Anniversary Publications and Workplace Culture

My company, Wordesign Services, specializes in creating commemorative books for cultural and business institutions throughout the United States. These projects generally start at raw manuscript and are completed with delivery of bound books to our clients. The long, involved period between entails collaborative work with project managers, editors, and authors. Since these anniversary publications come only once every 25 to 50 years, we seldom have an opportunity to work with these teams again.

In very rare instances I’ve found myself connecting personally to a client’s history. During the Covid years, Wordesign was immersed in creating a massive 75th-anniversary journal for the Cantors Assembly, a professional organization of cantors throughout North America and beyond.

Even so, these working relationships typically allow me to develop a sense of my client’s workplace culture—how the players in each organization relate to their colleagues, what duties and responsibilities these individuals perform, and how decisions are made and by whom.

Over the years I’ve come to notice similarities and differences among the cultural landscapes of these workplaces. Some where I can imagine myself working full-time, others, emphatically not.

My partner and I bring knowledge and years of experience to each successive project, but we are always mindful not to make assumptions about a new client’s stories and requirements.

Working on this project was a peculiar experience for me. I was unfamiliar with most aspects of the musical, professional, and spiritual lives of the cantors. At the same time, their discussions of Jewish life and religious beliefs sparked thoughts and memories that I have not considered in a long while extending back to the years of my own limited Jewish education and including my more recent views on organized religion in general.

Cantors Assembly 75th Anniversary Journal
Cantors Assembly 75th Anniv. Journal

Much of what I learned from the stories and essays about cantorial life surprised me. Obviously, the art of singing is central to cantorial study, but I had not known how it encompasses so much beyond music, secular or religious, and how that all informs each cantor’s musical aspirations.

The cantors focus on practice—musical and religious—as a way of life. They learn and perfect their art, not just in the service of their own faith, but as a responsibility to the spiritual sustenance of their congregations. I came to understand how the substance of practice and repetition can free one from the ambiguities that surround beliefs.

The cantors also seem to be an exceptionally happy group, who are deeply engaged in and optimistic about their work. That’s certainly logical for people whose work it is to sing. They are committed to their congregations, their faith in Judaism and in music, their families, and in one another. They are aware of how much pain and suffering is in the world and subsequently they frequently participate in political and cultural actions.

Both of my Cantors Assembly contacts were demanding clients—which I am used to and understand. They are tasked with producing an important tribute to their organization and needed to be demanding. They knew what they wanted, and it was my job to make that happen within the limitations of print production. When a request falls outside of those limitations, I suggest an alternative to reach the same results.

When you say “No” to a client, most want a detailed explanation why not. Contrary to many other clients, however, these gentlemen listened to my explanations and asked questions if they had difficulty understanding. For many past clients, such questions were often borne of defensiveness, and that, in my experience, makes people stop listening very quickly.

For these two clients, however, I devoted the time and effort needed to explain processes at length, and never really minded the time. It was gratifying that they listened to and were genuinely interested in the whys and wherefores. In fact, they came to trust and welcome the experience I brought to the project. They still asked questions, but over time they came to give me the benefit of the doubt relatively quickly.

My relationship with these gentlemen and the Cantors Assembly has led me to reconsider a great many aspects of religious beliefs and practice that I would never have considered before getting involved with the Cantors Assembly’s 75th-anniversary commemorative journal.

Peter M. Blaiwas

September 19, 2022

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