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In the early Eighties, People magazine founding editor Dick Stolley created “Stolley’s Law of Covers,” a mantra that some editors today can still recite from memory: “Young is better than old. Pretty is better than ugly. Rich is better than poor. Movies are better than music. Music is better than television. Television is better than sports…and anything is better than politics.” Stolley, years later, updated that formula, adding the ultimate rule of thumb after making the disastrous decision to not put Elvis Presley on People’s cover the week he died: “Nothing is better than the celebrity dead.”

Stolley developed his format a quarter of a century ago when the magazine world was still relatively collegial and almost sleepy, and when newsstands held half the number of titles they carry today. Now the cover is even more important as American magazines rely more and more on their newsstand sales as the true measure of a title’s success.

But appealing covers will differ depending on the publication — what works for Vogue won’t necessarily fly for Seventeen. And while almost all covers these days — even those of fashion magazines — focus on celebrities, a big star doesn’t always guarantee sell-through success. Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger don’t always sell well for fashion magazines, and younger stars such as Keira Knightley and Kirsten Dunst are usually successful covers only when they have projects to promote.

But stars who have the “X factor,” as Stolley, now a special adviser to Time Inc., told WWD in a recent interview, can work well on magazines despite not having a project to pitch. “There’s something about that person on the cover that you don’t know that you want to know,” he said — their relationships, their lives as parents, their side hustle as a professional lip gloss taster. That often gives subjects like Angelina Jolie, Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Aniston or Victoria Beckham more newsstand power.

In the end, though, while “Stolley’s Laws” still hold some relevance for most magazines, the perfect cover formula really doesn’t exist. Despite conducting focus groups, having cover line meetings lasting hours and wrangling celebrities in an attempt to create the most captivating cover, the magic of putting together covers has been best described by Vanity Fair editor in chief Graydon Carter: “There is no science to this.”

This story first appeared in the January 4, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Still, what works and what doesn’t in today’s publishing world, where magazines not only have to compete against each other but also against TV, the Web and numerous other distractions? WWD surveyed a handful of magazine editors for some practical tips. Below, some of the more colorful wisdoms.

For women, it’s all about breasts…:
Kate White, editor in chief of Cosmopolitan, said that, despite the magazine’s focus on sex, Cosmo’s cover girls don’t have to have huge cleavages. But a winning cover does include some. “It’s not about big breasts like it used to be. It’s just about showing off your breasts, whether they’re double As or whatever.” As for the woman carrying the breasts, White says the perfect Cosmo cover model is “someone that you’d love to drive cross country with, you’re not going to end up arrested with and with whom you’re not going to get bored.”

…While for some men, it’s apparently not:
For a men’s fitness magazine, hard pecs and abs aren’t always necessary for eye-catching covers. “You can probably count on [one] hand how many guys are shirtless” on Men’s Health covers, said editor in chief David Zinczenko. Only one cover in 2007 had a cover model sans shirt (“Friday Night Lights” star Taylor Kitsch, January/February 2007 issue), compared with 2004, when half of the covers featured guys without their shirts on. Zinczenko said a guy will go shirtless on the cover “if the guy’s in the water, or there’s a good reason to do it, but as we become a more lifestyle-oriented magazine, it’s sometimes better to show that off with a guy who is wearing a shirt.”

Toilets are never compelling cover images:
Real Simple uses room interiors on its covers, usually without people in them, but there’s one place in the home that doesn’t attract consumers. “Bathrooms don’t do well,” said managing editor Kristin van Ogtrop. “The reader does not have a love affair with her bathroom. We mostly put it around the theme of cleaning, and it still doesn’t work.” The best Real Simple cover photographs, said van Ogtrop, is one that puts the reader in the heart of a small part of a room that she could imagine in her own home. “If our reader sees an entire living room, with a very defined decorating style, certain furniture, she can’t put that into her life. The tighter shots of smaller scenes — a vase on a shelf, or a gift-wrapped box — are something that she can identify with.”

Always use a wind machine:
“One of the things that’s crucial is hair,” said Allure’s Linda Wells (she means on the head, not the upper lip). “Not only abundant hair, but the blowing hair is good for us.” The length of hair isn’t as important, added Wells, as long as it’s moving. “The worst thing we can do is a really tight, pulled-back style or a hat.” Both would only appear on the cover, said Wells, “if I wanted to commit career suicide.”

Don’t forget the “sparkle”:
But hats can work for Seventeen. On that title’s covers, every star wears an interesting piece of jewelry, a hat, a scarf or some other dramatic accessory. “Every cover has to have the doodad,” said editor in chief Ann Shoket. “That is, a piece of jewelry, or [April 2007 cover girl] Avril Lavigne’s glove — something that catches your eye in the visual, but also something in the cover line that catches your eye.” Shoket also grabs the reader with the text through visual accoutrements. “I’m taxing the design director to her limits on how many creative doodads she can come up with — burst brackets, shadow stickers. If you look at Marie Claire, which has beautiful covers, it’s one font, it’s very clean and very neat. We are not clean.”

Don’t sweat the small stuff:
Nine-point or eight-point type? Serif or sans serif fonts? Often, the devil is in the details. Robert Safian, editor of Fast Company, believes it is more important to get the overall image or story right than to sweat the small details. “The big discussions on covers are Cher versus ‘Star Wars,’ versus white or color backgrounds.”

When in doubt, reach in the cupboard:
Celebrity magazines turn to packages on slow news weeks — Hollywood pregnancies, hottest couples or best celebrity weddings are common. “I call them ‘cans of navy bean soup.’ We need those cans of bean soup in the cupboard,” said People managing editor Larry Hackett. Some “soup” features that the Time Inc. weekly has done this year include “The World’s Richest Teens” and the popular “Half Their Size” franchise, which has sold so well that People publishes a double issue every January devoted to the topic. But Hackett recommended using packages sparingly. “Readers are smarter and savvier and more demanding than they were in the past. They want news, they want freshness. When they see those roundups, they say, ‘Hmm, they really don’t have anything this week.’ You have to make them yummy enough that people want to buy them.”

Finally, a great cover is one that’s edible:
“My sense of a good cover that will sell well is if I want to lick it,” said Cosmo’s White. “And the Beyoncé [December 2007] cover I licked several times…before the sun came up.” Another sign that a cover is a winner? “If I dance with it, or if I feel the urge to make out with it, then I’m like, ‘Wow, it works!'”

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