Reasonable production timelines for a small magazine?
February 6, 2021 9:18 AM   Subscribe

Is it reasonable for production of a 50-page glossy professional association magazine to take at least eight weeks from receipt of the last edited article to delivery of the paper copies? Members are complaining that the content is outdated by the time they receive their copies, so we'd like to shave it down if we can.

My professional association produces a quarterly magazine/journal, featuring articles submitted by members and edited by a volunteer editor. We have a communications officer who manages the advertising and does the graphic design, dealing with a production company for the rest.

Our communications person says that it takes at least a full two weeks for them to do the graphic design and layout of the final text, after which they send everything to the production company for a full proofreading and copyedit. Sometimes these edits require going back to the writer to discuss proposed stylistic changes. After that, the company reviews the entire electronic file to make sure that all the images are in shape to be printed properly. Sometimes they come back to the comms person to fix wrong resolutions or other issues, and then send back a new electronic version of the issue. Finally, they deal with the printer to schedule the run, produce the “blues,” which must be reviewed by the comms officer and then sent to press. Our print run is around 5000 copies.

Is this a reasonable amount of time for this process? Should our communications person really need ten working days for the layout, given that this is a major portion of their job and they should be able to devote a least half of their day to the task during production? Would we be able to save time by having graphic design and/or editorial services performed by the production company? Can you see any other areas where we might be able to save time/energy? If you've run a successful small magazine or journal, do you have any tips or tricks?

I should note that we are looking at moving to an at least partly digital strategy in the near future, but that is going to take time since the association is not fond of change. Also, while we are not looking to burn money for no good reason, we are prepared to subsidize production to a large extent through the association budget, so costs are a secondary factor in all this.
posted by rpfields to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
How many pages is the magazine? I think it's possible to do faster, but wanted to note that it can take even longer. e.g. our production cycle for a (large) magazine that will be on newsstands in early May is Feb 24-March 27. We can make last-minute updates, but copy is due months before readers will see it. (We're also digital, though, so we're also covering news as it happens.)
posted by pinochiette at 9:31 AM on February 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks Pinochiette! It is usually about 50 pages, but can fluctuate a bit depending on the content we receive.
posted by rpfields at 9:35 AM on February 6, 2021

For one volunteer editor to manage, one person to do layout, and then a printer and mail distribution? Heck yeah it's reasonable.

If you want faster, you need more staff or to go digital.
posted by emjaybee at 9:41 AM on February 6, 2021 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Sorry forgot to add my background: have worked on many newsletters and alumni magazines, now manage a staff of 16 creating business documents of similar size and complexity. Eight weeks for something glossy and managed by volunteers is good.
posted by emjaybee at 9:43 AM on February 6, 2021 [7 favorites]

That sounds totally reasonable to me, even taking 2 weeks to do the layout.

Is there any way the production company can work with the article text before the design is finalized, so that revisions after the proof is submitted is for graphic corrections only?
posted by itesser at 9:46 AM on February 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

The timeline seems reasonable to me, but you may be able to shave off a little time by having final text ready to go at layout. Proofreading the copy and making minor corrections when you get the blueline is one thing; making changes and having to go back to the original author should not be happening at that point.
posted by XtineHutch at 9:52 AM on February 6, 2021 [15 favorites]

If you've got some money to throw at this, you should get yourselves a paid editor, and they should fulfill most of the roles currently being fulfilled by your volunteer editor and your production company. And most of that job should be done before it's laid out on the page: It doesn't make any sense to have an editor in at the beginning who's doing such a poor job that after the magazine has been designed, someone's got to go back to the beginning and ask the original writers to renose articles or resupply photos. Inevitably half the time it turns out that the photos aren't available in higher res and then the page has to be redesigned, or they rewrite and it's longer/shorter/needs a new headline, so you're doing the same job multiple times.

Get a good, paid editor to get all of the copy in a great state, at the right length, and all of the photos up to required spec, before they go to the designer. Ideally that same person can also get the adverts gathered in too (that can be incredibly time-consuming, back in the days when we had a decent amount of advertising on the magazine I edit, I'd spend about a week banging my head against the wall trying to get artwork from people who'd paid for their damn adverts but didn't seem to want to actually give them to me.)

Then the designer gets a complete package of content and can concentrate on the design work, dropping it all into a pre-set template with some tweaks and flourishes here and there.

Then a final proof goes back to the editor to proof read and they sign it off.

Much less back and forth.

(Source: Former newspaper reporter, I now edit a members' magazine - it's a fair bit smaller than yours, about 26 pages and A5 - I think that's about half of US Letter. We have a lot of submitted stories but after that point, only two people are involved, me and the designer, who's an external contractor. It takes me a couple of weeks to wrangle all the words and photos, including writing about half the thing myself, and the designer takes a couple of days to lay it all out, based on a fairly regular template. When it's mostly done, we sit down together and review it, I go away and tie up about a dozen loose ends over the next 24 hours, he sends me a proof, I proofread it and call him and we spend an hour picking up stray apostrophes, and that's us).
posted by penguin pie at 9:55 AM on February 6, 2021 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Should our communications person really need ten working days for the layout, given that this is a major portion of their job and they should be able to devote a least half of their day to the task during production?

Yes. I'm a graphic designer. I actually laughed out loud when I saw this. Assuming that you care about quality, and want things to look slightly different each issue, and you want the whole to thing to look professional, being able to do a 50 page magazine in 40 non-contiguous hours is impressive for one person.

Sometimes they come back to the comms person to fix wrong resolutions or other issues, and then send back a new electronic version of the issue.

This should be a very rare occurrence. These kind of things are basic knowledge for designers, and they should be checking the files before they go to the printer.

Would we be able to save time by having graphic design and/or editorial services performed by the production company?

By "production company" I assume you mean the printer. This kind of work generally isn't what printers do, and you generally don't want people who aren't familiar with your content to be doing design and editorial things. You could hire more people, or freelancers.

If you're printing this quarterly, work with your printer to get on their schedule for the entire year. If you're printing every three months, you shouldn't to go through that process for every issue.
posted by jonathanhughes at 9:58 AM on February 6, 2021 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Good advice above, but I’d also encourage you to think about your content strategy for the magazine—if you have a longer production timeline (completely reasonable for a small shop and 50 page book), how can you think about the content you are featuring to be more evergreen? Is the purpose of your magazine to distribute time-sensitive info or news? If so, magazine may not be the best format and a simple newsletter (print or digital) may be better. What kind of stories make good content that meet your goals and audience’s wants so the content still feels fresh even if it is not timely/breaking news?

Regarding time, you didn’t specify what you meant by delivery and how that delivery works—if you are mailing via a comail pool, that can add a week or two. That may be another place where you can shave some time if you have budget to dedicate.
posted by HonoriaGlossop at 10:05 AM on February 6, 2021 [11 favorites]

I also came to suggest adjusting your content goals. This may also get you a bit of static from the larger reading/submitting group, but directly soliciting pieces that are general enough to not become outdated within 2 months would be a good place to devote some energy. Clear guidelines about topics and very clear editorial feedback that comes soon after submission (so that the writer can revise as needed to make the piece less time-sensitive) could help. Ideally, you want to make it clear to submitters that pieces that are quickly outdated are not an appropriate submission for print. Once you have your digital arm up and running, time sensitive pieces can be published there.
posted by quince at 10:50 AM on February 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Chiming in that this seems reasonable, but some of the work maybe could move earlier in the cycle which, depending on the top end of the work flow, might result in some savings (if the articles are sitting between receipt and layout.)

Strategically you possibly could gain some time (work with your designer!) by templating more or having strict word counts, if that’s something you’re not doing. However, that will contribute to a sense of “sameness,” so there’s a trade off. Advertising cycles can also really throw things. So if your goal is really set on moving to print faster it’s worth examining every process. But like comments above, I think your biggest wins will be moving to more electronic formats and examining the utility of each piece in terms of relevance.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:01 AM on February 6, 2021

Also, I would guess that it’s members submitting their deathless prose is creating some extra time in the editorial communication piece. Working with professional writers is a lot faster usually because they turn requests around fast and (depending) don’t need as much time for diplomacy.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:08 AM on February 6, 2021 [7 favorites]

This is a super normal timeline for print magazines of any quality whatsoever. Source: I used to be managing editor of a monthly magazine. Everyone needs time to do their jobs in that process: writing, editing, copy editing, revisions, review, design, production, printing, distribution. Many of those people involved—or your audience—will be unhappy if you further crunch the schedule without gaining efficiency somewhere, as others have mentioned options for above.

As others have noted, you may need to look at your content strategy for disseminating any info that is more timely and specific. Also, if you need to know things like event info in advance to be able to put them in a publication that's coming out in two months and have the info still be relevant, that requires some advance work, talking to people to get preliminary information before it may be released to the general public. You need to think strategically about when it will be coming out and plan on the basis of that longer timeline. For stuff in between, that's what digital distribution on the web and in email newsletters will handle.
posted by limeonaire at 11:12 AM on February 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I work for a professional association that prints a (previously monthly, moving to quarterly) glossy, full-color member magazine and these timelines seem entirely reasonable and similar to ours. And we have a much larger, dedicated magazine staff. Believe me, as a marketing person who often forgets how early the deadline is for the house ads we use to fill space or the rare occasion when I contribute to a column or story, we can sometimes squeeze it to 6 weeks for internal staff-driven content if the magazine team knows it's coming and we write/design to fit space that they hold for us. But again - full time, dedicated magazine staff including three writers/editors plus a dedicated copyeditor and a full time art director; and most of our articles are written by professional writers (freelance or staff).

We were able to do some last-minute story gathering, writing, editing, and changes to I think it was our April 2020 issue to have at least some pandemic-related content so it didn't seem completely out of touch, but that took a herculean effort on the part of our magazine staff and would never be a sustainable timeline for a regular issue.

I do agree that there could be a shift to your content editing and proofing processes. Editing is finished before layout, for the most part. Going over the proof we get from the printer is where our copyeditor does much of her work - and the only thing coming out of that round should be typos, house style corrections, fixing spelling of names, etc.

Content-wise, the magazine is where we tell stories - humanizing the topics our members care about, raising new issues, doing a deep dive on an area of practice - not how we distribute news. We've lately switched to a "digital first" model that has articles being released throughout the month on our website (promoted via our weekly email member newsletter) which does allow us to have a little bit more news-y content but care is still taken that articles are written in such a way that when they eventually come out in print they still are relevant.
posted by misskaz at 11:31 AM on February 6, 2021 [4 favorites]

Laying out copy before it's edited is a fool's errand; write then edit then put it together. (Did production for college newspaper and worked in prepress for six years: rework wastes time.)

It may not shorten your process, though, unless you bring in a pro editor earlier in the whole cycle.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:52 AM on February 6, 2021 [8 favorites]

I was absolutely going to say oh they could do it faster but read the answers and realised jfc my boss is insane. I’m expected to turn around a digital 35-50 page magazine every three weeks with on top of other work. It’s fairly standardised which helps, but the process itself is frequently delayed by volunteer editors from my planned three week timeline down this issue to four working days. I am not looking forward to the planned print issues coming up.

Yes it is possible, no it is utterly unreasonable and the outcome will be unsustainable. I am looking for another job.

A digital newsletter is much faster and time-sensitive.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:10 PM on February 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: While the process has some inefficiencies, that's a reasonable time-frame for an ordinary, i.e., "long lead" glossy monthly or quarterly, even more so for a small circulation one.

The production resources required to produce short-lead glossies are extraordinary. Time Inc. in its glory days needed thousands of people, and an exclusive production and distribution chain, in order to be topical on a 3-5 day delay for Time, Sports Illustrated, People, etc., and even then significant feature and and review content and ad pages would have multi-week or longer leads so the shortest-lead material could be fit in around it. The staffing resources that less mass-market weeklies have (e.g. The New Yorker) are still very heavy even when the content is mostly with weeks or months of lead time and the most topical material occupies only a small number of pages.
posted by MattD at 7:47 PM on February 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everybody. Your responses have all been extremely helpful so far. I have marked a few that had info I was unaware of and/or hadn't taken into account.

It is good to know that our instincts about what needs to happen are mostly on track. The entire magazine effort got derailed last year, largely (but not entirely) due to Covid, and the committee that deals with it is taking the opportunity to address some pre-existing issues, including developing a yearly calendar/production plan so that they are not always focussed only on whatever is immediately due, building up a cache of evergreen content so that they are not caught out when somebody flakes on an article, etc.. I also want them to start paying for articles and open up to freelance submissions outside the membership itself, in order to bring more professionalism to the process. Once that starts to fall into place, some of the major issues should start to improve.

I should have been clear, though, that the eight-week process is from submission of the last article to delivery of the paper copies to our office. Sending them to the members/subscribers is a separate event, which I don't even want to get into here because... yeah. There is definite work to do there.

Also, the production company is not the printer, it is an intermediary, where they seem to double-check the work that, IMHO, should be done by the comms person and the volunteer editor, and then deal with the printer on our behalf. From your responses, I'm wondering if this is a normal part of the process for such a publication?

My feeling is that there is a needless duplication in there, and my instinct is that we need to have competent graphic design and complete editing done either in-house or by this company, but not both. Our comms person sees themselves as a graphics person rather than a words/editorial person, but I'm not sure that is what the organization needs from this role.

If anybody has any additional comments, either on my follow up or on the original question, I'd really appreciate your input. Many thanks!
posted by rpfields at 10:42 AM on February 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Is this production company one of those overseas organizations? I assume you're paying for this service. If that's the case, it's probably better to hire an actual editor (could be on a freelance/contract basis) to handle the copy, and get it into shape for sending to production. It also sounds like you need somebody beyond your communications person to handle the graphic end of things (like checking the files to see if they're in shape for printing--which should be done before they're put into final layout). A second set of eyes (i.e. a proofreader) would also be beneficial if your communications person isn't a "words" person.

Actually, it sounds like you would benefit from rethinking your entire editorial process. I mean it's great that you're able to get a book out on a regular basis given the approach you have. Well done! I just think things could be better organized and people (like your communications person) could be happier doing a job they actually enjoy.
posted by sardonyx at 12:08 PM on February 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you're learning the reason that many organizations outsource their publications. :7) I once clipped out a newspaper quote where someone said, "This is what happens when work that should be done by professionals is done in-house."

Sometimes, passionate or thrifty people can have success doing a job that experienced, trained pros do for a living. (Like I said, we laid out a daily newspaper with just college kids, cold pizza, and plenty of X-Acto blades, five days a week -- and we had no idea what we were doing!)

Professional production & editorial staff understand both the longer timeline, and the need to pay for people with specific skills who work quickly (e.g., editors, proofers, and layout artists). They stretch out the whole process over a dozen or sixteen weeks, but they have multiple projects/issues going -- at different stages -- during that time.

If your readership says your content is stale, you either need to tighten up the production schedule (which usually means spending for dedicated staff), or else split the timely stuff onto a digital platform and save the less time-sensitive stuff for a smaller, printed piece.

This is a tough place you're in, and you all deserve credit for facing it openly.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:48 AM on February 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

My 2 cents (as a graphic designer who previously worked for a company that sounds similar to your production company): 8 weeks is bit longer than needed, but some of that time may be due to working with volunteers? And it's dependent on how design-heavy the magazine is.

Here's my rough timeline:

Once files are received, initial design should be done in 1-2 weeks. A proof goes out to your organization for an initial review. This should be returned in a week. Production company should make your changes, and do their internal reviews and get the magazine close to final. This should take one more week. At this point they send you a 'final' proof for your review. This final review shouldn't take more than 3-4 days as the magazine has already been reviewed once.

At this point, you give your final changes, and approval to print. Production company makes your last changes and sends it off to the printer. Once at the printer, it should be printed and shipped out in about 2 weeks. (This can be sped up if you reserve press time ahead and stick to your schedule.)

My schedule above is about 6-7 weeks.

Areas you might be able to shave some time: quicker proofing; making a schedule (and keeping to it); pre-scheduling press time; figure out a way to have the printer mail your magazine (this should not be coming back to your office for mailing!); your press proofing method of blues sounds a bit dated. You can switch to digital proofing to save time.

Feel free to memail me if you have further questions. I've lived in this space for about 20 years.
posted by hydra77 at 9:34 AM on February 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

... Meant to add that if any of the resources (designers, printers, editors) are overseas or even different timezones, that can negatively affect timing.
posted by hydra77 at 9:35 AM on February 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

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