Parting with your cash for part-work collections

CHOOSE computers. Choose horses. Choose cross stitch. Choose a great big locomotive . . . choose just about any subject under the sun, in fact, and there is bound to be a series of magazines about it which you can collect and store in a "fantastic free binder".

It seems that every second television advert at the moment is for some mag or other which you can collect and keep. Not only that, most seem to come with the added advantage of allowing the collector to build something - be it a scale version of the Red Baron’s plane or a stable for a plastic horse.

And while Trainspotting anti-hero Renton would doubtless have been horrified by these so-called part-works, he might just have understood people’s addiction to them.

Publishers tend to strike in January when people are at a low ebb and looking for new interests, invariably hooking customers in with the offer of a free, or vastly discounted first issue. And, of course, there are those promises of "free" binders, model parts and display stands.

But once the price for the dozens of future issues is bumped up - sometimes to as much as 6.99 a time - people can end up spending hundreds of pounds on their new habit. Indeed, between 2000 and 2003 the average price per issue of these collectable magazines rose from 3.62 to 4.08.

One of the latest is I Love Horses and Horse Riding. Clearly targeted at young horse-mad girls, it offers them a chance to create their own "dream miniature stable for Lucky and her foal", plus information to help them learn methods and techniques to look after their pony. And, of course, a free binder.

The first issue costs just 99p, but thereafter each part costs 3.99, so collecting all 60 parts will set you back 236.40, for little more than the magazines, two model horses, a plywood stable and hundreds of small plastic accoutrements.

Another being given a lot of airtime is the Red Baron’s Fokker DR1 triplane. The magazine covers the history of flight and parts are included to make up the plane week by week. But over 100 weeks - almost two years - that can add up to a hefty 400.

So are they worth the outlay, or are people simply being ripped off?

Industry figures suggest customers are happy, with a growing multi-million pound market fuelled by more new launches each year. According to the Periodical Publishers Association (PPA) the value of the part-works market has grown from 86 million in 2000 to 109m in 2003.

In fact as a magazine sector, it ranks fourth behind TV listings, women’s weeklies and monthlies but ahead of children’s, men’s, parenting, computers and health. "People get hooked by the opening offer and once they start, many just keep on buying. There’s definitely a certain compulsion. People really do enjoy the club environment they generate," says Helen Wilkinson of the PPA.

But a quick trawl on the internet reveals numerous complaints from irate customers, bemoaning the fact that issues they have paid for have not been delivered, or that they have not been sent key parts of the Red Baron’s model plane, or worse, that parts are broken.

One despondent man says he has spent 400 pounds on a subscription for a part-work to build a miniature version of the Titanic, only to find that he has not been sent the ship’s rudder - rendering his shipbuilding efforts almost as good as those of the real thing.

Several customers venting their spleens on the web threaten to take their grievances to the Small Claims Court - although in Edinburgh at least, court staff are unaware of any such cases. However, even loyal customers who are happy with their part-works collections admit that the pastime can become expensive and getting hold of everything you have been promised can be "nigh on impossible".

Receptionist Caroline Macdonald, 28, from Holyrood, has spent at least 335 on Star Trek Files, Cross Stitch Magic and PC Know How over the past few years. She says: "They are usually quite good value for what you get, which is usually a kit of some sort each fortnight, plus a magazine and patterns and sometimes transfers as well, it just depends on the part-work.

"The main problems include damage en route to you, finding a newsagent who will order them for you and sometimes getting hold of the parts in the initial stages of the series. Kits often go missing and it can be difficult to get hold of them

. . . I’ve often trailed from Straiton to Kinnaird Park looking for them."

She adds: "You start off paying 99p for a part-work and mine have then always been about 3 once a fortnight, which I don’t think is much to spend. You can go up to about 6, though, so it can work out quite pricey. And over the years, I’d say I’d spent quite a bit."

Part-works originated in the days when encyclopaedias were sold in sections. In the 1960s and 1970s, firms like Marshall Cavendish produced heavily gender-based part-works: cordon bleu cookery and embroidery for her; gardening and car maintenance for him.

Today part-works are lighter and brighter, the give-aways more sophisticated and the cover prices higher. That is reflected in the target audience. Once aimed at young C1s and C2s, they have now shed their dowdy image and sell well among ABC1s.

According to the PPA, around 65 part-works have been launched in Britain since 2000. Many sell in foreign language versions around the world, though France and the UK remain the biggest markets, with an increasing proportion of readers taking out subscriptions directly with the publishers or distributors.

Italian-based De Agostini controls around half of the world market and it’s myriad publications include a Teddy Bear part-work, of which the first issue sold 700,000 copies. It also produces Learning Land and You and Your PC. Another Italian company, Fabbri, was behind the Star Trek series - which was the UK’s longest running part-work with 305 weekly installments - and the recent Dickens Collection. Other big operators include the French company Hachette (the Red Baron) and the Spanish Del Prado.

British company Eaglemoss pioneered Ultimate Real Robots, in which readers constructed their own robotic model, piece by piece - which was estimated to have made more than 6m. The firm’s success story last year was Horrible Histories, based on the popular Terry Deary books. Circulation has settled at 200,000 per issue, compared with the standard 60,000 for a part-work.

Jenny Reynolds, 35, from the New Town, has spent around 60 on a subscription for her 12-year-old daughter Joanna for the Horrible Histories.

She says: "We both think they are good value. I think Horrible Histories are among the better part-works. They are quite active and full of information and tie in with her schoolwork."

The first issue is free, thereafter issues cost 1.99 each, and although Reynolds, who has recently moved house, has stopped getting the part-works for Joanna she says that they would still be subscribing if she was more organised. However she is scathing of part-works generally, adding: "Often these things make more money than they are worth and you are not always getting value for money every month."

Another fan acknowledges that prices can be "extortionate". Frank Gray, 53, a civil service information manager from Baberton, paid around 80 for a complete collection of a Vietnam War part-work. He says: "It was about ten years ago. I think they cost about 2 at the time and I bought them all, which means I must have bought about 40 issues. It is quite an extortionate price when you add it together for what you get." However, he is full of praise for the "excellent" quality and still has every issue in "pristine" condition, suggesting his investment was, for him at least, worthwhile.

The industry itself admits children are targeted heavily. The PPA says: "There clearly is an appeal among people to collect and build over time. This is seen very strongly in the children’s market where if the product is well targeted children will become very loyal and in most cases involve their parents."

But the PPA also, perhaps predictably, claims that part-works are good quality. "If you get into it then it is widely agreed that the material delivered is over and above that delivered by a book on the same subject," the organisation claims.

Small retailers love part-works because research shows that 50 per cent of customers who buy one always make other purchases, and publishers love them because they are extremely profitable. They justify the prices on the basis of high research and development costs, as well as that huge advertising spend. "The trick is to spot the very latest trends and turn them into something collectable. They are highly targeted and meticulously researched. It’s essential to anticipate the demand. Overestimate and you lose a fortune. Underestimate and people are crying out for copies and model parts you can’t supply," says one industry insider. The most popular at the moment are Lord of the Rings and Pop Idol.

But while the publishing world paints a picture of a growing market, the industry acknowledges that the trend in part-works is to lose, rather than gain, customers with time. Which is borne out by Edinburgh newsagent Blethering Skite in Stockbridge. A spokeswoman says: "There’s a wonderful enthusiasm for these magazines when they first come out at the start of the year. We have dozens of people buying part-works on anything you could want.

"People get enticed by the first issue being 99p and seeing the ads on TV. But through the year there are maybe only about half a dozen people who keep going, mainly people who are making models. The others stop for a variety of reasons, expense, getting bored, or just realising they are not such a good thing after all."

However, McColls newsagents in Colinton Mains Drive, Colinton, reports an ever-growing trade in part-works. A spokesman says: "It has really shot up. The art ones are the most popular, and Lord of the Rings, and Locomotives of the World. Calligraphy has also really taken off."

Unfortunately despite several phone calls there was no response from Eaglemoss about the popularity of its products - mirroring the experience of those customers seeking to complain to such firms.

However they, and other publishers, will still be hoping that anyone out there trying to decide whether to choose life or something else will choose a part-work.