After 19 years of rising to the top, and trying to find just the right words to push-pull a million black female readers along for the ride, Susan Taylor has stepped down as editor in chief of Essence magazine. Or at least stepped over.

In a statement released yesterday, the magazine says Taylor has been named to the newly created position of publications director, allowing her to work with magazine operations and the parent company Essence Communications Inc.

Folks at Essence are tight-lipped, but former Essence lifestyle and fashion director Harriette Cole, who left in 1995 and is familiar with many of the details of the move, is convinced Taylor "will continue to have an oversight role in the creation of the product. . . . She's just stepping into a new vision."

What the company did say yesterday is that Taylor will maintain oversight of the magazine's editorial operations, while simultaneously having a hand in ECI multimedia. In addition to the magazine, ECI holdings include Essence Entertainment, Essence Books, the Essence by Mail catalogue and the bilingual Latina magazine.

But for a generation of African American women, Taylor is Essence magazine--her long braids its subliminal logo; her monthly "In the Spirit" column, which she will continue to write, its engine.

A standout in a magazine industry that only recently has begun to market beauty and fashion advice to people of color, for years Essence was a singular product. And much of that was Taylor.

Taylor joined the magazine in 1970 after successfully arguing that she didn't need journalism experience to dispense beauty advice. A few weeks later, she became fashion and beauty editor, and in 1981, its editor in chief. The magazine, which debuted 30 years ago with about 50,000 subscribers, now puts that figure at a little more than a million, with a readership of more than five million. Speaking intimately to the lives of black women, it benefits from a sort of talking drum effect, with the most timely snippets often traveling across country along the girlfriend grapevine.

Marcia Ann Gillespie, also a former Essence editor in chief who guided and shaped the magazine in its earliest years, worked closely with Taylor for most of the 1970s. She says Taylor's imprimatur on the magazine was most evident in her ability to take the example of her life--a divorced mother without a college education--and use it to inspire readers--to take leaps of faith and coach others to long jump. (She's now married to writer Khephra Burns and has a degree in business from Fordham University.)

Gillespie, now president of Liberty Media, which owns Ms. magazine, credits Taylor's vision with putting together the annual Essence Music Festival and bringing the Essence Awards ceremony to prime-time television.

Now, "it's about growing and spreading her wings in other directions," Gillespie says. "It's not that she thinks that the magazine is less important, but one of her messages to readers has always been to try something new."

"It's almost like God is saying [to Taylor], I'm not finished with you yet."

Monique Greenwood, currently Essence executive editor, will become editor in chief in June. She takes the reins at a time when other publications have positioned themselves to compete for Essence readers. Honey magazine, targeted at younger black women, and B. Smith's Style, aiming for a Martha Stewart demographic, debuted last year. And this spring, Oprah lends her name and her brand of change-your-life motivation to a new mag.

But Essence was there when no one else was, with its coverage of beauty, fashion, relationships, careers and parenting from the perspective of black women.

Some Taylor fans were glad to hear that she will continue to write her "In the Spirit" column.

It's "the first place I read," says Dana McCurry, a product group coordinator with a Washington trade association who has subscribed to Essence for almost 12 years. "She tends to address issues that seem to be on my mind. . . . She gives me other ways to think about things, even if it's an ugly subject."

CAPTION: After 19 years, Susan Taylor will no longer be Essence's editor in chief; her new title is publications director.