Magazine Industry, Production Process of

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The production process of a magazine involves several steps that are often carried out simultaneously by all who contribute to the final product, including the editorial and advertising departments, the printer, and the circulation department. For this reason, communication, planning, and organization are vital in the process of turning ideas into a magazine. While every magazine varies in this process, a basic formula does exist.

Planning and Preparing Content

The process often begins with the end. The editor and the publisher determine a date that a magazine will reach the reader, and the printer and the circulation department provide deadlines that must be met to accomplish this. Once these dates are established, the scheduling and planning of the magazine can proceed.

With most magazines, the stories for each issue are planned several months, even one year, in advance. An idea for a story can come from several sources: the editor, the staff, queries from free-lance writers, and, occasionally, unsolicited manuscripts. The content of each issue is ultimately the responsibility of magazine editors. The staff is typically expected to submit ideas to the editor. They are often the best source of story ideas because they have a more developed understanding of the focus of a magazine. Queries from free-lance writers are also sent to the editor. A query should clearly outline the story idea and any special knowledge or the sources to be used by the writer. A finder's fee may be paid to the author of a query if the idea is used but assigned to another writer. While many magazines do not read any unsolicited manuscripts, some magazines have found it worthwhile to sort through these works. Regardless of its origin, once an idea is approved by the editor, it is assigned to either staff or free-lance writers.

When a manuscript is completed by a writer, it is usually given to a magazine in electronic format along with a hard copy. Depending on the size of the staff, an editor may route a manuscript through what is called a "reading line" of senior editors for their comments and evaluation. Often, a manuscript will need some repair to be usable. The writer is provided with suggestions for necessary changes and asked to make the revisions. After this step, if only minor changes are needed, the magazine staff may make the revisions themselves. The magazine will then officially accept or reject the manuscript.

If a manuscript is officially accepted, it enters the copyediting phase. It will be thoroughly checked for accuracy. Every fact used in the manuscript must be verified, including names, quotes, and statistics. A writer is commonly asked to provide his or her sources, so a fact checker may retrace every step. The reputation of a publication is at risk because its readers expect the publication to be a reliable source, and advertisers do not want to be associated with poor-quality product. Fact checking also helps guard against lawsuits. While larger magazines have an entire department of fact checkers, other magazines rely on editors or copy editors to verify the accuracy of each manuscript.

A copy editor then critically reviews the manuscript for any grammatical errors or misspelled words, rewrites any awkward phrasing, and solves any organizational problems. A manuscript must also comply with the style adopted or developed by a magazine, which governs the treatment of things such as abbreviations, punctuation, names, titles, and spelling preferences. The copy editor is responsible for the overall polishing of the manuscript for publication. Once the copyediting is complete, the manuscript is ready to be laid out by the art department.

By the time a manuscript leaves the copy desk, the art director and the editor or assigning editor have made decisions about illustration or photography to accompany the piece. A freelance photographer may have been hired for a photo shoot or the rights to print an image may have been purchased by a stock photography agency. Low-resolution scans of these images, text, and any captions or pull quotes written by the assigning editor are given to a designer in the art department to lay out. The art director and the editor will then review the design and send it back to the copy desk for proofreading and any minor trimming necessary. Once a layout is approved by the copy editor, editor, and art director, it is ready for printing.

Production, Printing, and Distribution

Deciding what articles and advertisements will run in an issue and where they will be placed is called the break of the book. The size of an issue and the ratio of advertisement to editorial must be determined. Once these variables are established, a production manager begins mapping out the magazine, usually making a thumbnail of each page. The editor and the art director provide an outline of stories they want to include in the issue. Most publications have departments and special sections that run in the same place each issue, which aids in planning the magazine. Regardless, the map will undergo several revisions throughout production—to accommodate any changes in advertisements and stories scheduled to run.

The production manager oversees the final preparations made for the printer. While the editorial pages are coming together, the production manager collects materials for the advertising pages. Because most of these pages are created by other advertising agencies and design houses, the production manager must be sure that each advertisement arrives on time and conforms to the specifications of the publication. Advertisements are often sent to the magazine as film or in electronic format, but they can also be sent as preprinted pages that will be bound into the publication.

Before the production manager gives the materials to the printer, the printer has already scheduled press time, ordered paper, and made any other preparations possible. As soon as the printer receives the materials, the prepress process begins. If low-resolution images have been used, they will be replaced with high-resolution files. Any final color adjustments to the images will also be made at this time. The magazine is now ready to go to film.

A printer will not run the press without final approval from the publisher. Therefore, a proof is pulled from the film so the magazine can sign off on it. Printers have several ways of making proofs, from blue lines to digital color proofs. At this point, the order of the pages is checked, and the entire publication is reviewed one last time for any errors. While the printer will charge for any changes that are made at this point, it is the last opportunity to make corrections without spending a great deal of money. Once this proof is approved, the magazine is ready to go to press.

The production manager or the art director may be present at the beginning of a press run for quality control purposes. This process is called a press check, and it involves working with the press operators to ensure that the pages will run in register with acceptable color quality. When the representative of a magazine is satisfied with the press sheet, it is signed and used as a reference throughout the press run.

After the magazine pages are printed and dried, they will be folded, trimmed, bound, and made ready for distribution. A circulation director is responsible for getting the magazine into the hands of the reader. Larger magazines have in-house circulation departments that physically prepare the magazines for distribution. They also maintain records of subscribers and their subscription status and are responsible for fulfilling the agreement. Magazines are typically labeled with mailing addresses and bar codes and presorted for second-class mail. A circulation department must know the requirements of the U.S. Postal Service and meet these specifications to ensure a cost-efficient and timely delivery.

For single-copy sales, the circulation department may work with a national distributor to get the printed issues to retailers. A large magazine will ship copies to wholesalers throughout the country provided by the national distributor. A wholesaler will record the quantities that they send to retailers such as supermarkets and convenience stores in their region. Any unsold copies will be returned to the wholesaler, who notifies the national distributor. The national distributor is able to provide sales figures for the publisher.

Maintaining Editorial Focus

The publisher and the editor must be in tune with their target audience to create a successful magazine. The publisher relies on sales figures and subscriptions as a source to track the progress of the publication. A magazine may also conduct or commission reader surveys, and it is the editor's job to use this information to ensure that the editorial content reflects the preferences of readers. Throughout the production process, the editor is responsible for keeping the big picture in sight, and ensuring that the decisions made will uphold the mission of the magazine.

Most magazines are classified as either consumer or trade publications. Hundreds of categories exist in the consumer classification. Each targets readers by where they live, their interests, age, sex, income level, race, or any other defining characteristics. A consumer magazine finds a niche that allows advertisers to reach a target market that is relevant to their product. Advertising is a large portion of consumer magazine revenue, and these magazines are readily available to consumers. Trade magazines target specific professions, and while advertising is an important source of revenue, trade magazines can charge much higher subscription rates than consumer magazines.

The nature of a magazine is an important variable to consider in the production process. Scheduling is the most obvious factor that is affected by the focus of a magazine. For example, a news magazine does not have the predictability of other magazines. Special reports and investigations must be put together quickly if they are going to remain newsworthy by the time the publication is distributed. Fashion magazines have a little more predictability in that, typically, fall and spring issues are larger to accommodate the fashion shows and new styles of the season. Many photo shoots for fashion, lifestyle, and outdoor magazines must be completed one year in advance due to the change of seasons. For example, if a fall issue requires outdoor scenes, the photographer cannot capture the changing leaves with a photo shoot in May.

Editorial scheduling is just one of the many factors that are influenced by the type of magazine being produced. The size of a magazine staff, and the process a manuscript must go through, can also vary. For example, a cooking magazine typically has a test kitchen staff. Their job is to test any recipe for publication to ensure that it is usable and tasty. They also develop recipes for stories and contribute to story ideas. Thus, while a manuscript is being scrutinized by editors and copy editors, the accompanying recipes are being analyzed by the test kitchen. Other magazines may require a manuscript to be checked for accuracy and relevance by a field expert before it is officially accepted by for publication. Fitness magazines, for example, often have medical experts that review manuscripts for accuracy.

A magazine that has a heavy concentration of photography and images, such as an art magazine, caters to a more visual audience. Having a target audience with discriminating eyes makes the production and printing quality of the utmost importance, and it may require more color proofs and extensive press checks. Many art magazines use a higher quality of paper, which affects the size of the production cost per issue.

Technological Advancements

The magazine production process has changed tremendously since the mid-twentieth century because of technological advances. Most magazines have become digital, using personal computers and page layout software. This has eliminated several positions and steps in the production process. Prior to the desktop revolution, the production process was a closely linked chain, in which each person performed a specific duty without variation in a sequence without deviation. With the advent of desktop publishing, these specific duties became blurred as every staff member became more closely involved in the production process. Now, an editor can place copy in a layout while an art director can perform tasks that were normally left to the production staff. Therefore, it has become necessary for people working in a desktop publishing system to resolve these issues of responsibility in order to prevent conflict among the members of the staff and to avoid confusion in the production process.

Magazine staffs have also been reduced as computer software has simplified tasks that once required specialized training. Magazines enjoy the economic benefit of producing magazines with a smaller staff, yet members of the staff find themselves performing more duties than ever before. One person can edit text, format it, and perform pagination simultaneously, speeding up the process and eliminating the bottlenecks of the old process.

As technology has provided a faster, more efficient way of putting together a magazine, editorial and advertising deadlines have been pushed back. News magazines can add timely stories as they broke, and all magazine advertising departments enjoy the extra time to pull in more advertising. Yet this puts added pressure on the production staff to meet the tight deadlines. Constantly changing technology has also become an issue. As new software and systems are constantly being introduced and used in the publishing industry, production staffs must train and learn to use new tools, often for job security. Despite the new gray areas presented by technological developments, magazines have enjoyed the benefits of a faster, more streamlined production process.

The technological explosion has also contributed to the development of an entirely new category of magazine. Several computer magazines have been successfully established, while other magazines have added new sections that relate their editorial focus to computers, such as online shopping, guides to useful Internet web-sites, and reader e-mails. It is only natural that this new computer culture makes its way into editorial content as it becomes a part of the everyday lives of the readers.

Just as magazines cannot ignore this growing computer culture editorially, publishers have found themselves faced with questions about the future of printed medium versus electronic format. Most magazine professionals have realized that electronic media should be seen as another form for distribution of their information, rather than as a threat to their magazine. While most publishers have not rushed to embrace an electronic format completely, they have begun to take advantage of the technology in one way or another.

The CD-ROM became one of the avenues explored by magazines in the mid-1990s. The capacity of the compact disc (CD) to store not only text and large images but animation, video, and sound provides a new challenge editorially. An entirely new world became the realm of possibility for magazines. Readers can navigate through text and images with greater freedom—with cross-references and indexes that literally lead the readers to whatever information they seek. Readers can interact with the electronic pages. Despite these advantages, computer compatibility and slower hard drives remain a challenge. Magazine publishers have found this a useful way to provide special one-shot publications or software that act as companions to their magazines. For example, cooking magazines have used the CD-ROM to provide recipe software that allows readers to access an entire database of recipes as well as to add their own recipes to the archived material.

Online magazines offer even more advantages to communicating ideas. While the World Wide Web offers more options for content than a printed magazine, such as sound and video, the immediacy of the web is perhaps its most powerful asset. The production process requires fewer steps than the printed magazine. This allows editors to update a page as quickly and as often as they choose, meaning that there are no "old issues" or obsolete stories. Magazines can finally have the same relevancy that only television and radio possessed in the past. Editors are also able to communicate directly with readers, responding to their questions and suggestions as quickly as they wish. An online magazine can set up a forum or "chat room" where readers can communicate with each other as well as with the editorial staff. While these advantages are undeniable, most printed magazines are not switching over to online formats. Instead, the magazines are expanding to include the online formats.

See also:Editors; Magazine Industry; Magazine Industry, Careers in; Magazine Industry, History of; Printing, History and Methods of; Writers.


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Daly, Charles P.; Henry, Patrick; and Ryder, Ellen. (1997). The Magazine Publishing Industry. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

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Mogel, Leonard. (1998). The Magazine: Everything You Need to Know to Make It in the Magazine Business, 4th edition. Pittsburgh: GATF Press.

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Stacey Benedict

Tracy Lauder