Last week, Maxim editor Michael Donlevy branded all trade journalists 'wankers' in an email to his staff following an article reporting the magazine's disappointing newsstand sales for April. Last month's issue, which featured pencil-thin OC star Mischa Barton, was not a hit, selling fewer than 25,000 copies.
While no retailer would de-list a magazine solely on the basis of a single month's sales, it is clear that Maxim is on the decline in the UK. In 2005, it was selling 234,183 copies, but the most recent ABCs showed its circulation was down 27.1% period on period, shifting just 78,463 copies.
Maxim is clearly not alone in its plight. Rival monthlies, such as IPC's Loaded and Bauer Consumer Media's FHM, have also been losing readers.
However, while Emap and IPC have broadened their audience elsewhere through their respective weekly titles Nuts and Zoo, Maxim's owner, Dennis Publishing, has no such luxury, though its digital title Monkey is performing well.
The men's magazine market has shifted dramatically over the past five years. The internet has enabled men to access explicit content in the privacy of their own homes, and lads' mags are finding it more difficult to compete.
In response, Maxim is relaunching its website and increasing its focus on digital. Donlevy, who was previously editor of Men's Fitness, took the reins at Maxim last September, with a brief to boost the ailing brand. Since then, the magazine has moved to distance itself from its traditionally laddish reputation, selling itself to media agencies as an all-round 'lifestyle brand'.
Nonetheless, the title is operating in an ever-more competitive environment. The launch of free mens' magazines such as Sport and Shortlist has increased this pressure, and agencies are squeezing monthlies with demands for discounted rates.
While some commentators believe that the men's monthly market is in terminal decline, the continued success of titles such as GQ and Men's Health suggests that strong brands and editorial can find a willing audience.
We asked Dominic Williams, press director of Carat UK, and Amy Lennox, partner of Trinity Communications, a magazine expert who works with retail brands including New Look, how Maxim can stop the rot.
DIAGNOSIS 1 - DOMINIC WILLIAMS, press director, Carat UK
Circulation in the men's style sector has been dwindling for a while, but for a magazine to lose 40% in a single year is pretty dreadful.
Dennis Publishing faces some tough choices. A repositioning of the editorial product is one option, but one drawback is that most of the successful titles in this sector now have a single editorial focus, such as sport, gadgets, health or fashion, and there aren't any obvious gaps left.
In addition, publications such as Shortlist have given the consumer a taste of quality, targeted editorial for free, and Maxim's £3.70 cover price has contributed to some of its losses.
In reality, the younger male market moved online some time ago, as Dennis recognised when it launched Monkey. Maxim's website pulls in a bigger audience than Monkey in terms of unique users and page impressions, but I would doubt that it out-performs it for online revenue. In any case, if Maxim adopted the same subscription and download model it would surely only harm Monkey.
- Dennis could consider re-inventing Maxim, but this would be both risky and expensive, and may never deliver a circulation high enough to justify the investment.
- So Dennis has only two realistic options. The first is to sell the title (or its UK licence) to another publisher within the same sector.
- The second is to cut its losses and start again with a fresh title, perhaps in another sector, or with a change of format.
DIAGNOSIS 2 - Amy Lennox partner, Trinity Communications
Maxim's decline in circulation has been going on for some time, but its woes are shared by the wider men's magazine sector.
The market became more competitive with the launch of weeklies such as Zoo and Nuts. While they grew the market initially, the post-launch flurry got many men into the habit of the weekly purchase.
The zeitgeist has also changed. The laddish culture that drove the growth of Loaded and FHM has died down, and carrying a copy of either magazine is no longer as cool as it once was.
At the same time, similar content has become available via other channels, such as digital TV and the internet.
Men's magazines offer a similar editorial diet to that provided in their print editions online. Comscore's trend data illustrates Maxim's problems. Unique user visits to Maxim.co.uk from the key 15- to 34-year-old men's audience have dropped since the beginning of 2008. Readers tend to bounce online from the magazine, and the decline in print sales has led to dwindling website traffic.
- Research lapsed readers. Find out what they are doing instead and use the information to look for opportunities.
- Make sure online and offline properties integrate seamlessly. Cross-promote by offering incentives to use both platforms.
- Check the distribution network is working hard enough - when asked why there were no copies of Maxim in his shop, my local newsagent bemoaned the fact that he is never sent enough.