Felix Dennis ponders life after Maxim

Veteran publisher Felix Dennis talks to Arif Durrani about letting go of the biggest-selling men's magazine in the world, his plans for Maxim online and The Week, and why he is not walking away from print media just yet.

Felix Dennis, founder of Dennis Publishing
Felix Dennis, founder of Dennis Publishing

By his own calculations, Felix Dennis has less than 10 years left to live, and he's not about to waste them pining for his now defunct Maxim magazine.

The fast-paced, hedonistic lifestyle that fuels the 61-year-old's sense of mortality is already well-documented and, to be honest, far from original.

But the apparent nonchalance with which the veteran publisher is able to close the door on the biggest-selling men's magazine in the world is more surprising.

He's talking just five weeks after the multimillionaire's media company Dennis Publishing announced Maxim UK would become an online-only proposition, almost 14 years to the day since it first hit the news-stands.

"Maxim was never that important to Dennis Publishing in the UK," says the man the Sunday Times Rich List 2009 values at £500m. "If you put this in perspective, the whole Maxim brand wouldn't account for 4% of the company's total turnover."

This statement might be true, but its simplicity belies the true value of the lads' mag, which at its peak in 2000 was selling more than 325,000 copies a month.

Despite launching after IPC's Loaded and Bauer Media's FHM, Maxim was the first of the British men's lifestyle magazines to harness its international potential, most significantly by entering the US in 1997.

By August 2007, a decade and 35 international editions later, Dennis was able to sell the brand as part of a reputed $240m deal with US firm  Alpha Media Group. He believes Maxim has generated in excess of £2bn for all those involved in its many guises since its inception and the title continues to command a monthly circulation of 2.5 million in the US alone.

Yet in the UK, the bombastic publisher-turned-poet has presided over a licensed edition of Maxim that has been a shadow of its former self, with monthly sales of less than 46,000. Dennis puts its demise down to the UK "always being first in and very often first out" in terms of lifestyle trends and the arrival of more nimble competitors.

"As soon as the weeklies Zoo and Nuts arrived [January 2004], that must sound alarm bells for a monthly," he reasons. "Not in the online arena, but for a monthly ink-on-paper magazine this must be a very serious sheet anchor to blue water sailing."

Drawing heavily on a cigarette, Dennis can't resist adding that "whether the weeklies ever made a lot of money for their owners is quite another matter", before erupting into one of his trademark guttural laughs.

Simply the best
Dennis' wealth attests he is undisputedly one of the most commercially successful magazine publishers this country has ever produced. Throughout his career, which began with '60s counterculture magazine Oz and the UK's first portfolio of computer and hobby magazines, the maverick publisher has demonstrated sharp business acumen and near-prophetic sense of timing.

After co-launching irreverent sixties magazine Oz - for which he was imprisoned, and later acquitted, for obscenity in 1971 - Dennis got his first real taste for making money with martial arts magazine Kung Fu in 1974.

Bold, colourful and foreign; it broke new ground in British magazines by tapping into the rising popularity of the emerging film star Bruce Lee. A commercially lucrative biography of the Asian star followed before the publisher turned his attention to the embryonic days of computers and technology.

He was responsible for launching both PC World and MacUser among others, which he later sold at considerable profit to VNU and Ziff Davis respectively in the mid-eighties. Dennis also co-founded a multimillion pound computer mail order company which went on to float on the NASDAQ.

Those who dismiss talk of new online ambitions for Maxim as little more than lip service to pacify Alpha Media would do well to remember his heritage. Dennis knows that many of Maxim's licensees look to Britain, "especially for guidance and technical propositions for the web", and says he is "absolutely committed" to developing Maxim online.

His publishing company is also well-placed to deliver the strategy, having been among the first to morph into a multi-platform content provider when it launched Monkey, "the world's first weekly digital men's magazine", in 2006.

The magazine, with a primate name said to have been inspired by hating the Zoo and eating Nuts, has been a trailblazer for what can be done online. Monkey now boasts a weekly ABCe of 283,541, although some argue it is little more than soft porn. His other digital titles are made of weightier stuff [see iMotor and iGizmo].

Dennis now envisages a huge network for Maxim online, saying: "The online versions of Maxim around the world are going to become, in the end, a much bigger force than the ink-on-paper network ever was."

At group level, Dennis Publishing is aiming for a target of 40% of its advertising revenue to come from the web this year. Despite this commitment - and rumours abound of a full-time retreat into poetry and his Forest of Dennis charity - the publisher says he has no intention of walking away from print magazines just yet.

The entrepreneur's most prized brand is the 13-year-old news digest magazine The Week. Based on providing a précis of "the best of British and foreign media", the magazine claims to be the most-subscribed weekly in the UK, with an unprecedented 24 consecutive ABC increases under its belt, and counting.

The Week is being developed through "organic, sustainable growth", led by a heavy subscription model that Dennis has drawn from 34 years of publishing in the US. There, 85% of all consumer publishers are sold via subscriptions, compared to less than 15% in the UK.

He has big ambitions for the brand, starting with achieving a domestic circulation of 250,000 by 2012.

"There is no country in the Western world where The Week will not work," he claims, supported by the title's US circulation of 520,000 and last year's launch in Australia.

But Dennis knows growth will be a laborious process. Unlike the overnight rip-and-go licensing model that propelled Maxim overseas, The Week will take the slower, and more expensive, form of wholly owned subsidiaries, requiring handpicked staff to handle the specific art of précising.

All of which sounds a far cry from retirement. Dennis will celebrate his 62nd birthday at the end of the month, but remains convinced he won't be around by the time he's 70.

"In the end, it's all going to the trees," he says, referring to his ever-growing broadleaf forest. That suggests a certain symmetry for a former hellraiser who's carved his fortune from the publishing business.

"Yes," he agrees. "I guess there is a sort of symmetry - but only for people who know absolutely nothing about trees."

Named 88th richest individual in the UK's Sunday Times Rich List
Launches digital magazines iGizmo and iMotor
Sold US operations of Maxim, Blender and Stuff
Launches Monkey and publishes book How To Get Rich
Acquires I Feel Good, which includes Bizarre, Fortean Times, Jack and Viz
Launches The Week
Launches Maxim
Awarded the Marcus Morris Award, the highest accolade in UK magazine publishing
Launches include Computer Shopper, PC World and MacUser
Launches Kung-Fu Monthly
Creates Dennis Publishing
Co-editor of Oz magazine

Born Kingston-upon-Thames in 1947
Harrow College of Art and R&B bands
Marital status