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Future Publishing: The Somerton Years

25 Mar 2023

Matt Nicholson remembers the early days of Amstrad Action and the birth of PC PLUS

First published in Issue 8, the Christmas Special 2022 edition of Pixel Addict magazine

My first issue in the role of Editor.

It was early 1986 and I’d been working at VNU Publishing in the centre of London for a few years as editor of What Micro, which at the time was the industry’s only ‘buyers guide’ magazine. The microcomputer industry had been growing at some 30 per cent a year and money was bubbling up everywhere. This was the world of corporate publishing with lavish expense accounts and even more lavish lunches. It was amazing how many problems could only be sorted out over a bottle of half-decent wine and a slap-up meal in a top-notch Soho restaurant. There were stories of teenage programmers buying Ferraris which had to be stashed in the garage until they were old enough to drive them, and everyone had an angle.

But as 1985 turned into 1986 the industry slowed to a more normal growth rate, and VNU was tightening its belt. A lot of the early excitement had gone and I was getting bored. It was also becoming obvious that the money was in publishing, not writing, and I was beginning to think about setting up my own company.

Chris Anderson had joined VNU as editor of Personal Computer Games (PCG) around the same time as myself. For a while we were the ‘new editors on the block’ and on nodding terms, but he then left and rumour had it he had set up his own company somewhere deep in the West Country. Like many restless journalists of the time, I browsed the job ads in the Media edition of The Guardian every Thursday, and I couldn’t help but notice the postage-stamp sized advert for an editor for Amstrad Action when it appeared.

I couldn’t imagine my wife would be interested in abandoning our new flat in West London to bring up our new daughter in some two-bit town in the middle of Somerset, but I had a conversation with Mike Carroll, who sold advertising for Chris’s company from London on a commission basis, and he persuaded me that Chris was up to something interesting. I decided to pay him a visit.

And so one bright spring day, Chris was at hand to pick me up from Castle Cary station and take me to Somerton. Chris had started Future Publishing nearly a year earlier with Peter Connor and Bob Wade from PCG, with local lad Trevor Gilham – straight out of art college – as art editor. Initially they put together the magazine from a room in Chris’s house but had later moved into the top floor of The Old Barn near the centre of town. By the time I arrived they had been joined by technical editor Andy Wilton, two assistant art editors in George Murphy and Jane Toft, and publishing assistants Jane Farmer and Diane Tavener. However Peter Connor had decided to move on, which left a bit of a hole.

What struck me immediately was their enthusiasm, backed by their belief that what they were doing was worthwhile. Yes, it was hard work, but it was great fun as well. It was also the best thing to happen in Somerton for a long time, and these young, talented people were determined to make it a success. It was in sharp contrast to the cynicism and suspicion that had set in at VNU, and I was very tempted. Chris had great hopes for Somerton, but he accepted that nothing was going to change while it lacked a train station, and that was unlikely to happen any time soon. However Bristol was only 45 minutes drive away, so he threw in a company car, and after a long conversation with my wife, I accepted the job. We exchanged our two-bedroom London flat for a four-bedroom house in Bristol, and I exchanged a 45 minute commute on the Central Line for a 45 minute drive through the Somerset countryside. Sometimes it was so beautiful I took my camera.

Amstrad Action

The July 1986 issue announces me as the new editor. Note the Sugarman cartoon and the reader Page Bottom suggestions.

Amstrad, the company set up by Alan Sugar in 1968, had launched its first microcomputer in April 1984. Developed under the codename of ‘Arnold’, the Colour Personal Computer or CPC 464 was well received because, unlike most of the competition, you didn’t have to fiddle around for hours trying to get it to work with your cassette player or TV set. Instead it arrived complete with a monochrome monitor and a built-in cassette recorder for just £199, or £299 for colour. It came with 64K of RAM and was driven by the popular 8-bit Zilog Z80 processor, which meant that it was attractive to software developers and could soon boast not only a wide range of games but also more ‘serious’ software such as word processors, spreadsheets and accounting programs.

In April 1985 it was joined by the CPC 664 which replaced the cassette drive with a far faster and more reliable 3-inch floppy disk drive, and then in August 1985 the 664 was replaced by the CPC 6128 which offered double the memory at 128K. The first issue of Amstrad Action was dated October 1985, clearly promoting itself on the front cover as “NOT an official Amstrad publication!” as insisted by Alan Sugar to distinguish it from the official magazine, Amstrad Computer User. My first issue as editor was issue 10, dated July 1986 and still proudly promoting its independence.

Working at Future Publishing was very different to working at VNU. For a start there was no well-stocked stationery cupboard, but thankfully one of the few shops in Somerton was a WH Smith so one of my first tasks was to equip myself with the assorted biros, notepads, paperclips and other paraphernalia that clutters an editor’s desk. The one thing I was supplied with, aside from the desk and a chair, was an Amstrad CPC 6128. Amstrad Action wasn’t only about the Amstrad CPC – it was also exclusively produced using Amstrad CPCs.

An editorial staff of three was fairly typical at the time, but having three art editors devoted to a single magazine was unusual. However it soon became apparent that Future’s strength wasn’t simply it’s editorial independence – something that Chris was keen to promote – but also the creativity and attention to detail that went into producing each page.

This was before the days of desktop publishing, so it was down to the art editors to produce physical representations of the layouts of the pages on large sheets of white card. Lines were drawn with rulers and precision Rotring pens. Words were written on our Amstrad CPCs using Pocket WordStar and then driven over to Wordsmiths Typesetting, a small company in the village of Street some six miles away.

A few hours later, or perhaps the next morning, someone would deliver the ‘galleys’, or I would pick them up on my way in. These were photocopies of the long strips of bromide paper one column wide on which the articles were neatly printed in the appropriate typefaces. The artists then cut these up and stick them down on the page ready for the editors to trim to size – hence the phrase ‘cut and paste’ and the underlying smell of Spray Mount. Pictures were marked up and then the whole lot sent to Wessex Reproduction, a company in Bristol who would do the colour separations, producing the cyan, magenta, yellow and black films needed by Redwood Web Offset to turn it all into printed, trimmed and bound magazines. Colour pages were expensive, so only 20 or so of the 100-odd pages were in colour.

As with most magazines, Amstrad Action was divided into a number of sections that made it easier for readers to find their way around. Amscene was the news section. Serious Software was where you’d find more technical articles and reviews of business software, including on-going tutorials on CP/M (written by myself) and BASIC programming (Absolute Beginners by Andy Wilton). Action Test was usually the largest section, with my first issue reviewing 23 products including one Master Game (Heavy on the Magic in this case) and a number of AA Raves (Harvey Headbanger, Shogun, Starquake, Bombjack, Equinox, Tau Ceti and They Sold a Million II).

The map of the AA Rave game Shogun lovingly drawn for the August 1986 issue by Trevor Gilham.

This was largely Bob Wade’s domain but adventure games had a section of their own written by The Cowled Crusader, aka Pilgrim, aka freelancer Steve Cooke who’d worked with Chris Anderson on PCG. I always felt a sense of relief when Steve’s copy arrived as it spanned five pages and was inevitably well written. Then there were Type-ins with program listings that readers could type in, and Cheat Mode for tips and short cuts, also including detailed maps that readers had sent in. Some of these were printed as is, but I remember Trevor Gilham working into the night to finish his own lovingly created map of Shogun.

Reader input was the life-blood of the magazine. Amstrad owners were fierce defenders of their chosen machine and anxious to explore its full capabilities. Close to the front of the magazine was Re-Action: seven pages of readers’ letters in my first issue and including Problem Attic which dealt with more technical problems. Action Test included Voice of the People, in which readers made their own game recommendations, while Pilgrim’s Post dealt with adventure gaming and also Readers’ Adventure Charts, with a form for readers to send in their nominations. Every issue had a Competition page where readers could win perhaps a couple of games or occasionally something more exotic: issue 11 had a voucher from jewellers H Samuel; issue 14 offered up a ‘ghettoblaster’ and a Sony Walkman.

Then there was Hi-score for readers to register their gaming high scores. Readers were trusted, although some claimed their friends had cheated. Scores could be challenged, and then the reader would have to validate it. How they would do that was not specified and the section was discontinued in issue 13. Readers would also call into the office at all times of day or night, so much so that issue 13 saw us introduce a ‘Telephone Hotline’ asking people to only call with technical problems on a Monday between 2 and 6pm.

We worked hard, and I’m not talking nine-to-five. I frequently didn’t get home until 9pm, and later on deadline days. I can remember at least one all-nighter, when I was still at my desk at 9am the following morning to greet other members of staff arriving to the start of their day, but at least the issue was ready for the press. Nevertheless we still found time to come up with the page-bottoms: tiny fragments of text that sat at the bottom of the page next to the page numbers. Choice examples include ‘Reader attraction’ matched by ‘Attractive readers’ or ‘To boldly go…’ matched by ‘Where no mag has been before’.

And then at the very end, when everything else was ready, Trevor Gilham would hand-draw the little stick-figures that danced around the page margins and went by the name of Toot.

The launch of PC PLUS

Amstrad launched the PCW 8256 – or ‘Joyce’ as it was also known, apparently after Alan Sugar’s secretary – in September 1985, followed by the PCW 8512 in November. Although technically similar to the CPC range the emphasis was quite different. PCW stood for Personal Computer Word-processor and they both came complete with disks containing the Locoscript word processing program, the CP/M Plus operating system and a version of the BASIC and Logo programming languages. There were games available, but not quite so much fun on the monochrome screen, particularly as the chosen colour was green. It’s real strength was its business software, and its price at £399 plus VAT – the same as a CPC 6128 with a full colour screen.

Amstrad Action covered the PCW range right from its first issue, which included news of its launch. However it was only a matter of time before the PCW would merit it’s own dedicated magazine, and so the September issue saw the announcement of a new magazine in 8000 PLUS. Future Publishing was expanding.

The real question, though, was when Amstrad would bring out a PC compatible. IBM had long dominated the business world, and in 1981 had transformed business computing with the launch of the 16-bit IBM PC. In order to keep the costs down it had used many off-the-shelf components, so it was only a matter of time before first Compaq and then other venerable companies such as Olivetti, or cheeky upstarts such as Dell, started producing machines that could run PC software, and take expansion cards designed for the IBM PC. To our readers the PC world was expensive and had little attraction, but this would all change if Amstrad was to launch a PC compatible at CPC or PCW prices. Rumours were rife, and the Personal Computer World (PCW) Show was due to open in Olympia on 3 September. We had already booked our stand, but what if we could use it to launch more than just 8000 PLUS?

Earlier that summer I had walked into the office to find a new machine sitting there, namely an Apple Macintosh on which the art team were experimenting with Aldus PageMaker. This was something that could revolutionise the publishing world.

At the time, the print industry was dominated by trade unions. Workers at our printer were not supposed to accept artwork unless it included stickers indicating that it had been produced by members of either the National Graphical Association (NGA) or the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT). Workers at both Wordsmiths Typesetting and Wessex Reproduction were members, but we were not (although I did have a small stack of NGA stickers at the back of my drawer for emergencies). Software such as Aldus PageMaker and later QuarkXPress would render these companies redundant as they could output directly the PostScript files that the printer needed.

And then Amstrad announced a major press conference to be held in London on 2 September – the day before the PCW Show – and we launched a cunning plan. Like most printers, ours were well aware of how their industry was changing, so Chris managed to arrange a quiet room on their premises where one of our artists could sit with the Apple Macintosh through the afternoon and into the evening. Meanwhile I caught the early train to London and made my way to the press conference where Alan Sugar announced the details of the new Amstrad PC 1512, together with new low-cost versions of top business software such as WordStar, SuperCalc3 and the Reflex database. This would indeed transform the PC world, offering a fully functional PC compatible at £399 including screen, keyboard, 5.25-inch floppy disk drive and 512K of memory. Even the full-colour option with 20MB hard disk cost less than £1,000.

News of the Amstrad PC appeared in print in the first edition of PC PLUS the day after the announcement.

Once the press conference was over we were issued with our press packs. I picked up two and quickly made my way outside to where a motorcyclist was waiting. I handed over one of the press packs, which contained photographs of the new range, and he raced down the M4 to where the artist was waiting with the Macintosh. Meanwhile I retreated to my hotel where I put together two pages of copy containing all the details of the new range of machines, and phoned them over to Chris at the printer. The rest of the launch issue of 8000 PLUS, including the first issue of PC PLUS as a 26-page supplement, was standing by while the artist used PageMaker to create the final two pages. The first hundred or so copies to roll off the press that night were couriered back to London in time for them to be available from our stand at the PCW Show when it opened, less than 24 hours later.

While Amstrad itself had been very secretive right up to the press launch, other companies had been more helpful so we had been able to organise reviews of a number of programs for the new machine on a more relaxed schedule. Nevertheless it was hard work. I was the obvious person to edit PC PLUS as I knew the PC world well from my work with VNU on What Micro, but I was editing Amstrad Action at the same time. PC PLUS remained a supplement of 8000 PLUS for one more issue, which included a six-page review of the new machine that we’d borrowed from the local Dixons. We launched as a stand-alone magazine with the December 1986 issue once Jim Nagel was on hand to take over as editor of Amstrad Action. Mike Scialom joined for the February 1987 issue, April saw Simon Williams become involved and then the May issue welcomed Paul Stephens as Technical Editor.

In May of that year, Future Publishing realised it had outgrown The Old Barn in Somerton and moved to swanky new offices in Bath, shortening my commute to a rather less interesting 15-minute train ride. I continued editing PC PLUS until December 1988 when I left Future Publishing to become a freelance journalist for not only PC PLUS but other computer magazines, and a number of articles in The Guardian’s computer section. By the time I left some 40,000 people were reading each issue of PC PLUS and circulation was growing consistently by around 1,000 readers each month.

When I joined, the company employed just nine people: by the time I left, a little over two years later, it had more than 200 employees and published perhaps a dozen titles. Ten years later the company floated on the stock market, with Chris’s stake valued at some £140 million, and it is now one of the biggest publishing companies in both the UK and the US. Meanwhile, in 2001 Chris purchased TED Talks which he turned into the unique streaming cum conferencing environment it is today.

And I did, in the end, set up my own publishing company, although on a more modest scale. At its peak I did employ seven people, but now it primarily serves as a channel for my books.

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