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NEW YORK — Maxim, Stuff and FHM have been like steamrollers through the U.S. publishing landscape for the last six years, and for the first time their established and would-be rivals are wondering if they might win this fight — not by brawling with the lads, but by ultimately outlasting them.

The optimism of their competitors has only increased in the last 10 days. First, Dennis Publishing replaced Stuff editor Greg Gutfeld and handed him a new title, after newsstand sales declined 18.9 percent in the last six months of last year and declined further this year, according to one competitor. Then Wal-Mart announced this week it would be yanking all three lad books off its shelves after accumulated complaints from customers and pressure from religious groups.

This story first appeared in the May 9, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

So have signs of lad burnout finally begun to appear among U. S. readers, just like they did in the U.K. three years ago? The U. K. versions of FHM and Maxim stopped surging just as the Millennium arrived. While the same stall has yet to occur in the U.S. — at least yet, anyway — executives at Playboy and Condé Nast, along with a raft of entrepreneurs on both sides of the ocean, are gambling the time is ripe for a “post-lad” magazine — men’s books that scoop up the 4.7 million readers of the big three after they’ve outgrown them.

“The market is so big right now, there are actually 2 million men every year who stop reading the laddie books,” said Paul Turcotte, former president of the post-lad start-up Ramp and now publisher of Premiere. “And it’s a group of guys who are genuinely used to buying magazines on the newsstand.”

Ramp, Gear (currently in hibernation until at least spring 2004) and another newcomer, Jaqk, all bet that a post-lad man is one in his early 30s who may already have a wife and kids. Playboy is more ambitious. “I think those guys who are leaving Maxim are leaving at a young age,” said editorial director James Kaminsky. “It’s a transitional read, and some of their more discerning readers are 22. We’re grabbing them younger and younger.”

Kaminsky, the former executive editor of Maxim, was hired away by Playboy last fall to build the architecture of a lad book with more contemporary contents inside — a structure he said was about 40 percent done as of the June issue. “One of our goals is to see big growth in single copy sales. Already, year-to-date, it’s up.” The May issue sold 800,000 copies on newsstands, he said. Playboy averaged just 354,437 in the second half of last year, while Maxim averaged 847,000.

His U.K. counterparts are far more dubious. “There is nothing to say that lad magazine readers will automatically move on,” said British GQ editor Dylan Jones, who has been successful at beating back the advance of the laddies. “In fact, I think there’s more clear blue water between lads’ magazines and magazines like GQ, Esquire and Arena than there ever was.”

The circulations of the lad books in the U.K. are either shrinking or growing only fitfully. In the second half of last year, FHM saw circulation rise 8.6 percent year-on-year to 620,226 — after having fallen 20.4 percent the year before. At Maxim, circulation dropped 9.6 percent to 250,119 after a decline of 15.8 percent during the previous year. GQ dipped just 1.9 percent to 123,502 after suffering a 10.2 percent drop the year before.

Hundreds of thousands of readers simply disappeared, or at least didn’t migrate upscale. “Men in their 30s naturally gravitate toward a hobby, a niche or general interest magazines,” said Steve De Saulles, the director of Ocean Consulting, a media strategy consultancy in London. “The U.K. has so many newspapers and glossy weekend supplements, as well as special interest magazines, that it’s doubtful there’s room for post-lad books.”

IPC Media, the publisher of Loaded, launched the post-lad magazine Later in 1999, only to close it in 2001. Former Loaded editor James Brown made a splash with the very smart Jack last year, but it has never lived up to sales expectations, and last week Brown announced his intention to sell his company, I Feel Good, to Dennis Publishing for $8.1 million. Brown said in a statement that being part of Dennis Publishing would give his company the “additional muscle…to continue making real progress.” Conflicting rumors have Dennis alternately killing Jack or bringing it to the U.S. as its own post-lad entry if it completes the sale.

Peter Howarth, who was famous for stripping the T&A off British Esquire’s covers when he was its editor, is taking an overtly post-lad tack with his new magazine, Dad. The magazine looks just like any other glossy men’s magazine, but features a column on sex and pregnancy, photo spreads of state-of-the-art feeding bottles, and a cover story on Pierce Brosnan, father of five.

Dad already has a roster of luxury goods advertisers, and will be released in March and September, with a total of 500,000 copies per year. It will be sold inside the maternity wards of the U.K.’s state-run hospitals, rather than on the newsstand. (The pilot issue, however, is available the usual places).

Jaqk, a men’s book launching this fall in the U.S. that sees life through the prism of gambling, risk and reward, is also looking off the beaten track for readers (what is it about the name “Jack” and magazines these days, though?). Eschewing the usual subscriber lists through which new magazines build circulation, founder Brett Garfinkel, the former luxury director of Men’s Journal, is looking to partner with casinos like Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay to reach their affluent customers. One idea in development is a “Jaqk Card” for subscribers, with partners/advertisers offering special deals to card holders each month. “We’re not the voice of the gambling industry,” Garfinkel said. “We’re the voice of the lifestyle that it encompasses. It’s a huge market, and it has not been tapped.”

But even with all the activity in the post-lad market, executives at the big three laddies are taking talk of their imminent demise calmly.

“I don’t know whether you can take what I see as a modern, general interest men’s magazine — which is what Maxim is — and actually do a derivative version that is targeted at a nice demographic,” said Dennis Publishing U. S. president Stephen Colvin. “I don’t see Jack as being post-lad. It’s post-GQ.”

“[A post-lad magazine] is more of a crapshoot,” said Dana Fields, president of FHM in the U. S. “I think the hard thing about that assumption in the market is that it’s young men reading FHM and Maxim. They’re single, dating, and have the same attitudes toward their boss and the opposite sex. Ten years later, if you’re married and have a child and you are the boss, you are the same person. I’m not sure you have the same reasons for buying that type of magazine.”

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