Generations of publishing professionals have closely scrutinized cover designs and tables of contents to identify the key elements that make one issue of a magazine sell better than another. While this obsessive practice has led to a litany of rules most publishers follow like the scriptures (and has spawned legions of consultants who get paid handsomely to tear your work to shreds) the fact remains that there is also a certain amount of magic involved with newsstand sales that is impossible to quantify.
But that doesn’t stop us from trying. So we’ve decided to look at the top five best-selling covers from the past 20 years and try to divine why they outperformed all the others. It wound up being a pretty eclectic collection, starting with our all-time top seller …
A no-brainer. For one thing, it was the very first time one of our covers featured Neil Peart, who until then had been very loyal to our competition. Plus, it was a concept issue, which historically outperforms artist covers on newsstands. Subsequent Peart covers proved the Professor to be one of our most consistent best sellers, but this particular issue was a slam-dunk, fortified with ringers like Mike Portnoy, Bill Bruford, and Carl Palmer.
We were less than two weeks away from starting production of the August/September issue when, on May 18, 2004, we learned the great jazz drummer Elvin Jones had died. Even though time was short, we decided to retool the entire issue as a tribute to Elvin. In the end, our special Elvin Jones edition beat our competition’s version to the newsstand by a matter of months. It was a proud moment.
Sometimes hunches pay off. Green Day had been listing for several years as the trio moved further from its original pop-punk sound and watched its record sales slip. But something told us American Idiot would be a big smash, so we crossed our fingers and put Tré Cool on the cover, which hit newsstands shortly after the album exploded on the charts. American Idiot proved to be Green Day’s most celebrated album and revived the band’s career. Talk about good timing.
We hit a bull’s-eye with this special issue that addressed one of the hottest hot-button issues for young drummers throughout the millennia. Still, we remain mystified to this day by the issue’s high sales figures, since the general consensus around the DRUM! office is that the cover was one of the ugliest we ever produced. Go figure.
Few drummers had as much influence over my playing as Mitch Mitchell, so, naturally, when I began editing drumming magazines in 1987, I was determined to feature him on the cover. But I soon found that was easier said than done, since the former Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer almost never granted interviews. I had given up on the idea until I got a phone call from a German audio company rep who told me he had tapes of an unpublished interview with Mitchell that he was willing to let us use. The stipulation was that Mitch had to personally approve every word of the article. It took about a nanosecond for me to agree.