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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS | THE BUSINESS BEAT

Publisher Tries to Read Car Enthusiasts

May 16, 2000|TONY LYSTRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's a scene right out of the 1950s. A kid wants to rebuild the old car he bought for a steal--make it a head-turner, a girl magnet. So he heads down to the local newsstand to pick up a magazine with tips on how to get the job done.

A Camarillo-based company is keeping that traditional vision of Americana alive. Only now, the cars are older and so are the "kids."

Buckaroo Communications launched two car magazines last month--the kind hot-rod enthusiasts splay across oil-specked garage floors while they rebuild an old Dodge Challenger.

The company's first two magazines, Super Rod and Street Rod Builder, are targeted at readers who spend nights after work reincarnating old Chevys and Fords into rumbling, sparkling masterpieces. Super Rod's premiere issue features stories about custom chrome wheels, a 1957 Thunderbird and a how-to article called "Big Brakes for a Bad Rod," which includes scores of gritty step-by-step photos.

"It's a real throwback to the '50s and '60s when a bunch of guys would get together for a weekend and work on a car," said Super Rod Senior Editor Gerry Burger. "There's [still] a lot of that going on."

The company, founded last year, is staffed by publishing veterans and car fanatics who believe the automotive-magazine market is thriving. Yet nearly half of the magazines that start up each year don't survive, say industry experts. The market is saturated with new magazines, and only the strongest ideas live beyond 12 issues.

John Dianna, a 30-year industry veteran who started Buckaroo last year, agrees that his new company is a risky venture. "The success rate of magazines is not good," he says. But executives believe there are enough grease monkeys out there to support the company's venture.

Before founding Buckaroo, Dianna, a Camarillo resident, headed up Petersen Publishing's automotive division, which churns out roughly 30 magazines each month including the industry mainstay, Hot Rod.

After more than 30 years with the Los Angeles-based publishing giant, Dianna left in September to launch Super Rod, a direct competitor to Hot Rod. And although he won't disclose exactly how much money he has invested, he says he has poured "millions" into the new, privately owned publishing house.

Buckaroo executives say Dianna's bet is paying off. Subscriptions are rolling in far more rapidly and in larger number than expected.

Often fickle distributors are pleased with Buckaroo's first two monthly, nationally distributed magazines. And the company has grown in the past six months from three employees to more than 20.

"The company is far from repaying its initial investment," Dianna said. "But it is way beyond our financial forecasts of where we thought we would be."

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Nonetheless, the small publishing house faces daunting obstacles.

The magazine industry is flooded with nearly 5,000 consumer titles. More than 1,000 new magazines start up each year, and many of them don't last more than 12 issues, said Michael Pashby, executive vice president of consumer marketing for the New York-based Magazine Publishers of America. In fact, many don't survive beyond their first issue.

Pashby attributes the dismal success rate to publishers' failure to recoup their initial investment quickly enough. "They can't get the advertising base in time," he said. "You're spending your money before you get anything back. You're investing on the strength of your idea."

There are other obstacles. Some magazine distributors control the industry with near-czarist tactics, making it difficult for outsiders to get their titles onto the newsstands.

"It's a monster task," Burger said. "If a major publishing house said they were going to launch three or four titles in a year, it would be a major undertaking. When you do it from scratch, it's a huge undertaking."

But the company's staff, many of whom forged their careers at publishing giants like Petersen, say their combined experience in the magazine industry will ensure Buckaroo's survival.

The company plans to land at least four more automotive and boating titles on newsstands by year's end.

Meanwhile, the company's debut magazines are faring well. Street Rod Builder and Super Rod magazines are expected to garner 25,000 subscribers each by year's end.

That figure is small by large publishing house standards, but it is far beyond circulation director Mark Janusz's expectations. Dianna said the magazines' subscriptions currently number more than 2,500 each.

A small subscriber base is key to Buckaroo's strategy.

While other car magazines are dropping their subscription rates and attracting as many as 500,000 subscribers, Buckaroo is charging $28.99 for a year's subscription, in some cases three times what its competitors charge.

The reason, Dianna said, is that Buckaroo's competitors, such as Hot Rod and Rod & Custom, must broaden their editorial content to please advertisers.

Buckaroo's strategy is to target a specific audience of car enthusiasts, people who need to know how to rebuild the brake system on a 1949 Oldsmobile or simply want to read about a writer's effort to rapidly revive a 1957 Ford Station Wagon, he said.

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Fred Abbaszadeh, whose family owns Tapo Newsstand in Simi Valley, said the store has sold three or four issues of Super Rod, a good number for a premiere magazine. Simi Valley is full of car enthusiasts who constantly cruise the store looking for new automotive titles, he said.

By the time readers know it exists, he said, it will sell far more.

"I think it'll be here for a long time," Abbaszadeh said.

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