All posts filed under “Publishing

Pitch perfect

I’m extremely fortunate that I rarely have to pitch story ideas to an editor to generate work – most of what I do is offered to me to accept or decline as loyalty, interest, other commitments and my bank balance dictate – but as a general rule, on those occasions when I do, I pitch several ideas at once, and they tend to fall into four main categories.

  • Ideas that are easy money (though are still something I think they and their readers will like), usually because they require minimal research or asset-gathering
  • Ideas that will be a pain in the arse to research and write but which are interesting and which stretch me, professionally, and so are worth the arse-pain
  • Ideas that mean me getting to do or use something I’m interested in at a personal level
  • Ideas that I think are important and that have either been covered in an opaque, unsympathetic or generally unuseful format hitherto, or just plain haven’t been covered – at least in a high-profile enough place for enough people to have seen it


I’m hugely proud to have contributed a few pieces – with more coming – to Alphr, the new website from Dennis Publishing. I’m proud because I think it’s a smart, initially counter-intuitive idea – producing what is essentially a business tech site with a consumer tech ethos, having recognised that UK IT decision-making is done by everyone, not a few thousand CTOs – and because it’s being made by some fantastic people at a company I have tremendous affection for.

When MacUser closed, I mourned the loss of an important magazine with a rich and pleasingly eccentric heritage, I worried for the people it gave employment to, but as well I was, selfishly, saddened that now finally able to write for it again, I never would. MacUser was my first job out of university, and although moving to London and learning to run my own life was challenging, and although I was a dick to many people, and although the job was demanding, and although I made countless mistakes, still, still I look back on those five years as some of the best in my life. The corporate culture at Future never sat especially comfortably with me, but the energy at Dennis truly was of the mildly anarchistic, Wild West kind that you would expect if you know to expect anything at all.

It’s always dangerously reductive to hold up one example as emblematic of something so complex as a company or its culture, but indulge me an anecdote. In the way of offices, somehow, saying “well done” to Dave Stevenson became a thing. One day, having discovered the Rasterbator, we – or possibly just I – decided to make a giant poster on this theme while Dave was in a meeting. We were part-way through taping the A4 sheets into rows and then the rows into the full poster, when our publisher, Ian Westwood, came out of his office and asked us what we were doing. We sheepishly confessed; he paused for a second then said, “Come on then! I’ll give you a hand so we can get it done before he gets out of his meeting.” We did.

Well done, Dave

Which brings us back round to Alphr, which is headed up editorially by the mensch who gave me my first job, Ian Betteridge, and the truly lovely and wicked sharp Tim Danton. I think that the same spirit I remember from my days at Dennis – the best bits of a startup mentality without all the bro shit, and an environment that encouraged experimentation, valued erudition, and above all just wanted to produce good stuff – suffuses the site. It feels fresh and vital and exciting, and it deserves every success.

Here are the first few pieces I’ve written for it that have gone live:

Everything is awesome and everyone should shut the fuck up. My original headline was slightly curtailed; probably something to do with making it fit, I imagine.

Confessions of a tech nerd: Why I buy obsolete computers. The existence of this piece will come as no surprise to anyone who reads my Think Retro column, but I’ve ever explicitly written there about why I buy vintage tech. Now I have, here.

Your laptop is an ergonomic disaster area: here’s how to fix it. We all love laptops but they don’t love us. You can, however, mitigate their ergonomic impact.

Editors and publishers should shop at Boden (and not just because the clothes are lovely)

I’m fascinated by Boden, the clothing company, both from an editorial and a business perspective. Almost every time we get an email, catalogue or promotion from them, my wife (who like me works in publishing) and I have cause to comment on how perfectly pitched their editorial sensibilities are, and how well they anticipate the desires of and engage with customers.

To take one tiny example, look at this catalogue for kids’ clothes that just dropped through our letterbox and prompted me to write this.

Boden catalogue

On the right there’s a bound-in sheet of stickers, with the line “Not all fish live in the water. These ones can go anywhere.” All well and cute, you might say – something that will appeal to a sense of whimsy in a grown-up as well as directly to children – but they’ve taken it one step further; bottom-left it says “These fish also live on the clothes in our catalogue. Can you find them all?”. Genius! That way, they encourage children to scour the catalogue, looking at every item of clothing, and so bringing to bear the full force of pester power on their parents.

Naturally, this will miss the target in many households. It might arrive at households that don’t have kids – the customer intelligence algorithms having been fooled by a one-off order of a child’s dress as a gift, for example – and even in those households that do, the kids might never get their hands on the catalogue, even assuming they wanted to. And I don’t know the cost of these stickers, nor how much difference they’d make to overall sales. Even tracking the ROI would be tricky. But my gut is that it would cost pennies yet generate pounds – and all without being obnoxious. Negligible effort and investment; potentially huge effect.

I’d urge senior-ish publishing folks to become Boden customers to see what it does and how; the lessons might not translate directly, but I’m filled with admiration for its smart engagements with customers and its clever use of techniques we thought we had a monopoly on. What a fascinating place to work.

Rename Markdown text files to .txt

I write in plain text – have done for years; clean, agnostic, robust, ‘future-proof’ – and latterly I’ve started using basic Markdown formatting commands. I primarily use iA Writer Pro currently, though I like Realmac Software’s new Typed app and Metaclassy’s Byword.

One tiny problem with most Markdown apps for me is that while the files they create are plain .txt files, they prefer an .md – or, in the case of iA Writer Pro’s idiosyncratic workflow system, .note, .write, .edit, and .read – extension, which understandably can lead to a few perplexed emails from editors when they double-click to open copy I’ve submitted to them and their Mac or PC reports it doesn’t know what to do with it.

It’s a simple matter of replacing whatever file extension the document has with ‘.txt’, but to save me or them the time, I made a tiny app in Automator whose sole job it is to do that; it lives in my Finder Toolbar so it’s there wherever I am in the Finder (without cluttering my Dock) and all I have to do is drop the file on it before emailing it off to my editor.

This is how you create it after choosing Application from the new document picker:

Rename to .txt grab

Or you can grab mine, which I’ve applied a default text document icon to:

Download Rename to .txt app

My corner of the internet

A recent post by Jason Snell on Six Colors particularly resonated with me:

When I was at Macworld, the weight of an article could be quite oppressive. If you had something interesting to say, but it really couldn’t bear more than a few paragraphs, you had two choices: Just swallow it and not write anything, or fluff it up with empty filler until it seemed more substantial than it actually was. […] A lot of interesting, albeit small, stuff would just fall to the floor and be swept away with the other detritus at the end of the day: Amusing, interesting tidbits that would never be seen because they didn’t cross some imaginary threshold.

I’ll go even further: it’s very easy, when you’re acting as the mouthpiece for an important brand, to fall into the bad habit of not sharing something through its channels because it seems unimportant or trivial. There’s a feeling that unless you’re pretty sure it’s going to generate substantial levels of traffic or engagement, you shouldn’t waste your time doing it.

One of the nice things about not being in that position any more is that I can do whatever I damned well please. I have no KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) against this website; it’s no more and no less than my corner of the internet, for me to play in as I see fit.

I pitched my little titbit on locking your phone to someone, and they declined it. Fair enough; this is exactly the kind of trivial, throwaway punt I’m talking about. With nothing to lose, I quickly threw it together; as I write this, the tutorial video has been viewed over 23,000 times.

This is an anecdote rather than empirical evidence; it’s just as likely this little tutorial could have gotten a couple of hundred views and quietly died. Neither is it evidence that I have an unerring instinct for what will work. It’s not even necessarily a criticism of the cautious, results-oriented environment fostered in big publishing companies. It did, though, get me thinking again about where that attitude comes from, who’s ‘to blame’ for it – companies imposing it implicitly or explicitly, or employees inferring it correctly or incorrectly? – and whether it’s right or wrong.

Should big publishers start being much less precious about their corner of the internet? Can they?

My last day is Hallowe’en, but never fear; I’m still around to write frightfully good copy to scary deadlines. If you need a terrifyingly experienced writer who understands better than most what a nightmare freelancers can be, just yell!

Biscuits, Big Shots and bad puns: a Phin guide to self-promotion

Because I’ve worked as a journalist for over 12 years, I can tell you first-hand that nothing gets a journalist’s attention quite like free chocolate biscuits, so when I wanted to come up with a way of reminding commissioning editors at the company I still currently work for that I’d be leaving and available for freelance writing at the end of the month, giving them chocolate biscuits as I told them seemed like an obvious choice. Today I’ll be handing out the above little packages, and I thought I’d talk a little about how I put them together.

Taking my leaving date of Hallowe’en as the starting point, I did the design itself in InDesign (shamelessly stealing Matt Gemmell’s idea), and printed them, just as dark grey rectangles with the reversed-out white lettering, onto sheets of magnetic-backed glossy inkjet paper. I then picked a suitably gothic Sizzix die-cut and ran the roughly cut-out rectangles through a Big Shot (a deeply satisfying experience; I can’t recommend it enough) to punch them to the final shape. Then it was a simple case of punching the magnets and the bags of chocolate biscuits and threading through some gauzy ribbon and cutting the ends into inverted points.

The fact that I printed onto magnetic paper means that if I’m very lucky the relevant commissioning editors might just stick the little summary of my details to a filing cabinet or something, keeping me in their eyeline.

Or, you know, they may forget I ever existed as soon as the last crumb is swallowed, but at least I gave myself a chance!

The Magazine Diaries

The Magazine Diaries book

When Peter mentioned that he was starting a little project ahead of Magfest to collect into a book the honest 100-word reactions of a hundred people working at the coalface of magazine publishing, I expressed some concerns. Oh, I had no doubt he could do it, or that the result would be interesting, but I worried that unless he allowed anonymous submissions, it would end up being hagiographic and present an imbalanced view of the industry.

I needn’t have worried.

It’s not, to be sure, filled with invective and doom, and there are some submissions that seem to describe a thriving, bullish, even arrogant industry that I just can’t recognise, but through some strange alchemy he’s managed to create a fascinating little vignette whose very variety gives it a clear voice with which to describe the magazine business in 2014.

If you’re interested in magazines – either from the inside or the outside – I think you’d find The Magazine Diaries intriguing. It’s a fiver, and the proceeds support MagAid.

Buy The Magazine Diaries