Client Talk features interviews with the those who commission editorial freelancers – the people on whom many of us depend to make our businesses viable. These experienced publishing professionals discuss the production process from their side of the desk – the joys and challenges of their work, new technologies and procedures, and their work with editorial freelance staff.
In this latest interview, I talk to Melanie Birdsall, Production Editor Manager at California-based education publisher Corwin.
Louise Harnby: Thanks for agreeing to talk to the Parlour, Melanie. First of all, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into the publishing business?
Melanie Birdsall: Like many people, I was drawn to publishing by my love of reading and language. I proofread for a catalog company before coming to Corwin; at the time, I wasn't exactly sure what book production entailed, but the prospect of working for a publisher was too enticing to resist. I’m thankful every day for my good fortune; I love book production and working with a team of people, from copy-editors to print buyers, invested in creating a successful product. About five years ago I became a manager for the production editors (PEs) working exclusively on Corwin content.
LH: Could you tell our readers a little about the company you work for? What kinds of material do you publish and in which subject areas do you specialize?
MB: Corwin is an imprint of SAGE, a leading social sciences publisher based in Thousand Oaks, California, in the United States. Corwin publishes professional development books and other resources for educators, from the classroom teacher to the district superintendent, on a wide range of topics, including classroom management, system-wide reform, response to intervention programs, and technology. You can visit the Corwin website to learn more.
LH: Editorial freelancers who've never worked in publishing are sometimes unaware of the procedures and pressures of that in-house staff face. What are the main challenges you have to deal with in your role?
MB: It’s a fast-paced job that requires creative thinking and problem solving. A production editor handles about 12 to 18 projects at any given time, all in different stages – a colleague of mine used to refer to it as “keeping all the plates spinning”. We rely on our team of freelancers to help us keep our projects on track as much as possible, especially when we encounter the unexpected – a timely sales opportunity, for instance, might require the PE to accelerate a production schedule; an author may require an extended deadline because of a personal emergency; or a permission/legal issue could delay production by weeks. Managing multiple projects can be challenging, but it keeps our skills sharp and our jobs exciting – some days may be stressful, but they’re certainly never dull.
LH: What about new developments in the industry (e.g. digital production)? What changes in the publishing world are having the biggest impact on you and do you see these as exciting opportunities or are they sometimes obstacles?
MB: We’re experiencing the next evolution of publishing, and it’s exciting but, at the same time, requires us to think differently about our products and how we produce them. Right now our focus is on converting our print titles to electronic platforms. When I started in publishing in the early 2000s, ebooks were just a thought; today we have a publishing technologies department devoted to online products and electronic conversions. The way we deliver content is changing – in a few years, we may be producing products that aren't truly books or journals but something in between – but the content itself, and the quality standards in its production, remain consistent.
LH: What advice would you give to “newbies” looking to develop an editorial production career within a publishing house? Is there a best place to look for entry-level positions?
MB: I recommend visiting publishers’ websites for job postings and also Publisher’s Weekly. Look for anything production- or product management-related. Emphasize your organizational and problem-solving skills, eye for detail, author care, and willingness to be flexible and creative in your approach to project management.
LH: So, when you’re hiring a new editorial freelancer what are the primary qualities you’re looking for and how do you assess these? Do you expect them to have a particular training background, previous experience, or knowledge of the subject areas in which you work? Are there are other factors that are important to you – references and testimonials perhaps, or a specific educational background?
MB: We ask prospective freelance copy-editors to complete a test in which a Word document is edited electronically. Proofreaders are asked to complete a similar exercise, marking their changes in a PDF. We don’t have a test for indexers, but we ask them to submit samples of their work for review.
All applications are reviewed by our editorial freelance resource manager, who determines whether the candidate’s background and skills are a good match for the type of books we publish. We seek experienced editors who are familiar with the guidelines for handling text, citations, and references as detailed in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. A thorough knowledge of The Chicago Manual of Style is also necessary.
LH: How to you find your editorial freelancers? Or do they find you?
MB: We receive many inquiries about freelance work, often through referrals or through the Freelancing for SAGE Books section on our website, which provides more information about our expectations and application process. Though we currently have sufficient resources, we always invite freelancers to apply, as our needs can change.
LH: You’ve told us about the challenges and pressures of being part of the in-house production team. What’s the nicest thing about your job – the element you enjoy the most?
MB: Production is an incredibly satisfying job. After what has been a long, long process of research, writing, and development for our authors, we want make the last steps of the publishing experience as positive and fulfilling as possible.
We may be managing projects, but behind every book is a person. I mentioned previously that Corwin books are targeted to educators. Our authors are their own audience – these are often full-time professionals who are writing on the side, many for the first time. They need a PE who can work with their busy schedules, who understands that time becomes precious with the start of each school year, and who doesn’t mind explaining the differences between copy-editing and proofreading. One of my direct reports once received a letter from an author who said she couldn’t have done it [the production process] without him – moreover, she added, she wouldn’t have wanted to. No matter how the industry changes, our authors, and their satisfaction with the publishing process, will always be the key to our success. We want them to be just as proud of their Corwin books as we are.
LH: From your particular business point of view, what are the most exciting developments taking place in publishing at the moment?
MB: Digital publishing is probably having the most impact on our processes and workflow as we consider how to best evolve with the changing needs of the industry. Our skill set won’t become obsolete, but it will require adaptation. For example, Corwin books are very art-heavy, and most feature several forms and boxed text elements. Today’s PE wrestles with the challenges of print page layout; tomorrow’s PE will consider how these elements convert to an electronic platform, where page breaks may be arbitrary. A book full of photographs may not generate the revenue required to invest in four-color printing – but what if we could have a full-color ebook at no or minimal extra cost? It’s an exciting time for publishing as we close the gap between those processes that are familiar and traditional and those that may revolutionize the industry.
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