In a recent interview for the blog SleuthSayers, I was asked, “What does a typical work day for you look like?” I replied that there is no typical day. And there really isn’t anymore. There are reading days and issue-release days, days devoted to special projects, days when social media (such as this blog) soaks up a lot of time, letter-writing days and editing days, days spent crafting an issue—deciding what should be included and how it should all be put together—and days spent at conventions, writers conferences, and so forth.
The question got me thinking about how fluid my days have become. If I’d been asked this question a couple of decades ago, before we had fully converted to desktop publishing and the other technological innovations that have given us control over the production process, my answer would have been different.
Up till the mid 1990s, magazine production was a process with rigid deadlines and little margin for error. All of our text was set in type by a typesetter in another state. Edited manuscripts had to be delivered strictly to schedule, by parcel service. I can recall many evenings bent over the desk in my office with one eye on the clock, rushing to make the last pickup. When proofs were returned to us, we had only two opportunities to make corrections (with the second round of corrections frequently drawing acerbic complaints from the typesetter). The next stage was what were known as “mechanicals.” The typesetter would return all of the text to us on shiny, high-contrast paper, pasted onto what were known as “boards,” with everything positioned according to our instructions. At this point, we proofed most of the issue again, not only for the positioning of each page’s content but also for any typographical errors we might have missed earlier. But any mistakes we found at this juncture could be corrected only by a junior member of the art department equipped with an X-Acto knife. He would meticulously cut out each wrong (eleven-point!) letter, then cut the correct letter from a stack of old boards and paste it in the gap, trying to align it perfectly with the rest of the word. It was an excruciatingly slow process and since there was only one person to do it and four magazines going to the printer on the same day, we had to be very economical in the changes we made. (Not to mention getting in line for the X-Acto knife wielder before the other magazines, if we could!)
We had our final look at the issue, and our last chance to make corrections, when the printer sent us “bluelines”—prepress photographic proofs made from the mechanicals. Any changes made at this stage not due to a printer’s error were charged for at a high rate, and usually required justification to management.
How different this is from today, when all type is set in-house and we frequently make several dozen corrections immediately before the magazine goes to the printer in what is called “camera-ready” form, meaning in files that are ready to go to press without the printer’s intervention. Even in the days of mechanicals and bluelines, EQMM’s release days were never like the image old Hollywood movies used to give of deadline pandemonium at press time, but then, as a monthly magazine composed almost entirely of short fiction, we have never had many time-sensitive features that require last-minute preparation and placement. Still, prior to desktop publishing there was always an element of tension in the knowledge that we had to get things right the first time, and that we had to be ready to spot any printer’s errors—of which there were many in those days, since so much of the work was done by hand. The two worst missed printer’s errors that I can recall were an upside down spine and a switching of the final pages of two different stories. The latter still haunts me, since one of the tales was a first story and the author’s relatives had ordered around a hundred copies.
Desktop publishing and other technological innovations have brought their own problems, of course, and eat up chunks of our work time in other ways. For one thing, the number of errors in manuscripts submitted to us has grown exponentially. This may seem strange, given that everyone is equipped with programs such as spell checkers, but we are now in the era of endless revision and it has become extremely common for people not to proof their revisions—and therefore to leave parts of revised sentences in when they meant to delete them or accidentally delete what was intended to stay. We can usually figure out what was intended, but I find I’m more often having to write to authors to clarify such things nowadays than before. It used to be (at least at our magazine) that when a manuscript was submitted to a publisher, it was considered by the author to be finished, except for any changes the editor might require. Now I find that a large percentage of our writers continue to work on stories they’ve submitted to us while they wait for our decision. This can create all sorts of problems for us. First of all, the revised story must be reread to make sure it’s still acceptable to us; secondly, we may already have decided on a space for the story at the time of acceptance, based on its word count. If the count alters significantly, our planned use may no longer work. There’s also a much greater chance that errors will occur in the final version of the magazine if revisions not specifically asked for by us have to be incorporated. Occasionally, I will edit a manuscript immediately upon acceptance. If a revision is submitted subsequent to that, the changes have to be pieced in, increasing the possibility of mistakes slipping through. For all of these reasons, I’d like to take this opportunity to make a plea to writers: Submit to us only what you consider a finished story. And if you must make changes, let us know immediately.
Personal computers and desktop publishing have, indisputably, been a good thing for the publishing industry—though I clearly recall the fierce resistance in our own company when management insisted on the transition. There is a drawback from our side (as publishers), however, in that it has made us more complacent. Knowing we can always make a correction at a later stage has made us less careful, our eyes less sharp. From the authorial side, it seems to me the technology’s chief disadvantage may be never allowing a writer to consider a work finished.
What do you think?—Janet Hutchings