CASHING IN ON THE COVER CERTAIN CELEBRITIES ARE PURE GOLD ON THE NEWSSTAND; OTHERS AREN'T.
Byline: LISA LOCKWOOD
New York--Cindy sells. Claudia sells. O.J. definitely sells. While putting a supermodel on a cover is almost a surefire way to sell fashion magazines, selecting the right face for an entertainment, teen or celebrity magazine is a much tricker business. "If I knew what makes a best-selling cover, I'd be a very rich man, and I'm not," said Graydon Carter, editor in chief of Vanity Fair. "It's a game of incredible negotiation. It's not for the faint of heart," added Sally Lee, editor in chief of YM. "The cover is incredibly important." To be sure, there's a lot riding on the cover image, and in more cases than not, it makes or breaks newsstand sales. But there's a lot more to selecting that image than meets the eye. There are concerns about movies that suddenly are postponed or canceled, worries about overexposure, about seeing your choice pop up on a competing magazine or having your celebrity become notorious overnight. Another kiss of death can be celebrities who look different from their public image. Supermodels can disappoint, too. Often, they can be overexposed, or the public can become disenchanted with what they represent. That's what happened last year with "waif" models, who appeared on some of the year's worst-selling fashion magazine covers. But what makes a bestseller? And what makes a dog? WWD interviewed the editors of Vanity Fair, People, YM, Us and Allure to find out what ingredients go into the mercurial world of cover selection. For Vanity Fair, exclusivity is key. "We'd like to be by ourselves. We don't want eight other magazines to have it," said Carter. "Women sell better than men," he said, although VF's best-selling cover so far this year was the October issue, featuring Tom Cruise, which sold over 450,000 newsstand copies. "He was the best-selling male cover in our history," said Carter. The runnerup this year was Roseanne Arnold. On average, Vanity Fair sells close to 360,000 copies on the newsstand, more than one-third of its 900,000 circulation. He wouldn't divulge the worst-selling issue. "It's got to be a great image," said Carter. "We spend a lot of time and effort making it not just a bland head shot." He said a great cover line can also help sell an issue. "When Dominick Dunne has a story on O.J. Simpson, it adds significant sales. The cover is like the first date. It has to be somewhat pleasing," said Carter. "I think somebody with a bit of history or baggage to them sells well. People want to read about people who've had some chapters in their lives. Warren Beatty and Annette Bening have some history, at least Warren does," he said. Vanity Fair doesn't necessarily select a cover image to tie in with a specific event, such as an upcoming movie. It put Barbra Streisand on its November cover, several months after her enormously successful concert series. "We had a great story," said Carter. "People are constantly fascinated by this woman. There aren't that many huge movie stars right now. She and Hillary Clinton are two ideals." "Young hot guys do sell very well, and, of course, when you have a good guy, you want to repeat it," said YM's Sally Lee. "At this age, girls are really into guys. But for women's service books who put a guy on the cover, it's death." When the same face appears on too many covers, it can confuse some readers. "There's a perception they've bought your magazine, or they already saw it," said Lee. "Last year, we saw a lot of Cindy Crawford; this year, there's Claudia [Schiffer] overload." Last year, YM shifted from models to celebrities. Now, the only time it will use a model is after she's become a bona fide celebrity, or if she's the winner of the YM/Covergirl model search. "It's crucial to negotiate exclusivity among your competitors," said Lee. "You have to make a decision whether you compete with those books. It's all about newsstand sales." Among YM's bestsellers this year were the September cover featuring Laura Leighton of "Melrose Place," which sold 616,000 newsstand copies, and actor Brendan Fraser, who appeared on the June/July cover. YM sold 612,000 newsstand copies of the Fraser cover. YM's total circulation is 1.8 million. "It was a very inviting cover with good cover lines," said Lee, about Fraser. "He had three movies coming out at the same time, and his image was on subways. YM readers go to a lot of movies and watch a lot of TV." The worst seller this year was the March cover that featured Luke Perry. That issue sold 384,000 newsstand copies. "His hair is tousled. He's not the Luke Perry our readers see on 'Beverly Hills 90210,"' said Lee. "The camera got very close. Maybe this is too intimate," she said. Another problem was that Perry had just gotten married when the issue hit the stands, so he was no longer a single guy, said Lee. Lee said she receives tens of thousands of letters a month from readers telling the magazine "who's hot and who's over." "Sometimes it's pot luck. Drew Barrymore is a great cover for us. She was styled in YM fashion. She has a great smile and was wearing a cute top. We try to make people look friendly," said Lee. The celebrity "can't be pouty." "She can't be saying, 'I'm so sexy and you're not. Drew is styled in a great way," said Lee. "One thing you want to have is an event cover," said Jim Meigs, editor in chief of Us. "We need to sell 500,000 copies on the newsstand. Unlike Premiere, Entertainment Weekly or Details, it's not enough to get the movie buff. We need that group, plus we need a person who identifies himself as an entertainment enthusiast." Us's circulation is 1.1 million. About nine of the 12 Us covers a year are movie stars, one or two are TV stars, and two are concept covers such as "The 93 Biggest Stories of '93" or "What Women Want." "Most of our biggest covers are movie people for a couple of reasons," said Meigs. "Movies have cachet; they're mainstream, but each movie is unique. There's a curiosity about each movie. TV is a self-explanatory medium." For example, he said, a cover featuring Tim Allen of "Home Improvement" wouldn't sell, "as successful and likable as he is." Meigs said one thing his readers know is that the magazine is not about scandals and that it contains in-depth interviews with major stars. He said when he selects a celebrity for the cover, he has to decide whether he can co-exist with other magazines using that celebrity on their cover. "The 93 Biggest Stores of '93," which came out in January, was the year's best cover so far, said Meigs, selling 697,000 newsstand copies. So far in 1994, the least successful cover was Whoopi Goldberg, which sold about 300,000 copies. "I wasn't wild about the execution," Meigs said. I thought the cover was too tame. The magazine-buying public is very judgmental, and there was a negative feeling from the Friar's Club incident. People mix up a film image and a public persona. "Women do better than men. It's hard because there aren't that many women coming out in major projects," said Meigs. Landon Y. Jones Jr., managing editor of People, said choosing covers "is a difficult and daunting science." "We try to choose a cover that people are talking about on Saturday night--what's in the air, what people are intensely curious about. I want news, the X factor. You don't quite know enough about the individual," said Jones. He said when he recently ran Oprah Winfrey on the cover it was "a so-so seller for us." "There wasn't anything new. They like her, but there was no buzz. No curiosity factor, as opposed to when she lost 30 pounds or gained 30 pounds." The best-selling cover this year, as well as in People's history, was the first cover that the magazine did on O.J. Simpson in June. It sold "well over" 2 million copies, Jones said. So far this year, People has run five O.J. covers. The worst seller this year featured a cover story about the arrest of tennis star Jennifer Capriati that sold about 1.3 million on the newsstand. People's circulation is 3.2 million. "One reason is she's just not well known and well liked," Jones said. "People weren't talking about her." People ran the Capriati cover the Monday after Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died because it was too late to change it. "We came out the following week with a Jackie cover," Jones said. Asked if it's the image or the story that sells the cover, he said, "It's really the story subject. Sometimes I can fool myself with the photograph, and it doesn't work." Jones also said women on covers sell better than men. "Women like to read about women. A young well-liked woman with a problem sells the best," he said, citing Julia Roberts and Princess Diana. "Jodie Foster hasn't done that well for us. Her personality is enigmatic." He said Meryl Streep was considered, but rejected. Some young people who are being considered for upcoming covers are Winona Ryder and Rikki Lake. Jones said that People's theme issues, such as the "Fifty Most Beautiful People" or "Celebrity Weddings," have also been strong sellers. "Supermodels are not a great category for us. Claudia Schiffer has never been on the cover. Cindy Crawford's the only model, except for Christie Brinkley, who appeared after her plane crash," said Jones. Jones said he usually considers three different covers a week. "Some [celebrities] get interviewed and never make the cover." The sad reality, he said, is "dead celebrities sell better than living ones." He explained that when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis got sick, People ran a cover story "and it was a below-average cover." "When she died and when all the assessment is being done, it became the second bestseller of the year." Stories of other deaths--John Candy, Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix--became strong newsstand sellers, said Jones. "When there are unexpected deaths, people want to read it," he said. Allure, unlike many other magazines, relies solely on models. "Allure should be about women and women's beauty and not be about an individual or her politics or agenda," said Linda Wells, editor of Allure. "Our covers have been kind of similar, but the October issue is a move away from it. We've been in a certain habit of showing a model--a head and shoulders shot in natural light with a golden look to it. [For October] we wanted it more straightforward and more edgy." Allure's best-selling cover this year featured Cindy Crawford, that sold 302,000 newsstand copies. The worst seller was Bridget Hall, selling 247,000 newsstand copies. Allure's circulation is 650,000. Wells said that was because Hall doesn't smile a whole lot. "If there's no glimmer of happiness on her face, it gets tough. It was a little bit somber. Usually, we like the girl to look sexy, kittenish," said Wells. As for Crawford, Wells said, "There's no denying she is so beautiful and has name recognition. She's probably the most famous of all the models. The danger is you don't want to get in a rut. It's bad for us to use the five famous supermodels. It's better to keep varying it and keep shaking it up." Last year, Allure's worst selling cover featured waif model Amber Valetta. "She was lost," said Wells. "She was photographed as a waif with a blank look on her face. She was ripped to smithereens as a waif." But Allure gave Valetta another shot--on the September cover. "We felt it was a perfect time to show her healthy and robust. She is on a stool, with her knees up, wearing a black dress with spaghetti straps. Her hair is thrown back and she's smiling."
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