The Interview Series // 13

losowsky1

Publishing. It’s a world many young creatives yearn to enter. Magazines offer all the tantalising perks of being young – photography, writing, culture, ideas… They also get made in amazing warehouse style offices with attractive ladies at reception and all the blow you could ever want. Well, at least that’s what we’re lead to believe – or want to believe. We wanted to know more about this industry and the successful people who make it work. That’s why we’re super dooper excited to introduce you to Andrew Losowsky, arguably one of the world’s leading voices on publishing. Andrew does many things. So many in fact that we reluctantly put ‘editor & writer’ under his name above. His website losowsky.com (http://losowsky NULL.com) unearths at least a fraction of said ‘things’. He writes a blog on magazines (http://www NULL.losowsky NULL.com/magtastic/), has just published a book (http://losowsky NULL.com/doorbells/), co-runs a worldwide magazine symposium called Colophon (http://blog NULL.colophon2009 NULL.com/), and thinks the internet is shit (http://www NULL.internetisshit NULL.org/). If you want to have absolutely anything to do with the publishing industry, do not skim read this. Your career depends on it.

Junior: Hey Andrew, we hear you’ve just moved to the U.S. Is there something there you couldn’t find in London or Barcelona?

Andrew: Yes! My beautiful, wonderful wife. Love is all you need.

Jr: Aww it sure is! Hooray for love. So fill us in on your education and how you first fell into doing what you do.

A: Degree in English Literature and Theatre Studies from the University of Warwick in the UK, but far more instructive were the 40+ hours each week I spent there in my second year, editing the student newspaper. That helped me to get work experience placements on websites and magazines, and then soon after graduation, an eight-week job came up at a magazine company called John Brown Publishing (http://www NULL.johnbrownmedia NULL.com) in London. Eight weeks became three years, in which I became the youngest editor in the company, and was named one of the UK’s New Journalists of the Year.

I then started to look around for new challenges – and without knowing anyone there, or hardly any Spanish, decided to move to Spain. A few months into my Spanish adventure, I got involved with a new startup company called Le Cool (http://lecool NULL.com/)

Jr: Yes! LeCool was a pretty great idea. It was definitely one of the first publishing projects we saw as young impressionables that illustrated the possibilities of publishing. True story. Was it one of the first ‘projects’ you began that wasn’t just ‘writing for stuff’? How did it spring into being and what is it doing now?

A: Le Cool was the brainchild of a Swedish media mogul-in-making, René Lönngren, who was living (and still lives) in Barcelona. I joined about three months after I arrived in Barcelona, in about week three of the company’s first weekly email magazine. I was translating/rewriting texts from Spanish to English, as a way of improving my rather poor language skills. I hung around the office (actually a windowless corridor between two other offices) long enough to become a fixture. Meanwhile I was working as a freelancer, editing a couple of other publications, and writing journalism for The Guardian newspaper and others. I also wrote a blog about living in Barcelona.

René was interested in creating a special kind of guidebook to the city, and so we started to plan it together. We worked so well together that he then asked me to become the company’s first editorial director. And so I did. I did that for four years, before moving to the States, in which time we expanded to eight cities, created five guidebooks (http://www NULL.lecoolbook NULL.com/), made a revolutionary monthly inflight magazine (http://lingmagazine NULL.com/), and created various client projects around Europe. It was quite a ride. The company is still going strong – Dublin, Moscow and Budapest are their next expansions… with plenty more to come.

Jr: We know you’re a big fan of independent publishing. Setting up Colophon (http://blog NULL.colophon2009 NULL.com/) (the Luxembourg based magazine symposium) with Jeremy Leslie (http://magculture NULL.com/blog/) and Mike Koedinger (http://www NULL.mikekoedinger NULL.com/) is an obvious testament to that. There’s going to be a lot of keen young publishers reading this – what are the most important things you think they should know before deciding to live their days in self-imposed squalor?

A: If you want to create a magazine, you need to think long and hard why you want to do it – and then focus on those reasons.

What is it you love about making a magazine as opposed to, say, a Facebook group or a website? If it’s about the tactility of the object, then focus on your design and on unearthing wonderful types of paper that you can afford. If it’s about the distinct rhythms that the best magazines have, then make sure that your magazine has that, that it’s clear, focused, on theme and on message throughout. Ensure that the reader knows where they are at any given moment, and can see clearly how all the parts add up to the whole.

If it’s about beautiful photography, work hard to make sure that it is beautiful, and don’t try to cut corners on quality reproduction. Try to break down what it is you love about the object.

There are so many other, cheaper options for getting your message out that aren’t magazines, so if you are going to commit to print, be sure you know why you’re doing it. These are the reasons that will keep you going on those long, unpaid nights, and help you keep falling in love with making magazines every single time you get a new issue delivered.

Jr: Penny Modra told us this, “I mean, look, novels don’t suck, but they won’t make you money and it’s no way to start out.” You’ve written a couple of books now and done quite well at it too. Say I’m a budding writer, where should I realistically set my sights? Writing books, journalism, freelance writing, zine producing, espresso making, all of the above…? Help!

A: Penny’s great. I’m a big fan of hers.

I will say, however, that you should tell the stories you want to tell, in whatever medium they fit best in. If it’s a novel, write a novel. If it’s a radio script, write a radio script. If it’s a blog entry, a Twitter feed, an eBay description, a picture caption… do that. Find what you love, and only then see if there’s a way of making money from it. If there isn’t, don’t fret about that. Enjoy the fact that you’ve found something you love, and fit it into your life wherever you can.

I would highly recommend experimenting with different media, playing around with any and every way of telling stories you can find, and keeping an eye on what new possibilities developing technology might offer.

If you happen to be lucky and persistent, a publisher might say yes to a properly presented proposal – but don’t mistake publication for validation that what you do is good and worthwhile. Publication merely means that the publisher thinks your writing will happen to fit the next marketing zeitgeist, and will complement the other things in their catalogue that season.

Publishing is a business – literary beauty and emotionally true stories are pretty low on the list of what they’re looking for. Marketable, sellable, trendy are the most important factors for publication. Don’t worry if you’re none of these things right now – markets change, trends move. The important thing is to create your own, genuine voice while writing great stories. The market will inevitably eventually make its way to you, so make your writing as polished as you can get it for when it does.

If however your main goal is purely to make money from writing, then find a few niches you can explore, and then be prepared to write to order, even if it doesn’t necessarily reflect your world view. That’s how freelancing works.

But don’t feel that the only way to write is for money. You’ll feel much better about yourself once a need to earn from it is taken out of the equation. And if you’re both very good at marketing yourself, and very very lucky, you might sometimes get to do both.

Jr: Magazine type people talk a lot about the ‘flow’ of a magazine and how an issue has been put together. You sound like a good person to ask. What represents a good and a bad ‘flow’?

A: A good flow is like anything beautiful and true: I can’t really describe it, but I know it when I see it.

It may or may not be: a variety of articles that are the same but different, that aren’t in the same single voice but all contain a familiar tone; a series of articles that aren’t all about the same topic, but have something clear in common, exploring the magazine’s theme from different and unexpected angles. A difference in pace, that draws me in with every twist of the fishing line.

Put another way, every magazine is trying to flirt with its reader. It wants to seduce them into keeping focused, and into a bigger commitment – that is, reading the longer, indepth articles in the second half of the magazine. You can’t dive in at the start and challenge people with something so heavy at the beginning. So maybe you’ll open with some punchy, short anecdotes, give the reader something pretty to look at, something that makes them smile and like you. Then a medium-length piece, then something shorter again, before a longer piece with a beautiful graphic introduction.

You also want your readers to know clearly where they are in the mag at any moment – so make sections bold and obvious, and don’t break the rules about what goes in each one. If a piece is fabulous and funny, but doesn’t quite fit with your magazine’s mission, or into any of the magazine’s clearly defined sections, then maybe this isn’t the place to publish it. Magazines are curated compilations of text, image, design, and you want to keep your reader along for the whole ride by changing the rhythm enough to keep them interested, without making them confused.

How do you learn what is and isn’t good flow? Read lots and lots of magazines, I guess. And then trust your instincts.

Jr: I wanted to ask you a question about blogs that was both relevant and insightful. But nothing I write makes me sound either one of those things. Do you have anything to say on the topic of blogging that exceeds the scope of my question asking abilities?

A: Blogging is conversation – which means that 90% of it is banal small talk that will only interest a handful of people at a time. Which is completely fine, by the way, I don’t have any problem with that. I’ll just read the bits that interest me. Alternatively: blogging is Twitter for people without jobs. It strikes me as strange how technology has now developed to allow people to write less, rather than the other way around.

Jr: You know, I’m sure you remember what it was like being young. Sleeping in, drinking to all hours and all those crazy things we young types get up to. Did you ever have to make the choice between being a twenty-something and being committed to your craft? When did you grow up?

A: Oh goodness. I still don’t have that legendary dedication everyone talks about being necessary to write your 5,000 words a day. Instead of all-night drinking binges, my personal curse is all-day internet surfing and frantic email checking.

One of the best things that ever happened to my productivity was when my neighbour stopped their open wifi connection. Peace at last.

Jr: One question we throw around a lot is when or if to travel. Especially in terms of doing it for the sake of your career. You’ve moved countries a few times now, what pushed you to do it and what was your experience of trying to ‘make it’ in another place?

A: The first time I moved away from the metaphorical bosom was aged 18, to teach English in a Hong Kong school for a year. The whole thing happened by mistake, I was planning on a quiet few months in Canada, and the organisation I applied to offered me Hong Kong instead. I went out there terrified, telling myself that I’d run home after trying it for a month. Instead, I discovered that putting yourself in situations you’re not ready for is the best way to get better at pretty much everything. I stayed a year in HK, and fell in love with the place. Since then, I’ve lived in London, Spain and now the USA – each has their own learning curve. The trick, I think, is to try and view the curve as a roller coaster, not a mountain. Weeeeeeee!

Jr: Such great advice. I hope the kids out there are paying attention! What advice would you give your twenty-one-year-old self if you could actually buy a time-machine from the store and do that?

A: I’m not sure I’d want to give much professional advice to my 21-year-old self. Mostly, as with everyone, the conversation would instead probably revolve about the girls I should have asked out, and people I shouldn’t have bothered pretending to be friends with. Actually, I know what I’d advise: Take this time machine, and sell it to Google. Then, in ten years time, I won’t have to worry about making a living as a writer.

Written by Junior
Originally posted on: 07/05/2009