The mid-January revival of the Oxford American, the self-styled "Southern Magazine of Good Writing," was greeted warmly in the media and especially in southern bookstores. The magazine, founded 11 years ago by Marc Smirnoff, was purchased last fall by At Home Media Group, based in Little Rock, Ark., after Smirnoff lost the financial backing of primary investor John Grisham (who remains a part-owner).
After a one-year absence, the magazine hit bookstore shelves again with a 116-page relaunch issue featuring a rare, wry remembrance by True Grit author Charles Portis; a previously unpublished essay by James Agee on the 1943 race riots in Detroit; and a reconsideration of the legacy of the Uncle Remus character and his creator, Joel Chandler Harris.
Two weeks ago, the magazine and its staff were feted at a well-attended reception at Little Rock's Words-Worth Books & Co. by co-owners Jean Cockcroft and David Cockcroft. "When I last checked the magazine's Web site, we were listed as selling more copies than any other outlet in Arkansas," said David Cockcroft. With all the local publicity, there was an additional jump in sales, followed by a quick reorder.
Last year, after news of the magazine's discontinuation began circulating, Words-Worth reordered Best of Oxford American, a 10th-anniversary anthology that that had just been published in trade paperback in June by Hill Street Press. "We knew the magazine had halted an issue and was probably going under," recalled Hill Street publisher Tom Payton. "So without an easy way to get to the book's core audience—subscribers—through ads in the magazine, the book's chances seemed dicey. We hoped there would be some sympathy factor working among indie and chain booksellers who loved the magazine. Without the magazine, we hoped they might focus on our book instead." The gamble resulted in two 5,000-copy printings of the book and a third printing for 4,000 that's due in early March.
The book's unfortunate timing was disappointing for the six stores in the Joseph-Beth Group. "We had planned large displays featuring Best of the Oxford American along with books by its contributors and copies of the magazine itself," explained Jen Reynolds, director of publisher relations and events for the group's Joseph-Beth stores in Kentucky and Ohio and its Davis-Kidd stores in Tennessee. A second purpose of the planned display was to promote subscriptions to the magazine, to help it survive.
"When we began planning the displays, the Oxford American was trying hard to raise its subscriber base," Reynolds told PW. "But by the time Best of Oxford American came out, the magazine had ceased publication, so we reduced the size of the displays and canceled the subscription campaign."
Oxford American's relaunch as a bimonthly (it plans to publish eight issues in 2003) has given Reynolds new display and event ideas: "The music issue is coming in April. Although I'm not sure just what we're going to do yet, it will be something lively, since that issue with its CD gives us lots to work with. The Oxford American has always been one of our better-selling magazines."
The devoted following and acclaim the Oxford American has won is due in part to that annual music issue. In 1999, the magazine won a National Magazine award in the category of "single topic"; that same year, the magazine was nominated in the general excellence category.
"The new Oxford American is arriving at a time when the magazine market is flat," said John Valentine, co-owner of the Regulator Bookstore in Durham, N.C. "But there's lots of customer excitement about the relaunch issue, although the music issue is what gets them really excited because it's always so incredibly well done."
Regulator has already begun planning an in-store meet-and-greet event for Smirnoff on February 20. Immediately afterward, Smirnoff heads to Columbia, S.C., for a Best of the Oxford American panel during the February 22—23 South Carolina Book Festival. The panelists, all among the anthology's 32 contributors, include Hal Crowther (Cathedrals of Kudzu, Louisiana State Univ.), John T. Edge (Southern Belly, Hill Street), William Gay (Provinces of the Night, Doubleday) and Marianne Gingher (A Girl's Life, LSU). Book sales will be handled by the bipartisan pairing of Columbia's Happy Bookseller and a local Barnes & Noble. The anthology, noted Happy Bookseller owner Andy Graves, "had relatively good sales at first, and they are picking up again now that the magazine is back."
While Best of the Oxford American's sales are increasing in southern stores (almost 75% of the magazine's 31,122 subscribers are in the South), nearly 20,000 copies of the relaunch issue were shipped to Ingram Periodicals and Anderson News for national distribution.