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.
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.
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
Peter Blaiwas on Wed, Sep 25, 2013
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
A 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