Consumer Magazine Report: Last Word – The Best & Worst sellers of ’99

What makes a magazine appealing on the newsstand?
A pop-culture fad, a poignant death and a bubble-gum princess, for starters
People’s Aug. 2 issue, on the death of JFK Jr., sold a whopping 2.85 million copies on the newsstand. “You don’t need a rocket scientist to figure out why this was a good seller,” says editor Carol Wallace. On the flip side, the Nov. 1 issue, about a doctor who had traveled to the South Pole to do research and then discovered she had breast cancer, moved 1,015,000 copies. “Because this woman had been married and had kind of left her family behind to go off and do her thing in the South Pole, that created some resentment [among readers],” says Wallace.

It was a big year for Cher, but not as a TV Guide cover girl. The Aug. 21 issue, which sported the unstoppable entertainer, was the magazine’s worst seller, at roughly 1.8 million copies. “Our price had recently gone up,” explains editor Steve Reddicliffe. “And August traditionally is not a heavy television-viewing month.” The four-version wrestling cover of March 27, however, performed like a champ (2,661,174 copies). “[Wrestling] is a phenomenon that has surprising staying power,” says Reddicliffe. “And if I said anything else, they would come and get me.”

“It’s still the huge gripping news stories that sell on newsstands,” says Newsweek managing editor Mark Whittaker. John F. Kennedy Jr. died on a Saturday, and when Newsweek hit the stands Monday, the story was still fresh in people’s minds. The July 26 issue sold 574,600 newsstand copies. However, what sells well and what editors are most proud of are two different things. The Aug. 23 issue, “America Under the Gun,” sold 103,600 copies. “I thought we made a very strong statement. It was in the middle of the summer, and it’s not uplifting beach reading. But we cared about it and went ahead and did it anyway.”

Brian Beaudry, RS circulation director, looks at possible cover subjects from a purely commercial standpoint. “My job is to sell magazines,” he says. “I’m going for what sells.” The Jan. 21 issue featuring the Beastie Boys was chosen because, says Beaudry, “they worked well in 1998; I thought we might hit lightning twice.” But with just 146,200 sold on newsstands, it didn’t pull in a lot of readers. Britney Spears, on the other hand, while “not our usual RS profile,” found a lot of young readers. With a big marketing push, including contests and an AOL chat, the issue sold 233,637 newsstand copies.

Beware the movie tie-in. That’s the lesson learned from Teen People’s Alicia Silverstone cover for its March issue, which sold just 512,000 copies on stands. The issue coincided with the release of Silverstone’s Blast From the Past, co-starring Brendan Fraser. “The movie just bombed,” says managing editor Christina Ferrari. “You definitely are taking a chance when you tie a cover to a movie.” Another important lesson: Lists are good. “The 21 Hottest Stars Under 21” sold 825,000 copies. “[It’s] a unique concept. Kids loved it the first year, and I think it was just that much stronger when we brought it back.