When Bad Publishers Happen to Good Magazines
Sometimes the person at the top of the masthead just doesn’t get it.
[There Will Be Blood still, courtesy of Paramount.]
There is nothing that will create a bond between art and editorial quicker than a meddling publisher. Granted, editors and artisans should already be thick as thieves, but when a publisher starts needlessly getting involved in the creative aspects of a magazine, there will be blood!
Take the case of a design-driven b-to-b magazine. The creative staff worked together nicely throughout the production process, but almost like clockwork, the publisher would decide to put her two cents in. It basically happened every other issue.
Seriously, you could set your watch by it and it always involved cover art. Typically the magazine would run glossy, beautiful shots of a building’s interior or a statuesque shot of an exterior … then along comes the publisher.
This particular publisher liked artwork on the cover. But not striking artwork. She would find stock art of a businessman going up a staircase or vague representations of dollars and cents or, worse yet, flow charts! Since the mag was a trade book, it’s not like newsstand sales were an issue, but the magazine still needed to be attractive. The problem was solved when the parent company was bought out by another company and all the individual magazine publishers were replaced with group publishers.
Now, there’s a nightmare nobody wants to go to sleep for!
Speaking of group publishers, consumer books have seemed to realize that the group publisher model just doesn’t work that great. It’s like a teacher with too many students or a single parent with too many kids; sooner or later somebody falls through the cracks and ends up on the streets. Magazines are no different … I know this lesson firsthand.
Take the case of the group publisher who played favorites. After being acquired in a buyout, two b-to-b books found a new home at a big publisher. Both of the magazines’ publishers were fired and a new group publisher was brought in who had just seen the collapse of his venerable title after almost 100 years. (This magazine, by the way, survived two world wars and the Great Depression, but not this publisher!)
The new group publisher took a shine to one of the books that was more his style because it was glossier and more in line with what he was used to. The second book—the stepchild he got in the marriage, as the mag’s editor-in-chief termed it—was more nuts-and-bolts and technical, but highly respected and a leader in its field. Sales people were taken away from the tech-y book altogether.
Guess what happened? Sales plummeted! Go figure!
Then the tech-y book defied the odds and won a Jesse H. Neal Award for Outstanding Business Journalism. The magazine’s reward from the big publisher? Pink slips! And the three staffers sent packing were not even placed in similar available jobs within the company (apparently that was against policy).
Then, of course, you have the publisher who is extremely hands-off, lets the creative staff do what it was hired to do. Then one day he gets an idea because he’s been talking to other publishers—no more sodas at your desk; all headlines should be in "Courier"; numbers must always be on the cover … ALWAYS! And insists that the edit and art staff institute new changes or rules. Luckily these kinds of publishers get distracted by other trends … or something shiny!
If any editors or art directors have “bad publisher” stories, feel free to share!