Thursday, September 17, 2009

Editorial Standards, Pulp Fiction and eHow

The front page article today on eHow has some typos in it (probably fixed by now). This has prompted much green-eyed discussion about how low eHow's standards are.

Don't get me wrong. Scads of typos in the front page top features article of the day doesn't look very professional. eHow should at least spend a little editorial time making sure that one article is perfect. It's not like it would cost much.

But eHow is not a slick (high end magazine). They don't pay hundreds or even thousands for a front cover article. eHow is more like a pulp magazine. They're down, they're dirty, and they are focused on giving the readers what they want. Pulps are more pragmatic and less polished. That's just the way it is.

I'll tell you a story I heard from Harlan Ellison. Ellison is an amazing, prize-winning short story writer. His stuff is gut-grabbing and literary, but he started in the pulps. He wrote for fractions of pennies per word, so he had to write a lot to make a living, and that volume made him fast and sure. Every word became like the strokes of a chef's knife, pretty only when necessary, but always accurate and to the point.

Now, the editorial needs of a pulp magazine are somewhat different than a fancier, high-paying magazine. They need what they need when they need it. For instance, the magazines would commission their lurid covers well in advance of getting the stories for the magazine. They'd just make up titles and author names, and writers would compete to get to write the stories. Of course, the biggest prize was the cover story itself - the story that matched the glowing yellow cover with the monster and the sexy babe on it.

Harlan tells of one time getting the cover story by luck. He found an editor one day all in a tizzy. The writer for the cover story of the next issue had flaked out on him. He needed a 20,000 words story the very next day, and he had nothing.

Harlan looked at the cover, which featured a giant glowing earthworm tearing the clothes off a buxom woman, and thought about it.

"You know, I've got a giant earthworm story."

"Great! Can you have to me tomorrow?"

"Gee, I don't know. It's only 18,000 words. I guess I could stay up all night working on it...."

Harlan got the assignment, got the money and glory for writing a featured cover story, and paid extra for doing the rush job.

The thing is, he didn't have an 18,000 word story about alien worms raping the women of earth. Until he saw the cover, he hadn't even thought about such a story. He just went home and wrote the whole thing from scratch that night, turned it in in the morning and got all the money and glory.

That story probably wasn't very good. Even with the Ellison touch, it probably would have been rejected by that same editor if it had come in over the transom (i.e., if it had been an unsolicited submission).

But because it was exactly what that client needed at that time, it didn't matter. It got the money and glory anyway.

That's just the nature of the business.

So, when it comes to the front page articles on eHow, let's spend less time being jealous and disdainful, and more time trying to understand just what makes that article so valuable to eHow - our client. Because when it comes down to it, it doesn't matter how professional or not eHow's standards are, our professionalism demands that we understand what they need.

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