Octogenarian British publisher still coming up with new ideas.
In the 1950s Stein left his post as political editor of the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg to become editor of Drum, a famous and controversial black-owned, anti-apartheid publication in South Africa.
After three turbulent years in that post, he left South Africa for London. "I didn't want my kids to grow up under the apartheid government," he explains, "become little bullies...."
Unfortunately, the Picture Post, the struggling magazine that offered Stein a position in London, went under before he got there.
"That was all right," he says. "My real ambition was to launch my own magazine, something 'national' along the lines of your Life.... But at that time it was said to take about a million pounds to launch a magazine, and I had about 500."
"More or less invented newsletters in the UK."
So he launched a newsletter, The London Property Letter, aimed at non-professionals intererested in the real estate market. "I think we more or less invented newsletters in the U.K.," Stein says. "I'd seen the Kiplinger Letter and ours was nothing like that. Twelve pages for one thing not four. I know we were the first in Britain to use the no-obligation free trial offer, 'just write cancel on the bill,' that had become a standard in the U.S."
Through the 1960s and early '70s, Stein recalls, "We didn't have much competition from other publishers, but gradually they twigged to what we were doing.
Over that time, Stein's company pioneered the "standing order" for subscriptions and renewals--"where the punter signs an order instructing his bank to pay Sylvester Stein XX pounds on receipt of this order and every year following on the same date"-and later the "delayed action standing order," which is a kind of "free trial" where the standing order instructions are delayed by perhaps two months during which time the prospect receives issues and can decide whether or not to order.
"It makes all the difference... convincing subscribers to allow their banks to automatically pay you renewals every year."
Good editors and marketers, but poor businessmen
"By the end of the '70s we published about 15 titles and were making a good deal of money, or at least a good deal of revenues, if not a lot of profit. We were very good at editing and marketing and much less so as businessmen. We became a public company and, in good years, like 1982, we were able to report more than one million pounds in profit."
During the '80s Stein also founded Running magazine, which he published successfully in Britain until 1995 when it was sold to Rodale Press in the U.S.
This title reflected one of Stein's other interests, competitive running. In the early '80s he was the world champion for 200 meters for his age group and won numerous medals at British and international competitions.
(In fact, just this year Stein set the U.K. record for 200 meters in his age group, which is now "over 80"--no, that's not a typo, "Over 80"!, although one must wonder just how many men over 80 are still sprinting 200 meters in competition.)
At that time Stein also accepted a request from the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa to handle fundraising in Great Britain. "I didn't know anything about fundraising," he says, "but when I got into it I realized it's exactly like direct mail subscription marketing. Actually, my daughter did most of the work and we raised a great deal of money. She's now director of a large federation called Action Aid."
At the end of the '80s Stein sold out his newsletter interest to a large company, now called Informa (NL/NL 8/15/01). He says, "Frankly, I was bored. I had all the money I needed (although as an entrepreneur I went ahead and lost most of it)."
Founds Electric Word Publishing
He returned to the newsletter business in the '90s, founding a small public company (a legal term of art in Britain) called Electric Word Publishing, this time as Director. "I'm getting too old to be the day-to-day editor."
Electric Word now has three division. One publishes nine titles at the education market. 'British education is under great pressure to operate 'more like a business,'" Stein says, "and we provide information to help them do that. We started the division by acquiring a small publishing operation. They had no notion of marketing. Typically British. They wanted to return four pounds for every pound spent. We're rather willing to do the opposite."
The second unit, Lottery Monitor, publishes two titles. "In Britain," Stein explains, "half the proceeds of the national lottery go to worthy non-profit organizations, and we publish information to help them position themselves to be found 'worthy.'"
Continuing his interest in athletics, with his third division Stein publishes Peak Performance, a monthly aimed at serious competitive athletes, and he has recently launched Sports Injury Bulletin targeting therapists, sports medicine clinics, etc. (Both of these titles are now available in the U.S. For a sample copy, e-mail me at ghgang@ northnet. org.)
In this area, the internet has "changed everything." Electric Word is having great success with both the athletic titles, converting free issue requests (which Stein calls "wuffs") that they receive online both from their own web site and from links they have established from many other sites.
In the U.K. they have been converting up to eight percent of requests to paid subscriptions. In addition to the U.K., requests are coming in--at this point passing 500 and heading for 1,000 each month--from every country on earth, including one recently from Afghanistan.
Lest he again be bored, Sylvester Stein, reflecting on his days as editor of Drum, wrote what he calls a factual documentary titled, "Who Killed Mr Drum?" about an unsolved murder of one of the publication's key reporters in 1957. The book has now been optioned for a movie project and Stein is working with the screenwriters.
"I admit," he concedes, "to using a bit of my imagination in my version of the events, but what we now are working on is almost a complete work of fiction, both a murder mystery and a love story. We'll see if it can be sold to Hollywood."
Electric Word Publishing, 67-71 Goswell Rd., London, EC1V 7ER England.