GUCCIONE JR. LOOKING TO TAKE PUBLISHING TO THE 'MAX'

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Feeling old?

Bob Guccione Jr. of Spin is 41. His magazine is 11 years old and selling more than half a million copies per issue. And Guccione is about to join the grown-ups in even more tangible fashion by linking up with a couple of the great publishing powers of Europe to launch later this year in the States a new men's lifestyle magazine called Max.

This was the other day in Manhattan and Guccione (in the trademark scruffy beard) and I were having lunch at Michael's on West 55th at a front table amid the likes of book editor Larry Ashmead, Imus' pal Esther "Lobster" Newburg and, in his customary baggy red sweater, ICM "superagent" Sam Cohn.

The usual suspects had been rounded up.

I didn't yet know anything about Max, but I was looking for Guccione's take on the magazine biz in general and how Spin was doing in particular. Even with a sexual harassment suit hanging over his head, he was talking positive and upbeat. We got started talking about his competition.

"There's an array of rivals. Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Details, Vibe, Premiere, no, not that so much, more Movieline. Our readership is 24 to 28. Spin competes with ESPN. Look at The New Yorker. I read it for 10 years, gave it up. Then Tina came on. I tried it again, gave it up again. It used to be honestly pretentious; there's no sincerity now. And it's not fresh. At Spin, we can't afford two dull issues in a row. They'll drop us."

Of Rolling Stone, which Bob never fails to admit inspired him and and set the standards for a category, he now says, "Rolling Stone grows with the boomers; our job is to stay young." He thinks his circulation max ought to be 700,000. Maybe 750,000 tops. "Beyond that, you dilute it." He's running about 1,000 ad pages a year with 12 issues compared with 2,000 or more at Rolling Stone with greater frequency.

"I'd love to have a magazine that sells 3 million copies and competes with People. I think about that, and maybe one day I will. I used to think like that once a year. Now, every couple of months."

And Max?

"It's a joint venture with Rizzoli [the huge Milan-based publisher] for an English-language version of Max Italy. Rizzoli wants to use us as entree to the American market. I'm flattered. They like our entrepreneurial spirit. And you know they're also tied in with Burda [the big German publishing powerhouse]. We'll launch in September. I'd like to go head to head with Details. It's not working. It keeps changing. They are smart people, good people [Conde Nast], but one month it's a downtown magazine, the next month it's an international fashion magazine. It would work better if it left home; there [at Conde Nast] it's smothered by the corporate culture."

What of the big, established books, GQ and Esquire? "I look at them as frankly ridiculous. Much as kids look at their parents, as Generation X looks at boomers. Esquire has a noble literary tradition, but it's afraid to tell stories, good stories. Vibe is doing that. In the '70s the great magazines were individual companies. Rolling Stone, National Lampoon, The New Yorker, New York, The Village Voice, Penthouse, Playboy. Now magazines are measured by quarterly profit reports. Insecurity rules.

"They may kill off a lot of good publications with the notion you're selling advertising in the magazine, your real estate, as a commodity, and they drop their rates. We hold our line as well as Conde Nast does. Most antithetical of all, it's my conviction we're in the business of selling not advertising but ideas. If I were in this for money, I'd be in Wall Street. I'm selling questions and answers, and what I'm delivering to advertisers is a stimulated audience. We're not selling wood pulp; we're not paper makers."

Bob claims his monthly outsells Rolling Stone on newsstands, says fashion and records are his top two ad categories, that on First Amendment press freedom issues Tipper Gore is "inconsequential," that Spin profiled controversial music industry bad-boy "Suge" Knight six months before The New York Times Magazine, that DJs are still getting "rewarded" for playing certain songs ("but not with drugs and women the way they used to; there's no smoking gun") and that he, at 41, is admittedly "too old" to be a judge of the new music. "Five years ago I began to pull back and let the editors do that."

Then get him started on Tim Leary ("a father to me") and how, just before Leary died, Bob took Tim "in his stroller" to mass in the late California afternoon and went to Communion himself. "I'm traditional and usually take the wafer on my tongue. But not this time." Instead, he took half the wafer back to a dying old man who hadn't been to church for 30 years.

Guccione writes that story, I'd publish it myself.

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