Memo Pad: The Mental Floss Case Study... Fights Back...

Maxim founder Felix Dennis has installed a former Playboy editorial director, Jim Kaminsky, at Mental Floss. His mission: to elevate the title and add readers.

BUILDING A LOYAL FOLLOWING: If magazines are supposed to be cool, Mental Floss doesn’t stand a chance. It’s a magazine about trivia with cover lines like “Did wallpaper kill Napoleon?”

But the title, which was purchased by Maxim founder Felix Dennis last spring, is a great case study for the magazine business as a whole: it has a small loyal circulation; book and merchandise revenue that has kept it profitable for most of its life; no dependence on advertising revenue, and a Web site. And, earlier this month, Dennis, the evil genius of magazine publishing with a keen eye for growth opportunities, installed a former Playboy editorial director, Jim Kaminsky, to elevate the title and add readers.

“I first saw it while I was at Playboy, probably around 2004. I just happened to cross an issue,” said Kaminsky about the magazine. “I sort of got it right away. I thought then and I think now, it’s just one of these conceptually pure magazines,” a class that in his book includes InStyle, Real Simple, Maxim and Bonnie Fuller’s version of Us Weekly. “The idea of this magazine as much as anything else is the idea of social ammunition,” Kaminsky explained. “You can go to any party, any gathering, hang out with any people and you’ll have something to say. It is a matter of feeling smarter.”

Kaminsky is exactly the opposite of the magazine’s amateur founders. After Playboy didn’t work out, he defected to Wenner Media, where he held top spots at Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal. Earlier in his career, he ran Maxim twice, once before and once after Dennis unloaded the title. “I love magazines in a nerdish way,” said Kaminsky, 50, who looks the part of former Playboy editor with a hint of bushy sideburn and a shirt unbuttoned to show chest hair. He also happens to be Mel Brooks’ first cousin, once removed.

He said his mandate at Mental Floss was “instead of propping up a magazine — which I’ve done for a long time — [to] build a magazine.”

“I think there’s something about the brand that communicates that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s not stuffy,” said Mental Floss co-founder Will Pearson over the phone last week from Alabama, where he lives part time. Pearson, a history major at Duke, teamed up 10 years ago with his college hall mate, Mangesh Hattikudur, an anthropology major. They had $5,000 in collected savings, and, the following year, they took a low six-figure investment from Toby Maloney, a former pharmaceutical executive with ties to Hattikudur’s high school. Maloney and his wife, Melanie, are both still involved with the title, though Dennis is now the sole owner, after buying the title for “mid-seven figures, with a nice chance for these guys to share in the success,” according to Steven Kotok, the president of The Week and chief executive officer of Mental Floss.

Pearson and Hattikudur are also still involved with the title as president and chief creative officer, respectively. Together with Kotok, the various business minds are evaluating the decision to increase frequency from six times a year and raise the newsstand price from $4.99 over time. Kotok said there aren’t yet specific goals for the title going forward, but he thinks doubling the title’s circulation in the coming years is realistic. The magazine isn’t registered with the Audit Bureau of Circulation but claims circulation of 100,000. To help with that growth, Dennis has hired veterans Leslie Guarnieri and Angus Macaulay as circulation and publisher, respectively.

Whether there are more than 100,000 people who want to read a trivia magazine remains to be seen. Kaminsky said he hadn’t thought of a target reader: “I have more of a psychographic in mind,” he said. “A person who is college educated; loves reading, loves documentaries, loves pop culture; never lost their taste in music, whatever that taste may be; wakes up in the middle of the night because something is bothering them and goes onto Google and searches it; somebody who has an endlessly curious mind.”

And one more thing, he said. “I think it’s somebody who’s definitely ambitious.”


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