Custom publishing, once considered the marketing wave of the future, has not lived up to its early promise. The problem is often the heavy cost of producing high-quality publications. Recently, though, 13 family-run apparel retailers found a way to share costs while producing a magazine that is customized for individual stores.

The businesses are members of the Men's Forum, which meets regularly to compare financials and share business advice (as well as to buy some merchandise as a group). "These are like-minded retailers from around the country," says Russell Mitchell, CEO of Mitchells/Richards stores in Westport and Greenwich, Conn. (At $40 million in sales last year, Mitchells/Richards is the largest business in the group.)

The Men's Forum retailers all cater to what Mitchell calls "high-end" male customers -- CEOs, entrepreneurs, stock-market titans, and the idle rich. So the group decided to produce a glossy semiannual promotional magazine with a combined circulation of 120,000 of the group's clientele. The forum manages the content but outsources design and publishing operations to Business Journals Inc., a Connecticut trade publisher.

The trick is in the way the magazine is individualized. Each member store gets some pages for its own personalized content -- usually a store-specific story, such as a profile of a particular tailor. And each store can order different inserts for different customers (golf-wear coupons sent to only those customers who golf, for example). Most of the magazine's content is general enough to be of interest to the entire group. One recent story example: "Have It Your Way: Custom Shirts Offer Personalized Fit, Fabric, and Details."

Advertising revenues underwrite much of the cost of the magazine. Advertisers, including clothing manufacturers, can buy ad pages in only those issues customized for stores that carry their products. "The people who run the Ermenegildo Zegnas of the world are clamoring for places to advertise that are targeted," Mitchell says. "Our best customers are their target, but our research shows that there is a very low penetration into our customer base among the magazines in which these companies usually advertise, like GQ and Esquire."

What ad revenues don't pay for, the member stores split according to the number of issues they mail. For smaller partners like Scott Malouf of Malouf's in Lubbock, Tex., the arrangement makes an otherwise unaffordable marketing campaign entirely feasible. His $8 million business has spent only $11,000 on the publication in three quarters. For that, Malouf's has shipped 30,000 copies of an impressive magazine custom-titled Malouf's Forum. "I consider that chump change," he says. "I could easily spend that on postcards to customers for a sales event."

Group members, enthusiastic about the new magazine, have started to become more ambitious, seeking to increase the level of customization -- which would push up the price. "I would obviously like to control costs," says Wally Naymon, founder of Kilgore Trout, in Cleveland, one of the smallest stores in the group.

Yet even the added expenses don't pinch too much. Naymon spends only 15% of his ad budget on Forum, and he relishes the psychic dividend. "The magazine makes me feel good about spending ad dollars," Naymon says. "I haven't said that about anything else in 22 years of business."