WHAT do women readers want? That question, never asked by Sigmund Freud, is puzzling the best minds in magazine publishing these days. With the revival of Ms. magazine this month after a seven-month hiatus, and the announcement that Woman magazine is folding, editors are searching for the mystique of the '90s that will define the boundaries of a still-uncharted territory.
At Ms., those boundaries have been expanded to include a more global focus, summed up in the new subtitle: The World of Women. And at a time when many magazines are losing advertising revenue, Ms. has adopted a no-ads format, hoping instead that up to 100,000 subscribers will pay $30 a year for six issues.
Early response to the revamped magazine, according to editor Robin Morgan, is ``amazing. We sold out on the newsstand within one week of the on-sale date. We are trying to go back to press for another printing. Mail is coming in in bags - thousands of letters.''
``I think women have had it with being manipulated and patronized, with being fed junk food to read instead of something nourishing, with advertising saturation, and with the trivia that fills many women's magazines,'' Ms. Morgan says. ``They're not fools. They leaf through magazines and there's nothing there. When they feel they're getting something for their money, they'll pay, and even pay more.''
The timing may be propitious. According to Samir Husni, head of the magazine program at the University of Mississippi's department of journalism, ``Circulation-driven magazines are the key to the future.''
Last year, he points out, 52 percent of magazine revenues came from circulation and 48 percent from advertising.
Even so, Dr. Husni says, ``Whether the concept of Ms. as a feminist magazine is still a valid concept, with people willing to pay $30 for it, is a question, because almost every magazine on the market is a Ms. You cannot pinpoint any traditional magazine and say, `This is a traditional women's magazine.' Ms. was the candle that lit the light for all the other women's magazines. But it's so hard to rebuild the candle after it melts.''
To that, Morgan responds, ``The candle melted because Ms., to stay afloat, turned into an imitation of its own imitators, with movie star covers, fashion, beauty. What we're doing now is pushing whole new boundaries. We're not rebuilding the same ball of wax.''
Elsewhere, in the crowded field of women's service magazines, efforts to attract readers include redesigns for McCall's, Working Woman, and Woman's Day. The latter was recently taken off the auction block after efforts to find a buyer failed.
But editorial facelifts alone cannot solve more fundamental problems that sometimes keep readers away.
``I think it's an issue of time,'' says Mary McLaughlin, executive editor of Working Mother magazine. ``Women are so overextended. They don't have time to read magazines in the same way they used to. Now they read for information.''
And then there is the issue of money. ``I think the real reason women's magazines are suffering is that the economic conditions are worse than indicators show,'' Ms. McLaughlin says. ``Lots of people are strapped for the $2 for a magazine unless it pertains to their very basic concerns, such as childrearing or business or financial advice.''
Betty Friedan, author of ``The Feminine Mystique,'' sees other challenges facing traditional magazines. Younger women, she says, ``simply don't buy the limited image that is still there - an image that seems to say, `Well, all right, she works, but she really is only interested in the home,' or, `She may be more than 40, but she wants to pretend she's still 25.' It's an inability to grasp the totality of the personhood of women.''
Husni identifies three other challenges facing magazine publishers in the future. The first is specialization.
``We live and die in this country by the specialization of everything,'' he says. ``We have specialized TV networks - for women, kids, music. The same is true in magazines. If a woman is interested only in chocolate candy, there is a magazine for chocolate candy. So why should she buy Good Housekeeping just to get the recipe?
``We can still have some general-interest magazines like Lear's, where you have articles on fashion and cars and money. But unless you are a rich woman over 40, you are not their audience. To have the combination of general interest and general audience, this will be the dinosaur of the industry.''
A second major challenge, Husni says, comes from the number of new magazines launched in the United States each year. Last year, he notes, 584 new magazines appeared, compared to 234 in 1985. Consumer magazines now total 3,100, up from 2,600 in 1985.
``It's a boom industry for new magazines,'' he says. ``How many of them survive is another question. But their mere presence, even for a limited time, affects the established magazines.''
A third test, he believes, will come from higher cover prices and higher subscription prices. ``If people have paid $12 for a subscription, and you change it to $24, that's going to be hard.''
As marketing managers seek to define the ``psychographics'' of readers - their values and life styles - and win a loyal following, Husni sums up the challenge editors face:
``You need to capture the essence of the reader, so the reader will feel, `This is my magazine. I can't get this information anywhere else.' The more you can interact with readers, the better your chances of making it. But unless you can build a personal relationship with them, just forget about it.''