NEW YORK — When Andy Pemberton, the editor of Maxim’s Blender, was interviewed by The New York Times last month, he called the music magazine landscape “boring, dull as toast,” and happily described how Rolling Stone’s recent redesign looked a bit like…surprise…Blender.
Coming off Blender’s recent win as Ad Age’s magazine launch of the year, it seemed Pemberton was just continuing in the short but successful tradition of hubristic laddie behavior that has defined both Dennis Publishing’s more famous titles (Maxim and Stuff) and its crop of editors.
Unfortunately, he may have spoken a bit too soon.
Through 2002, Blender was not a member of the Audit Bureau of Circulations, but the magazine has claimed a circulation of 350,000, and said that its rate base would rise to 410,000 in January. It will, Blender executives said, be audited for 2003. Of those 350,000 readers, press reports said newsstand sales accounted for about 70 percent of readership, which would amount to 245,000 single copies sold on average since November 2001 — more than Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone combined during the first half of 2002. (Blender’s media kit breaks it down a little differently to 65/35, which would make for a newsstand average of 227,500 copies sold.)
But in the age of Enron, Worldcom, and Tyco International, Blender’s competitors in the men’s and music categories are saying that its numbers look more and more like creative accounting. Sources at six companies, including Wenner Media, Vibe/Spin Ventures, Condé Nast, and Emap as well as noncompetitors to Blender or Dennis’ other titles, agreed that the numbers were inflated. In fact, not one source — among them publishers, circulation directors and editors — believed Blender had sold 245,000 copies on even a single issue in 2002, much less on average.
“It’s smoke and mirrors,” said one high-level music magazine executive, before adding that newsstand sales of the magazine plummeted in September and October, a claim that was supported by two sources outside the music category.
“We’re seeing [sales figures] of about 145,000 to 150,000,” said another competitor. “It’s nowhere near what they’ve said said on record.”
If those claims are true, it would not be the first time a music magazine inflated its numbers. While an informal survey of more than 20 magazines — including Vanity Fair, People, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire and Sports Illustrated — indicated that the newsstand sales averages provided in most magazines’ publisher’s statements are generally within 3 to 5 percent of the audited numbers, music magazines historically tend to be a little looser with their figures than fashion and lifestyle magazines. But rarely has a major consumer magazine been accused of inflating its newsstand sales by 62 percent, the difference between Blender’s reported newsstand sales and what its competitors claim they’re seeing from field collected data.
Calls to Blender’s publisher, Malcolm Campbell, and Lance Ford, Dennis’ executive vice president, publishing, and general manager of Blender, went unreturned Thursday. But Blender’s spokesman, while defending its runaway success, stopped short of saying the magazine had sold as well on newsstands as its media kit and press clips implied.
“Circulation is always a process of fine-tuning,” he said. “You’re not talking about dead on consistency like a weekly or a monthly that’s been around for three years. Some issues are going to come over and some are going to come under.”
He added, “I’ve heard this song before. I am sure that many of these same circulation directors are the same people who couldn’t understand Maxim was able to pull out the same circulation numbers. I have a fine collection of articles in which various circulation directors claimed that there was no way Maxim could be achieving the numbers they were.”
Dennis’ competitors have certainly had cause to be jealous. Since launching an American edition of Maxim in April 1997, Dennis Publishing has become one of the biggest success stories in recent publishing history. Maxim currently has the highest paid readership of any men’s magazine in the U.S. aside from Sports Illustrated, and its newsstand total of 872,706 in the first half of 2002 (according to the publisher’s statement) was greater than that of GQ, Esquire, Details, and Rolling Stone combined. In 1998, the publishers of Maxim launched Stuff, another men’s magazine which found success. It currently dukes it out with Men’s Health and FHM for the number-two slot on newsstands.
But Blender’s spokesman declined to provide newsstand sales numbers on any of the issues he discussed, saying only that the magazine’s July issue, featuring the Osbournes, was a big seller for which he had no actual data or sales estimates. However, sources in the industry placed the sales of the July issue below 200,000, including two circulation directors outside the men’s and music categories who took data samplings on condition of anonymity and concluded that at no point in 2002 had Blender sold above 245,000 copies on newsstands, despite the spokesman’s claims that certain issues “came over.”
One circulation director contacted collected data from almost 50 percent of the newsstand market for all of the magazine’s issues from February to November 2002, and then prorated the numbers to account for the remainder of the market.
“They are selling some copies,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that. But the data we’ve seen does not point to 250,000. It does not indicate that at all.”
Through November, he said, Blender sold an average of 42,000 copies through the Anderson News Company, the nation’s biggest wholesaler, which accounts for between 30 and 35 percent of the overall newsstand market. He then added to that sales through the Chas. Levy Company, which account for another 11 to 13 percent of the market, through which Blender had an average sale of about 12,000 copies. With roughly 45 percent of the marketplace covered, Blender was selling just past 54,000 copies, which when prorated, placed its sales in the ballpark of 125,000.
A second circulation director, who placed its average around 130,000, said, “If I were one of their competitors, I’d be going to town on this.”
If the allegations against Blender are true, it would not be the first time that one of Dennis’ magazines inflated its newsstand sales. In the first half of 2001, Stuff Magazine reported in its publisher’s statement that it had sold 474,700 copies through newsstands on average. But when the ABC conducted its review of the publication more than a year later, it found that the magazine had overestimated its newsstand average by nearly 10 percent from January through June. However, the magazine avoided having to take a restatement for the year because in the second half its subscription numbers —which are far less significant in determining advertising rates — were underestimated by about 50,000 copies, enough to bring its overall average (newsstand and subscriptions), to a figure that was within 1 percent of the total reported.
And there may not be much punishment in store for Blender either. “Blender is not ABC,” one circulation director said. “They can say whatever they want.”