Mental Floss Is Showing That Magazines Can Be Profitable By Selling Board Games And T-Shirts

Mental Floss

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Mental Floss started 12 years ago as a 2,000-copy undergraduate publication at Duke University.Now, it’s a magazine with a circulation of 150,000 and a four-million-uniques-a-month web presence.

Most notably, Mental Floss, which brands itself as “where knowledge junkies get their fix,” has two other secret weapons: branded e-commerce and wholesaling.

We talked to Mental Floss co-founder and president Will Pearson about the magazine’s unconventional revenue, which seems to be a model others are starting to follow.

Pearson said Mental Floss’ major source of revenue is its circulation, but second and third are e-commerce and wholesaling.

The company develops products, like board games and t-shirts, in keeping with the Mental Floss brand, and then sells them either through their own online store or wholesale through select retailers.

Pearson points to a particularly high engagement among Mental Floss, readership, which lines up with that of the New Yorker and The Atlantic — Mental Floss isn’t a competitor to those magazines so much as a complimentary publication, appealing to the same demos in a different way.

Fourth would be advertising, which Pearson said the publication is still trying to build up. But by selling the magazine at $21.97 — many other magazines are discounted in circulation to essentially serve as a loss-leader for advertising revenue — advertising is less important to the model.

And while the circulation is profitable on its own, the nine-year-old product division allows for more opportunity. T-shirts alone will be a seven-figure business in 2012, Pearson said.

Mental Floss is a streamlined operation, with 18 full-time employees and a host of freelancers. Long publishing six times a year, it will soon expand to 10 issues and is aiming for a circulation of 150k by the end of 2012.

But with its staff creating puzzles and apparel alongside its highly shareable content, which is heavy on lists and factoids, Mental Floss could be setting a new course for how niche publications can exist and thrive in the contemporary publishing industry.