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i circulation soars – but what happens when they pull the plug on Jemima?

Sales of “Britain’s concise quality newspaper” – otherwise known as the 20p i – are doing far better than expected.

After a bumpy start to its career, the pocket-size Independent has received a confidence-boosting fillip to its circulation, thanks in part to a TV advertising campaign starring – among others – Jemima Khan.

Confidence enough, at least, for the management team to disclose its first Audit Bureau of Circulations figures a month before the competition had anticipated.

The headline figure for January (that means the total including bulk and freebie copies) was 133, 472, of which a healthy 125,702 copies were actually paid for.

These figures are interesting for at least two reasons. First, as my colleague at Marketing Week, Lara O’Reilly, has pointed out, if you add the gross Lite figures and the gross Standard Issue figures together, you get 318,507 – which puts the Independent comfortably ahead of our only other liberal newspaper, The Guardian.

Second, and more commercially important, the first ABC figures mark a watershed in the Independent’s relationship with the media buying fraternity. According to sources close to the competition, the Independent sales team has a deal going with the agencies that once the combined “offer” reaches paid-for sales of 340,000 a day, the ads thus far appearing in i will actually have to be paid for, and that the ratecard will approximately double.

Whatever the fine-print truth, it’s a commercial turning-point that is now hoving into view. The eagle-eyed among you will have noted that the present combined figure is still a good way short of that 340,000 goal. It’s even lower when considering the paid-for figures. The Independent itself is heavily bulked, and the combined paid-for figure would be a mere 214,126. But the ABC figures represent an average, an average that disguises the momentum of i sales. By the beginning of this month, with the TV campaign still running, i’s daily circulation had soared to 160,000 – according to the publisher. This week, distribution of i will extend to the further reaches of the British Isles. The Independent’s management must be hoping that growth will be given an extra spurt, bringing the combined paid-for figures close to that moment of commercial truth.

Ah, but that’s February’s figures. What about March’s, when the TV campaign life-support system will have been switched off? A good question, and one that Andy Mullins, managing director of the Independent and i, will no doubt be pondering. One further thing, though: these January figures do demonstrate a milestone has been passed. Many of us outside Lebedev Towers predicted i would merely cannibalise sales of the Independent. That prediction has not come to pass. Sales of the Independent, although chronically low, have not been significantly eroded.

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