Ed Needham, a former Editor at titles including FHM, Rolling Stone and Maxim, launched Strong Words magazine in 2018 to write about books in an "interesting, entertaining and useful" way. He spoke to Cision about working in lockdown, the mystery of subscription marketing and the pleasure of reading.
You have been working from home for years: what impact has the lockdown had, if any, on your (7 day) working week?
I’m used to spending all day, every day on my own and I long ago learned to share a workspace with a fridge without it dominating me and overcome the incessant temptation to lie down, so I thought I’d be fine.
But… although I live and work in Camden I spend most nights in Hammersmith and I used to walk between the two each morning and evening listening to audio books. With exercise rationed, I’ve had to adapt to just walking in a loop and it is not the same. Walking from A to B is for the man with a purpose. The loop has a whiff of the prison exercise yard about it. Compulsory PE is an underwhelming way to start the day.
... even though I produce the magazine by sitting motionless at a desk, the marketing was starting to generate a whirlwind of activity. That whirlwind is now on freeze frame.
Also, I live on a (normally) busy street. I like to hear the delivery men sharing their thoughts on each other’s driving. I like to hear the police sirens and imagine they’ve just missed a bank robbery. Birdsong is fine, but I need the soundtrack of the city.
Most importantly, pre-lockdown Strong Words was doing author events with the Groucho Club and hotels, getting involved in literary festivals and putting itself about. So even though I produce the magazine by sitting motionless at a desk, the marketing was starting to generate a whirlwind of activity. That whirlwind is now on freeze frame.
What have you learned from running a subscription-model publication? Is it the way forward from declining ad revenue?
Pre-pandemic Strong Words was subscription plus newsstand, although I’ve suspended the newsstand element since airports and railways became places our ancestors went to.
I decided from the beginning not to sell advertising, mainly to avoid the cost of a salesperson while my circulation was still negligible, so I never had that revenue stream to lose. Obviously if anyone wants to advertise, I’m interested – I’m not taking a principled stance against it.
It’s no accident that in the Venn diagram of editorial people and marketing people the circles barely intersect. Being able to make something and being able to sell something are abilities that rarely overlap significantly.
The subscription model definitely provides protection against revenue from newsstand and advertising drying up, and costs are easier to control, so they’re big plusses, but convincing people to commit to a subscription is going to be one of the big 21st century skills, and subscription marketing is still a world of mystery to me.
It’s no accident that in the Venn diagram of editorial people and marketing people the circles barely intersect. Being able to make something and being able to sell something are abilities that rarely overlap significantly. I think our brains are configured differently. So that’s the big problem of a one man band operating a subscription model: an unbalanced skill set. Obviously that’s not a problem for big legacy publishers, but then they’ve got plenty of other headaches to choose from.
Is Strong Words even more important now people have to spend their evenings at home?
It’s not important because people have to spend their evenings at home, Strong Words is important because so much of the square footage that used to be devoted to books in the press has disappeared. The UK is the world’s most book loving nation – it publishes more books per capita than any other country.
Book publishing is an essential creative industry, and as its press window shrinks it has fewer opportunities to find an audience, so people are going to miss out on all those brilliant, original and mind-blowing books and their attention will be lost to the gormless internet instead.
Strong Words is also important because there’s a gap for a popular source of coverage about books. The intellectual, academic end of the market is well served for those people who want it and have the patience for it, but for most people the LRB and the TLS and the rest go right over their heads. And too often you can die of boredom reading yet another military history review in the weekend broadsheets.
I’m not an academic or an intellectual, but I love books as much as anyone. That’s why Strong Words writes about them in a way that is interesting, entertaining and useful, so that when subscribers read our reviews they can say with confidence, preferably out loud, “That’s the book for me!” Books are one of life’s great pleasures – they shouldn’t feel like homework.
Have you thought ahead to when all the coronavirus novels are published and you might be reviewing them all?
There’s so much labour goes into each issue of Strong Words I’m rarely able to see beyond the next issue, but I can’t imagine anyone is actively scanning the horizon for the first coronavirus novel. The idea makes me feel a bit queasy. It’s a bit like being given a load of cancer novels to read while you’re having your chemo done.
novelists have been completely sideswiped by the corona intermission, because suddenly the world that consumes their every waking thought has disappeared into a siding, to be replaced by one where nothing happens.
In a way, the virus is anathema to novelists, because they depend on human interaction and emotional connection, two things that the virus has put a padlock on.
In fact, novelists have been completely sideswiped by the corona intermission, because suddenly the world that consumes their every waking thought has disappeared into a siding, to be replaced by one where nothing happens. All their storylines have come up against a giant “Stop!” sign.
I think corona is more likely to appear as plot device – swindlers being kept from their stash by lockdown, people being trapped in houses with complete strangers etc., rather than being the story itself. And fiction writers don’t really do big picture – global catastrophe is much more the stuff of semi-demented Hollywood producers. So if someone does do the corona novel, I really hope they do it in the style of the great James Herbert (The Rats, The Fog etc.) and make it a proper disaster novel rather than the massive old-fashioned Sunday that the virus has turned most people’s lives into.
You can subscribe to Strong Words at www.strong-words.co.uk. New UK subscribers get their first issue FREE.