Book review: The Art of Making Magazines

Each spring the Columbia School of Journalism invites heavyweights from the magazine industry to speak about magazine journalism at its George Delacorte Lecture Series. Victor S. Navasky, publisher emeritus of The Nation, and Evan Cornog, dean of the School of Communication at Hofstra University and former publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, pulled together a varied collection of the lecture series’ highlights in The Art of Making Magazines: On Being an Editor and Other Views from the Industry (published by Columbia Journalism Review Books). The book offers up a variety of perspectives: we hear from the late John Gregory Dunne about writing for magazines; Roberta Myers about editing women’s magazines; Peter Canby about fact checking at The New Yorker; Tina Brown about her time heading Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk; John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s, about the balance between editorial content and advertising; and several others. This mosaic of viewpoints from industry insiders underscores the complexity of magazine publishing—the myriad considerations from the big picture to the minutiae that editors face with every issue.

Despite the speakers’ wide-ranging experiences and backgrounds, key themes recurred throughout the book; the primacy of the reader, for example, featured prominently. Ruth Reichl, who served as Gourmet’s editor before it closed up shop in 2009, said,

I learned that the only way to do a magazine… is not to underestimate your audience, ever… That the only way to have a really good magazine is to print the things you want to read and assume that it will find its own readership. (p. 34)

And Elle’s Roberta Myers told her audience,

You can’t edit a magazine to impress people; you can’t edit a magazine to show your friends how clever you are or what access you were able to get. You really have to edit to, and for, your reader. (p. 54)

Felix Dennis, owner of Dennis Publishing, devoted his entire talk to the importance of the reader, saying

What’s madness is thinking that you can publish on and on and on without putting out something that readers want to read. What’s madness is this: focusing on what advertisers want, not on what readers want. (p. 172)

Yet, of course, pragmatism dictates that magazines do have to consider advertisers to remain strong. In one of the most interesting essays in the book, John R. MacArthur addresses this slippery issue:

With the advent in the 1970s of so-called advertorials—that is, advertising promotion copy masquerading as real editorial material—the walls between advertising and editorial have weakened apace. Labeled advertorial has more and more been supplanted by unlabeled advertorial, where the editor is called upon to run articles complementary to adjacent advertising. (p. 149)

According to MacArthur, a large part of the problem stems from a devaluation of content in readers’ eyes; the glut of available information makes them less willing to pay for what a magazine has to offer:

There’s another important factor that’s made magazines more vulnerable to the demands and whims of advertisers, which is the continuing decline in the cost of subscriptions. Because magazines are so desperate for advertising, they view subscribers by and large as loss leaders whose principal function is to support the publication’s guaranteed advertising rate base. Since the advertising agencies get a flat percentage of whatever they buy—traditionally it’s 15 percent—the more the page costs, the more they make. Thus publishers and ad directors of magazines strain mightily and discount heavily to make their circulation as big as possible in order to please the ad agencies. (p. 151)

At the same time, the Internet—with its implied promise of free, free, free editorial content—encourages people to think that they shouldn’t have to pay for magazines and newspapers at all. To my mind, the Internet is just a gigantic, much-faster version of the photocopying machine. And as such, it’s a great enemy of periodicals, because so many library users and professors are happy to read a cheap Xerox of an article or distribute it to their students, rather than pay for a subscription. I’ve tried again and again to explain to the young Internet enthusiasts on my staff that the Web is actually driving down the perceived value of their work, which makes us even more dependent on advertising. (152)

And if publishers and editors-in-chief aren’t pitching to advertisers, they’re expected to build the brand and pitch to everyone else. Roberta Myers recounted her tenure as senior editor of InStyle, saying, “It was there that I… saw the necessity—and power—of marketing. Dollar for dollar, they spent as much marketing the magazine as they did making it.” (p. 55)

After she moved to Elle, Myers encountered the “brand wheel”:

In the middle of the wheel was the word Elle, and the spokes of the wheel were the magazine and the show Project Runway and the Web site, Elle.com. And one was a cell phone. Today the editor-in-chief of a big, successful, broad magazine like ours—1.1 million circulation, 6 million readers—is expected to oversee all of these “extensions.” (p. 59)

Ruth Reichl shared a similar experience, noting that her role as editor of Gourmet shifted dramatically since the explosion of online marketing and social media:

When I spoke to this group six years ago, the list of what I did today would have been completely and utterly different. In those days, I was editing a magazine, and everything I had to do was about editing the magazine. And today, almost nothing that I do has to do with editing a magazine. My role is now pretty much long-term planning, thinking about the issues, dealing with the art director… So it’s very much a changing role. (p. 46)

Interestingly, whereas Gourmet folded, Dennis Publishing’s offerings, including The Week and Men’s Fitness, among others, seem to be going strong, and this success may have something to do with Felix Dennis’s approach to emerging technologies:

We concluded that the Web should not be treated as merely an extension of our ink-on-paper brands and products. It was a beast of a different stripe. This was a counterintuitive conclusion back then… but we persevered and permitted our Web editors and journalists to break away early from the domination of the “mother ship” ink-on-paper brand and develop their own Internet identity. In retrospect, this was possibly the best decision made by my board in decades. (p. 168)

Perhaps this division has allowed editors to focus on editing, which was the subject of Robert Gottlieb’s terrific piece, “Editing Books Versus Editing Magazines.” Gottlieb had moved from a position at Alfred A. Knopf to The New Yorker, where he served as editor-in-chief from 1987 to 1992. About the differences between the two media, he had this to say:

Being the editor-in-chief of a book publishing house is a vastly different matter from being the editor-in-chief of a magazine. When you’re in a publishing house, you are in a strictly service job as an editor… To keep your good authors and to attract other good authors, you have to serve them. They have to feel protected, which means they have to believe that their editor, a specific personal editor, understands their work, sympathizes with their work, and is on their wavelength. They must believe that the editor can help them make the book not other than what it is, but better than what it is. (p. 157)

When you’re the editor-in-chief of a magazine, as I was of The New Yorker, it’s opposite. You are the living god. You are not there to please the writers, but the writers are there to satisfy you because they want to be in the magazine, and you are the one who says yes or no. (p. 158)

Another major contrast between book and magazine publishing, Gottlieb noted, relates to fact checking: whereas some magazines have dedicated fact-checking departments, that level of rigour simply isn’t possible in a book-publishing environment, where much of the onus is on the author to ensure factual accuracy. And his comment about Knopf’s editorial standards had me smiling and cringing at the same time:

I can say that although I’ve been embarrassed by some of the books we’ve published, on the whole we’ve done a good job. Certainly better than most publishing houses, and certainly better than any British publishing houses, since I don’t believe an editor or a copyeditor’s pencil has ever touched a piece of text in England. It’s really amazing what they do not do, but then they love amateurism. (p. 158)

And finally, from Gottlieb, a truism known widely to editors but not so much to others:

It’s always the books, by the way, that you spend the most time on and put the most editorial energy into that get reviews that say, “What this book needed was a good editor.” And that’s for a reason. Because when a book is really in trouble, there’s a point beyond which you can’t go. And some reviewers, not all, are slow to catch on to that. (p. 158)

Barbara Wallraff addressed the same problem, from the copy editor’s perspective:

Most [writers and supervising editors] look very sloppy. And sometimes so sloppy that I couldn’t do as good a job—I couldn’t do as much polishing, as much perfecting, as I really would have liked to do, because I was just too busy correcting stuff that was all garbled up. It makes you mad. Can’t they do any better than that?

And then, over the years, it occurs to you, no, they can’t. But the more the writer or the supervising editor can do to improve a piece, starting at the biggest level but on down into the smaller levels, the higher the level that everybody else—including the copyeditor—can work at.

If you don’t have to be just hacking your way, with a machete, through the jungle, you can pay closer attention to where the flowers are, and whether the leaves are neat and tidy. You can really go a much longer way toward making that piece its best self. (p. 93)

And details matter. Wallraff said in her talk, “A Magazine Needs Copyeditors Because…,” “Even a bunch of highly skilled writers won’t do things consistently. And consistency strengthens the identity of a magazine.” (p. 86) She continued, “I am not saying any particular style is inherently bad or good. I am just pointing out that they project different images.” (p. 87)

Being a stickler may not make you any friends:

The problem with copyediting—and the downside to the job—is that it is a relentlessly negative, critical job. I mean, you try correcting everybody’s spelling and grammar and logic and organization, and do that day in, day out, and see how popular that makes you. (p. 90)

but, according to Wallraff, remembering that the copy editor is a person will improve not only your professional relationship but also the project:

Have a human relationship with them. The way most organizations are set up, it won’t be part of the workflow ever to talk to the copyeditor. And you may have to go a little bit out of your way to do that. By try to anyway. (p. 95)

Although I can pluck any number of memorable quotes from The Art of Making Magazines, I don’t think the book quite succeeds as the “how-to and how-to-be guide” that its editors had perhaps envisioned. The anecdotes are colourful, but they lack the practical advice that readers or students hoping to break into magazines might be looking for in a book like this. A fundamental problem is that most of the lectures included in the book were delivered between 2002 and 2009, and a lot has changed in the magazine world in the past decade—even in the past couple of years. The most recent talk featured in the book was given in February 2010, which, I believe, just misses the surging growth in tablets. Both Ruth Reichl and Roberta Myers allude to the impact of online marketing and social media, but the tablet may be have as a large an impact on the magazine world as e-readers have had on the book world, and the book discusses none of that.

Further, because the book is tied to the Columbia School of Journalism, most of the speakers naturally represent the major New York–based magazines. Someone looking to start a career in magazine publishing, particularly outside of New York, probably won’t hit up The New Yorker from the outset. Most writers and editors would likely cut their teeth, and perhaps build a career, in niche publications—like magazines for cigar aficionados or antique teapot enthusiasts. That rather significant portion of the industry isn’t addressed at all in this book. Further, the book makes the prospect of upward mobility at the big glossies look rather bleak: Tina Brown and Robert Gottlieb were installed as heads of their magazines having come from elsewhere, and hiring budding talent from within a magazine to take over an editorial vacancy doesn’t appear to be a common practice, at least as far as this anthology implies.

The Art of Making Magazines is for readers who want to hear what the likes of Ruth Reichl and Tina Brown and Felix Dennis have to say because of who they are. Although it may be interesting reading for those hoping to make a career out of magazine publishing and editing, it won’t light the path to get there.

Book review: Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text

Too often we see book production as a sequence of tasks—writing, editing, design, proofreading—forgetting that behind these tasks are professionals who have to work as a team to make a book happen. Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text (edited by Darcy Cullen, published by University of Toronto Press) urges us to shift our perspective—not only towards the dynamic, social aspects of the production process that are so critical to its functioning but also away from the notion that an editor is “an invisible figure who must leave no trace of his or her presence or as a taint to be expunged.” (p. 4)

Darcy Cullen, an acquisitions editor at UBC Press, has assembled an impressive cast of contributors to this authoritative collection, including Peter L. Shillingsburg, author of From Gutenberg to Google, and Amy Einsohn, author of The Copyeditor’s Handbook. We hear from academic experts as well as editors and designers in a rich mosaic of experiences and complementary viewpoints. In short, this unassuming volume brims with wisdom.

Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text focuses naturally on academic publishing, but much of the insight and information it offers would also be useful to trade publishers. It divides its attention between scholarly editors (scholars who develop, curate, and compile) and academic editors (in-house or freelance professionals who acquire manuscripts, copy edit, and project manage), and although I found many of the former pieces interesting, I gravitated towards essays about the latter, which were both a mirror of my own experiences and a window into a parallel universe. Editors (and publishers) may operate according to the same set of best practices, but they all have different approaches, and it’s these details that intrigue me most.

To give a sweeping review of such a heterogeneous collection would be an unfair oversimplification, so my goal here is to hit what I considered the highlights, from my perspective as an editor, rather than attempt to be comprehensive.

Cullen’s motivation for bringing together these essays carries a subtle but definite tone of activism. Of the legions of books devoted to publishing, most are focused on helping authors get their manuscripts published or marketed, yet, writes Cullen, “the ‘middle’ part of the publishing process, sandwiched between acquisitions and sales, is often closed from view, or viewed as closed off, even though it is here that the manuscript’s metamorphosis into book occurs.” (p. 3) The shrinking-violet stereotype of editors must be abandoned because it perpetuates a certain self-marginalization that denies the important social contribution of an editor to the publishing process. Cullen hopes that “these chapters engaging the question of minority cultures and ethnicity in the spheres of scholarly and academic editing and scholarly publishing should serve as an impetus to editors who still invisibilize themselves, so that they acknowledge their place and position of influence as it extends beyond the chain of production.” (p. 12)

That thread is carried through Rosemary Shipton’s brilliant chapter, “The Mysterious Relationship: Authors and Their Editors,” in which she gives readers a most cogent description of the editorial process, comparing trade and academic publishing. “So long as the editors’ contribution to publications in all genres… is not given the recognition it deserves,” writes Shipton, “editors will remain vulnerable to low salaries and, in times of economic downturn, early layoff.”

The relationship an editor fosters with an author is key to a book’s realization—and it may play a role in a publisher’s ability to retain an author: “When the collaboration works well,” Shipton writes, “inevitably authors bond with their editors—they request them for book after book.” But “if the collaboration between author and editor does not work well, the author very quickly feels threatened and loses confidence in the editor.” (p. 51) As one of the founders of the publishing program at Ryerson, her advocacy for the editing profession is grounded in her belief in high standards and a solid foundation of editorial principles, as she warns, “The most common disputes arise when copyeditors lack training and experience.” (p. 45)

Shipton explains that whereas “most trade publishers know that, to make their books excellent and interesting, to attract good reviews and other media attention, to win book awards, and to get that word-of-mouth buzz that entices readers to buy, they really should edit at both the macro and the micro level,” (p. 50) meaning that manuscripts at trade houses go through structural, stylistic, and copy editing, “scholarly publishers do not usually do intensive substantive editing—and for many good reasons. Their mandate is to publish books that make an original contribution to knowledge; most of their authors are professors or researchers; the majority of their readers are academics and students; and the number of copies they print of most titles is small.” (p. 52) Because they write for an academic audience, says Shipton, scholars “know that these readers will understand the specialized jargon and the guarded, often obtuse long sentences in which they make their arguments.” (p. 52) (I haven’t worked much with textual scholars, but based on my experiences with scientific scholars, I couldn’t help wondering if scholars’ resistance to being stylistically edited or have at least some clear communication principles applied to their writing is a symptom of an academic culture that routinely conflates abstruseness with erudition.)

Shipton also touches on issues specific to legal editing and educational publishing, adeptly showing not only the peculiarities of each genre but also aspects of our work that unite us all as editors; as far as I’m concerned, her chapter should be required reading in all introductory editing courses. Veteran editors—trade or academic, freelance or in house—would also benefit from her wisdom.

Amy Einsohn’s piece, “Juggling Expectations: The Copyeditor’s Roles and Responsibilities” provides equally valuable information for both novice and seasoned copy editors, encouraging them to pull back and look at their own vulnerabilities so that they can become more effective in their work. “Conflicting opinions about what constitutes good or acceptable expository writing can be particularly difficult to negotiate. Because any sentence can be rewritten (and arguably “improved” thereby), copyeditors must learn to resist the impulse to tinker,” (p. 79) she writes, cautioning that copyeditors “labour in the presence of benevolent or fearsome ghosts: a high school English teacher, a freshman composition instructor, one or more publishing mentors, and the authors of favourite usage books.” (p. 69)

Copy editing is an exercise in juggling quality, collegiality, cost, and control, Einsohn says. And true to the book’s overarching message, she emphasizes the importance of the relationships built—largely through clear, respectful communication—between copy editor and author and between copy editor and press. Most importantly, she offers concrete suggestions to improve these relationships and improve editor retention, including checklists, sample edits, and style memos.

Whereas Einsohn’s contribution focused on text, Camilla Blakeley revealed through a case study of an award-winning project of hers, The Trickster Shift by Allan J. Ryan, the complexities of editing an illustrated book. Tactfully mediating a relationship between the author and designer, securing permissions within a specified budget, coordinating captions and credits, and taking into account the effect these added tasks have on the project schedule are some of just some of the considerations for illustrated books, and, again, communication is paramount. On this project, Blakeley set up a meeting with the author and designer at the very early stages, which the designer, George Vaitkunas, credited with making the project particularly rewarding. Blakeley notes, “early communication makes the job not only easier but more pleasurable. This is significant.” (p. 156)

One point of hers that caught my attention was that “while an experienced scholarly editor knows that a table or a graph requires as much editing as a narrative—often more—most of us have no training in how to look at photograph.” (p. 165) She points to a positive editor–designer relationship as an opportunity for editors to educate themselves about these kinds of issues so that they can better serve the author, designer, and, ultimately, the book.

Blakeley’s contribution is packed with examples from The Trickster Shift—of such details as art logs and schedules—that are useful not only because they inform readers about the anatomy of an illustrated book project as it evolves but also because editors can easily appropriate and adapt these documents for their own use.

Blakeley does a tremendous job of giving the designer on her project a voice, but what sets this book apart is that we get to hear directly from designers themselves. Learning from designer Richard Hendel, for example, about not only how designers fit in to the book production process but also how designers view editors (both flatteringly and unflatteringly) can be an important step to better communication and a more effective workflow. Hendel stresses that “The designer cannot properly address a text until an editor has understood and clearly dealt with the physical aspects of the content: how chapters and chapter titles are arranged, how subheads are dealt with, kinds of extract, and the like.” (p. 175) Referring to English typographer John Ryder, Hendel writes, “Ryder felt that editors should be more critical about how something in the manuscript will eventually appear in the printed book—the need to edit visually before the design process even begins.” (p. 176)

In her chapter, designer Sigrid Albert looks at the evolving role of the designer and the changing relationship between editor and designer as the publishing landscape adjusts to accommodate ebooks and other technologies. “The traditional printed book as a highly crafted cultural object, whether in a humble, low-budget or a luxurious, highly produced format, is the goal of the editor and designer. At the highest level of the book production process, the editor has shaped a piece of history, and the designer has shaped a piece of art,” writes Albert, in one of my favourite quotes from the book.

Whereas the traditional book all but demands a strong, communicative relationship between editor and designer to transmit a single vision, digital books have meant that content and form are separate: “book content is increasingly being stored in databases and tagged with content-related markup—such as chapter titles, subtitles, subheads, extracts—by the editor, while the visual design is controlled by a separate style markup—such as margin widths, font, font size, font weight, colour, or line height—delivered by the designer.” (p. 184) Albert wonders if the relationship will only grow further apart as designers eventually stop designing single books and instead create digital templates that they license. Yet, Albert says, “From the designer’s point of view, the design process, despite the technological advances, still requires a synthesis of information and a variety of visual choices to form an aesthetic unity.” (p. 193)

Yuri Cowan (“Reading Material Bibliography and Digital Editions”) and Darcy Cullen (“The Object and the Process”) also explore the implications of a workflow that incorporates digital outputs, with Cowan taking a more theoretical approach and Cullen sharing the triumphs and growing pains of UBC Press’s first steps into the realm of digital production. Writes Cowan, “our editors can inform their theoretical approaches with recent scholarship in the sociology of material texts, creating a model of readerly engagement and a generation of reader/editors who will be neither overawed by the authority of print nor seduced by the hyperbolic claims made for the electronic edition.” (p. 236)

The book’s other contributors—Peter L. Shillingsburg, Alexander Petit, Peter Mahon, and John K. Young—offer scholars’ perspectives on various facets of the academic publishing process, and although these chapters are all worth reading for the sake of interest, I believe that the general editor-reader will find the essays I’ve mentioned most engaging and directly relevant to their work—and it’s to this specific but vast audience, editors of whatever genre and whatever experience level, that I wholeheartedly recommend this book. Freelance editors who have never worked in house may have the most to gain from this insiders’ view. As Amy Einsohn writes, “Some presses make an effort to train, coach, and acculturate their freelancers, but most freelancers have few opportunities to learn about the publisher’s activities, customs, and mores,” (p. 69) and being informed about a publishing house’s inner workings helps editors anticipate what may be expected of them.

UBC Press—and hence Cullen’s book—specializes in the social sciences, but I would be intrigued to see how the processes described in Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text compare with the workflow and author–editor relationships at academic presses focused on the natural sciences. Most of those authors probably will not read this book, and perhaps even most social science scholars hoping to get published would not think to read it. In many ways, it is much more information than they need to play their roles in book production. Yet, I hope that some academic authors choose to hear what Cullen’s roster of experts have to say. This book beautifully humanizes the publishing process in a way that could only foster mutual respect between professionals—ones with the common aim of producing great books.

ISC and EAC Conferences 2012: Personal perspectives

Now that I’m finally done summarizing my conference notes, I thought I’d share some of my own reflections on the experience, which ended up being much more invigorating than I had expected. Initially the conferences were just an excuse to catch up with two of my good friends—fellow Master of Publishing alumnae—one of whom lives in Ottawa and whom I hadn’t seen in three years. In the end I am so glad I went (not least because I was surprised by a Tom Fairley win!), even though coughing up over $700 in conference fees was a bit painful at first and the collision of deadlines I faced when I returned nearly destroyed me.

At the last EAC-BC branch meeting of the season, a quick poll of the attendees revealed that only two of us in the room were heading to Ottawa to take in the conference. At that point, having just joined the programs committee, I realized that part of my responsibility would be to bring the conference back to B.C. for the members who couldn’t attend. My suggestions for meeting topics and speakers were partly inspired by what I’d seen and heard at the conference, but what we’ll be seeing this upcoming season will by no means be a rehash of the conference content. I look forward to hearing different perspectives on key issues in editing and building upon what I’ve learned.

Here are some of my main takeaways from this spring’s conferences:

Advocacy

I was blown away by what Jan Wright, David Ream, and other members of the American Society for Indexing’s Digital Trends Task Force had been able to accomplish. By participating in a working group at an international level, they helped shape what will be the new standard for ebooks and advanced the indexing profession in the eyes of a consortium of major players in e-publishing. I don’t think I can overstate how huge that is.

Learning about their work made me wonder what we’re doing—as individuals and as national organizations—and whether we’re doing enough to advocate on behalf of our profession. Are editors making an effort to try to talk to Adobe about how it can make PDF proofing tools more intuitive and useful for publishing professionals? Have editors’ interests been taken into consideration in the EPUB 3.0 standard? How do we get involved on the ground floor of a nascent technology to make sure we remain relevant? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’m motivated to find out and, if time and resources allow, to make more of a contribution. What is particularly inspiring is that editors outnumber indexers manyfold. If a small group of dedicated indexers can make a group of software engineers listen, then editors should be able to do it, too.

Brain sharing and collaboration

Peter Milliken’s keynote reinforced an undercurrent of both conferences: the importance of talking and learning from one another. Both Cheryl Landes and Jan Wright at the ISC conference noted that technical communicators have been dealing with the issues relating to single-sourcing that book publishers are now facing with p-books and e-books but that the two communities aren’t really talking to each other. Dominique Joseph’s EAC talk also made me wonder if the plain language/clear communication movement and the editing and indexing communities are exchanging ideas as much as they could be. (Noting that the new definition of clear communication includes finding information, I asked Joseph if using indexing and information science to guide retrieval was part of the plain language movement’s considerations; she believed that “finding” in the context of the definition referred to a more structural level, as in headings, for example.) What other opportunities for cross-pollination are we missing out on?

The lack of cross-pollination for in-house editors was a big reason I hosted my session at last year’s conference in Vancouver. Publishers often get together to discuss marketing or digital strategies but rarely ever talk about editing and production. When I was in house, I discovered that we ended up jury-rigging our own systems and reinventing the wheel at each of our respective houses. I wanted to give in-house editors an opportunity to share ideas about what works and what doesn’t and maybe develop some more concrete best practices.

A year later, in-house editors still aren’t getting many chances to sit together and brain share. Peter Moskos and Connie Vanderwaardt’s session at the EAC conference about managing editors certainly helped, but managing editors alone have enough considerations to fill a full-day retreat. Although I’m now a freelancer, I’m still committed to making the in-house editor’s life easier. A lot of the work I do as a publishing consultant centres on production efficiencies—streamlining workflow while minimizing errors—and would have more relevance and impact if I could get a group of managing editors and production managers together (in person or online) to exchange ideas. I see working with the EAC—first at the branch level but hopefully later at the national level—to develop programs and services to encourage more in-house participation in the association becoming a key mission of mine in the years to come.

The ISC conference offered another form of idea exchange: representatives from the society’s sister organizations in the U.S., the U.K., and Australia and New Zealand were invited to attend, and some of them gave presentations. I found it extremely interesting to hear international perspectives on issues common to all within the profession. One could argue that because editing is so much larger a community that there’s already a glut of articles online about editing and language from contributors around the world, but I wonder if reaching out to experts from abroad to speak at an EAC conference could help strengthen ties with editorial sister organizations and further promote advocacy of the profession at an international level.

Credit

I hate to flog a dead horse, but I want to advocate once again for proper credit for editors and indexers. In Max McMaster’s ISC talk, he noted that sometimes publishers will have a book reindexed because they simply don’t know who did the original. Having that information, in the form of a credit, could help them track down the indexer, who may still have the index archived, allowing the publisher to save money and to avoid any intellectual property issues. Further, adopting Christine Jacobs’s approach of including a credit line as an item on her invoice is an innovative and easy way we can organically but systematically work to give editors and indexers the recognition they deserve.

The Language Portal of Canada

Few people outside of Ottawa (or perhaps Ontario?) seem to know about the Language Portal; many of those who do believe it’s a resource for translators only. In fact it seems as though it could be quite a handy site for editors, what with free access to an updated edition of The Canadian Style, not to mention Peck’s English Pointers. For newly certified editors, the site’s quizzes and articles provide easy-access credential maintenance opportunities.

Diversion

If you’re looking for a solid evening of nerdy language-related entertainment, get yourself a copy of James Harbeck’s Songs of Love & Grammar and pretend William Shatner’s reading it to you.

Style sheets with substance

Ruth Wilson gave a scintillating presentation at last evening’s EAC-BC meeting about style sheets—an area, she says, that new editors often struggle with.

A style sheet is distinct from a publisher’s style guide (which applies to all of the publisher’s books) and is a list of words, terms, usages, etc., that the copy editor creates when working through a particular document. Ruth encourages editors to create a style sheet for every document they work on, no matter how short. Even a two-page pamphlet requires decisions about the serial comma, capitalization, and so on. We freelancers especially must rely on style sheets to keep ourselves organized, since we’re often working on several projects at once, each with its own set of style decisions.

Ruth suggests that as you put together your style sheet, keep in mind that it’s a form of communication with others in the editorial and production process. The proofreader will certainly use it, and the author, designer, and indexer may also look at it.

Style sheets can be an invaluable piece of archival material; it means that you, or another editor, won’t have to start from scratch if the document you’re working on has to be revised. As a freelancer, Ruth says, she keeps all of her style sheets. In corporate world, she’s often the one introducing all of the styles. Style sheets can serve as a building block for the organization to start developing its own style guide.

So what should a style sheet include? Two mandatory elements are (1) which dictionary you’re using and (2) which style manual you’re using—editions are important. Whether or not to use the serial comma is also almost always on the style sheet. Even if it’s in the organization’s style guide, it’s helpful to repeat that information, particularly if those who will be working with the document after you is not in house or is not focused on editorial issues.

The style sheet is basically a record of everything you’ve had to look up—proper nouns, titles of books, acronyms, and the like—and everything for which you’ve had to make a decision about

  • spelling (words with more than one accepted spelling),
  • capitalization,
  • hyphenation (e.g., hyphenated compounds before and after nouns, hyphenation of noun forms but not corresponding verbs, etc.),
  • pluralization,
  • abbreviations (e.g., periods or not, small caps or full caps, etc.), and
  • foreign words (e.g., accents/diacritics or not, italics or not, etc.).

Style sheets often include how numbers should be treated. When should they be spelled out and when should numerals be used? What date format is used? What units of measurement? Cookbook style sheets may also have a list of measurement abbreviations, conversions, and even standard sizes for pans and other kitchen equipment.

If the book has back matter, it’s often helpful for both you and the proofreader to include on the style sheet not just a description but a sample of a typical note and bibliographic entry to show how these should look.

Finally, any deviations from the norm or from the organization’s house style should be noted. An author may have a strong preference to spell or format a term a certain way that may not be what the dictionary or style manual recommends.

Once you put your style sheet together, proofread it. Make sure the word processor hasn’t autocorrected or autocapped your terms, and run a spell check. Date the style sheet, archive it for yourself, and pass it on.

What shouldn’t go on the style sheet? If there’s only one way to spell a word, don’t include it. “You don’t want to display your ignorance on a style sheet,” Ruth says. “It’s your job as copy editor to fix the spelling errors and typos.” She will usually list place names with difficult spellings but not, say, Paris or London—names that everyone knows how to spell. Also, says Ruth, list just the words and terms—there’s no need to write a story or justify the style decision you’ve made.

The sample style sheets that Ruth brought prompted some discussion about categorization. She referenced one of my earlier posts about style sheets, where I noted that proofreaders generally prefer an uncategorized word list. Eve Rickert chimed in to say that as a proofreader, she often finds that she’ll look for a term in one category on a style sheet, not find it, and look it up in anther source, only to discover that it had be listed under another category all along. When she receives a categorized style sheet, she simply removes the headings and consolidates the word list. Ruth explained that while editing, she finds it can be helpful to compartmentalize. I wondered if the preference had to do with workflow and where you choose to check your facts. If you have to check a list of place names, for example, against a specific authority (like the B.C. Geographical Names database), then it may help to separate out the terms into categories, but if you’re plugging everything—people’s names, place names, organization names, titles, etc.—into Google, then that kind of compartmentalization may not be necessary. Ultimately, Ruth says, it’s prudent to simply ask the publisher or client what they prefer.

An audience member asked if made-up words in a science fiction book, for example, should show up on a style sheet. To ensure consistency in spelling, says Ruth, absolutely. Another audience member asked if words deliberately misspelled to convey a character’s accent should be included. Ruth replied that, as a proofreader, she would certainly find that helpful, but the question morphed into a discussion about whether such misspellings were derogatory. Is it better to describe the accent but not misspell the dialogue? Would that be telling rather than showing? Not being a specialist in fiction, Ruth didn’t have a definitive answer, but it was interesting to hear the diversity of opinions on the issue.

Ruth ended the evening by showing us an example of a style sheet (created by Ann-Marie Metten) for a novel because she’d been asked what the difference was between fiction and nonfiction style sheets. The answer? Not much. You still have to make the same kinds of decisions.

The evening’s presentation and discussions showed that although all style sheets have some common elements, there is no one right way to compose them. However, as with all facets of editing, using your judgment is key to ensuring that the style sheets will be useful to you and everyone who will use them after you.

Oh wiki, you’re so fine; you’re so fine you blow my mind

In my consulting work, one question I always ask my clients is, “Do you have a central repository for your editorial information?”

If not, I say, get one. (And by posting this, I’m pretty much giving away the farm here.) If all of the editing is done in house, this repository could be as simple as a folder on a shared server. If you do any work with freelancers, this resource must be online.

Most clients I edit for understand the importance of regularly reviewing and adjusting house style guidelines for relevance. But how those changes are communicated to editors—and freelancers in particular—can make the difference between a seamless transition to the new style and a confused mess that someone in house is left to clean up. Having a single online editorial resource means that you’re making changes in one place: all of your editors, including your freelancers, learn to look there, every time, to check for updates; you’re not having to email everyone each time the guidelines are modified; and editors aren’t left with numerous copies of a style guide on their computers, wondering which is the most up-to-date.

There are probably a number of feasible forms such an online resource could take, given the flexibility and accessibility of content management systems out there today, but the one I’ve found easiest and most effective is the wiki. Wiki pages are extremely intuitive to create and update, the entire wiki is searchable, and, best of all, wikis are structurally flexible—internal links are a snap to make, and there is no inherent hierarchy, which allows you to arrange your content for one group of users and do it completely differently for another group, all the while not having to change the underlying content. Wikis are designed for collaboration, so they are ideal for resources that require contribution from several sources (for example, if the editorial director wants to update style guidelines while the managing editor clarifies invoicing procedures and the art director wishes to give a list of specifications for digital images). What’s more, thanks to Wikipedia and the like, most Internet users are already comfortable using wikis to seek out information.

One of my most well-received projects while I was editorial coordinator at D&M was the editorial wiki, which turned out to be so useful for in-house editors and freelancers alike that I expanded the model to a wiki for authors. Before the editorial wiki, every time a template was tweaked or the house style updated, the managing editor had to send a note to all editors alerting them to the changes. And each time she had to decide who should receive it. That freelancer she hasn’t used in a few seasons but might use again when things get busy? And the relatively new contractor—does he have all of the guidelines and templates he needs? It’s easy to see how time-consuming and fallible this system can be—and with a central editorial wiki, it’s completely unnecessary. Send all of your editors to the same place, and they can access the up-to-date resources as they need them.

When I initially put the editorial wiki together, I used a free but proprietary WYSIWYG wiki program, but eventually I migrated all of the content to MediaWiki. It’s the open-source wiki software behind Wikipedia, so it’s certainly been well tested, and its default look is something most people are familiar with. Because it’s so widely used, it has a vast support community, and learning how to solve a problem or customizing a feature on MediaWiki is usually just a Google search away. MediaWiki has its own search feature, it has the ability to show users the full history of page edits, all pages can be tagged with categories for easy organization and navigation, files like Word documents, PDFs, and JPEGs can be made available to users, and templates can be used for multipurposing content. And if you don’t want your style guidelines broadcast to the public? No problem—MediaWiki can be customized with password protection.

So what should go on an editorial wiki? At minimum, include your house style, any specific editing and formatting guidelines, editorial checklists (more on these later), templates, and, perhaps most importantly, a description of the steps in your editorial process. After I transferred this bare-bones content to MediaWiki, I found that the latter’s ease of use and extensibility made it a breeze to create new content specifically for fiction editors or cookbook editors or art book editors. The editorial wiki became an extremely powerful tool that, all at once, improved communication with our freelancers, empowered them to find their own information, and freed in-house staff from having to answer recurring editorial questions.

Academic editing

At last evening’s EAC-BC meeting, David Harrison spoke about academic editing. His perspective was quite a bit different from mine—he seems to have gained most of his experience working directly with academic authors, often helping them prepare a manuscript for submission to a publisher, whereas I’ve worked on the other end, editing text that a publisher has already accepted.

Harrison has worked with authors as diverse as literary biographers, CGA systems analysts, expert witnesses, and public policy specialists. One client had initially hired Harrison to edit a grant proposal, so, Harrison emphasizes, academic editors can do more than work on just journal articles and books.

He says that, as with other editing, it’s important to understand the author’s purpose. Academic editors may wish to

  • create new knowledge
  • share ideas
  • challenge the ideas of others
  • support the research and findings of others
  • reach a wider audience
  • reach a more specialized audience
  • promote a cause, a policy, a theory, etc.

We must also not forget that they may also have some more practical motivations; “publish or perish” still very much persists:

  • get published in a journal
  • get a paper accepted for a conference
  • get a research grant
  • achieve tenure
  • get promoted
  • sell a book and life off the royalties
  • get invited to address prestigious audiences in  exotic parts of the world

An academic editor must also have a good handle on what the final product will look like. Fortunately, says Harrison, academic papers generally have a very predictable structure. The first time you work with a particular author or in a particular genre, look online or in a local university library for samples of the type of publication the author wants to create. Alternatively, have the author send you a sample.

Academic publishers may have very specific guidelines that they expect authors to follow—these dictate everything from article or abstract length to preferred spellings to formatting. It’s the author’s responsibility to make sure he or she adheres to these, but it’s helpful for the editor to know about them. If a particular publisher doesn’t have such a “Guide to Authors,” follow some exemplars of that publisher’s existing publications or follow an established style guide, such as Chicago or APA, but be sure to communicate your decision to the author. Keep a style sheet for each project. In fact, archive those style sheets; if you ever have repeat work with that author, the existing style sheet will save you a lot of time.

The contract, says Harrison, is very important; make sure you get the deal in writing. Share your expectations. Is the bibliography included in the cost? Is fact checking? Build in some milestones at which you can be paid. Professionalism is key. Stay within your area of competence.

Harrison could find only a handful of books relating to academic writing and editing, but he mentioned Writing for Scholarly Publication by Anne Sigismund Huff, who encourages authors to think of writing as conversation. She, in turn, suggested Making Sense of the Organization by Karl Weick, who elucidated the cycle of writing as it related to clarifying thought. If thinking is writing and writing is thinking, Harrison says, the editor’s role is to mediate that cycle.

Harrison’s presentation sparked some lively discussion about contracts—whether to charge a project rate or hourly rate; how to educate clients about the difference between an estimate and a bid; how to clearly delineate the scope of the work (e.g., specifying the number of revisions). Harrison himself quotes a project fee, saying that an hourly rate can be intimidating to clients. “Think about it from the author’s perspective,” he advised. “How would you react to someone saying, ‘I charge this much per hour but can’t tell you definitively how long it will take me?'” But what Harrison does is charge an up-front fee of commitment and then use an instalment plan for when certain milestones have been attained (e.g., first three chapters finished, halfway mark, initial edit, final revision, etc.).

The audience also asked about what to do in instances of plagiarism. Harrison doesn’t check for plagiarism as a matter of course but encourages editors to make use of the Editors’ Association of Canada’s “Guidelines for Editing Theses” as a tool to educate authors about an editor’s limitations, especially when it comes to dissertations. Jean Lawrence suggested a helpful strategy for diplomatically flagging instances of plagiarism: give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume that he or she has simply left out a citation.

I asked how polished the final product would have to be in such an author-editor relationship given that the paper or book would then go through the publisher’s own editorial process. Harrison said he’s found that less editing is happening at the level of the publisher. In fact, some publishers’ “Guide to Authors” explicitly mentions that if English isn’t your first language, you should strongly consider having your work looked at by an editor prior to submission, and he’s gotten a lot of work that way. He added that he works under the assumption that he’ll be the last person to touch the manuscript from a language point of view.

Follow the editor

Earlier this week my esteemed colleague Barbara Pulling forwarded me an article by Jeff Norton—“Follow the editor: a recommendation engine for readers”—which suggests that editors should be credited for their work on books just as producers are in music and film. He writes:

Pick up any paperback and the author’s name dominates the cover. Big authors are “brands” unto themselves, even though the final prose was a collaborative effort.  Flip the book over the cover designer and illustrator get credit (in quite small print) but search for the editor’s name and you’ll be lucky to find it in the acknowledgements (at the author’s discretion).  How are we to value the role of the professional editorial process if publishers themselves don’t even celebrate their most crucial contribution to a book’s creation?

I suppose I’m spoiled in that I’ve done the majority of my work for a company that does choose to acknowledge editors, though not to the extent that Norton would perhaps like to see. In fact, in Saeko Usukawa’s acceptance speech when she won the 2007 Tom Fairley Award for Editorial Excellence, she specifically thanked Douglas & McIntyre for being one of the few publishers to credit editors on the copyright page. It’s interesting that the practice isn’t more widespread, since giving an editor credit is one of the easiest ways to establish a strong publisher-editor relationship. Not only is the acknowledgement in itself extremely meaningful, but the credit allows an editor to confidently promote the work as part of his or her portfolio. It seems as though sometimes the publishing industry doesn’t want to admit that books get edited at all, perpetuating the myth that prose flows from the author’s brilliant mind onto the manuscript already perfect.

Norton’s assertion that editors are akin to music and movie producers, however, may be too narrow a focus, since only acquiring and developmental editors typically get the same level of creative control as producers would. When a substantive editor is assigned a finished manuscript, the process is often less about building and more about shaping with what’s there. Crediting only producer-like editing would also sell short the vast contributions of the copy editor and all other members of the publishing team that make a book happen.

Norton also talks about “the growing sentiment that in this era of digital books in general, and the rise of self-publishing specifically, that conventional publishers were no longer relevant or required.” He adds, “I believe the most important role that publishers perform is the one they are strangely reluctant to celebrate: the editor and the process of editing an author’s manuscript into a readable book.”

Traditional publishers may have reason to bemoan the rise of the ebook and self-publishing, but editors hardly do. At last year’s Vancouver launch of I Feel Great about My Hands, I had the opportunity to speak with David Mitchell, who I believe was quoting one of his friends at the Globe and Mail when he said that these days, “Anyone can be his own publisher, but very few people can be their own editor.” I know some successful freelancers who now deal almost exclusively with self-published authors. Although I’d be the first to acknowledge that there is a lot of rubbish out there, more and more self-publishing authors are beginning to see the value in having an editor’s expert eye pore over their text—and they’re willing to compensate that editor accordingly.

The thrust of Norton’s article, though, is that he feels books should be catalogued not only by author but also by editor, which “would give readers another recommendation engine, another way to discover new fiction: follow the editor.”

As a nonfiction editor—and as an editor who never acquired projects—I have no coherent theme in my list of work, and such a recommendation engine based on my projects wouldn’t be particularly enlightening. One aspect of my job that I love is that I can be a generalist, learning a little bit of something about everything. (Editors with a more specialized focus may yield more useful results to the general reader.) Still, I’d appreciate the built-in portfolio aspect to such searchability—it would certainly make it easier to show prospective clients and employers what I’m capable of.

A hindering hierarchy?

All editors aspiring to work in book publishing know what it takes to climb up the ladder: start off checking inputting and possibly proofreading, and once you’ve proven yourself, you can progress to copy editing. Only after mastering that will more substantive work come and then, if so desired, experience with acquisition.

The advantages of this system are many. First, you get a well-rounded understanding of all steps in the editorial process. Second, by checking corrections and inputting, you get into the heads of more senior editors and learn the tricks of the trade. Third, you develop an appreciation for the roles of all editorial, design, and production team members—an empathy that will serve you well as a mentor or project manager overseeing the copy editing or proofreading work of a more junior editor.

But how valid is this tacit hierarchy? It implies that acquiring and substantive editors are somehow better than copy editors, who themselves have a leg up on proofreaders. This stratification has real consequences: freelance proofreaders typically charge lower rates than copy editors, and substantive editors command the most. Editorial recognition like the Editors’ Association of Canada’s annual Tom Fairley Award for Editorial Excellence generally (by which I mean the overwhelming majority of the time) goes to a substantive editor rather than a copy editor or proofreader.

Although I would agree that no amount of proofreading will ever salvage a poorly structured and awkwardly written piece, I am concerned about the limitations of this rather firmly entrenched paradigm. The fact is that proofreading, copy editing, and substantive editing (the EAC goes as far as to split up the latter into stylistic editing and structural editing) each requires its own unique skill set. Whereas some editors work well with the big-picture stuff, others are adept at the details, and it’s time to stop seeing those editors who devote themselves to copy editing as failed substantive editors. And publishers that adopt this classic “substantive reigns supreme” model may miss out on hiring someone who hasn’t yet “proven herself” at copy editing but may be an astute developmental and structural editor.

One could argue that those who wish to focus on a specific skill would be better off as freelancers and that in-house positions are better suited to generalists who are willing to learn all facets of the editorial—and publishing—process. Many freelancers eschew the hierarchy by charging a flat rate regardless of the type of work they do. And those who hope to do substantive work without having to first perfect proofreading may have better luck finding opportunities at smaller presses, where, owing to a lack of human resources, structural and stylistic editing can often be assigned to whomever is available.

I, for one, am grateful that I did get the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of editing from the ground up. But to me, the ground doesn’t correspond to checking inputting or proofreading—it corresponds to a solid foundation of amazing mentors, high standards, and a drive to keep learning and improving, no matter what kind of editing I’m doing.

Purgative roundup

I’d been vacillating about adding a blog component to this site, primarily concerned that my personal musings had no place in my business. But September’s Editors’ Association of Canada BC Branch meeting, which began as a showcase of portfolios and quickly morphed into a discussion about online marketing opportunities, convinced me that maybe blogging wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Since this post is my first, and I’ve got a backlog of news, let me dive in. In no particular order:

1) After a long wait, Cow (Greystone Books), written by Florian Werner and translated from German by Doris Ecker, has finally been released. A million thanks to the amazing Temple Grandin for providing the foreword to this cultural history of the cow.

A massive part of my work on that book involved picture research—seeking out public-domain images whenever possible, tracking down image copyright holders, negotiating permission fees, and the like. At the September EAC meeting, I was lucky enough to win a free EAC seminar and am looking forward to the April 12 Picture Research seminar by Mary Rose MacLachlan and Derek Capitaine (MRM Associates).

2) D&M Publishers celebrated its fortieth anniversary with a party at the Vancouver International Writers Festival. In addition to seeing my old D&M colleagues, I got caught up with Jesse Marchand and Michelle Furbacher from Whitecap Books (friends from my old Ubyssey days!); Megan Brand of UBC Press; Ann-Marie Metten of Talonbooks; and fabulous freelancers Grace Yaginuma, Lara Kordic, and Stephanie MacDonald.

3) I’m excited to attend an advance screening on November 2 of a Fred Herzog documentary for the Knowledge Network, which will also be the launch of Fred Herzog: Photographs, an incredible privilege to work on. I’ll post the air dates of the documentary when I find out what they are.

4) This snort-inducing article about Mary Walsh as Marg Delahunty intimidating Toronto Mayor Rob Ford into calling 911 reminded me of the actress’s contribution to Shari Graydon’s terrific collection, I Feel Great about My Hands—a celebration of the unexpected benefits of aging. To keep up with Shari, read her blog here.