New York -- When William Ziff Jr. sold 24 special-interest magazines in the mid-1980s for more than $700 million, he kept a group of fledgling computer titles, in part because it was difficult to determine their value -- or potential.
That is hardly a problem now. PC Magazine, which is not quite 10 years old, is the biggest U.S. computer publication. Ad revenue totaled $221 million last year, up 25 percent from 1990, according to Rome Reports, a division of Leading National Advertisers. Circulation of the bimonthly was 870,000 in December, up 11 percent from the year earlier.
Computer Shopper weighed in with 868 pages in March, 70 percent of them ads, making it thicker than some phone books. And MacWeek saw ad pages grow 21 percent last year, at a time when consumer magazines' ad pages slumped an average 8.7 percent.
Whether by luck or by plan, Mr. Ziff, now 62, has himself a hot magazine empire, completely devoted to computing. While more mainstream magazines report lackluster results and bemoan the continuing advertising recession, Manhattan-based Ziff-Davis Publishing forges ahead.
A British version of PC Magazine hit newsstands last week, and an expensive rollout of Corporate Computing is slated for June.
"Ziff-Davis has a . . . [plethora] of publications that cover the key buying categories in the personal computer market," said Dan McCarthy, editor of Computer Publishing and Advertising Report, a newsletter based in Larchmont, N.Y.
Apparently the $871 million computer publishing industry looks so promising that even IBM is giving it a whirl.
Last month it launched two magazines: Beyond Computing will be sent free every other month to 600,000 big customers; Profit will go to the 200,000 fastest-growing customers and prospects. IBM is accepting ads from competitors and non-computer companies, such as Stouffer Hotels and Cadillac, but, not surprisingly, also runs its own ads. James Reilly, executive publisher, says he hopes the books will turn a profit in 12 to 18 months.
Ziff-Davis does not seem particularly concerned by IBM's entry.
It has stiffer competition from rival International Data Group, which bills itself as the world's largest computer publisher. A private company based in Boston, it publishes 178 computer magazines in 56 countries, including Russia, Poland, India and Japan. Its oldest title, 25-year-old Computerworld, has 38 editions.
Kelly Conlin, president of IDG's marketing service division, said it is increasingly important for computer publishers to do business in other countries because, by the end of the decade, only 20 percent of U.S. computer makers' sales will be on their home turf.
Ziff-Davis' magazines focus on personal computers, a burgeoning area during the 1980s, but one that "is not well-positioned for the '90s, when people are looking at the whole computing resources for a company," Mr. Conlin said.
Eric Hippeau, chairman of Ziff-Davis Publishing, said the PC market continues to expand, and that the new monthly Corporate Computing addresses the trend of the 1990s, what it dubs the "re-engineering revolution."
Companies are starting to redesign their systems to connect personal computers, minicomputers and mainframes, so PCs, for instance, can easily tap into information stored in mainframes. Corporate Computing will have a controlled circulation of
155,000, sent to 35,000 corporate locations with the largest computer investments.
When Corporate Computing debuts, Ziff-Davis will have eight U.S. titles and five overseas. The bulk of its readers are corporate buyers or managers trying to keep their computer systems up to date. Ziff-Davis tests computer products in its sophisticated labs and critiques and recommends them.
Apple Computer said that Ziff-Davis' MacWeek and MacUser and IDG's Macworld "serve a very useful purpose. They're devoted to our customers," said Yolanda Davis, a company spokeswoman. Apple, she said, has no plans to get into computer publishing.
Computer magazines, which contain stories like "Modem Remote-Control Software" and "Shopping for the Right Mac," appeal to advertisers because their readers have high disposable incomes and research shows that such magazines are the most important source of information for computer buyers, Mr. Hippeau said.
Moreover, "in order for you as a vendor to be present in the market you have to be very visible in computer magazines," he said.
So desirable are these magazines that Mr. Hippeau said he turns down advertising from non-computer companies. "When people pick up a computer magazine they don't want to be distracted by other things."
Mr. Hippeau insists that Ziff-Davis, unlike most publishers, does not negotiate its stated ad rates, but does give preset discounts for volume purchases and new advertisers.