Struggling American: Grisham takes backseat as mag stumbles

It's been a tough year for the relocated Oxford American, a critically acclaimed but financially troubled magazine celebrating Southern writing and culture that began publishing in Arkansas in January.

The magazine's finances are precarious, although its publisher, George Gretser, says the staff still plans to publish the next issue of the bi-monthly.

"For right now, we're still operating,'' he said. "We think there's enough to keep us going for now. It's going to be close.''

Gretser said managers "haven't pulled the plug'' on the magazine and are hoping to continue publishing into next year, when he expects advertising revenues to pick up.

In a Friday meeting, Editor Mark Smirnoff filled the staff in on the current situation, Gretser said.

"We've let people know that things are really tight and really tough, and the partners are looking at different options,'' he said.

Gretser said one option could be to make the magazine not-for-profit.

Billing itself "The Southern Magazine of Good Writing,'' the magazine was started in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1992 by Smirnoff. Two years later, he entered a partnership with best-selling author John Grisham, who bankrolled the business for years.

It was inability to show a profit that caused the magazine to move to Arkansas. Suffering for capital following the winter 2002 issue, the foundering publication was bought by At Home Media Group Inc., which insisted on the move, and first published from Little Rock in January.

Smirnoff remained editor; he and Grisham became minority owners.

Russ McDonough, chairman and CEO of At Home Media Group, did not immediately return telephone calls to his office and cell phone seeking comment. Grisham's agent said the author was not immediately available.

The Oxford American's July/August issue is already on stands. The next scheduled issue is the September/October edition.

Gretser, reached at a sailboat race on Lake Michigan, said it appears advertising revenue for 2004 will be up. He said advertisers seem excited about two planned issues in particular, and the magazine is trying to nail down final details of a partnership with Books-A-Million.

He said the planned theme for the January issue is Southern colleges and an issue devoted to Southern food is planned for next spring.

Under the deal with Books-A-Million, Gretser said, The Oxford American will review works by Southern writers and the bookseller will feature those books– and the magazine– in its stores. He said some of the writers will also be featured in the magazine.

Books-A-Million officials did not comment Monday on any deals they have in the works with the magazine.

The Oxford American has published the works of William F. Buckley Jr., Donna Tartt, Barry Hannah, and Roger Mudd. It was once dubbed "the Southern New Yorker'' by The Washington Post.

When the magazine began publishing again earlier this year with a readership of about 32,000, Smirnoff said he hoped to attract 100,000 subscribers and begin publishing monthly by next year.


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