Dear Ms. Saller,
I’m an editor who craves (and requires) an orderly chain of command when handling a manuscript. Up to this point, I’ve worked with a limited staff: me, a copyeditor, and a designer. We’re expanding the journal. It is now an online publication. Now, I’m working with others in the office who are in the habit of distributing manuscripts and video files to a whole group of people simultaneously for feedback. I hate this disorderly process, which seems counterproductive.
How should I impose order? Is there a protocol you can lay out to guide me (and others) in work environments where manuscripts are flung around via e-mail for an editing bacchanalia?
Dear S. Cassidy,
With the expansion of your journal comes a chance—and a responsibility—to establish procedures.
It’s normal in publishing for copy that must be seen by many eyes to route sequentially, with each person marking corrections and signing off before sending it to the next person on the list. This ancient tradition is still so firmly engrained that many houses (including the University of Chicago Press) still walk a single copy of some documents around the house on paper.
The problem with readers vetting documents simultaneously is just as you describe: a nightmare of version control. I can’t think of any efficient way for someone to take all the versions and sort out which corrections and suggestions to accept, especially when readers have worked at cross purposes and contradicted each other, and no one has seen anyone else’s suggestions.
Whether you do it by means of a locked file sent by e-mail attachment (so all changes are tracked by author) or by a paper copy with a routing slip attached, the idea is to allow only one reader at a time. Start with whoever might make the most changes on that particular document: the writer, the acquirer, the marketer, the designer. List others in whatever order makes the most sense for that type of document, with the copyeditor near the end to clean up all the emendations, query anything contradictory, and find answers to questions.
Since not everyone vets everything, make up some template attachments that show the routing order for each type of document (catalog copy, art, proofs). Next to each name add blanks for a signature and the date signed. (Having to add the date gives the reader a small incentive not to sit on the copy—later, it will always be obvious where a holdup occurred.) Note the date at which the copy must get back to the one who routed it.
You don’t say what your place is in the chain of command, but if you aren’t able to enforce procedures yourself, and if your boss is reluctant, suggest appointing a managing editor. Ultimately I’m confident that your staff will appreciate having a routine as much as you do. And all that new efficiency will leave more time for carousing at office parties.