SCOURING THE WOMEN'S BOOK NICHE;`SPORTS TRAVELER,' REMADE `MIRABELLA' TAKE ON HARD-TO-PLEASE MARKET

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The table is quite full in the world of women's magazines.

There are publications for women who decorate, garden, cook, sew, lift weights. There are magazines about weddings, travel, fitness, fashion, careers, parenting, health. Still others try to cover a little bit of it all.

Yet publishers hungry for a share of the estimated $2.5 billion marketers spend annually on books targeted to women continually ask whether there are any topics uncovered.

Among the newcomers this year are two titles that go beyond traditional women's service coverage and are vying for selective, upscale women: a sports-related title and the reincarnation of a previous entrant. Whether women will read these titles-and whether marketers will advertise in them-remains to be seen.

Rookie title Sports Traveler is hoping to hit a hole in one, and though it faces many challenges, observers think it has potential.

Publishing Director Polly Perkins came up with the concept of a multisport title for women after reviewing sports magazines and finding most of them have a decidedly male bent. Men and women are not on the same planet when it comes to sports, Ms. Perkins says.

"When you ask a man about his golf game, he will tell you his score. When you ask a woman, you will find out who she golfed with, where she golfed, how the day went and then her score," she says.

With that in mind, Sports has set out to be the Men's Journal of women's magazines.

Many observers likened it to that magazine, but it has other likenesses as well. Stories about sports, vacations and fitness are packaged with recipes, fashion tips and personal essays. It's Outside meets Cooking Light

In the premiere issue, for example, a story on biking through Maryland included sidebars on country inns, biking clothes and a recipe for crabcakes.

"Women can be as competitive as the next guy," says Ms. Perkins, a former publisher of Elle Decor and Bon Appetit. "But they also worry about what they're going to wear."

"Sports Traveler is one of the few new magazines that I've seen this year that has no identity crisis," says Samir Husni, the University of Mississippi journalism professor who tracks new magazines. "From the cover on, you know what the magazine is all about. There's nothing else like it for women."

But some observers say Sports Traveler faces substantial hurdles.

Martin S. Walker, chairman of magazine consultancy Walker Communications, thinks it will be on a very short trip if it doesn't find a corporate partner with deep pockets.

"It's a real interesting idea," Mr. Walker says. But, "it always takes more money than you think to launch a consumer magazine, and limited partners are relatively unsophisticated investors. Advertisers are going to say come back in a year when I know you're around."

"We put 31 ad pages in the first issue, but if I had not been on my own, there would have been close to 47 pages," says Ms. Perkins, who's looking for a corporate partner. "Companies [such as auto marketers] were looking for volume discounts.....and I couldn't play games with the rates."

Steve Greenberger, VP-director of print media at Grey Advertising, New York, agrees corporate partnering is crucial to Sports Traveler's longevity, but he suggests the magazine take a different route from pairing with another publisher-such as with suppliers.

"Not being a member of a large organization makes it difficult in the beginning, but a good publication-and this could turn out to be one-can find partners," Mr. Greenberger says.

"By pairing with suppliers, they might be able to offer [advertisers] distribution in golf clubs from coast to coast, or partnerships with tennis instructors," he adds.

Without some kind of corporate partnership, Mr. Walker says, Sports Traveler faces the same problems Mirabella faced before it was sold by News America Publishing to Hachette Filipacchi Magazines in March 1994 and relaunched with an October issue this year-not being able to do merchandising, added-value or cross promotions.

Like Sports Traveler, the revised Mirabella is betting it has found a niche, but some observers consider the latter's target to be murky.

Editor Amy Gross defines the Mirabella reader as "a sophisticated woman with good values, an eye for decoration, design and style. She's not easily snookered."

But that's too broad a definition, says Mr. Husni, who believes the magazine retains an identity crisis that's plagued it since its original inception in 1989.

"I flipped and flipped through the relaunch issue and tried to see what differentiated Mirabella from the crowd, and I couldn't put my hand on anything specific," he says. "When Mirabella first came out, I was not sure what they wanted to do with this magazine. I still feel this-they're back to square one."

Under Rupert Murdoch's News America, Mirabella tried to be the thinking-woman's fashion magazine. Fashion still is important, but now fewer pages-roughly 25% as opposed to about half-are devoted to clothes.

Instead, the bulk of the magazine's pages includes stories about news events, lifestyle trends, entertainment and health issues.

In case thinking women don't grasp that Mirabella is for them, a tagline on the cover blurts it out: "A sign of intelligent life."

Mr. Husni is critical of that tagline.

"They're trying to spoon-feed you information that they are different, that they are meant to be read," he says.

Mr. Greenberger is more optimistic.

"Mirabella has always been an attractive advertising environment, be it for autos or the more traditional women's categories," he says. "Now that it's at Hachette, they will put money behind it to make it a success."

The one element he says the title needs is "a high level of marketing to the advertiser and ad agency" to inform them about how the title's changed and how it's going to grow.

"They're not doing that now. The juice level needs to be turned up," Mr. Greenberger says.

Mr. Husni says that being with Hachette will help some.

"But," Mr. Husni cautions, "once they find readers are weary, advertisers aren't going to jump, even if Hachette is behind the publication. Advertisers are more interested in reaching readers, and unless they can identify who is reading Mirabella, they won't be behind it."

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