Just over a year ago Ed Needham, former managing editor of Rolling Stone and editor of Maxim and FHM, launched a magazine to which he is the only contributor. Strong Words is about books. It is 80 pages long, classy to look at and covers graphic novels alongside highbrow reads, with author interviews and features of a quizzical nature: “Fudges! A History of Embarrassing Literary Errors”; “Future Predictions That Missed The Mark” (authors who got it wrong, unlike George Orwell). There was once a piece on how to be more like Donna Tartt. And another on bookshelves.
The magazine, which comes out nine times a year, contains about 30,000 words per issue, every one of which is written by Needham. At the New Statesman, a freelance writer usually gets a deadline of two weeks for a book review. Needham writes around 100 reviews for each issue, ranging between 150 words and 1,000. I went to his Camden flat to see what on earth was going on.
He starts work at 8am and works through until 1pm, when he takes lunch “over there” (he points towards the sink). His only disturbance is a beat-boxer near Camden Tube between 10am and 4pm on a Saturday. He works seven days a week, but once in his six-week press cycle he will have a Sunday off. Needham does not, however, slink sadly on to a mattress when the working day is done. He spends his nights in Hammersmith at his girlfriend’s house, setting off at 6pm and walking 5.5 miles there, a journey of two hours – then back to Camden at 6am the following morning. It gives him time, he points out, to listen to audiobooks. His subscription page reads: “Never get your face stuck in the wrong book again” – Strong Words is intended as a guide to the saturated book market. While it’s true that there are a lot of books out there, it is also clear that no one would undertake such a project alone unless they had an unexplained but pressing biological need to work this hard.
My father edited a magazine by himself from our house in Norfolk: Potato Review, the world’s leading kartofel journal. It contains, no, not potato recipes, as people stupidly ask, but articles on blight and other scientific subjects, for farmers and seed merchants. It is read as far as Peru and Japan. There is usually a photo of a potato harvester on the cover, taken by my father. It was once featured on Have I Got News For You. Yet even though it has nearly as many subscribers as the New Statesman, people always ask the same thing. “Does he make a living from that?” Rude! At least I always thought – until I found myself asking Ed Needham the same thing.
Needham sank his own money into Strong Words, from his time working at (Felix) Dennis Publishing, on Maxim US, a men’s mag then selling three million copies. “Felix used to say, ‘Overheads walk on two legs. There is no greater expense than staff,’” he says – so he avoided staff himself. He points out that technology, while utterly destroying the market for magazines, has also made it possible to produce one with very few people. You no longer have to sell as many copies to make a living. He has subscribers – he won’t say how many – but no ads: “The number one reason for the collapse of the magazine industry was the migration of ads from print to digital, so to envisage a plan that included ads was foolhardy. Of course, if someone wanted to advertise I would say, by all means!”
Needham has never done a job as time-consuming, but he’s had more stressful ones: he was brought in to redesign Rolling Stone in the early-2000s to compete with the fashionable men’s mags at a time when “FHM and Loaded looked like punk and made Rolling Stone look like Genesis”. Strong Words, by comparison, is “serene”. It is done with pleasure, he says, pouring a small espresso: “I don’t know how to do anything else.”
Potato Review worked for my dad: he’d do 18-hour days then give himself several weeks off to work on the garden. Needham still experiences life’s pleasures: he sees his girlfriend, drinks “as much as he wishes” and goes walking. At some point, he’ll have to take on some investment, or a partner, so he can have more than eight days off per year.
To subscribe to Strong Words, visit www.strong-words.co.uk
This article appears in the 14 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy