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FINDING A GOLD MINE IN THE MAIL Newsletter firm explodes in size

Don't stop him now, Bill Bonner is on a roll. He leans forward on an antique desk in the middle of the 19th century Mount Vernon mansion that houses his publishing company, Agora Inc., and rattles off a rapid-fire monologue about social change, technology, the death of cities in a world where information flows without borders.

"You can have information workers in Montana or Puerto Rico or Taiwan processing this stuff," says the tall, square-jawed Annapolis native with slick black thinning hair.

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So it's hardly surprising that William Robert Bonner would end up in a business that lives or dies on the strength of the ideas it presents to its readers. Agora publishes consumer newsletters -- health, travel and investment-related -- that boast specialized, opinionated information to readers willing to pay anywhere from $50 to $150 a year.

"The world is changing in a way that people need understanding of, and our challenge is to provide analysis," Mr. Bonner says, "to tell people what's going on and how to react to it."

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And react they have. Starting with one travel and investment letter in 1978, Agora now publishes some 20 newsletters with a total circulation of about 400,000, and ownership stakes in several book publishing divisions in the United States and abroad. In the past year sales have doubled to $55 million and employment has tripled to nearly 150.

While he wouldn't disclose profits, Mr. Bonner said they were within the industry average of 10 to 15 percent of sales.

Late last month, Mr. Bonner bought the company's third Baltimore location. He paid the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland $350,000 for its vacant former headquarters on West Monument Street, just down the block from Agora's main office, a 147-year-old mansion on West Mount Vernon Place purchased this spring. Agora's other building is in the 800 block of East Baltimore Street; Mr. Bonner bought it for $100 under the Shopstead program in 1983 when he moved from Washington.

The company also has offices or affiliates in Washington, Boca Raton, Fla., Santa Fe, N.M., London and Hong Kong. And it's in the process of setting up a joint venture in Paris.

Agora is one of the the fastest-growing publishers you've never heard of.

That's fine with the low-profile Mr. Bonner. Aside from the business, "all of my recreational energies go into my farm," says the 46-year-old, referring to the land in southern Anne Arundel County where he lives with his second wife and four of his six children.

Indeed, Mr. Bonner will never be seen schmoozing with political candidates, or lunching at the Center Club.

He's kind of a hybrid adman/intellectual, a direct response expert who has filled his company with jeans-clad graduates of St. John's College in Annapolis. A former student at the University of Maryland and the Sorbonne, Mr. Bonner's conversation brims with references to everyone from Ecclesiastes and Talleyrand to Clint Eastwood.

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Along with his wife, Elizabeth, Mr. Bonner is the majority owner of Agora, a company he started 16 years ago.

It was his first real job after college, as executive director of the National Taxpayers Union in Washington, that started Mr. Bonner down the road to his eventual business.

"I discovered the world of direct-response advertising," Mr. Bonner recalls of his job at the taxpayers union. "That you could ask people for money in the mail and they'd send you some."

In 1978, after several failed magazine ventures Mr. Bonner and his partner at the taxpayers union, James Davidson, hit upon newsletters as a way to combine their direct-response experience with their writing and publishing drive, and do it with very little capital.

The result was the eight-page International Living newsletter. It was -- and remains -- a compendium of travel articles, airfare advice, foreign real estate tips, employment opportunities abroad, and the like, with a personal touch and a slant toward the slightly exotic.

Two years later Mr. Bonner, along with Mr. Davidson and Mr. Davidson's roommate at Oxford University, a philosophy student named Mark Hulbert, started The Hulbert Financial Digest. It quickly achieved a measure of fame for its performance ratings of other investment newsletters.

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To avoid a conflict of interest, Mr. Hulbert later bought out his partners, who had expanded Agora's offering to include some investment letters.

No longer involved in writing -- except for a book in progress -- Mr. Bonner now focuses on picking the topics and writers that readers will want, and selecting the right mailing lists to solicit subscribers to any given publication.

Effective direct mail is crucial in a business where a 4 percent response rate to mailings is a success, and where it's not unusual to spend more than $100 to sign up one subscriber.

"Newsletters are a stepchild of the direct-mail industry," Mr. Hulbert says. As for Mr. Bonner, "What Agora does well, and what Bill by most accounts is one of the best at, is direct mail. . . . It's actually quite a gift."

Mr. Bonner's success also rests on his ability to write attention-grabbing advertising copy, according to Mark Ford, a consultant to Agora. For an investment and political newsletter like Agora's Taipan, "A normal marketing person would have written a package that said, 'How to double your money in 30 days,' " Mr. Ford explains. "Bill's package said, 'What went wrong with the 20th century.' "

(In fact, that's the name of the book Mr. Bonner and a partner are writing, his first such effort.)

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While advertising can get readers to sign up, only the product can make them renew a year later. Agora's product line reflects Mr. Bonner's belief that the existing institutions -- the media, investment firms, even doctors -- aren't providing the mix of pinpointed advice and analysis that consumers want.

For Agora, that means a hefty dose of finance and investment advice, plus various health letters, a monthly home business guide, even two scuba diving newsletters.

Some are written by outsiders, such as Mr. Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg, former editor of The Times of London, who together produce Strategic Investment. And some, such as the economic/investment letter Taipan, are compiled by a combination of outside writers and Agora's in-house staff.

The various health letters, probably the fastest-growing segment, tend to lean toward nontraditional medicines. A recent issue of Health & Longevity includes stories on surviving heart disease, making stress work to your advantage, and the power of something called evening primrose oil on relieving breast pain.

Most are published monthly, in 8 1/2 -by-11-inch formats. They range from eight pages to two dozen or so, and their graphical sophistication varies widely. The investment newsletters tend to offer a telephone hot line service with timely updates, for an extra fee.

The advice may be lively, but it isn't always right. An analysis of five Agora investment publications followed by Mr. Hulbert shows that only two beat the Wilshire 5000 index, a measure of the total U.S. stock market's performance, for the latest periods under examination.

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Even so, Agora and newsletters in general are gradually winning more respect, even among the Wall Street firms and major news media that once shunned them. Probably the stiffest competition companies like Agora face is from big investment firms and major publishers, such as McGraw-Hill and Knight-Ridder.

But if he's worried about them, Mr. Bonner doesn't show it. Instead, he and his fellow newsletter publishers, including giant Phillips International Publishing Inc. in Potomac, are looking to new technologies such as computer information services to avoid the expense of delivering their products through the mail.

"We'll approach it the way we approach everything," Mr. Bonner says. "We'll put a bunch of smart people in a room, order a bunch of sandwiches, talk it over and hopefully walk away with a brilliant approach."

In the meantime, Agora hopes to continue growing by about 25 percent a year. Aside from recent joint book publishing ventures, most of that growth has been internal, from continually creating and buying newsletters, and increased circulation.

"It's an information business at a time when information is extremely valuable," Mr. Bonner says. "And I think it has the potential to grow."


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