NEW YORK — New for spring: 785 ways to be sexy, beat stress, and sleep better while cutting down belly fat.

OK, those don’t exist. But judging from the whirl of magazine cover lines out there right now, they very well could.

Magazine cover lines often seem subject to the whims of fashion — as much, if not more so, than the clothes inside their pages. Each year, certain words gather buzz, enter cover line ubiquity and then peter out.

So which words dominated the headlines in 2004? “Stress,” “sleep” and “sexy.” And while it’s still a bit early to predict the clear favorites of 2005, certain aspects of crafting cover lines will never change — namely, the mistakes editors make in trying to pick a winner.

Just ask Kate White, editor in chief of Cosmopolitan, which sells an average of more than two million copies on the newsstand each month. “Sometimes I look at magazines and the cover lines are too universal or too broad,” said White.

Warning of another perennial pitfall, Cindi Leive, editor in chief of Glamour, which sells less than one million copies on the newsstand, said editors sometimes unintentionally outsmart their readers.

“It could be the cutest, cleverest thing in the world,” said Leive, “but if it leaves [the reader] scratching her head, it’s meaningless.”

Another surefire way to tank at the newsstand: mimic the cover line style of another magazine.

“I learned very quickly when I got to Seventeen [after editing Cosmogirl], it’s not going to be the same formula,” said Seventeen editor in chief Atoosa Rubenstein. “People rip off their competitors’ cover lines, and that’s not necessarily going to work.”

Neither will try to cram too many lines on a page, in the hopes that at least one will resonate with anyone who picks up the magazine.

“I think the biggest mistake people make on covers is the massive number of tips,” Allure editor in chief Linda Wells said, describing the classic bait and switch. “The key is not overpromising, because it might sell this issue, but end up losing the reader over time.”

This story first appeared in the January 14, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Charla Lawhon, managing editor of In Style, agreed. “I do think there’s a credibility issue when they see those [big numbers].”

So what does work with cover lines then? Well for starters, maintaining the magazine’s voice.

For instance, though Lawhon and Wells may not think the big numbers work, Marie Claire editor in chief Lesley Jane Seymour said they definitely click with her readers. “Marie Claire has to have a big number [on its cover]. For us, it is a brand marker. It’s like the italics on the Coca Cola can.”

Weeklies, of course, present their own set of cover line challenges.

“[People is] not about irony,” said Larry Hackett, the magazine’s deputy managing editor. People sells close to a million-and-a-half single copies each week with its straightforward cover lines. “We’re not about snarkiness…We try to keep the adjectives to a minimum because we’ve found that readers don’t like being told what to think.”

Added Janice Min, editor in chief of Us Weekly, which was up 47.3 percent in newsstand sales for the first half of last year: “The world we live in now is so driven by news and this feeling that you have the latest. [You want the reader] to feel that if they devote 30 minutes to your magazine as opposed to something else, they’ll walk away with more information.”

Of course, there are those occasions when getting the “latest” news can be an embarrassment. Just look at this week’s Star, which promises “Brad & Jen Back On! It’s Baby Time!” — when in fact they’d split over the weekend. However, American Media editorial director  Bonnie Fuller is already in the Cover Line Hall of Fame since her Cosmopolitan and Glamour days introduced enough orgasms to exhaust even the randiest reader.

And while they may feature a star on their covers, juicy celebrity cover lines aren’t nearly as important for the monthlies as they are for the weeklies. “The cover line that identifies the celebrity [on the cover] and what the story is about usually ranks really low with our reader,” said Wells.

Leive added that focus groups are invaluable when trying to predict cover line success. “If you show [a focus group] a cover, and they immediately repeat the words back to you, that means you have a hit.”

If that’s true, then “stress” has recently been on everyone’s lips. In 2004, the word popped up on covers across categories, from Seven Sisters titles to the more unlikely publications Seventeen (“Stress Less! 3 Easy Ways,” February ’04) and Men’s Journal (“Reduce Your Stress,” February ’04). And it’s not likely to go away anytime soon.

“Our reader says she was more stressed last year than the year before,” said White. “Between the economy and the war that won’t go away, I’m sure she’s going to feel stressed again this year.”

But, as with those formerly inescapable Uggs, ubiquity can mark the beginning of the end. “I actually found stress pooping out lately,” Marie Claire’s Seymour said. 

Likewise, though “diet” is a perennial winner, Men’s Health editor in chief David Zinczenko believes it has lost some of its weightiness as a result of all the hype over Atkins and South Beach. “I’ve noticed that weight loss is moving fewer magazines than before…[Now] it’s more about body-shaping.”

Hence, perhaps, the popularity of “belly fat,” which graced the cover of Good Housekeeping twice in 2004.

Paradoxically, the hottest word at the moment is one that’s also an old standby: sex.

Marie Claire featured the word in various permutations no less than six times on its January ’05 cover, while its latest February issue has five mentions. “We always have a sex line,” said Seymour. “Let’s be honest: Sex sells. We decided, let’s not be shy about it.”

Neither are the editors at Self — that magazine’s January cover implausibly asks, “Want Sexier Sex?”

“We never used to use the word ‘sexy,’” said Wells. “Partly because it meant the act of sex, something more vulgar. Now ‘sexy’ is synonymous with attractive and vibrant.”

Indeed, ever since In Style began using “sexy” on its cover back in 1998 for its first “What’s Sexy Now” package, the word’s meaning has morphed to the point where editors use it to modify just about anything. Last week, Us Weekly offered “Sexy New Diet Secrets.” Has “sexy” become a beast?

“People repeat their winners,” said White. “So that’s why you see the same things over and over again.” Instead, she said to climb out of a “cover line slump” editors should “go someplace they haven’t been before” — even if that means taking a few risks.

Guessing at what will prompt readers to buy this year, Min said, “I have a feeling people are going to want to have fun in 2005. Maybe the word ‘fun’ will pop up more. And I think people are really into ‘pretty.’”

Jane editor in chief Jane Pratt added, “We just coined the term ‘scandalite,’ which we use when referring to anyone like Paris Hilton, Tara Reid or Lindsay Lohan. We hope it will catch on, but you never know.”

They Got Our Attention in 2004:

1. Is It an Itch…or Cancer? (Redbook, January)

2. Terrorists And The Movies: Can Hollywood Make Us Safer? (Reader’s Digest, October)

3. Russell Crowe: Why I Bit My Bodyguard (People, September 13)

4. Dude, Where’s My Jesus? (Esquire, May)

5. Sex Sessions That Ended in the ER (Cosmopolitan, October)

6. When UFO’s Arrive, What Will You Do? (Popular Mechanics, February)

7. Mall Perverts: Are These Gross Guys Spying on You? (Seventeen, November)

8. Grizzly Attack: Death of the Man who Sang to Bears (Men’s Journal, January)

9. Can You Spot the Sneaky Fat? (Ladies’ Home Journal, March)

10. The Greening of Britney Spears (Outside, March)

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