Reviled by Reviewers, Magazine Is a Hit With Readers

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NEW YORK ( -- For magazines, 2001's studded with who'd-a-thunk-it-notions. Layoffs at blue-chippers Time and Business Week? General
Motors Corp. ads disappearing from all Conde Nast Publications titles?

Now this: new circulation star -- Real Simple, the vaguely new-agey, simplify-sans-asceticism Time Inc. title.

Real Simple was almost universally reviled within media circles following its April 2000 debut. But it quickly found an audience: The statement filed with the Audit Bureau of Circulations for the first half of 2001 shows a robust average circulation of 784,307, of which 227,934 sold on newsstands. (That number steadily trends upward, peaking at 242,550 with its June/July issue.)

More impressive, 95% of its subscribers paid the basic rate of $19.95 or better for the 10-times-a-year magazine -- a performance Chip Block, a publishing strategist with Ziff Davis Media, called "phenomenal." Only 0.5% of the subscriptions had premiums thrown in.

Real Simple Associate Publisher Steven Sachs said sell-through currently was more than 40%, "well above the [industry] average" sell-through of about 35%. (Magazines that Real Simple shares some DNA with -- Martha Stewart Living, Hearst Magazines' and Harpo Productions' O, The Oprah Magazine and Time Inc.'s In Style -- remain rollicking newsstand successes.)

"By any stretch" on the consumer side, said Mr. Block, "it's a success." Accordingly, Real Simple's rate base -- circulation guaranteed to advertisers -- will go up to 900,000 with its February 2002 issue.

Heady stuff for last year's legendarily bumpy launch, which led to the rapid departure of founding Managing Editor Susan Wyland. Despite early sell-through rates of around 60%, Real Simple got dreadful reviews among media and advertising cognoscenti.

Martha Stewart: 'Real stupid'
"A disaster," said Martha Stewart -- to whose magazine Real Simple owes a substantial stylistic debt -- to Advertising Age last year. "A real stupid move." (Ms. Stewart could not be reached for comment at deadline.)

In truth, last year's cover lines that tread dangerously close to being deadpan conceptual jokes ("The Simple Table") are not entirely gone today ("5 Fabulous Morning Rituals"), but the reviews under Ms. Wyland's successor, Carrie Tuhy, are much better.

"They've done some great aesthetic changes," said Charles Valan, vice president of strategic print services at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann. "It's just easier to read. Much more organized."

"Some of it seemed dopey," said a veteran editor of women's magazines who's currently at a noncompeting title. "It seems less dopey now."

Advertisers still wary
Yet advertisers still seem wary. In six issues through July, it notched just 231.5 ad pages -- down 10.7% from last year, and that time frame in 2000 accounted for only the first three issues of the title. Compare this to Hearst and Miramax's Talk -- another high-profile launch that garnered mixed reviews -- which drew 338.7 pages in six issues through July.

Real Simple has "made dramatic strides of improvement," said Melissa Pordy, senior vice president and director of print at Cordiant Communications Group's and Publicis Groupe's Zenith Media, New York. "But one is still not seeing a tremendous amount of advertising support."

Ms. Pordy said one reason for this could be shortcomings in delivering "multi-platform programs in terms of delivering added value" -- but Real Simple is a part of AOL Time Warner, which is all but rewriting the book on multi-platform strategies.

"If the economy wasn't part of the playing field, we'd be exactly on track," said Publisher Robin Domeniconi, who said September's pages are up around 20% -- which means the title has around 78 pages that month.

Associate Publisher Mr. Sachs is even more forthright on advertisers: "I guarantee they'll come in."

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