The Publishing Industry Is Depressed and So Am I

I’ve been in the labor force since I was 17 and got my first job in the publishing industry shortly after I turned 22. Since then I’ve been continuously employed or self-employed — until April of last year, when I lost the staff-writing magazine job I’d been hoping would sustain me until retirement. No problem, I thought. I’ll just write some books, then re-establish the freelance clientele that has sustained me for half of my working life. But when I finished the books and gazed down into the freelance well, it had gone dry. I am not employed or self-employed but unemployed, and as of next week, I’ll be unemployed without benefits, my severance pay and unemployment benefits having run out. I haven’t found an editor willing to pay a living wage, which for a freelance writer is a dollar a word and up for challenging work and fifty cents a word for easy work. Left with no demand to push out words, my mind is rambling over my past. It will do that whether I want it to or not so I might as well type while it rambles.

It’s been 40 years since I committed myself to writing and editing for a living. If the end is near, at least I’ve had a good long run. I knew as early as my high school years that words would provide my livelihood — I have no aptitude for math, and though I’ve written about technology, my mind doesn’t easily wrap itself around science. But books and magazines are my friends and I love hacking out words. The act of writing has never given me angst. I have somehow eluded the agonies some writers describe. Why would you do something that makes you feel terrible? Sometimes I have to stop and think before I write, but that isn’t agony, just work. I don’t consider myself a great writer, merely a good one. And I’m not a bad editor either. The piece you’re reading is self-edited. Not too shabby, innit? (Except for that last part.)

I’ve never been to journalism school. My j-school was the Columbia Daily Spectator, a college newspaper that dominated my social life and sharpened my writing and editing skills. Toward the end of my college career I wrote to Max Frankel, then the Sunday Editor of The New York Times, asking whether journalism school would be worth the time and expense. He kindly wrote back advising me to skip it, and instead build reporting experience at regional papers before trying to crack the Times. But a newspaper internship in the summer between my junior and senior years convinced me that I wasn’t hard-nosed enough for real newsgathering — the experience of interviewing a devastated family burned out of their house left me feeling queasy. I decided I’d rather stay in the city and get a magazine editing job, becoming a medium-sized cog in an editorial machine.

A few months after graduation I broke into publishing by walking into the offices of Trouser Press, a rock magazine, without an appointment, and asking for an assignment. I wrote record reviews for TP and edited its newsprint offshoot, the Trouser Press Collectors’ Magazine. I’ll always be indebted to publisher Ira Robbins and editor Dave Schulps for giving me my first break.

My next step up the ladder was the Cold Composition Department of Condé Nast. Hot type had given way to cold type just a few years before and my college paper had providentially trained me to use the CompuGraphic EditWriter. This giant blue machine, the shape of an executive-size desk, exposed paper film through a rotating drum with celluloid fonts wrapped around it. It also included a rudimentary word processor that allowed revisions — a huge luxury in those days — and saved text on an eight-inch floppy disk. I was the department proofreader from 5 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., but when one of the women who pecked away at the machines called in sick, I became a substitute typesetter. I proofed the pages of Glamour, Mademoiselle, GQ and, oddly enough, a science-fiction pulp mag called Analog — apparently someone in the upper reaches of Condé Nast was a sci-fi enthusiast. The women’s mags dominated my work; to this day I know more about kicky dirndl skirts for spring than any man alive.

The company’s healthiest magazine was Brides. Every time a printed issue arrived in the Cold Composition Department, it landed with a thud. Glamour and Mademoiselle (or Millie, as we called it) were prosperous magazines, their square bindings often coming in at a half-inch thick. But Brides beat them all with a full inch. Today Brides, founded in 1934, is down to six issues a year. Glamour, founded in 1939, discontinued its print edition in 2018 and is now web-only. Mademoiselle, founded in 1935, died in 2001. These magazines were licenses to print money and it shocks me to see them dead or dying. Condé Nast lost $120 million in 2017 and put some of its titles, including Brides, up for sale the following year.

After a year at Condé Nast I got my first full-time editorial job — not just proofreading, but editing — at Video Magazine. Shortly after I got the call from my new employer, I was standing in the Times Square subway station, on my way home from the night shift at Condé Nast. A fellow rider was holding a tabloid announcing the murder of John Lennon, whose lead vocal on “She Loves You” had turned me into a rock & roll fan at the age of seven. I felt a gulf open up between my past and my future.

Video was the first magazine devoted to home video at a time when the notion of renting a movie and watching it unspool in your own livingroom, uninterrupted by ads, was considered revolutionary. We even called it “the video revolution” as we covered the format war between Beta and VHS, and the nascent cable-TV industry, and reviewed both hardware (big butt-ugly analog tube TVs) and software (videocassettes and discs). Once a month our editor-in-chief and his opposite number at our arch-rival Video Review would exchange issues fresh from the printers. A gallant gesture. The work was hard and I did it with pencils and a manual typewriter. I would sharpen a fistful of pencils — thank heaven we had an electric pencil sharpener — and return just a few hours later to grind down more nibs. Whenever I had to cut and paste an especially badly organized story, I literally cut with scissors, rearranged the pieces on my desk, and pasted (sort of) with staples.

Video was the brainchild of Jay Rosenfield of Reese Publishing. Jay was the son of the company founder Maurice (hence the name Reese) Rosenfield. Maurice ran five nonfiction crime magazines, all produced by the same small staff, including the famous True Detective (1924–95) — long before the TV series. He also had a couple of racy magazines that trafficked in doctor-and-nurse fantasies. They were produced by the same two women, one of whom went on to become the editor of Playgirl. Jay brought the company into the late 20th century with Video and our sister title Electronic Games, the first magazine to cover videogames. He was truly a visionary as well as a kind and decent man. I’ll always be grateful to him and editor-in-chief Bruce Apar for giving me my first full-time editing and writing job. I rose from assistant to associate to senior editor. In my spare time I listened to the Clash and smoked weed.

What a cast of zanies I worked with at Reese! Our most out-there publication was a hard porn mag called Beaver (“the wildlife magazine”). There may be children reading this so all I can say is that it was true to its name. The sole editor was Annie Sugar, the first transsexual I had ever met. In the male phase of her life she had been a well-known reporter for the United Press International wire service. Annie had a hulking figure and was slightly intimidating, though today I often wish I had gone out to lunch with her and gotten her to talk more about what must have been a rich and fascinating life. I was a timid boy; my loss. In one of the few conversations we did have, I asked her how she stood up to the rigors of city life. “Iron constitution,” she replied.

Some publishers still make money, in print and/or on the web, though digital revenue is not the gusher print used to be. But the consolidation of Video and other magazines charts the decline and fall of my little corner of the magazine publishing industry — the part devoted to video and audio technology. When a brash newcomer called Home Theater came along and combined the video and audio beats, Stereo Review and Video responded to the challenge by merging to form a new magazine, Sound & Vision. When Sound & Vision floundered, it was acquired by the publisher of Home Theater, which discontinued the original Sound & Vision while taking on its name. Once there were three separate magazines — Video, Stereo Review, Home Theater — publishing a joint total of 36 issues a year. By 2013 there was just one, Sound & Vision, publishing 12 issues a year. A few years later Sound & Vision, no longer able to sustain a monthly frequency, cut down to 10 issues. Under its new owner, it publishes just six. With each round of consolidation, opportunities for people like me have shrunk.

I spent five years editing copy at Video and a combined 17 years, staff and freelance, writing for Home Theater a.k.a. Sound & Vision. Audio Video Interiors, may it rest in peace, ran my column on home theater technology for 15 years. But my career hasn’t been confined to the buff books. I’ve also written for Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Newsday, and other publications — and not solely about tech. I’ve also been a music and movie critic, an interviewer of authors and musicians. But a lot of my favorite former clients are either just hanging on or gone altogether. Goodbye Details, Premiere, and Amtrak Express.

Perhaps the biggest loss has been The Village Voice. Part weekly newspaper, part magazine, it was my idea of the perfect publication, home to the country’s brainiest critics and feistiest investigative reporters. Writing for the Voice was the high point of my career (though I’m a better writer now than I was then). Seeing its print edition suspended in 2017, followed by its website in 2018, has given me an ache I can hardly describe. Its archives are still online. I go to the site about once a week, the paper’s former frequency, to rediscover wonderful writing. If some smart publisher ever brings the Voice back to life, I’ll be waiting on the doorstep.

I’m still knocking on other doors. Last fall I spent a couple of months writing queries for the surviving mass-circulation magazines and enclosing copies of my latest book. More recently I’ve been querying web-only publications with large readerships and staffs — and writing for Medium, which is therapeutic, if nothing else. I still haven’t found my new port, or ports, in the storm. But I do realize that I am the captain of my little tugboat. Whether it stays afloat is not up to fate, cruel or kind, but up to me.