Right place, right time and loving it

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Felix dennis knows it's gratuitous to kick rivals when they're down. But he can't help himself, can't even hide his enjoyment at doing it, so he throws back his head and roars with laughter as he deals blow after blow to the soft bellies of the granddaddies of American men's magazines.

Meet the publishing industry's worst nightmare, a heavyset British press baron with bifocals, a thick gray beard, a Mickey Mouse tie and an infectious laugh.

You don't have to like his publication, Maxim, to recognize its achievement. Critics (myself included) call Maxim nobrow. Soft porn. The latest blight on the cultural landscape. But it can't be ignored.

This is a magazine that snagged truckloads of readers before it chased advertisers, rudely trashed conventional wisdom about the reading habits of men and caused even the most staid men's magazines to drop pinstriped trou and start chasing half-naked babes around the frat house.

Ask about the magazine's impact on newsstands and the 52-year-old Dennis is on his feet. "Are you ready?" he asks, leaping from a chair in his nondescript New York office and bounding over to a shelf. He grabs a copy of Rolling Stone with a Maxim-like cover and tosses it dramatically aside. "Are you ready?" This time, it's GQ. Toss. "Are you ready?" Esquire. Details. Gear. Toss. Toss. Toss.

"They don't get it," he says. "They think showing a swimsuit on the cover will get them sales."

This is the gentlest remark Dennis will make about his rivals. Request the secrets of Maxim's success and before he pitches its attributes, he notes rivals' weaknesses, crediting "the utterly moribund condition of general lifestyle magazines for men in America for 15 or 20 years.

"These magazines worship at the altar of the advertiser. They are contemptuous of their readers. They just want to make you feel guilty because you don't spend two-and-a-half thousand dollars on a suit."

Dennis is a world traveler who lives on a fantasyland estate outside of London and is chauffeured around in a Rolls-Royce. In U.S. publishing circles, though, he is an ill-mannered bad boy who has crashed a black-tie affair. And he's having a great time.

Dennis boldly predicts Maxim will hit a circulation of 3 million in the not-so-distant future, even with the U.S. entry of FHM, a title that beats the stuffing out of Maxim in the U.K. He claims 75,000 subscription cards came back from the January issue alone and the renewal rate is 82%.

"Millions of guys are proving you wrong every day," he told me when I said the magazine was sophomoric. "These are not truck drivers from Idaho." Maxim approaches every article, whether the topic is cars or cancer, as if "one of your buddies is telling you about it." Preferably over a cold beer. At a strip joint.

He says Maxim and its British sense of humor and irony were in the right place at the right time, hitting U.S. shores just as men were collapsing under the weight of the political correctness movement.

An obsession with sex also helps. "Sex is a hook. It's a sprat to catch a mackerel," says Dennis, who says he owes an enormous debt to Helen Gurley Brown. "We've produced Cosmo for men."

Dennis' U.S. invasion isn't over. He already has introduced a second men's magazine, Stuff, that is nearly indistinguishable from Maxim but growing just as rapidly. He's weighing U.S. versions of two of his U.K. titles, a news digest called The Week and a shopping title called P.S.

Still, Dennis believes ink-on-paper products will one day disappear. So he's also investing heavily in interactive media. "It's the autumn of magazines," he says. "I intend to have a lovely autumn and to enjoy the colors." But, he says, referring to company digital operations, "I'll enjoy them with one foot on dry land."

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