Monday, May 20, 2013

The whores of publishing: trade magazines

When I was a kid, I loved electronics. I went to Lehigh University to major in electrical engineering. I quickly realized it was a mistake and for my second semester I switched to journalism. During summers, I worked in retailing.

This combination made me the perfect candidate for my first post-college job, Assistant Editor of High Fidelity Trade News. It was  a magazine that served hi-fi dealers.

My starting salary (in 1970) was just $115 per week, but I had an impressive title. And unlike some of my classmates, I was working on a slick magazine in Manhattan, not a weekly newspaper in Duluth.

One thing I did not learn in life or at Lehigh, however, was how "trade journalism" works.
  • Publications that provide free subscriptions to hi-fi dealers (or gas station operators,  dentists or practitioners of any occupation) are completely dependent on advertising revenue.
Because of this dependency, there was none of the "church-and-state" separation of the editorial and advertising staffs that I had been taught was normal in journalism.

At The New Yorker, a Lehigh professor told me, editors and ad salesmen were not even allowed to be in an elevator together. Upper management feared that an ad guy would try to get an editor to provide positive coverage for an actual or potential advertiser even if there was nothing newsworthy happening.

Trade journalism is completely different.

At my first job, any news, no matter how insignificant, was treated as BIG NEWS, if it would help win or keep an advertising contract.

The magazine's boss was not really the editor, but Ken Nelson, the advertising manager. He planned our editorial coverage, i.e., ass-kissing.

At one press conference where a manufacturer was showing new products, we had two real editorial people, plus the production manager making believe he was a reporter, and an ad salesman making believe he was a photographer. He flashed his strobe light at dramatic moments, but there was no film in his camera. (Back then, cameras used film.)

We were not the only ones. Some other magazines were even worse whores than we were. I remember an industry event where Stanley Kermish, an over-eager ad man, was introduced to the boss of a hi-fi equipment manufacturer. The second sentence out of Stan's mouth was, "We're thinking of putting your new product on the cover."

I've been away from trade journalism for about 40 years and hadn't thought much about it until recently.

Publishers Weekly is an important magazine and I read nearly every issue to keep up with trends and news. One issue of the usually respectable magazine took me back to the bad old days. I felt like puking.

Although PW does charge for subscriptions (for its paper edition) it is very dependent on advertising, and now appears to be willing to get into bed with the sleaziest of the sleazy if the relationship might bring in a few bucks.

On March 29, 2010, PW referred to Author Solutions as a "vanity publishing company" which probably really pissed off Author Solutions. The company prefers to be known as "the world leader in indie book publishing." 

The PW management apparently realized that most of the ad money of the growing self-publishing business has been spent in Writers Digest and for online ads -- and PW wants a piece of the action.

In a dramatic reversal (I know that's a hackneyed phrase, but it's appropriate here), the 12/21/09 issue of PW contains some of the most blatant, ill-advised and ignorant ass-kissing I've ever read. A puff-piece by Lynn Andriani portrays Kevin Weiss, "CEO of self-publishing giant Author Solutions," as a combination of Moses, Jesus, Washington, Franklin, Ghandi, Salk, Jobs and Gates.

Apparently, PW badly needs advertising revenue from Author Solutions. 

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