When Phyllis Hoffman started her first magazine, Just Cross Stitch, in 1983, she knew a lot about needlework, but next to nothing about the magazine business.
“We didn’t even know what direct mail was. We did not know what rate base was,” she says. “We just were having a great time.”
As it turns out, that lack of publishing knowledge may have been a good thing. While her background is in numbers (she is a trained CPA), Hoffman has never focused on the magazine numbers game. Instead, her approach has centered around knowing an audience and bringing an enthusiast’s passion to the business of magazine publishing.
“Our success in publishing is basically, ‘Would I want to read that magazine? Is it applicable to me? Does it benefit my life and where I am today?'” she says. “We don’t bargain-basement our magazine [prices] … because if people love your magazines, they will pay for good editorial.”
Not surprisingly, Hoffman believes years of living by cheap subscriptions—the Publishers Clearing House model—are at the root of the industry’s current problems.
“We are not out to establish a rate base by giving stuff away to sell ads against,” she says. “Our magazine numbers that we deliver to advertisers are real numbers, and they are premium numbers. They are paid, and there is nothing gimmicky about it. So if you buy an ad in one of our publications, your ad goes to readers that have paid for that magazine and are excited about it.”
It’s a philosophy that has guided Hoffman Media through the ups and downs of the business. Phyllis Hoffman also largely credits this philosophy with the success of the company’s four-year-old Cooking With Paula Deen, which has been making news lately as one of a select list of magazines seeing ad-page and revenue growth (up for the first six months of 2009 compared to the same period a year earlier) in the midst of a disastrous year for media properties in general.
The Cooking With Paula Deen story, in fact, reflects much about why the company has been successful. Launched when chef and Savannah restaurateur Deen was an up-and-coming star on the Food Network, the magazine resonated with the publisher’s core demographic of southern women and quickly carved out its own niche in the profitable world of lifestyle/cooking titles. The timing could not have been better; renewed interest in home cooking combined with the ongoing appeal of magazines tied to a personality (a la Martha Stewart) proved to be one of the winningest formulas of the decade.
“[Cooking With] Paula Deen and [Every Day With] Rachael Ray came out two weeks apart,” recalls Hoffman. “That was the weirdest thing I’ve even seen because we thought we had a big surprise, and they thought they did. Of course, both of them are doing extremely well.”
For Hoffman Media, good timing always has been combined with a keen sense of unmet demand. (When it launched, Just Cross Stitch “was the only one of its kind, and it grew like crazy,” Hoffman says.) The company’s early success in stitching—and an exclusive contract with the Walt Disney Company to do a “Disney in Stitches” program at theme parks—caught the attention of PJS Publications, then a division of Veronis Suhler, which bought Hoffman Media in 1993. Being part of a massive corporation meant a shift in strategy, and when plans were afoot to consolidate all of the parent company’s stitching and quilting books in Denver, Hoffman decided, in 1998, to buy her properties back.
“My boys were seniors in high school, and I wasn’t moving to Denver,” she says. “That wasn’t even in the cards.”