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Thursday, June 13, 2013


Steve Cole thinks out loud about the just-completed Captain's Log #47.

1. Doing an issue of Captain's Log is like doing a fill-in-the-blank puzzle with about 60 pieces. You have the problem of actually finding, recruiting, or creating the pieces, but you also have the problem that you aren't really sure what size the pieces are until very close to the end. So if somebody asks if there is room for something, I probably don't know until it's too late.

2. We start with an Excel file we call the workbook. It lists every article we think we're going to have, or at least a general category. (As time goes by, we may add or delete entire lines.) The workbook is organized by chapters (History, Commo, FedComm, SFB Scenarios, SFB Tactics, SFB Database, Venues, Call to Arms, F&E, Shipyard). The first column is "Concept" and that means we're planning to have an article on a certain subject and we guess it will be about that many pages. The point is to "rough in" the general idea of the layout of the book; the first guess is never very close. Some things are almost routine and rarely change in size (e.g., one page of SFBF cards, one page for awards). Other things may be a complete guess (such as a promised victory article or the main fiction story), and tactical papers will usually be as big as we can make them (although these days that rarely means more than one page per game system).

3. In selecting what goes into the workbook's concept plan we face competing priorities. Every game system needs its fair share and sometimes the staff for that system is campaigning for more pages as department heads want to print some big chunk of playtest stuff for their next product. Authors want to get their item into the book. We want to provide coverage for as many empires as possible, which means making sure that non-Alpha empires get into the book somewhere.

4. The standard sections are fairly straightforward, and we just do them (or tell the relevant staffer to do them). Smaller outside content (e.g., tactical primers) isn't much of a problem, but we do have to recruit such things. Our department heads usually have no problem at all getting their page or two done.

5. The bigger sections are where the challenge comes. These include fiction (we never know what's going to show up), "Victory" (which can be any length and seem to always be late but are very popular), Battle Groups (done by enthusiastic readers who want to show off their skills), and the F&E scenario or playtest pack (which is very popular with F&E players but usually comes in fairly late and no one can ever predict how many pages it will take.

6. There are some medium-sized pieces that take some thought and planning but which are important to the presentation. Steven Petrick does "Monsters" and "Update." These might be three or four or five or six pages each, and even he doesn't know what size they will be until they are actually finished. The four FC ship cards are easy to do once somebody selects the idea. The 12 SFB SSDs are a little trickier since this includes a package of four, some submissions from the FC Forum and BBS, and ships that SFB players want. The Starmada, F&E Q&A, and ACTASF sections are done by qualified and dependable staffers, but these can vary a little in size from 3-8 pages. (At least these guys get their stuff in early enough we can nail down just how many pages they will take.)

7. The total page count remains the big mystery until very late in the process (this time until four days before we went to press). When you consider that the fiction could be 10-30 pages, Battle Groups could be 10-20, Victory could be 6-15, the three medium sections could total anywhere from 9-20, Monsters could be 4-6, Update could be 3-6, and so forth, you realize that early in the process we don't know if we're going to have space for something that somebody wants to add. Some things get done, then bumped to later issues. Some things get grabbed and shoved into empty spots. If you ask us two or three weeks before press time if we would have time for something you want to write, we don't know. We'll all but certainly tell you to go ahead and do it as we can build it into the plan for the next issue.
8. We tend to use the SFB Scenario section as the accordion. If some article turns out to be a page short, we move the extra page to SFB Scenarios. If some article turns out to be a page or two long, we take pages out of SFB Scenarios. Over the last two weeks of the process, that section varies every day, sometimes reaching as many as 18 pages or as few as six. That used to be no problem as we once (a few years ago) had dozens of unpublished scenarios on file, but these days, we don't have any scenarios on file and we often have to create scenarios on the spot. That's not necessarily a bad thing (it is usually the only way we have scenarios using the new ships in the issue). The problem here is that until we nail down the exact page count we cannot work on the whole section. SFB scenarios tend to be large (1.5 to 2.5 pages) and we may use a totally different set of scenarios to create a section that is nine pages compared to one that is 10 pages, and yet a third combination to make an 11-page section.

9. Then it comes time to actually do pages. Actually, the process is dynamic and many pages are "done" a week or more before we have any idea how big other things will be. Steve Cole (me) does almost all of the page layout, not because he (I) wants to, but because nobody does it better. Thinking like an engineer, the mission is to get all of the parts to fit into the package. As each page is finished, it is printed out and/or PDFed and sent for review. Every page goes to Jean Sexton and Steven Petrick (and I read most of them again, even if I wrote them or laid them out). Some pages go back to the author, and others go to selected staffers. Sooner or later those "mark ups" come back to me. (They are color coded. Purple ink means Jean, green means Steven Petrick, blue means staffers.) I make the corrections, tell it to print another copy of that page, and put the mark up in my out basket. Sooner or later, Jean "marries up" the mark up and the new print and either marks it "ok" and puts it in the "finished" stack, or marks something else (maybe a correction I didn't see or did wrong, maybe something new) and gives it back to me. This process repeats until we have 144 "ok" pages.

10. A complicating factor is page numbers. Each chapter is a separate file, and until we know how big other chapters are, we don't know what page a give chapter starts on. So many of the first pages to get to the "ok" status have the wrong page numbers, and those have to be caught later. That happens when we get the final missing pieces, define a final page count, and "lock" the page numbers. All of the chapter files are updated to show the correct starting page, which probably changes most of the page numbers. One the book is "locked" I do the table of contents and somebody checks it against the "ok" pages and brings me anything that just has to be reprinted.

11. Something else that happens are "alibi marks." Say we have ordered a piece of art, but it has not arrived. If the page is finished, we put a black block on the "OK" page extending off the edge. That tells us that page is "obviously" not finished. Alibi marks are used for no end of things, including tactical paper ranks (which cannot be done until the book is locked and all of the pages of tactical papers and articles are done), something waiting for a staff decision, campaign ribbons for the issue itself (as we may not know if a given article will be in it or not), or something we need to update later. As we get to the end of the process (sometimes after all of the articles come in, and sometimes before they do if some article is very late) somebody pulls the "ok pages with alibi marks" out of the book and brings them to me to create or find the missing material.

12. Then we finally have 144 finished pages, all marked ok, none of them with alibi marks. (Well, we hope all of that is done before we do this next bit or it gets complicated.) We then have to run the spell check on each page. (This was done earlier in the process as part of creating the drafts, but edits often install misspelled words.) Because the page layout software has such an awful spell checker, we have to export the text back to Word and test it there. That (amazingly) produces about 50 misspelled words and about 30 other changes that get discovered in the process.
13. Then I have to create the PDF. This is straightforward. I just get all of the settings right, then open each chapter, export a PDF, and string them all together into one document. This is complicated by the fact that (due to some software issues) the two pages with Excel charts (the SIT and the MSC) have to be done on another computer and inserted into the book then. Once we have the PDF, we print it out, and at least three different people turn through every page. Sometimes we see an alibi mark that nobody missed, and we go back to fix it. (That's why we use the big black blocks.) Rarely, we see an issue with layering (the white background of a picture may extend over some text). Usually, somebody notices something wrong that has never been noticed before. Once in a great while, the software did something wrong and part of the PDF is corrupted. All of that is fixed.

14. Then we start printing books, binding them, and shipping them. While that is going on, Steve Cole creates the large print edition, which goes back through step 13 and 14. We also have to create the supplement.

15. Once all of that is done, we start on the FLAP list, updating the indexes and website and catalog and everything else to reflect the new issue.