Battle for Britain's living rooms

Back in the Nineties, House Beautiful dumped the competition in a skip. Now it's suffering from dry rot in the circulation department. What went wrong?
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The Independent Online

It's springtime, the blossoms are on the trees, the days are getting longer and you decide it's time to do a bit of home decorating. Not so long ago, getting tips on how to go about it was simple: you'd go to the newsagent and buy a copy of House and Garden. Nowadays, the shelves offer an array of options liable to confuse even the most determined budding Michelangelo.

There are now more than 20 home decorating titles, and it is amid this increasingly competitive bazaar that the market leader for the past nine years, National Magazines' House Beautiful, has been flicked off its perch.

The most recent circulation figures showed that House Beautiful had suffered a 23 per cent drop in year-on-year sales, selling 222,4468 copies monthly. It was one of the biggest sales slumps of any magazine, and enough to see Ideal Home, produced by arch-rivals IPC, leap up to first place in the league with a 27.2 per cent rise in circulation and sales of 254,427.

The change was the cause of considerable glee at IPC Towers, for Ideal Home had been the pre-eminent magazine in the sector until 12 years ago, and recapturing pole position was the source of considerable (if somewhat feline) pride. "House Beautiful is looking dated," crowed Ideal Home's editor-in-chief, Isobel McKenzie-Price. "It is very Eighties and Nineties, and we've taken advantage of its weakness."

House Beautiful's editor, Caroline Atkins, departed in October after the sales slump became apparent, and last month her deputy, Libby Norman, was appointed editor. It is her task to try to regain the top position in a sector in which three of the top 10 sellers have all posted double-figure percentage sales losses over the last year.

"I don't agree with Isobel at all," says Norman. "I think House Beautiful did look dated, but that's not fair criticism any more. Now I think it certainly has a more contemporary feel than Ideal Home."

Norman's problems are compounded by the fact that there are so many rivals to square up against. She points out that Ideal Home, aimed at a slightly more conservative readership, "isn't really a direct rival". But younger, funkier readers are being siphoned off by more avant-garde publications such as Living etc, The Real Homes Magazine and even Wallpaper. Living etc, published by IPC, increased its circulation in the latest figures, and its breezy, modern style is a contrast to House Beautiful's more traditional approach.

Norman, an articulate, clear-thinking 36-year-old, has been at National Magazines for six years, working her way up from being a sub-editor. As a former chief sub-editor, she is respected for her rigorous approach and application. She has already redesigned the magazine, shrinking features, simplifying the layout and increasing the number of pictures and bite-sized nuggets of information.

Norman says that House Beautiful's problems were caused in part by complacency in a magazine that had stormed into the market just a few years previously. It was launched in 1989 with a design that looked fresh compared to the dowdy alternatives at the time, became the best-seller in 1991, and remained so throughout the Nineties.

"It's true that we had taken our eye off the ball in terms of the look of the magazine," Norman says. "Magazine design has moved on tremendously since the mid- Nineties. Homes are much more fashion-led, trends go straight off the catwalk into the home, there has been a surge in TV decorating and people are much more aware about what's going on where."

House Beautiful, she says, was looking "busy, old fashioned and copy-heavy. In a magazine about style and decorating you should look at the pictures first." Norman says she has shortened the average length of features and included more easy-to-digest information. "There has to be a sense that we live in an information age, in a soundbite age. We shouldn't be running stories on everything you needed to know about whatever. We need short articles, lists, information, and guides."

Isn't this dumbing down?

"It's organising thoughts and presenting information in a way people want." Norman adds that she is also launching regular features on consumer and campaigning issues, including cowboy builders, corrupt estate agents, and property and financial coverage. "It's important to champion causes. You have to buy your readers' loyalty - you can't rely on it," she says.

Publications that offer advice on specific aspects of life improvement are widely seen as being liable to suffer from competition from television and the internet. Plug the words "home decoration" into a search engine and, amid the dross, you are directed to sites offering detailed, illustrated hints and guides to more trends from across the world than could be fitted into a year's worth of House Beautiful.

"Television decorating is more akin to theatre than anything else, in fact it might have helped us by making decorating sexier than it used to be," says Norman. On the whole, people don't sit in front of their TV sets taking notes. "But the future is the internet. There's so much you can do there, and we have to move into it fast."

House Beautiful's web presence, like that of its sister publications, is currently far from state-of the-art, comprising a one-page site showing sales figures and coverlines from the current issue. "Things are happening - watch this space," is all Norman will say. "But pictures on paper are a seductive medium and they always will be."