A Lot of Nerve

Erotic Web Zine Swells in Size as It Plans To Become a Portal

It's all in the decor. In this case, we're talking stainless steel desks, black space-age chairs, and iMacs. These items are resting on a hardwood floor, freshly polyurethaned, in a SoHo loft on Broadway. If a TV producer conjured a set for a hip web zine, he couldn't do any better. Of course, the TV version would be an illusion and this is a real office. In the corner sits Rufus Griscom (third from left in photo), the editor and CEO of Nerve.com, and that really is an Adorno tome on his desk, and he really does want to be as helpful as he can for this interview. After all, everything really is happening for Nerve.

Next month, the little-erotica- Web-zine- that-could will transform into a community space and portal, replete with homepage building, e-mail, chat, bulletin boards, and personal ads. In January, Nerve.com plans to debut a print version, sold online, to be followed with distribution in bookstores. Private investors with $10 million have given Nerve a boost, and industry analysts now think the site could be the first adult play to make it as an IPO. And the recently launched German, French, and Spanish versions of the site already bring in a big chunk of the company's ad revenue. Nerve.com isn't profitable, but hey, it's growing. Fast.

All this makes a good story, and Nerve has always courted publicity with uncanny skill, from that first puff on CNN just days after they launched, a scant two years ago— Griscom and then lover Genevieve Field (center in photo) conceiving the site over Chinese food on the floor of their one-bedroom apartment— all the way down to today, when a publicist is on staff to "help" the stories along. Somewhere, though, is an analyst who has taken a look at the mathematical reality.

"Clearly they are going to generate a lot of buzz, but you can't live on buzz alone," says Aram Sinnreich, an analyst with Jupiter Communications. ''Nerve has a very limited market, and in order to make money on a limited market you have to offer a lot of services, which is obviously what they are trying to do. But I don't think there is a big enough market to support them."

Sinnreich could so easily be wrong. Nerve could be the next Playboy media empire; as president and editorial director Field says, "we've been thinking big all along." All that Nerve has to do is embody the spirit of a new sexual movement, to position itself on the cusp of change the way Playboy did more than 40 years ago. The comparison may appear a touch forced— after all, Hefner threw bashes for the masses, whereas Nerve holds soirées for the post-gender crowd. But if the parties were raunchier in the '60s, or if the site seems too studied to be radical, realize that Nerve is as sharp as the straight edge can get before it loses all hope of profitability. No other zine draws as diverse a crowd of hot writers, from Dennis Cooper to A.M. Homes, although the gems are often by less-known talents, such as a very popular recent piece of reportage by Leif Ueland about a porn star's 500-man gang bang.

The trouble is that at this point you can't say whether Nerve is a simulacrum or the real thing, whether all that cool furniture belongs to a next-generation mover and shaker— or to a Web site that's enjoyed a lot of press and modest financial success by publishing quality photos and prose, but whose future remains limited to a small number of people interested in "literate smut." Is it a better story than a business? Perhaps it's no surprise that the answer depends more on how the zine navigates the waters of big-time media than on whether it convinces Rick Moody to muse a little more about the joys of polysexuality.

These days, it's Griscom who runs the business end, and he knows, without giving the game away, exactly what a delicate spot Nerve is in. But if anybody can make a highbrow content play work out, well, it's going to be a guy like 31-year-old Griscom, someone who wears Oxford shirts with crazy-quilt slacks and can talk cash-blend ad deals as easily as postmodernism. He certainly possesses that rare ability to ooze an aphorism ("I believe in running for the purposes of locomotion") as readily as talk market risk ("our revenue story is very solid"). But is that enough?

Let's start with basics: you are planning to launch a magazine in January. What is the projected circulation, who is the audience, and why does a Web site need a magazine? We are exploring a new strategy for launching a print magazine. We are going to create a beautiful physical magazine, start with a small print run, and market it exclusively online. It may be hard to find a copy of the first issue— we are interested in generating grassroots buzz and creating demand without spending a lot of money. We are investing a considerable amount of money in the content, though— top writing, photography, design, paper stock, and so on.

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