In Journalism, What Words Sell?

By Jack Limpert

One goal of my life as a magazine editor was to sell lots of copies on the newsstand. If you could get someone to buy a newsstand copy, they then might subscribe and subscription renewals are one key to a magazine’s financial health. So what cover subjects and cover lines will sell?

People magazine was a newsstand star for many years and its founding editor, Dick Stolley, once came up with his laws of magazine covers. A little tongue-in-cheek but pretty accurate:

1. Young is better than old.
2. Pretty is better than ugly.
3. Rich is better than poor.
4. Movies are better than television.
5. Movies and television are better than music.
6. Movies, TV, and music are better than sports.
7. Anything is better than politics.
8. Nothing is better than a dead celebrity.

At the Washingtonian, we learned that the cover word “best” sold the most copies: 100 Best Restaurants, Best Places to Live, Best & Worst. The absolute best newsstand seller was Top Doctors—we had to use “top” because someone had trademarked Best Doctors.

A cover usually has five or six cover lines and I didn’t like to use “best” more than once on a cover so sometimes we struggled for other ways to say it. I picked 12 issues from a good newsstand-sale year and these were the cover words we used most often:

Great, beautiful, fun, favorite, inside, big, bargain, hot, new, delicious, top, friendly, charming, cheap, cool, real, undiscovered, expert, smart, talented, bold, wild, classical, popular, award-winning, romantic, youthful.

I was surprised to not find “free”—the most powerful word in retailing—on any of the covers.

Magazine distributors often told us that the Washingtonian was among the three top-selling magazines on Washington-area newsstands, back then beaten out only by People and Cosmopolitan. I looked at an issue of Cosmo and these were its cover sell words:

Sex, sexy, sexiest, hard-core, secret, naughty, free, fun, hottest.

First published in May 2017.

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