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May 7, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 7:43am

Former lads’ mag editor launches literary magazine to give books ‘representation in media they deserve’

By Charlotte Tobitt

The former editor of men’s magazine FHM has launched his own literary title to offer an alternative to what he described as the “pseudo-academic” treatment given to book reviews in rival publications.

Magazine veteran Ed Needham decided to launch Strong Words after Dennis Publishing closed the print edition of Coach magazine, the health and fitness title he had founded and edited from 2015 to 2016.

His new title contains book reviews, news and interviews with authors, cover designers and independent publishers.

An avid reader, Needham said books hadn’t been getting the “representation in the media that they deserve”, adding: “They play a really important part in people’s lives and they should get as much attention as, say, films or TV but they just don’t.

“I wanted to produce something that enabled people to know a bit more about what’s out there, because at the moment a lot of people still rely on just wandering into a bookshop and hoping they’ll find something interesting – and sometimes they do, but quite often they don’t.”

Discussing the current provision for book lovers in UK newspapers and magazines, Needham added: “I think if you are of an intellectual or an academic bent then your needs are amply met, but most people aren’t doing a masters degree in medieval literature.

“Most people buy books for fun and there is this tendency among a lot of book reviewers to treat books as homework slightly, almost a pseudo-academic venture, and so books tend to be reviewed in a slightly solemn, serious, chin-stroking way.

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“Whereas I don’t think most people read books like that. They read books for pleasure.”

The former Rolling Stone managing editor said his main competition for readers, “like with all magazines”, is time. “There just aren’t the gaps in people’s habits anymore that used to be there that allowed magazines to exist,” he said.

Needham is self-funding the magazine and writing the majority of its content, meaning he reads every one of the books which get a major review or feature. He is the only member of staff, but he contracts a designer and credits two contributors.

He told Press Gazette he wanted to keep staff costs as low as he could, adding: “I wanted to see if it’s possible to produce something of high quality at low cost.”

Needham believes there are “significant numbers” of people willing to pick up a magazine if it is dedicated to a niche subject they care about.

And something he considered as part of his business plan was his view that “if anyone’s going to want ink on paper, it’s book buyers”.

Strong Words has just marked its first anniversary and ninth issue – although it has already evolved from a tabloid newspaper format to an A4 magazine because, he said, “newsagents didn’t know what to do with it”.

The magazine is stocked in WH Smiths travel outlets, Selfridges and independent newsagents, priced at £6.95 on the newsstand or £6 with a six-issue rolling subscription model.

Said Needham: “The old model of magazine buyers going into a newsagent and picking up a magazine with their crisps and their 20 Embassy [cigarettes] and some biscuits is gone. That’s broken.

“Whereas people are quite happy to subscribe to something, whether that’s a digital service or a physical product, and they expect to have it brought to their house. People don’t think twice about subscribing to things, it’s very normal.”

Strong Words covers for February/March and April 2019.

Needham also decided not to carry advertising, describing the migration of ad revenue from print to online as “one of the great agonies of the magazine industry”.

UK advertising spend at magazine brands fell by an estimated 7.5 per cent year-on-year in 2018, according to the latest Advertising Association/WARC Expenditure Report.

“To rely on ad sales is a very patchy revenue stream these days,” Needham said, adding that he wanted to produce a magazine that “didn’t require advertising support”.

Needham also made the decision not to give his content away for free online, saying: “If people want to meander around on the internet there is already plenty of content of variable standards, shall we say, [which is] not particularly focused.

“A lot of it doesn’t have a point of view, or tone of voice, or the things that make reviews interesting. I think if people want that they can already get it, whereas what Strong Words aims to provide is something of much more use.

“Magazines have to be useful, and they have to be helpful, and they have to be entertaining and interesting, whereas that process can be a bit too hit-and-miss online.”

Needham’s view is at odds with another former lad’s mag editor, James Brown, who has just taken the helm at football magazine Four Four Two.

Loaded founder Brown told Press Gazette last month: “I think there was a tendency, quite an old fashioned tendency, that [Four Four Two staff] were focusing their efforts on print, but actually the growth for this title will be online.”

Needham edited men’s magazine FHM in the mid-1990s as it grew to its peak, later moving to New York to launch its US edition before joining Rolling Stone.

Reflecting on his “extraordinary” time at FHM, Needham said: “It just felt as though everything we did turned to gold.

“At that time the magazine industry generally was very robust, there was a lot of investment, and with men’s magazines specifically they were just growing at an extraordinary pace with every issue that went on sale… it was a very delirious experience, but at the same time it brought its own pressures.

“With that kind of success there were more pages, it was more frantic, the demands to keep growing were greater, so it was quite an intense period as well.”

Asked what lessons from his career had helped him on his mission to launch his own magazine, Needham said his respect for the sales and marketing side of magazines has changed from his previous “dismissive” view.

“My opinion has swung through 180 degrees and I realise that the arts of sales and marketing are much more subtle and deserving of applause than I realised.”

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