NEW YORK — It's starting to feel like an all-you-can-eat buffet on the newsstand lately. And that has some food magazines mixing it up a bit.
As many magazines continue to struggle, food magazines show strength. For a third year in a row, launches of new food magazines topped all other categories, according to Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi School of Journalism.
And some, such as Food Network Magazine, which debuted in 2009, have enjoyed tremendous success.
That's putting pressure on established food titles. Two of the larger-circulation magazines — Every Day with Rachael Ray and Bon Appetit — this month launched splashy overhauls with new editors at the helm, efforts to attract advertisers and keep readers in the increasingly crowded market.
"Those established magazines that come on a regular basis are finding it harder and harder to compete on the newsstand because of how many food titles we have crowding that marketplace," Husni said. "They need a story to take to the advertisers — they're refreshed, they're redesigned — because they have a big competitor called the Food Network Magazine."
The market for food magazines has become more competitive since Food Network Magazine's launch, which came the same year Bon Appetit owner Conde Nast closed the grand dame of food magazines, Gourmet.
Last year, more than 100 out of about 800 new magazines were food titles, Husni said. Plus, a majority of food titles boosted advertising revenue in the first quarter of 2011 compared to the same period a year earlier, according to the Publishers Information Bureau.
The timing of the dual revamps of Bon Appetit and Every Day is coincidental — the two titles have different owners and aim for slightly different readers. But they operate in the same environment and have taken similar paths.
Both have new editors mixing things up, yet sticking with their magazine's core identity — for Bon Appetit, that's being a smart but not snooty food authority; for Every Day, it's being a distillation of Ray's bubbly spirit on the page.
"The magazine that we remade absolutely puts back energy into the pages," Rachael Ray said in a phone interview. "It has an energy to it on top of a youthfulness."
Ray's magazine is making its biggest change since its debut five years ago. There are more photos and the text is often smaller to help pack in more features. Editor-in-chief Liz Vaccariello, who came over from Prevention magazine in November, said she wants to engage readers not only with food pages, but to add more lifestyle content with Ray's unique outlook. (In another change, Ray's magazine also is looking for a new publisher.)
"We've seen a lot of success, but things have changed in the marketplace," Vaccariello said, sitting in her Manhattan office. "It's time to re-think what the product could be and what Rachael's fans wanted and expected from her in a printed product."
Bon Appetit has been around for 55 years, but has no intention of becoming fusty — witness the recent campaign to promote the makeover that revolved around the phrase "Bite Me."
Editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport, who moved over from fellow Conde Nast magazine GQ, said changes include an emphasis on compelling photos and keeping up with current food culture. The new issue has an essay from of-the-moment chef Gabrielle Hamilton, author of the current best-seller, "Blood, Bones & Butter."
"I wanted it to have some pop visually. I also wanted it to have a sense of realism. If you look at a lot of the photos there are crumbs, there are cookies shot on parchment paper, they're on actual kitchen counters," Rapoport said. "This is a magazine for home cooks and the food should like it was shot in a kitchen and was made by an actual person and not a just some food stylist in a faraway photo studio."
Bon Appetit and Every Day each have more than 1.4 million subscribers, which make up the majority of their total sales. But both dropped in newsstand sales last year compared to 2009, according to figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Though the two magazines still outsell Food Network Magazine, the popular channel's publication does better on newsstands. In first-quarter ad revenue compared to last year, Bon Appetit was up, Ray's magazine was down.
Husni said that while neither Every Day nor Bon Appetit is messing with its DNA with their redesigns, the publicity that comes from even smaller changes can help them in a field glutted with food titles.
Even the top selling food magazines are working to keep things fresh. Taste of Home, which is the nation's best selling food magazine (and like Ray's magazine is published by Reader's Digest Association) quietly underwent a "refresh" earlier this year that ushered in some font and photo changes, said editor-in-chief Catherine Cassidy. She said the reader recipe-packed magazine adapts constantly.
"We have a lot of competition nipping at our heels all the time," Cassidy said.
That means competition from electronic media as well as other magazines — yet another consideration for the two new editors.
Pages of Every Day are sprinkled with "QR codes" that can be read by smart phones. Readers who snap a picture can get bonus content, such as recipes. Vaccariello also has been on Ray's daytime talk show about a dozen times since becoming editor and they're synchronizing the release of certain features, like style makeovers for women.
"We understand the value of the show and the show understands the value of the magazine," Vaccariello said.
At Bon Appetit, Rapoport said they are relaunching their website, developing an app and are getting involved in TV and e-books. Rapoport sees the magazine as the foundation of a larger brand with content that can be enjoyed on a tablet or a phone — or wherever the market will go in the years ahead.
"If I knew that I'd probably be working at Apple right now," Rapoport joked, "I'm just a magazine editor."