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Some Porn Publishers Profit, Others Perish, Online

If you’re an adult magazine publisher, you may not be able to figure out which way is up these days.

As Playboy magazine celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, Penthouse magazine’s publisher has filed for bankruptcy. Playboy has seen its magazine sales dip, but its online sales and subscriptions have risen.

Most would probably blame the Internet for porn magazines’ declining success.

But not everyone’s blaming the Web. In fact, the answer may lie in the surprising success of a lesbian porn magazine called On Our Backs.

The Audit Bureau of Circulations, the leading circulation-tracking organization, indicates Penthouse circulation has dropped from nearly 1 million to just less than 570,000 in the last few years. Playboy has dropped by nearly 50,000.

No surprise there. The Internet is where free porn thrives, and a crop of competitors showing scantily clad women have cropped up in recent years.

Enter smaller, specialized niche publications like San Franicisco-based On Our Backs, which cater to smaller, but highly loyal followers. In their cases, the Net has actually helped the print version.

“Because there’s just so much erotic material on the Internet, we’re in a rubbernecking phase of pornography where the freakiest and craziest stuff will catch people’s attention,” says On Our Backs editor Heather Findlay.

“We specifically designed the Web site to be mainly a promotional vehicle for the print magazine,” Findlay says. In turn, the magazine has seen its distribution list double to nearly 50,000 subscribers in the last four years.

Print Not Dead Yet

But a decline in print magazine sales may have to do with other factors besides the Internet. Just walk into a porn store and check the prices.

We did, and bought five mainstream porn magazines including Hustler, Penthouse, and Playboy. The grand total: $40, which is about on par for the average price of a month of DSL access.

But fans of the mags need not fret.

“It’s far too soon to ring the death knell of physical print magazines,” warns Tom Hymes, publisher of AdultNewsLine.com, a trade magazine for adult Internet Webmasters.

He continues, “Well it was a joke, but in the old days, the articles were really substantial. Playboy is renowned for publishing the best writers that there were.”

These days, Hymes says, publishers are looking at the bottom line and making do with superior photography and fewer words in order to survive. Still, the Internet’s power is too great for many porn mags. “It’s too immediate and there’s too much of it,” he says of Net porn.

It may not be a simple matter of moving content online.

Print publications “all made mistakes moving online, they all thought, to one degree or another, that they could replicate their magazines online and it’s just apples and oranges,” Hymes says.

The ones that have survived have done so by going niche. And Hymes says that’s the key to online success these days. The niche magazines, are clearly in a separate class from the bigger, more competitive magazines.

“I operate in a different world from a Playboy or a Hustler,” admits Findlay, who hints that an increased online presence could be in the offing for her magazine.

Beefing up her online presence may also mean new legal and political battles she hasn’t had to face in the newsstand world.

Online is “far different than print, where the boundaries are clear and the laws are clear,” says Hymes, who says print porn magazines have already gone through the big legal battles. Most similar legal fights defining the do’s and don’ts of the online porn industry have yet to be clearly defined.

Still, the decline of porn magazine sales may have more to do with a general drop in advertising revenue and circulation. The magazine industry as a whole has weathered this slump for the past couple of years.

“A magazine does not go away unless its advertising goes away,” Hymes says. Most magazines survive not because of subscriber lists, but because of their ad revenue, and online ads are easier to track for effectiveness than print magazine ads, he adds.

“The software is out there … to quantify everything,” he says, adding that Webmasters can track hits and click-throughs on ads, and what people are doing online when ads are served. All that is missing from print advertising.

Turns out the Internet may be much more of a double-edged sword for porn distributors.

On Our Backs’ Findlay recognizes the promises of the Internet, but is cautious in taking it on. “The Internet is a very powerful medium,” she says. “You just need to make sure you’re using it to promote yourself and not stab yourself in the back.”

 

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