Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Art of Making Magazines


Ten minutes ago, I finished reading my copy of The Art of Magazines, a fun and fascinating book from Columbia University Press. A slim book (Amazon calls it a 200-pager, but this paperback has just over 180, even if you count the blank pages at the end), the book is subtitled "On Being an Editor and Other Views from the Industry."

Page count aside, it's a book every aspiring and practicing editor and writer (and publisher and entrepreneur) should read. Forgive the occasional typo (an odd failing to find in this type of a book, especially considering its chapters on fact checking and copyediting) or some of the out-of-date comments in the chapters; this book's central messages are applicable to every writer, editor, and publisher in print and online. For that matter, it should also be mandatory reading by those Silicon Valley types who are eager to drive a stake through the heart of magazines, when what they're really saying is that they want to drive a stake through the heart of professional journalism.

The Art of Making Magazines is comprised of 12 chapters, all but one of which is a speech given by a high-profile magazine industry professional as part of the George Delacorte Lecture Series at the Columbia School of Journalism. The one exception is a Q&A conversation between moderator Victor Navasky and Vanity Fair Design Director Chris Dixon.

The speakers range from writer John Gregory Dunne to editors Ruth Reichl, Robert Gottlieb, Michael Kelly, Roberta Myers, Peter W. Kaplan, and Tina Brown; from fact checker Peter Canby to copyeditor Barbara Walraff; from art director Dixon and publisher John R. MacArthur to publisher/businessman/poet Felix Dennis. Get this book and read every one of those chapters; they will not only tell you how magazines are really put together (for better and worse), they will give your professional and creative imagination a boost for how to do things differently and better.

Reichl provides a pretty exhaustive run-through of what a high-powered magazine editor's day is like (and how little of it actually has anything remotely to do with editing), and as such she gives readers a good sense of how the editor-in-chief position has changed as technology and markets have changed. At the far end of the book, Felix Dennis also touches on the technology-and-changing-markets theme, but his is a more inspiring (albeit over-the-top) take on the subject; he says there will be a continuing need for good writers and editors even if ink-on-paper periodicals die off.

He also succinctly sums up something that is a theme through many of these talks, but he says it better (hence my use of "succinctly," I guess) than the others. He urges writers and editors and publishers to pay attention first to the reader, and only then to the advertiser. "My advertisers are welcome to attend the party. But they are not the guests of honor," Dennis writes. "They are welcome to a glass of champagne and piece of the cake, but I am married to my readers and not to my advertisers."

With that advice, along with his statements about the need to produce something the readers actually want to read and not something they're receiving simply because it's too much trouble to cancel their subscriptions, Dennis echoes a theme I've played on this blog numerous times, especially in its early years when I focused more on magazines; it's something that is central to a digital-only magazine I produced a couple years ago called Magma (hey, read it free).

Think about why people actually read magazines, or would read magazines if they're not; think about why magazines are failing even though the highly paid MBAs running them are doing everything by the book to cut costs and reduce article size and maximize revenues; think about why you would spend time reading a 5,000-word article and what you could get out of it that you don't get out of a 400-word blurb on a website; think about how many magazines have death wishes because their editors and publishers and owners don't know what they're doing or why readers should want to buy their publications, invest time and energy (and become emotionally connected) with it.

If The Art of Making Magazines has a major flaw, it is that it is very New York-centered in its chosen speakers; in fact, it is very Condé Nast-centered. What's missing, of course, is what most magazine writers and editors will experience: the small magazine, with no copyeditor, everyone including the publisher proofreads, and readerships in the tens of thousands rather than the millions. Also not included is someone speaking about the work of editors, writers, and publishers in business-to-business publishing, or in non-profit and associations publishing. There are some very successful publishers and editors in these ignored markets who could have given very valuable advice to the Columbia students and to readers of this book.

But in the end, the narrow focus is not any more of a hindrance to benefiting from this book than are the typos. The value is in the advice shared and stories told by the speakers – and in any degree of perceptivity that may be employed by the reader.
The Art of Making Magazines was edited by Victor S. Navasky and Evan Cornog, published by Columbia Journalism Review Books, an imprint of Columbia Journalism Press, and released in 2012.
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