Ed Needham is a Brit who spent almost two decades as editor in the UK and US of what became some of the world’s largest magazines, FHM, Maxim, and Rolling Stone. Those were the days.
It is almost three years since he faced up to the challenge of getting another senior job in a shrinking industry and decided to go it alone – literally – by launching Strong Words. It’s a different kind of magazine about books – which he produces by himself on a budget that should inspire many other independent publishers.
Strong Words has been described as “the magazine equivalent of that friend who reads everything, has excellent taste, and puts only the good stuff into your hands. It’s a literary mag for people who read for pleasure and appreciate the transportive power of storytelling.”
Needham’s objective “is to make my readers think, ‘That sounds like the sort of book I would really like’, introducing readers to authors they might otherwise have missed.”
Each issue has more than 100 enthusiastic book reviews of new releases and backlist titles in every genre – fiction, biography, crime and thrillers, non-fiction, cookbooks, children’s lit and graphic novels – as well as author interviews, profiles and bold, colourful design: “A great new magazine about great new books”.
Needham says: “I have a designer for two weeks and I produce one issue every six weeks. To do that, I obviously read loads of books, and write lots of words, so there’s not really much time for anything else. I work seven days a week.”
Needham calculates he reads the equivalent of War and Peace every week and writes the equivalent of The Great Gatsby (30,000 words) for every issue of his nine times a year magazine. The irony of his self-made publishing model is that the technology that enables him to produce an entire magazine on his own is the very stuff that has helped to take audiences away from magazines. Virtually.
He’s pretty modest about his self-publishing: “It’s not as if those 30,000 words require the sophistication or structure of a novel – it works to quite a regular format. I just need to set myself a deadline each day. I start every day at 6am. I spend the first couple of hours walking and listening to audiobooks, and finish at about six in the evening.”
In addition to the editor-publisher’s own reviews, Strong Words contains digests from other sources, reminiscent of The Week.
Needham is motivated – apart from the mere need to earn a living – by what he believes is the under-exposure of books, especially in the UK, and the way that too much literary coverage is written in a very academic way: “I really feel the book industry deserves a lot more exposure. But, as newspapers have shrunk, so books have just got less and less attention.”
Strong Words is a magazine many of us would like. But its economics are instructive too. I estimate that its total per-issue costs are some £7k (including £4k for print, paper and postage) or £63k per year. So, with a net subscription price of £45 per year (for nine issues), the production cost breakeven may be as low as 1,400 subs with real profit at 2,500. At what may be the current 3,000-4,000 subscriptions, Ed Needham is building a good business and making a living.
Perhaps it also helps us to see the future.
In a splintered magazine world, viable publications (in print and digital) might increasingly divide between; the upmarket, funded by the advertisers, readers, and sponsors whose aspirations they capture; and the practical (homecare, travel, food, drink, fashion) funded mainly by e-commerce.
Strong Words shows there can be a third group of subscription-funded products which concentrate on content and readers. Like Ed Needham’s innovative magazine, it’s great news.