COVER STORIES: SIZZLERS AND FIZZLERS
Byline: Lisa Lockwood
NEW YORK — When it comes to selling magazines, Fergie may be making news, but she’s not necessarily cover material. Princess Di is trending down; Madonna still sells; Cindy runs hot and cold; Kathie Lee Gifford, once golden, may be too controversial; Goldie Hawn has a good track record; Gwyneth Paltrow hasn’t fared too well; Barbra Streisand is box office poison for some, a dream for others; Tom Cruise sells; Shalom’s inconsistent, and Niki Taylor’s a good bet.
Those are some observations from magazine editors about what’s working and what’s not for that all-important cover shot. And with newsstand sales sluggish around the country, the pressure is on to find the right person to grab the media-saturated newsstand buyer.
The fashion magazines are far from abandoning the catwalk contingent, but the Hollywood crowd continues to muscle in.
As supermarkets around the country — the prime vehicle of magazine sales — devote fewer racks to magazines and wholesale distributors consolidate (from 170 to 90 in the past year and a half), the competition for rack space has become fierce and more expensive. Tracking newsstand sales, as well as predicting what will sell, are inexact sciences.
According to Michael Pashby, senior vice president of the Magazine Publishers of America, single-copy sales for the top 100 magazines were off 2 percent in the first half of 1996, while the overall industry grew only 1 percent.
“Single-copy sales have been declining for the past 15 years,” said Pashby, attributing the drop to the growth of special-interest magazines that are marketed mainly through subscriptions. Plus, he said, the number of magazines has more than doubled in the last 15 years.
So what’s an editor to do? How do you get the fickle magazine reader, who has hundreds of choices, to choose your magazine?
If you’re a fashion or beauty magazine, you try a celebrity; if you’re a celebrity/entertainment magazine, you photograph a group of cool young stars; if you’re a women’s magazine, you try almost anything — a guy, a hot couple, a gatefold, maybe even some cleavage.
And the professional lookers still have their place.
“We all get locked into the Claudias and Cindys of the world, which we think are sure bestsellers, but we’re working with a new group of girls, and Amber’s [Valletta] way up there,” said Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue. “What’s interesting about the new girls is, they change the way fashion changes and they’re almost like Linda, who keeps changing her look. The girls who went on to become stars have one identity,” she said.
But Vogue has had its share of celebrity covers, too.
“Lisa Marie Presley was a risk for us, and she did incredibly well,” said Wintour, who recalled she once found herself seated next to Michael Jackson on a transcontinental flight, and she happened to have the Lisa Marie cover art in her bag. “She’s prettier than that,” Jackson told a disappointed Wintour.
When Vogue decides to do a celebrity on the cover, it’s guided by two things, said Wintour. “It’s either a star that the magazine can make over, or people, such as Gwyneth Paltrow or Madonna, who are associated with style and fashion.”
But sales of Paltrow’s August cover were “disappointing,” Wintour said, because Paltrow was on three or four other magazine covers at the same time. Vogue originally had intended Paltrow for its July issue, but it wasn’t happy with the photograph and had to reshoot for August.
Vogue’s best-selling cover this year was on its September fashion issue — typically a high-volume issue — featuring Amber Valletta and Kate Moss. That issue sold 850,000 copies, according to the publisher’s best estimate. Vogue’s worst? February, with Shalom Harlow on the cover. It sold 490,430 newsstand copies.
Allure ran its first celebrity cover, a photograph of Sharon Stone, for its “Inside Hollywood” issue this December.
“It’s deliberate that it’s the first one,” said the magazine’s editor in chief, Linda Wells. “Those that have done only models are moving toward celebrities. But it’s important for us not to jump on the bandwagon. For beauty, it’s important for the reader not to know too much about the person on the cover.”
But can Allure have it both ways, Sharon Stone one month and unknown model the next?
“We’re walking that fine line. A recognizable model really makes a difference. We’re always trying to find new models and new faces. But our reader likes to see Niki Taylor, Kate Moss and Cindy Crawford. These are the cover girls we have really had such great response to on our cover.”
The bestseller for the year, so far, was the October “Best Products” issue that featured Niki Taylor on the cover. It sold more than 300,000 newsstand copies.
The worst seller on the newsstand this year was February’s issue, with Claudia Schiffer on the cover. It sold 217,000 newsstand copies. “She has done well for us in the past. It was the last studio shot we did,” said Wells.
Fairchild’s W is trying a male cover for the first time in January — Tom Cruise.
W featured its first celebrity, Demi Moore, on its April cover, and the issue turned into its bestseller of the year, with a 65 percent sell-through at the newsstand.
As for W’s model covers, Shalom was featured twice — in February and in September — each time wearing Calvin Klein. Ironically, the February issue was W’s poorest performer — a 48 percent sell-through — and September was its best, with 60 percent.
Harper’s Bazaar’s September issue, which featured Elizabeth Hurley, Hugh Grant and a monkey, probably will be its bestseller this year; an estimated 300,000 newsstand copies sold. Harper’s Bazaar had Nicole Kidman in March, and sold 238,000 copies, and Drew Barrymore in December. It has also done well with Niki Taylor, who appeared on both the February and August issues, which sold 221,000 and 207,000, respectively.
HB’s June issue, which had the cover line, “The Shape of Summer,” didn’t pull as well. It sold 157,500 newsstand copies and featured Shalom and Amber Valletta on the cover.
Elle is still resisting the lure of celebrity. According to Jean Fornasieri, senior vice president and managing director for the fashion group at Hachette Filipacchi, “Clearly March and September are our big issues for Elle. Newsstand buyers know it’s a fashion magazine.
“We don’t do a whole lot with celebrities. People buy Elle for the fashion,” said Fornasieri. “What Elle has been trying to do is show more fashion on the cover and make sure the cover lines are very strong, explaining what it is and a specific trend in the magazine.”
Elle tends to use models that sell well, such as Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington, but shies away from Kate Moss because she’s more identifiable with other magazines, Fornasieri said.
In June, Elle experimented with a high tech cover and lots of cover lines, which she said “works for some magazines, but not ours.” The issue, with Shalom on the cover, was the year’s worst seller, moving 240,000 newsstand copies. “I don’t think it was her. It was an experiment. A lot of hot colors and a lot of cover lines destroyed the image.”
Elle’s bestseller was the September issue, featuring Turlington in a sexy bra top, jacket and pants; the issue sold 515,000 newsstand copies.
Sex, not surprisingly, has managed to sell a few men’s magazines.
GQ’s February issue, featuring Tyra Banks on the cover, “was the first time we ever did a swimsuit cover,” said Art Cooper, editor in chief. “It was dynamite, and we came out about two weeks before Sports Illustrated, which also had Tyra Banks and another model. We benefited a lot from that.”
Females don’t always work: Julia Ormond didn’t sell well on the newsstand for GQ, nor did Julia Roberts. But “Elizabeth Shue did great.”
GQ’s overall bestseller so far this year was November, with a cover photograph of Michael Jordan, Mel Gibson and Jerry Seinfeld. It was the first “Men of the Year” issue, and it sold about 400,000 newsstand copies, said Cooper.
The worst performer, May’s issue, had Ormond on the cover and sold 230,000 copies.
In December, GQ is running Tom Cruise on the cover. “We’ve had him twice before and he did sensationally both times. He can really sell magazines,” said Cooper. “What you use is your instinct. You’ve got 12 shots at it each year.”
So who’s GQ’s ultimate bestseller?
Dan Marino, said Cooper. In 1985, GQ ran the football star on the cover, and sold 500,000 newsstand copies. And in those days, the magazine was only doing 200,000 subs. GQ ran Marino again in this September and did extremely well, said Cooper.
Cooper said getting celebrity covers was a lot easier when he first came to GQ in 1983. “GQ was the only magazine doing celebrities at the time. Then Tina Brown came and started putting celebrities on Vanity Fair, and now Graydon Carter [current editor of Vanity Fair] does them, and Details and Vogue. And now Esquire’s doing celebrities, and Entertainment Weekly, Premiere and Us. Everybody’s chasing the handful of celebrities.”
Who’s hot among the bona fide celebrity-chasers? Vanity Fair’s bestseller this year was its Hollywood issue in April, which featured nine young actors, among them Tim Roth, Matthew McConaughey and Leonardo DiCaprio. It sold 483,000 newsstand copies.
Carter is expecting big sales from the December issue, with George Clooney on the cover. “Most women would like to date him, and men want to look like him,” said Carter.
Carter said the Madonna cover in November did “phenomenally well.”
Vanity Fair’s worst seller for the year was the Olympics issue that ran in May. “Time-Warner bought the media rights to the Olympics for $40 million, so we couldn’t use the word ‘Olympics.’ We paid no money and had to run it in May. If I’d run it a month later, I’d have to pay $40 million,” said Carter. “People hadn’t warmed to the Olympics yet. It came out in mid-April.” It sold 305,000 newsstand copies.
Carter said he feels he’s locked into using celebrities, but expects to run more concept covers next year.
Magazines like In Style and Us also are heavily dependent on the star of the moment. And there’s a lot at stake: Both rely on newsstand sales for a huge percentage of their circulation.
At In Style, where 70 percent of total circulation is done on the newsstand, managing editor Martha Nelson said the bestseller in 1996 so far has been August, featuring Goldie Hawn and her daughter on the cover. “Goldie hadn’t done any publicity for her movie [“First Wives Club”] yet, and her daughter Katie hadn’t been seen before in a magazine. That issue sold more than 700,000 newsstand copies.”
What fizzled was the April Oscar issue, with Daryl Hannah in a gold evening dress on the cover. Ironically, the Oscar issue had been a huge hit the year before, said Nelson. “You have to constantly figure out how to reinvent it,” she said. That issue sold 480,000 copies.
“It may have been a timing issue,” said Nelson. “It was only out a week before the Oscars and for three weeks after it. After the Oscars, people are tired of it. The first time it comes around, it’s fresh and exciting, but after the event, you’re sated and satisfied.”
Also heavily into the celebrity hunt is Us, where timing is everything. Barbara O’Dair, editor in chief, said the yearend issue, which is published in January, generally carries several images, with one large photograph in the middle. This year it was of Alicia Silverstone; the issue sold 637,882 newsstand copies.
But O’Dair points out that it’s key to get stars “at the peak” of their popularity, not too early in the game. There’s a lot at stake — 50 percent of Us’s 1.1 million circulation is done on the newsstand.
O’Dair said she wouldn’t have gone first with Matthew McConaughey, for example. “We want Vanity Fair to lay the groundwork and then we’ll go back to him.”
“Gwyneth Paltrow was soft for us. She just wasn’t a superstar, but I’m still very happy we did her,” O’Dair added.
The softest seller for Us this year was the May issue, which featured the women of the TV series “E.R.” on the cover, and sold 444,991 copies.