Hoarders: The Publishing Edition


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Have you ever had the pleasure of walking into a production editor's office in a major publishing house? No? Well, you're missing out. It usually resembles an episode of Hoarders. Picture this: Stacks of paper teeter perilously around a desk while a stressed-out individual sits behind an ancient desk, washed out by fluorescent light bulbs. Hundreds if not thousands of books line the shelves, and if you're really lucky, you'll spot the ancient artifact referred to as a Fuji ... yes, like the film. A Fuji is a plastic sleeve filled with (hopefully) the final version of a cover sent by the printer for approval.

There is often a person (a "trafficker") whose job it is to run this Fuji all over the building, getting a whole list of people to sign off on it before sending it back to the printer. In fact, this was once my job, and while it was great for my health (all those stairs!), it was an absolutely ridiculous process.

I worked at HarperCollins (HC) Publishers in New York, and when I came on board, not only were Fujis still making their way around the building, but covers were being trafficked through multiple rounds of approvals in folders, by people like me. But not too long after I came onto the scene, old HC started trafficking covers electronically. An internally built system moved PDFs through predetermined routing procedures. I could monitor the positions of covers from the comfort of my desk, and instead of scrawling changes on a printout, editors, publishers, copy editors, and members of the marketing department could post notes on PDFs, which would automatically move to the next person in the queue.

I put on a few pounds once the majority of covers made it into the system, but it certainly led to more accountability. I no longer had to visit assistants' offices throughout the building, trying to track down a folder that had disappeared, usually just hours before the files needed to be to the printer. But, boy oh boy, was there backlash. People like their red pencils and hate PDFs!

So I had a good chuckle when I saw a little news item a few months back about Random House, Inc. adopting Scribe's Well-Formed Document Workflow (WFDW). The WFDW "is a combination of methodology and technology that assures your publication is produced efficiently today while unquestionably guaranteeing its future viability."

It is imperative that publishers start adopting more flexible, efficient workflows. Back in my days at Harper, one entire department's only job was to reformat files for ebooks. These weren't just old books that needed updating, but books that had recently been published or were even still in the production process. Is that not absurd? Let me be clear though; I don't mean to single out HC, because this is an industrywide problem.

For some reason, book publishers are still struggling to implement workflows that lead to clean files, easily formatted for either print or digital books. The WFDW claims to do just this, and frankly, I'm glad to see a major publisher taking such a big step toward true digital-first mentality. More often than not though, it's the people in the trenches who resist change. At HC, the production editors were complaining about having to read cover copy on a computer screen, and the imprint publishers were insisting I still circulate a paper copy of a book jacket with the first pass of a cover.

Shortly after seeing that piece about Random House, I saw another announcement-this time from HC. It wasn't exactly embracing a digital-first mentality: "HarperCollins Publishers announced that its ‘Comprehensive Backlist' Program, using the Espresso Book Machine (EBM), will launch today in nine independent bookstores." Yes, you can go into a store with an EBM and print out any HC backlist title, but can you get it in all ebook formats?

I have no idea if HC has started trafficking interiors digitally yet, but that was the long-term plan when I was an employee there. I wouldn't be surprised if there was enough resistance among the ranks to keep that from happening. It won't be until the digital holdouts cycle out and the Digital Natives--who would likely gasp at the sight of all those dead tress in the production editors' offices--take over that truly transformed, digital-first workflows will take hold.