Monday, December 18, 2006

Writer's Digest: Down the Drain?

"Writer's Digest isn't read by professional writers, but it is written by professional writers." --Jerry Pournelle

It was a real surprise to see Writer's Digest go bi-monthly last Spring. I started reading the magazine in 1971, when an editor friend gave me some back-issues, and I wrote for it throughout the 1980s. (I got to writing for it so often that I was identified with the magazine; for two years I was paid to endorse their companion annual market directory, Writer's Market, in full-page ads.)

Back then, when someone asked me what kinds of magazines I wrote for, I would say something like, "Oh, several. Analog, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, computer magazines, Writer's Digest ..."

"Reader's Digest, hey? Wow--lot of people read that!"

And I would explain that Writer's Digest was a magazine for writers. Eventually I stopped mentioning it--not out of embarrassment, but because talking about it was a waste of time unless the person who asked was a writer or would-be writer.

I stopped writing for WD in the 1990s, just as it began to decline, a bit after Bill Brohaugh moved from being the magazine's editor to become editor of Writer's Digest Books. Tom Clarke made an effort to keep the magazine on course, but he wasn't in the position of editor long enough. After Tom a succession of editors struggled to change the magazine's look, feel, and content--but none approached the quality of the magazine under Brohaugh, John Brady, or Kirk Polking.

When Richard Rosenthal decided to retire and sell the company that published WD (F&W Publications), the magazine reflected that change. It became less personable and more hobby-oriented.

Why? I heard that the new owners were pushing to double the company's revenue, and the magazine's design and content seemed to reflect that. It was as if they were striving find a formula or package that would push readers' "buy" buttons. (One approach was to link a book to every article ... a bit too in-your-face, folks!) The emphasis was more on using the magazine to sell books and other products than providing content that would make readers want to buy the magazine.

In the meantime, many of the company's best people left. And apparently a lot of readers decided they wanted something other than a catalog.

I won't be very surprised if WD folds, or is sold off to a private company. Then again, maybe the management will realize that the writers and would-be writers who make up WD's audience buy the magazine for its own sake, and bring back usable content.
E-mail to: Mike [insert the "at" sign here]

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