We have just completed an eye-opening exercise with our inbound marketing consultant. The assignment:
- Select a couple dozen interrelated long-tail keywords for which we hope to place well in search results (e.g., "questions about book packager"; "what is a book producer").
- Search on each keyword, and note where Vern Associates first shows up.
- Then, visit every site that placed in front of this first occurrence.
What did we learn? Something quite startling, although, with the benefit of hindsight, it shouldn't have been:
Hundreds of services calling themselves things like book packager, book producer, and the like —and of them, for every one (like Vern Associates) whose services are B2B-oriented, about fifty others focus on books self-published by consumers. Now we face the onerous task of finding ways to distinguish what we do from the work done by this relatively new, no-longer-cottage industry.
When we began our business, almost 20 years ago, the kind of organizations that produced books for self-publishers were not known as book packagers, which then were involved almost exclusively with supplying "product" to trade publishers. In fact, the term for a service geared toward self-publishing was the less-than-complimentary vanity press, from which most aspiring authors ran screaming.
The rapidly expanding role of self-publishing in the trade book world comes as no surprise. In fact, with such literary lodestones as the New York Review of Books running full-page ads for such services and Amazon.com hosting literally thousands of pages of self-published books, it has become part of modern book culture. Our shock came from discovering that book-producing services for the kinds of clients Vern Associates seeks to cultivate—nonprofit organizations and NGOs, research institutions, schools/colleges/universities, corporate entities, etc.—are so thin on the ground.
You see, not only did Vern Associates show up for the first time behind page after page of book packagers catering to the self-publishers, we also were the first of our kind to show up...period! Which seems to us to be a problem for our clientbase. Where are they searching when their business or organization needs the high-end kind of work they demand. And, what are they finding?
Truth be told, to me the ever-shifting semi-science of search-engine optimization remains mysterious. Occasionally I get glimmers of what SEO will be like just a few years hence, when streamlined algorithms spare cyberseekers a lot of the guesswork presently still required of us. For the time being, however, we continue doing the labor-intensive brainstorming necessary to conjure up keywords and terms to help potential clients find us online. But what an odd job this is: pluralizing one, then two, then all three words; shifting voice or tense slightly; trying to imagine what someone else is apt to look for in order to cut through page after page of self-publishing hits.
Here's the thing. The basic underpinnings of the work done by most of the 30, or 40, or 50 businesses' websites that pop up ahead of ours bear some resemblance to what we do.
But this particular apples/oranges situation couldn't be more stark. It's a long way from the bright, shiny crispness of your alma mater's anniversary history to the thick-peeled, sticky personal memoir. Despite each book's likely delectability and tang, this represents more than a difference in genetics. It spans a huge gulf in approach, purpose, and workmanship.
One other problem presents itself as well. I have a suspicion that potential clients may not know that firms like Vern Associates exist. In my opinion, probably the single most fascinating, breathtaking, and infuriating aspect of the internet has been my slow-dawning understanding that, if I want something, chances are there is someone out there who can provide it. It's just up to me to figure out where it is located. I wear clothing I'd never have found in stores, read books and listen to music I could only have stumbled upon by chance, and learn about aspects of human and animal experience it never would have occurred to me to consider had I not first ended up at some unexpected website as a result of a typo or misnomer.
So, just for fun, I'll conclude with this plea: Tell us what keywords/terms you used to find this blog. How do you craft your search term(s)? How close is this to what you set out to find? (Of course, since you must have used at least one of the keywords for which Vern Associates "places," these requests may be more indulgence than empiricism.)
Photo credit: Labyrinth in front of First Christian Church, Colorado Springs, Colorado, by Lars Hammar
Like any established business, Vern Associates encounters a few specific questions time and again. Of those that crop up with regularity and predictability, one is a relative newcomer, asked only over the past ten years or so, and now is the most frequently asked of all:
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.
To someone immersed in the world of advertising, consideration of the target market—the audience—comes as second nature when developing a campaign. In fact, this single component is apt to drive just about every aspect of its creation: its content; selection of the media used (TV, radio, print, bus shelter posters); and choice of specific outlets (national television networks, regional newspapers, or local transportation providers).
Why, then, does the crucial importance of similar considerations of target readership and audience seem so surprising to many people involved in making books?
After all, a publication's author must understand just who her target readers are and constantly focus on how best to communicate with them. Editorial personnel need to remain vigilantly cognizant of ways that their individual contributions potentially either encourage readers to continue reading or skew content away from its intended audience by casting it in language and style better suited to a different demographic. The same goes for the designer and the production manager.
Let's look at a hypothetical independent school that has approached us to develop and produce a publication marking its 50th anniversary. Who is such a client likely to want to reach with—and what are they hoping that audience will take away from—the book?
At half a century, members of classes from the school's first decade will want to own copies, but they may not constitute that large a readership overall. Alumni from the next two or three decades are apt to represent the largest audience subset, while more-recent graduates, though just as loyal and nostalgic as the preceding generation, may prefer a digital version to a bound book, or perhaps they will want both. Current students, in whom the nostalgia factor is likely absent, probably won't flock to any version of the publication in great numbers, but their family members will. Along with them, factor in faculty, administration, and staff—current and retired.
Beyond people with direct experience of the school, it is wise to include another important—if less easily parsed—audience: people and organizations seeking information about the school. This type of publication has the potential to be a tremendously useful and long-lasting tool the school can use to promote and publiize itself, but if presented in the wrong way, it risks falling flat in that (or any other) quarter.
Vern Associates' mission is to listen to our clients and help them define who makes up their core audience(s). Then we can develop the content in ways that appeal to and satisfy the client's specified principal contingent at the same time that it does not alienate other, smaller groups.
Say the client subscribes to the "if we publish it, alumni will come" notion, then the focus should be on attracting currently unaffiliated readers over the next 10 or so years. If they feel fairly certain that what the book looks like or the style in which it is written will not dissuade alumni from getting a copy, hewing toward approaches that win over outsiders is calculated to increase the publication's exposure and reach.
A focus on this particular audience suggests selecting a writer with a direct, clear, and concise style, who knows how to make judicious use of the contemporary phrasing and vocabulary apt to cause this target reader to feel comfortable and understood. We also are likely to choose an editor and proofreader capable of leaving this sort of turn of phrase and expression in place, rather than marking them as "slang" or imposing iron-clad stylistic "rules."
In terms of design, a publication with this target readership would probably work within a contemporary sensibility all the while paying close attention to the legibility of typography and layout. It would be just as misguided to lean toward trendy graphic design, which can date the book in a year or two, as to impose a typographical and picture palette drawn from graphic design approaches popular when the school was founded.
Attention to audience extends to selection of materials and production values as well. It may even inform the choice of printer and binder. A gloss-coated, ivory stock could lend an old-fashioned appearance that a matte-coated, bright-white paper will not. Imbuing subtly toned photographs with high-saturation reproduction defeats the purpose of the images' choice in the first place.
And, of course, considering this contemporary, young target audience, it would be crucial to design the book with an eye perpetually trained on how the content can optimally be deployed in both traditional print and digital forms. A few commercial publishers seem to be catching on—at long last—to the notion that the term e-book is a misnomer; that digital reading is very different from what's accomplished with a printed, bound book. Paying attention up front to how the text, images, and other elements can be deployed digitally—and the differences between the different media—has the potential to result in great reduction in costs, time, and headaches that tend to accompany simple digitization (i.e., static pdf presentation) of the printed pages.
Your company's landmark anniversary is coming up fast.…
You can decide to chronicle your company's history in a print or online publication, decide on some other means of marking the occasion, or you can decide not to decide, which is perhaps the only way to truly do nothing.
I had an enjoyable—if sadly not atypical—conversation with the publications director of an organization about to celebrate its sesquicentennial. She has overseen development and production of a number of publications that are well-produced, accessible, and informative, particularly for an organization whose primary function is creating something other than publications. Clearly, she is a person who would enjoy the process of bringing the company's history to life. Instead, the publications director recalled many frustrating months of trying to convince the company's board to make a decision about the upcoming anniversary, but they resolutely refused.
Subsequently, their website featured only a rather innocuous banner announcing the fast-approaching event, and even that remained inert, with no link to further information about how they planned to commemorate their first 150 years and, by extension, no explanation of why the landmark is important to the company, it clients, or anyone else, really.
The board's reluctance stemmed from its inaccurate assumption that an anniversary celebration—let alone a book—would require taking on too much work, and so decided not to decide or to make any commitment.
In my experience, this is the most commonly held assumption as organizations contemplate the complex undertaking of producing a book-length history or other type of publication. Our goal at Vern Associates is to get out the word that "it ain't necessarily so," and we are here to make such projects happen.
This uninformed assumption often results in a kind of paralysis setting in among decision makers. Feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of taking on so complex a project might lead to indecision on any plans to highlight such a significant event. Our job is to help clients find the most effective means of leveraging the value of their history, which may not mean publishing a full-scale pictorial history, but might include any number of other options, such as:
- a social media campaign to collect stories and memorabilia from alumni, faculty, administrators, etc., the results of which will be posted as a kind of "wiki-history";
- an interactive timeline organized around key events or the achievements of key individuals throughout the organization's history; or, perhaps,
- an oral history highlighting ways the organization contends with challenges, past and present, and how it sees its future.
An anniversary logo linking to nothing can easily be interpreted as an indication that the organization feels it is going nowhere. Vern Associates strives to help our clients avoid this pitfall and take full advantage of an opportunity that may not appear for another 25, 50, or 100 years.
During nearly two decades in the book packaging business, we have been blessed with many incredible clients—partners, really—who made even tough, complex, and deadline-bedeviled book projects a pleasure. In fact, looking back, we have complaints about just three clients and their projects, all of which were completed last century.
Let's call them "teaching moments," because they all shared one important occurrence: a midstream clash of organizational "cultures" that tested Vern Associates' ethical resolve and clarified how we would proceed.
Because these three projects were tripped up by similar difficulties, one story will serve to represent them all. Let's call this composite client Burning Bridges International ("BBI," for short). BBI's head of communications—irony noted—was our point person at this large, multifunctional, nonprofit organization. He brought us in when he discovered that his division's overflowing plate could no longer accommodate the (already-budgeted) publication in the time that remained.
(If I'm grateful for anything about these experiences, it is that they taught us how to walk away from such projects and clients, sometimes even before bidding, knowing that no one will end up pleased with the results.)
When BBI called us in, our brief was to make a book already restricted by preset parameters—timing, work entailed, and budget—all of which were set in concrete. With that in mind, consider these specs:
Trim: 8 x 10 inches
Extent: 224 pages; 40,000 words
Illustrations: 90-110 color photographs
Quantity: 2,000 copies
Schedule: bound books due in 9 months
This is where I used to trip myself up. "Nine months" and "$45,000" both sounded pretty good at first flush, so despite numerous difficult prior experiences entailing too little time and money and too many potholes along the way, we rushed in. I think it's akin to the eyes-bigger-than-stomach analogy, but I outgrew that particular faulty reasoning in my early 20s. I needed to remove—or at least ignore—the hunger for more work and new clients during the planning and bidding process. Today I'm adept at stepping back, examining each element carefully, weighing it against the others, and most important, forgetting about specifics of the project that could sway my decision one way or the other. Intriguing subject matter or an opportunity to do something novel come to mind as examples.
A little quick arithmetic indicates that the budget restricts each book to a cost of $22.50 ($45,000 ÷ 2,000 copies). Sounds like a lot, perhaps, but let's break it down. Because the schedule was so unforgiving, the books had to be printed domestically, and that immediately boosted PPB (printing, paper, and binding) costs by roughly 120 percent. (While it's significantly less expensive to print high-quality illustrated books overseas, to do so you need the luxury of an additional six to eight weeks for shipping the books via sea freight and clearing them through customs.)
With PPB alone accounting for almost three-fifths of the budget, roughly $18,000 was left to cover everything else—editing, proofreading, and indexing; design and layout; pre-press and production. All told, that was far from sufficient. (Note that BBI developed its original budget based on their developing and prepping the book for printing in-house. This resulted in a much lower cost because BBI does not include overhead in its calculation of final costs—something conveniently forgotten when they chose to farm out the project.)
So, we wriggled and jiggled and twisted to make ourselves believe we could produce BBI's book in time and on budget.
At the outset, we were sent back to the printer to requote about 20 times whenever the head of communications or the development director suggested some new option they wanted to explore. (When we moved our office last autumn, I spent nearly an hour weeding out the printing folder for just one of these books—quote upon quote upon quote issued to parse tiny variances in stock, how much would be saved by proofing 30 images rather than 40, and the like.)
Even so, we knew we would cope, and calmly explained a variety of salient points many, many times. But something no one could have foreseen is what jammed up the works. The author of the 40,000-word manuscript discovered that he had "neglected" to include a crucial item and, without alerting his client, delivered a new "chapter" of 16,500 words two days before the copy editor turned in her work on the original manuscript. At this point, we expected our client to step up to the plate, tell the writer there was no room or funds for his "addendum," and give us the go-ahead to proceed as planned.
Instead, we were instructed to requote the book to accommodate the additional copy. Our castoff indicated it would add 74 pages, which raised our costs for editing and layout by about $2,200. The printer replied that the extra pages would increase the book's PPB unit cost by $1.57—more than $3,000 in all.
"Okay, do what you need to," our client told us. What we neglected to ask outright was: Can—will—you add the necessary $5,500 to your heretofore concrete-clad budget? We proceeded onward. No time to stop and ponder the ramifications.
Then, a month and a half later—and just about the same amount of time prior to delivering digital files to the printer—our client informed us that we had to hew strictly to the original "contractual" budget, then instructed us to move the job to a cheaper printer who could make that work. I clearly recall the feeling of having my breath slugged out of me when their mandate came down. How could BBI conscience such unethical practices? More important, how could we follow a directive that went against our ethical principals?
Casting the question in that light saved us. Suddenly the job fell into perspective. Not only were we losing money on this project, now we were risking losing our self-respect and reputation. And we were considering doing so in order not to offend an impossible client from whom we were unlikely to obtain work again? It's amazing what that sick feeling can accomplish as it wells up in the face of smarmy business practices.
When we refused to change printers, we also offered to cease our work and receive partial payment to cover costs to date. The following day, BBI's in-house counsel threatened to sue for breach of contract. She backed down, however, when I explained that nowhere in our agreement did we agree to stiff our working partners, but what I suspect clinched it was my fax enumerating 18 points where the client had failed to observe terms of the agreement.
In a happily ever after world, the additional funds would be allocated, the yeoman printer would produce the book on time, our client would be delighted with the end result, and we would add another notable publication to our portfolio.
Close, but not quite.
All those woulds came to be, except the last. We don't show the result of the BBI fiasco (i.e., any of the three books on which I based this story) because, quite simply, it comes nowhere near what we consider good work.
Photo: Tax Fix
Frequently, having recently completed work on an organization's anniversary publication, our client tells us how much they appreciate our helping them ask questions they didn't know needed to be asked. Maybe we should incorporate this into our elevator speech or mission statement, because it is an important factor in how we work with new clients, especially in the earlier phases of making a book.
Of these unasked questions, one fundamental query stands out as being asked most frequently: Has the writer you've selected ever completed a full-length manuscript?
Undoubtedly the occasional journalist or public relations copywriter can pull off this tricky balancing act, but from frequent rescues of writers from drowning in their own material while they grasp wildly at organizational roots and vines, we've become well aware that this is no simple task. One writer who, at the time, had become furious at me for "dragging [him] into this mess in the first place," later wrote a lovely letter of gratitude for "pulling [him] out of the deep end."
Writers whose experience is exclusively with developing article-length expository pieces can't be blamed for not recognizing how different and onerous the long-form manuscript can be. Recently, a client whose head copywriter was salivating over the opportunity to "sink her teeth into writing a book" asked: "What's the big deal? She's written our last four annual reports, which each ran around 15,000 words. How hard can it be to string together what amounts to four or five of them to make a single manuscript?" I breathed a sigh of relief as the client stopped short, gulped, and said, "Oh, yeah.… I get it."
Supposedly such writers will be cheaper, faster, and expend less effort on research thanks to their familiarity with the material. Nice idea, but it seldom pans out. In the end, the manuscript by the short-form writer loosed upon the long-form project is pretty much guaranteed to come in at a higher cost and take longer. Inevitably, the author's familiarity will be with only with one or two aspects of the material, and the unforeseen research work (and its outsourcing) wind up breaking the bank. This also hands out a one-way ticket to a lopsided narrative.
Then, of course, there's the almost inevitable quicksand effect that sets in when an imminent deadline reveals to a writer that she is less than a quarter of the way toward the finish line.
It's tempting to devote this entire post to reminiscing about such situations and considering reasons they occurred. But it is even more important for first-time publishing clients to comprehend that short-form/long-form issues apply to just about all aspects of making a book-length publication, not just the writing. In fact, the most difficult situations we've had to tackle came about when our client had a passing familiarity with how print publications are put together.
What's the old saying? "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing…?"
For example, consider the marketing director with a dozen or so annual reports under his belt. Has he become lulled into the idea that his experience in preparing a once-a-year, 48-page, 12,000-word publication prepares him to manage the development and production of the company's once-a-century anniversary book?
If his expertise is accompanied by an understanding that the new project will come with a its own, predictably steep, learning curve, that kind of attitude can be a boon. If he is as gung-ho about the book, with all its oddities and special demands, as he is about the annual reports, we couldn't welcome his participation more gladly.
If, however, he's got the notion that his experience with a fairly predictable, short-form booklet will allow his company to cut corners and impose cookie-cutter "solutions" on still-amorphous blocks of information and text, no good will come of it.
Just about all books are peculiar "creatures," and illustrated books—Vern Associates' specialty—are about as perplexing as they get. We know we're asking for trouble if we embark on a new project with any sort of "certainty" about how it will develop and what sorts of curves will be thrown at us. I can almost guarantee that none of those foreseen problems will rear their ugly heads. Why should they? We've already accommodated for them. But their cousins, the difficulties we've never encountered previously, are likely to show up in droves.
This is not to suggest that all books require vast amounts of time and detailed attention to get off the ground. All books will be better off for those benefits, but it is very possible to create a worthy publication on a smaller budget or in a shorter-than-ideal time. To do this, however, you must start out with a clear understanding of what is feasible vis à vis the project's scope and scale under the circumstances. And to do that, you must jettison immediately the idea of accomplishing a herculean task with a gym bunny's build and stamina. Otherwise, you risk getting crushed by a barbell far too heavy and off balance for any spotter to catch.
My partner and I switched from print to the on-line subscription for the New York Times about a month ago. I expected a period of adjustment, but the transition has been much more difficult than I imagined for many varied and surprising reasons, alphabetically listed below:
Dexterity: My posture may not be impeccable, but I try to pay attention to how I sit at a workstation, or even when using an iPad. Still, I wonder if the ergonomics division of Apple is secretly plotting to create a nation of carpal-tunnel sufferers. Reading the print edition requires me to use all the muscles and joints in both of my hands, from wrist to fingertips, and my fingers work in concert with one another to navigate through each section. Now, relegated to the second and third joints of the second and third finger of my hand, all movement feels cramped and truncated.
Enervation: I spend seven to eight hours a day with a computer monitor shining all that light into my eyes. Reading a computer screen (desktop, laptop, tablet, mobile phone) makes me feel like I'm at work. Starting my morning this way tends to bring about a feeling of being drained of energy and vitality.
Organization: I'm now called on to retain in my head the first half of a sentence as I "page" forward to meet it's conclusion on an interior page. Shouldn't be that tough, but en route I'm faced with any number of distractions—a video ad, say, or an option, or a link away from the article—that interrupts the journey. If I retain the information I just read, it's because I'm working harder to get to it from one point to the next.
Tactility: I was willing to give up the feel of paper as I scanned my fingers down columns, the rustling sound and tiny breeze from a turning a page, but not prepared for how much I would miss them.
Rising to the challenge of diminished expectations
Not being content merely to grouse, I'm persevering in adapting to this seemingly inevitable change in media. I want to be prepared when they stop printing newspapers altogether.
I've come across several options for weeding out pop-ups and flash advertisements, and many of them actually solve the problem effectively. I expect they all sprang up very quickly when irate readers revolted against the mini-Time's Square marquee that is now the homepage at nytimes.com. Most of these apps delete the advertising from each page and leave only the text. It's much easier to read and navigate through this format. It's also presented in a manner that makes every article appear uniformly boring.
I wasn't prepared for the absence of layout in my experience of reading the news, though in hindsight it shouldn't have been a surprise. I've spent my career working in editorial design and layout; integrating content and composition over thousands of pages of illustrated books, maneuvering through the static framework of a page grid whose contents always contain many more exceptions than the set of rules that the grid is designed to address.
The Times has always been the place where I found design that broke rules and pushed boundaries thoughtfully and calmly, never needing to shout, rant, or flail about indignantly. It inspires ideas and consistently presents a level of design that I aspire to in my own work.
I miss the typographic texture of the front page; the sedate variety of headline faces and column widths; I miss scanning a page without having to scroll; I miss type fitting. I miss layout.
Reading the Sunday Times, particularly the magazine, is heartbreaking. Covers that are so powerful in print are reduced to yet further anonymous rectangles destined to be ignored. I miss the collage of photographs that compose Bill Cunningham's two features in the Styles section. I came to view these as my own very peculiar crossword puzzles. Online, they are replaced by a slideshow narrated by the photographer. The narration does not play to the photographer's strengths. He sounds like somebody's Aunt Margaret commenting on street fashion.
I know I'm ignoring the advantages offered by the Times online. More content to read and to reference, all available instantaneously. More video (like I don't watch enough television already). More and more choices. I don't need more choices, I need more time to digest and consider the many that are already available.
It remains to be seen, however, if we'll stick with the flattened deflection of attention online or revert to days of yore and the paper version. Stay tuned. It could be interesting.
Whenever I am called upon to consider the usability principle for prose—that "best practices" are always derived from a clear understanding of the purpose for which the writing is intended—an Ah, youth... memory comes to mind:
Some 30 years back, I was churning out copy for an international athletes' footwear (read: sneaker) manufacturer's semiannual catalog. This lent to a feeling of great superiority (in a bad way) about wasting my self-perceived capabilities. Grumbling to a short story–writer friend about my client's disdain for the conventions of punctuation, I asked: "Just who's the "writer, here?"
She grinned, and with Yodalike simplicity countered: "But that's not real writing. Why do you care?"
Why, indeed? Not only was it highly likely that my deathless effusions about "space-age fibers" and "pronation protection" would never be read by any of the retailers who received the catalog, it was entirely possible that, by slathering on my idea of high-flown phrases I could actually alienate (or intimidate) intended readers. In fact, my inclusion of three semicolons was cited as cause for turning over the copy for the next catalog to someone "better suited" to their market.
At that time I edited book-length nonfiction almost exclusively. My publisher clients all valued the editorial qualities I brought to their manuscripts, and none would have quailed at the use of a semicolon. They all, however, would have recognized immediately if said punctuation was used in error or, worse, its presence confused a sentence.
Put simply: Good writing always is created in the service of its intended reader.
[While at some level this statement applies to the entire spectrum of writing, from technical manuals to poetic flights of fancy, today I'm primarily concerned with expository writing made for reasons other than personal self-expression.]
If you don't consider how best to communicate to your ideal reader, why bother?
This has nothing to do with sales figures, publicity, or popularity. It's simply the gound-level belief that the aim of writing—and reading—is communicating. And, although a case can be made that in certain instances the audience values difficulty and ambiguity over most other properties, when you're talking about nonliterary prose, there's more likely to be a premium on the kind of direct communication that comes from writing that is clear, direct, and respectful of the reader.
This general idea applies to all aspects of what we do at Vern Associates. If a book we produce does not appeal to and communicate with its intended readers, we have done them and our client a disservice. It starts with the text, of course, but extends to the selection of pictures and the quality of their reproduction. The text's clarity and approachability must be echoed in the book's design, and a primary guideline when selecting the printer/binder is their ability to sustain this communicative potential as well.
Over the past 10 years or so, I have weeded my personal library extensively. The first books to go were those I'd started reading and found insufficient reason to finish, but close seconds were those that got in the way of communicating because of their design and production. Tiny, dense type squeezed into small pages with narrow margins—whether they conveyed the words of Plato, Donne, or Fitzgerald—have no place on my shelves. Why should I contribute to the bibliovercrowding by holding on to a volume I'll never want or be able to read?
Finally, however, relative usability factors into what can be called the "invisible" components of books. For example, more than one project I've edited has included—at the author's insistence—a lengthy bibliography that is out of place in a generalist's book. While such an amenity is crucial for a museum catalog or scholarly study, does it belong in a quick-paced introductory text? Really?
Presented with such a situation, it was important to discuss it tactfully with the author:
- Who do you expect and want to read your book?
- Will these particular readers expect such high-level scholarly apparatus? Will they use it?
- Is it possible they may actually shy away from the book because a specialist's element like this suggests difficulty rather than utility to them?
Something similar applies to the decisions about what should be included in the index:
- Will your readers welcome an exhaustive catalog of every mention of a name, no matter how glancing.
- Will threaded multilevel concepts, regardless of how dense, be seen as a plus?
- Will they get more use from a carefully honed guide without page references for insubstantive mentions and focuses instead on broad strokes that encapsulate themes that are dealt with in some depth?
For some books, a more-is-more attitude is fully warranted. For example, an anniversary history probably should include every single proper name from the text so that a browser can quickly see whether or not his contribution to the organization's past is mentioned. When the book has a broader scope and addresses a less specific topic, however, such inclusivity can make wading through the index and its strings of page references daunting to readers, who more likely wish to use this tool to navigate to particular subject areas that interest them.
Unfortunately, present-day technology makes creating overinclusive indexes much easier than it was just 10 years ago. In fact, it's actually simpler to set the software to "Index" and let 'er rip, never casting a discerning, winnowing eye over the result. No one can tell you the result isn't sufficiently inclusive (although they may guffaw at some of the resultant entries). Perhaps the influx of indexers in recent years is a nod to the notion that their jobs will be among the last assumed by cyborgs?
Top: Erich Ferdinand
Bottom: H. Kopp-Delaney
When I began working in publishing in the late 1970s, I immersed myself in the Chicago Manual of Style (12th edition, I think). This tome offered just what I needed to keep myself upright on the skating rink of wordwork. For me—and thousands of other editorial service providers—"Chicago" was the arbiter of all that was correct, editorially speaking.
Of course, none of us relied on a single source. Other references functioning as wingmen included several members of the the clan of Merriam-Webster (Collegiate, Biographical, Geographical). I also appreciated occasional shoring up from M-W's nemesis, the OED. For the more technical aspects of publishing, Words into Type kept me blade-down more times than I care to count. But they all paled at the arrival of the rink bully: Fowler. This know-it-all unerringly tripped me up. I could devote as much time to parsing a single Fowler entry, which I was seldom certain was actually the one I needed, as I did editing an entire chapter.
This was during the first flush of corporate publishing's heyday, when publishers and their acquiring editors required freelance editors to absorb any burden of error their publication might present. In-house editors generally sponsored a dozen or more new titles at any given time, during which they also desperately searched for new ones in order to keep said lists plump and newsworthy—and themselves firing-proof. A few latter-day Maxwell Perkins wannabees still dabbled in broad-stroke development work, but the nitty-gritty, word-by-word work fell to the freelancers.
In turn, we sought out our own safety nets, and Chicago, the M-Ws, OED—and yes, the dreaded Fowler—along with numerous other more specialized style manuals for books in clearly defined disciplines (e.g., journalism, psychology, the humanities) provided just such protection. The goal, at least my goal, was to turn in coherent, consistent, readable manuscripts that would cause neither (A) a threat to an author's blood pressure; or (B) a lawsuit against the publisher. To do that, I needed to be confident that every editorial decision or choice I made was "right"—that nobody could find fault with it because they would have selected exactly the same approach.
You can see how this easily could result in profound boredom—especially for the books' eventual readers. I think back to intramural "discussions" with fellow editors, one of whom would throw out a knotty question about an issue presently causing trouble—split infinitives, perhaps. These unerringly and surprisingly quickly devolved into squabbles about the serial comma or lie vs. lay that make contemporary floor fights in the House or Representatives sound civil. Such confabs were no fun and usually ended as the victor(s) strode off trailing an aura of self-congratulation while the rest of us, backs raised in defense, inwardly cringed, itching to get back to our reference shelves to see what our support system could do to exonerate us.
Fortunately, that was a long time ago, and I can comfortably chalk up my participation and frequent mortification to youth, foolishness, and bad choices. So much has happened in the 30 or so intervening years—most notably the technological communications explosion—that you will be excused for assuming that such editorial my-way-or-the-highway attitudes have relaxed. But sadly, no. Just the opposite seems to apply. Battles royal rage over questions of that vs. which, "proper" use of semicolons, and whether to capitalize the first word after a colon. Unlike the old days, however, coffee shops have yielded to online forums, where faceless foes expound and insult, making escape much more complicated than simply ducking into a subway or taxi. It's a jungle out there.
Now, my own personal good news is that I am far less easily disturbed by doctrinaire pronouncements than I was. In large part, that confidence comes from years of witness to the fact that the Earth has never shuddered or missed a revolution due to inconsistent comma placement in a book I edited.
What has liberated me most, however, is a clear comprehension of how unnecessary so much of the tyrannical hold the self-styled arbiters of editorial correctness has become—and, truly, has been at least since the late 1800s. In general, I adhere to a doctrine of suitability. If an author prefers to use constructions that make me uncomfortable to read, I require myself to step back and assess all of the following:
- How will actual, on-the-ground readers of this particular text be apt to respond to this form of expression? Might it even be more suitable for this specific audience than what I may have in mind?
- Does this particular turn of phrase truly detract from the author's thesis? Be honest, now: Isn't it possible that this construction makes his point more concisely than mine?
...and the real crux:
- Am I concerned principally for the author's reputation… or my own?
I know that to many this kind of talk is heretica, and, in self-defense, I am far from advocating tossing Chicago into the river. (Fowler is another matter, but that's personal.) I do support, however, the proposition that imposing a uniform stamp of editorial rectitude on all (or any...) manuscripts is not only undesireable, it is fully impossible.
Of late, I've trained myself to stop my knee from jerking when I hear or read some supposed verbal transgression at least long enough to reflect on the source of the twitch and its communicative purpose. One of the most consistently careful editors with whom I have ever worked has a habit of stetting the split infinitives that I have de-sundered. This is not because she doesn't know the "rule," but because my imposition of "the correct way" makes the text sound awkward. Her opinion is that it is part of the editor's brief to facilitate the communication of ideas, whatever that may entail, even if it's apt to result in a body check by Fowler. I'm on her team.
Photograph by Nic McPhee (aka "Unhindered by Talent")
Isn't it just like us to turn everything under the sun into an "industry"? You name the problem, there's sure to be an industry that aims to solve it, then re-create it in an even more complex iteration, so it can be solved yet again, ad infinitum (when possible).
So here's today's industry-buster: blogging.
In September 2000, Rebecca Blood posted in her blog—rebecca's pocket—"weblogs: a history and perspective," in which she informs us that the term blog was coined in December 1997, and early in 1999 Jesse James Garrett, editor of Infosift, listed the 23 other blogs then being posted. That means that the blog form's journey—from the conjoining of web and log, through becoming a household-word and standup's jibe, its inevitable verbicization, and right up to its current crowned-head position of ubiquity—required fewer than 15 years.
But I'm less interested in marveling at how time flies or, conversely, how quickly new technologies and social mechanisms "take." Rather, I want to cast an eye over the proliferation of businesses devoted to the blog industry. A cursory scan through the millions of hits any search engine will proffer when blog is plugged in reveals scads of consultants of every shape and size. Individuals offer aid (via Skype or plain old email) with content development. Small offices are dedicated solely to trends in SEO, and their larger cousins' labyrinths of cubicles (I imagine) are filled with eager-beaver wordsmiths writing blogs for, if not you, the deli across town.
During that decade and a half, an entire system of etiquette and rules has blasted its way into the forefront of common consciousness, as it does for any emergent industry. Some three or four years ago, when Vern Associates signed on with HubSpot, our inbound-marketing consultancy, a kind of sweet gee-whiz quality characterized the training. Now that the marketing departments of major corporations have discovered this gem, and gurus aplenty have climbed out of the woodwork to offer their charismatic selves on webinars and YouTube (and on and on…), each day that passes sees new barriers erected that can stymie us little guys, who can barely manage to post one decent blog a week, much less support a team of inbound marketing virtuosi.
"One!? I'm afraid you're going to find little return on that," I was told at a recent seminar. "Why even bother?" the leader asked. (Note: I most definitely am not referring to HubSpot, whose webinars are remarkably well organized, designed, and taught, with plenty of latitude allowed for participants of all stripes and patterns.) No, this particular martinet (whom I had paid quite a fee) had it all down. I'd swear his arm motions and jerk-step motions were practiced and timed to the second. A cyborg, perhaps? I kept musing.
But there you have the problem. As new methods emerge, swell, and engulf whole swaths of overachievers, everyone else either has the answer or, like me, does his best to stand facing into the wind, grab the few bits he can catch as they whip by, and figure out what to do with them.
In fact, so far the blog you're reading has broken or disregarded about a dozen rules and regulations learned to date, including:
- not discussing a problem or issue facing one of our clients
- almost everything is, at least in part, self-referential rather than "universal"
- other than the title, not one of our 300-odd keywords rears its head
- it was posted midmorning on a Wednesday (rather than at a predawn hour on Monday or, better still, Tuesday, per the recommendations)
- and, oh yes, I've not included a picture…of anything.
Frankly, this is the only way I can comply with yet another "blogger's imperative": frequency. You see, this week, when trying to identify a topic that would sluice numerous potential clients into our inbound-marketing funnel, I realized I was getting a bit panicky simply because I ran the risk of not posting a blog this week—much less one that followed all the rules.
If I don't, I know from experience I'll be just a tiny tap-step away from missing next week, too. Then, whatever momentum I've built and can rely on to keep the blog going (and, supposedly, readers coming back for more) is kaput. Back to square 1.23.
Then I'll have no choice but to rebuild the momentum by writing a string of new posts with the everpresent hope of drawing attention. Various problems-and-how-we-solved-them discourses will need to be interwoven so that I can climb back up to square 4 or 5 before being caught between the book-making and customer-developing requirements of my business.
I've been told that I am fortunate because I actually enjoy writing these posts—when I can find a topic, at least. Colleagues regularly complain about how excruciating blogging is for them. Really? I marvel. Then how do you hatch two, or three, or four a week, all the while tweeting about them and growing your LinkedIn following and roster of FB "friends"? When do you do any of the work you're hired to do?
And, too, I've got to admit to being beset by the geezer factor. Too often I get caught on the brambly path facing a man of my years: Do I really have a place in bloggish pools? Before I can get too deep into musing on that, however, the rules whirl in front of my face again, warning me that missing even one blog is sure to spell the demise of my company—maybe even the world as we know it. (Or knew it, since the one we know tends not to stick around very long.)
To close, then, I'd like to thank the people who have read this blog (and any others I've written) for looking past the broken rules and forfeited opportunities. I know there aren't many of you, and that's fine. What would make this all worthwhile, however, would be a comment or two—even if just to ask: "One? How the hell do you hope to attract customers with just one measly blog a week?" (End of dance.)