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Rhett Redux: 'GWTW' Gets Second Wind

April 21, 1988|JOHN GABREE

The cover story on the May issue of Life magazine self-promotes as cleverly and shamelessly as a used-car dealership. "At Last," shouts a blurb over a still of Clark Gable about to kiss Vivien Leigh. "The Sequel to Gone With the Wind."

Not quite, not yet.

So far, romance writer Alexandra Ripley, chosen by the Margaret Mitchell estate to write the continuation to "GWTW," has completed only two sample chapters. At 22 pages, Ripley's contract is nearly as long as the 39-page outline she used to get the assignment. The sample chapters are the basis for a book auction to be conducted by the William Morris Agency. The auction, which begins next Monday, is expected to fetch as much as $6 million for the hard cover rights alone for the novel, due in 1990.

Life, meanwhile, has purchased first serial rights to the as-yet-unnamed book. According to sources, the magazine paid six-figures for an approximately 10,000-word excerpt from the 1,000-page book, worth it if the preliminary sales figures on the current issue, said to be "phenomenal," hold up. The advertising rate base is 1.7-million copies for the issue and a spokesman said the company expects to do considerably better.

"A lot of magazines contacted us about serial rights," reports Ripley's agent at William Morris, Robert Gottlieb. "But Life pursued us the longest. We always felt that a large-format pictorial announcement, along with a serial sale and an interview, would be the best for us" in promoting the auction, he adds. "And that Life wanted it for the 2,000th issue was also right."

Five pages of the current issue are devoted to a profile of author Ripley and background on the sequel deal. More than half the space is taken up by pictures of the writer and her family on their Charleston, S.C., estate. Fifty-six pages, on the other hand, are consumed by postage stamp-sized reproductions of Life's 2,000 covers (2,001, actually, since the largest copy is of the all-print dummy-cover of its Sept. 24, 1936 rehearsal issue).

The rest of the 180-page periodical's features and articles are predictably comfortable, safe and/or dated: a profile of Yitzhak Shamir the implacable; a shocking disclosure about Hollywood's affection for violence; uplifting essays on efforts to save the Southern bald eagle and work in Soviet factories; and insights into the career struggles of 16-year-old pop star Tiffany; though it was splendid to learn from Brock Brower's profile, "Captain Enigma," that George Bush's nickname during his impressionable years was Poppy: "Poppy is at work," Brower writes, "when Bush talks about getting caught in 'deep doo-doo,' or when he excuses his low vote in a straw poll because his supporters were off at 'coming-out parties.' "

Even the best-stocked newsstand can only find room for some of the more than 2,000 periodicals aimed at the general reader. For the logomaniac searching for a magazine on a favorite subject or the publisher trying to reach a specific audience, the obstacles in the way of distribution can seem insurmountable.

Into the breach has stepped Gregory Stock, a 38-year-old ex-biophysicist turned entrepreneur. Well-known as the author of the enthusiastically promoted publishing novelty, "The Question Book," a superficial but entertaining exploration of ethics and personal values that stayed 25 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, Stock has founded what he dubs "a mail-order newsstand."

The company, called Magazine Discoveries, grew out of a field study Stock conducted while getting his recent MBA from Harvard Business School (although Stock has a doctorate in biophysics from Johns Hopkins and did basic research for several years at UC Irvine, he found academia "too narrow"). "We thought it would be great to be able to sample a lot of different magazines by having a subscription to receive 12 different titles rather than the same one 12 times," he said.

According to Stock's partner, Matthew Garrigue, "we had no idea there were so many high-quality magazines being published on such a variety of subjects. Just about every sport is covered by at least one publication, and there are beautifully produced magazines devoted to all kinds of special interests like ceramics, appreciating wines, military history, dance, bird watching, backpacking and herbs. There's even a magazine called Parabola that's devoted to myth and legend."

"Magazine Discoveries," Stock said, "offers readers the chance to get single copies of a broad variety of special-interest magazines."

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