As yet another magazine about the Main Line debuts this month, one has to ask: Just how much do rich people want to read about themselves?

Are there enough party pictures and plastic-surgery ads even in an area as wealthy as the Main Line to fill these competing paeans to the good life?

Mainline, the Art+Culture+Lifestyle Magazine, launched its premiere issue last week at a packed party at Susanna Foo Gourmet Kitchen in Radnor. It took an energetic bang on the restaurant's gong to quiet the crowd - a sea of dark suits and tasteful black dresses - so publisher Andrew Cantor could describe this venture, which "celebrates the art of living in the Main Line."

Cantor, who also owns a graphic-design firm in New Hope, sees his bimonthly magazine as a sophisticated, sleek alternative to the slightly more staid Main Line Today; the broader, snarkier Philadelphia Magazine; and LifeStyle Main Line magazine, which launched in September.

City and regional magazines, which are seen as a way for advertisers to home in on people who can afford to live luxuriously and wage war on aging, have been a hot category in recent years. Last year, two started in Atlanta alone.

"These magazines are really sprouting up all over the country," said Samir Husni, chair of the University of Mississippi's journalism department and a magazine expert. "All of a sudden, it started to spread like wildfire."

This kind of competition - it's not unusual for several to take aim at the same affluent neighborhood - is not for the risk-averse. The regional magazines, Husni said, face the same daunting failure rate as magazines of other genres. Only 38 percent survive the first year. A mere 18 percent last four years.

Cantor is feeling the pressure enough to snipe a little at LifeStyle, a glossy, colorful publication that he deems "a step above a clipper."

"We'll see who survives," snapped LifeStyle's president and chief executive officer, Peter Graeffe.

LifeStyle's current cover features a cruise ship, but Graeffe said the article about the University of Pennsylvania's expansion was more serious than anything Mainline would take on.

Meanwhile, he said, Mainline's cover - a matte black-and-white close-up of Bradley Whitford - is of a "TV star who hasn't lived here since he was 13." (For the record, the article says the 47-year-old actor left Wayne in high school.)

Graeffe's Norristown-based company produces similar magazines for Bucks and Montgomery Counties and plans a Philadelphia LifeStyle this year. He talked with Cantor, who also publishes Bucks magazine, about working together, but they couldn't agree on an approach.

"It's not clear," Graeffe said, "whether the market is big enough to support all of the magazines."

"It's getting pretty saturated," said Jonathan Scharf, a cosmetic dentist who buys a full-page ad in each issue of Main Line Today and has been "heavily solicited" by the two new Main Line magazines. "It's a small business. I really can't be in all three of them. . . . These other guys are newcomers. They've got to prove themselves at this point."

LifeStyle wanted his business badly enough, he said, to print his ad for free this month.

"You know, I think they're all beginning to look alike," said Judy Herman, director of the Main Line Art Center in Haverford. She likes to see local news, but won't be reading all the Main Line magazines. "I might buy one, but I would choose," she said.

Nationally, Husni said, regional magazines have certain similarities. All are aimed at people who are at least middle class. All the local examples are shooting for families who make $180,000 and up - or aspire to. Don't expect to find criticism of the elite or investigative journalism.

"If you pick up any of those magazines, you think you're living in heaven on earth," Husni said.

While they offer stunning photos of travel opportunities outside their regions, the magazines also stress "good old community journalism," he said. Pictures of local houses. Local restaurant reviews. Those predictable group shots of everybody all dressed up for the party.

"People love and cherish seeing themselves in the magazine," Husni said. They "can clip those pictures, put them on their fridge, and say, 'Wow, we're good.' "

There is considerable debate about which kind of distribution approach works best. Philadelphia Magazine, which competes for the same advertisers though it's seeking regional appeal, gets most of its circulation - close to 130,000 a month - through subscriptions.

Main Line Today - circulation about 20,000 - aims for a combination of subscriptions and free mailings to wealthy people or businesses they frequent. Most of Mainline's initial circulation of 35,000 will come from unsolicited mailing, but it hopes to convert to more newsstand purchases and subscriptions. LifeStyle is simply mailed free to the 30,000 wealthiest families it can find in each area.

The City and Regional Magazine Association, whose membership includes Philadelphia Magazine and Main Line Today, argues people spend more time with magazines they choose, improving the odds an ad will get some attention.

But Husni said that was not necessarily true. "How you get the magazine has nothing to do with how much time you spend with the magazine," he said. "It's the content of the magazine that will engage you."

Mainline's first issue features well-written articles about Whitford and the private wine cellar of Jonathan Newman, a Bryn Mawr resident who resigned this month as head of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. There are loving pictures of a sprawling Wynnewood mansion and some artsy outdoor fashion shots featuring bizarrely layered ensembles that start at $5,000. There's information about kids, furniture and food.

Radnor resident Carla Zambelli, who has already seen the magazine in several places, was impressed. "It's beautiful," she said. "This magazine has snob appeal."

If the more experienced competitors are worried, they're not showing it.

"We're very good at what we do, and we've been very successful at what we're doing," said Sally Holub, publisher of Main Line Today, which launched in March 1996. "The readers love us, and the advertisers love us."

Larry Platt, editor of 99-year-old Philadelphia Magazine, called the Main Line publications "pretty picture magazines" and said he didn't see them as a threat. Though they compete for the same demographic, Philadelphia Magazine sees itself in a different category. The others wouldn't put a handgun on the cover.

"We're much more about narrative journalism and reflecting the zeitgeist of the city and not much about style," Platt said.

"I don't really look at them, because our readership is so loyal and so huge that I don't consider them competition."

Contact staff writer Stacey Burling

at 215-854-4944 or sburling@phillynews.com.