The Science of Covers: Celebs, Cleavage and Sparkle

In the early Eighties, People magazine founding editor Dick Stolley created "Stolley's Law of Covers," a mantra that some editors today can still recite from memory...

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Recent covers of Seventeen...

Photo By WWD Staff

In the early Eighties, People magazine founding editor Dick Stolley created "Stolley's Law of Covers," a mantra that some editors today can still recite from memory: "Young is better than old. Pretty is better than ugly. Rich is better than poor. Movies are better than music. Music is better than television. Television is better than sports...and anything is better than politics." Stolley, years later, updated that formula, adding the ultimate rule of thumb after making the disastrous decision to not put Elvis Presley on People's cover the week he died: "Nothing is better than the celebrity dead."

Stolley developed his format a quarter of a century ago when the magazine world was still relatively collegial and almost sleepy, and when newsstands held half the number of titles they carry today. Now the cover is even more important as American magazines rely more and more on their newsstand sales as the true measure of a title's success.

But appealing covers will differ depending on the publication — what works for Vogue won't necessarily fly for Seventeen. And while almost all covers these days — even those of fashion magazines — focus on celebrities, a big star doesn't always guarantee sell-through success. Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger don't always sell well for fashion magazines, and younger stars such as Keira Knightley and Kirsten Dunst are usually successful covers only when they have projects to promote.

But stars who have the "X factor," as Stolley, now a special adviser to Time Inc., told WWD in a recent interview, can work well on magazines despite not having a project to pitch. "There's something about that person on the cover that you don't know that you want to know," he said — their relationships, their lives as parents, their side hustle as a professional lip gloss taster. That often gives subjects like Angelina Jolie, Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Aniston or Victoria Beckham more newsstand power.

In the end, though, while "Stolley's Laws" still hold some relevance for most magazines, the perfect cover formula really doesn't exist. Despite conducting focus groups, having cover line meetings lasting hours and wrangling celebrities in an attempt to create the most captivating cover, the magic of putting together covers has been best described by Vanity Fair editor in chief Graydon Carter: "There is no science to this."
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