The cover of a magazine—its colors, words and images—determine how quickly a reader will pick it up off of a newsstand or coffee table. With this in mind, editors and designers look for an inspiring or provocative shot to grace the cover—something that represents what the audience wants to see or read about the most, or speaks to a particular demographic. So what happens when there are two (or more) equally compelling stories that are cover worthy? When faced with this dilemma, some editors are choosing multiple covers for one issue.

That’s what Vanity Fair decided to do with its September issue when two pop culture icons, Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett, died on June 25. Both appear on the front, with the “Charlie’s Angels” star featured on half of the magazines and the King of Pop on the other half. According to editor Graydon Carter, it was the only choice for a publication that covers the country’s biggest cultural events. “Two covers seemed like the sensible thing to do, given the passing of two major American icons on the same day,” Carter told USA Today.
More than one cover, or even several covers, for single issue might seem like an unusual approach, but “more magazines are using split covers, dual covers and multiple covers of three, four, and in some cases, 11,” magazine industry insider Samir Husni blogged in a January 23 post. We asked our editors and designers to weigh in on the concept. What are benefits of multiple covers, and what does it take to make them work?
When it works: “In the case of the Vanity Fair covers, you have two megastars of a specific era dying on the same day, and the connections and similarities of their lives are perfect for a dual cover idea,” says designer Kerri Davis. Even their stories explore similar themes of love, fame, career, family, odd behavior and untimely death. Multiple covers also work when they have a “visual connection of some sort,” Kerri says. “Farrah and Michael both appear in the same position with their arms folded, and the photos are in black and white.” The headlines, “Fallen King” and “Fallen Angel,” mirror each other and are displayed interchangeably on both covers. The strategy can spur newsstand sales when it gives readers a feel of buying a “limited edition.” The 15th anniversary issue of Vibe featured six covers of hip-hop producer Jay-Z, and TV Guide has used multiple and split covers of characters from one or more shows to promote a new television season. “If the Beatles were just erupting, I could see Time or Newsweek during four versions, one with each Beatle on the cover,” says editor Bill Hudgins. “There is such an insatiable appetite for celebrities that people might collect the set.”

Best Use of Multiples
The most original example of a multiple cover we found was the March issue of the Atlantic. For its cover story on “How the Crash Will Reshape America,” which reported on economic decline in the suburbs and progress in urban areas, the magazine published four versions of the cover—each targeted to one of these metro regions. Images of four cities appeared on the covers with the headlines, “Chicago Wins,” “San Francisco Wins,” “Toronto Wins” and “New York Wins.” The Chicago, Toronto and San Francisco covers went to audiences in those markets, while the rest of subscribers and newsstands across the country received the New York cover.

When it doesn’t work: For its special “Africa” issue, Vanity Fair shot 20 covers of athletes, politicians, musicians and artists who shared some connection to the continent, with each pairing two celebrities (like Barack Obama and Muhammad Ali, Madonna and Maya Angelou, and George Bush and Condoleezza Rice). A quick search on this issue turned up several complaints from readers. One subscriber was angered because she received the cover of Bush (of whom she isn’t a fan). Since September’s Vanity Fair will be distributed randomly, Bill wonders if the same scenario might occur. “If I were a subscriber and a Michael Jackson fan, I’d be upset if I got a Farrah Fawcett cover and had to buy another copy to get a cover of my hero,” Bill says. “There’s also the irk factor of trying to find a place that sells the one you want.” Some magazines like Men’s Health, US Weekly and Harper’s Bazaar have begun producing two covers per issue—one for newsstands and one for subscribers. The newsstand covers tend to be more sensational with lots of lists, while their coffee-table counterparts are more image driven with tidbits about what’s new inside. According to Mr. Magazine’s Husni, the random difference in content and presentation is confusing to readers. “Subscribers do visit the newsstands, and what they see there should match what is on their coffee table,” he blogged in this recent post.
Why it’s worth a try: “Doing alternate covers is a way for magazines to do field research—which cover sold more, which one got better feedback,” says editor Lena Anthony. At Hammock, we have tried a form of this with MyBusiness, which we publish for the National Federation of Independent Business. Cover choices are sent to a reader panel, which votes on the winner. “As part of the survey, we ask readers what appeals to them,” Lena says. “Some of the answers are silly, but others are insightful, with readers telling us what they see in a cover subject’s face and how they can or cannot relate to that person.” Of course, printing multiple covers (and distributing them) can get expensive, so for magazines on a tight budget, Bill suggests a foldout cover that gives readers the best of both. “You could alternate which is outside and inside the fold,” he says. “It’s probably not as expensive as running and binding two separate covers, and there might be some advertisers who would see this as a plus.”