You Can Tell--and Sell--a Magazine by Its Cover

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Everyone loves reading about royalty, right? That was the thinking of Good Housekeeping magazine Editor-in-Chief John Mack Carter when he decided to feature Princess Caroline of Monaco on the cover of the June, 1988, issue.

At the same time, Susan L. Taylor, editor-in-chief of Essence magazine, considered that celebrities in the news are usually a big draw. She chose to feature on her June cover actress Robin Givens--unhappily married to heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson--just when the crowds were gathering at ringside to see which of the battling duo would land the knockout punch.

Both covers bombed at the newsstand.

In the business of selling magazines, nothing is more important than the cover. Although the overwhelming majority of the nation’s more than 11,000 magazine titles are sold by subscription, editors spend hours deciding on covers that will catch the eye of newsstand browsers.


The person who buys a single copy of a magazine is actually going to read that issue, said Jack Fitzmaurice president of the Periodicals Institute, a Fairfield, N.J., magazine marketing firm specializing in single-copy sales. Newsstand sales tell editors what interests readers in general, he said. Also, publishers guarantee circulations when advertising is sold, and if an issue misses the guarantee, advertisers may be owed compensation. Too many misses would be costly.

Yet “there is very little science to picking a successful cover,” said Lee Eisenberg, Esquire’s editor-in-chief. “I’m not entirely sure there is an art to it, either.”

Fortunately, Eisenberg, Carter (who counts on single-copy sales for about one-third of monthly circulation) and Taylor are among editors who have established track records over time for hitting a lot more often than they miss.

A review of the winning and losing covers (in terms of sales) of 1988 provides some insight into the numerous variables editors must consider. Most magazine editors gambled heavily on Cher, the Oscar-winning movie star/pop singer/fitness guru/hawker of perfume, according to a survey conducted by Advertising Age. And it appears that they mostly won.

But there were some less obvious winners. Who would have predicted that a Newsweek cover featuring a black couple to illustrate a story that essentially said “here are your ancestors” to millions of non-black readers would have been a success? Subtleties matter, said some observers who argue that the artist greatly reduced the risk of the cover by giving the couple decidedly non-African features.

Newsweek’s Jan. 11 issue, “The Search for Adam & Eve,” did well, said Richard M. Smith, Newsweek editor-in-chief, because “people like science stories, and this was a detective story to boot.”

Time magazine’s best was also a cover about a challenging idea, but it had the added bonus of a well-known personality. Time scored with “Who Was Jesus?,” the Aug. 15 cover pegged to the release of the controversial movie “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

Political Subjects Flop

Each issue of the publication must be the same, yet different, editors said. Certain themes, such as sex, making money and losing weight, spark reader interest. Political themes are almost sure losers, and if the subject is foreign politics, forget it. Cover lines--those little blurbs that tell readers what’s inside--mean a lot. So does color. Well-known personalities are considered safe bets--as long as it isn’t a political personality.

Time’s worst cover of 1988 was an Oct. 3 feature on John Sasso and James A. Baker III--respectively, the men behind the Dukakis and Bush presidential campaigns. The cover generated a lot of interest among journalists, said Time spokesman Brian Brown. Obviously, these “news junkies” don’t reflect the interest of the public at large, Brown adds. Essence put the Rev. Jesse Jackson on its cover in 1984 during his first presidential campaign. “One of the worst-selling in the history of the magazine,” said Taylor.

Looking back at the Princess Caroline cover, Good Housekeeping’s Carter said: “The context was wrong. My story was about the intrigue at the palace over who would succeed Prince Rainier III. It was too political. Non-readers told me that nobody cared.”

Compounding that error, he said, the cover line advertised an inside story about Paul (Crocodile Dundee) Hogan. “He’s very popular, but he’s from Australia. That’s far away,” he said, explaining that the issue featured subjects that were just too far removed from readers.

“I have developed great insights into what makes a good cover,” Carter said. Such insights paid off in December when he chose a cover featuring a gingerbread house. He also produced a successful cover in October that featured Linda Hamilton, star of “Beauty and the Beast.” Hamilton isn’t that recognizable, Carter said, but the CBS television show “seems to carry an intense and mystical appeal.”

Taylor knows how he feels. She is convinced that the timing--an essential element for a successful cover--for the Givens cover was perfect. But, she said, “If you use a celebrity cover, it has to be a popular celebrity.” What Taylor diplomatically left unsaid is that Givens is not a very popular young woman.

By year-end, one supermarket tabloid had dubbed Givens “the most hated woman in America.” Esquire featured her on its “Dubious Achievements of 1988" cover.

Timing Is Key

Sometimes it is not the personality but other factors. The cover that produced the lowest sales for Essence in 1988 was the May issue featuring pop singer Jody Watley. “That was our fault. We chose the wrong photograph. Jody’s very attractive. We shot her on a stool from the knees up. We should have used a very tight shot of her face,” Taylor said, adding that the cover lines for the issue weren’t strong either.

Essence’s most successful issue in 1988 was the February issue featuring film director Spike Lee and his sister Joie, an actress who has appeared in her brother’s films. Taylor said several elements came together to make the issue successful--attractive personalities, timing (people were talking about the premiere of Lee’s second film, “School Daze”), and the cover lines advertised inside stories about love, a perennial February theme that always appeals to Essence readers.

Magazines that have established an annual theme issue can usually count on it to be among the best sellers. Esquire’s January “Dubious Achievements of 1987" issue was its best seller in 1988. Esquire has been running the feature annually for 27 years, said Eisenberg, and its’s usually among the top sellers each year.

Business Week usually does well with its annual issue exploring the best mutual funds, said Editor-in-Chief Stephen B. Shepard, but its best seller of 1988 was the Nov. 28 issue on the best business schools. Its worst was a June 27 issue on a management coup at Aluminum Co. of America. The Alcoa piece was “maybe too narrow,” Shepard said.

He said “service journalism"--stories telling readers how to do something or giving them information on improving their lives--sells well. Technology stories are also popular, but business celebrities get mixed results. (The cover on Henry Kravis of Wall Street’s premier leveraged buyout firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. was a dud.) Sports business stories don’t do well either, Shepard added.

No Sure-Fire Themes

Sports magazines don’t count on sports themes for their best sellers--at least not since Sports Illustrated began its annual swimsuit issue 25 years ago. The issue, due on newsstands next week, is expected to be another blockbuster.

Sport magazine decided to take the high road last year, canceling its swimsuit issue to give readers a sports calendar that readers wouldn’t “have to hide” from the kids. But the swimsuit cover is back on the newsstands this year, currently competing with Inside Sports’ cover of Charlene Tilton (of “Dallas” fame) clad in a skimpy bikini.

Sports Illustrated’s success has produced a lot of “ridiculous” swimsuit covers from many publications convinced that the format is a sure-fire winner, said Fitzmaurice, the marketing expert.

Good Housekeeping’s Carter scoffed at the notion that there is a theme that will always work. “I am often convinced that, without a doubt, I have the winning formula,” he said. “The problem is that it changes every couple of months. I go out and test my formula in the marketplace, and suddenly it splatters all over my new suit.”


Best Publication Subject Date of Issue Business Week The Best B-Schools Nov. 28 Ebony At Home With Oprah Winfrey October Essence Spike and Joie Lee February Life The Year in Pictures January Los Angeles Ted Danson August (also annual restaurant guide) Money Where to invest in 1988 Jan. 28 Ms. *Meryl Streep December Newsweek The Search for Adam & Eve Jan. 11 People Burt & Loni’s wedding May 16 Time Who Was Jesus? Aug. 15 Worst Publication Subject Date of Issue Business Week Coup at Alcoa June 27 Ebony Sidney Poitier May Essence Jody Watley May Life Paul Newman’s children’s camp September Los Angeles Dabney Coleman February Money 15 sure ways to cut your taxes Aug. 15 Ms. Teen abortions April Newsweek Organ transplants Sept. 12 People American hostages in Lebanon July 18 Time Sasso & Baker Oct. 3

Best and worst categories represents comparative sales of different issues of the same publication.