Long, long ago, in a land far away—well actually it was on the fourth floor of our building at 241 First Avenue (below)—but anyway, editors of all ages and skills toiled diligently. They mostly edited manuscripts that had something to do with geography. In those days, we researched using books and news stories from newspapers and magazines. We edited on a shared computer. We created layouts using paper and waxed galleys. Every editor took his or her project from manuscript all the way through production.
Some of my editorial staff were exceptionally good at the substantive work. They could help an author wrestle a tricky concept into something clear and clean. They could give advice on the proper context to something that happened long ago. Other editors excelled at the visual part of the work. Give them photos and some keyline sheets, and they’d produce a tight, cohesive layout to series spec.
Relatively few editors were equally good at both substantive and production work. I could tell this when I met with them one-on-one. They’d quickly and thoroughly tell me about their progress in the part of their workload they were good at. But they’d get bogged down and hesitant when they discussed the area of work in which they were not quite as skilled. Slowly, it became clear that our workflow wasn’t playing to people’s strengths.
Meanwhile, desktop publishing was taking hold. MACs appeared among our graphic designers. Keylining was out. A few of my staff—those who excelled on the visual side—expressed interest in this new technology. They trained on the designers' MACs and tinkered with the first electronic layouts to learn the ropes. Eventually, they became skilled enough to try their hand at creating their own layouts. Et voilà, we have production editors (PEs).
After a final manuscript is dumped into an electronic file (early on in Quark but now in InDesign), PEs reshape the file by adding photos, artwork, sidebars, graphic treatments, captions and the like. They work closely with designers and with the substantive editors to ensure they have achieved the right look and balance and are within the photo budget. They send the layout to its author and editor and make sure the project is proofed and indexed. They submit the final layout for editorial, design, and prepress approval. So that’s how the PE job evolved into an essential part of our workflow.