Little magazine from Mississippi wins big in New York City

by Lynne W. Jeter

Published: May 17,1999

OXFORD — In 1992, with $10,000 in borrowed seed money, Marc Smirnoff published the first edition of The Oxford American. His idea of a literary magazine dedicated to the works of great Southern writers was a gamble that paid off. Last month, Smirnoff brought home an award of excellence from his peers, the National Society for Magazine Editors.

“We had just joined the magazine group and it was the first time we had entered,” he said. “We didn’t realize what a really big deal it was until we walked into the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, where about 1,500 people were seated. I turned around at one point and saw Harvey Weinstein with Tina Brown, former editor of The New Yorker and one of my heroes. For a magazine publisher, this was hog heaven.”

The tiny magazine that started as a quarterly with a mere 200 subscribers evolved to a glossy bimonthly publication with a circulation of 20,000 within seven years. The Oxford American, also nominated for general excellence in its category, won best single topic issue for last year’s music issue for publications with a circulation of less than 100,000.

Bookish beginning

Most of the research for the magazine was done while Smirnoff, now 35, worked as a book clerk at Square Books in Oxford. A transplant from northern California, Smirnoff was charmed with the town and started working at the bookstore in 1987.

“I learned rather quickly that people were buying a lot of Southern literature, from old classics to works by new writers,” he said. “I also noticed that there wasn’t a general interest literary magazine, sort of a southern version of Atlantic Monthly or Harper’s. Yet there were all these great Southern writers who had to send pieces to New York to get them published. I thought there was a definite niche for this type of magazine.”

The experience at Square Books was invaluable, he said, because it allowed him to meet his potential audience. He continued to work there until the magazine “went glossy” in 1994, he said.

“Any business owner benefits by knowing his audience firsthand,” he said. “Here they were buying Southern books, so why wouldn’t they want to buy a Southern literary magazine that was as good as those books they were picking up?”

DOING IT ALL — ALMOST

The idea evolved several years after Smirnoff started working at the bookstore, and “went through many permutations,” he said.

“For a few years, I would just think about it and talk to people and ask them what was wrong with this idea,” he said. “It was really strange because I couldn’t find a problem with it. Nobody else could find fault with it, either. Some people said it was going to cost a lot of money and that was true, but I felt that some way or another, this project would get support.”

The initial sales strategy was to “get the magazine talked about in the media and let people know about it,” he said. “The first issue had big names and great material. I thought people would get excited about it if they only knew about it and it was true.”

A Leslie Myers’ column in The Clarion-Ledger that touted the start-up publication filled Smirnoff’s mailbox with his first 200 subscribers within a two-week period, he said.

“I didn’t have an opportunity to pay people, and I was fortunate to get invaluable help in the beginning,” he said. “The $10,000 just paid for the printing. When I didn’t know how to work on a computer, a graphic designer friend of mine designed the layout for me. I would look over his shoulder and give him comments. In the beginning, I did the ads, the circulation, paid the bills. It just about drove me crazy.”

One of the “painful lessons learned” was by miscalculating the response of “three tiny ads in The New Yorker,” he said. “I expected the ads to generate at least a 1% response. With a million readers, I thought getting 10,000 to respond was a sure thing. Only about 200 responded.”

PERFECT TIMING

Fortunately, timing for the inaugural issue could not have been better. The first issue was released just after John Grisham had published “The Firm” and was on a book tour, Smirnoff said.

“The Grisham phenomenon had just exploded and media people had started comparing him to Faulkner because of the Oxford connection,” he said. “John (Grisham) wrote this really great piece for our first issue about the experience that packed a punch and was funny, too.”

USA Today, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe gave the magazine good reviews. Not long afterward, Smirnoff ran into Grisham at the post office, who asked him to edit some of his books.

“At one point, when I was editing one of his books, John asked me how the magazine was coming along,” he said. “I told him that actually, the magazine needed cash and that we were on the verge of a privately held stock offering to which he replied, ‘when you get that set up, let me know.’”

Even though Grisham offered financial support, it was a long time before Smirnoff approached him, he said.

“During this time, people were lining up to ask commitments of him,” he said. “I didn’t want to add to the list. I had to be cajoled to mention the private stock offering to him. But if it weren’t for John, this magazine would have died six or seven painful deaths.”

FUTURE GOALS

The magazine may be published monthly soon, if the advertising group persuades Smirnoff.

“We’re not quite ready for a monthly magazine yet,” Smirnoff said. “It’s a very tough job because we have such a small staff and everyone has to contribute a lot. There was a long time when we didn’t get the magazine out on time because we were perfectionists but our readers liked us enough so that wasn’t an issue, thank goodness.”

Compared to The Atlantic Monthly’s 600,000 readers, Vanity Fair’s and The New Yorker’s one million subscribers each and Harper’s 200,000, Smirnoff said The Oxford American isn’t “quite as big as it should be.”

“Our long term goal is 50,000 to 100,000 to attract some national advertisers,” he said.

Even though yearly goals have been exceeded, the magazine has yet to turn a profit but, “by the end of next year, we should be breaking even,” he said.

“This is definitely a dream job,” Smirnoff said. “It’s everything I could ask for.”


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