From two points of view—user and editor—I find most software documentation to be pretty poor, but one tech writer stands out as a great and shining model: David Pogue. Even when I couldn't care less about a given gadget or application, I never miss his weekly New York Times column. And several volumes in his "Missing Manual" series have saved me vast amounts of time and nearly eliminated the need for headache medication.
Of course, his clever series title has been adopted and co-opted often and widely: It's not unusual for me to mention wishing for a "missing manual" for, well, you name it. (This past weekend it was for replacing a toilet seat.) So, when a colleague recently mentioned that she wished there were a "missing manual" to help her locate and procure editorial services, I perked right up and (pace Mr. Pogue) began sketching in what I could offer.
Let's start with editing and look at five things to consider before you outsource this kind of work.
- Assess technical expertise
Since text samples generally show finished—i.e., printed or posted—content, it's hard to know how well they represent an editor's work (as opposed to the noodling others may have done later on). While I've devised a short test to determine this, noneditors usually rely on references. That said, view them with the same caution you would any recommendation.
Hint: Don't be afraid to rely on intuition. You don't need to know a period from an ellipsis to ask questions regarding the manuscript that are calulated to elicit how much confidence and comfort the editor shows when answering them. Listen more to how they are answered than to what is actually said, and you are likely to get a very clear notion about where this editor stands on the experience spectrum.
- Determining how seasoned the editor should be
Ah, the eternal balancing act—do I need an editor who has contributed to dozens of projects, or can I rely on someone newly minted? The answer lies almost exclusively with you and your relative level of comfort. Arriving at this answer beforehand is crucial. Carefully consider the nature of the material. Does it call for a kinder, gentler hand (i.e., simple copyedit), or will the editor need to roll up sleeves and dive into making major revisions and rewriting?
Hint: Beware overkill. If the subject matter is straightforward, requires little or no special knowledge of the field, and the writing is relatively clean at the outset, I'd shy away from a seasoned (likely more expensive) editor. Many of us have an unnerving need to make our mark, even where it isn't needed or wanted. That said, underkill for more complex material is just as bad an idea.
- Fitting the editing into your schedule
Before you can receive a reliable estimate of how much time the editor will need, you must provide a thorough description of the material to be edited—at the very least. Ideally, supply some (or all, better yet) of the actual manuscript in advance of your discussion. Don't bother trying to guess. Not only is estimating time among the darkest of editorial arts, every editor has her own approach and per-page rate.
Hint: Apply a healthy skepticism. If the estimate seems too short, it probably is. But don't base your idea on how long it would take you. Just as the editor couldn't do your work in twice the time it takes you, she is apt to rely on techniques and skills that are unknown to you.
- Timely delivery
This is where references can be a great help. While previous employers may balk at offering qualitative details about an editor's skills, something as easily quantified as meeting due dates is pretty straightforward.
Hint: Bear in mind that on-time completion is a two-way process. If the editor relies on you to provide material and feedback, you cannot fault him completely for not meeting predetermined deadlines.
- The fee...
Expect editors to be hesitant to provide bids before they examine the manuscript. We all know our "typical" per-page pace for various types of writing. A 750-page novel is apt to take less time than a 300-page book on the intercontinental railway, for example, because novels tend to need only basic clean-up and consistency checks, while works of nonfiction also require fact checking, calculation verification, close intratext consideration of term agreement, etc.
Hint: Don't even broach this subject until the editor has had the opportunity to assess the manuscript's needs. His bid should briefly outline particular issues he noticed, and if his quote seems too high, question it and discuss your expectations in detail.
Vern Associates provides design, production, and editorial services for art institutions, schools and universities, policy institutes, and corporations that need to publish printed publications. Therefore our enthusiastic endorsement of outsourcing appropriate projects comes as no surprise. Because we tailor our services and approaches to fit the needs of each individual client, we may manage an entire project or just work on one or two subsets thereof. This method of operating highlights the value of being generalists, which permits us to bring shape, form, and concision to the material that our clients know so well—some of them might even say too well.
Over the years, as we meet with potential clients, we have noticed an interesting phenomenon that tends to separate in-house publication departments from other departments tasked with providing printed matter as a small part of their mandate (e.g., communications or marketing).
Often, the publications people are reluctant even to explore working with us because they're under the mistaken impression that an illustrated book packager will only take on complete projects, from unedited manuscript through delivery of bound books. Perhaps other book packagers do have such requirements, but that seems awfully limiting and a good way to lose a job.
Those clients whose job descriptions have little or nothing to do with creating publications, however, usually find our complete project management service to be a godsend. Some of them are small communications departments whose publications are shorter than books; others need the full "coffee-table book" Monty. No matter the project's specifications, however, these resourceful, determined people are required to produce whatever is asked of them, and routinely they learn on the job, at the school of hard knocks.
Even so, at first some of them are understandably skeptical when Brian and I present ourselves as publication "specialists." They're certain they can do the same work we do, as well as we can. In some cases they are correct, but when you factor in the additional time and energy this requires of them, not to mention the lack of industry-specific information like photography and print sourcing, diminished returns are inevitable.
A friend of mine is communications director for a large nonprofit. She self-indentifies as "control freak," which became abundantly clear when she described a recent project. Though not an editor, she was required to make a "manuscript" from the results of an extensive study compiled by several behavioral scientists. From this raw material, she forged a well-organized, extensive report that is both interesting and understandable to a general audience. My friend is incredibly hard-working, persistent, and thorough, but this report caused her day-to-day work to get so backed up that her already-long workdays turned into months of camping out at the office. While justifiably proud of what she accomplished, I question the wisdom of taking on such additional assignments that are so time- and labor-intensive.
I'm not suggesting that outsourcing this kind of project is a no-brainer. Without question, making it possible to pass along a complex publication assignment is bound to result in up-front work to get the contractor up to speed, so sometimes it is difficult to assess the pros and cons of showing someone how instead of doing it yourself.
Perhaps most telling, however, is the fact that several of our regular, long-term clients are directors of in-house publication departments that produce illustrated books. These people and their staff do exactly what we do. There is no doubt that they can do our work as well as—in some cases better than—we can, yet they continue to commission us to produce part of their lists. Without exception, the mutual respect we hold for one another has been key to our successful working relationship.
These clients know all too well exactly what each project requires. They're also keenly aware of how much of that work they can keep in-house reasonably. Their knowledge of and experience with the kind of work we have in common gives them full awareness of how much time a project will require and what will be an appropriate fee, so we go in knowing that everybody involved is on the same page and will deal with any surprises that crop up along the path to completion.
Before setting finger to keyboard, I tend to mull over my point and approach to a new post, sometimes for days, trying to find the right way in. The subject of holding copyright vs. doing work for hire has been in the hopper for months, but it was unusually resistant to my attempts to focus. My tack became clear a day or two ago during a discussion with an editor at a trade publisher with whom we hope to work. She asked, somewhat warily it seemed to me, whether Vern Associates "requires" copyright in the books we produce, and clearly was surprised when we assured her nearly every book on our list has been done on a work-for-hire basis. It was our turn to be amazed when we learned that a number of book packagers insist on holding the copyright for books they produce—even those they do not originate.
By way of a quick refresher, most publishers publish books by writers, artists, and other creative sorts—we'll call all of them "authors"—on a royalty basis. Contractually, the publisher agrees to pay the author an advance against the royalties the book is expected to earn. Once the amount earned by actual sales of the book surpasses what the publisher paid in advance, additional earnings begin to accrue to the author's account.
In a royalty-based agreement, the author usually holds the copyright, albeit after undergoing strenuous negotiation with the publisher, who is apt to prefer to hold copyright itself. Even though the author likely grants her publisher the right to sell and license the book and any other "product" that may arise from it—think coffee mugs, T-shirts, and cellphone apps as well as serializations, movies, and audio versions—the copyright holder is in the best position to call the shots as to how whatever may arise from the original property (i.e., the book) is handled, who profits from the result, and to what extent.
But the publishing industry also creates books via a process known as work for hire. Such work entails some or all of of the functions needed to create and/or produce a publication. Once the work is complete, the publisher is owner and proprietor of the fruits of the hiree's labors. You can see why a publisher would prefer this approach. Legally, someone performing work for hire has no claim to what they have produced nor to any recompense that may arise from it beyond that for which he agrees to do the work. In short, he relinquishes title—ownership—to what he has made.
Shifting focus from the individual author to the book packager, however, can cause the work-for-hire distinction to become a little foggy. It's crucial to consider exactly what we provide to a given project. Its concept? Writing? Editorial services? Design and production? The whole nine yards? And what does the resultant publication represent to us?
In general, Vern Associates looks upon itself as providing a service, not a product. Yes, it requires extensive labor and, in the best cases, enormous creative energy; it even results in a printed, bound object. We do not, however, see our involvement in the development and realization of a book as being an issue of ownership. This is what we do. It's our job and purpose. The pride we take in our work is by no means altered or diminished by the knowledge that someone (or something) else actually "owns" it.
On projects that we originate, we may retain the copyright. And of course, in a case where an author's involvement amounts to the prime reason for the book, we negotiate a royalty agreement that designates the author as copyright holder. But as a rule, we don't perceive our firm to be the "owner" of its work.
Don't get me wrong! I readily, eagerly agree that a creative person (or entity) may, will, even should hold the copyright to what results from their thought and labor—that is, consider it to be their personal property. But contemporary struggles over what would otherwise be considered, at most, contributions to a larger whole baffle me. Like so many notions labeled "conservative," to me this attitude smacks of distrust and fear, perhaps of moving on to the next adventure...or of missing out on what one perceives to be his "due." From what I've observed, that way lies madness, because all too frequently such people actually come to be "owned" by the very property to which they stake a claim.
Note: My thanks go to the boxchain / Alex Cockroach Flickr contributor for the photo. Entitled "moneybags," it embodies the ideas in this post on a number of levels.
While Vern Associates seldom hires a writer, we frequently are called upon to recommend one (or more) to a client. Briefly, this process calls for us to review our author database in search of writers with appropriate background and experience for the job at hand. We may also launch into further research to find additional candidates to fit the bill. We compile dossiers of text samples and CVs, prepare a précis of our selection to spell out strengths—perhaps weaknesses—of the exemplars, then pass all this information along to our client. Once they have reviewed the material, we confer with them to help choose just the right writer for the publication.
Pretty straightforward, isn't it? Actually, no. Each step entails its own peculiar balancing act. If only it were as simple as matching writer with subject. Instead, at each juncture we must negotiate the twists and turns that typically intervene. Up to a point, you could compare what we do to the work of a matchmaker of yore. Dolly Levi had to sense the presence of a "chemistry" that would propel a couple into matrimony. Our kind of matchmaking may not be geared toward such a long-lasting pairing, but at least one of the partners (our client) had better be completely at ease with their new, albeit temporary, mate. So let's look at the considerations we face.
First, selecting candidates from our writer database can be a tricky game of maybe-yes/maybe-no. Even though this resource is searchable by subject area, that's only one of the parameters we need to match. Every publication (and/or client) dictates its own peculiar set of writing qualities. For example, Art Book A may be pitched to readers who demand a refined prose style, while Corporate History B may be better suited to writing that features a just-the-facts concision. I recall a project that called for both a fair amount of polish and wide-based research. We had just the person for the former, but her portfolio held nothing that demonstrated what she could do in terms of in-depth research. On top of that, subject-wise all her samples were diametrically opposed to that of the manuscript-to-be. What to do? Present this writer's clips, explain why we consider her a good fit, and hope our client will see our point (rather than wonder if we really "got" the project)? Or pass her over for another writer with subject expertise and research abilities whose lack of literary flair was likely to entail significant editorial intervention?
The Internet has made finding potential writers infinitely easier than it was a few years ago. But the "embarrassment of riches" it offers is exceedingly complex and time consuming to navigate. Locating candidates with suitable credentials is the easy part; then the vetting begins. Have they ever written—can they handle—book-length manuscripts? Someone with dozens of magazine and journal articles to his or her credit may not possess the organizational skill needed to structure a long-form manuscript or the staying power to complete it on schedule. The reverse could be true of the author of books asked to prepare an essay. I recall (anything but fondly) receiving a 42,000-word manuscript for what were to have been two essays totaling 17,500 words. The author delivered it one week past deadline on his way to board the plane that would whisk him off to China, where he would be incommunicado for three weeks. Upon his return, he was anything but pleased with the "trim" I had no choice but to perform.
Finally, it may be next to impossible to determine up front what sort of personality and work habits a hitherto unknown writer brings to her work, but it must be carefully considered in order for the blend of client, author, and book producer to gel. It is a bonus for an editor to work with a relatively low-maintenance author, of course, and even editorial relationships with "difficult" writers can be comfortably managed. But it is crucial is that the client feels fully comfortable with the match, even though they may not have much direct interaction with the writer. This is, after all, their book, and it is our client—much more than the writer—who must live and work with the results over the long haul. Recently, for example, I heard about a project in which a corporate client insisted on switching writers in midstream because it didn't hold with what it discovered about the writer's political affiliations. Free speech and similar considerations aside, it would have been best for all concerned to have known about such issues up front, before the courtship began.