Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Minotaur: Valerie Mendes

In Minotaur, the collective voice of Internet enthusiasts is countered by words of scepticism or caution. In this issue, publishing consultant Valerie Mendes puts the PC in its place.

One morning in early June 1990 I caught a train from Oxford and went to see my bank manager in London. "I want to start my own publishing consultancy, " I told him. "I've spent twenty-five years in the industry. I've developed a series of specialisms which no single publishing house can satisfy. My second bedroom will make a perfect office. I can write, edit, research, project manage. I want to offer a top-quality service. I'm very flexible - and very determined. "

A pair of bright blue eyes glinted at me across the polished desk. "And what equipment do you have? " he asked.

"A fountain pen and lots of white paper," I replied. "Oh - and a telephone. What more could I need?"

We both laughed. I signed the documents, received my small business loan, travelled home and rang my accountant with the news. I comissioned a designer to create the logo for new stationery and began with the utmost care to spend the remainder of the loan on new equipment. First an answerphone. Then a fax machine. Then, three hard-working months later and with great trepidation, a computer and a laser printer. Within days the machines had transformed my professional life. Letters, faxes, analyses, reports, memos, minutes of meetings, budget sheets, production checklists and children's stories poured out of the laser printer, immaculately headed, typed and presented. They could be edited, altered, revised and updated with clarity and ease. They could be saved or not. I could no longer even imagine how I had ever managed without my chief of staff. It served my creative and administrative purposes magnificently.

But I soon realised what it didn't do. When it comes to editing a typescript, give me my Pilot Hi-Tecpoint V7 Fine red pen. Very fine, very red - and absolutely no substitute.

The really detailed, meticulous, caring editorial process is complicated, intricate and highly skilled. The editor becomes a cross between a police officer and a washerwoman, a teacher and a linguist, a grammarian and a pernickity rulemaker, a sign-poster and a designer, a typesetter and a mini-dictionary. The spelling of all names, the dating of all dates, the physical descriptions of all peoples and places – every tiny detail must be consistent. Quotations from sources must be accurate. The editor must ask at the end of every sentence – "Does that make sense? Is it clear and concise and unambiguous? Would I as a reader understand it? No? Then how might I as tactfully, neatly and economically as possible improve the original text? Make it flow with grace and effortless ease?" When do I alter the original without asking and when do I check back with the author to confirm the change? When do I make silent unilateral decisions and when do I make a fuss

For me, this entire process is crucially paper-based. The weight and feel and presentation – the project's own individuality – sit on my desk. "Here I am," it says. "I am immaculately presented/a hideous mess. I have been carefully written/thrown together on the back of a bus. This book is the result of years of painstaking research/a rehash of an old thesis which I am tired of presenting." I can tell at a glance what I am in for. On goes the police officer's hat. On go the washerwoman's gloves. The paper can be sorted and sifted and sieved. The extent can be checked and the contents list amended. The references can be identified and the look and feel of my latest baby weighed and measured.

None of this can be done in the same way, at the same speed and with the same antennae on screen. On-screen editing is a secondary process which should be done only after the hardcopy has been cleaned and corrected, pruned and polished. Ideally, on-screen editing should be done by an efficient typesetter who has the skill to manipulate and to read the original disk. Why should the editor be asked or expected to do it all? To save time? To limit costs? To cut a few corners? To reduce the hassle? To ignore the postage? Possibly all of these. Then where is the commitment and courtesy? And where are the standards of excellence? In my book, if you can't publish without those, why bother?