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.
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.)
In fact, approval is a hard-and-fast element in our work-for-hire agreement's boilerplate, and it is just about irrevocable. Here is how the clause begins:
[Client] shall approve all phases of the preparation of the Work, including but not limited to edited manuscript, revised art, page proofs, design and layout of interior and cover, and printed proofs.
Did I hear someone mutter, "Well, of course!"? I hope so. But you might be surprised at how often clients bridle at this. Granted, they are likely to have a publishing background and in-house contract-negotiation experience, which would militate against granting an author "approval" over much of anything, least of all elements for the jacket or cover design and/or the book's title. Authors are lucky to be allowed mention of "consultation privileges" in their contracts with publishers.
But that very difference goes a long way toward clarifying a major distinction between Vern Associates and a "publisher." Because our clients are responsible for marketing and selling their books, they deserve full control over these important tools, just as the publisher does for a property for which it is paying royalties plus the costs of marketing and sales. But where they bend over backwards to hold the reins tightly, we go out of our way to guarantee that our client controls all issues that impact the book's editing, design, and production.
Next, the boilerplate requires the author (and, by default, the client) to affirm that she:
...shall review and approve the copy-edited text and the page layouts.
This protects everybody involved. By vesting the author with final say on what and how her writing is presented, we have insulated our client somewhat from accusations of inaccuracy, bias, shoddy scholarship, etc. In short, the buck usually stops with the book's author. It also more or less removes Vern Associates, as book packager, from the verification equation.
(Elsewhere in the agreement, our client agrees that it and its author will vet all text for accuracy. We also establish that, should we encounter any text or image that we have reason to believe may be inaccurate or may breach copyright, we will inform the client in writing, but unless they then direct us to do so, we will make no substantive change to the book.)
Finally, the crux of this approval clause:
As it deems advisable, [Client] shall present any or all phases of preparation for publication of the Work to such outside parties, other than the Author, whom it shall delegate. Any changes resulting from such consultation with such individuals shall be communicated to Vern Associates solely by [a specified person employed by the client], or such individual(s) as [the person specified] may first designate in writing, who shall first approve such changes requested by outside parties.
While this now seems to be simple common sense, I cringe when I recall the circumstances that added this language to our boilerplate. What spurred us on was one of the most contentious and bizarre situations in Vern Associates' history, and it affected an important book on a very tight schedule.
It wasn't a long book—only 144 pages. Our client, a large nonprofit organization, had a department for every imaginable organizational subset, and each of these departments employed a dozen or so assistants ("minions" in the organization's parlance). The first red flag appeared when the client returned the copyedited manuscript. (This was before electronic editing had gained ascendance, and most editing was still done by hand.) The manuscript had been worked over by seven different individuals, each of whom had her or his own pencil color. In the margins, little multicolored skirmishes broke out over points of grammar, spelling, and fact. It took longer to prepare setting copy than it had taken to copyedit the manuscript in the first place.
The portion of the approval clause quoted above—with our insistence on having one person be arbiter over making changes, from manuscript through final printers' proofs—came into being as a direct result of this crazy mess. Happily, on several occasions, clients have thanked us after the fact for including these terms, because they spared them all sorts of internescine squabbling. But this particular client balked at our approval clause. "You're pushing your work onto us," we were told. "Why do you think we're hiring you?"
It was our understanding that we were hired to produce their book—a publication intended to represent their ideas, approaches, and capabilities. How were we to do this reliably if they weren't monitoring the process? Even so, we foolishly buckled, removed the language, and pleaded with them at every stage at least to read through what we sent. "We're sure it's fine," the increasingly stressed anniversary-committee coordinator kept saying.
When all was said and done, however, it was far from fine. A handful of major inaccuracies had bloomed in the text—things the client's author had included and we had no way to verify. Had someone in-house reviewed one or more stages, they probably would have been noticed and corrected. A few people in upper management grumbled that a few photos included former employees who had left under a cloud.
We discovered this a couple of years later, when we approached an unrelated corporation about producing their anniversary history. A manager who had been involved peripherally in the earlier fiasco had changed employers, however, and now was a member of this group's anniversary-planning team. She reported that we had been the source of "all sorts of terrible gaffes," and we didn't even get to meet with them. Since then, we have never removed or altered that clause.
Photo: Sudhamshu Hebbar
In our first years of business, Brian and I believed that with the many responsibilities of running a small business, we had the advantage of steering clear of office politics and incipient, complex, often sticky intra- (and inter-) office relationships. In fact, that was part of our reason for founding our company. Without all that shenanigans, we thought, we could accomplish so much more "real work."
What we hadn't accounted for, however, were all the complicated situations that exist for our clients who work in organizations with bigger staffs. It's true that generally we remain insulated from the nitty-gritty of other people's office intrigues, but we are far from exempt.
As we developed skills in providing client-focused service, we learned to be mindful and respectful of intraoffice relationships that might effect how many organizational and corporate clients work with us. While we would not presume to conduct ourselves in any way deemed inappropriate for a visiting service provider, we paid close attention to many such nuances during our visits, over the period of our work together, and to some extent long after the project is completed.
For example, we sometimes are required to negotiate the contract with someone other than the person(s) with whom we will work on the project. Even though the client who commissioned us to produce her book is well-versed in what she sees as the ideal end product, the man in contracts may have a very different understanding of—and approach to—the same project. And if that isn't sufficiently muddy, it's always possible that some unknown internal factors further complicate the players' relationship.
In one instance, although the contracts employee knew next to nothing about the book project itself, he preferred another bidder who submitted a total cost about 18-percent lower than ours. He delayed finalizing the agreement for more than six months, causing the price tag to increase significantly from rush fees. His excuse when called on the carpet? He "had no idea" that the book—was needed for the company's centennial celebration—was time sensitive.
In this case, we had to maintain good relations with the contracts manager, even as we tried to impress upon him the necessity of finalizing the agreement in a timely manner. We had the assurances of our client, who outranked her colleague, that he could not actually throw the job to the competitor. But in-house waters were sufficiently riled to allow the contract to remain in limbo for a long time that was needed for the work.
When things came crashing down in 2008, we mistakenly thought our contracted projects were immune to the recession. Until, that is, a couple were simply cancelled and two others, which were at signing stage, were "put on hold," and have yet to be revived. In another instance, the volatile job market put us in the position of working with a client other than the one who initially hired us. We quickly discovered the wisdom of treading lightly so as not to inadvertently get splattered by the bad blood that had existed for sometime between the former manager and his replacement.
For several years, a communications department considered our firm to be its "publications partner"—a kind of de facto publishing division rather than just one of many outside resources. The company grew quickly, and a chunk of its new-found revenue was used to hire an in-house publications manager, who seemed to be threatened by the relationship we had built with her boss and colleagues. Rather than bristle and protest, we needed to focus our attention on our newest client, who was now calling the shots, understand what she needs to accomplish as she begins her tenure, and exercise caution that we not seem to "know too much" so that she can settle into her new position without feeling threatened.
Clearly, we are called on to integrate the needs and styles of several individuals into the development and execution of the project we produce. We may be able to skirt direct involvement in office politics, per se, but we remain responsible for keeping feathers unruffled so as not to lead to office warfare—or at least not to intensify whatever may already be on the ground in a particular situation. In order to avoid inadvertently complicating our clients' internescine struggles, it's crucial that we remain alert and sensitive to how such issues can affect our work for them.
Brian's last post discusses the perils of book production by committee primarily from an editorial point of view, so a logical segue is to look at potential pitfalls of leading a design presentation before a group of people with disparate interests. Just about every graphic designer or communications officer faces this hurdle at one time or another.
The most basic "agenda" that each committee member brings to a design discussion arises from his/her personal likes and dislikes. I will avoid using the term tastes, here, because it is too vague and leans toward the volatile. Likewise, it is crucial to bear in mind how useful it is in design discussions to remind group members that they need to allow for—and consider—a variety of tastes other than their own.
One useful way to elevate the discussion above the merely personal is to approach it in terms of problems and solutions. This helps the committee stay on topic and keep the conversation civil and objective. Sometimes it can even help the group reaffirm whether they have stated a problem as clearly as possible.
I have found the following approaches effective, by themselves and in combination:
- Start with a brief review of the set of challenges the committee originally proposed to the designer; Then confirm that everyone still agrees about the requirements set forth in the proposal and/or RFP, then use them to center the discussion on how well the designer addressed each issue.
- Keep your design discussion focused on quantifiables: Are the solutions likely to increase product interest or sales? Will the overall design reflect the organization's message accurately and appropriately? Could certain elements of the work support that message more clearly, and just how can they be improved?
- "I don't like it" is worthless as an answer. Insist on specifics; break down individual likes and dislikes; keep fishing for as many adjectives as possible. If your meeting site accommodates public note-taking (say with a laptop-based projector, whiteboard, or flip-pad), write down all these adjectives. Seeing their ideas "in print" usually encourages even the most bashful team member to participate and the most vociferous to calm down a bit.
- Identify conflicting responses that arise among the group, then work together to break down the nature of that conflict and determine how to resolve it.
- Even at the late stage of design-concept presentation, it can be helpful for group members to show or describe similar publications they feel better convey their message.
- List specific characteristics of the end user—perhaps going so far as to develop a persona. Does the design reflect this reader's wants and needs? What is required to make make the design appeal more to that reader?
- Include your own examples of publications that have been proven successful in conveying similar messages and discuss those specific attributes that directly supported that success.
Sizing up a disparate collection of attendees on the fly is difficult and can present a potential pitfall. By starting out with suggestion 1, however, you're likely to be handed a near-instant picture of what this committee wants or needs, who's likely to surge forward and who would prefer to be someplace—anyplace—else. The other approaches can be equally revealing, but only if you keep yourself "tuned in" in order to turn the clues provided to your advantage.
Although I have never heard of a formal survey or study on the matter, I feel pretty confident that if you asked respondents to describe the book-producing process, most would tell a fairly linear, step-at-a-time tale with two main characters: the author as protagonist; the publisher, antagonist.
To be fair, to the average 21st-century North American, the word book evokes thoughts of novels, nonfiction monographs, or biographies—in other words, single-author affairs. Therefore, the procedure sketched in above isn't all that far off, at first glance. Scratch a little farther beneath the surface, however, and it becomes evident that even publications that fall within those narrow parameters seldom follow along a predictable, well-blazed trail. There are always detours and upsets and unexpected opportunities that interrupt the author's and publisher's trajectory, and they are sure to change the book's direction several times before it beckons to readers from a bookseller's window or shelf.
But let's complicate things by considering another kind of publication—the book with an agenda, so to speak. By this I mean one created to fulfill a very specific purpose—promotion of a company, say, or celebration of a college's centenary, or recording for posterity the important work done by a charitable organization.
Even scholarly publications are apt to have their own agendas. Perhaps they report on and further research, expand on the material made available in a museum's exhibition, or stake a study team's claim to specific academic turf.
These are the kinds of books Vern Associates usually produces for our clients. And they seldom follow a predictable course or come about as the result of a simple author-publisher pairing. These books generally occur through the efforts of a team of people sharing a keen interest in how the book will read, what it will look like, how much it will cost to produce, and how it will be made available to readers. While this team may not be called a committee—that word has earned something of a pejorative edge of late—that's what this conclave amounts to, and the book-by-committee is a species unto itself.
We have produced about twenty such projects, and all but two or three have resembled bramble-strewn, uphill, bushwhacks rather than pine-needle-cushioned, gentle-grade hiking trails. How could they not? Take any collection of six or more individuals, usually drawn from the decision-making stratum, each of whom has his/her own ideas about and requirements for the project, and consensus becomes strained. Ratchet up the tension by adding the often unconscious impulses of even one or two team members, and you can end up with the equivalent of same-pole magnets constrained together within a small perimeter.
In the most difficult cases, we grappled with one or two committee members who were determined to play the spoiler or progress impeder. (Think of Congress during its most recent terms.) When the typeset copy looked black to most, one saw blue, and another insisted it was beige.
While handling this sort of near impasse is a tall order, it also is a situation in which Vern Associates' position as outsider permits us to save the project from its committee. For example, when meetings were confined to the committee members, they could become alienating shouting matches, but our presence tempered the tempers. Just as no one wanted to appear to be group bully, none could conscience playing punching bag, either.
In our role as facilitator—in the sense of service provider, contributor without whom the book would stall—our involvement has helped calm the waves. We were perceived as seeing the situation with fresh eyes trained on process and product rather than internescine strife, interpersonal jealousies, and intramural competition. Not as shrinks, exactly, but referees who know the rules and the ropes. When we are careful to couch recommendations and observations in terms of making a book, the committee members can relax a bit and forget their impulse to undermine one another.
When you look back at my suggestion concerning the standard picture of who does what to make a book, you can readily grasp how important a strong, central vision is for accomplishing it. Introduce irrelevant stress and discord, and sound and fury does nothing but muddy and weaken the story. That's why our work-for-hire agreement includes a hard-and-fast clause in which one—at most two—specific individuals from our client's team are named, and we take our marching orders from them alone. Of course, practically speaking, that's necessary in order to stick to the schedule and budget, but most importantly, it positions that person as arbiter of the process, thereby quelling all but the most ferocious committees from the outset.
Photo credit: Stephen Mitchell
At first glance, it might seem that Vern Associates' proposals follow a rough kind of template: services first, then the elements the client will provide, followed by specifications, fees, and production schedule. That sequence seems to work, regardless of client type, because the books we produce all have certain elements in common. But that's where the similarity ends.
We have learned the importance of honing each bid or estimate in ways that suit the needs and interests of individual customers.
Just as each book we produce is tailor made to suit the needs of a specific client—its publisher—it is crucial that the bid we prepare for that book be custom-built for the individual(s) who will consider it. For example, if we're proposing to package an exhibition catalogue for the director of a museum's publications department, the level of specificity concerning items such as paper and binding materials is apt to vary from what suits a 97-year-old widget manufacturer looking to publish a book to mark its forthcoming centennial.
The following example compares two approaches we have used to cite identical specs for two otherwise very different books: a museum catalogue (A), and a university's centennial history (B).
Extent: 256 printing 4/4
Pages: 256 printed in full color
Binding: 16 signatures, smyth sewn;
full Brillianta over 3mm board
Binding: high-quality hardcover;
The difference? The clients.
Because the museum's publications director recognizes the shorthand, she knows that extent refers to the number of pages and "4/4" indicates that every page will be printed on a four-color press. From smyth sewn, the Brillianta brand name, and the board's size, she will recognize immediately that we propose to bind the sewn signatures using high-quality cloth and board as materials.
The client for the anniversary publication, however, is the university's institutional advancement director, whose publications have never been more involved than 16-page brochures, and those are traditionally handled entirely by an outside PR consultant. The university executive knows his business inside and out, but throwing around terms like extent, 4/4, smyth-sewn, and Brillianta is practically an invitation for him to skip the specs altogether, and that would be the best-case scenario. A much worse outcome would be if the specialized terminology sewed seeds of distrust and cost us the commission as a result. Especially in 2012, does heavy-handed jargon favorably impress anyone who is not initiated into the mysteries of the bidder's specialization?
Of course, including a dense thicket of descriptive copy is just as likely to dissuade a potential client from proceeding farther. To avoid either eventuality, we developed a single-page sheet that acts as both glossary and 5¢ tour of printing procedures. (Nevertheless, we typically ask the potential client whether she wants to receive it, thus avoiding hurt feelings or embarrassment.)
Such a commitment to ease of proposal comprehension is crucial in the balancing act of describing the services we recommend to each specific client. I'm embarrassed to admit that we learned the hard way not to go overboard. In striving to demonstrate that we could do everything they needed, the least that resulted was misunderstanding once the job was commissioned, but in a couple of instances we lost opportunities to other book packagers because the clients perceived the proposal to be padded (or "larded," as one disgruntled development director termed it) with items the client deemed to be unnecessary. After all, if the team members considering the proposal don't know a dylux from a blueline, the fact that we intend to review them isn't apt to impress much at all.
Then, too, it's always possible to underdo it. Whereas a marketing director for an insurance company may be accustomed to parsing a fee breakdown by type of work, another decision maker—the business manager at a landscape architect, let's say—may simply want to make certain her budget will accommodate the total. To her, knowing how much of the fee goes toward editorial work may be as enlightening as the cost of a dozen Buxus sempervirens would be to the insurance exec.
Several years of honing our proposals taught us something that should have been clear from the start. To prepare a serviceable working document that is useful to our client as well as Vern Associates, we need to approach it exactly as we do any of the publications we produce: as a clearly stated, appropriately comprehensive offering carefully tailored to the people who will read it. This means taking time up front to discuss the project in detail with the prospective client's team, then writing the proposal specifically for its particular members, tailoring it to their specific interests, perceptions of the book they want produced, and what sort of learning curve they are willing to accommodate.
This is one instance where one size fits, well, one.
Today I would like to recommend an excellent book I came across recently: Typography for Lawyers: Essential Tools for Polished and Persuasive Documents, by Matthew Butterick.
I was struck by its precision. Even the title elegantly clues us in about how much we can learn from this book and (for me, anyway) how much potential it offers for applying its information far beyond just the legal profession. It fills a simple need that has gone without remedy for so long, and yet somehow no one noticed its absence. I expect that is the nature of brilliant ideas—we wish we'd thought of it—and written it—first.
As one might expect, the book is designed and produced impeccably. It is a wonderful reminder of how clear and instructive a well-designed reference book can be.
Typography for Lawyers rightly has received several excellent reviews in posts throughout the typographic blogosphere. It made me realize that it's possible to divide every person's reading material into two broad categories—what they want to read and what they have to read. To my mind, legal documents are the epitome of the have-to-read. While it may contain life-altering information we must understand—isn't that why we are warned repeatedly to "read the fine print"?—often it is expressed through such convoluted syntax and presented in a manner so mind-numbingly repetitive as to seem intended to obfuscate.
Bringing clarity back to what might otherwise become a data morass reminds me that the term text (as noun, not verb) once all but demanded an accompanying adjective—instructions, contract, dialog, poetry, etc.—to clarify its intent. Such modifiers, in turn, suggested how specific typographic conventions associated with it should look.
As text morphs inexorably into content that meanders from page to screen to tablet to mobile device, how much meaning is being ignored or lost when attention to its presentation is abandoned in favor of generic displays that accommodate the widest range of media?