Justin Murphy: [00:00:00] All right. Welcome everybody. This is one talk that I'm doing in a whole series that's going to be about publishing platforms particularly suitable for independent intellectuals. There are so many different interesting places to publish nowadays, but it's quite hard for people to know where exactly they fit in.
So that's one of the goals for these sessions I'll be doing, to help people understand what particular publications are looking for, what their style is and whether or not they might want to submit to various publications.
And hopefully also we'll be learning some lessons from the particular individuals we speak with. Because often the editors or the representatives of these different upstart publications are in their own right interesting independent intellectuals with their own fascinating trajectories, and they often have learned a lot themselves as individuals.
I'm running these seminar sessions on behalf of indiethinkers.org, which is a private community with pretty much the express purpose of supporting other independent intellectuals just like myself. And it's pretty much got a few different features to help people who are trying to pursue long-term, independent intellectual work, but outside of institutions. I'll just briefly say that if anyone is interested in indiethinkers.org you're more than welcome to request an invitation at indiethinkers.org and then I'll just invite you to jump on a call with me and we can talk more about it if you're curious. Other than that, I think we should just jump right in.
We have here today Iona Italia, who is quite an accomplished independent intellectual in her own right, with some experience in institutions. She has a PhD, and some experience outside of institutions. She is active on the internet and has an interesting public profile. So she is a subeditor at a magazine called Areo. And Areo has been on my radar for quite some time. But as I was saying before, it's just hard to know exactly what these different publications are looking for, what exactly their mission is.
I want to just jump right in and ask Iona, if she could start by telling us a little bit about Areo magazine and what really is the overarching purpose or philosophy, if you will, of Areo as you understand it.
Who and what does Aero Magazine publish?
Iona Italia: I love the way you described them as upstart publications. I'm going to use that word. So Areo has a universal liberal humanist philosophy, I would say. And we look for writing, political commentary, political and social commentary from, not all ends, but both sides of the political aisle.
Also we also publish pieces, book reviews, pieces on scholarship, on science, on art, on technology. Probably about 80% of our writers are academics or former academics. About four fifths of our writers. It's absolutely not a requirement, but there are lots of academics who would like to publish essays, either on topics that are outside their specialist field, or in a style which is less obscure or even obscurantist, less burdened with academese. Not in any way dumbed down, but just more eloquent and communicative. So we provide a forum for that.
Justin Murphy: [00:03:27] Okay. And what about the authors who are not academics? What are their profiles, generally ?
Iona Italia: [00:03:34] It varies a lot. So we have, for example, we've had a number of professionals, have written for us. We've had doctors, geneticists, lawyers. We've also had a few writers. The poet, Clint Margrave, has written for us and also some artists and a few other people who just wanted to express a specific opinion.
We don't really look at the qualifications of writers unless they're making very specific claims that rely upon their qualifications, but usually they aren't. So usually most of the pieces have to stand or fall on their own merits.
Justin Murphy: [00:04:25] Are there occasionally, though, do you get submissions from people who are just totally random people who are just smart and they worked hard on putting together a strong case about some sort of argument and you publish that sometimes? Or how often?
Iona Italia: [00:04:40] How often, I don't know.
Justin Murphy: [00:04:42] But you do occasionally?
Iona Italia: [00:04:44] Yes, we do. I haven't prepared stats for you, I'm afraid. We certainly do. I'd clarify also that we only publish about 5% of submissions.
Justin Murphy: [00:04:54] Oh, is that right?
Iona Italia: [00:04:56] Yes. So, we do get a lot of submissions, which is great.
Most common reasons for rejecting submissions
Justin Murphy: [00:05:02] Okay. That's interesting. That's a pretty selective acceptance rate. So what would you say, when you look at incoming submissions, what are some obvious quick red flags? I think it's interesting to share with people the perspective of an editor who's inundated with all of these different submissions... As an academic and someone who's graded papers before, it's a similar thing. You learn very quickly, there are certain aspects of submissions that just very clearly indicate this is not going to be a high quality submission, that allow you to pretty much put it in the garbage stack right away. Do you want to share with us from your perspective as an editor, what are some of the most common problems you see that make you immediately throw a paper out?
Iona Italia: [00:05:43] The most common problem is just not being very good at writing. So, nothing to do with the necessarily the specific idea expressed or the point of view or the political stance or anything else is, just when the thing is poorly written, we do at Areo quite heavily copy edit, and that's something that we make our writers aware of. If you really want your work to appear out in the world untouched by an editor, then we are probably not the best place to submit. We do allow, of course, writers to vet and veto any changes we make.
We do work with some articles which are written by non-native speakers or, or just expressed more poorly, when the quality of the ideas is very high. But mostly, most rejections are: This is just extremely poorly written. It's either up to something incomprehensible or it's just endless academic peacocking. Like, "I feel you're made aware of the fact that it is necessary to draw attention to the importance of the study, which I have been..." There's a lot of thisâ€”long-winded, saying absolutely nothingâ€”but mostly it's just poor writing skills or, let's say, inadequate writing skills for the magazine.
Justin Murphy: [00:07:20] Okay. That's interesting. So if you encounter work that has a fundamentally good idea, but the writing is perhaps in need of work, you will put in the copy editing work potentially to fix it up for them or to help them fix it up.
Iona Italia: [00:07:37] If the article is good and if we feel the essential idea is original and good enough, then we have been known to go through several drafts with authors to send them feedback. And to resubmit, just like an academic journal would. And, I will also almost always copy edit for readability and make it conform to high style. I don't usually change content. But I do usually trim the fat off articles a little bit. But in general, we try to only do that for really more outstanding ideas.
Most people's essays that are rejected fall short at the stage of just not being well-written. Being able to write well is a high-level skill that I think many people don't have, or haven't sufficiently honed. It also does depend on what we have recently published or already accepted for publication. We might not want to accept your article because we've just published on that topic. And then we generally avoid, we have published a few kind of fiery polemical pieces. We've published a few of those, which were particularly fun to read, particularly well-written and fun, but usually we avoid really polemical pieces that are just fiercely, ferociously dismissive of the other side.
Just character attacks or something like that. Okay. So we have very, very strong critiques of people. But, those critiques were framed in a measured kind of calm, intellectual way, not in a sort of ranting way. We don't publish many rants. Very occasionally somebody sends one around, which is really amusing.
But most people are not good judges of whether or not their rants are amusing.
Justin Murphy: [00:09:41] Okay, interesting. So pretty much if a submission has basically strong writing skills and is not too polemical then what? What comes next in the filtering process?
Iona Italia: [00:09:56] The topic can be controversial. It's just the tone can't be, "Can you believe what stupid morons..." And there's an awful lot of that.
We also tend not to publish race-science themed pieces. Human psychological neurodiversity or whatever the term is. It is a universal liberal humanist magazine. We're interested in conservative and left-wing viewpoints. We've had some conservatives, some libertarian writers, and, and I would say that there is a preponderance of more left-leaning authors at Areo.
We're absolutely open to thoughtful takes by people on the right, and libertarians, we have had a few Marxist pieces also. But we are, generally, if people want to write about IQ differences between people of different races or something like that, we send them over to Quillette. I want to put that in there because the universal part is important to us.
We're not really interested in comparing people of different races.
Justin Murphy: [00:11:13] I mean, I think every publication has certain editorial lines, and that's very useful for you to just be upfront about that. That's useful for people to know.
Iona Italia: [00:11:23] I'm an absolute proponent of free speech, so I'm happy with people publishing absolutely anything wherever else they wish. And, I did defend Noah Carl when when his contract was not renewed at Oxford recently because of his more controversial work on race. I do take a principled stand on that, but in general, we are not very interested in that topic.
We wouldn't publish a piece by someone arguing that we should do or not do a thing because God wants us to do or not do that thing. Okay? So we don't vet authors, for example. We're not going to ask what kinds of beliefs you have in your personal life. It's only the article itself.
Interesting success stories about Areo articles or authors
Justin Murphy: [00:12:14] So are you aware, Iona, of any interesting cases of Areo publications having particularly impactful effects on the world, or interesting stories of authors, for whom publication in Areo played some sort of role in some kind of future development?
Iona Italia: [00:12:31] Oh gosh, no. That's okay. It's quite hard to closely follow the trajectory of articles once they've left my life, my desk, then published and appeared.
I would say that we have a couple of very frequent writers who are still very young. Daniel Sharp, who we've actually employed as one of our staff writers, who's just turned 20 and is an undergraduate in Edinburgh. So he's an extremely talented young man and hopefully this will have an impact on his career.
Justin Murphy: [00:13:10] Did you first find him or encounter him just from him submitting cold pieces?
Iona Italia: [00:13:15] Yes, right.
Justin Murphy: [00:13:17] So that's quite interesting then! For any other 20 year-old students out there, if you're really talented, a cold submission might very well eventually turn into a staff job.
Iona Italia: [00:13:27] We just published a piece by Inas Hamdan. I think she is publishing pseudonymously, because she comes from an extremely conservative, religious background. But this is her second or third piece that we have.published by her. She is a feminist, and I believe she's also just turned 20. So we've had a couple of very young writers who are just extremely gifted. And I think our most read piece is also probably our longest piece, and that's a piece by Helen together with James Lindsey, and it's called A Manifesto Against the Enemies of Modernity.
Justin Murphy: [00:14:15] So do you have any sense of average traffic rates for different articles? Like how many eyeballs do you expect to see the average article for Areo?
Iona Italia: [00:14:26] Oh God, I'm sorry, I clearly have not done the right kind of research. I'm extremely bad at remembering numbers. I tend to try not to worry too much about how many eyeballs are on things. Probably just, I can't really control that. I can only control, you know, choosing the publications, the pieces that I think are good.
Justin Murphy: [00:14:51] Well, that's a lesson in its own right. I think that's a good attitude to have, to be honest. Yeah.
Iona Italia: [00:14:57] I kind of take the attitude that if you build it, they will come, but if you are trying to second guess what people will read... I think my experience is that it's very hard to do that right.
Iona's path to becoming an indie thinker
Justin Murphy: [00:15:10] I would also like to know a little bit more about you, Iona, because you have a quite interesting history and trajectory as an intellectual in your own right. You have a PhD, but it seems that you're also investing a lot of effort into developing independent, creative work on the internet. Could you go back in time a little bit and paint a picture for us about when you first started really publishing on the internet and getting traction on the internet? Could you tell us how that worked out for you?
Iona Italia: [00:15:36] So let me see, it was, I guess, 2016, 2017. So I was an academic until from about the time when the dinosaurs went extinct up until 2006. And I left academia in 2006, and for 10 years I was first working freelance as a translator and then I was studying and improving my dance and I later became a dance teacher.
My main activity in that decade was dancing Argentine tango, teaching tango. I also did some tutoring, teaching tango and teaching music appreciation. And I wrote two books. I've published two books about the culture of tango, they're not technical books and they're not aimed specifically at dancers. They are not how-to instructional books. The two books are under the title, Our Tango World. There are two volumes of it. That was my main activity until about 2016 and then I decided to go live in India for a while to reconnect with my Parsi heritage. My father was Indian Parsi from Bombay, and I knew that I wouldn't be able to teach tango in India, so I had to find another way of earning money whilst I was there. And so I started doing much more freelance editing. And then I had also published a couple of pieces in Areo magazine myself, which I had just submitted to the magazine during the gubernatorial period of Malhar Malie, who ran the magazine before Helen Pluckrose, who is now the editor in chief.
It was a few months into my arrival in Bombay that Helen took over for Areo. And we had met all on Twitter. So she had read some of my pieces and then we had begun following each other and we interacted a lot over Twitter.
And she wrote to me on Twitter, actually, she sent me a DM and she said, "Are you interested in being the subeditor? And I can pay you X amount per piece. Would you like to do that?" So I joined.
Justin Murphy: [00:18:08] All right, and so, you got connected with people like Helen and your internet intellectual-social circles mostly through submitting your own articles to Areo and then through Twitter, was the main medium.
Iona Italia: [00:18:25] Yes. So I submitted a few articles to Areo in 2016 and 2017. And then in August we decided to start a podcast. The Tea for Two podcast. Originally together. Now, Helen only occasionally co-hosts and I'm running the podcast mostly single-handedly. And then also Letter.wiki was established. And I know you're going to be talking to Clyde, one of the founders of Letter.wiki in a future episode, so we won't talk about that too much, but then also through Twitter, Dane Rathbone found me and he asked me if I was interested in joining Letter.wiki as a writer for them. So I write a lot of letters
Justin Murphy: [00:19:12] Excellent. So yeah, you're a really good example then of this new, online, very networked, very independent, but also very public, creative, intellectual. And you've done very well for yourself in developing all of these relationships and you're active on multiple platforms and you have quite a following. So this is really interesting to dissect a little bit because I know a lot of people who are... They don't yet know anyone, they're talented and they're capable, but they don't have these networks. They don't know where to publish. They don't know who to talk to. They don't know how to develop this type of lovely, productive network that you have. So I'm kind of curious if you could go back to the beginning of it. You've told us a little bit about the role that Twitter played, the role that your submissions to Areo played, but is there anything else that you think you did particularly well to help you launch into this rich, productive kind of social network of, of independent intellectual life?
Iona Italia: [00:20:04] To be honest, I really didn't do anything else. I previously had quite a large following when I was writing on, I was mostly blogging about tango. But that audience did not come over, did not transfer over at all. I mean, I think that there were maybe a thousand people who followed me when I used to write on tango, who still follow my writing at Areo, et cetera. None of those people were interested in anything other than tango. Actually, it's quite niche. But twice now, I've sort of built an audience from nothing is what I would say.
Neither time did I really do anything special. So with my tango audience, what I did was I began writing, I began writing a blog on WordPress. At first it had 12 views. It averaged between 10 and 15 views per post. And then I took the blog over to Facebook and I started, instead of writing on WordPress, just writing long, very long statuses, essay length, right into the text box on Facebook and publishing them as Facebook statuses.
They weren't Facebook statuses. They were essays. Even short stories that I had put into the Facebook status box. And just gradually, people started following me and I maxed out the followers and friend numbers on two Facebook accounts. And then, people started asking me if I would come teach tango where they were. So I started going, and teaching tango. I was never very successful, but I did manage to go to the States a few times and, taught in various cities and made some money and gave a few readings of my work. I went to Albuquerque among other places.
Justin Murphy: [00:22:08] It's very interesting that you moved away from the blog onto Facebook and you built a real following on Facebook. And then you decided to move into different topics, mostly on Twitter, and it was completely disconnected and your audience did not move from Facebook to your new work after that.
Iona Italia: [00:22:25] Not at all. And I think that, so the advantage of being on Facebook is that you get a larger audience. People do not like to have to click on an extra link. Even once I had a large audience, people wouldn't read it. Whereas on Facebook, if I posted a video of myself dancing, there would be 10,000 views within 24 hours. So clearly people look at Facebook things.
But if I posted on the blog, that would be like 200 views. Facebook has kind of completely disintegrated. I think it's no longer a good platform, for various reasons too. Everybody has moved away from Facebook, but at that time, Facebook was really a good platform, but it wasn't monetized in any way. So I did publish a couple of books and books make always no money, as I'm sure you know, I think I made like $500 in total from both books. And I think that in retrospect, the smart thing to do would been to have had a much smaller audience readership, but have had a patron-only little blog or something like that.
Justin Murphy: [00:23:45] I feel like you might have some kind of stylistic suggestions for Twitter. Do you? You must do something right? If you're able to build audiences from scratch, you know, starting over multiple times. Like are you very active about engaging people, or do you write a lot of thoughtful replies to people's tweets and that makes people appreciate you? Do you DM people a lot, or what's your Twitter style?
Iona Italia: [00:24:10] My Twitter style has been all over the place. When I first went onto Twitter, I couldn't understand how it works at all for about six months. Nobody liked or commented on any post and I said, okay, it's just like journaling. It's like a journaling app. You write your personal thoughts and there's no interaction.
And then I realized that in order to get people to interact with you, you first have to go to better known accounts and reply to them.
So you have to be a reply guy to get people's attention, and then people will actually click on your posts and read your posts and start following you. And that's how you build a following. And my Twitter activity has been through many and various different stages, and I think that I have posted a lot, way too much. I had to pursue therapy for my Twitter addiction, but I have actually been very good at managing, to be on Twitter no more than one hour a day. But at one point, it was really out of control.
I think the main secret is that I'm not worried about how people are going to receive my posts. In fact, it came as kind of a revelation to me that some people actually sit down and think carefully about what they're going to say before they tweet. Whereas I just, lately, direct lines straight from brain to fingers, sometimes even bypassing brain, just kind of comes out automatically here.
I don't think I've ever thought about what I was going to tweet before tweeting it. I mean, I have the thoughts and if I feel like sharing that thought, I immediately just tweet that.
Justin Murphy: [00:26:14] But do you ever write the tweet and then right before hitting tweet you think, ah, maybe not right now, I'll save that to the drafts.
Iona Italia: [00:26:21] I never save anything to drafts, but I do delete. Especially when I feel like, okay, I tweeted that out at that moment, that's fine, but I don't want that sitting on my timeline as a kind of permanent thing. And so I do delete some incriminating tweets, as it were. I know that everything, the internet is forever, and I'm sure they've been screenshotted somewhere.
I also made it... and I think it was extremely helpful... A few larger accounts decided they hate me, and by sort of quote-tweeting you in a hostile way, and screenshotting, they drew attention to my account and helped it grow. Streisand effect. But, I still do have a very small Twitter account and I feel my work doesn't get a lot of attention, but considering that I was a dance teacher until a couple of years ago, it's not too bad.
Justin Murphy: [00:27:17] I mean, you don't have a massive Twitter following, but I think you have a sizable Twitter following. Neither of us are super famous or anything like that, but having just enough of an audience that it's highly motivating and highly rewarding to think and write and share your work in public, that's the key. So in my view, this is what I tell people, that it's not about getting a million Twitter followers or a million subscribers, it's about just having enough that you feel motivated and you feel like it's rewarding to constantly be putting your work out there. And I think for a lot of people, you know, having 10,000 Twitter followers, having 15,000 Twitter followers, is a lot.
There's tons of really brilliant people who maybe only have a hundred Twitter followers and they just want to figure out how they can get to 10,000 followers so that it feels worthwhile to continue thinking and writing and posting, you know?
Iona Italia: [00:28:09] I do. I think that I'm going to talk to the technical question first, but then there's this philosophical, psychological question. One of the things I think that is helpful is, I have among my fairly small number of followers, I have quite large and influential followers. I think that that is helpful. The proportion of people among my followers who have a hundred thousand plus followers is h gh. I've been able to talk to some really amazing people who I wouldn't otherwise have got to know if it had not been for Twitter.
So I would probably never have talked to Jonathan Haidt. I would never have talked to Nicholas Christakis.
Justin Murphy: [00:29:01] And that's from being a reply guy?
Iona Italia: [00:29:05] I think it's partly from the podcast and partly from Helen and partly from Areo, and partly from being a reply guy.
This is the other side of the stoic fork. You know, the divide in the road, not the utensil, but the two paths that branch off. You really can't control what other people think and do. You cannot make other people like your work. You cannot make other people value your work and you can't make other people think your work is important.
And that can be very heartbreaking for intellectuals and especially people in the arts like myself. Because very few people think the things that I think are important. Very few people agree with me that those things are important, whereas lots of people want to watch porn. So if I were, if I were kind of still in my young and beautiful prime and published just my boobs or something, I would get much more attention and followers and people would be more interested. People value seeing boobs more than they value reading poetry, I'd say. And that's fine. You have to make your peace with that. And if you're chasing, if you're kind of chasing other people's approval all the time, then, you're going to be extremely frustrated because you don't have control of other people. And you're also allowing what other people think and feel to define you. And that makes you sort of helpless. So I think that it's really important to just do the best work that you can do.
Do the work that you think is important. Be as eloquent and honest and open about that as you can, and then either people will like it or they won't. Unfortunately, there's no recipe for success. And people who have been successful will tell you "that recipe," quote unquote. But because of survivorship bias, we have no idea, we don't have a conception of the many other people who followed the same guidelines and weren't successful. Right? I think it's 90% chance.
Justin Murphy: [00:31:26] Wise words, very wise words indeed. Thank you for that. I think that's very sobering. And for some people that's kind of depressing, but you're absolutely right. And I think ultimately when you just accept that and embrace that, that you have no control over whether people are going to like your work or appreciate or value it, then instead you focus on what is most meaningful to you. What work do you most believe in doing that gives you the most intrinsic satisfaction? And that's really, at the end of the day, the best you can do, that's what you really should be optimizing for is your own intrinsic satisfaction with your own work.
Iona Italia: [00:32:00] Well, it's very difficult to feel under appreciated, of course, because appreciation is dollars and we all have to live. I'm choosing to live on a pretty low salary. And I managed to do that partly because I live with friends, who are much lower than normal rent, in a very, very beautiful place. I have a lovely home here, because I don't want to give up on this and get an office job, because I feel that Letter.wiki is a beautiful project. I feel that Areo is a wonderful project. I want to be a part of making those things happen. I love doing my podcast and I feel that I have a gift for writing and editing and podcasting.
And so I feel more satisfied, in myself, when I can actually feel that I'm contributing, using my talents. But there is a balance struck between that and the anxiety of not having the financial stability.
Justin Murphy: [00:33:10] Yeah, I totally understand that. Absolutely. I think maybe I would just ask you one final question then. I'm curious to know if you think there are any particular topics or questions that you think are just criminally neglected, like more people should be working on this. As an editor, you would love to see more submissions on this topic that you think is really important and no one's really addressing as much as they should be.
Iona Italia: [00:33:30] Gosh. I mean, in general, I feel that we. severely neglect... I mean, the reason why I'm not a social justice leftist, I'm an old-fashioned leftist, old fashioned kind of gentle socialist type, is because I feel that we extremely neglect attention to people's material circumstances and we're obsessed with people's identities.
That's in general, but I don't feel that's a topic that is neglected. There are people, of course, writing about that.
I think that there are a couple of areas in which the quality of the writing seems to be an inverse proportion to the importance of the topic and the number one area of that kind, I think is, personal happiness. So self-help is the trashiest of genres. Only diet books are trashier. Harlequin romances and Dan Brown and things like that, all those are better written and more thoughtful than self-help. Most, 99% of self-help books.
Yet I think there is a lot of knowledge out there, of different past things that people could do and ways in which they could find more happiness in their own lives. And very few people are exploring that in a serious way. Two of the few people to do that recently have been, Darren Brown, his book Happy and Scott Barry Kaufman, his book Transcend. I would really like to see more books like that, taking the question of personal happiness seriously.
Justin Murphy: [00:35:20] That's a great answer. That's fascinating. So self-help, but with real literary quality.
Iona Italia: [00:35:26] With literary and intellectual quality, self-help that isn't condescending to the reader.
Justin Murphy: [00:35:33] This has been really interesting and there's a lot of wisdom packed into this talk that we had, so I'm just very grateful that you were willing to jump on this call with me and share all of your insight and wisdom. I hope it turns into at least a few quality submissions to Areo sometime in the future that you might not have received otherwise.
Iona Italia: [00:35:53] Yeah, please submit to us. You have nothing to lose. And if you are rejected, please know that we reject most submissions, so don't be discouraged, but it's one email. Send it in and you may get published.
Justin Murphy: [00:36:09] I think that's a very good point. And that holds true pretty much for everywhere. You should just generally expect to be rejected simply because there's always lots of submissions everywhere, and you know, if you're going to be a serious writer, rejection is just something you're going to have to deal with all the time. So just prepare for that. Even embrace it and just, just expect to always be rejected. And then when you get that acceptance, every now and then, it's a pleasant surprise. That's how I always think about it.
Iona Italia: [00:36:33] Just send it somewhere else if it's rejected. You're own blog, on Medium, etc. So you can, you can get your writing out there. And, the way to become a better writer is to keep writing and getting it out there to audiences.
Justin Murphy: [00:36:49] All right. Very well put. Thank you so much. And for those of you out there listening or watching, if you're interested, please do go ahead and submit your work to Areo, as you were just invited to do.
And if you're interested in developing your own independent intellectual work, in a longer-term way, you might want to check out indiethinkers.org, which is the private membership community I've launched, under the umbrella of which I am doing these talks. So you can request an invitation if you'd like, at indiethinkers.org, and if you do that, I'll jump on a video call with you to learn more about what you're up to.