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The Industry’s Comeback Kid Just May Be Vanity Fair

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The actress Uma Thurman, a picture of bejeweled glamour on the January cover of Vanity Fair, gives a cool gaze that reflects the confidence of the magazine itself.

The number of ad pages, which had declined after the departure of Editor in Chief Tina Brown by 18.6% in 1993 and 12.8% in 1994, rebounded dramatically this year. The pages for 1995 increased nearly 31%, to a total of 1,415, according to Media Industry Newsletter.

In addition, readers have signaled their approval. Monthly circulation this year stood at nearly 1.2 million, an all-time high.

“There’s no way of knowing why these things happen,” said Roberta Garfinkle, director of print media at the McCann-Erickson advertising agency. “There are cycles in this business. It may be nothing more than [Editor in Chief] Graydon Carter finding his stride.”

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The latter view is shared by Steven T. Florio, president of Conde Nast Publications Inc., which revived Vanity Fair in 1983. Florio recalled that when he took the job two years ago, Conde Nast chairman S.I. Newhouse Jr. identified the magazine’s declining readership and advertising as major concerns. They were problems all too conveniently attributed within the industry to the 1992 exit of Brown, who became editor in chief of the New Yorker after turning Vanity Fair into a compelling chronicle of extravagant excess and celebrity culture.

“I had a long talk with Graydon,” Florio said. “He had been holding back, and now he was going to forge ahead. He’s a great editor and he needed to be encouraged to bring his own voice to the magazine.”

If magazine covers offer a telling measure of editorial tone, then Carter’s choices in 1995 indicate that he is going for more light and less heat than in recent years. There was no shocker, such as the 1994 cover of a saucy Roseanne stuffed inside lacy black lingerie, and no suggestive business, such as the much-talked-about 1993 shot of a scantily clad Cindy Crawford giving a foamy shave to a swooning k.d. lang. Instead, an angelic-looking Meg Ryan (in May) made for one of the bigger sellers this year.

“I liked the Roseanne and the Crawford covers, though they don’t reflect my taste,” said Carter, who was a founding editor of Spy and later edited the New York Observer before succeeding Brown. “I think I was trying to mimic and maybe carry over the image of Vanity Fair from before. A magazine works better when an editor goes with his own tastes and tries to succeed on his own terms.”

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Carter said he believes that ‘80s-era camp and “over-the-top trash” are history. “This is a different time, a more serious time,” he went on. “There’s an elegance out there, even if daytime television suggests otherwise.”

Beyond the appealing Hollywood images that have helped Vanity Fair sizably increase newsstand sales, Carter’s magazine has delivered solid journalism, including an August report on the ebola virus crisis in Zaire and enterprising profiles of presidential candidates.

Looking back, Carter said, “If it took only one issue to get it right, then everyone would be a genius.”

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A Christmas Story: Few stories in publishing are more impressive than the history of “The Christmas Box.”

Richard Paul Evans, a former advertising executive who lives in Salt Lake City, says it took him less than six weeks in 1992 to write this short tale about a family that discovers the true meaning of Christmas. Although he intended the story to be a gift for his two daughters, photocopied editions so charmed other relatives, friends and strangers that he decided to publish the manuscript in paperback.

He printed 250,000 copies and aggressively marketed them to stores. The book sold well.

Enter the big-time publishers. In a business that often spends large sums for books that offer no guarantee of selling many copies, “The Christmas Box” already had a winning track record. So earlier this year, Simon & Schuster paid Evans $4.2 million for the hardcover rights to what the publisher sees as a holiday perennial.

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Last Sunday, Maureen O’Hara and Richard Thomas starred in a TV movie of “The Christmas Box.” This Sunday, Evans’ $4.95 edition and the $12.95 S&S; title lead the paperback and hardcover bestseller lists in the New York Times.

A prequel to “The Christmas Box” will be published in the spring.

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Afterwords: The Rev. Al Sharpton is taking heat these days because of controversial remarks he made before the recent torching of a Harlem, N.Y., clothing store that killed eight people. But the black activist’s autobiography remains on schedule. “Go and Tell the Pharaoh,” being written with Anthony Walton, will be published by Doubleday in April. According to the spring catalog, Doubleday plans an extensive promotional effort, including a 16-city author tour and bookstore signings coordinated with churches.

* Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday. His column is published Fridays.


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