12 May 2020

My work in ELT: Hong Kong / Publishing 1

I remember being thrilled about going to the office at the outset. Getting a key card, being assigned a cubicle and stationery, having my own PC, touring the pantry and copy room, meeting new people … I even got excited taking the elevator. But I am an excitable type, and it was the honeymoon period, and my body was tingling with energy.

The team was small but riding high as Longman had just taken market lead with their new senior secondary course. The future looked good and the team was building; I was the fifth person hired (when I left six years later, the team was 17 people). With all my energy, I was ready to work, but honestly had no idea what to expect. Luckily, in my very first week, we had a three-day training with the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP). This gave me some idea of what to expect, and oh … there was so much to learn.

I was plopped right in the deep end and assigned the second edition of Grammar Explained, a series for junior secondary 1, 2, and 3. Each book in the course had an extent of nearly 200 pages and I don’t remember how many pieces of line art, but there were a lot. I was given some simple guidelines on how to brief the writer for the changes needed and then set off to work pretty much on my own. I jumped in quickly, probably too quickly, and started splashing ahead. Fortunately, the writer was one of the best for Longman, and that made my life easier, though I didn’t realize it at the time.

Nine months later, the three new editions were complete, out on the market, and doing very well. There had been a growing sense of ownership over the months and I was proud of the product, but boy oh boy, my editorial work was mediocre at best. At the final stages, once someone with experience looked at it, I couldn’t believe how many things I had missed: typos, omissions, stylistic inconsistencies were rife. I remember thinking, ‘Wow! Will I ever get that level where I can zoom and pinpoint things like that?’ But since you’re at my site, I guess you know the answer to that. 😊 It was truly the first time I’d ever worked with lengthy schedules or managed email chains or folder hierarchies/naming standards or manuscript or page proofs and so on. It was manageable but my editorial mindset needed development.

I was a teacher and I understood the importance of critically assessing course material. I’d done that over the years. But as a teacher, I’d worked with people who enjoyed talking about materials and how to solve problems and creative workarounds. And I’m sure I probably drove a couple of editors on the team crazy, asking questions, talking through things, as if I were still teaching. Editors don’t normally do that. We’re too busy! We need to solve problems, move forward, and hold schedules, so we keep our heads down and our keyboards and pens moving.

Other things I remember in those early days were lack of Internet access and red and blue pens. In my early months, we only had email, and then eight or nine months in, we were given one PC on the floor which had Internet access. Then about eight nine months after that, we all got Internet access, which made fact checking a lot easier. And I remember printing MS, marking it up for design, and physically handing a designer the pages and a 3.5 floppy disk with the electronic files. Sure, we used bold for headings and italics for example sentences in the MS, but we still physically marked all of that up … A heads, B heads, indents, italics; what we wanted the realia for text frames to look like (torn newsprint, email, note sheets, posters, etc); where we wanted the artwork set on the physical page or in the realia; suggestions for colours, design, artwork, photos, etc.

Then there were mark-ups page proofs—blue for editorial changes and red for things the design had missed out. Why you ask? Because changes in blue were charged to the editorial team and changes in red were charged to the design team. I have no idea how the money was tracked. And I can’t remember when this practice disappeared or why. Maybe budgeting practices had changed and it was no longer necessary to track who was going to pay for what.

Whew! I’ve rambled on and I’ll end this by saying that I enjoy looking back at those days. The system seems primitive, but we still got a heck of a lot done. Now we have Word templates, remote teams, saving and sharing files in the cloud, marking up PDFs for design; researching content online, creating parallel products like companion PowerPoints, videos, blogs learning platforms. These changes have revolutionized ELT publishing in some ways, for sure. But one thing that hasn’t changed in the issue of time management and its relationship to quality and people management. More on that next time. Till then, be well.

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Thanks so much.