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.
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
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.
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'.
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
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.
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
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