Editing, marketing, and the fretful porpentine

Probably once you actually start doing anything that you’ve been dreaming about for some time – whether it’s ballooning, murder, giving birth, or whatever – you find it doesn’t really feel quite how you were expecting it to feel. That’s certainly true about building this website and editing this ezine. So, what am I actually doing?

Well I’m learning a lot, and mostly I’m enjoying it. A lot of the time I’m chasing up writers. Years ago I briefly worked in the publishing industry, in the advertising department of a firm that published magazines of one sort and another. There, I met people called copy chasers. Their job was to ring up people who’d booked advertising space (and paid for it) but hadn’t actually sent in their advert yet, and remind them to send it in. It was an eye-opener for me, to find that publishers employ people full-time just to ring you up and remind you of what you said you were going to do. I know how they feel now.

Writers are busy people, like everyone else: in fact writers are probably busier than everyone else, because they’re writing as well as doing everything else (working for a living, doing their laundry, watching telly, having a family life and a social life), surely not instead of it. Some have been marvellous, scribbling away and sending me new material, forwarding the site’s publicity to people I don’t know or wouldn’t have thought of contacting. Some write more quickly than others. Some spend days pacing the floor, stroking their beards, agonising over whether or not to add or remove a comma. Some just throw their ideas down and send them in, and expect me to tidy it all up and make it presentable. That’s OK too, except when I get too busy.

Plenty of writers are waiting until they see the site develop first, before they decide whether it’s something they feel able to contribute to, or whether it’s something they feel they’d want to be associated with. That’s understandable, but the trouble is that while too many people think like that then there’s not enough here to see. So it’s a bit of a compromise for now. In these early days the site isn't as polyphonic as I hope it’ll become: it’s relying far too much on my own writing, and on writing from my own personal contacts. But then even some of my own personal contacts are holding their fire till they see what Natterjack's going to grow into. Well, they have reputations to watch.

A standard line in those letters that try to sell you horse racing tipster services is something like: If I was allowed to tell you who my top insider contact actually is, it would literally make your hair curl. I could use that same line here, except being a literary pedant I’d choke on that “literally”. I’d rather say that if I gave you the names of some of the authors I’m expecting to bring into Natterjack in the future, then I’d be telling you a tale

... whose lightest word
Would harry up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.

- except that would be a little over the top, and anyway it would be plagiarism (it’s what Hamlet’s Ghost says, explaining that he’s not allowed to tell us what the afterlife is really like).  So without naming names I’ll simply say I’m hunting for some big fish, setting lures for big poets, calling in papers from big academics (though I don’t want them to write academically), and coaxing copy out of big internet marketing gurus. I’m pulling teeth in dragons’ dens. But that’s not the site’s main business anyway. The vision of Natterjack is to put work by the established names next to work by obscure writers and people who’ve never written before. On a good night at a Folk Club, for instance, accomplished (and sometimes professional) performers drop in to do a floor spot alongside locals who nervously get up on stage to present one or two of their own songs, probably for the first time. When it works, both get inspired and renewed by the energy of the other, and the audience pick this up, and a good atmosphere flourishes and everybody enjoys themselves and feels better.

I’ll just mention one or two writers here. We have Nils Corundum on our team for instance. If you haven’t heard of him yet you soon will have. He’s a bit unhappy at the moment. He suspects I’m going to make lots of money out of him. But then he’s a grumpy old git, as you’ll see from his article “A Visit to the Library” (in the articles and reviews section). And then we have another character who not only writes under a pen-name, but seems to use different pseudonyms in all the different circles in which he moves, so nobody knows what his real name is, if he’s got one. I know him as Dodgy Dan, but he also calls himself Shifty Sam. Among other things. He’s an expert on the horse-racing business, as well as on used motors, and he prides himself on being able to bring any broken machine back to life using only things like parcel tape and pen caps. Unlike Nils, Dan reckons Natterjack will never make any money at all. He can be a difficult man to track down, but I caught up with him a couple of weeks ago in a bookie’s shop in Manchester. He tells me he’s currently working on a guidebook on How to lose money on the horses. He says it’s too valuable to just give away for free to Natterjack readers, but suggests offering it for sale as an ebook for maybe about a tenner. Some old punter in the shop at the time laughed, overhearing this: a tenner? he scoffed. Who’s going to pay a tenner for a book about how to lose money on the horses? But after further conversation, it transpired that this punter had paid rather more than a tenner for a system which, while not actually advertising itself as such, was in effect a guide to how to lose lots of money on the horses. Dan said he’s simply being more honest than most tipsters. He offered to demonstrate the effectiveness of his system there and then by predicting a loser, for free, from that afternoon’s racing. The punter took him up, Dan named a horse in the next race, the punter backed the horse, the horse duly lost, and the punter was satisfied and became an instant convert. These are my kind of people.

Apart from seeking out writers, there are various other skill areas an editor of an online magazine has to sharpen up on. One of them is technology. I’ve been harassing IT geeks, trawling internet forums, struggling with software. I’m from a generation who grew up with cartridge pens, and real telephones, with real dials and real rings. Gradually we progressed to manual typewriters, Banda duplicators, overhead projectors with acetate overlays ... it’s moved on fast. And I like it, even though people sometimes make it unnecessarily difficult. New versions of Windows or of Office can still read documents made with earlier versions, for instance, but it doesn’t work the other way round: people who are still using older versions of Word can’t open my email attachments. Unless you send them as Rich Text, someone next to us in the pub chimed in, overhearing my discussion of this with a friend the other night. Or PDFs, someone else volunteered. Or Plain Text. Thanks for the tips. Anyone know how to synchronise music with video and add a voice-over as well? I'll work it out, in time. The new world of Facebook and Forums still isn't as good as the magic of chance conversations at the bar. I’m not a techie but I’m managing to build this website, slowly maybe, but I do find that trial-and-error and sheer serendipity are still faster than waiting for the geeks to come back with answers to my questions. They’ve told me some useful trade secrets though. They’ve told me that these website designers who charge thousands for building you a website are mostly using software that’s available free and which you can probably master yourself with a bit of practice. I’ve started by just getting the stuff up and getting the links working. I still can't get the Natterbox working. If anyone reading this fancies lending a technological hand, please do get in touch.

What else am I learning? There’s the business of marketing. I know nothing about business, having spent most of my working life in the shelter of colleges, where I’ve sometimes had to write applications for funding, but where generally your salary just gets paid into your bank at the end of every month, for the same amount each month, whether you’ve had a busy month or a dozy one. Natterjack isn’t a commercial site really, it’s an entertainment site: most of its content is free, so the people who produce it, including me, don’t get paid for it. But since the government seems to have decided to pack up the education system, I have to earn money somehow. Membership and usage of Natterjack is free, and non-paying visitors will always be its lifeblood. You don’t have to buy anything, and you probably won't. But once the site has established a presence with an initial launch, it’ll be selling stuff too: ebooks, CDs, DVDs, maybe paper books too.

And once you start doing a little research into ways of selling on the internet, you find a whole new world opening up. Internet marketing advisers rarely bother showing you how to manage: they just want to show you how to get rich. There are radiant networks of people out there offering information and advice on how to sell “information products” (netspeak for books), all producing courses, subscription newsletters, multi-CD box sets, conferences, webinars, apprenticeships, mentorings, memberships of VIP inner circles, sometimes asking thousands, sometimes making special offers which “must end tomorrow”, sometimes putting out tips for free, though that’s often a bait to get you signing up for a 30-day-delayed Direct Debit which they hope you’ll forget to cancel. There are online videos of conferences with tacky logos hanging from the walls, with people speaking sometimes intensely and drearily, or sometimes bouncily and vacuously, but rarely convincingly, about the fortunes they’ve made from internet marketing. The American salesmen, in particular, like to play an imaginary concertina while they talk to you, occasionally dropping it to point at you for emphasis. Plenty of them guarantee they’ll make you a millionaire within a year or two. Others claim to be more realistic – like Dodgy Dan perhaps – and say their methods won’t make you rich overnight, but how does a modest extra few thousand a month sound? Natterjack will be running features on some of these clowns later. I’ve been reading up on joint ventures and affiliate schemes, marketing strategies, direct response marketing, critical positioning, traffic-directing portals, squeezepages, pay-per-click advertising, the difference between product-centred and market-centred businesses and the difference between shotgun and sniper advertising till my head spins.

Some of this information is useful though. I’ve picked up for instance that the term guru, in internet-marketing-speak, means someone who’s managed to successfully promote himself as the world’s leading expert on some particular niche, through crafty marketing, when in reality it’s just another residual income stream to him and he’s probably also using different names to promote himself as a guru in any number of totally unrelated other niches too. And I’ve picked up a tip that one of the most closely-guarded secrets of the advertising industry, generally known only within the advertising industry, is that for most small businesses advertising is a waste of money because it doesn’t actually increase your sales.

Some of these guys can tell you some useful stuff. But most of them are just after your money. If they’re not dragons they’re sharks. If they’re not sharks they’re hyenas.

And none of them will tell you what a “fretful porpentine” actually is. Get into the habit of logging on to Natterjack, and one day you’ll get the answer.



Michael Bruce

March 2010




other articles by Michael Bruce:

Blurring the Signifier

The last day of June

or: back to Natterjack articles index


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