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Memo Pad: The Mental Floss Case Study… WTForever21.com Fights Back…

Maxim founder Felix Dennis has installed a former Playboy editorial director, Jim Kaminsky, at Mental Floss. His mission: to elevate the title and add readers.

Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur

BUILDING A LOYAL FOLLOWING: If magazines are supposed to be cool, Mental Floss doesn’t stand a chance. It’s a magazine about trivia with cover lines like “Did wallpaper kill Napoleon?”

But the title, which was purchased by Maxim founder Felix Dennis last spring, is a great case study for the magazine business as a whole: it has a small loyal circulation; book and merchandise revenue that has kept it profitable for most of its life; no dependence on advertising revenue, and a Web site. And, earlier this month, Dennis, the evil genius of magazine publishing with a keen eye for growth opportunities, installed a former Playboy editorial director, Jim Kaminsky, to elevate the title and add readers.

This story first appeared in the June 14, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“I first saw it while I was at Playboy, probably around 2004. I just happened to cross an issue,” said Kaminsky about the magazine. “I sort of got it right away. I thought then and I think now, it’s just one of these conceptually pure magazines,” a class that in his book includes InStyle, Real Simple, Maxim and Bonnie Fuller’s version of Us Weekly. “The idea of this magazine as much as anything else is the idea of social ammunition,” Kaminsky explained. “You can go to any party, any gathering, hang out with any people and you’ll have something to say. It is a matter of feeling smarter.”

Kaminsky is exactly the opposite of the magazine’s amateur founders. After Playboy didn’t work out, he defected to Wenner Media, where he held top spots at Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal. Earlier in his career, he ran Maxim twice, once before and once after Dennis unloaded the title. “I love magazines in a nerdish way,” said Kaminsky, 50, who looks the part of former Playboy editor with a hint of bushy sideburn and a shirt unbuttoned to show chest hair. He also happens to be Mel Brooks’ first cousin, once removed.

He said his mandate at Mental Floss was “instead of propping up a magazine — which I’ve done for a long time — [to] build a magazine.”

“I think there’s something about the brand that communicates that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s not stuffy,” said Mental Floss co-founder Will Pearson over the phone last week from Alabama, where he lives part time. Pearson, a history major at Duke, teamed up 10 years ago with his college hall mate, Mangesh Hattikudur, an anthropology major. They had $5,000 in collected savings, and, the following year, they took a low six-figure investment from Toby Maloney, a former pharmaceutical executive with ties to Hattikudur’s high school. Maloney and his wife, Melanie, are both still involved with the title, though Dennis is now the sole owner, after buying the title for “mid-seven figures, with a nice chance for these guys to share in the success,” according to Steven Kotok, the president of The Week and chief executive officer of Mental Floss.

Pearson and Hattikudur are also still involved with the title as president and chief creative officer, respectively. Together with Kotok, the various business minds are evaluating the decision to increase frequency from six times a year and raise the newsstand price from $4.99 over time. Kotok said there aren’t yet specific goals for the title going forward, but he thinks doubling the title’s circulation in the coming years is realistic. The magazine isn’t registered with the Audit Bureau of Circulation but claims circulation of 100,000. To help with that growth, Dennis has hired veterans Leslie Guarnieri and Angus Macaulay as circulation and publisher, respectively.

Whether there are more than 100,000 people who want to read a trivia magazine remains to be seen. Kaminsky said he hadn’t thought of a target reader: “I have more of a psychographic in mind,” he said. “A person who is college educated; loves reading, loves documentaries, loves pop culture; never lost their taste in music, whatever that taste may be; wakes up in the middle of the night because something is bothering them and goes onto Google and searches it; somebody who has an endlessly curious mind.”

And one more thing, he said. “I think it’s somebody who’s definitely ambitious.”

— ZEKE TURNER

FIGHTING BACK: Last week, Forever 21 filed a cease-and-desist letter against 26-year-old blogger Rachel Kane, ordering her to take down her satirical site WTForever21.com. Kane told WWD she will do no such thing. In a statement, she said: “My site, WTForever21, does not infringe on any of Forever 21’s rights. It contains only criticism, commentary and news reporting, all written in an educational and humorous manner, which are protected under applicable law. To the extent any of the material used on the site is in fact subject to intellectual property protection (which, in many instances, is by no means clear), the site’s incorporation of that material is a ‘fair use’ under copyright, trademark law, and similar state law. It’s incredibly unlikely that any portion of the site would ever cause confusion in the minds of the general public about whether or not Forever 21 endorses or is affiliated with it. The blog in no way dilutes Forever 21’s trademark, as the company claims.”

Kane said if the company continues to make threats with no legal basis, her attorneys will seek all available redress against the retailer. On a lighter note, Kane said she looks forward to blogging about fashion atrocities, such as “lime green, faux fur covered vests and candy colored booty shorts,” on WTForever21.com.

Forever 21 did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

— AMY WICKS

NOT FOR SALE: Is American Media Inc. on the block? On Monday, it was reported that AMI, home to Star, Shape, The National Enquirer and Radar, was shopping itself around and Apollo Management had expressed interest. The New York Post said a price tag for the deal could not be determined, but it was probably below $500 million. The company is expected to report its annual fiscal earnings later this month. An AMI spokeswoman firmly denied the Post report. “AMI is a very desirable company since we deleveraged our balance sheet,” said the spokeswoman. “We received a number of inbound calls from various financial institutions. The company is not on the block.”

— A.W.

FRANCO GETS ANOTHER GIG: James Franco can now add fashion photographer to his résumé. The multihypenate Franco shot Agyness Deyn for a story that will run in Elle’s July issue. “As everyone knows, James has been exploring different types of art forms lately from acting to hosting [the Academy Awards] to book writing to directing and school, and photography was another project he was working on as something for the Venice Biennele so we decided to collaborate with him,” said Joe Zee, creative director. Zee is discussing future projects for Franco, at Elle, but nothing is in the works.

— A.W.

TOBEY’S TURN: Prada has tapped Tobey Maguire for its fall men’s wear advertising campaign. David Sims photographed the Hollywood actor in a pensive mood, captured in New York interiors and framed by a giant fireplace, curtains of velvet maroon and carved architraves.

The actor, known globally for his role as “Spider-Man,” will next star in Baz Luhrmann’s revisitation of Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” among other films out next year.

— LUISA ZARGANI

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