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Home:  >News & Events   >News Archives   >2002
Time running out for Oxford American magazine

May 15, 2002

OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — What many consider the contemporary creative voice of Southern literature could very well be forced into silence in a few weeks.

Oxford American, the National Magazine Award winner that’s been financially challenged since its inception 10 years ago, is on the brink of folding if a new backer isn’t found soon. Best-selling author John Grisham, the magazine’s publisher, financier and patron saint since 1994, and editor Marc Smirnoff decided a year ago that it was time for the magazine to either break even or cease operations.

In a May 2 e-mail to some 150 contributing writers and friends, Smirnoff said last year’s music issue was a modest financial success, and the follow-up fall issue made even more money, but the winter movie issue was a flop by advertising standards. In the e-mail, which spread quickly in literary circles, Smirnoff said the publication — billed as “The Southern Magazine of Good Writing” — had two weeks to find new ownership.

“As Jeeves told Wooster, where there’s life there’s hope, so we’re still not giving up on finding investors or buyers who want to see the OA continue,” Smirnoff wrote.

In an interview last week with The Associated Press, Smirnoff said he’s had numerous responses from possible backers who want to sustain the magazine, which has featured the works of William F. Buckley Jr., Donna Tartt, Barry Hannah, Roy Blount Jr., Larry Brown and Willie Morris, among others.

“All of a sudden I went from feeling like things were pretty grim to feeling sort of oddly optimistic,” he said. “I think something’s going to happen.”

Smirnoff said he’s received word from Grisham that the author — a former Oxford resident and Mississippi legislator — may extend the two-week deadline.

Over the years, Grisham has devoted not only money but his writing talents to keep Oxford American afloat. The magazine serialized his novel A Painted House in 2000.

Grisham, who’s written such blockbusters as The Client and The Firm and his latest work, The Summons, could not be reached for comment.

Smirnoff said Grisham’s requirements are simple. “John is willing to sell his majority interest if we can find a person, group or company that’s willing to commit to the magazine,” he said. “He’s willing to listen to any proposal that's reasonable.”

Smirnoff made the magazine’s financial difficulties public in last summer’s critically acclaimed music issue, which featured a CD with music from B.B. King, Billy Bob Thornton, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. In a letter to readers, he said the magazine would start publishing quarterly instead of bimonthly, but the subscription price of $19.95 would remain the same. Smirnoff also warned that the number of subscribers needed to grow from 30,000 to 38,000 by year’s end.

The number grew enough to proceed into 2002, he said. But even though the latest issue of the magazine is complete, it is stranded at the printer for lack of money.

Samir Husni, author of the annual Guide to New Consumer Magazines and a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi, said low circulation is largely to blame for Oxford American’s woes. With 100,000 subscribers, the magazine would have a healthy revenue flow and the readership to attract national advertising, Husni said.

To get there, though, “the costs are unbelievable,” he said. “They were never able to get over the hump that this is not a regional magazine” said Husni, who helped Oxford American create a marketing plan two years ago. “Yes, it’s a national magazine of southern good writing, but it was always viewed by the national markets as regional, no matter what,” he said.

The floundering economy and lower ad sales have made things increasingly difficult. This year has already seen the decline of Talk and Homestyle. Several other magazines also have shut down recently, including Mademoiselle and The Industry Standard.

Neither Husni nor Smirnoff would discuss specifics about Oxford American’s finances.

Smirnoff said he’s thankful for Grisham’s patience and money, not bitter over his decision to pull out. “All I know is that he’s put more money into this magazine than he ever thought he would. And he has repeatedly saved us,” Smirnoff said in a March interview from his office in a small house near Oxford Square, best known as one of the haunts of William Faulkner. “This magazine would have died eight or 10 painful deaths if it hadn’t been for his generosity and faith.”

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