Felix Dennis: 'Sacking editors is healthy'

He was the hippie editor of the underground Oz magazine - now, Felix Dennis is a multimillionaire with a magazine empire ­ and ruthless with it, he tells Darius Sanai
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The Independent Online

Felix Dennis is leaning back in an armchair in his living-room, puffing on a Silk Cut. In a crisp, white cufflinked shirt and grey tie, he looks vaguely regal, backed by gold and crimson silk curtains and surrounded by Chinese antiques. He has just launched Tree News magazine on behalf of the Tree Council, and the thought of the former underground publisher and current owner of the lads' mag Maxim "bringing people and trees together" is a little bizarre.

Dennis says he is a long-declared arboreophile, and says he has invested a six-figure sum in the glossy magazine, which includes features such as "The World of Trees", "Onetree Exhibition" and a news section entitled "Bark!". Contributors include Dennis and Jon Snow, the Channel 4 news anchor.

The magazine, formerly a specialist Tree Council newsletter "which was too academic for most people to understand", would have closed down had he not relaunched it. Is it an act of charity? "It doesn't make me feel like a particularly wonderful human being, because all I'm doing is writing a cheque," he says. "That's what my life's like: I have ideas and I write cheques. Ha ha ha ha ha!" Dennis laughs copiously at the things he says.

He says his initial projections of 3,000 newsstand sales and 10,000 subscriptions, in addition to the 10,000 copies sent out to the Tree Council mailing list, might be pessimistic. "I'm a bit surprised by the reaction, frankly. There has been an outpouring of mail and telephone calls."

Dennis is an arresting-looking figure, slightly gnomic and of considerable girth, with a striking silver beard. We meet in his residence in Soho, central London, which combines his personal offices on the second floor with his flat above.

In the past 30 years, Dennis has gone from being a hippie editor to one of Britain's 100 richest people, with an estimated fortune of £475m. He gained fame when, in 1971, he was briefly jailed under obscenity laws as the editor of an underground magazine called Oz; the trial was seen as a symbol of establishment intolerance of the youthful dissent of the era.

Dennis Publishing now produces 16 magazines out of its twin headquarters in London and New York, including the highly successful Maxim, Computer Shopper, Auto Express and The Week, the well-regarded weekly newspaper digest. Most of his money has come not from publishing but from a successful investment in Micro Warehouse, an overnight-delivery electronics mail-order retailer in the United States.

"It came out of the fact that I published computer magazines in America in the Eighties," Dennis says. "It struck me that my advertisers were making a lot more money than I was. I thought, we're smarter than them! So we launched [an electronics retailer] of our own." Dennis was a director and major investor; when he and his two partners sold out less than two years ago, they made hundreds of millions of pounds between them.

Dennis is not shy of expressing his opinions. It's healthy to sack editors, he says, "and treat them incredibly nicely afterwards. There are two ways of keeping a magazine like Maxim fresh. One is to keep firing editors every other year, something I haven't been shy of doing in America. And another way is that editors constantly invigorate themselves by bringing in young men and women."

He is also constantly acquiring and selling titles: he recently sold three specialist magazines and acquired or launched four more, including an American The Week and Blender, a US music magazine. "I always sell magazines as I go along, because I'm not interested in Dennis Publishing becoming a dynasty or a conglomerate," he says. "In any case, I have a lifestyle to support! So it's very simple, I sell my children from time to time."

Does he sell when the magazines are becoming unprofitable? "No, you couldn't get away with that. But if for example you're focusing on subscriptions there are certain magazines that lend themselves to that and others that don't." Dennis has long been an advocate of concentrating on subscription sales, as newsstand distribution becomes ever more difficult and expensive.

Despite his company's success in the States, in contrast to the travails of companies like Emap, Dennis says he is feeling pessimistic about the future of the magazine industry. "I have lived through the glorious summer of the magazine industry, from the end of the Second World War right up until about four or five years ago," he says.

"It has been wonderful, and now there are well-produced magazines about almost every conceivable subject in the world. But, well, the summer's over. It's autumn."

Dennis identifies "The Four Horsemen" of the magazine industry: the emergence of sophisticated digital media; environmental disapproval of the use of trees for paper; growing functional illiteracy among the younger generation in many markets (including the UK); and the increasing cost of launching, publishing and distributing magazines. He thinks that many publishers are "in denial" about the long-term effects of these developments.

I wonder what Dennis's epitaph will be. He was something of a folk hero three decades ago; he's rich now, and eccentric, but his publishing empire is hardly one to stir the soul. A lads' mag; a recycled news review; and specialist computer, car and tree magazines. There is little or nothing in the way of original writing. I suggest he hasn't created anything that will live on as a proud legacy.

"Would you like to give me an example outside my own company that you would describe as that?" he asks, curtly. How about Wallpaper*, GQ, Esquire, The New Yorker, The Spectator? "I don't want to sit here slagging off my rivals; there are plenty of brilliant magazines around. But Maxim will live as long as Esquire."

Doesn't Maxim just sell women? "If you think Maxim sells women then you haven't read it," he snaps. "Maxim is selling attitude, not women. That's lazy questioning. If you counted the number of pages of women in Maxim and count the number of total editorial pages, you'd know the former was dwarfed by the latter. Dwarfed!"

Afterwards, I count: not including the "Free Swimsuit Mag" (23 out of 24 pages with young women in swimsuits; no editorial) and A2-sized card with 50 bikini-girl images on which it is mounted, Maxim has approximately 63 editorial pages with women in states of undress, compared with 70 without. There is a picture-feature on lesbian groping, and there is plenty of attitude, too. I think we are both right.

As I am leaving, Dennis, chortling again, roots around in a drawer and pulls out a sheet showing Maxim's sales across the world, in 14 countries. They are very impressive ­ Maxim is the biggest selling lads' mag in the US, Germany, Holland and Italy. I remember something else he said about Tree News: "My mother thinks it's the first reasonable magazine I've ever published! Ha ha ha ha ha!"