THE CRITICS ARE IN: When Joanna Coles ascended to the editorship of Marie Claire, she promised a smarter, sharper magazine that would reach out to the new woman. A season into her position, though, several other top editors have questioned the direction Coles is taking with the magazine. One example is the black-and-white close-up of Sarah Michelle Gellar on this month’s cover, which sources said sold less than half of what is customary in its first nine days on the newsstand. Readers may agree: If correct, those figures continue a downward trend that sources said began several months ago and is particularly troublesome for a title that draws about half its circulation from the newsstand.

Circulation data obtained from two publishing sources showed that the September issue, with the surprising cover choice of Maggie Gyllenhaal, sold around 380,000 copies — quite a drop from the previous September’s Audit Bureau of Circulations figure of 641,196. A Hearst spokeswoman called the 380,000 number “significantly lower than the actual sales figure,” but declined to provide actual data before the release of the ABC reports. Still another source said a rate base decrease is being considered, with a corresponding move to market the 950,000-circulation title as a targeted magazine catering to a more elite readership.

Elite readers certainly seem to be the magazine’s focus lately — Marie Claire has joined the fray of fashion titles looking to attract luxury advertisers with the launch of a gift supplement in its December issue. The supplement is being mailed to 250,000 of its subscribers. First-time luxury advertisers include Makur Designs, W Hotels, Vera Wang Fine Jewelry and Donna Karan Gold. Susan Plagemann, vice president and publisher, claimed Coles’ “modernization” of the magazine had led some of these advertisers to consider appearing more regularly in the book. Marie Claire’s median adult household income of $68,291 topped Elle’s and Vogue’s, according to Mediamark Research last spring. — Irin Carmon and Amy Wicks

STILL, LIKE, A VIRGIN: Jane’s anointed virgin turns 30 today. Last summer, Sarah diMuro, 29, approached the magazine about helping her lose her virginity by her November birthday, and while the accompanying blog chronicling the dates whom Jane set her up with has generated healthy buzz and roughly doubled traffic on the magazine’s Web site, it’s all been arguably…anticlimactic. That is to say, about 25 Jane-funded, reader-voted-upon dates and several states later, diMuro still hasn’t found The One.

This story first appeared in the November 7, 2006 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Still, Jane is throwing her a 30th birthday bash tonight, and the magazine has flown in from Florida diMuro’s favorite candidate thus far — and, who knows, sparks might fly before midnight. Jane will continue to host diMuro’s blog on its Web site.

Editor Brandon Holley insisted that the point had always been for diMuro to find the right guy rather than lose it on deadline. “I’m an editor, not a pimp,” she said. “Or, at least, I’m trying not to be.” — I.C.

CAUGHT ON TAPE: Here’s another reason why reality television romances end up costing the lovebirds more than their privacy: On Friday, a California court handed Us Weekly a victory in a $20 million defamation suit filed by Britney Spears in December over a story claiming Spears and husband Kevin Federline made a sex tape and feared it would be leaked to the public. In siding with the Wenner weekly, Lisa Hart Cole, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, said the story that a married couple has consensual sex on tape was arguably not defamatory, especially since the couple in question filmed their own tragic reality show, “Chaotic,” based on their romance, which aired on UPN last year. “The plaintiff has publicly portrayed herself in a sexual way in her performances, in published photographs and in a reality show, ‘Chaotic,'” read the decision. “The purpose of the reality show was to film plaintiff in unscripted, intimate moments during a tour, and achieved its purpose by televising plaintiff filming Federline naked in the shower, plaintiff interviewing Federline during a nighttime bus ride while plaintiff was naked, and otherwise catching plaintiff talking uninhibitedly about her sex life….Given contemporary standards of defamation, which evolve over time, the court cannot find that the statements made in the Us Weekly article about this plaintiff are defamatory….” Spears will cover Us Weekly’s legal fees as part of the decision. — Stephanie D. Smith

NORM’S LAST WORDS: Former Time Inc. editor in chief Norman Pearlstine is in the process of finishing his book, “Off The Record: The Use and Misuse of Anonymous Sources,” slated for release next year, but the tome will not be published on the Nan A. Talese/Doubleday imprint, as previously announced. Instead, the book will be published with Farrar Straus and Giroux in August, according to a spokesman for the publisher. While Talese would not confirm why (or if) Pearlstine sought a new publisher, both camps say the switch happened fairly recently. Pearlstine did not return a call for comment by press time. There also is no word on whether Time would excerpt the book when it makes its debut — which might be a tough decision, since it grew out of a painful incident in the magazine’s history when Pearlstine agreed to turn over papers of reporter Matt Cooper to the grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame case. — S.D.S.

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