Looking Back

Confessions of a Little-Magazine Editor

Megan’s soft brown eyes stared at the gold and white business card on the restaurant tablecloth. “How glamorous!”

“You must know so many fascinating people!” Ruby chimed in. She took a sip of her rum swizzle. Behind steel-rimmed glasses, her expression turned dreamy. “All those exotic parties with writers and other literary types. Have you met Christian Bök in person?”

“Don’t you just love it!” Megan flashed me her wide Irish smile. No trace of envy, only delight at her old friend’s exciting new life, far from the hassles of occasional teaching she and Ruby knew too well.

It was our first get-together since our friendship was interrupted by moves out of town and the birth among us of several children. I grinned at them both. What should I say? If only they knew the whole truth.

“Well,” I began with a deep breath, “I’ve never met Christian Bök—and Margaret Atwood only once, in the crowd at a book launch. I’ve been to exactly one party in five years, and that afternoon event I had to leave early to help at my niece’s bridal shower.”

“But surely you have such exciting meetings,” Ruby persisted. “You know, in the office, when the staff get together to plan a new issue, and you sit on the desks with coffee, put the phones on hold, and have hot debates about whose work will go on page four.”

“Just where is your office anyway?” Megan queried, beginning to wise up.

“Well, ladies,” I chuckled, “my office is in my basement at home—a desk, a filing cabinet, and an old computer. In the winter, it’s cold enough for two sweaters and an extra pair of wool socks.”

“But the publisher and the rest of the staff," Ruby protested, “Where do they work?”

I sat back and recalled fondly the attics, cellars, kitchen tables, and pubs many had commandeered for an “office”.

“But where do you get together?” Ruby was determined.

“Most of our business is done by email, mail, or the phone,” I tried to explain.

“So, how much do you make then?” Megan zeroed in.

“Good question!” I laughed. “Publishing little magazines doesn’t pay the rent. I work more for the satisfaction.”

Ruby’s face fell, and with it the dreams of flights to New York and London, high-powered publishing brunches, and nights on the town wining and dining new authors.

“How old are the children now, dear?” Megan shifted us back to domestic terra firma.

Many people outside literary publishing share Megan’s and Ruby’s awe and fantasies. For example, one magazine I worked for advertised for occasional office help, keyboarding, filing, and answering the telephone, for minimum wage. To our horror, three dozen people replied, some out of town ready to relocate, several with at least a B.A. degree. One chap saw the job as a chance to put himself through college! Many sent professionally prepared, even embossed, résumés. Most indicated in their covering letters visions of a corporate office, plush with broadloom, humming with secretaries at gleaming desks, and alive with sophisticated chatter. And who was the winning candidate? One realistic lady who began her simple application with: “I can type sixty words a minute and know how to file.”

Just what is the small publishing venture like then, from day to day?

I have worked in a few and once had the impressive title of Managing Editor for a hairdressing magazine. That title was bestowed on me at 2:00 a.m. as we rushed to finish the printer’s dummy on the publisher’s living room rug (he had no “office” either). Tempers were short, and everyone was fed up with my taking control. “Okay, we’ll fix you,” his wife fumed. “Call her the Managing Editor, Jack. That’s what she does all the time—boss us around.”

“Thanks for nothing,” I snapped, but the title stuck anyway.

Much of my time over the years has also been taken up with freelance work, editing a few novels, poetry, nonfiction books, and occasional brochures. But, again, after the initial client meeting (sometimes just by telephone and email), it is work done alone, in the shadowy cold of my basement. I put in my “office hours” from 8:00 to 5:00, with a break for lunch and perhaps a walk. Once in a while, the telephone might ring, a delivery person rap on the door, or a cat dawdle in or out. The rest of the day, it’s plugging away by myself, with only the odd load of laundry thumping in the dryer for company.

There has been excitement, yes, but it’s of an intellectual rather than social kind. It’s the thrill of planning a new issue, many times in a greasy spoon over hamburgers and coffee; the delight at finding the printer got a job right: exact ink colour, suitable paper stock, delivery on time; or the occasional letter of appreciation from a magazine subscriber or editing client for a job well done.

Excitement has been of the bad kind too, for disaster strikes as regularly as the aphorism predicts: “Whatever can go wrong, will.” For instance, with the first issue of the hairdressing magazine hot off the press, and hundreds of advertising letters mailed out, we discovered the “corporate address” was incorrect. In the flurry of moving to a new house, the publisher had not updated the masthead or letterhead.

Another time, in the era predating QuarkXPress desktop publishing, halfway through our pasting up an issue of a literary magazine by hand, our typesetter’s machine broke down. Being an easygoing sort, with a small business strapped for cash, he dilly-dallied about repairs. “Ridiculous!” I harrumphed. “We’ll get another typesetter!”

The only problem was that no one in the city could match the type from our man’s antique contraption. Everyone else’s of supposedly the “same” font and point size came out slightly bigger or smaller. With a printer’s deadline to meet, there was no choice. After hiring a second typesetter (at a much higher price), the finished magazine was a peculiar mixture indeed: two sizes of type, often within the same paragraph. I hid in my basement for weeks, until one dear reader commented over the phone. “Oh, I thought you did that on purpose—to make the issue more arty.”

One printer I worked with, hired because of low rates that suited the meagre budget, didn’t deliver and was never on time. Fortunately, the publisher lived close by, and off and on for two weeks after the printing would drag bundle-buggy loads of magazines home from the printing shop. The practice was complicated by a vicious neighbourhood dog whose teeth one day caught up with the publisher’s ankle.

Even the weather can foul up a magazine. Production on one issue started in late August when the days were unusually humid and hot. The publisher picked up a batch of typesetting on Friday afternoon and left it in a sunny third-floor room of his house. When we met Monday morning, I opened the yellow envelope to check how much had been done. “Oh, no!” I groaned.

“What’s the matter?” His face went pale.

“Take a look.” I almost wept as I passed the envelope. Inside, on strip after typeset strip, the articles, stories, and poems had virtually disappeared. All that remained was a faint yellow outline, peppered with amber speckles and splotches.

The typesetter was very apologetic. “Yes, the chemistry in the machine has been acting up, and what with the heat and humidity… Oh, you left the envelope in the sun too? I should have told you. Light speeds up the deterioration process. Next time, store the strips in the dark.” She redid the work at no charge, but we lost two weeks from our schedule that had to be made up with overtime.

The problems are more than climatic or technical though. A small magazine is its people, and they have to be trained. However, when budgets are tight and time is short, slip-ups do occur. One editor was hired because of her fine past efforts encouraging new writers. The only hitch was that she was too encouraging and gave conditional acceptances of enough manuscripts of debatable quality in six months to last for over four years’ worth of issues.

Another magazine editor told me about the disappointing lack of renewals from a number of faithful subscribers. Six months later, when a sofa was moved, behind it she discovered a packet of cheques. Meanwhile, the subscribers had been unjustly threatened with cancellation. How to right such an awkward situation? As the full staff of four sat disconsolate, the family dog Raffles sauntered in. “Aha!” one editor declared. “We’ll draft a letter of apology and sign it ‘R. Beagle’, our new Customer Service Manager.”

When the hairdressing magazine started, the staff again was small: the publisher, his wife, and me, although many salons contributed photos and articles. The office number was the kitchen extension at home. Since this was a commercial effort, however, the publisher wanted to sound professional right off the bat. The children were forbidden to pick up the telephone, and his wife mastered three different voices: one to answer with the corporate name, one for the publisher’s “private secretary”, and one for the “order department”. The first few times friends or relatives called, they either hung up or muttered, “Sorry, wrong number.”

Certainly, I was no advertisement for a hairdressing magazine either. I wore the same unimaginative bun I had sported in university days. It was functional, kept the hair out of my eyes. One of my friends, a model I introduced to the publisher, used to chide, “Can’t you give her a decent hairdo at least?”

Besides staffing, another problem of limited budgets was mailings. Somehow people imagine an editor editing. Period. But on a small magazine, when a new issue comes out, the glamorous editors lick stamps, type address labels, rubber-stamp five hundred return envelopes, fill out invoices, and sweep the floor too. Not to mention dragging cartons of magazines through rain/sleet/snow and (on a lucky day) sun, up two flights of stairs to the newsstand distributor, or five blocks down the street to a big double mailbox. Now, at least, a computer replaces repeated cross-town trips to photocopy yet another batch of subscription flyers as new promotion money trickles in.

Tight budgets are a fact of small-magazine life. Because of their limited circulation and specialized readership, such publications have a hard time attracting conventional advertising. For this reason, most find it difficult if not impossible to survive without grants from the Canada Council and provincial Arts Councils. Every year, I gritted my teeth as the ordeal of preparing grant applications approached. Over coffee or something stronger, I gnawed on my pencil to help work out projections for the following year. “Expenses? What if we have to change typesetters again? What if we need to hire a new printer? What if the postal rates go up? What if there’s another postal strike, and our sales go down? How will inflation affect the costs of paper in the next year?”

Despite muddled figures on the first few tries, at last the application got done, and then the dreaming began. “Gee, we could hire extra office help. Maybe rent a new mailing list. Pay our contributors more.” As the day for the grant jury’s decision drew nearer, the editors had few nerves or fingernails left. And then the official word arrived. “Yes” brought a flurry of happy planning and further precarious arithmetic on a fresh budget. “No,” and upwelled a despairing urge to dump the whole business—except it was more work to close down than keep going. Back to the numbers game! Figure out how to survive!

“Publishing sounds awful!” Ruby downed her second rum swizzle.

“Enough to make you run back to teaching,” sniffed Megan, “or even to waiting on tables.”

“Oh, it’s never been quite that bad,” I explained. “I’ve made my own hours, up to a point. And I did meet lots of people—by mail. And although I’ve been tired, and sometimes discouraged, I’ve surely never been bored. It’s just been a long labour of love—and a challenge.”

“Well, you do have a smart business card,” Ruby offered.

“And you get your name into print,” Megan added.

“You know,” I thought back, “there was one other event I attended—years ago, an up-market Bridal Show at a grand downtown hotel. I got to wear this badge saying ‘Press’. There were hundreds there: models, buyers, beautiful people. The ballroom glittered in showers of miniature lights. I even had a free drink and got a publicity photograph taken… Then I went home and wrote this terrific article for the next issue, all about bridal fashions.”

“See?” said Ruby, “And weren’t you thrilled when it came out in print, and everyone knew your name, and you got a bonus, and…”

I sighed. “The magazine went out of business first.”