FIFTY NOT OUT

MotorCycle International – July 1989

By 1989 my monthly column had rather portentously become ‘Lore’, and this one appeared in the 50th issue of MotorCycle International, which I now published by very my own company and which I’d launched four year earlier from the ashes of  WhichBike? It reads a little own-trumpet-blowingly, but may provide an insight to the state of the ‘bike magazine business at the time which in 2020 feels like a golden age!

It’s rather ironic that the masthead on our newly launched sister mag, Silver Machine, bears the Iegend ‘Lawyers. Guns and Money’ above my description as publisher. (SM was actually a re-worked version of the classic-oriented Motorcycle Enthusiast which I’d bought two years earlier – MW). Ironic, because although this was originally intended as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek reflection on the life of an harassed magazine publisher, the last minute decision to pull Lore from the June issue had a great deal to do with all three.

I suppose I feel duty-bound to explain this abrupt display of blank paper to the thousands of bitterly disappointed readers who besieged their newsagents demanding refunds, but stem warnings from my lawyers, the precarious state of our overdraft and the threat of retaliatory action from the big guns of motorbike publishing sadly deter me from doing so. What I can offer by way of explanation does, however conveniently, dovetail with the primary thrust of this month’s epistle which, as you might expect, comes under the general reading of ‘Fifty Glorious Issues of MCi – An Old Man Remembers.‘

This ‘ageing hippy’ as Mr Editor (Tom) Isitt (And a great editor to boot – MW) wittily refers to me elsewhere in this issue is in fact a money-grubbing capitalist whose progress up the mountain of Mammon is unfortunately impeded by an irritating and apparently irreducibly idealistic streak. Unfortunately, and this is perhaps what lsitt was implying, my background in publishing was in something most of you are too young to recall, the ‘underground‘ or ‘alternative’ press. The advantages of this are mixed; a tendency to trust people and situations on face value but an equally strong tendency to react cynically, even angrily, when such people and situations betray that trust. In business terms this underground experience also leads to a rather wilful, ‘if it feels right, do it whatever the odds‘ attitude which needs to be tempered by a financial acumen if bankruptcy is to be avoided. Which is one of the reasons why those mags I worked on back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s courted closure on a monthly basis.

The point of this moisty-eyed nostalgia is that ironically enough, MotorCycle International wouldn’t exist were it not for traces of the ‘ageing hippy‘ ethic still curdling in my brain, but whether or not someone else would‘ve started up such a mag in the past five years is entirely debatable. A secondary consideration is that I have, for better or worse thrice broken the mould of ‘bike publishing in this country only to see other, more powerful and, it must be said, professional organisations plagiarise or adapt the new concepts flung gauntlet-style at them and make a great deal more money out of it than I have. Bitter? Damn right I‘m bitter and that bitterness lay behind my decision to become a publisher myself and turn Which Bike? into MCi.

If you need justification for this conceit, look back at Bike which championed choppers and a thinly veiled druggy lifestyle when the existing rags were still promulgating the cosy platitudes of the Barbour jacket generation. A few years later when ‘bike sales were actually booming and Bike had had its quite obvious effects on the rest of the motorbiking media (and Back Street Heroes was a twinkle in Steve Myatt’s eye), I launched Which Bike?, the antithesis of Bike (thus engendering much ridicule) but an honest attempt to reflect the fact that in a then bouyant market no-one was offering comprehensive, objective tests and information about the ironware on offer. The initially quarterly What Bike? emerged in its wake, as did buyers guides in various existing monthlies.

Launching MCi eventually gave one or two other people the idea that a motorcycle magazine that didn‘t pander to the then all-persuasive yob-ethic could actually work, so now we have MotorCycle Review and MotorCycle (& Workshop)… (Both satisfyingly shortlived, ho-ho-ho – MW)

No, I’m not going to pound my well worn soap-box on the subject of too many mags diluting the market and in turn weakening the motorcycle lobby, but I will say that it’s a bitch doing what you believe is something different and being emulated or even ripped off by those who have the resources to do it (or at least promote it) better. This observation was in part triggered by Mr lsitt’s request that I leaf back through Lore’s back pages for major gaffes that he might add to his own litany of dumb predictions catalogued elsewhere in this issue. Surprisingly – alright, smugly – I couldn’t find any of my grim portents that had ultimately proven to be nonsense. True some of them may yet prove to be so (that’s the beauty of sticking largely to long-term soothsaying), but most of my fears for the state of the market, the lot of the motorcyclist and anything else I’ve arrogantly chosen to pontificate upon, have been vindicated.

Indeed since much of this doom-mongering has turned into fact, I’ve spent numerous dark nights searching my soul as to the point of continuing the wearying, inevitably thankless task of publishing magazines that rely on a dwindling and seemingly ultimately extinct readership, especially when it’s so hard to make it pay.

And this is where we get to last month’s conspicuous lack of printing ink on page 88. June’s Lore was to’ve catalogued our experiences trying to promote and sell advertising space in Silver Machine. It you haven’t yet seen a copy, Silver Machine is another attempt at something new, namely to use the rocker ethic that I grew up with to unite those classic bike fans not obsessed by the ‘Originality is God’ syndrome together with a younger generation who aren’t buying the race– or Paris Dakar–replica schtick being parlayed to them by the bulk of the trade.

Perhaps because it’s finally dawned on a certain Big Publishing Company (EMAP, who owned Bike, MCN etc, in fact – MW) that M. Williams has started things they’ve later had to buy or transmute from existing organs, a sequence of events took place which made it impossible for Silver Machine to compete on equal terms not only with their own magazines, but with other independent titles. Conveniently orchestrated largely through third parties (E.g. magazine distributors and advertisers – MW), after we’d had enough internal problems getting the bugger to press anyway, my indignation at the behaviour of those concerned augured a particularly vitriolic diary of events which horrified our lawyers. Turning the whole thing into a satire amused them heartily (they said), but wasn’t sufficiently fictional at heart to pass the libel yardstick.

Where does that leave me, MCi and the collective ‘us’ who read the thing? Well after fifty issues, we’re still up against a government seemingly determined to eliminate motorcycling as we know and love it, a trade largely frightened and confused in how it should respond, and a publishing
empire who by their very might dominate the bulk of the few remaining in advertisers how it should it respond, and a publishing empire who by their very might dominate the budgets of the few remaining big advertisers who invariably see numbers rather than quality of readership as their primary raison d’etre but do very little to champion or protect the longer term interests of their customers. As long as I remain as its owner however, MCi will continue to offer a more rounded, committed and hopefully intelligent overview and the opportunity to advertise to the readers that actually buy their motorcycles that the trade admits are its salvation. That was the original aim of the magazine, which at the time was cautiously approved (if not always supported) by the trade and almost universally derided by our competitors.

Like any haIf-way decent mag, MCi has grown and changed organically: the design has matured without losing both its concision and that aIl-important ability to excite the imagination, sections like Despatches and Beyond the Orient have come and gone due both to reader response (or lack of it!) and editorial subjectivity, and most significantly perhaps, our gamble to go ‘perfect bound’ and drop the Used Bike Buyers Guide in order to free-up more pages to features (and give our other sister rag, Used & Classic Bike Guide, a reason for being!) actually paid off circulation-wise. And the changes will doubtless continue…

‘It’ll last no more than two months,’ sneered the editor of Bike when MCi first appeared. Since then our circulation has risen, Bike‘s has fallen dramatically. and he’s no longer editing any magazine.

Yup, whilst I can afford to be proud, I can’t deny that I’m ‘ageing’, but in the increasingly tough and nasty times we live in, I think I may have to get that ‘hippy’ streak surgically removed…

If you’ve enjoyed the above, or even if you haven’t, please elect to get email alerts to future ones using the link in the RH column. And either way, do make a comment using the link below. And in view of the imminent Borisolation, you might like to try my latest Corona Coping blog at www.markswill.wordpress.com

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About markswill

For those unaware of my glittering career, I started scribbling for the underground press in 1968 and by complete chance was appointed Music Editor of International Times when I happened to visit their office for the first time in '69 on a day trip down from Birmingham. Naturally I took all of a stoned nanosecond to accept the offer... and it's all been uphill ever since. If you really give a stuff, a full resume of my, er, resume is available on the Career page of my website, www.markwilliamsmedia.co.uk, but for now just be content to know that I'm an opinionated media junkie of a certain age who won't sit still.

7 thoughts on “FIFTY NOT OUT

  1. I loved Silver Machine when it first came out and religiously bought every copy. But then it just seemed to disappear. Now I know why. How many issues where there? Would love to know if I have the complete set!
    C’est la vie, Mark. A pioneer is rarely a wealthy person. But we KNOW who the pioneers are. Calderwood who??!

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    • Hi again Simon, I’ve checked with MCi editor Tom Isitt and prod. mngr. Janie Ferrett who both recall there being nine issues, the first in May ’89, the last in March ’90. but within that there were two bi-monthly issues. Hope that helps.

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  2. Thanks Simon, and you’ll note that I politely declined to mention young Calderwood by name. As for Silver Machine, I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember how many issues we published, I think it was seven but I’ll be talking to production manager Ms J. Ferrett tomorrow and her memory is almost certainly better than mine!

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  3. Whatever happened to ‘The Biker’ ? I guess one could say whatever happened to a lot of the mags – which is probably the point of the post. I remember MCi arriving and being impressed by its quality of design and ‘finish’. There was definitely ‘a place’ for it then – and even more so now when one looks at biking demographics. (Although Bike and Sensible Bike aka Ride probably fill the gap as far as the media market stretches, with YouTube soaking up any stragglers). I probably thought, back then, that ‘The Berker’ (as you probably referred to it) picked up from where the idiosyncrasies of earlier Bike and then Which Bike eventually left off. But without the humour.

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      • Thank you for the reply.
        You might be right. I hope not. Consider this: I subscribe to Bike digitally. I’m a disorganised aged halfwit who used to fly a bit (thankfully travelling is, painfully, stutteringly, returning once again). I’d amble by the racks at Whisty Smiths, eye a printed ‘Bike’, and buy it again, mostly because I’d not got around to downloading the latest digital version and the paper endures my reticence to pay again for patchy WeeFee to read the digi version while onboard the ‘craft. Maybe even if I left the discarded printed version somewhere (on foreign shores even) another might stumble by it and serendipitously make their introduction with the UK’s bikieness. Maybe. Or bin it. Life’s full of choices.
        I think I probably read the printed version more thoroughly than the digi copy anyway (an explanation of the ‘value’ (?) of ‘long stroke’ engines in respect of the RE Himalayan, at 35,000 ft, some time ago, was a delight to read and nurtured a lot of archived stuff still latent in my synapses somewhere).
        Back ‘over there’ I sometimes visit Barnes & Noble – a US chain of bookstores – also offers a large-ish range of (often including) international magazines. They used to market something called a Nook. It, like Amazon’s Kindle, was an electronic ‘reader’. It was gonna erase print from our lives back in the late noughties. But then ‘paper’ books seem to have made a resurgence. Nook’s no more I think. Last Barnes I was in had a ‘record’ department. Expecting racks of CDs (or maybe some sort of downloadable ‘ports’) I found lots of (re-pressed, not entirely repressed) vinyl. Albums of that age perhaps, but it indicates, as with the books, that there’s something ‘in’ nostalgia. And a re-channelling of contemporary stuff through it. It’s not such a wide ‘market’ (in marketeer’s terms) but it is a healthy/worthy slice of it. I rarely visit shops in the UK, but a Google shows me there’s a few Waterstones not far from where I currently type. I’d be as tempted as I would to otherwise ‘Kindle-ise’ with Amazon. While I don’t think I ever had a turntable (cassettes to CDs to eventually streamin’, musically) the young ‘uns seem more familiar with the vinyl format than they do with the other formats I’d known.
        So, for those of us of ‘an age’ I expect print will ‘see us out’. It might get a bit trickier to source. It might ‘fall and rise’ (Like Mr Perrin – metaphorically and otherwise). It’ll live a bit longer than ‘the next few years’ though, I’m fairly sure.
        Another example – as you’ve mentioned it elsewhere I think – last trip I opted to buy Private Eye. (And enjoyed every line of it). Left it in the seat pocket (- to perhaps baffle an American airline employee) with a fraction of its ink still on my mitts. A few days earlier I’d mused as to whether Lord Gnome’s output might’ve been available over the ‘net waves. It’s not. Resolutely inked paper only it seems.
        We need sadness to experience joy. We need loss to appreciate found. Quality will live on I think. And, c’mon, what DID happen to The Biker ? It was one (along with Bike, WB and MCi) that I remembered and enjoyed, perhaps for the ‘Dole Bike’ series where a CB400F (think there were others too) was rescued from a junkyard and modded back to life on the cheap. Like you, (perhaps) with your customs, that kinda thing appealed back then – and aligned with my then (and now) enforced penury ! (even if never manifested due to my capability with the spanners).

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      • Hi again Mr Trumpet (does that mean you’re a Triumph owner?), and ‘fraid I have no idea what happened to The Biker but I vaguely recall that it was published by an outfit who had no experience of bikey mags and as we saw later with Haymarket’s TWO that’s a recipe for failure. Mind you, they’re all going down the toilet now and I expect Ride, Practical Sportsbikes and one or two of Mortons’ titles to disappear within the year.

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