Men on a monthly cycle

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The Independent Online
The bimonthly Arena had no rivals in 1986. Ten years on it had to raise the tempo, says the magazine's group editor Dylan Jones

In magazine publishing, some things just won't work. A men's general-interest magazine won't work, nor a sports magazine, nor a music magazine for the over-40s. Well, Arena proved once and for all that you can sell magazines to men; Total Sport proved that football and topless darts do mix; Mojo convinced 50,000 men that they were still interested in Jethro Tull.

The other big myth about magazine publishing is that you can't increase frequency without losing circulation, something which Arena has attempted this year.

When Arena launched in 1986, it caused a huge media stir, not only because it was the first general-interest magazine to be launched in the UK since the demise of Michael Heseltine's Town in the Sixties, but because it was also launched at a time when any men's magazine that didn't rely on pornography was considered commercial suicide. But Nick Logan, the publishing wizard who had conquered the youth market with the NME, Smash Hits and The Face, proved everybody wrong. After six months, his brainchild was selling more than 50,000 copies. Launched on a wing and a prayer, it gained a circulation of more than 65,000 in its first year, proving that the Bermuda triangle of British publishing was nothing more than a myth.

But at launch, the magazine was only published six times a year. Ten years ago, Arena was largely produced by the team that put together The Face, so its frequency was determined not so much by market forces but by how many hours were in a day. The magazine gradually developed its own staff, its own separate production system and ad team, but until the end of last year it was still published six times a year.

There are many problems with being bimonthly: loss of reader loyalty, irregular advertising commitment, staggered distribution. But one of the biggest headaches is the problem of net-sale figures - not knowing what your first issue has sold until you are halfway through production on your third. You can "guesstimate" and project, but until all the returns come in you are publishing in the dark. Also, newsagents are reluctant to stock magazines that only come out six times a year, as it is easier to guarantee space for a publication that comes out monthly, or preferably weekly.

"The biggest problem with increasing frequency is the expectations of publishers," says Lynn Doughty, the publisher services director of Comag, one of the largest magazine distributors in Britain. "They always expect you to sell more magazines than before, and in the long term this tends to be the case. But it doesn't happen in the short term, as you're putting a magazine on the shelves for half the length of time and expecting to sell as many as you used to. Even though a magazine does not sell evenly throughout its on-sale period, the final four weeks do account for some sale. So magazines will take a dip."

British GQ launched as a bimonthly in 1988, two years after Arena, and increased frequency in 1990. The first few issues apparently took a percentage dip, but they were able to post an improved circulation figure six months later. "In some ways, I don't think the business takes you that seriously until you're monthly," says GQ's publishing director, Peter Stuart.

The bimonthly frequency of Arena was a determining factor in the magazine's success, however, as the lengthy gestation periods between issues enabled the small production team to put together a magazine with such high levels of editorial - words, pictures and graphics - that it shamed most monthly glossies. It won praise and awards, not because it was out-selling Vogue, but because it offered such high production values.

But times have changed. Although Arena was the first men's magazine to launch in the UK, it certainly wasn't the last. There are currently six serious players vying for shelf space, readers and advertising. Admittedly, a lot of the newcomers appeal to the lowest common denominator, but they are competitors all the same.

Arena has had to adjust to an ever-expanding market, with an increased frequency being at the top of the agenda. The magazine has now been monthly for six months, and there have been many changes in that time. There has been an increase in staff and editorial budgets, the editorial net has been cast wider, and the team as a whole is far more active in terms of publicity. Wagadon, the company that produces Arena, The Face and Arena Homme Plus (60 per cent of which is owned by Nick Logan, 40 per cent by Conde Nast), now functions like a proper grown-up machine, a slick, well- oiled magazine production house.

The changeover has been hard at times, what with changing internal logistics and an editorial mindset that has been used to perhaps more contemplative studies of popular culture. There was a time when Arena could wait for the mountain to come to it, but in today's climate it has had to go out and climb it every month. We have had to put pressure on advertisers to increase the number of pages they place with us, gee up journalists to file twice as often, and mop the collective brow of our overworked production team. We have had to persuade the newstrade that Arena can fight convincingly against rivals, asking newsagents to display it regularly, increase its shelf space, and offer promotional inducements. We are being more active in terms of promotions: recent issues have been helped by an Alfa Romeo day at Victoria Station, a readers' evening at Harvey Nichols, a shopping event at Liberty, a party for Newcastle's David Ginola with fashion designer Nino Cerruti, a Paul Smith promotion with the England football squad, a poster campaign, cross-promotional books to advertise the magazine's 10th anniversary in October, in-store supplements, radio and TV coverage and reader offers. In effect, a lot of bloody hard work.

The fight for stories seems to get worse, too. Not only are there half- a-dozen reputable men's magazines, but there is also the monthly music press, football magazines, the style press (The Face, Sky, i-D), and the increased threat of the broadsheet supplements. In days of yore, you could sit on a story until you felt it was right, but these days you have to get it published as fast as you can, because you know that the Sunday Times Magazine or the Weekend Guardian are right behind you.

As for sales, Peter Howarth, Arena's editor, has exceeded all expectations, and is actually putting circulation on, which means that the title's next ABC figure will be even higher than the previous figure - his second issue sold more than 100,000 copies. He has also managed to achieve this hike in circulation without lowering the standard of editorial. "The conversion of Arena to a monthly title was a long time in the planning stages," says Lynn Doughty, "and the whole thing was extremely well thought through while lessons were learnt from previous examples so expectations were not inflated."

Doughty is usually right in these matters; usually, but not always. "The biggest faux pas I've ever made happened some time ago when [the publisher] John Brown asked me whether or not I thought it was a good idea to launch Gardens Illustrated as a bimonthly," she says. "I rather smugly told him that no magazine would ever really succeed as a bimonthly. He paused for a second before saying, `What, like Viz?' "

At the time, John Brown's bawdy comic was selling more than a million copies. Every two months.