Helen Gurley Brown

Publish and Perish?

VTR Date: February 11, 1990

Guest: Brown, Helen Gurley


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Helen Gurley Brown
Title: Publish and Perish?
VTR: 2/11/1990

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Now, in the decade since she first joined me here on the Open Mind, whenever today’s guest has graced this table we’ve talked about women; about women in jobs, about women and men, about women and themselves. All of which has been most appropriate because as I once entitled one of our Open Mind ventures together, Helen Gurley Brown is so much, so quintessentially “A Woman for All Seasons,” author, skilled interviewer, thoughtful feminist, good and dear friend, editor of that extraordinarily successful publication for women, Cosmopolitan magazine. Indeed it is about the magazine world, perhaps mostly about the magazines that women read and how they are all faring, that I want to ask Helen Gurley Brown today. In short, in the era of television and in an era of recession, what is happening to the world of print, particularly in its magazine format? Helen, what is happening?

BROWN: We’re alive and well and doing just fine, thank you. It seems that collectively all magazines together are down about 10% in newsstand sales. That’s where your health is, what is selling at the newsstand, because you can collect all the “subs”, subscriptions, you want by just offering them the big cut rate. So collectively we’re down a bit but that is comparable to television and newspapers and movies. Everybody’s down with a few exceptions of people being up from where they were a year ago. But collectively we’re down.

HEFFNER: Now that’s wonderfully euphoric. You smile and you say, “We’re only down 10%, but then everybody’s down.” But that’s bad, bad news isn’t it?

BROWN: No, that isn’t particularly bad news because some magazines including mine, if I may, have been living in an enchanted era. We’ve been selling up into the high percentage points of our print orders.

HEFFNER: But do you expect to continue that?

BROWN: No, I never expected to continue as long as we did. It’s been twenty-five years now, and it’s only been in the last few years that we’ve stopped going straight up every month over the comparable month of the year before. So it doesn’t surprise me that we’ve leveled off. And one can still be enormously profitable even though your sales are not what they were perhaps ten years ago. So I’m telling you the straight truth. You know, you can make up all kinds of figures. Who would know? But these are the audited Bureau of Circulation figures. May I say, however, that everybody is in the same boat. You can’t say, “Oh television is zooming and soaring, and poor old magazines, they’re a back number.” Nor can you say that newspapers have had a resurgence and a heyday, nor movies. Some movies do very well like “Home Alone”, “Dances with Wolves”, but others are not doing so well. So collectively we are ok. We haven’t got to this discussion yet about the future of magazines. But we’re always going to be ok because a magazine has something special for a reader that nothing else can offer.

HEFFNER: Has something special for a reader, but isn’t it true that fewer and fewer people are reading so that one wonders what will be the fate of that something special that you say magazines have?

BROWN: But ever since I’ve been in the magazine business I’ve been hearing that magazines and print, per say, are virtually going to be wiped out any moment now because of the electronic media. Who’s that person in the sixties, Marshall McLuhan, who said the message is the media and we were all supposed to be teeth-chatteringly frightened of his predictions. Nobody was going to read anything anymore. Well it just wasn’t true, and probably never will be true because reading isn’t down to that extent. I bet you don’t have the figures, I don’t, how much people are reading comparable to what they read fifty years ago. But there are, I think it’s 5,000 magazines in print and 500 new ones were started in 1989. So if it was such a rotten business people still wouldn’t be going into it.

HEFFNER: Yeah but Helen look, Marshall McLuhan made his prophesies, you’re right, a number of decades ago. But who is to say that he wasn’t being simply previous. And McLuhan didn’t say it was going to be next year or in the next decade. He said that in the long run the eye, that single Cyclops eye, would be focused only on that screen over there, on that camera over there, and that you people who are reading, you’re not going to be around very much longer.

BROWN: That’s just total nonsense and there are others much more knowledgeable than I who would declare it to be nonsensical, that pronouncement, because we have the Rupert Murdochs who bought Triangle Publications for 3 billion dollars in order to get TV Guide and the Racing Form, Seventeen Magazine. Time was absorbed by Warner, or the other way around, they merged because Warner communications wanted the Time empire, which includes HBO of course but Time, and People, and Money Magazine, Fortune are their big moneymakers. And my own company starts new magazines, and Conde Nast starts new magazines. So they must know something, they’re not starting them to lose money. All the Europeans, the English, the French, the Italians, the Germans, pouring money into magazines in this country; Elle magazine has been imported from France, Marie Claire. It’s still a viable business. Those people are not crazy. They do it not because they want to continue the magazine empire, but because they make money doing that.

HEFFNER: OK, everything is fine. That’s what you started off saying. We’re still alive and well and the news of our demise is certainly premature. OK. Anything wrong though with what’s happening from the point of view from an editor? Anything wrong in terms of what you want you want to continue to have to be Cosmo’s success in terms of the dynamics of our living today? Are women somewhat less interested in what you’ve given them? Do you need to change to meet new times?

BROWN: I get up early in the morning to figure out what needs to be changed so that I don’t get to be a back number vis-à-vis my particular magazine. But I’ve just told you that magazines are such a tremendous viable proposition that people are starting them at an unprecedented rate. And the problem if there is one, and there is one, is that there are just too many magazines for too few people and too few dollars. We are competing with other media, with movies, with movies that you see at home, with television, with cable television, with newspapers, with every other form of entertainment and learning, with books as it were. Therefore something’s got to give and what’s giving is that some magazines are going out of business, but the rest of us are going to be in it for the long haul.

HEFFNER: Ok, so the fittest will survive. That’s what you’re saying.

BROWN: Mmhm.

HEFFNER: Now what are the characteristics of the fittest in your estimation?

BROWN: I would put it the other way around. The ones that are selling well are obviously the fittest. A magazine format and success is a very mysterious thing, like a movie. Why is it so wonderful when it works? It’s about ninety-five different things. There is no one element that makes the success.

HEFFNER: We don’t know.

BROWN: We don’t know. So a magazine to be successful probably has a pretty good format. It’s something that easily is recognized by the person reading it which makes the reader bond to the magazine. What’s…

HEFFNER: But Helen, I’m sorry, when you get up early in the morning to think how you’re going to remain those giant steps ahead of the others you’re thinking about something, you’re thinking you’re going to try this, you’re going to do that, you’re going to accentuate this and eliminate that; what are the things that you are going to accentuate?

BROWN: First I start with a format for Cosmo which will probably never change. It’s a magazine for a woman who loves men and she loves children, she’s traditional in many ways but she wants to get her identity from something that she does, she wants to achieve on her own. And there were a few of those women when I began; there are now millions and millions of them. That’s such a fine format that I can’t see messing with that. Aside from that, the mix in my particular magazine, there are about eight major component parts so I might study those, see if I want to eliminate any of them. But basically Cosmo is a magazine that helps women with their personal problems. It helps them get through the night I’m fond of saying. And if I start messing with that format too much I’m going to wind up with somebody else’s magazine. It’s not going to be Cosmo anymore. So you just fine tune. I’ve done a lot of that through the years, but you don’t throw out the baby. You keep your eye on what you are, what you have been, what you mean to people, and then you just do a little tinkering.

HEFFNER: Now do you think that what keeps women happy during the night is changing in any way? Has it changed in the last decade? Does it seem to you to be changing now?

BROWN: As an editor who is trying to tune into the innermost thoughts of young women you obviously are looking and watching and studying and reading and observing every moment that you’re awake. But women don’t change that much. You track the lifestyle of many different women of course, but the things that we all worry about usually start with a man/woman relationship, if I may. Your work relationships are also very important. But what’s changed with men and women? Certain conditions perhaps, more women are working. I’m being a little vague about this because the basic component parts just don’t change. You know that marriage is in, important, happy, so you do some stuff on weddings. If people are living together instead of getting married, you track that. But the basic man/woman relationship is – it’s almost primordial. Men and women are never going to get along, I don’t think, as long as that’s the situation. (Laughs)

HEFFNER: That’s what you’re capitalizing on? That they’re never going to get along?

BROWN: What I’m capitalizing on is that the man/woman relationship is the most dynamic, dramatic, exciting, exquisite, infuriating, maddening, delicious condition that will ever be. And as long as it remains that, and I think it always will, then my magazine is going to be a viable property out there in the marketplace. Now, to not be so personal and subjective, lots of other women’s magazines got onto that idea in the last few years. I used to have sex all to myself, I’m fond of saying, and now I’ve got to share it with all these other traditional women’s magazines who finally woke up and realized that that was a pretty good thing to write about. So the competition for me at Cosmo is to be fresh and different and unusual when I’m competing against magazines who are now printing things that they never printed before. But I’ll manage. And how do you do that? Partly of course from tracking trends; we know about everybody being too busy these days. A woman, instead of relinquishing housework which she would have been happy to do, she’s now doing the housework and the job and the social life and taking care of her mother and going to the gym. We know everybody is too busy but you can only do a certain number of articles about being too busy. So I’m back to the basics which are jealousy, rage, envy, insecurity, sloth…

HEFFNER: All the good things about life.

BROWN: (Laughs) All the good things that really don’t change. And it’s just up to me to present them in a new and interesting way. There are a few breakthroughs every so often. We thought Prozac might do something for depression. It doesn’t seem to be the answer but I’m tracking things like that.

HEFFNER: Now what happens, and Michelle Mazur, the associate producer of this program, asked me to ask a question – something like this but I’m going to go off the track a little bit…

BROWN: It’s probably going to be a rotten question. Every time you say somebody asked me to ask you this it turns out to be something you haven’t got the guts to. (Laughs)

HEFFNER: Why Helen, Helen, Helen, you know I’m going to.

BROWN: Anyway, please go ahead.

HEFFNER: What’s going to happen to the way you track things when we have our first woman President of the United States? What’s going to happen to what women think about themselves as it will be impacted upon by that woman in the White House?

BROWN: Nothing’s going to change. First, it won’t happen during my lifetime, or at least it won’t be until the early twenty-first century so I don’t have to worry about it immediately. I’m sure of that, empirically sure. When it happens, it won’t make any more impact than it did having Margaret Thatcher as the Prime Minister of Great Britain because the woman who will be in the White House will be so confident and so fabulous and so non-sexual, so not leaning on her femininity. People have always said, “When you get a woman in the White House we won’t have any more wars and everything will be all sorted out. We won’t have any hostility. All the nations will get along with each other.” That’s just nonsense. A woman in the White House is going to have all the problems of a man. She’s going to be there because she’s smart and cutting edge. It’s not going to change my life if I should happen to be here, nor the life of the Cosmo reader. She’s going to be a very confident woman. Did anything happen when Sandra Day O’Connor joined the Supreme Court? No, it just got more conservative. A lot of good she did my cause. So, don’t bother me with women Presidents.

HEFFNER: Everything is turning up roses, in other words. You began the program by saying, you know, we’re alive and well. You’ve got the formula down right. You are the fittest and so you have survived. And I have to ask you then who’s going to fall off in this struggle for existence, which of the magazines, not just the women’s magazines, which of the other publications in your estimation that will fall by the wayside?

BROWN: I can’t say specifically which ones will, just the ones that aren’t strong and healthy. There have been several who’ve gone toes-up already; a magazine called Seven Days, one called Taxi, Manhattan Inc. Conde Nast killed a big publication they were just beginning called Woman. May I just say that I don’t mean to be blue sky or Pollyanna because I get up every morning worried and go to bed the same way. I have a few hours of rest but… Because as I said Cosmo sales have been up in the nineties and eighties for years; we’re down in the sixties and seventies now. Of course I worry. I’m not fat-headed or fatuous, but we survivors will survive. A big challenge is not so much the product but it’s the advertiser because you only live by paying your bills and bills are paid by the advertising that comes in and you really would have to be fat-headed not to pay any attention. There was a time millenniums ago when editors and advertising salesmen did not fraternize. They were not even allowed on the same floor in some offices. Well now “mother” goes out and sells advertising once a week on Thursday. I’ve done that for years. We give a luncheon. I talk to advertisers, the client, or the agency. So the challenge is to get those advertising bucks into your magazine and it’s tough. That’s the challenge among other challenges. But who’s going to fall are the magazines that don’t have a cutting edge, the ones which are not founded…

HEFFNER: What do you mean cutting edge?

BROWN: Well they could not be doing the things that you’ve been fishing for which is to keep track of your constituency. They would be the ones who are a little careless. Or maybe, maybe there are just too many. Maybe there are just too many fan magazines, too many magazines dealing with celebrities. Time, Inc. is plowing billions into Entertainment Weekly. It isn’t in the black yet. Will it go? We don’t really know yet, do we? That might be one of the ones that doesn’t survive. There are so-called “Seven Sisters” if I may reel them off; Family Circle, Woman’s Day, Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Better Homes and Gardens. Cosmo does not compete with any of those. People keep predicting that one of the old “Seven Sisters” is going to go toes-up one of these days but I don’t think so. You just have to keep your writing good, and your research terrific, and your photography exciting, and your message…

HEFFNER: That’s all, huh?

BROWN: Well, you really hustle. And who does those things? It’s not the editor-in-chief; it’s the people who you surround yourself with who have to be fabulous. If I may use one example, Vanity Fair is doing pretty well. Its sales are going up. Everybody is talks about Vanity Fair as if it were a miracle of some kind. Well they only sell seven hundred and fifty thousand copies as opposed to Family Circle which sells five and a half million. So Vanity Fair, however, is a lush little product even though it has a small circulation. About 80% of it is subscription, not at the newsstand. Newsstand is where there health is. But Vanity Fair is not the brainchild of one woman, Tina Brown, but it’s the extenuation of somebody else’s brainchild. She just does it good, that’s all. But does she spend money, gee! She will spend fortunes to keep people on, what do you call it, a retainer. And then when they write I don’t know how many thousands of dollars they get per article. So she’s got everybody signed up from Nancy Collins to Norman Mailer to Jesse Kornbluth to James Kaplan, you name it, because she is A) brilliant, she’s a wonderful editor; but she is spending money that hasn’t even been invented – well, it has been invented, Conde Nast has plenty of money. I’m just saying you give the editor credit. You must. There’s always one person at the head of the company with the ideas. Then you surround yourself with smart people. Then in Tina’s case she spends like a drunken sailor, but that’s ok. But she doesn’t have a very big circulation yet. So I give her total credit for being brilliant. But the ones like Ladies’ Home Journal which are trying to support a five million circulation, and Good Housekeeping which is doing just fine; they’re the ones who have to get up and hustle.

HEFFNER: Helen, if we go back to the generalizations you made to start with, the reason why we’re all down 10%; because we’re in a recession. Ok. What do your advisors suggest about that recession and how long you’re going to have to deal with that phenomenon?

BROWN: My advisors…

HEFFNER: That’s David Brown.

BROWN: (Laughs) Right, of course, but he would accede to the Hearst Corp whom I work for. And those advisors say, “Kiddo, keep your costs down. Don’t get fancy. Don’t expand. Don’t try to increase your pages. Don’t spend a whole lot of extra money on a special issue if you don’t have to.” They just say be conservative. But they don’t have any trouble with me because I’m as stingy as hell anyway and I’ve never had any trouble. I don’t think you get a great deal more by spending tons more money. They advise, however, spending money when you need to. They’re not cheap. So what do we…

HEFFNER: You’re giving that advice. I can tell just by looking at you, Helen, you’re giving that advice to anybody who happens to be watching who also is an advertiser. Because the question I really need to ask you is if the wisdom that you reflect here be conservative, if it is spread widely in the business community, in the corporate community, doesn’t that mean that things of necessity have to start grinding, have to continue to grind slower and slower and slower down.

BROWN: No, you are the voice of doom today.

HEFFNER: Of course I am. I always am.

BROWN: It isn’t necessary because all an advertiser cares about is whether your magazine sells. You deliver him a certain number of thousand people as so much per thousand. It’s a good buy. He doesn’t even particularly care what’s in the magazine as long as it’s compatible with what he is selling. He’s got nothing to do with your editorial package. But if you’re delivering the customers to him, and he likes the looks of the magazine, he will go along with that.
So what is incumbent upon you to do is to keep the customers coming to the newsstand and buying the magazine or subscribing. How do you do that? It’s by having a good product and keeping it fresh and frisky and alive and changing. And how do you do that? I change through the years. We used to have ten page articles. They’re now down to eight, down to six; I don’t have anything longer than four pages because people’s attention span is shorter. So that’s a major change. I’ve cut down on fiction. We used to have two short stories and a complete novel. We now have a complete novel every other month and one short story. I’ve tried to track what’s going on, of course, with young Cosmo women. What do they want? Oh Lord, they still want to get married. But they may be the ones who are not committing because they know that domesticity and motherhood won’t interfere with a man’s career, it may interfere with their career. So they may be the ones who aren’t making a commitment. All those things I’m keeping track of and trying to be on the cutting edge and what means something to her.

HEFFNER: We only have a few minutes left and I’m torn between asking you whether when you talk about delivering the readers whether you’re not talking about delivering the readers who are going to buy the advertiser’s product. And isn’t that the key thing? And if we’re living in a recession period now, they may read Helen Gurley Brown’s product but will they buy his or her, your advertiser’s product?

BROWN: Yes, yes, yes, because if they are paying two dollars and fifty cents to buy a magazine, that’s not nothing. It used to be thirty-five cents, then it was a buck. Two-fifty. If they’re plunking down the money to buy a magazine, they’re also plunking down the money to buy the perfume, the gloss, the eyeliner, the camera, the car, the liquor, the cigarettes that you’re advertising inside those pages. If you can get the reader, the reader will buy whatever is being advertised I guarantee.

HEFFNER: Do you know this is a Monday in which we are taping this show? This isn’t Thursday when you go out, as you said, ‘mother’ joins the group and sells the advertisers. It’s a great statement. And I tend to have to believe you because I always have to believe you Helen Gurley Brown. But I have a suspicion that the recession that we are in to now may not lead them not only to plunk down two-fifty for the magazine, but to plunk down the fifteen dollars for this or that, or the twenty dollars for something else.

BROWN: You know there’s only a what – 6% unemployment rate in this country. The rest of the people are still working and still have an income. Everybody is just being a little more conservative and maybe buying one magazine instead of three or two magazines instead of seven, just a little more conservative. But the winners are going to keep winning. And I haven’t gotten to say enough about what the printed word means to people. You can put the entire content of 60 Minutes into about two columns of the New York Times. They’re both viable. They’re both terrific. But one is not going to wipe out the other ever.

HEFFNER: And I wasn’t pretending that it would. But now we have a minute and a half left. Let me ask you about the business about fiction. Why do you now have one novel every other month and one short story? What’s happened do you think?

BROWN: I do a little surveying and my surveying indicated that people are not reading fiction, or not reading short stories and fiction in magazines as much as they did. Why is that? Maybe it’s because of all the many series that they get on television. Whatever it is, I’m going with that. I don’t know why they aren’t. I only know that they aren’t. They apparently find real life much more exciting than reading characterizations that are made up.

HEFFNER: And you are giving them real life.

BROWN: I’ll say.

HEFFNER: You know that is not to be dismissed. That’s a phenomenon, an observation about what’s happening in our lives that I hope you’re not just, not just exploiting and then shoving under the rug.

BROWN: We haven’t talked about books and book sales. Because that’s another form of reading, and the Danielle Steels and the Judith Krantzs are doing just fine and they always will. People will go for romantic fiction but it doesn’t seem to be having its place in a magazine as much as it used to. So that’s just one of the things we’re not doing anymore.

HEFFNER: In one place I read recently, and then your comment on that, is that we’re too concerned about what’s going on around the world to be able to even lose ourselves in fiction. Do you think that makes sense?

BROWN: I don’t think young women have to fantasize and read romantic fiction as much as they did perhaps in the twenties, thirties, and even fifties. They’re living it. They’re having pretty exciting lives already. They want to read about themselves and that’s what I try to deliver.

HEFFNER: Helen Gurley Brown, what a wonderful way to end the program. Thank you so much for joining me today.

BROWN: I’d just love to thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s guest, today’s topic, please write The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.