5 Answers to a Book Packager’s Most Frequently Asked Question


Why a book? That is, why, in the second decade of the 21st century, should we even consider making a book? (In this case, "we" = a potential client, and "book" means a printed-and-bound publication.)I had been searching for viable answers to this one, when a meeting with a potential client caused the clouds to part, revealing a glimpse of what the question really concerns. She was communications manager for an independent school that was investigating ways to mark its centennial three years hence. Peter and I met with this woman and her boss for more than an hour, showing examples of anniversary-marking publications we had developed and produced. Both people were enthusiastic, but made it clear that nothing would happen until the school's board approved plans and located the funding for the centennial celebration.
Afterward, the manager escorted us through the labyrinth of adolescent high spirits to the parking lot. The period-changing din swallowed up her words until we stepped into a private elevator and I heard loud and clear: "What we really need is a good answer to the question board members keep asking: Why a book? I promised to send her some articles that would help her discuss it with decision makers, thinking I could come up with dozens of cogent quotations in an hour of checking through my "archive" of quotes and such. Had she been asking for musings about why humans needed and revered books by some of the past century's great minds—none of whom were still populating the planet by 1980—I could have, too. But Walter Benjamin, Lionel Trilling, Iris Murdoch, and company never grappled with questions about the need for books as objects or conveyors of information as opposed to those in digital, video, and audio formats. Not one could speak to what really was an emerging new issue:
Why take this (purportedly) more labor-intensive and (arguably) higher-cost approach to imparting your stories and information? In the end, that independent school created a special "wing" (their term) of its website and devoted it to reminiscences by alumni—some video, some audio, all digital. It was charming for a brief visit, but soon became dull—reportedly even to alumni who knew their alma mater well. The school removed it just before its 18th month, and all that remains as a reminder of the school's centennial and accomplishments is the greeting paragraph in the headmaster's online welcome letter. Three sentences in all. But I've never stopped trying to formulate an answer to this question, and following are five attempts. Not every organization will find more than one or two sufficiently compelling to produce a print-paper-and-cloth publication, but even one should provide enough reason for serious consideration:   1. Books imply permanence. As suggested by the web-wing experience of the independent school, a well-made book offers protection against easy dismissal in at least two ways. First, many (I'd venture most) humans are loath simply to toss a book into the trash, even if they don't care about its contents. The physical object has a heft and size that speak to its presence and existence in a way virtual images and words flickering past never will. Then, too, its very physicality lends it the gestalt of a resource apt to reward revisiting.   2. Books offer leisurely perusal. Many of the writers I read concerning the differences between physical books and e-reading devices comment on the sense of calm and measured attention that books can impart. In a book, no highlighted link or winking side topic invades the reading space, offering to whisk you away to some other subject. At least for the foreseeable future, books will continue to offer the perception of being at ease; of being equal to the task of taking in what they contain.   3. Books suggest seriousness. Recently I had a conversation with a bright young woman who was interviewing with college recruiters. She was a polymath who seemingly could do anything: her pianism caused two conservatories to make bids for her enrollment; she was on her school's hackathon team thanks to what sounds like an innate talent for perceiving digital patterns; and a history term paper she wrote had just been accepted by a scholarly journal. Assuming that her primary research tool was the internet, I asked how she determined which sites were solid and reliable. She explained that she only did library research for "rock-solid ideas and data." On occasion, when she had some doubt about how to interpret what she learned from the books, she used online catalogues and databases to back up her research, but it was never her first line of inquiry. "I don't know," she said. "Books are just so much more reliable. They sit there, demonstrate why they say what they do, and kind of challenge you to find fault with their reasoning or material. Online resources seem more like drive-by info."   4. Books are beautiful. A colleague recently brought his 10-year-old son to our office, which is sadly devoid of what might be considered kids' books. He had his handheld game device, so I assumed he'd keep himself amused. Half an hour later, however, I looked over and saw him slowly, carefully looking through a museum catalogue we produced. His father asked what he was doing. He held up the book and said in a matter-of-fact tone: "Reading." "Why that book?" I asked. "Well," he said, "at first I saw it 'cause it's so big, but once I started looking at it, I saw how beautiful it is. It's just, um, really, beautiful." His father allowed that such books caught his son's eye elsewhere, too, and their subject areas really didn't seem to matter.   5. Books are tools. Unlike the commemorative web-wing of the centennial-celebrating independent school mentioned earlier, books remain viable for years. While no one expects them to be "cutting edge" documents for long, if at all, careful development and production will bestow them with long-term benefits for an organization's promotion, marketing, and development functions. In fact, almost all of the anniversary-related books Vern Associates has produced over the years are still in use by their organizations. Several have even been reprinted.

Topics: anniversary publicationcommunicatingprinted books Posted by Brian Hotchkiss on Tue, Jun 4, 2013

Book Packager or Services Provider—Why Either/Or?


Once upon a time, I assumed that owning and managing our own business would become easier. Looking back, I wonder where that naive notion came from. The size of a business does not exempt it from an important dictate that any other business or, really, aspect of life must acknowledge: the more you learn, the more there is to be learned.

Many of the issues we faced early on—taming bookkeeping software, figuring out how to budget job by job as well as year by year, developing boilerplate contract language that is both clear and fair, for example—have given way to new challenges. We even face learning curves that didn't exist in 1994, but one remains as pressing or more so than ever—marketing.

This brings me to today's topic, but rather than trying to offer ideas or suggestions, I'm going to devote this blog to asking readers for your ideas about a particular marketing problem we have faced for most of Vern Associates' history: How do we help a potential client understand what we really offer and how that can help them with their publication needs?

For a case in point, let's look at just one branch of our work: museum books. When we began business, most medium-sized and all large museums supported their own in-house publications departments. Even though these departments regularly assigned editing and design and production duties to freelance service providers, few worked with packagers, who could have put all the pieces together.

The economic roller coaster that hit the rails a few years later, however, caused numerous midsized museums to disband their publications divisions, even though they continued to publish their own books. They still farmed out most or all of the work required to bring their books into being, but now they added the management of the publication process to the workload of their already heavy-laden curators. We expected this to be a boon. After all, we could take on the whole shebang. Vern Associates is a one-stop means to continue publishing without having to manage the work doled out to a disparate band of individual service providers.

From the very start of our business, we have considered the collaborative, all-in-one-office nature of what we offer to be a strong, value-added proposition. Our editorial "wing" works closely in-house with the design/layout/production team. At every stage, each knows the book intimately and is aware of exactly where it stands in its gestation. In addition, our editorial personnel are thoroughly versed in book design, just as the design and production folks are aware of and sensitive to editorial concerns.

But somehow that proposition has worried, even alienated, potential clients, and a good number of whom seem unwilling to recognize that we by no means consider this integrated manner of book production to be mandated. Our trusted staff members frequently augment packaging work with jobs that call for their own individual expertise. For example, I recently edited a book for Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, but Peter didn't see it until a bound copy arrived in the office. Meanwhile, the new book for Winterthur was almost entirely his doing. It came to him with edited manuscript and art program in place. Winterthur even supplied the proofreading and commissioned and edited the index.

So, what are we missing? Why don't museums' in-house staff recognize that we offer individually the skills and expertise that play so well together to make up a package? A long-time museum publications staff member recently mentioned that he refuses to meet with packagers—even those like VAI, who willingly shed the inclusive cloak of an all-in-one service provider. He has always outsourced design and even production, just as his editorial colleagues do, but he doesn't trust the individuals working for a packager not to "do too much."

When Vern Associates is the client, we expect to call the shots. We are paying another business to provide something we need, and it must be exactly what we require. So why would we expect the situation to be any different when feet and shoes get swapped?

We would love to hear your opinions and suggestions that can help unravel this seeming conundrum.

Topics: book designeditorial servicesillustrated-book producerbook production

Posted by Brian Hotchkiss on Tue, May 31, 2011

Domino Number 5: Illustrated Book Design and Client Confidence


Design and active listening

A while ago I posted several blogs dealing with the best ways I’ve found to keep all design-meeting attendees focused so that they listen carefully in order to confirm continually that you—the designer—have understood their comments and requests, both before the meeting and during it. Some pointers include:

  • repeat back what the client describes, and ask if my interpretation is correct;
  • compile a design memo (summation of our discussion, statement of client’s goal, and steps I plan to take to reach that goal);
  • show the client a series of rough sketches throughout the process rather than present a finished sample-page design all at once;
  • review the design memo with the client prior to presenting the sample design; and
  • ask frequently whether the proposed design resolves the issues, answers questions asked, and meets the stated goal.

All of these are crucial—particularly when working with a client team—to keep everyone focused on and in agreement with the preeminent issue: Is the design process moving in the right direction? If you keep this on track, design revisions become a simple retooling of individual parts in order to strengthen the overall design concept.

A frequently encountered and always tricky stumbling block crops up when a client has a fixed preliminary picture—literally or metaphorically—of what the design must convey. Usually this is expressed through excited descriptions in industry-specific terms, often accompanied by the flopping about of examples that “almost get it,” but need to have elements A, B, and Z added, while D, F, and X must be omitted. Even the most innovative interpretation of a client’s early-stage vision can backfire if it is a bad fit—i.e., if it distracts from what the material and publication need to communicate.

The case I’ve chosen to illustrate how this sort of thing can send the dominos skittering is a museum book I designed several years ago. My clients’ goal was to end up with “an exhibition catalog that projects the look and feel of a fashion magazine.” They bubbled enthusiastically about how this idea would work, and as copies of Vogue and WWD and Elle flopped about, their strong commitment to this notion made it clear that I had to turn something vague into a solid concept.

Being asked to apply a “magazine design aesthetic” to an illustrated book generally raises a bevy of red flags in my head. By design, a periodical [noun; a magazine or newspaper published at regular intervals] needs to present many distinct, unrelated, short-form articles, while an illustrated book requires an overarching design that holds readers’ attention from beginning to end and assists them in connecting related essays and references throughout the story.

The clients were excited by the liveliness of fashion magazine layouts as we leafed through recent issues of their favorites, but from what they said, I got the mistaken impression that they understood that the piece we were producing was a museum catalog that included scholarly essays, so an un-magazinelike restraint also was needed.

I worked out several sketches and proceeded to pare down the “fashion magazine aesthetic” to what I considered an appropriately sedate level, employing a brighter color palette and stronger display typography than many such catalogs normally would. I presented the design samples with some trepidation, which was well-founded as it turned out.

The presentation did not go well. The concept they had requested was ill-suited to this particular catalog not to mention unsuitable for projecting the museum’s carefully honed brand. My clients were unpleasantly surprised, perhaps even a bit offended. The circle of opinion givers was widened by the marketing and development offices, and that just fanned the flames firing up the core group’s anxiety. Confidence in my abilities—even taste—plummeted.

Another meeting was hastily arranged, and the looks of dismay on my client’s faces (not to mention sotto voce comments) suggested that I was to be replaced by another designer.

I very quickly opened this second meeting by stating that, while the project was a museum catalog for an intriguing, unusual exhibition, the material demanded to be presented in an equally engaging manner, but one that would still be recognizable immediately as an exhibition catalog. There was no room for a catalog-magazine hybrid. Suggesting we scrap the previous concept altogether and start again, I asked for 10 days to do this.

A week later I presented a brand new sample design that received a unanimously favorable response as well a collective sigh of relief. All the dominos stood back up before too many could tumble.

Photograph: David Benbennick

Topics: illustrated booksillustrated book designgraphic designfine art book publishingorganizational culturemuseum catalogsmuseum publicationsexhibition catalogsmuseums

Posted by Peter Blaiwas on Wed, Sep 25, 2013

Editing the Multiauthor Book

edited copy art

I have just completed work on a 14-chapter nonfiction book to which some 23 authors contributed (some are coauthored). While this certainly is not my first multiauthor MS. Nor is it the most complicated one with which I have dealt. In fact, many of the authors in this particular project bring skill to their writing. But it impresses me as something of a paradigm for this type of editorial work. Why, I kept wondering, do books by numerous different writers require so much more time and care than most single-author works?

The obvious answer is consistency, of course. That one word alone explains perhaps as much as two thirds of the difficulty. On the macro scale, the editor must take in and comprehend the points made by each author well enough that s/he can recognize when one contributor contradicts another. Say, for instance, a table included in chapter 2 points to the conclusion that a particular dollar value may be attributed to forest preservation. Then, in chapter 10, the writer explains how monetarism won't suffice in quantifying benefits--in other words, a conclusion completely at odds with his colleague's. First you must make certain not to fall prey to an apples/oranges argument; then, find a way to describe the problem to both writers so they can arrive at a mutually acceptable resolution. This is not to suggest that individual authors aren't apt to come up with their very own conundrums, just that editorial recognition of them is usually much simpler.On a micro level, not only is it crucial that every author spell toward without the s (or with it, if you prefer), each must also refer accurately and identically to people and corporate entities. For example, one essay in the recently completed book referred to British Columbia's "Great Bear Rainforest." A couple of chapters later, however, another author discussed the "Great Bear's Rain Forest"; and yet a third included a couple mentions of the "Great Bear rain forest." (The first result of a Google search brought me to the Province of British Columbia's website, which cited the "Great Bear Rainforest.") Throughout the book, I adjusted this name about seven times. Now factor in the twist that half of the essays in this book concern South American subjects with English-preferred acronyms for Spanish corporate names, and you begin to see how time consuming such verification becomes. You also will understand how I ended up with an 18-page style sheet.

But what about the remaining one-third? I came to realize that this other portion is primarily spent coping with the opposite of consistency--the delicate balancing act of maintaining tone(s). In this regard, editing a single-author book is usually fairly straightforward: I become aware of, then comfortable with, the writer's voice and approach, then assure that they remain intact throughout the work. With multiple authors, each of whom has her or his distinctive voice, the editor must always weigh to what extent one essay may reflect and/or differ from the others. It is important that the reader is not put off by abrupt changes in voice from chapter to chapter, but the editor must simultaneously permit each piece to maintain its own distinctive character. (This definitely isn't true of a fiction collection, where tonal differences are likely to be part of the point of the publication.)

Now I am about to delve into a nonfiction book written by two--and, in a couple of instances, three--authors working together. Writing by committee. I wish I could recall the first multiauthor book I edited. What must I have done?

Posted by Brian Hotchkiss on Mon, Oct 19, 2009

Domino Wrap-up: Book Packager Reflects on Fears of Falling

flickr_jasonlangheine_162041457_4bff374e3b_z-resized-600.jpg.pngA book producer’s work requires juggling many complex challenges. We know that, and you’ll hear no arguments from our clients, but too many potential clients decide—or are instructed—to take on the same assignment on top of their own full-time jobs. When they finally come to us for help, it is often too late to salvage the situation in time to meet their original deadline in a cost-efficient way.

So back in mid-August, we embarked upon a seven-part series of blogs loosely referred to as “The Toppling Dominoes.” We thought the best way to convey these various challenges was to describe each step in the book-production process by means of real-life examples of how the potential stumbling blocks we’ve faced along the way actually had impacts on projects and how we handled them. (Something like the grueling “My Problem and How I Solved It” series Good Housekeeping magazine issued in the 1960s—a harbinger of so-called reality TV decades later.)

We have been producing publications for close to twenty years, and still each new project brings its own set of unforeseen—sometimes original—glitches, large and small. Because Vern Associates approaches each book as a brand new entity with its own unique story that determines many specific elements of the processes and skills required, we recognize up front that the challenges inherent to any given project will only reveal themselves over the course of the publishing process.

“Toppling Dominoes” illustrates how the success of the finished product relies on how well each element in the publishing process is acquitted, and just like the movement of a long line of falling dominoes, problems that start out slowly gain momentum exponentially as they threaten to infect each successive stage right up to the culmination of the work.

Looking back, it should have come as no surprise that,in one way or another, each of the sticky situations we addressed in this series arose due to lapses in communication. In addition, it became clear that by dealing directly with the misunderstandings, we managed to resolve each glitch in time and on (or extremely close to) budget. The following recap tracks the dominos from the earliest threat of tipping until the those that presented themselves at the last possible moment.

Concept development and pre-manuscript setup: Manuscript development requires more time than any other single step in the process of creating an anniversary history, and it can take weeks or even months to discover that a writer’s narrative has gone seriously off the track. Making up that time is difficult, if not impossible, so the search for the right author requires detailed scrutiny extending well beyond examining CVs, reading clips, and talking to candidates’ previous editors. To do it effectively, time for such research must be built into the schedule up front, and ideally the search culminates with one or more face-to-face meetings between author candidates and client.

Line editing: If you make the right choice in the foregoing phase, it may be possible to skip this stage entirely. When the writer is on track, providing the kind of manuscript you require in an appropriate tone, on schedule, and in sufficient depth, playing police and checking up on the work is seldom necessary. But if the writer does not have the expertise needed, or has skimped on research time, or has taken the wrong tack overall, it’s crucial to correct such misdirection up front. A good line editor can rescue an errant manuscript from having to be scrapped entirely.

Copy editing: It’s a sad comment on contemporary publishing that many books go straight to type,” which means that somebody runs Spell-Check on the digital file the author provides, then the publisher jumps right to type output, skipping copy editing entirely (and, in some cases, proofreading as well). But what if your mandate is to provide accurate, well-expressed copy that doesn’t distract with its numerous typos and (often hilarious) misstatements? In our view, copy editing is always necessary, but even when done conscientiously, a book can incur ridicule due to mishandling that delicate balance between copyeditor and author, particularly when the latter is deeply in love with his or her own prose.

Book design: The potential for miscommunication during the progression from initial, information-gathering client meetings and the critically important first design presentation is enormous. If the client is not sure about what they want—or worse, if he has a set picture in mind, but cannot aptly convey it in words—very bad things can happen, disrupting the entire forward motion of the project. Get it wrong the first time, and client confidence can erode very quickly.

Prepress: Early on in every project, the series of printing-related procedures that occur prior to going on-press demands careful delineation. If these details are too amorphous and broadly defined, the book’s progress can be tripped up, causing slowdowns that can be ill-afforded in the best situations and work stoppages that scuttle schedules in the worst. Until the project’s specific requirements are fully understood, the risk persists of poorly seated dominos tumbling over and tripping any of several important switches, sometimes in concert.

Printing, binding, and delivery: procedures center on knowing how to deal well with the selected vendors—printer, binder, shipper, customs broker, distributor, etc.—and clear, direct, and timely communication from the project’s outset, so that everybody is aware of and prepared for every particular requirement and especially any atypical circumstances that could receive “business as usual” treatment if sufficient prior notice has not been provided.

Photo: Jason Langheine

Topics: editorial services, illustrated book design, book production, communications, communicating, content, writers, manuscript preparation