Last week, an old acquaintance of mine got in touch. He was thinking of switching careers from programming to magazines, and had a job interview at a well respected hobby magazine as a sub-editor, so he wanted to pick my brains. I figured I’d pop up his questions and my responses here, as they may prove useful and/or interesting to some of you. His questions are in bold, my answers not. [] denote an additional thought I had while preparing this for publication here.

Sub-editor seems like a “jack of all trades” position, fair comment? I actually find that quite appealing as seems to be a little bit of everything, probably quite a good place to start in publishing, I’d have thought. Is there a recognised next step from there, or is sub-editing an end in itself?

It depends on the outfit. Used by differing companies it has broadly similar but not identical meanings. In some places, a sub-editor seems to mean almost a deputy editor. On newspapers they check facts and copy (sometimes extensively rewriting). In magazine companies, they do the same but they tend to call them production editors instead. They also get called copy editors. On small publications that are not connected to the mainstream publishing industry, I imagine they do a bit of everything.

Some subs become editors. Many stay as subs. In small teams there is no “up” within that job category. In larger organisations it’s possible to become a chief sub-editor. Most I know have been subs for years. The plus side of it is that it’s quite easy to make a living as a freelance sub editor, as they’re always needed, and it’s a rarefied skill set.

Is producing a monthly magazine for the wargames market something that can be done comfortably with a small team, or is endless overtime the order of the day?

Endless overtime is usually the order of the day, I’m afraid. Partly because the staff are rightly proud of what they are doing, partly because the big bosses often don’t provide enough resource, and are prone to meddling. [On the other hand, if you get a good editor, adequate resourcing, a sane corporate environment and a good manager, then it can work just fine]. They also are very interested in maximising their profits at the expense of, well, you. [N.B. This isn’t just a problem in publishing, but a part of the malaise of capitalism, especially recently, where lots of money goes to the bosses, and little trickles down to the workers. Welcome to the neo-Victarian age].  “Overtime” is misleading, as it’s never paid. One place, I frequently had to work until 10pm unpaid, and then got told off for coming in 10 minutes late the next day. This is one of the many reasons I prefer to work for myself.  At some firms it was  a little better, as the first week of the production cycle was fairly slack, while the last was hectic with late nights. You were still expected to be present during that first week, even when there was often little to do, [which always struck me as an obscene waste of the few years of life I have]. You rarely get time in lieu either.

This would be a good time to point out the lousy wages – in all my time as a journalist (in fact, my entire career to date) only once have I earned over £30,000, and only because I was doing freelance on the side. My average wage since I started in this line of work works out at £18,700pa. Slightly over the UK average. It is a fun and rewarding job, but you can get exploited, and the money is crap. Bear this in mind though, you have it better than local newspaper journalists.

It looks from the outside like publishing is an industry undergoing change due to the digital revolution. Are magazines going to struggle – even if they’re digital – in this age of freely available blogs etc? To put it another way: in your opinion, is going into publishing something with good short/medium/long-term prospects, when the market for (traditional) publishing is shrinking?

Digital technology has been having an effect on publishing for the last thirty years, not just since 2000. It started with a rapid shift in the means of production, and has now allowed this current change in the means of distribution. [When I first expressed an interest in journalism, I went round the local paper. There they still had hot metal typesetting. “All this will be gone next year,” said the editor. And it was, with it a lot of skilled jobs. More followed as desktop publishing took over from scalpels and sticky tape]. There will always be room for professionally published, high quality entertainment. Whether it’s on your iPad or paper is increasingly irrelevant. White Dwarf, for example, has benefitted hugely from going digital, as has the comics market. Like everything nowadays though, the market has fragmented. It’s harder to make big money. The golden age of magazines was the mid-90s, when computing made it easier to produce them, but had not yet advanced to the point where anybody with a keyboard could get themselves a platform. [For what it’s worth, I think personal blogs were a bit of a flash in the pan. Or rather, the best ones have evolved, becoming something approximating professional publications. Which, if you go back to the days of samizdat, tended to happen to the best fanzines too. The trouble is that there are so many blogs that few can attract a sizeable audience. Professionally produced news outlets, and in that I include many that started out as blogs, can simply because of their quality. Newspapers used to be very local, effectively collating all the most interesting local gossip. You’d be reading about people you knew a lot. Pro-publications will survive, as there’s always a need for a filter of some kind. In a way, we’ve come to a new sort of international localism, the “global village”, a phrase I haven’t heard in so long I feel it needs quote marks. But the localism is one of interest groups, rather than geographical proximity. Look at SFX, or Sci-Fi Now. Both sell well enough to be viable businesses, even though SF geeks were early adopters of the web, and remain prolific writers. But pro-publishing finds itself in competition with amateur efforts, and as a filter to them, and amateur bloggers frequently find themselves the mutating into professionals. Like self-publishing, for the moment blogs are a new channel in the informational delta, rather than a replacement for the river. However, more and more of this stuff is taking place digitally, no matter who produces it].

Looking further ahead (I’m expecting my next job to last at least 3-5 years), is moving from a niche magazine into other areas of publishing fairly straightforward, or is it looked down on? (I know when I moved from games programming to non-games programming some employers thought it didn’t count as it was “only games”, even though games programming was both harder and more interesting, and games programmers are better than their non-games equivalents IME).

No, it’s not straightforward. A good candidate can do it, but frankly often [not always, but often] the quality of niche magazines made by non-publishing companies is much lower than that of those produced by bigger firms – in writing, presentation, design, photography, sub editing – every sphere, in fact. [There’s a direct relationship between quality and how big a market something has in magazines. The smaller and more niche the special interest, generally the lower the quality]. The product itself can undermine your application. A good sub has it easier, but a lot of writers and designers aren’t trained as such to begin with and don’t have the skills to make the switch. I was offered one editorship quite early in my career, actually, but turned it down for fear that it would damage my CV. [I only took it on when I thought I’d built up enough experience with a company that did nothing but magazines].

I know you’ve written on your blog about the transition from journalist to author; I seem to remember you saying it took ten years to get published (and then people only get one shot at it) even with that background, do you think the journalism helped reach where you are now, or would you have got there anyway if you’d done something different?

Ten years? [I probably did write that! Ten years since I started to take it seriously]. More like twenty, if I’m honest. Journalism certainly helped, yes, as I got to know a lot of people (authors, editors, publishers et al) who gave me pointers and gave me chances. It also taught me how to write, respect deadlines, produce high quality work quickly, and not to be precious. I think I have an innate desire to write, so maybe I’d have done it anyway, although probably not. It’s not so much about the opportunities my first career afforded me [although they certainly helped], but more about the skills and attitude it inculcated into me. Without journalism I’d still be writing very infrequently, producing 10,000 words of utter crap a year, and sulking in the pub. [Last year, by contrast, I produced 320,000 words of fiction alone].

  1. One thing I’d definitely add here is that, if he’s a programmer already, he shouldn’t use that as the basis for his job. Given that publishing is increasingly digital, technical knowledge is a wonderful thing to have, but you have to be careful that your programmer skills aren’t called upon too heavily by the organisation you work for, or you’ll end up mostly programming again. While it’ll make you indispensable, you won’t have switched careers, you’ll just find yourself being an in-house programmer without a clear brief, and you won’t really be anywhere near the publishing craft of the whole thing.

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