The evolution of an editorial office in a small Society

ABSTRACT: Outlines the development of the production of a small learned journal from the editor's home through eighteen years.

I have recently handed on the editorship of a small learned journal, The Indexer, which I edited from home for eighteen years. The sorting of such an accumulation of papers (33 ring-binders of correspondence and an over-full filing cabinet drawer still extant) of course provoked many memories, and reflection on how the editorial process had changed during that period, as well as on the particular problems of editing of a journal in solitude at home.

I took on the editorship in 1978, as a freelance indexer and the editor of the National Newsletter of the National Housewives Register. Then, we typed noisily on manually operated typewriters, inserting messy sheets of carbon to obtain extra copies. Tiny, flimsy pieces of special paper had to be placed above errors to type over again to correct them - each copy separately. Tippex, electric typewriters, and the photocopier were the first, much-blessed, technological miracles to transform my work.

Unhoused Societies
The Society of Indexers (SI), publishers of The Indexer, was small and voluntary, without premises. All our officers worked from their homes: the chairman in Liverpool, the secretary in Cambridge, the treasurer in London, myself in Hertfordshire. When a Cambridge-based treasurer succeeded the London one, in 1980, I asked for her telephone number, to be told, `The treasurer does not have a telephone, but the secretary has a bicycle'.

Homeless societies are low-profile, and the problems consequent upon the state not generally recognized. Books on freelancing, and the Newsletter of the Society of Freelance Editors and Proofreaders, detail the effects of working alone at home: psychological as well as procedural difficulties resulting from constant isolation. Society administration by officers so dispersed, rarely meeting, may multiply these, and lead to poor communication and weak co-operation. There can be no quick consultation, as by popping into the adjacent office: telephonic communication, yes, but small societies have to watch expenses carefully, and prefer to make long-distance calls only in offpeak periods - that is, out of office hours, when the home-based are trying to lead their home lives, their working papers put away. Such conversations can only be one-to-one; no substitute for group encounters at the communal workplace. Relationships cannot develop easily and smoothly, as in day-to-day contact.

Circulation of information in a society is difficult without headquarters. Papers cannot be placed on a notice board for he that runs to read, nor journals in a communal reading room to await attention. Publications such as Learned Publishing must be passed on from reader to reader by post - that is, in its present format, at 52p a time: a £2.08 individual reader's annual subscription in addition to the institutional one, with about a week between each name on the list.

Voluntary societies have no paid staff, and their administration has to be fitted in with competing claims for attention, such as full-time, part-time or freelance jobs.

Home-based editing
The Indexer had been published twice yearly for 20 years when I became editor. My predecessor had served fourteen years in the editorial chair. He gave me five sheets of instructions couched in spidery handwriting, so difficult to read that they could not be referred to for quick guidance. They did not cover my particular problem: editing a journal from a house with no spare room, and with three children.

Editing from home, with a young family, meant that I was able to devote attention to the journal only during the hours when the children were at school. I would spread papers over the dining table, clearing everything away as tea-time approached. The filing cabinet stood in the dining room. The journal production schedule was changed to avoid the busiest period coinciding with school holidays. Although this virtual office was the centre of a network rather than an outpost, there were no staff to tidy the premises for visitors such as printers, or to make coffee while we conferred.

My family tried to help, knowing they must not touch my papers or make noise during my phone calls, and doing their best to deal with these themselves when necessary. I came home once to find that my young daughter had taken a booking for an advertisement for a thesaurus, helpfully ascertaining and noting down for me, `It's a sort of book'.

ALPSP membership
SI joined the Asoociation of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) in 1979, as members of group A, the smallest category: those societies spending less than £10,000 a year on publications. We were shy new members, awed by the giant publishing empires of group H, with their multiple, high-frequency publications, far-flung offshore printing empires. We felt out of our depth. Fellow-members asking where I was based, being told `at home', would look politely surprised. Attending seminars assiduously to learn all I might, I was struck by how many types of editor there might be to have their work coordinated: honorary editors, managing editors, copy-editors, reviews editors, production editors. Me, I was all at once. But I did meet an editor from a yet smaller society. She once commented on a difficulty with her society's accounts, and I, smugly aware that I could write to my Cambridge colleague about such matters, asked, `You don't have to deal with those, do you?'. `Well', she said, `everything comes back to Nanny'.

I wrote to the ALPSP Bulletin in 1982, under the heading, `Worm's-eye view', about the dichotomy between the grand and the tiny in our membership:

"I have attended ALPSP meetings on making the best use of one's computer - recently I graduated to my first electric typewriter; on inter-departmental accounting - well, all our society's officers claim expenses directly from our honorary treasurer at her home address; book production - an enterprise undreamed of; staff relationships - our editorial board meets twice yearly, keeping in touch in between by letter. When it came to a seminar on styles of management I abstained altogether, as an editor too humble to have anyone to manage. I eagerly attend ALPSP meetings on despatch, hoping to find means of reducing this high proportion of our expenditure - only to hear repeatedly that one can take advantage of special postal contracts and other devices to cut despatch costs only if one publishes at least four times a year. Our learned journal comes out but twice yearly. We smallest of small publishers are too tiny even to be able to cut costs.
"Small is specialist, and specialist may be semi-voluntary. There are mole-hills among the Alps."

An ALPSP Small Publishers Group was established, to concentrate on the particular problems of these. It met a few times, but found insufficient grounds for special extra meetings. Mostly from single-person offices, its members found it difficult to attend; their bigger brethren could leave colleagues covering for them while they went to seminars, conferences, workshops, group discussions; but a day away from the desk for these entailed a quite unminded shop. (For freelances, it also means missing a potential day's earnings: attendance is not covered by an institutional salary.) We could not manage to meet to discuss the problems that caused our being unable to meet.

The march of technology
Technology developed with bewildering speed. Computers had made their first appearance in The Indexer in 1965, with a description of their use for the production of technical manuals at IBM, and that company's plans for book indexing, to be done by the author `as the book is written; the computer would take care of the pagination'. In 1981 we expatiated on the difference between microcomputers (`complete computer systems') and microprocessors (`the actual CPU [central processing unit] chips'), describing also mainframe computers, minicomputers (`dedicated to a particular task') and word-processors (`a microcomputer dedicated to manupulating text ... Word processing indeed! As if words were bits of offal to be turned into sausages!'). Later we published articles on such aspects of IT as software tools for indexing, natural-language processing and automatic indexing, document conversion, database indexing, CD-ROM indexes, hypertext.

My own first computer was a BBC, a Christmas present from a games-designing son in 1984. What I most blessed was the silence as I keyed in. When, due to breakdown or power cuts, I had to revert to steam typing, the clatter seemed abominable. The next blessing was no longer having to reveal the shame of my horribly messy, heavily-corrected typing. Then the speed, and the ability to print out extra copies - no more shuffling sheets of grubby carbon paper. Formatting was fun, too.

Our most enterprising journal contributors began to impress us with formatted printouts, and bewilder us by offering disks. At first these would be passed straight on to the printers, but later I came to appreciate the advantages of being able to add our own corrections; print out extra copies; count words, or format to appear as it would on the pages. I no longer had to cast off by counting the characters in each of ten lines and multiplying the average by the estimated number of lines in the typescript, to know how long an article might prove in print. Scissors, Cow Gum, galleys and grids gave way to electronic layout on screen, as I learned to use and love dtp.

Not all technological developments work to the advantage of the home-based, though, despite the growing number of teleworkers. Working at home in publishing depends on equipment - fax, photocopiers, networks - so expensive that only institutions, not individuals, are likely to be able to afford them all. As an adolescent, I recall feeling a victim of social discrimination as my family had no telephone, missing out on invitations to spontaneous group affairs. Now, how much more aware one is of the green grasslands of the fax and email-owning communities; the network-chattering classes, as one sits home alone.

There was progress in other fields too. Came the proud year when SI, producing other publications besides the journal, graduated to ALPSP membership Group B (spending between £10,000 and £25,000 per year on publications) - the big-time, we felt. On the domestic front, my sons grew up and moved out, and an erstwhile bedroom became my editorial office, boasting file-lined walls, computers, laser printer, fax.

Passing on
From the 37 issues of The Indexer that I edited, I recall most fondly two misprints that aspired to the state of art. A reference to the ponderous Fundindex zu `Der obergermanisch-rätische Limes des Roemerreiches' appeared as Fun index. And spot the typo in this delightful passage: `... hushed as the ancient chapels where our monkfish forebears learned the printer's trade'.

Handing on The Indexer editorship in my turn, I found another disadvantage of the single-person office to be that one small head carries so much journal lore. One becomes the sole one who knows details of the routine, process, development, the current state. I had once been instructed to keep a deputy editor miles away informed of all stages and developments, but on reading her disconcerted, `your letters keep pouring through the letter-box', decided this was overkill.

Recalling the five hand-written pages I had been given along with the editorial mantle, I detailed the documentation I thought necessary to represent the production of a journal. I set it all down, and passed on to my successor:

A job description for the journal editor; a history of the journal to date; suggested policy for development and future strategies; names of possible colleagues; style sheet; notes for contributors; copy prospects list; advertisements list and rates card; description of the journal for directories; wordcounts list; basic make-up (regular features); desiderata for a business manager; classified contents list; list of tributes to the journal. There were also standard letters for: requests for articles; requests for permission to quote; requests for review copies; accepting an article; chasing promised articles; accompanying proofs sent out; querying whether advertisements are to be repeated; returning disks, photos etc. with thanks; regular letter to suppliers of regular features, with their addresses. Most of these were on a disk, which also contained letterheads and my complete address files.

The Indexer is still published only twice yearly, but has expanded from 56 pages per issue in 1978 to 80 today, with 50% increase in circulation, particularly overseas. SI is still only in ALPSP's group B, its officers working separately from their homes. It remains small beer in comparison with the larger ALPSP groups, who are now moving into producing electronic journals, surfing the net, and WWW. But we think we have come a long way. My successor lives in the Isle of Wight, equipped with high technology, and is to have as co-editor a colleague in California, by dint of email. Our thumbs are in our braces.

Starting here, starting now
Small publishers now would appear to have greater advantages than those of eighteen years ago. Training and published guidance are more readily available, with ALPSP and Book House Training Centre mounting seminars, and technological know-how today seeming spread almost by osmosis. Communication among the isolated - even internationally - is so much easier, and teleworking from home becoming a norm.

The vast range of publishers remains, though, even within ALPSP. While that body's chief focus and talking points are the Internet and site licensing, document delivery and electrocopying control, small publishers continue to produce small journals, highly specialist, with constraints alike of finance, personnel, and technology (an expensive matter, quickly obsolete). Witness the cry of a small-society delegate to an ALPSP journal design seminar of 1995, on hearing that giant societies would pay as much as £12,000 for design advice: `We would never pay for advice like that - we barely pay our speakers' expenses'.

ALPSP currently has around a dozen members in Group A (that is, now, spending less than £40,000 annually on publications), and fifteen in Group B. How much more daunting it must be to enter the world of learned publishing now, than when I was so dazed to learn that the British Medical Association published manifold journals, even weekly, even abroad. Today's newcomers and small publishers can still learn a great deal that is necessary to their own concerns from ALPSP's publications and seminars, and through their membership of the association take their place in the world of learned publishing. They are welcome members, completing ALPSP's range.

-- Hazel K. Bell in Learned Publishing Vol. 9 No. 1 January 1996, pp 23-27