Friday, 16 September 2011

Doctor Who Magazine's Editor Interviewed!

Tom Spilsbury at Doctor Who Magazine
Doctor Who Magazine has been one of my very favourite magazines, since its birth in 1979 as Doctor Who Weekly.  I've been honoured to contribute to it over the last few years.
    A fair few writers have asked me how you go about getting freelance work on the magazine.  (In my case I'd been gently badgering them at a time when they happened to have a sudden need for new journos, because the series had returned to TV in 2005.)  This made me think it could be very useful to interview editor Tom Spilsbury and ask him a few things that people often want to know, from the mag's internal workings to - of course - how people get to write for it.  So I just did that, thanks to Tom being a very kind man indeed.  Here goes...

How many people work on the staff of the magazine, and how many freelancers do you employ?
There are two full-time employees - myself and Peter Ware - one part-time designer Richard Atkinson who works freelance, and two occasional editorial assistants, John Ainsworth and Mark Wright.  Plus 20 or so other freelancers, who write articles, draw the comic strip etc etc.

How do you and Deputy Editor Peter Ware divide the work up on each issue?
Pete tends to look after a lot of the regular features - News, Letters, Reviews, Previews - whereas I tend to come up with the ideas for the main articles/interviews. Of course, it’s a fairly collaborative process, and we discuss things all the time.

Describe a typical day in your working life.  Is there such a thing?
It’s different depending on what part of the production cycle we’re in. When we’re starting off on an issue, there is a lot more email-writing, and phoning the freelancers to discuss what I’d like from them for the next issue, and how we’re going to approach each piece, when I’ll need it by, and so on, and so on.  Later, when articles have arrived, there are a lot more discussions with the designer about how we’re going to make the articles look.  I also do a fair bit of the design work myself. Towards the end of the process, it’s much more about subbing all of the finished designs, captioning the photos, deciding on pull-quotes. We also liaise with Steven Moffat  - generally about our interviews, but never for reviews or opinion pieces - especially if it’s about an episode that hasn’t been seen yet.
    Plus, at some point during this whole process, I’ll be thinking further ahead.  Arranging set visits for episodes currently shooting.  Discussing and commissioning features for several months down the line, so it’s not all left to the last minute.  Also, we’ll be speaking to BBC Worldwide about photography, and cataloguing the pictures when they arrive into sub-folders, producing thumbnail images; as well as speaking to designer Stuart Manning about the cover, and how we want to compose that in Photoshop.  Plus updating our Facebook and Twitter, writing the press releases for new issues... and lots more stuff.  It’s never ending! And I haven’t even mentioned yet that we’re also working on the Specials and Graphic Novels at the same time as our regular issues!  So there’s not really a typical day, because there are so many different things we do.

Even though DWM is monthly, how difficult is it to meet your print deadlines each issue?
Very difficult, because however much time you have, you always want some more! We always want to make the best magazine we possibly can, with hardly any staff.  That’s difficult.  But enjoyable! We know that people expect a high standard, so that always drives us to try to be as inventive as possible and to try to put in as many jokes, little details, and other bits and pieces which hopefully people will enjoy. That means we always work late nights, especially near the end of the process, as that terrifying deadline approaches! Also, we’re four-weekly, not monthly – which means that we never get a five-week gap between some issues, as monthly magazines have every few issues.

What measures do you take to combat the readily accessible Who info which hurtles around the internet?  How do you keep DWM essential - is it about placing less importance on covering everything, news-wise?
We can’t battle the internet – even when we have exclusive news, it only stays exclusive up until the point when the first person decides to take that news and post it online.  But, that said, if we didn’t print that news in the first place, then it wouldn’t end up online, so we’re still important!  We can also be a voice of authority, when sometimes online ‘news’ can be a confusing blur of rumours, outright lies and half-truths.
    But to be honest, DWM is less about ‘news’ and more about detail.  We can go into far more depth than anyone else can, whether that’s a big interview, or whether it’s one of Andrew Pixley’s huge features on the making of each episode.  Our reviews can also be more in-depth, and frankly, better written than anything you’ll find online.  On the internet, ANYONE can be a writer – but that means there’s a disproportionate amount of rubbish out there. There are good writers and reviewers out there, of course, but also a lot of terrible writing.  That’s because no-one EDITS the internet. A magazine should be a much more polished piece of work.

Does your job become easier or harder when Doctor Who is actually showing on TV?
Not sure it’s easier or harder, it’s just a bit different. We’re always planning way ahead anyway, so sometimes it’s just more busy when they’re MAKING the show, rather than showing it. When they’re making the show AND showing it, which is rare, then it can get REALLY busy.

Does your status as the official Doctor Who magazine always make things smoother?  What kind of problems, if any, can it give you?
It’s rarely a problem, generally it’s just a big help when it comes to arranging interviews and so on. Also, as we’re BBC-licenced, we’re given access to a lot more photography/set access etc than other magazines, such as SFX.  Some licenced magazines might find it a problem to truly be independent: Paramount are fiercely protective of Star Trek, for example – which I think impacts negatively on things like Star Trek Magazine.  This is never a problem with DWM.  People like Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat are huge fans of the mag, and are wise enough to know that they shouldn’t try to control it.  They know that it needs to be independent, or else it becomes vapid and pointless – like, arguably, most other TV tie-in magazines.  There’s no point in having a magazine with no heart.  So while it COULD be a problem to be licenced, it never is in reality, because no-one at the BBC interferes, or tells us what we should be doing.

Because so many journalists will want to know: what is your submissions policy on DWM?
Submissions are welcome, but it’s a good idea for people to read our Writers’ Guidelines first, which you can request by emailing us [at this e-mail address]. It’s also a good idea to send in a full breakdown of your idea, rather than simply submitting a finished article.

How, and how often, do you take new freelancers on?
Very rarely to be honest – but don’t give up!  We do have a brilliant team of people already, so inevitably we tend to use the writers and artists we’re already familiar with, and with whom we already have a good working relationship. But everyone started off by sending in an idea, or proving that they were up to the task, so if you’re good enough, it’s worth persevering!

What kind of thing do you prefer to read in a submission?  Reviews of Doctor Who stuff?
Perhaps.  Although, as I said, we do have a fairly established team for the reviews pages.  What we’d really like are good ORIGINAL ideas for new features.  A good hook for an article.  Something that says something new about Doctor Who, that we haven’t read a thousand times before.  Something that has a good idea for the visuals too.  DWM isn’t a book, it’s not the place for long-plodding essays with no illustrations!  It needs to be something that can be visualised on the page – which is why we’ll come up with gimmicks from time to time, such as mock soap magazine layouts, LEGO characters, spoofs of horror posters, or whatever it might be. These sorts of ideas are always welcome, because it shows that you’ve thought about how the finished article will look on the page.

When you do read submissions from writers, what are some of the things which instantly turn you off?  What are the common mistakes people make?
Articles riddled with typos are an instant turn-off.  You need to have a good familiarity with the tone of DWM, so don’t write something which would be more suited to a general sci-fi mag or TV magazine.  By the same token, don’t assume your readers know EVERY last detail about Doctor Who, and start chucking in obscure references to ancient in-jokes with no explanation whatsoever!  Make sure your writing is well-researched – to blow our own trumpets for a moment, we’re EXPERTS on Doctor Who, so references to ‘Christopher Ecclestone’, ‘The Sunmakers’, ‘Vampires in Venice’ etc etc will be noticed and tutted at!  In fact, we’re more anal than anyone, so we know when it should be ‘Episode 1’, when it should be ‘Episode One’ and when it should be ‘Part One’.  If you want to impress us, then make sure you get these things right too!

What are the worst and best aspects of being the editor of Doctor Who Magazine?
It’s nearly all good, to be honest.  Producing something which people genuinely love, is a huge privilege.  We only spend so many long hours working on it because we love it more than anyone!  So of course there are frustrations from time to time, but they’re pretty trivial when it comes down to it.  The email isn’t working.  A writer is being unresponsive and late!  My assistant won’t get me a coffee.  That sort of thing.  But on the whole it’s the best job I could possibly have, because a) I (modestly) think I’m quite good at it, and b) I genuinely love it, and love seeing people’s reaction to the finished result.

                                                                     * * *

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