Video killed ... the centrefold

Soft sales in a hard business

By Avril Sequeira

Liz Lewis is not your average PTA mom. While most members of the Scarborough Parent Teachers Association in Ontario, Canada were planning bake sale fundraisers and car pools, their committee chair was devising a plan for bringing her idea for an adult magazine with women-friendly content to fruition. 

No stranger to the adult printing industry, Lewis’s goal to create a more female-oriented sex magazine was what inspired her to start Touch in May of 1997. The publication, covering everything from submission to fetish fashion, initially gained popularity for its section at the back that enabled readers to post meeting ads for interested swinger-types. The concurrent rise in the number of Internet users, however, soon spelled the end for the magazine.

photograph by Avril Sequeira

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“The Internet kind of killed it. A lot of people were buying Touch for the contact ads at the back.  And after trying a couple of different things…changing the cover price, special issues, that kind of thing…I stopped publishing the magazine,” she says.

photograph by Avril SequeiraNot Your Father’s Porn

Bart Testa, senior lecturer at the University of Toronto and specialist in censorship and sexual issues in media and pop culture, says he believes there are three main reasons the sale of adult magazines has taken a nose dive in recent years. 

“The first (reason) is that still and moving colour images of porn are widely available through other sources, mainly the Internet, at low cost and high speed and very conveniently.”

Sure enough, a study released by web-filtering company N2H2 in late 2003, reported there are 1.3 million websites and 260 million web pages classified as pornographic while trade magazine Adult Video News found that adult sites such as danni.com and cybererotica.com generated $2 billion in revenue that same year. 

Meanwhile, magazine circulation has been steadily plummeting, says Wired magazine. The American publication, focusing on technology’s impact on both economics and culture, reported that porn magazine mainstay, Screw, saw sales drop from 140,000 copies a week to 30,000 before filing for bankruptcy in 2003. The unapologetic weekly, whose original mission statement promised to “never ink out a pubic hair or chalk out an organ,” had been in business since 1968.

Jose Vecent, of Toronto sex shop Seduction, says he has noticed a sharp increase in the amount of DVDs sold, while magazine sales have remained stagnant. “If you went back 10 years, magazines were selling pretty well, compared to VHS. But each year we’re selling more and more DVDs. The demand just keeps getting bigger,” he says.

According to Testa, the continued fear of being judged for buying porn is another reason adult magazines are on the decline.

Lewis agrees that the Internet simply holds an incomparable assurance of privacy.

“People don’t want to go into a store and rent a DVD,” she says, “when it’s so much easier to just click through on Rogers cable.  It’s why Adults Only Video has pretty much shut their stores…now they supply all of the porn to Rogers. It’s just so much easier from the comfort and privacy of your home to jump online or go to your tv and order whatever you want to see.” 

As Testa quips, “To enter the ‘porntopia’ you had to pass through a decidely dystopian portal: porn retail.”

The third reason he identifies as contributing to the sex magazine industry’s steady decline, he says, is the “oddest” one. “Porn is disappearing as a distinct genre or mode of ‘flat’ representation, such as one finds in photo spreads and writing. It’s becoming harder to distinguish porn in these forms from non-porn.”

The distinct genre, to which Testa alludes dates back to the early '70s when the sex industry boomed and adult publications like Playboy magazine reached a peak circulation of 7.2 million copies. The decade was still young and, according to Paul Keegan of Business 2.0 Magazine, with the release of explicit films like Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat grossing over $25 million in 1972, the stage was set for so-called smut mags to skyrocket in popularity. Though many hastily label Playboy, launched in 1953, as the forefather of risqué material to come, Hustler magazine, brainchild of porn king Larry Flynt, would also leap onto the scene in 1974, offering a complete visual guide to the female anatomy and soon becoming a household name of its own.

But, Testa argues, if horrified mothers at the time had pried their hands off their sons’ eyes long enough to examine an issue, they might have seen that however crude its hardcore photo spreads, Hustler was actually a publication with a very left-wing editorial position on matters both at home and on an international plane.

Hustler had a politics to it and still does,” he says. “Its appalling salaciousness through photo images was just the beginning of its significance for readers. [Sex magazines were] not purely porn when they were successful. It entailed at least the aura of a lifestyle that was not always sexual –  a whole consumer side in which the porn image was crucially important…but not all [that] there was.”

Testa maintains that the newer crop of adult magazines never evolved with the world around them and, ironically, it was older porn magazines that held a greater relevance with their readers.

“This meaning of the porn magazine is dying. I think it is dying of old age, frankly. The working class no longer thinks of itself as working class, and its porn dies of that. Nothing is more old school than Russ Meyer movies, or those old-style working man's porn magazines.”

Bound in Canada

In a case of history repeating itself, former Touch editor Liz Lewis was inspired to get back into printing again some years later by a speaker at a seminar put on by Masthead magazine, who said that the most successful and profitable publications are niche magazines that cater to a very specific market. And so, in 2001, Whiplash was born, with Lewis herself often taking the helm when it came to writing, design, subscriptions, and distribution.  Not too shabby for a woman without a formal publishing background.

The fetish magazine, which she crafted as a more upscale version of its predecessor, placed a lot of emphasis on editorial content, unlike many of its competitors, such as European import Skin Two.

It was heavily content-based, she says. “I went through Skin Two, which is 140 pages, and I had more editorial content than they did because they just had a whack of advertising.”

The seasoned editor is not at all surprised by the recent collapse of many adult magazines, including the British version of titan contender Penthouse, which folded in late 1998. While Lewis strove to produce a magazine with substance, she says that not enough others included informing their readers as part of their mandate at all.

“You have to give people information,” she says. “I mean, that was my main thing: to educate and to entertain. That was my whole goal.  Was each issue both informative and was it entertaining? Was there a lot of great stuff in here to look at and did you learn anything? Because I think that’s why people buy magazines ... you want to crawl into bed or curl up on the couch, flip through it, and feel good when you finish it … like, ‘Wow, that was a good hour I just spent here.’”

Jessica, who asked that her last name not be printed, is assistant manager at the Stag Shop, a Toronto-based sex store that has been in operation for 35 years, and says that she’s noticed that the magazines that have a devout following are the ones that offer more than racy imagery.

“It tends to be Leg Show and actually a lot of erotica that do well,” she says. “Magazines that do short stories or actually have people writing in letters…those seem to be moving faster than the tan, long-legged, big-boobed girl stuff.  We sell a lot of niche market things.”

But despite a warm reception from subscribers and members of the fetish community, by 2004 Whiplash was not turning enough of a profit for it to survive. Advertising revenue posed a major dilemma as most adult magazines rely on local area businesses. For a Canada-wide publication, however, Lewis found that there aren’t enough national companies who would profit from buying ad space.

“It was very hard,” she says when asked about balancing production with paying off debts and making a living. “And part of my problem, looking back on it now, was the fact that I didn’t keep really strict books. If I had a bit more money behind me in the beginning, I would have had someone working part-time.”

At the moment, Lewis has used the contacts she made while working in the industry to open a women’s erotic shop, tentatively called Black Cat Boutique, in her hometown of Peterborough, Ont. 

And as much as she admits that she would love to get back into adult publication again, she remains pessimistic about magazines’ place in the industry in the nearby future. “I think it’s going to disappear, pretty much. I think it’s going to disappear and that maybe people who want to purchase magazines will turn to books instead.”

Over at the Stag Shop, Jessica is slightly more optimistic. “Actually I do think that shops will still carry magazines into the future. We did stop carrying them for a while, but we saw such a strong interest in them that they were brought back. It really does depend. A lot of people are easily pressured in terms of what they think is acceptable for them to buy.  I think it will be something that kind of goes up and down depending on what popular media is saying sexuality is.” MW