After over 20 years experience editing some of the largest magazine brands in the world – including FHM in it’s heyday and Maxim when it was the world’s biggest men’s title – Ed Needham launched his own magazine Strong Words in February 2018. The magazine is a useful and entertaining guide to new books, with reviews, recommendations and profiles presented in bold, colourful layouts.
Tell us about your typical Monday journey to work
I live and work in a flat in Camden, but I spend most nights in Hammersmith, so on a Monday morning I get up at six and walk from W14 to NW1, whatever the weather. It takes about an hour and a half and I listen to audio books. I really enjoyed Ben Lewis’s ‘The Last Leonardo’ recently, about the (possible) Da Vinci painting that made certain people lose control of their wallets, and I’ve just started ‘Fleishman is in Trouble,’ that people seem to be losing control of themselves over too.
Describe the state of your desk and what you can see in your office
It’s a small old wooden desk, with the desktop, laptop and printer taking up the lion’s share of the square footage, a stack of books waiting to be read for this issue of Strong Words on top of the printer, and a few permanent books on the desk, including a collection of Anthony Lane’s film reviews, because I like his style, and a biography of General de Gaulle, to remind me that there’s no escaping reading it one day in spite of its immensity.
If I look straight ahead through the window I can see the ‘O’ of the ‘Odeon’ sign above the Camden Odeon cinema, usually with a seagull on top of it looking for something to kill, or some pigeons making the love.
Which magazine do you first remember?
As a kid I liked comics like the Beezer (the Numskulls!) and then Look-In and Shoot with its DIY football league tables, but it was the NME in the late seventies that made me feel for the first time that the pages and the people who made them were a gateway to something exclusive, desirable, transgressive and transformative.
Which magazine matters to you the most right now?
I think I would have to say The Week, for its economy, depth of knowledge and superlative formats, especially the spread of property. There’s no emergency serious enough could delay me from first choosing which flat in a stately home or listed property with a view over water I’d buy first.
Describe your magazine in three words.
Witty, stylish, invaluable
You clearly love reading books; what set you off on that activity?
I don’t think I ever needed any encouragement to read, but I was never obsessive as a kid. I still found time to shoplift and experiment with fire. I liked schlocky things like ‘Jaws’ and ‘Psycho’ and James Herbert. The book that blew me into the next league was reading ‘Great Expectations’ for O level at school.
The first time I read it I don’t think I paid much attention and missed large bits, but then when I read it again to revise it suddenly all fitted together and I couldn’t believe how good it was. It made me decide to read all of Dickens chronologically from ‘Pickwick Papers’ to ‘Edwin Drood’, which is the sort of project only a teenager might think is a good idea.
Strong Words began life as a tabloid newspaper; what has changing to an A4 magazine format done for the title?
I really liked the tabloid, but newsagents couldn’t cope with it. They couldn’t rack it with the magazines because it didn’t fit, and it wasn’t a daily, so it couldn’t go with the papers. So I had to change, but it’s definitely an upgrade in terms of quality and value for money for readers – there’s a lot more in it.
The other big point of difference is that Strong Words is a magazine for people who buy books for pleasure, and because of how books make you feel. If you’re looking for book stuff because you’re an academic or an intellectual, your needs are amply met by publications that coincidentally also have distinctive tabloid newsprint formats, so it’s to our advantage perhaps that we’re not lumped in with the more meditative titles.
A magazine about books is very different to the magazines you made your name with. Is this the mag you always wanted to make?
I’ve always liked the idea of having my own publishing business, so in that sense yes. In terms of content, as I do everything bar design Strong Words, that means having to work seven days a week, so if it weren’t something which is a constant source of novelty and full of interesting people I couldn’t sustain the commitment.
Authors are just about the last professionals working in culture who are prepared to say something interesting. Everyone else is so media trained and obedient to publicists. I don’t think a headline actor or musician has said anything noteworthy since about 1996, yet they hoover all the glossy magazine space up on looks alone.
What’s going to be the highlight of the week for you?
There’s a holiday in lovely France, although as the UK publishing industry insists on pumping out an average of 500 books A DAY, proper straw-hat-over-the-face vacationing will have to wait for another year. But having said that, books and sunloungers are not entirely incompatible.
Art director: Jonathan Sellers