Book review: The Art of Making Magazines

Each spring the Columbia School of Journalism invites heavyweights from the magazine industry to speak about magazine journalism at its George Delacorte Lecture Series. Victor S. Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation, and Evan Cornog, dean of the School of Communication at Hofstra University and former publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, pulled together a varied collection of the lecture series’ highlights in The Art of Making Magazines: On Being an Editor and Other Views from the Industry (published by Columbia Journalism Review Books). The book offers up a variety of perspectives: we hear from the late John Gregory Dunne about writing for magazines; Roberta Myers about editing women’s magazines; Peter Canby about fact checking at The New Yorker; Tina Brown about her time heading Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk; John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s, about the balance between editorial content and advertising; and several others. This mosaic of viewpoints from industry insiders underscores the complexity of magazine publishing—the myriad considerations from the big picture to the minutiae that editors face with every issue.

Despite the speakers’ wide-ranging experiences and backgrounds, key themes recurred throughout the book; the primacy of the reader, for example, featured prominently. Ruth Reichl, who served as Gourmet’s editor before it closed up shop in 2009, said,

I learned that the only way to do a magazine… is not to underestimate your audience, ever… That the only way to have a really good magazine is to print the things you want to read and assume that it will find its own readership. (p. 34)

And Elle’s Roberta Myers told her audience,

You can’t edit a magazine to impress people; you can’t edit a magazine to show your friends how clever you are or what access you were able to get. You really have to edit to, and for, your reader. (p. 54)

Felix Dennis, owner of Dennis Publishing, devoted his entire talk to the importance of the reader, saying

What’s madness is thinking that you can publish on and on and on without putting out something that readers want to read. What’s madness is this: focusing on what advertisers want, not on what readers want. (p. 172)

Yet, of course, pragmatism dictates that magazines do have to consider advertisers to remain strong. In one of the most interesting essays in the book, John R. MacArthur addresses this slippery issue:

With the advent in the 1970s of so-called advertorials—that is, advertising promotion copy masquerading as real editorial material—the walls between advertising and editorial have weakened apace. Labeled advertorial has more and more been supplanted by unlabeled advertorial, where the editor is called upon to run articles complementary to adjacent advertising. (p. 149)

According to MacArthur, a large part of the problem stems from a devaluation of content in readers’ eyes; the glut of available information makes them less willing to pay for what a magazine has to offer:

There’s another important factor that’s made magazines more vulnerable to the demands and whims of advertisers, which is the continuing decline in the cost of subscriptions. Because magazines are so desperate for advertising, they view subscribers by and large as loss leaders whose principal function is to support the publication’s guaranteed advertising rate base. Since the advertising agencies get a flat percentage of whatever they buy—traditionally it’s 15 percent—the more the page costs, the more they make. Thus publishers and ad directors of magazines strain mightily and discount heavily to make their circulation as big as possible in order to please the ad agencies. (p. 151)

At the same time, the Internet—with its implied promise of free, free, free editorial content—encourages people to think that they shouldn’t have to pay for magazines and newspapers at all. To my mind, the Internet is just a gigantic, much-faster version of the photocopying machine. And as such, it’s a great enemy of periodicals, because so many library users and professors are happy to read a cheap Xerox of an article or distribute it to their students, rather than pay for a subscription. I’ve tried again and again to explain to the young Internet enthusiasts on my staff that the Web is actually driving down the perceived value of their work, which makes us even more dependent on advertising. (152)

And if publishers and editors-in-chief aren’t pitching to advertisers, they’re expected to build the brand and pitch to everyone else. Roberta Myers recounted her tenure as senior editor of InStyle, saying, “It was there that I… saw the necessity—and power—of marketing. Dollar for dollar, they spent as much marketing the magazine as they did making it.” (p. 55)

After she moved to Elle, Myers encountered the “brand wheel”:

In the middle of the wheel was the word Elle, and the spokes of the wheel were the magazine and the show Project Runway and the Web site, And one was a cell phone. Today the editor-in-chief of a big, successful, broad magazine like ours—1.1 million circulation, 6 million readers—is expected to oversee all of these “extensions.” (p. 59)

Ruth Reichl shared a similar experience, noting that her role as editor of Gourmet shifted dramatically since the explosion of online marketing and social media:

When I spoke to this group six years ago, the list of what I did today would have been completely and utterly different. In those days, I was editing a magazine, and everything I had to do was about editing the magazine. And today, almost nothing that I do has to do with editing a magazine. My role is now pretty much long-term planning, thinking about the issues, dealing with the art director… So it’s very much a changing role. (p. 46)

Interestingly, whereas Gourmet folded, Dennis Publishing’s offerings, including The Week and Men’s Fitness, among others, seem to be going strong, and this success may have something to do with Felix Dennis’s approach to emerging technologies:

We concluded that the Web should not be treated as merely an extension of our ink-on-paper brands and products. It was a beast of a different stripe. This was a counterintuitive conclusion back then… but we persevered and permitted our Web editors and journalists to break away early from the domination of the “mother ship” ink-on-paper brand and develop their own Internet identity. In retrospect, this was possibly the best decision made by my board in decades. (p. 168)

Perhaps this division has allowed editors to focus on editing, which was the subject of Robert Gottlieb’s terrific piece, “Editing Books Versus Editing Magazines.” Gottlieb had moved from a position at Alfred A. Knopf to The New Yorker, where he served as editor-in-chief from 1987 to 1992. About the differences between the two media, he had this to say:

Being the editor-in-chief of a book publishing house is a vastly different matter from being the editor-in-chief of a magazine. When you’re in a publishing house, you are in a strictly service job as an editor… To keep your good authors and to attract other good authors, you have to serve them. They have to feel protected, which means they have to believe that their editor, a specific personal editor, understands their work, sympathizes with their work, and is on their wavelength. They must believe that the editor can help them make the book not other than what it is, but better than what it is. (p. 157)

When you’re the editor-in-chief of a magazine, as I was of The New Yorker, it’s opposite. You are the living god. You are not there to please the writers, but the writers are there to satisfy you because they want to be in the magazine, and you are the one who says yes or no. (p. 158)

Another major contrast between book and magazine publishing, Gottlieb noted, relates to fact checking: whereas some magazines have dedicated fact-checking departments, that level of rigour simply isn’t possible in a book-publishing environment, where much of the onus is on the author to ensure factual accuracy. And his comment about Knopf’s editorial standards had me smiling and cringing at the same time:

I can say that although I’ve been embarrassed by some of the books we’ve published, on the whole we’ve done a good job. Certainly better than most publishing houses, and certainly better than any British publishing houses, since I don’t believe an editor or a copyeditor’s pencil has ever touched a piece of text in England. It’s really amazing what they do not do, but then they love amateurism. (p. 158)

And finally, from Gottlieb, a truism known widely to editors but not so much to others:

It’s always the books, by the way, that you spend the most time on and put the most editorial energy into that get reviews that say, “What this book needed was a good editor.” And that’s for a reason. Because when a book is really in trouble, there’s a point beyond which you can’t go. And some reviewers, not all, are slow to catch on to that. (p. 158)

Barbara Wallraff addressed the same problem, from the copy editor’s perspective:

Most [writers and supervising editors] look very sloppy. And sometimes so sloppy that I couldn’t do as good a job—I couldn’t do as much polishing, as much perfecting, as I really would have liked to do, because I was just too busy correcting stuff that was all garbled up. It makes you mad. Can’t they do any better than that?

And then, over the years, it occurs to you, no, they can’t. But the more the writer or the supervising editor can do to improve a piece, starting at the biggest level but on down into the smaller levels, the higher the level that everybody else—including the copyeditor—can work at.

If you don’t have to be just hacking your way, with a machete, through the jungle, you can pay closer attention to where the flowers are, and whether the leaves are neat and tidy. You can really go a much longer way toward making that piece its best self. (p. 93)

And details matter. Wallraff said in her talk, “A Magazine Needs Copyeditors Because…,” “Even a bunch of highly skilled writers won’t do things consistently. And consistency strengthens the identity of a magazine.” (p. 86) She continued, “I am not saying any particular style is inherently bad or good. I am just pointing out that they project different images.” (p. 87)

Being a stickler may not make you any friends:

The problem with copyediting—and the downside to the job—is that it is a relentlessly negative, critical job. I mean, you try correcting everybody’s spelling and grammar and logic and organization, and do that day in, day out, and see how popular that makes you. (p. 90)

but, according to Wallraff, remembering that the copy editor is a person will improve not only your professional relationship but also the project:

Have a human relationship with them. The way most organizations are set up, it won’t be part of the workflow ever to talk to the copyeditor. And you may have to go a little bit out of your way to do that. By try to anyway. (p. 95)

Although I can pluck any number of memorable quotes from The Art of Making Magazines, I don’t think the book quite succeeds as the “how-to and how-to-be guide” that its editors had perhaps envisioned. The anecdotes are colourful, but they lack the practical advice that readers or students hoping to break into magazines might be looking for in a book like this. A fundamental problem is that most of the lectures included in the book were delivered between 2002 and 2009, and a lot has changed in the magazine world in the past decade—even in the past couple of years. The most recent talk featured in the book was given in February 2010, which, I believe, just misses the surging growth in tablets. Both Ruth Reichl and Roberta Myers allude to the impact of online marketing and social media, but the tablet may be have as a large an impact on the magazine world as e-readers have had on the book world, and the book discusses none of that.

Further, because the book is tied to the Columbia School of Journalism, most of the speakers naturally represent the major New York–based magazines. Someone looking to start a career in magazine publishing, particularly outside of New York, probably won’t hit up The New Yorker from the outset. Most writers and editors would likely cut their teeth, and perhaps build a career, in niche publications—like magazines for cigar aficionados or antique teapot enthusiasts. That rather significant portion of the industry isn’t addressed at all in this book. Further, the book makes the prospect of upward mobility at the big glossies look rather bleak: Tina Brown and Robert Gottlieb were installed as heads of their magazines having come from elsewhere, and hiring budding talent from within a magazine to take over an editorial vacancy doesn’t appear to be a common practice, at least as far as this anthology implies.

The Art of Making Magazines is for readers who want to hear what the likes of Ruth Reichl and Tina Brown and Felix Dennis have to say because of who they are. Although it may be interesting reading for those hoping to make a career out of magazine publishing and editing, it won’t light the path to get there.