Editors at Work: Making the Budget Your Friend

By Jack Limpert

In 40 years as an editor, the most important money lesson I learned: Get a reputation for being responsible about spending money and come in on budget. Doing that had two big benefits:

I was able to convince the publisher that I could be trusted with money if I was given the freedom to spend editorial money in the most effective way without interference from anyone else. No second-guessing by accounting, nobody telling me you can’t do that. The big plus in that budget freedom was flexibility: I was able to make all kinds of deals with all kinds of writers with the aim of getting their best work. There were several terrific writers who had become mothers and wanted to work on a part-time basis and we were able to adjust their hours and pay depending on their circumstances. Some writers worked as normal freelancers—X amount for this story, with each story negotiated separately—but with some writers we could come up with regular payments but not a full-time salary. The deals could be reworked at any time so that both writer and editor were happy.

We also were able to expand our intern program, running it with lots of flexibility as to how long the internship would be and how much they’d be paid (all got at least the minimum wage). A good intern program identified talent and lots of our best interns ended up joining the staff. I never thought I was able to get a good fix on any potential editor or writer in one interview, but having someone in the office for four months or a year as an intern let us really get to know their strengths, weaknesses, and potential.

The other big benefit: Being trusted with money let me get control of the art department. When I started as a magazine editor in 1969, the magazine’s art department ran separately from editorial—once the designers had the words, they decided on the art with only minimal input from editorial. Some art directors are good at reading stories, talking with writers and editors about what the story is trying to say, and then coming up with art that helps bring readers into the story. The conflict I had with some art directors was the feeling that they weren’t all that interested in words, they were too quick to decide on an art approach, and sometimes they seemed to be trying to impress other designers with their daring and originality rather than designing for the reader. When the editor controls the art department’s budget, there is much more common interest is using art to help  the reader understand and enjoy the story.

A cautionary note: If editors and designers are going to work well together, the role of the editor is not to argue design. Let the designers do their best work without feeling that editors are going to try to substitute their design sense for that of the art department. But editors should argue clarity: Does the lead art help the reader get into the story and is it true to what the story is about? Is the type easily readable? Are there photos of the key players in the story? Is there a good caption—one that will make the reader want to read the story—with each picture? Sometimes a designer wants to reverse type out of a background screen: Again make sure the type is easily readable. Sometimes a design idea is clever but will the reader be able to figure out how the art fits into the story. More than once I heard a designer say, “Don’t worry, they’ll will figure it out.” My answer always was, “No, they won’t try to figure it out, they’ll turn the page.” There also were plenty of battles about using an illustration vs. a photograph as the lead art. Good illustrations can be wonderful, but they have to be good. If the art is going to be just okay, as some art inevitably is for reasons of time and budget, better an okay photo than an okay illustration.

Finally, one of the challenges for editors and designers is looking at a proposed story layout with fresh eyes. As an editor, I might have been working on a story for six months and I know a lot about it. But what about the reader turning a page in the magazine and looking at the layout with fresh eyes? What you don’t want is the reader looking at a story and thinking, it looks kind of interesting but I can’t really tell what it’s about so maybe I’ll see what else there is to read.

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