From writing to publishing

books on wall around doorSomething really amazing happened when I went out in the world after college. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my life, and I just needed the job to make rent. So I got a temporary job helping out in the office of the vice president of a business-to-business publishing company a few miles from my home.

It started out as just another job so I could pay the bills, but it ended up kindling in me a passion for publishing that I never actually knew was even possible. Yes, I had been writing since I was eight years old, and I had been creating my own books on my own for a few years, but I had never had direct exposure to the world of publishing proper, until that time. As is often the case with somebody who has innate talent who gets noticed but people who need those talents, I was quickly identified by the VP as somebody who had more to offer than just filing skills.

I was promoted into a position doing direct mail advertising for the company’s products, and I grew our mailings from three mailings per year in the United States to four mailings per year, plus two mailings in Canada. Our earnings increased, too, which is what tends to happen when you have a good list, a great product, and you have a fantastic team that knows how to put it all together. I was very fortunate to get to work with those people, as well as being given a lot of flexibility and freedom to grow the program – which I did.

My favorite part of that job, however, wasn’t something that you would think a person would enjoy. That job was proofing bluelines – doing quality control on the proof copies of publications that were going to press that same week. Once a week, on Tuesday afternoons, my coworker, Dot, and I would sit down with big sheets of blue printed proofs of a few publications, and go over them with the proverbial finetooth comb, looking for smudges, inkblots, typos, anything that would make them look less than perfect. Some people would hate that kind of work – it genuinely makes your eyes cross after while. But both Dot and I enjoyed it, and we also enjoyed each other’s company, so all in all it was a great thing.

The other great thing about it was that it introduced me to the behind-the-scenes workings of publishing and printing. That gave me a very real appreciation of how laborious the process was to crank out thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of copies via offset printing.

It’s no small feat, believe me. Every step of the way is labor-intensive. And accordingly, it gets expensive.

Of course, digital has changed everything, and I got a real taste of just how much you changed things just a few years later, when I moved to California and started working for a little software company. I was head of documentation of the company, responsible for writing manuals for the software for DOS, windows, and Macintosh. I’m totally dating myself by mentioning DOS, but back in the day, it was a big deal, so it’s worth mentioning.

My experience there was totally different than it was at the other publishing company. Because suddenly, you could do everything on a computer. Whereas just a few years before that, everything had to be re-created for typesetters and then proofed and then put through the whole offset printing and binding process, now with a PC or Mac, you could write, format, and generate your gallery with the equipment in your office. You could format the book, design it exactly the way it was supposed to be, and then print it out double-sided and sit down and read through the entire thing without having to bring in anyone else.

It was just so amazing, I can’t even begin to say. It was like nothing I’d ever done before. And it was so, so gratifying to know that my finished product was going to look exactly as I had specified it when I had typed it all up and formatted it on the screen in front of me.

I also gained a real appreciation for Apple standards when it came to documentation. In the PC world, everybody wrote their documentation however they liked, they formatted it however they liked, and they produced whatever books, how to guides, quickstart sheets, etc. that seemed useful to the people writing them. Apple, however, had standards for how you write documentation, what order you write it in, how it’s formatted, how it’s structure thematically, and so forth. Nothing was left to chance with Apple. And if you didn’t follow their guidelines, it wasn’t accepted.

When I first started writing documentation for the Mac, I really chafed at the restrictions. But it didn’t take long for me to realize how freeing that really was. I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, I didn’t have to figure things out from scratch every time I started a new piece of documentation, and I could trust that my readers would look at my manuals through the same lens that they looked at every other piece of Mac documentation – the expectations were clear, and it made everything much easier to manage, as well as understand.

I did a bunch of other tech writing after that, for hardware, medical software, even an equipment purchasing guide for a national insurance company. Each job was very different from the last, and each one taught me a whole lot – including the importance of a clearly designed document.

Then the World Wide Web took off, and I moved into the web development space – devoting my life to designing webpages instead of print documentation. Everyone seem to think that the Internet was going to be the end of books – if you could read something digitally, why would you want a print copy? There seemed to be an assumption that people would prefer digital over print. We see now that that fear was completely unfounded. The Internet has not meant the end of books – it’s brought a renaissance of books. Because now, with all the digital technology and print-on-demand capabilities, it’s possible for a wider variety of books of a wider variety of types in virtually every conceivable format to be produced easily and cost-effectively.

And even though professionally speaking I went digital, in my own life and in my own writing, I still stuck with the print publishing world. And in fact, my digital job made it possible for me to fund my personal print publishing, both by giving me a nicer paycheck and also by give me the chance to really develop some online connections that steered me in the direction of digital on-demand publishing.

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