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View from the Hill

John MacColl meets Ian Kingston, a freelance copy-editor, proof-reader and typesetter.

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View from the hill: Ian Kingston

John MacColl meets Ian Kingston, a professional whose traffic problems are confined to data.

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For Ian Kingston, more than for most people, time is money. He saves both through having one of the shortest commutes in the country, travelling the distance of the staircase of his home in a Nottingham suburb. Kingston is a full-time freelance copy-editor, proof-reader and typesetter.

Publishers have used freelances for these crucial stages in the publication process for many years. Freelances usually receive heavy packages through the mail or delivered by courier, containing manuscripts to be ‘marked up’ - grammatical and typographical errors removed and the publisher’s ‘house-style’ for the layout of each journal article or book chapter indicated.

Ian Kingston They charge by the hour or by the page for their work. Suitably marked up, the manuscripts are then despatched to an in-house editor, who sends them off to a typesetter. When the proofs arrive back from the typesetter, they require to be checked against the marked-up manuscripts. Once again they are bundled up and mailed out - often to the same freelance who performed the copy-editing - to be proof-read, the final stage prior to printing.

This protracted process is one reason why ‘publishing lag’ is so often cited as a major frustration by academic authors. It can take several weeks to prepare even a single article for publishing in a journal, and that is only after the much lengthier routine of peer-review has identified an article for inclusion, or an editor has finally approved a monograph for publication.

Ian Kingston realised some years ago that networked computers provided a means of speeding up this process. He was one of the first freelance copy-editors in the UK to promote himself to publishers as an on-screen editor, editing direct onto authors’ disks, rather than working on manuscripts in the traditional way.

Copy editors in general feel comfortable with paper. Their job is to prepare a manuscript to be transformed into a set of finished page proofs by the typesetter. Their traditional tools are pens, and - for sizing images - china graph pencils and paper guillotines.

How do these tools translate into software? “That is the wrong question” replies Kingston. “Instead a freelance should think - ‘how can my software help me to do the job better?’” He runs the Computer User’s Group of the Society of Freelance Editors and Proofreaders and gives frequent training courses in on-screen editing to freelances around the country who are worried about the impact of this new working method upon their careers, and frightened by the level of technology involved. “I tell them that, once they are familiar with their word-processing package, and experienced and skilled in the techniques required, editing on-screen can be 20-30% quicker. Also, that they should acquire an e-mail account, to allow for much more efficient contact with clients around the world.” Kingston also moderates an e-mail discussion list for computer-using freelances. “They need some way of screaming for help. A sense of isolation is their biggest problem.”

Kingston went full-time freelance in 1991. His computer and networking skills have given him a competitive advantage which allows him the luxury now of editing only the type of material he enjoys. “I stopped doing journals some years ago, because the frequent panic jobs arriving from publishers were ruining my social life.” Computing books are a speciality. Publishers need to get them into the marketplace quickly. They offer the work to Kingston because he offers a full, speedy service. “I now typeset the material as well” he says. “After all, if you’ve edited the copy on disk, you’ve already done half the typesetter’s work. A software package like Ventura Publisher can then add the publisher’s own coding. For a traditionally-trained publishing professional, knowledgeable in the rules of page make-up and in how to read a type spec., it’s not difficult.” The publisher saves a lot of time this way. Kingston is sent an author’s disk, and returns a disk ready to be fed direct into a Linotron for the production of film from which the printing is done.

But more use could be made of the Net. Disks could be cut out of the process altogether if FTP were a more viable option. “This is the downside of working from home” remarks Kingston. “Slow telephone lines make file transfers too expensive at present.” Publishers don’t help. Too few of them have really begun to explore the potential of the Net for efficiency gains. “Their Web sites are under-developed. The few that exist at all may have a little catalogue information - but that’s about it. They could be using the Web to make productivity savings in the way they use freelances. They could also be using it to sell books. But then,” he continues, “publishers have never been particularly good at marketing books, even before the Internet came along. Music and film companies have seen the commercial potential of the Web much sooner than publishers. People will part with £15 for a CD much more readily than for a book. Bookshops have not helped with their attempts to mimic dark forbidding libraries.”

Kingston is ambivalent about libraries. “I’ve wasted a lot of time in them. It wasn’t so bad, as a student, when I had time to work out the system - though I always felt that libraries were laid out purely for the benefit of librarians.” Now he uses the Net as his first resort for information. Virtual libraries appeal to him. “After all, researchers need information immediately. I want to see the librarian’s skills applied to Net resources so that I can get the information I need there and then. I don’t have time to head into town for it.”

Ian Kingston glances at his watch. A book - in the form of a box of disks - is awaiting his attention upstairs. I realise that my time is up.


Stephen Cracknell, who works in the same field as Ian Kinston, responds to the article.

“I was very interested to read John MacColl’s article on Ian Kingston’s copy-editing, proof reading and typesetting business as I work in the same areas.

As you say, it is true that copy editors feel comfortable with paper, and this is part of the reason for the slow take-up of editing on screen. But that is not the whole story: authors like to see what the copy editor has done, which is much easier to arrange if you work on paper; most people – copy editors included – do not like to spend all day in front of a computer; and not all copy editors have the skill and equipment to deal with disks from a variety of word processors and computer systems.

My second comment relates to Ian Kingston’s claim that slow telephone lines make file transfers too expensive at present. With a 28k modem I regularly transfer 1MB files in about 5 minutes (on Compuserve). If the files have been zipped this is equivalent to over 2MB of data. (A typical unillustrated book is only about 1MB)

I currently typeset the Council for British Archaeology’s magazine “British Archaeology” using email. The editor emails me the files; I email the proofs (in Acrobat format) to the CBA; and the copy for the printer is sometimes sent in as a Postscript file. This allows me to work from home in Stow-on-the-Wold or from our holiday house in France.

As you suggest, electronic pre-press work is an increasingly important part of the publishing industry and can be personally liberating if you control your own working patterns. I can, however, see considerable dangers if you are glued to somebody else’s keyboard all day.

Yours sincerely
Stephen Cracknell”