Under the Radar with Simon Brew
This week, I spoke to Den of Geek's former Editor-In-Chief about the thrill of having a deadline, inspiring new writers (whatever their age) and his new magazine endeavour, Film Stories.
Ellie Austin scored a job at Immediate Media as a Features Writer for Radio Times after graduating from the Magazine Journalism MA course at City University. Here she talks about working in the fast-paced world of a major weekly magazine and the power of a good coffee.
What made you want to work in the magazine industry?
Oh, I always did. You know some people dream of being like a film star or a pop singer or something like that? I always wanted to do magazines, which sounds like a twee and contrived answer, but I actually have physical proof because when I was at school, I did my own computer magazine. I think I did about five or six issues of it and it was great.
I just love writing and always loved magazines.
There’s a thing that I think Stephen Fry said which is, "Beware when you get your life ambition young" and my life ambition was to work at a magazine, and I was editing a magazine in my early 20's. I was just like, "Oh, this is great, this is terrific" and I learned on the job doing it. I was never trained or anything like that. I just made honest mistakes in plain sight and learned from them.
A boring path in its own way, but a fun one.
Can you chart your journey from when you started out to your current position?
Oh, crikey. Well it's been bumpy. So, my first job post-graduation (I was writing all the way through university), I worked in the marketing office of Edge Hill University College for a couple of years. Then I landed a job editing a computer magazine called PC Mart for Trinity Mirror in Birmingham and within about five years I was editing a weekly and a fortnightly at the same time for them, which was as manic as it sounds.
The weekly was Micro Mart magazine which we had enormous fun with, and I did that for ten, eleven years. It was bought by Dennis Publishing in 2006 so, I moved to Dennis then. I was the only one on the magazine who moved across and I remember being sat in the middle of this publishing office, surrounded by all these magazines we'd done, that we were in competition with before, and it was just me at a desk. They were lovely but that was quite terrifying.
There was just so much stuff I'd always wanted to do and I had the idea for what became Den of Geek a few years before. Dennis was trailing some content management system stuff at the time and they were asking people to try websites. It was just like, "Yeah, I'll do that" and that's how Den of Geek came to be.
I also did a Justin Bieber book while I was there; I was just trying stuff, I just wanted to learn as much as I humanly could. I came out of Den of Geek last Summer and kind of thought, “what's the most nuts thing to do now?”
So, I launched Film Stories, which started a podcast and then I quickly got the idea to do a magazine version of it, because I love print magazines and I love films.
Everyone tells you that print is dying and all anyone wants is online stuff, but I just felt like, "I don't buy it" and I kind of wanted to put my money where my mouth was.
Particularly when you're writing about film, there seems to be this thing where you need to be in London or else you can't afford to get to all the screenings. You need to be in the circle, as it were. I know Terry White at Empire is doing some great work breaking this down as well, so I'm not fighting this by myself, but there's an online publishing world now where people are being asked to work for free, to write for free, and I just have no shrift with it.
One of the key things for Film Stories is that in every issue of the magazine I'm trying to give at least two people their first paid writing work, because otherwise I just don't see that many ways in. I can see lots of ways in if you're willing to write for free. I think we've all done it. I mean, I'm a reformed sinner, but I think it's wrong.
I think words, fundamentally, have value and if your business is publishing words, you pay for the words.
What’s the most unusual situation you’ve found yourself in because of your job?
I don't know really, I'm loathe to define what usual is. I think there are moments when you're being berated on the phone by people you admire and that's not a good unusual, but it is unusual, and it's very eye-opening.
Conversely, I find myself in a very privileged position meeting people who are just wonderful and whose work I love, who are as brilliant as you would hope. So, I don't have a particular anecdote about meeting the guy who plays Robocop in the gent's toilet in Norwich, or anything like that. I just think it's consistently interesting. I mean, there is a joy to meeting to famous people or people you admire, but there's nothing like the feeling when you write something that means something to someone else.
That said, when I lived in Halesowen, just outside Dudley, and got a phone call to my house from Guillermo del Toro, does that count?
What do you think people would be most surprised to know about your job?
I think, if anything, it's so ordinary isn't it?
There was an interview Michelle Obama gave last year. I've quoted it to a lot of new writers who are trying to come through, and she talked about how she'd been at the top tables and she said it's not all that impressive. I really got what she was on about there.
What I'd say is, that the thing that's surprising, and it shouldn't be surprising, because we're all just human beings really, is nobody knows everything.
You look around at people and you just think, "Oh, they're the best in the world". They might be brilliant at everything, but you might have one idea that they don't. I certainly find, employing writers, that I am constantly finding people who have better ideas than me.
That's another thing, when we look at new talent and looking to break new talent into writing and publishing, there is instantly a gaze towards the young and I think that's great, long may it continue.
I also think the gaze needs to go a little bit higher, you know, a little bit along the age ranges.
On Film Stories I've got a couple of older writers who have never been published for writing before who are great, they've just not had the opportunity before.
Walk me through your typical day.
There isn't a typical day, and long may that continue. What there is, is mayhem; I think if it's typical there's a problem.
So, I'm going to change your question to, "Walk me through your atypical day".
Do you have a go-to work outfit?
No. Lord, I am the most fashion-backwards person on planet Earth and I'm more than happy with that.
What do you turn to when you’re on deadline – tea/coffee/snacks?
A computer screen and type faster.
I mean, coffee is the closest I've got to an outright vice, maybe because it's an outright vice, but I like being on deadline. The bits where I need the comfort are the bits where there's a gap because that's the scary bit.
I don’t trust tea, I think it's wrong.
How has being a member of the PPA helped you/added value to your brand?
I guess it's the comfort blanket of knowing it's there, of having someone on your side, especially for smaller publishers.
If you didn't have to sleep, how would you use the remaining hours in the day?
You assume I sleep.
What is the last photo you took on your phone (at time of interview)? Why?
Well, I use an old Blackberry and it barely takes pictures, so I’m well out of that.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Don't do them. I go with Graham Norton: "Save your guilt for something that deserves it".
Whose phone number do you wish you had?
Generally, my own. I keep forgetting it.
What's the worst piece of advice you've ever been given?
Anything that discourages someone from thinking they might be good enough, it's a bit of a bug-bear of mine, actually. Any piece of advice that devalues self-worth is the worst piece of advice I've been given.
What/where is your happy place?
Oh, the movies, the cinema, watching a really good film about which I know nothing.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
They would be surprised to know that my middle name is Mildred, but being as it isn't true, I'd be quite surprised about it too.
What would be in your Room 101?
Introvert or extrovert?
Optimist or pessimist?
Film or television? What are you binge-watching at the moment?
I just re-watched The Sixth Sense.
I've just done a book, which is coming out later in the year, called The Secret Life of Movies, and it's about things you could spot while watching films, so I went through all the colour red in The Sixth Sense. I watched it all the way through again yesterday and it's just great.
Sweet or savoury?
I don't know, whichever is on offer in the shop.
Morning person or night owl?
Tea or coffee?
Don't even go there, it’s coffee.
Emojis – cool or cringey? Which emoji do you use the most?
They're not a massive thing for me but they are for some people and I'm not going to spoil other people's fun. I will say that the Emoji Movie is one of the worst films I've seen in years.