton - I'm not sure that my dad's wallet enjoyed the experience quite as much though! Especially seeing as once the first series was concluded and my skeleton built, a SECOND series was introduced in order to built the skin, which got a resounding "NO!" from my dad when I enquired about collecting it...
Ed Richards, Armitage, Staffordshire, UK
I enjoyed collecting partworks when I was in my early 20's. They opened the worlds of classical musical, art and the great novel to me. Things which I had very little experience of up to that time.
I'm a great fan and every January I'm tempted to start another one, but the overall cost is prohibitive and now I seek out my learning from the local library.
Niall Whyte, East Kilbride
I do collect two partworks at the moment, and have just signed up for a third in the last few days. I do have to admit very few people know i collect them though!!!
Generally, its not because im afraid of being branded a geek, but most people arent interested in the subjects these relate to so i dont mention them!
Mat Wase, North London
My uncle once bought me the first part of The Living Countryside in the late 80s, and I was still collecting it come the 90s. Now all the folders reside in my mothers wardrobe gathering dust.
Also an annoyance was buying the clear plastic circles to put around the holes incase the ripped out of the binders.
Steven Lynch, Glasgow, Scotland
I got my dad do buy me the 'Input' partwork when I was in secondary school. It taught me how to program a computer and helped me pass my computing O-level. I'm a web developer now, thanks in no small part to partworks.
Adam, Slough, Berkshire
As a student, I taught myself to cook from a partwork. It was only later that I discovered I could have spent a third of the total outlay buying the hardback book on which the series was based.
Still, the drip-feed of information and recipes did allow me to expand my skills steadily, and encourage me to experiment every two weeks, in a way that a book never could.
I guess partworks (well, a partwork) changed my life.
Jon Green, Cambridge UK
I used Partworks to collect the full DVD set of Carry On films. I found this a really good way to collect them. Yes I could have gone out and bought the full set straight away for £200, but £7.99 a fortnight seemed a more affordable way to do it. DVD partworks are fantastic!
I remember buying these types of magazines, It is a complete rip off, it is like buying a page of a book individually, then having to organise it yourself over a couple of years at 10 time the cost then throw in the occasional ad and shopping booklet. I don't know how I was hooked to partwork but luckily I avoid them at all haste.
Tommy, South Ascot
I was thinking about launching my own partwork collection called "Random Objects of Desire" do you think there is a market for this untapped collectable series?
Neale , Edinburgh, UK
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