Confessions of an editor (and how I learnt from my mistakes)

Fractured Spaces RecordsLike most things in life, and like most people in all probability, I came to my calling via a circuitous route. I’d always enjoyed studying English during my school career but, rather than go on to pursue it at university level as I should have done, I chose art. Looking back to my late teen years, I realise now with a measure of chagrin that I was typically bloody-minded and rebellious – just for the sake of it. Commonsense, especially back then, has never been one of my strong points. Whatever sense I do possess nowadays has been fought-for and hard won, although my wife would probably tell you otherwise.

My first foray into publishing was way back in the early 90s, when I became involved in the then nascent industrial music scene and decided to launch a fanzine. FRÄCtüred (and yes, that’s how it was written) was quite successful in its own little way, selling all over the world at a time when the internet was still some years away. I managed to put out three issues, before life got in the way and I just let it all go – again I would say that this was typical of the person that was me then. With hindsight, I should have kept the thing going, although having said that, if I had it’s likely that Spectral Press wouldn’t have come along, as I would still have been heavily involved in the underground alternative music scene. Certainly FracturedSpacesRecords might have done better had I stayed in touch with what was going on, and not been the disaster it turned out to be.

But let me tell you this – I loved editing that fanzine, despite me having no idea of what editing actually involved. Remember, there was no internet or email, so I had no-one around to advise me. I thought it was simply a matter of commissioning articles, reading them as well as the unsolicited submissions, choosing which of them would go into a particular issue, maybe correct a spelling mistake here-and-there, and then collate it all to be sent off to the printers. And that, to my knowledge of the time, was the extent of it. Luckily, even though I made a few mistakes, I seemed to have got away with it and even received praise for what I’d created. I must have done quite a good job, despite my cluelessness.

Anyway, around this time (1991), the place where I was working had acquired one of the then ‘new’ PCs, a clunky old thing with limited memory which used massive floppy discs on which to store data and whose graphics capabilities stretched solely to badly pixellated images which made identifying what they were supposed to be quite difficult. Alongside the usual packages it came with there was a desktop publishing program, which the company let me use to typeset the fourth issue of FRÄCtüred (which never saw the light of day in the end). Here was an opportunity to make the affair look professional, and I could already see the possibilities inherent in the proto-digital publishing technology. It was an exciting time, knowing that a revolution could be just around the corner.

And then Fate intervened, in one of those moments that leave you wondering in the small hours. I’d just lost my job, and been herded into the dreaded Job Club initiative. After several unsuccessful applications for unsuitable jobs, I happened to look through The Guardian newspaper one day, and noticed that the University of Plymouth were looking for students to apply for a new course they’d just created – MediaLab Arts, a fancy (and somewhat pretentious) way of describing the emerging field of digital media. Included in the advert were the words ‘Desktop Publishing’. I called them up, arranged a telephone interview and then, after talking to the Head of Course, was told I’d been accepted.

An over-hyped course and poverty

Okay, so in the end the course failed to live up to its promise, and the only things I came away with were an intense dislike of computers (since cured) and the advent of a stroke, which finally hit me in the winter of 1997. So, the next decade, or so, was spent struggling with recuperation and learning to deal with physical disabilities, as well as poverty resulting in a journey down the bumpy path which led to alcoholism. I admit that I could have done a lot more to help myself, but I was mired in booze and living in an isolated (and somewhat rundown) area, was incredibly depressed and had no desire to lift myself out of the rut I was in. It took two people (a best friend and a future wife) and a move to a new town to drag me out of that vicious circle and make me realise that I had untapped potential.

I still wasn’t quite clear of the woods yet – I came into publishing and editing via the music business by setting up a record label, devoted entirely to obscure genres created by bands that only about ten people listen to (okay, so that’s not quite true, but still…). As intimated above, it was an unmitigated disaster – and my wife and I are still paying the price for my failure. Several factors contributed to its demise: my unfamiliarity with the industry, compounded with the undeniable fact that I’d been out of the scene for too long, and launching it in the middle of a global recession, in addition to making a series of poor decisions. So, after two years of spasmodic trading, I closed its doors for good.

No experience is ever wasted, however, even the bad ones. I learnt my limitations in terms of business and how to go about it. I vowed never to get involved in something about which I knew very little, and that attempting to substitute enthusiasm for sound commonsense and knowledge of your market definitely won’t help you succeed. Enthusiasm is an essential attribute to possess it goes without saying, but it has to be allied to something grounded in the real world. You have to keep your feet firmly planted on the ground, otherwise all manner of mess can result, as it did in my case. But like I said above, no experience is totally wasted and I can honestly say that I don’t regret going ahead with starting the label as it taught me some very valuable lessons. Because of it, Spectral Press is in great shape and is continuing to grow, slowly but steadily.

Anyway, that’s enough to be going on with for the present – next time, I’ll explain how Spectral started, and how I learnt about the art of editing. So, until then, onwards and upwards!

SIMON MARSHALL-JONES

Simon Marshall-Jones is the editor/publisher at British Fantasy Award-nominated Spectral Press, and is also a writer, artist, columnist and blogger.

If you would like a free no-obligation quote about Simon’s freelance editing services contact him on spectralpress@gmail.com.