Charlie's Diary

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Sun, 12 Oct 2003

Letting go is hard to do ...

I'm risk-averse by nature. This isn't the same as conservative, or cautious: I'm quite capable of jumping with both feet into a major life-change. However, I like to know where I'm going and keep my options open. I tend to avoid irrevocable changes. I like to be able to back out of blind alleys. And so on.

Today is Sunday. Tomorrow I'm going to send an email that will end a business relationship of twelve years' standing, one that (arguably) I should have ended six months or more ago. After I send it, I won't be a computer magazine columnist any more. I'll be a full-time novelist. I've been writing for Computer Shopper for nearly thirteen years, and sending in a monthly column like clockwork for the past five years, without a single break: that's the longest continuous activity in my life. (How many jobs have you had that lasted for thirteen years?)

Shopper got started in 1988 or thereabouts, back in the dim and distant past. It was, in some respects, the last hurrah of the old school computer magazine; as recently as eighteen months ago you could open an issue and be confronted by a feature that assumed you knew one end of a soldering iron or a symbolic debugger from the other. Editor Jeremy Spencer ran it with a whim of steel from his farmhouse and testing lab in rural Shropshire, commissioning articles and columns from a pool of freelancers rather than employing in-house copywriters and journalists. In fact, the whole idea of Shopper was that it would speak with authority, its columns written by experts rather than journalists: it was in some degree founded in reaction against the trade-press journalism that, by the late 1980's, was already overrunning the newsstand computer press.

As you might expect, such an odd magazine -- a couple of hundred pages of technical, authoritative editorial content sandwiched inside a telephone directory of advertising -- couldn't flourish in a mainstream magazine publisher. Shopper was published and nurtured by Felix Dennis, enfant terrible of British publishing ever since his conviction during the infamous Oz trial; by the early 1980's Dennis had become something of a media mogul. He looked at the US computer scene, and had the idea of launching Computer Shopper in the UK. Back then the US Shopper wasn't owned by ZD; he did a deal for UK rights to the title with Stan Veitch, who owned it and was about to sell it. Graeme Kidd was hired to launch the magazine and didn't want to simply recycle US copy. So he put Jeremy Spencer in the frame and Dennis gave him the job of commissioning copy. The magazine came to occupy the high ground that VNU's Personal Computer World (then the British equivalent of Byte) had just vacated; by the mid to late 1990's, Shopper was the #1 top-selling monthly newsstand computer magazine in the UK, with everything from articles on how to buy your first computer to columns for minority platforms. It maintained the same sort of claim on the affections of its readership that the early computer magazines held in the 1970's and early 1980's.

My history with Shopper is an odd one. Back in 1990 I was finishing a computer science degree, in between writing and selling short stories (with some degree of success). I needed a UNIX-type operating system to run on my PC but, being a student, I was close to broke. Then a thought struck me: why not try my hand at reviewing? I thumbed through a handy copy of the magazine that seemed most clueful -- and most likely to be receptive to the idea -- and phoned the editorial number. "Hello, is Jeremy Spencer available?" I asked. "I'm a writer and I'm in the process of completing a computer science degree, and I'm wondering if you'd be interested in a review ...?"

I didn't know a lot about how trade publishing works. If I'd picked PCW instead of Shopper, or one of the other VNU stable magazines, I'd probably have been blown off. Future Publishing hadn't started their long climb to success, and in any event they preferred to use freelancers who knew what they were doing. But Jeremy had a different plan: to find experts and give them the basic skills they needed in order to write for magazines. I lucked out, or sounded plausible, or something: Jeremy in due course sent me a copy of Mark Williams' Company Coherent for review, which I duly wrote up, and I got paid for it (to my shock earning five times as much per word as Interzone ever paid -- you could actually make a living at this game). I was hooked. You could, like, ask people to send you toys and get paid money, lots of money, for playing with them and then writing up your thoughts.

Back then, it seemed obvious (with 20/20 hindsight: why?) that computers were going to Change The World. Maybe you could pin the blame on William Gibson for tickling the collective imagination with Neuromancer, a vision of a (skewed, impractical, but seductive) planetary network. (Not that he deserves the blame, exactly: that is more appropriately ascribed to the hundreds of thousands of engineers who laboured with monastic dedication for decades to build the worm, spam, and virus infested howling wasteland of junk data we now inhabit.) Or maybe you could blame Apple's marketing department and Ridley Scott for that advertisement. The zeitgeist was certain: computers were the engines for the new age of steam, the age of information, and they were going to drag us willy-nilly into the future. By re-training in CS, I wasn't merely getting the hell out of a profession that was an emotional and intellectual dead-end for me (with a nervous breakdown waiting in the shadows if I persisted in it); I was getting a party card and a chance to join the Revolution. And, by writing for what I saw as the pre-eminent populist magazine of the field, I was in the privileged position of a party enthusiast being asked to write for Pravda.

We all know where that went, don't we?

During the 1990's I worked for a variety of companies: first for Real World Graphics (a now-defunct supercomputing hardware outfit from Hertfordshire), then for the Santa Cruz Operation (who sold their UNIX rights to Caldera after I left -- Caldera then changed their name to SCO, and we know what they're up to these days), then a web outfit called FMA (which went tits-up in early 1997), then some freelance programming, then for three and a half years at Datacash -- I was the first programmer Gavin and Dave (MacRae) hired, two weeks before the limited company was formed, and I left a couple of months after the IPO. And my departure from Datacash coincided with the bubble bursting, the scales falling from various eyes, the NASDAQ IT stock crash, and ...

This isn't the place for the lecture on how the web industry sawed off the branch it was sitting on. Or the essay about how 90% of the jobs in IT are basically make-work, guaranteed by the shitty design quality of the tools the commodity software business delivers, a poor record which in turn is propagated because a business model based on selling software licences requires regular churn and new products in order to keep raking the money in. But by the very late 1990's, the computer magazine business was hurting. The internet allows folks like you and me to buy computers (and parts thereof) online. And in 1998-99 the web advertising market crashed. The price of online ads went down, and they began to seriously eat into magazine advertising territory. People didn't need to buy a magazine like Computer Shopper any more when they could type their desired search specs into Google. So circulations began to slowly decline.

In early 2000, I resigned from Datacash because (a) I was burned out after three and a half years' of writing and maintaining the core servers for a payment service provider, and (b) Andrew Veitch, CEO of NSL Internet, finally made me an offer I couldn't refuse -- come on board NSL at senior management or board level and establish a software development division within the company. NSL looked as if it was going to float successfully by summer, and this was a very good prospect. But halfway through my notice period (which Datacash had pegged at three months) the bubble burst. NSL's underwriters pulled out, several kilotons of shit hit the fan, and NSL underwent a hostile take-over by another ISP that had managed to do the IPO limbo under the lowering bar of stock market expectations earlier in the year and now sought growth through acquisition. My promising new job evaporated under me, leaving me hung-over and blinking at the new reality of the post-Revolution world.

So I picked up the phone to Jeremy again, and a couple of other editors I knew, and this time I wasn't just after pocket money.

Computer journalism -- freelance journalism -- was my bread and butter for two years. Gradually, during those years, my personal affairs underwent a different revolution, one I'd hoped for for decades but long since ceased to expect: I broke through into Asimov's SF magazine, acquired a literary agent, began selling novels and appearing on awards ballots. But if it wasn't for the journalism I wouldn't have been in business as a writer. I was routinely turning in 8-10,000 words a month for Shopper, covering the Linux beat, and writing for other magazines too: PC Format, Linux Format, Linux Magazine, Linux User.

I mentioned the declining advertising revenues, didn't I? In 2000, Shopper's ABC-audited circulation was on the order of 185,000 copies a month. (If you're an American reader, you can get a feel for what this means in the UK market by multiplying by five -- the UK has a fifth the population, remember.) But by January 2003, Shopper's circulation had slipped to barely more than 100,000 a month. These circulation figures are critical because they're what convinces advertisers to buy page space. A half-page in black and white near the back of Shopper used to go for £2000 -- and Shopper at its height had nearly 500 pages of advertising a month, with colour and cover ads costing considerably more. As Shopper's circulation slid, so did its page count -- from a peak of 714 pages to barely 400. Meanwhile, Felix Dennis had lost interest in running the day to day affairs of his publishing empire. Focussing on writing poetry in his mansion, he offloaded operations onto a corporate hierarchy who ran the stable of Dennis magazines out of a central office in London. All except Shopper, which until then had been run by Jeremy Spencer from that farm in Shropshire.

The inevitable happened in March this year. A row blew up over the management of the magazine between the existing editorial staff and new broom management. Who promptly shipped in a cabal of experienced journalists from Computer Buyer -- a sister magazine originally founded by Dennis as a spoiler move to deter rival publisher VNU from butting in on the lucrative Shopper market -- to take over the magazine and turn it around.

Computer Buyer was not like Computer Shopper. Run from inside the big office, it employed full-time feature writers; journalists whose job was to translate press releases into English, interview executives, and review software. Not experts. Not people who were expected to speak with authority on the direction of the field as a whole. Not people overly gifted with imagination, either: their program for turning around Shopper's declining ABC ratings (notwithstanding the fact that their own magazine's ratings are similarly declining) is to glitz it up, attracting new readers. But the new readers they're after are people who want to learn how to buy a PC -- which for them, is a once every five years chore. They'll read a few issues, buy a PC, and stop bothering with the magazine. Meanwhile, Shopper's core subscriber base (who, surveys concluded, are often influential in company buying decisions, often subscribe for many years on end, and are generally knowledgable and loyal) are receiving no attention.

As for me ...

I've written the Linux column for Shopper ever since it was founded, in issue 131: I just handed in the column for issue 191, a chain of sixty unbroken columns filed along the way. And I find that I simply cannot be arsed to deal with the clowns who have taken over the head office any more. Until April I had complete editorial content autonomy in my column -- the nearest thing to academic tenure you'll ever find in journalism. (In one famous incident MacBiter, the Mac columnist, filed two pages of copy consisting of a discussion of his haemorrhoids and speculating on which members of editorial staff also suffered from the embarrassing itch. Not only did they run it -- they commissioned a cartoon to run alongside it. And, having gotten it out of his system, MacBiter was back on biting form in the next issue. Not bad, considering that twelve years of waxing sarcastic about Steve Jobs every month can burn out even the most hardened cynic.) But since April I've been treated like a clueless office intern by a bunch of office seat warmers who were still in high school when I began writing this column.

The first signs of how the new regime planned to run the magazine were predictable, but nevertheless offensive. After being used to editorializing and opining on the state of the industry at whim for a period of years, I was rudely surprised by being told I couldn't talk about SCO and their lawsuits. It seems that, despite being Shopper's Linux columnist and having actually worked inside SCO for some years as a technical author attached to the UNIX development group, and despite working as a freelance journalist for over a decade, I can't be trusted to write about the most important issue in the Linux world today. But that's okay, because some guy with a journalism diploma and a couple of years on the staff of Computer Buyer can write the in-depth historical retrospective and strategic analysis my readers want for me. And, y'know, I might be opinionated, and that might annoy SCO, and the new editors wouldn't want to do that.

I soldiered on for a few months, turning in boring overviews of technical fields associated with Linux. Reviews of commercial distributions that are all the same bland corporate desktop pap. An exegesis on the ontology of text editors on UNIX, from ed onwards, explaining how they fit together and which skills are transferrable. And so on. But this is fundamentally boring, and moreover, it's not what I'm there for.

The final straw came this month. I sent in a survey of blogging software for Linux. Linux is the pre-eminent platform for weblogging tools, with everything from Slashcode to Livejournal by way of Blogger running atop it. It's also a rapidly growing interest for millions of people. If this isn't an application domain appropriate to the operating system in question, I don't know what is -- but it evidently rattled the cage of Shopper's new commissioning editor, who felt it necessary to tell me that as blogging tools aren't actually, y'know, part of Linux, they have no place in my column.


I blinked and looked around, and started asking some questions that have been growing in the back of my mind. Why was I still writing for these clowns? Partly it was because they pay -- but also, and as long as I'm doing it I can still claim to be a freelance computer journalist. I could use that to hawk around for new commissions if I needed to, if I needed to go back to being a freelance journalist for 100% of my income.

But the fact is, I don't need the money that badly right now. My agent just told me that a publisher is interested in a follow-on two book contract and moreover are offering a bigger advance. Those will be my seventh and eighth novels. Meanwhile, another couple of foreign publishers crawled out of the woodwork to bid for translation rights to a book. In the past couple of years, fiction hasn't simply become a line item on my tax bill -- it's become a bigger source of income than the journalism.

Meanwhile, looking a bit deeper in search of other reasons for keeping on at it, I was forced to confront an unpleasant conviction that the computer magazine biz has turned to shit. From being the banner-carriers of the revolution, we've ended up as pigs at a trough fed from the sump of corporate public relations. The industry is a treadmill, dominated by risk-averse multinationals turning out one bland plastic box after another. The software biz is dominated by the Evil Empire. The revolution hasn't changed anything fundamental about human power relationships -- in fact, inappropriate use of email and web facilities at work are now cited as the #1 cause for dismissal of office staff in the UK. The wild sense of excitement and potential that computers brought in the late 1970's and early 1980's has evaporated. I spent the back end of last week sitting in the isolated kitchen of a farmhouse in Dumfrieshire, comparing experiences with a couple of other freelancers -- a former magazine editor, and one who is currently making her entire living as a feature writer. It's not just me: these experienced pros held the same uneasy conviction, that we're just going through the motions, that the only reason anyone but a fool would do computer journalism today would be the promise of money.

I've been thinking about quitting for three or four months, now, but I've held off each time, thinking things might improve: new editors at the magazine, a change of heart, whatever. But this week I've begun asking myself why I hope things might change. Because it doesn't really mean anything to me any more; I'm not the cutting age of some kind of technological revolution, I'm just more roadkill on the information superhighway. And I don't need to swallow shit from a twenty-something drone in a corporate office churning out propaganda for the profit factories of Jim Alchin, Michael Dell, Andy Grove, or Carly Fiorina. I don't need the money half as much as I need my self-respect.

This is my last Computer Shopper column. Not that it'll be published there, but in a very real way it's the coda to a thirteen year odyssey through the guts of a prolapsed revolution. No more. Letting go is hard to do, especially when it involves burning your bridges. But tomorrow I'm going to email in my resignation. And I will let go of being a freelance computer journalist and focus on the thing that matters -- my writing.

(END COPY -- 3100 words)

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posted at: 17:23 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Engadget ]
Gizmodo ]
The Memory Hole ]
Boing!Boing! ]
Futurismic ]
Walter Jon Williams ]
Making Light (TNH) ]
Crooked Timber ]
Junius (Chris Bertram) ]
Baghdad Burning (Riverbend) ]
Bruce Sterling ]
Ian McDonald ]
Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
Cyborg Democracy ]
Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
Atrios ]
The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ]
This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
Jesus's General ]
Mick Farren ]
Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
Tangent Online ]
Grouse Today ]
Hacktivismo ]
Terra Nova ]
Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
Justine Larbalestier ]
Yankee Fog ]
The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
Cough the Lot ]
The Yorkshire Ranter ]
Newshog ]
Kung Fu Monkey ]
S1ngularity ]
Pagan Prattle ]
Gwyneth Jones ]
Calpundit ]
Lenin's Tomb ]
Progressive Gold ]
Kathryn Cramer ]
Halfway down the Danube ]
Fistful of Euros ]
Orcinus ]
Shrillblog ]
Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
Hitherby Dragons ]
Counterspin Central ]
MetaFilter ]
NTKnow ]
Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
Fafblog ]
BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

Older stuff:

June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
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April 2005
March 2005
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December 2004
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December 2003
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October 2003
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June 2003
May 2003
April 2003
March 2003
February 2003
January 2003
December 2002
November 2002
October 2002
September 2002
August 2002
July 2002
June 2002
May 2002
April 2002
March 2002
(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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