HOW I SEE MY BUSINESS
My Botswana Office
Friends, I’ve had a long and wonderful career in this crazy business. I’ve been lucky in that I got some great breaks along the way. I have colleagues who claim they sold the first story they ever wrote and never looked back. Maybe…or, as to use a pseudo-military acronym my battalion XO, Ron Corbin, coined, “MBIFDI,” pronounced “mabifidee” and meaning, “maybe, but I freakin’ doubt it.” I started trying to write in this business when I was in high school, and I built up at least a boxcar full of rejection notices before I sold my first story! That was in about 1972, when I was still in college.
The first sale was the hardest, but that certainly wasn’t my last rejection! In about 1975 I was a Marine 2d Lieutenant, stationed at Camp Pendleton…trying to do freelance work in my spare time…and still building up my pile of rejection notices. Jack Lewis, then owner/publisher of Gun World, just up the beach at San Juan Capistrano, took pity on my and called me to his office. Jack was a WWII Marine and career Reserve officer…he liked Marines, and he spent some time telling me what I could do better—mostly photography (which is still not my strong suit).
Business improved quickly after that. In 1979, shortly after I was off active duty, I got hired at Petersen Publishing Company, then in Los Angeles. It was a crusty crew there. Tom Siatos was Publisher of Guns & Ammo; Howard French was the Editor, with Red Bell as Managing Editor…I joined Dave Hetzler and Phil Spangenberger as the (very junior!) Associate Editor. The learning curve was steep. I have a straight English degree, never a single journalism course, and although I could spell “editor” I didn’t really know what an editor did!
A few months later they switched me laterally to Petersen’s HUNTING, where Ken Elliott was the Publisher and Gary Sitton was the Editor. After a short time—when I was much too young and inexperienced—Bob Petersen and Tom Siatos took a huge chance and made me the Editor of Guns & Ammo Specialty Publications, doing the annuals and newsstand “one-shots.” A couple years later they took a bigger chance and made me the Editor of Petersen’s HUNTING, a position I held for 13 years, still the longest run in the magazine’s history.
In 1994 I escaped the office, and have been writing under contract for what used to be the Petersen publications ever since. The contract has morphed and changed over time, so while Guns & Ammo, Petersen’s HUNTING, and RifleShooter have remained “home base,” over the years I’ve written for most outdoor publications, and I’ve written books (quite a few!) since the Eighties. It’s a multi-media world today, so I’ve done a lot of outdoor television and DVDs, and of course you’re reading this on my website. These other media are important, especially today in the latter years of my career, in maintaining relevance to a larger audience…many of whom no longer read traditional publications (books and magazines). However, and this is important, when I look in the mirror I see a writer looking back, and I consider myself first and foremost a journalist. This colors the way I look at “the” business and “my” business.
I was a successful editor, mostly because of good leadership training from both the Marines and a really tough Scoutmaster. In the context of our special-interest industry, I’ve been a successful writer. As for TV, well, I’ll let you be the judge. I’ve never learned to love the TV camera, but today I’m pretty good at ignoring it. As for the oh-so-important (gag me with a spoon) social media, I’m totally inept and need help!
However, beyond the foregoing background, I have some hot buttons. Like I said, I was lucky. I was in the right place at the right time more than once, and some really great folks took huge risks on youth and inexperience, perhaps banking on enthusiasm. That said, I have also worked very hard at this crazy business. I don’t mind folks saying I have been “lucky” because I certainly have been, and I know it…but it really irks me when I come back from a hunt and someone says, “Hope you had a good vacation.”
That’s like fingernails on a blackboard! As Donna will attest, I haven’t had a real “vacation” in decades! I love what I do…but I do it to excess. I have always worked two or three jobs to support my hunting habit: Editor, writer, speaker, Reserve officer, part-time teacher, consultant, expert witness…and that’s just some of the stuff I’ve gotten paid for, forgetting the volunteer stuff I do for free. I love to hunt—but it’s not a “vacation.” I’m there to produce some combination of magazine articles, book chapters, and video. So I have pressure to produce, and sometimes, because it’s business, pressure to shoot when I’d just as soon pass and keep looking.
Sometimes, honestly, it isn’t particularly good business. I’ve never been good at math, but I’m pretty sure it’s not a winning proposition to pay $20,000 for a hunt in order to write a $2000 story! Uh, no, even as long as I’ve been doing this, the door isn’t being broken down by folks offering “free” hunts (in quotes because, after all, there really isn’t any free lunch). I am not too proud to accept invitations if it’s something I want to do. For sure I’ll take a deal if offered, and there are occasional “gun company hunts”—some of which are wonderful and some really awful. But there have been a lot of places I wanted to see and a lot of animals I wanted to hunt, so I’ve never been one to sit around and wait for the phone to ring, and I’ve never been afraid to invest in myself (which is why I’ve always worked multiple jobs). Overall I think it’s worked well. I can walk down the aisles at the hunting conventions without outfitters scurrying out of my way in fear I have my hand out…and I look askance at my various colleagues who have never, ever paid for a hunt out of their own pockets. As I said, I’m not above making a deal…but I’ve never solicited a hunt or a firearm.
This brings me to a related but perhaps more controversial subject: How I deal with “product.” I often hear something like, “Well, I know you have sponsors, but what do you really like?” Or, “Perhaps you can talk to your sponsors and get ________ (fill in the blank).”
I’m a bit old-school on this. I would never say that my rules are the only rules, or even that they’re the best rules…only the best for me. I don’t have personal sponsors and I don’t do paid endorsements in the key areas I write about, which are firearms, optics, and ammunition. Yeah, I’ve turned down a lot of offers, and I’d probably be in better shape financially if I followed the business models of some of my colleagues. But when I look in the mirror I need to see not only a journalist, but an honest journalist. So I don’t take under-the-table money to hawk the stuff I write about.
Now, let’s get real. Outdoor writing doesn’t exactly follow AP or UPI rules. Gunwriters are allowed to go on press junkets with manufacturers, and are expected to write about their products. Magazines have advertisers, and (gentle direction from Publishers and Editors aside), it is considered not only good manners but sound career maintenance to give some priority to advertisers who support the publication. One of my mentors, the late Dave Hetzler, in response to a reader who complained about such “yellow journalism,” replied, “Pay attention to what we don’t write about.” Fortunately most products do pretty much what the manufacturer says they will do. We as gunwriters are not H.P. White or any other approved laboratory, so all we can do is give our impressions. We all have our particular and peculiar tastes, so I don’t pay much attention to whether I actually like a product or not…it’s more a matter of it doing what it’s supposed to do. Most do…but there have been a few times when I’ve refused to write about various products.
While magazines have advertisers, TV shows have sponsors. I view this quite differently from a personal sponsorship or endorsement. If I’m filming a TV show (which has sponsors), then it’s not only good manners but usually a contractual obligation to use the sponsors’ products while filming that TV show. I’ve been fortunate (with some planning usually involved) in that most of the TV show sponsors I’ve dealt with are friends who make products I genuinely admire. However, I have never construed that I am owned by such sponsorships. In fact, quite the opposite; a TV show is one thing, carrying advertisement and editorial coverage (“product placement”) within the show, and probably receiving some ancillary coverage in my writing simply because I don’t have the luxury of filming without also writing about it. But the writing side stays clean, and I remain free to write about competitive products.
I agree that it’s a fine line to walk, but I’ve walked it for a long time without major difficulties. I have done (and do) some genuine endorsements for accessories and services—always things I genuinely believe in—but never in the core areas of guns, optics, and ammunition. There are two reasons for this. First, when I was a magazine editor the (always unwritten) rules on this stuff were a little tighter. I fired several writers because I learned they were taking under-the-table payoffs to mention certain products in their writing. It would be a bit too hypocritical for me to the same! Second, I really like what I do, I try to do my best at it, and I hope to keep doing it for a few more years. If I took money to promote Remchester, then how could I write honestly about Brownerby?
In this blended media world you may see some obvious contradictions. I have done (and do) some endorsements of various accessories and services that I believe in—but are outside the scope of most of my writing. Our Craig Boddington Endorsed Outfitters (CBEO) is very much an endorsement of outfitters that I know personally and have no qualms about recommending to my friends…but I would never suggest that there aren’t equally good outfitters out there that I simply don’t know (and therefore can’t recommend). I’ve also appeared in a lot of ads for various products. Generally speaking, I figure anything I’ve written is fair game, so if a manufacturer wants to quote me and use a previously published photo I don’t have a problem with that…but I don’t take money for it.
Just recently, as a good example, I had an unusual situation. I’ve hunted African buffalo for 40 years. Never mind how many, but that’s a favorite pursuit…and my experience is that pure one-shot kills are rare (and often occur simply because a backup shot is impossible, and then the buffalo is found so dead that it makes no sense to shoot again). I’ve had pure one-shot kills with a lot of bullets: Old original Kynoch, Barnes X, Swift A-Frame, Trophy Bonded, more. But they aren’t common. This past fall I pasted a buffalo with a 570-grain Hornady DGX from a Krieghoff .500, and I realized this was three one-shot kills in a row with DGX, the previous two with 300-grain bullets from the .375 H&H. I offered the scenario to Hornady—great statement about a fine product—and they made a good-looking ad out of it. Yeah, they offered to pay me, much appreciated…but that’s just not the business I’m in.
Things have obviously changed in this business. Thanks largely to TV we have “celebrities” (a few real, many self-styled, but please don’t apply the “celebrity” label to me…that’s another set of fingernails on a blackboard!) who are not journalists and make no pretense. Some are far better than I will ever be (or wish to be) at shameless self-promotion, and make a business out of promoting products for money. Good on them! A few are more financially successful than I will ever be. Again, good on them! Some are relative newcomers. Well, from my standpoint most folks in this business today are relative newcomers! They come in hard and fast, trying (sometimes too hard) to make a big splash, and my old school of ‘paying dues’ just isn’t part of the ‘millennial generation’ mindset. In their defense, it’s also fair to say that this is a very difficult business to get into. It takes patience, especially to adhere to ethics—and one can easily starve to death. As a huge advantage, I’ve been doing this for 40 years, so I have some reasonable expectation that I can keep doing it for the dwindling years I have left…and keep doing it my way.