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PUBLISHING FOLLY AHEAD: HELP WANTED June 12, 2014

Posted by markswill in About me, Cars and Bikes, Media.
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If you love the printed word, skip the next eight paras. Otherwise…

Reporting in the Guardian’s Media Blog on May 18th, the sainted David Hepworth reported comments proudly made by Zillah Byng-Maddick, the newly anointed CEO of Future Publishing, after announcing hundreds of job-cuts as the company rushes onto a digital-only, erm, future. “Now,” he noted, “a single content and marketing team would produce all content.” Zillah Byng-Maddick – who oversaw Auto Trader’s transition from print to digital – claimed  ‘our expert, trusted content enables us to attract large communities of highly engaged customers who want to buy things, and that’s exceptionally appealing to our clients’.

“No mention,” notes Hepworth,  “of either readers or advertisers there. Instead it’s customers and clients, two words that an editor used to be able to go through an entire career without allowing them to sully their lips.”

In fact Future, which is the only publicly quoted (what used to be called) magazine publisher in the country, and thus beholden to shareholders who give not a fig about anything but profit, is busy selling off its titles to whoever’ll buy them. Most recently this means Immediate Media, who also acquired all of BBC’s magazines in 2011 and has re-energised them, especially the once considered moribund but now hugely profitable Radio Times which sells 830,000 copies an issue.

I used to work for Future in the ‘90s and greatly enjoyed doing so but under a succession of hard-nosed CEOs and CFOs  the “digital transition” means blood on the carpet and a lot of creative types wondering what’s hitting them. The story’s the same right across magazine publishing with the emphasis on providing what advertisers rather than readers want, based on the assumption that as Byng-Maddick slyly implies, readers will buy anything editorial tells them to buy because at least in the short term, editorial is trusted. That, in my view, is because the instant availability of information in today’s Wiki-world seems to infer an aura of authority.

And then we have Robert Peston writing in the London Evening Standard that, “The relentless cycle of cost-cutting at traditional news media is giving growing and potentially worrying power to the public relations industry.”

He then bemoans, “the fetishisation of hiring young people who supposedly understand the digital world… but (who have) few proper contacts. Now newspapers are filled with reports based on spurious PR-generated surveys, because they lack the resources to generate their own, high-quality stories.”

And yet at the recent Hay Festival, there was an overt ‘Print Isn’t Dead’ theme – a bit rich coming from an organisation which avidly embraces digital readers. Nevertheless an interesting item in its promo-bumf virtually celebrated the fact that we spent £93million less on printed books last year than in 2013, but in the next breath reckoned that “by producing high-quality editions, traditional publishers can shore up sales and retain the loyalty of self-confessed papyrophiles.” (I assumed ‘papyrophiles’ are readers who like ink-on-paper). A claim possibly justified by the statistic that sales of hardbacks rose by 11.5% in America last year.

Whatever you make of all this, now might not seem the time to be launching a print magazine, especially so if you’re middle-aged and somewhat phobic towards digital media. So of course that’s exactly what I’m going to do. And I need your help.

As occasionally reflected in these blogs, I’m a big fan of old cars and ‘bikes. (I was going to witter on here about the monstrous consequences to my Citruin XM after recently hitting a badger at 80mph, or replacing the catalytic converter on my Twingo money-pit, but you’d only laugh). My career in automotive journalism began in 1972 in the offices of Car magazine where I’d conceived a bratty little motorcycle magazine called, with vaulting imagination, Bike. And extraordinarily, after many incarnations it remains the market leader. But Car’s staff taught me that original prose and careful editing mattered, and in its day it was superior in both respects to anything else around. Its stellar writers included Doug Blain, L.J.K Setright and Mel Nichols and their descriptive powers, love of both language and machinery inspired and instructed me.

Now I am old I miss those great writers and their freedom to let their knowledge and critical enthusiasm run wild over 2, 3, or 4,000+ words. Today’s motoring (and motorcycling) magazines rarely contain articles over 1500 words long and have become tediously formulaic. And this because their writers are constrained by the short attention spans of a digital constituency, or as Peston implies, because the emphasis is on young hacks who don’t know how to craft a long-form essay.

But I believe that those of us who grew up with cars in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s – i.e. today’s classics – still know how to read more than a page of bland text displayed on a desktop and who appreciate the informed opinions of people who can still write it. So this autumn I’m investing, if not squandering my savings in what will be a small, but perfectly formed periodical full of great writing about great cars, the great men and women responsible for them, and their great escapades and achievements.

I already have some fine contributors onboard, but I’d ask any of you who have such stories to tell, and who can really write as well as read, to contact me – or recommend appropriate others. If nothing else, in these strange and difficult times for the printed word, it should be quite an adventure: williams.mark1@gmail.com

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Comments»

1. Rik - June 12, 2014

Wow, I admire your bravery in creating a new mag about old cars, i will subscribe. Having spent the last two weekends and evenings hacking, filling, sanding and spraying my canary yellow 1966 Volvo Amazon to get it to Glastonbury, it is a subject dear to my heart.

markswill - June 13, 2014

Well I’ll forward you a subscription brochure then, Rik ! And let’s hope it stays fair for Glasto…

2. Neil Murray - June 12, 2014

Who remembers Buying Cars, a couple of decades ago (maybe more)? That was funny, especially when they got caught with a Saab 900 whose miles were 100,000 higher than they thought, because of a small square of black tape over the ‘1’ digit on the odometer.

As for old bikes, they provide a marvellous opportunity (sometimes) to us old farts who can recall how to make them tick. I recently picked up a lovely classic 1973 Honda CB125S for a song (less than the bloke had spent on paint and mudguards) because, although he’d fitted a new camchain and piston and rings, it was still clanking at low revs. And yours truly, mindful of Mr Honda’s odd entirely-manual camchain adjustment system on these tiddlers, was certain he’d not connected the linkage properly. And he hadn’t. Half an hour’s work and a circlip and a washer later, and it was running like a Rolex.

markswill - June 13, 2014

Funnily enough Neil, I have Rolex that runs like a Honda 125 with a knackered camchain… but then I did buy it from a nice man in an alleyway in Istanbul.

3. Jan Buxton - June 12, 2014

Sounds good. Also I’ll mention it to someone I know who’d be a good contributor.
PS I didn’t know badgers could run that fast

4. markswill - June 13, 2014

Thanks Jan… and I think you’ll find that badgers are always up for a race with a large French car.

5. Neil Murray - June 13, 2014

Mark – my favourite Turkish knock-off is a pair of cheap sunglasses I bought off the street, actually really rather good ones, and I’ve used them for years. Brand? Ray-Bens.

In Latin America, there’s some Chinese brand of motorcycle that calls itself a Yamasaki, which always makes me grin.

6. Martin Wild - June 13, 2014

Not ‘Running Out of Road’ yet then matey! I was there for ‘Bike’ Issue 1 (and many others) and you know about the CAR thing.
Anyway, good luck; and by the way I bought two books today, with real pages and everything!

markswill - June 15, 2014

Nah, RooR has outlived its welcome… and so probably have it. But I’ll put you down for a subscriptions then, Martin?!

Martin Wild - June 16, 2014

Roger that – as they say in the military. Looking forward to another Issue 1.

7. Wm. Terry Krueger - June 18, 2014

Mark,
Sorry for the delay in reading your blog, but it really is inspired writing. And as to your ambitious Fall effort, good for you! Publishing and writing is an addiction, especially when you determine what is writ and wot is not. Full support from these quarters! Great writers have a point of view; hacks are wordmongers. And you have always had a very pointed and directed view of your subject.

But publishers are seemingly strangling themselves. A recent example: Hillary Clinton received a $14m advance, 1,000,000 copies were printed and distributed for the launch, and estimates now are that total sales over the next 2 years will not reach 150,000. The entire supply chain of publishing is ancient and needs revamping. Books and magazines ain’t goin’ nowhere, but publishers are not helping to reduce costs. And yes, the technology and the models are out there, but the inertia in the publsihing world is immense, in my superficial opinion. Good for you Mark! Onward, but not sideways!

markswill - June 18, 2014

Clearly Terry, you don’t have enough time for reading! But thanks for congratulating me on my foolhardiness, it’s much appreciated.

As for the publishing supply and sales chains, well you’re right but I was taken aback to read about the Clinton debacle. Any more of that sort of uncritical profligacy and her publishers will surely be down the toilet.

paulblez - June 19, 2014

Mark, Terry, Private Eye is full of breath-taking examples of “Publishers’ Folly” – forking out hundreds of thousands of pounds (not mere dollars!) to has-been politicians and sportspersons for their autobiographies (usually ghosted, natch) the sales of which fail miserably to cover even a fraction of the production costs, let alone the PR hype and the vast advances! Having said that, this very day I had the great pleasure of attending the launch of the autobiography of John Surtees, co-written with your successor at BIKE, Mike Nicks and published by a brand new company, EVRO. Having only skimmed through it so far, all I can say is that it looks and feels of the highest quality and it the stories within are as good as the ones which Surtees himself recounted at the launch, then it might even make some money. At £50 a pop, it won’t be an impulse buy…..

Wm. Terry Krueger - June 19, 2014

Yep, you are right. The publishing industry publishes at its own peril. They chase washed up has-beens the way Hollywood reworks the original 6 screenplays of a centruy ago. This person was famous once so screw writing and storytelling, maybe some of the “Kardashian” magic will rub off on our book. And then another of your observations of 50 quid a copy—I mean, I’m interested but I wasn’t hero worshiping the guy. (Jimmy Clark is another story). It’s all as ludicrous as the pomposity of the NYTs calling themselves the “paper of record”. Don’t get me started…

markswill - June 19, 2014

You’re spot on as ever Mr T, but it wasn’t me mentioning the Surtees biog – that was Wing Commander Blez – and at 50 quid a pop I should cocoa. Still unlike J. C., of whom I share your admiration, he was a fast on four as well as two wheels… So respect is due.

8. neil harrison - September 2, 2014

Well, how’s the “venture” coming along ? Where do we subscribe ?

markswill - September 3, 2014

Slowly is how it’s going, not least because I’ve moved house and put my back out – the two not entirely unconnected! Launch date is now January. And if you want to subscribe, there’ll be details on my blog when the time comes.

9. Rikgadsby - January 2, 2015

shame about the mag, although completely against the current grain of publishing it might just have worked and, let’s face it, when have you ever gone with the grain? Thanks also for the litany of political and human horrors we have to look forward to in 2015, I had not stopped to count them but as you say the list is endless. the end is listless. Happy days…

markswill - January 3, 2015

The end is certainly listless, Rik but I still can’t quite 100% believe that I’m abandoning the challenge of a launch just because I’m nearing it. Maybe even this late in life common sense is prevailing?!

10. Eric - October 23, 2016

After finding my copy of ROOR lurking in a box of Bike back issues, I thought I’d see if you were still writing. Delighted to find that you are! Shame you decided not go ahead with the car mag. As a recent convert to classic cars (A scabby but hilariously fun Jensen Interceptor) from a life solely on two wheels, it would have been just the best thing to accompany my (mis)adventures with my new money-pit!

markswill - June 7, 2017

Hello Eric, thanks for the kind words and oddly enough I HAVE just and finally decided to go ahead with the classic car mag (Classic Motoring Review), launch issue in mid-October. The Jensen sounds a hoot, but possibly a bit of a money-pit… But then aren’t they all?

Neil Murray - June 7, 2017

Hah. And how about a 1988 Porsche 911 Targa (mit Getrag G50 gearbox), purchased four years ago for £12k. With just a few problems in the past few years….

Neil


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