The boom in sci-tech magazines: Is it going to last?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Discover, Time Inc.'s "newsmagazine of science," ran a full-page ad last month telling potential advertisers that they will get a guaranteed average circulation bonus of 125,000 copies, or a total on average of more than 1 million for each monthly issue through June.

"It's just another miracle of science," the ad copy stated.

Hardly, says C. John Kirby, advertising director of Scientific American. What happened, he explains, is that Discover picked up some of the 350,000 unexpired subscriptions of Technology Illustrated. The Boston-based magazine, catering to laymen interested in technology, went out of business with its November issue.

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It was one of several new science magazines launched a few years back. They have added a great many readers since then. Most of them, however, according to Mr. Kirby, have been scrambling to move out of the red ink without full success yet.

Scientific American, established in 1845 and perhaps the most prestigious of science publications, has remained profitable. But because of the competition and hard economic times, it was hit with a 13 percent drop in ad pages last year (although revenues were about the same because of higher page rates and greater mix of color vs. black-and-white ads). This year, however, promises to be the best in history for Scientific American, Kirby says. Ad pages are up 32 percent for the first quarter.

Most of the new science publications have aimed at a less science-sophisticated audience than Scientific American. Tie brought out Discover; the publisher of Penthouse launched Omni; the American Association for the Advancement of Science tried a popular publication, Science80 (now Science84 ); Hearst Corporation spruced up Science Digest; and Bernard A. Goldhirsh, after success with Inc. Magazine, a magazine for executives of smaller companies, published High Technology and Technolgy Illustrated.

The latter is gone, and Mr. Kirby suspects other popular science magazines will disappear in an industry shakeout.

"They have all been founded on a premise we have never accepted ourselves -- that there is a mass market for science," he says.

But Eileen Koslow, manager of research for Omni, maintains that the circulation of the new science magazines has grown so much that together they exceed the circulation of major business magazines. That, calculation, though, depends on what business magazines are included.

Allen L. Hammond, editor Science84, figures there are already more than 5 million readers of the new general science magazines. And he doesn't include Omni, which he describes as "the leading science fiction and science fantasy magazine" -- a description Omni would dispute. Nor does he count a 16-page, nonprofit weekly, Science News, which was founded in 1922 and has a circulation today of about 160,000.

"I would call that [total science magazine readership] significant," he said. "It says something about the health of the market and the need that there was for science coverage."

Carl Jaeger, publisher of Discover, agrees: "This is a building and burgeoning interest in science and technology. More and more people . . . want to see what it means to their business and personal lives."

Mr. Kirby and Scientific American publisher Gerard Piel tend to look down their noses at some of the younger upstarts in the science magazine business. The ad director talks with a certain disdain for those publications that concentrate on black holes, parapsychology, speculation about extraterrestrail beings, or science fiction.

One sign of trouble at Discover, he says, is this month's cover -- a color phototograph of a naked young couple. It illustrates an article, "The Riddle of Sex," which turns out to be basically scientific and far less titillating than the cover would imply.

Kirby reckons that Omni is making money. "Everyone else is losing his shirt," he said, referring to the new popular science magazines.

Science84's Mr. Hammond denies this, saying that, by his reading of the figures, the magazine is making money. "It depends on how you do the accounting for overhead and those kinds of things." Science News is in the black, says editor Joel Greenberg, although when mailing costs went up recently it had to raise its subscription price to remain there. Sherwood (Woody) Katsoff, advertising director of Science Digest, said he "could't answer the question," noting that Hearst is a private company. And Mr. Jaeger, of Discover, says only, "We are on the publishing track we laid out for the magazine at its outset. The prognosis is a positive one." Discover's ad pages were up to 15.4 percent last year, but have plateaued in the first quarter of this year, he says.

With a relatively high 65 percent renewal rate, Scientific American claims not to have joined the circulation rat race with cut-rate subscriptions and other gimmicks. "There is no sense in us going to the circulation acquisition expense," says Kirby. Scientific American is already part of the scientific establishment. It has been ever since Mr. Piel, with some financial partners, bought it in 1947. "I conceived it to be exactly the magazine it is today," he noted in an interview.

Piel had been science editor of Life magazine, priding himself in getting science stories straight and accurate. In Scientific American, the key articles are writen bu scientists, usually with the editorial assistance of a journalist. This system ensures scientific integrity, he feels.

This magazine aims at an audience of trained scientists or intelligent layment interested in science. The articles are not terribly technical; neither are thry pop science. Piel and Kirby boast of the high incomes and decisionmaking level of the bulk of the magazine's 550,000 domestic subscribers and 110,000 overseas. That circulation is down from a peak of 615,000 domestic subscribers four or five years ago.

Piel admitted that some of the new magazines "have eroded our peripheral audience."

Also, circulation was hit at the end 1982 by a boost in the subscription price from $21 to $24 and in the news-stand price from $2 to $2.50 The magazine offers no special subscription prices or such bonuses as the electronic watches Dicover offers to new subscribers. "We haven't cleaned out any Japanese warehouses," said the sharp-tongued Mr. Kirby. "We only want to keep the people who can read and pay for the magazine." (Scientific American has, however, offered those taking three-year subscriptions a free scientific book.)

When Scientific American had a smaller circulation, it had a lower ad-page cost that enabled many corporate divisions to advertise their services or products. Now, at $22,5000 for a four-color ad page, Kirby and his staff sell mostly corporate "institutional ads or consumer ads for such products as cars, cameras, or computers, trying to reach the magazine's affluent, well-educated subscribers. (Both Scientific American and Science84 decline tobacco ads but accept liquor advertising. The decision to reject tobacco, says Hammond, costs Science84 at least $1 million in annual ad revenues.)

Scientific American bought a textbook publisher, W. H. Freeman & Co. in 1964, which Mr. Piel hopes will "take off again" under new management. The firm offers a reprint service whose sales have dropped from 5 million to 1 million with the spread of copying machines. In October 1982, "Scientific American Library" was started. It now provides some 30,000 subscribers six scientific books a year along the ines of Book-of-the-Month Club.

Mr. Piel's small publisheing conglomerate also turns Scientific American Medicine, a 3,000-page loose-leaf publication on internal medicine, which is updated each month for its 26,000 or so subscribers. it is edited by faculty of the Harvard and Stanford Medical Schools.

Further, Scientific American magazine has not only its English-language foreign circulation of about 110,000, but its reproduced in Italian, Japanese, Spanish, French, German, Chinese, and Russian. Circulation for these ventures (most produced under license) ranges from about 25,000 in China to 110,000 in West Germany. All of these are in the black and contributing to profits, Piel said.

In May Mr. Piel will become president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. he says he's hoping that Science84 will succeed, although it will be competing with his own publication. Says Science84 editor hammond: "There may be a conflict of interest there." Science83 experienced a 12 percent increase in ad pages last year, to 414, plus a husky gain in revenues.

Piel has some doubts about the attainability of a mass audience for a general science magazine. "I have not solved the problem of making science understanable to people not interested in it," he said. But there are, it is now clear, many people interested in science.

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