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

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