The customer is always right

Like many journalists, I fell into contract publishing. It’s not exactly what I set out to do when I first ventured into journalism, but seven years ago I had a phone call out of the blue from a contract publisher asking if I would be interested in editing a quarterly magazine for an investment bank on a freelance basis.

It sounded simple enough: go to the odd client meeting, suggest ideas for each issue, commission articles, edit them, read through the pages and cast an eye over the layouts. As a financial editor, the daily rate was good.

It wasn’t as simple as that, naturally, because contract publishing involves dealing with people – particularly clients. The client can insist on daft things which may well be against all your journalistic instincts and grammatical conventions, and eventually you may have to give way. A client can be as rude as he or she likes – though this is rare – but you can only be firm and polite back.

Sometimes the person dealing with the magazine at the client company regards it as ‘theirs”, not yours. When things go well, they bask in the glory. When things go wrong, though, it’s your fault. It is vital to keep emails and, if you are super-organised, records of phone calls.

Some expect you to drop everything when they call, and if you are conscientious, you do, messing up your other work and the rest of the day. There is a balance though. The client often just wants to know you can sort out the problem. You have to learn not to answer your phone on holiday or if the children are screaming. Above all, resist the temptation to respond to stroppy emails with an immediate curt reply.

Relationship

The relationship with the person who is publishing your magazine can also be tricky. The best publishers give you a budget and leave you alone, deal with the client as much as possible, resolve problems to do with money, paper and production, and only consult you when it is important. The worst want to be journalists. Furthermore, publishers and journalists do not always see eye to eye. Journalists thrive on creative freedom and not being nagged. Publishers love Excel spreadsheets and administration and are obsessed with schedules and commissioning letters. You have to become more organised.

The publisher’s and the editor’s roles vary between contract publishing companies, so it is essential to clarify who is the boss and say in advance how you wish to work. Editors’ roles also vary from just commissioning and light editing to all aspects of the job, including management and advertising.

I used to mumble when people asked me about my contract publishing work. But I’ve stopped selling it short. The best contract magazines – of which there are a growing number – are not bland and dull; they are well designed and a good read. Contract magazines have to look good otherwise they get thrown away if they are free, or left on the newsstand. Contract publishing is also the one area of print journalism that is expanding.

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