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If it's trivial, magazine is in pursuit

September 01, 2003|Adam Tschorn | Special to The Times

Here's a pop quiz: "mental floss" refers to which of the following:

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(a) an improv comedy troupe from Waterloo, Ontario.

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(b) a Jimmy Buffett tune.

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(c) a bimonthly magazine that promotes good cranial hygiene.

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OK, it's a trick question -- they're actually all correct -- but co-founders Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur are doing everything they can to make mental_floss magazine, and its humorous way of dispensing pop-culture factoids, a familiar name.

"I want it to be the source," Pearson says, "like the Discovery Channel, where people go when they want to learn but want to have fun doing it, where people can feel smart again and enjoy the process."

A sharp-looking glossy, mental_floss comes off like Reader's Digest as penned by "Jeopardy!" writers or Mad magazine meets the "Harper's Index." At an average of 74 pages (about 10 of them paid advertising), a single issue packs enough cocktail party ammo to make even the most intellectually detached person the kind of trivia-spouting maniac not seen since "Cheers" mailman Cliff Clavin.

A recent issue offered an article on "6 Gunshots That Changed the World" followed by a five-page look at the art of Jackson Pollock. Another issue covered "38 Lies Your Mother Told You" (combining Pop Rocks candy and soda can't actually kill you and Van Gogh didn't cut off his entire left ear, only part of the lobe).

It's chock-full of stuff you might not need to know (how a DVD burner works, why the sky is blue) but will make you feel better once you do. After killing all those brain cells in college, mental_floss figures it's time you restock the pond.

If you've never heard of the magazine, you're not alone; the last issue sold only 50,000 copies. (By comparison, even on its deathbed the now-defunct Mademoiselle was selling well over a million copies a month.) But given its humble beginnings, that's more impressive than it sounds.

Mental_floss started out as a newsletter that Pearson and Hattikudur circulated while attending Duke University. Its popularity there made them think it might have life beyond the campus.

"It started selfishly," Pearson says. "We all had varied interests and when we got together we had these discussions about so many different things. We all wanted to know a little bit about everything but didn't have time to get around to it all." Their solution was to recruit specialists who would donate their time to pen two- to three-page articles on things the Duke duo wanted to learn more about. Some of those experts -- a mixture of professors and authors -- still contribute to the magazine, only now they get paid.

To launch the magazine, Pearson and Hattikudur recruited three other students and then set about getting some industry support. They convinced some heavyweights -- including Jerrold Footlick, former senior editor of Newsweek, and Susan Tifft, former editor of Time -- to serve on their editorial advisory board. "We showed them we were willing to do what it took," Pearson said. "And they realized we were filling a real niche."

With $20,000 cobbled from savings and summer jobs, they launched the magazine's premiere issue two years ago and sold about 6,500 issues. They used that issue to shop around for investors.

That's not the way it's usually done, says Samir Husni, a magazine industry analyst and journalism professor at the University of Mississippi (who also serves on mental_floss' advisory board). "Major corporations like Conde Nast launch magazines with a minimum circulation of 750,000." After a few issues, he says, the publisher takes the circulation numbers to potential advertisers.

"The bigger the magazine, the more dependency comes from advertising than circulation, and circulation becomes a mere fact of generating the numbers so you can get the advertising."

The unconventional approach seems to have paid off. The magazine was named one of the top 10 magazines for 2001 by Library Journal; Husni mentioned it as one of the 30 notable launches of the year and, most important, its sell-through rate (the percentage of newsstand copies that sell) on the first issues was 60% to 65% -- double the industry average. Buoyed by these numbers and a couple of investors, Pearson and Hattikudur went to a bimonthly publication schedule after just a year, well ahead of schedule.

Their approach has kept them from hemorrhaging red ink. "What we pay to print the magazine, for images, all the production costs, that's all being paid for by the newsstand sales of the magazine," Pearson says. "And revenue from subscriptions is going straight back into the company."

But they know they may still have a hard road ahead. According to Husni, 60% of all new magazines die within the first year; by the fourth year only 20% remain in business; and after a decade only one magazine in 10 will still be around.

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