Thursday, June 17, 2010
Since the recent Davidar allegations came to light I’ve been thinking a lot about how to use this opportunity to create a dialogue about the culture of publishing. As someone who has worked in both publishing spheres, book and magazine, the allegations, however disturbing and upsetting, are actually unsurprising to me. The most striking thing about the sexual harassment claim is how quickly it has sparked a wave of private admissions from others that they too had experienced or seen something they felt uncomfortable about in their own publishing workplaces. Ranging from a brief comment or touch, to shockingly obscene suggestions or actions, it seems that so many people in publishing have a story tell, and more importantly that they’ve accepted  this is “just the way things are.” This post is not about Davidar, because frankly I have no authority to speak on the subject. Instead I’m interested in talking about how the news of the scandal has sparked a necessary re-examination of the publishing workplace. Frankly, as the publisher of a feminist magazine, I’d be remiss not to.

I’ve always viewed publishing culture as a uniquely permissive one, a place where the small “labour of love” community, long hours, and lack of time for non-work socializing create a more relaxed, familial, and occasionally inappropriate atmosphere. Because of the demanding nature of the job, people find real friendship, love, marriage, and yes, lots and lots of sex in publishing. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

What is wrong is when that kind of sexually charged atmosphere becomes an excuse for exclusion and abuse—sort of a “get on board or get out of the club” mentality. I’ve written about this before, the idea that this environment has the potential to be both exceptionally fulfilling and soul-destroyingly dysfunctional, where the line between appropriate and inappropriate is so often blurred. Perhaps people say nothing about harassment out of fear or reprisal, or because they believe that this is “what we signed up for,” or because no one wants to be the difficult one at the party. (Or, perhaps a lot of us don’t really know what the definition of sexual harassment is.)

So many of us, regardless of gender, have had a moment where we were unsure about the rules, about what is right and wrong in the workplace, and instead of talking openly about it we just follow the cues. The answers to “Am I allowed to say that? Am I allowed to do that?” are not always clear, so we, quite naturally, look to the leader. It’s easy to observe that the average intern pool is predominantly female and the average publishing executive is male, that women on average make considerably less than their male counterparts, that according to reports a majority of publishing is female but only small percentage of that is management, and the power dynamics that result are undeniable. In such a small, connected industry, one rife with gossip, standing up and calling bullshit is near impossible.

However, someone has talked openly about it, albeit anonymously, and the resulting attention to her story is indicative of the fact that so many in the publishing sphere hunger for that kind of open dialogue but fear the damage it will do to their careers. The anonymous blogger, who wrote about her personal experiences in the book industry in reaction to Davidar’s departure, sums up this notion of “taking cues” and being unsure of the rules, afraid of repercussions:

"I flirted back, when he'd flirt, and I'm ashamed. But I blame him. I blame the way he manipulated us into thinking it was all part of the job, the "culture" of the office. We were often told to "entertain" people at our parties, like we were geisha. Dress sexy, be the first ones on the dance floor, get drinks. Looking back, I feel like we were supposed to represent not the brains and talent of our office, but the tits and ass. Lucky for him, we were a smart, hard-working bunch of people, and we managed to make that place work."

Her story has been disseminated widely, culminating in a pick-up by the Huffington Post this morning. Scanning the comments section of her post, which has seen hits from Random House New York, HarperCollins New York, Simon & Shuster U.S., and the CBC, you see immediately that people are eager to discuss and admit a culture of harassment:

“I was massively naive and so grateful to finally have a foot in the door that I turned a blind eye to all the boss's flirting and innuendo. He was always inviting me out for drinks and lunch and you can't say no to your new boss.”
“Twenty years ago, when I started in publishing in London (the UK one) your description of office life was the norm. It was toxic, frightening, abusive. I am very sorry you had to endure it too.”
“Isn't it interesting how many of us have this experience in our first publishing job.”
“How common is this - not only in this industry, but in others as well?”
“Bottom line, this is not acceptable workplace behaviour, and how women react to it is often a survival strategy.”

Although, again, the anonymous blogger’s experience is in book publishing I’ve worked in both and I think there is definitely cultural overlap. We learn from those around us, and so many of us float from books to mags, so it’s not a stretch to say that this kind of toxic environment bleeds into both spheres. And when we don’t talk about it, because we’re afraid of getting in trouble, afraid of getting fired, it will continue. (I know, easier said than done.)

Publishing is so often a glory sport, a place that encourages (demands?) aggressive ego and entitlement, and I’ve had my parts grabbed and discussed at enough magazine and book parties to know that somewhere along the line it became okay, even encouraged, to cross the line. I don’t have a solution, but I do think the silver lining of the Davidar allegations is that it’s given us a forum to talk about what has apparently, given industry reactions, become commonplace. This discussion is a positive step forward, and those who chose to share their stories, anonymous or not, should be applauded.
Thursday, April 29, 2010
There’s been some recent circ chatter about Ontario Out of Doors’ decision to take a shot at competitor Outdoor Canada in a recent circ piece. Without actually naming OC explicitly, the piece (signed by publisher Mike Reader) clearly calls out the magazine’s decision to decrease it’s annual circ from eight to six in it’s opening line: “Why would anyone settle for only 6 issues on an outdoors magazine, when Ontario OUT OF DOORS magazine delivers 10?”

And it doesn’t end there.  “How does a national magazine expect to cover a year of fishing and hunting with 40% less of the issues delivered by your Ontario OUT OF DOORS?” Once the piece has established that OOD is a superior product by virtue of quantity, it then tries to convince the reader that it doesn’t suck like it’s unnamed competitor: “we will never get soft on fishing and hunting content…we will never deliver a skimpy-thin issue…”

My immediate thought? Dirty pool.

First things first: to say that a magazine’s true value is dictated by its frequency is ridiculous. In fact, some of the best magazines this country has to offer have as few as two issues a year. This kind of quantity over quality thinking is what got us into the Canadian Periodical Fund mess. (See Taddle Creek’s recent thoughts on that here.) While I do think any circ piece needs to emphasize the value of subscribing, and that, yes, there is a vast difference between a weekly and a quarterly, saying that a magazine that comes out two more times a year is somehow a better magazine is a weak argument at best.  I like to give consumers credit, and I truly believe that they get this.

This kind of message fails simply because it suggests you have to resort to taking down the other guy to prove you’re any good. We hate people like that in our day-to-day lives, so why would we want to buy a magazine that does the same? There are certainly more subtle and tasteful ways to imply a superior product, methods that in my opinion are more successful. 

I asked Emma Woolley, associate web editor with Quarto Communications/Q on Q Media, for her thoughts on this circ tactic. “I think it makes them look bad to other magazines and advertisers. It's generally a bad idea to compare negatively with other titles (named or unnamed), especially in niche categories, because it results in the entire market seeming weak. Knocking the competition makes a brand look petty and cheap, and distracts from its own value.”

Perhaps it’s naïve of me the think so, but I always believed the magazine industry in Canada to be the kind of place where we were all stronger together. Certainly that is how the magazines I’ve represented have played the game⎯building relationships, doing favours, supporting a community. Woolley sums up my thinking on this by concluding “If OOFD really wanted to emphasize how many issues it produces for such a great deal, it could have been done without the mud-slinging comparison to another title.”

You know who else sums things up well? My mother. She used to always say "they're just jealous."

For more on Ontario Out of Doors’ questionable marketing efforts see the Canadian Magazines Blog.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I occasionally get asked to talk to editorial interns about circulation—you know, to round out their “education”—and inevitably it always goes the exact same way. Either they fail to show up (yeah, that happened), or they very kindly pretend to be interested but inevitably nod off by the time I get to insert card codes and eight series renewals. I’ve even tried to entice unpaid interns to do their learning at the bar, with the promise of a pitcher or two to compensate, but the reality is that in the glamorous world of publishing, circ doesn’t really produce the lauded superstars and the exhilarating rush that is publication.

It’s the common circulator’s song that no one cares what we do as long as it gets done, but rather than blame that sleepy, overworked bright young thing for my own inability to make the talk of response rates more exciting, I thought I’d take it to the blog and see what circulation information best benefits the burgeoning young editor. The thing that always surprises me is how little some of the best and most talented magazine types actually know about the how the world of circ works. I think the problem lies in the conflict between how interesting we think our jobs are and how interesting they actually are to the general magazine-creating culture. While I’m blessed to currently work with people who are genuinely interested and passionate about my field, my circ past has been littered with editors who didn’t even know why renewals were important.

Fact is, when someone talks enthusiastically about something that is excruciatingly boring to you it’s hard to even act interested. So what does an industry newbie really need to know about the world of circ to keep them interested? If you could give a fresh-faced editorial intern a primer on your complex passion, what key notes would you include? What does editorial really need to know about circ?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010
I've been hunting all over town to get my hands on a copy of V magazine's oft-talked about "size issue". There's been endless buzz about their controversial decision to have a plus-sized spring issue, complete with ground-breaking plus-size drop-dead-gorgeous high-fashion photo shoots. While Glamour magazine should be credited with kickstarting the trend, V has really taken the "concept," packaged it right, and run with it.
V magazine's size issue
V magazine's size issue

To celebrate and emphasize the decision, V wisely decided on two very different covers reflecting the diversity of women's bodies contained therein (I realize "diversity" in a fashion magazine is still "pretty damn hot," but hey, a step in the right direction.) It appears the decision was a wise one - both covers are sold out on V's website, and I can't for the life of me find a much-coveted copy in any store. Wondering if any Canadian fashion mags may follow suit? (And if anyone manages to source a copy, I'm willing to negotiate a price.)
Wednesday, January 06, 2010
Let’s all say it together: Thank God 2009 is finally over. I for one am very pleased to see it go.  Although circ was not necessarily decimated by the economic downturn, having to shoulder the financial burden of advertising shortfalls and struggling with decreased returns meant that most circulators enjoyed the winter break a little more than usual.  Maybe 2010 is the year that our battered industry bounces back. Fingers crossed, folks.

2009 made the “magical science” of winning covers more important than ever. Those who create concepts, write cover lines, and choose images constantly walk a fine line between crass and classy (or maybe some of us are just crass, full stop). Sometimes these are bloody inter-departmental battles, with art, editorial, and marketing all wanting completely separate things.

What goes on the cover can sometimes be the biggest single risk for a mag, and one bad move can create a huge financial hole that mangles cash flow. While a winning cover is not necessarily a make or break issue for smaller circ mags, newsstand numbers rule for big circ. And sometimes a controversial, crass, or even offensive cover can actually spell a big marketing buzz win for a mag.

Take for example the Twitter uproar over Publisher’s Weekly's “Afro Picks!”
cover. From Folio:
Publishers Weekly
Publishers Weekly

“For its December 14 issue cover, the Reed Business Information title used a photo entitled “Pickin’,” shot by photographer Lauren Kelly for a new book by Deborah Willis called, "Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present." …The cover caused a firestorm on Twitter. Publishers Weekly senior editor Calvin Reid, who is African-American, chimed in over the magazine’s feed, claiming he and the magazine’s creative director chose the cover photo and wrote the cover line.”

Only time will tell if the controversial cover will do well on the newsstands, but the bold (bad?) move certainly did reign in the kind of coverage impossible to garner from a standard cover alone. The real question is whether it's worth going that far to sell what's inside.

As for crass covers that I love? This one has got to be my personal recent favourite.

Final newsstand circ thought for the week? Momentary controversy as US-bound air travelers can’t bring their own magazines on planes, but can buy them in the airport once they’ve gone through security . Win? Loss? Totally absurd? Discuss.

About Me
Stacey May Fowles
Stacey May is the circulation and marketing director at The Walrus and volunteer publisher of Shameless, a feminist magazine for teenage girls. She has assisted in circulation and business development projects for Descant, Magazines Canada and Hive Magazine.
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