Once upon a time, I assumed that owning and managing our own business would become easier. Looking back, I wonder where that naive notion came from. The size of a business does not exempt it from an important dictate that any other business or, really, aspect of life must acknowledge: the more you learn, the more there is to be learned.
Many of the issues we faced early on—taming bookkeeping software, figuring out how to budget job by job as well as year by year, developing boilerplate contract language that is both clear and fair, for example—have given way to new challenges. We even face learning curves that didn't exist in 1994, but one remains as pressing or more so than ever—marketing.
This brings me to today's topic, but rather than trying to offer ideas or suggestions, I'm going to devote this blog to asking readers for your ideas about a particular marketing problem we have faced for most of Vern Associates' history: How do we help a potential client understand what we really offer and how that can help them with their publication needs?
For a case in point, let's look at just one branch of our work: museum books. When we began business, most medium-sized and all large museums supported their own in-house publications departments. Even though these departments regularly assigned editing and design and production duties to freelance service providers, few worked with packagers, who could have put all the pieces together.
The economic roller coaster that hit the rails a few years later, however, caused numerous midsized museums to disband their publications divisions, even though they continued to publish their own books. They still farmed out most or all of the work required to bring their books into being, but now they added the management of the publication process to the workload of their already heavy-laden curators. We expected this to be a boon. After all, we could take on the whole shebang. Vern Associates is a one-stop means to continue publishing without having to manage the work doled out to a disparate band of individual service providers.
From the very start of our business, we have considered the collaborative, all-in-one-office nature of what we offer to be a strong, value-added proposition. Our editorial "wing" works closely in-house with the design/layout/production team. At every stage, each knows the book intimately and is aware of exactly where it stands in its gestation. In addition, our editorial personnel are thoroughly versed in book design, just as the design and production folks are aware of and sensitive to editorial concerns.
But somehow that proposition has worried, even alienated, potential clients, and a good number of whom seem unwilling to recognize that we by no means consider this integrated manner of book production to be mandated. Our trusted staff members frequently augment packaging work with jobs that call for their own individual expertise. For example, I recently edited a book for Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, but Peter didn't see it until a bound copy arrived in the office. Meanwhile, the new book for Winterthur was almost entirely his doing. It came to him with edited manuscript and art program in place. Winterthur even supplied the proofreading and commissioned and edited the index.
So, what are we missing? Why don't museums' in-house staff recognize that we offer individually the skills and expertise that play so well together to make up a package? A long-time museum publications staff member recently mentioned that he refuses to meet with packagers—even those like VAI, who willingly shed the inclusive cloak of an all-in-one service provider. He has always outsourced design and even production, just as his editorial colleagues do, but he doesn't trust the individuals working for a packager not to "do too much."
When Vern Associates is the client, we expect to call the shots. We are paying another business to provide something we need, and it must be exactly what we require. So why would we expect the situation to be any different when feet and shoes get swapped?
We would love to hear your opinions and suggestions that can help unravel this seeming conundrum.
We are inundated with offers to improve our search engine optimization, e-mail marketing, social media strategies for nurturing new leads and resuscitating dormant ones, and ways to become a "trusted source" to clients. (This last moniker is taking some getting used to—I had finally almost gotten comfortable with "vendor.")
As book producers, we get a substantial response to our marketing efforts from businesses who want to sell their services to us, at times making it unclear just who is selling what to whom. It takes time to distinguish between the sales material sent by services offering to help us sell our own services and that sent by companies simply trying to sell us their own services and products.
This confusion underscores the desperation that underlies a fiercely competitive marketplace in a sour economy. Worse, it suggests that while we're all trying to sell to each other, the real clients are working with those who have found other—effective—approaches.
We work with an inbound marketing consultant who also hosts our website, blog, and landing pages. Inbound marketing helps us create and disseminate content in ways that help potential clients find our website and get in touch to ask for help.
We blog on a regular basis, send emails to targeted lists, and have started working on a monthly newsletter. We receive lots of assistance from our marketing consultant; some valuable, some less so. It takes time to figure out what works for us. Once we sort out that material, we need to adapt its implementation to the time constraints of a very small business. Even the most modest campaigns would fill the schedule of a part-time marketing manager, but Brian and I are responsible for all aspects of our business—creative, managerial, marketing, administrative (not necessarily in that order).
To date, the only marketing strategy that has been predictably successful is issuing "content" that will make our clients' jobs easier. Unquestionably, Item #1 on their list of requirements is a way to save them money, and our best solutions arise from showing how to avoid unanticipated and unnecesary expense. So our biggest marketing challenge is devising new, persuasive methods to get that message across in every marketing piece we deliver.
We once bid on a project for an independent school's anniversary book. Of the six packagers with hats thrown into the ring, we were among the five unsuccessful bidders. Despite our disappointment, we were fortunate that a couple of the decision makers shared their thoughts with us afterward. The most intriguing observations we gleaned concerned use of a template to make a new illustrated book.
The school issued a detailed RFP, so we knew about its previous publications (some still in print, most not), got to know what writing styles and approaches the committee members liked (and didn't), and even received bios of the decision makers. Most important, it turns out, was the anniversary book recently published by a nearby independent school in the same league (athletic, at least) as our potential client, which was held up as exemplary of what the committee sought.
But we were still confused: The RFP stipulated a vertical trim and about half the pictures were to be printed in color, but the exemplar volume was oblong, and all its pictures were duotones. We interpreted such discrepancies to mean that the specs were flexible and quoted costs for a book that corresponded more closely to the RFP specs.
As it turned out, we should have paid closer attention to what was said about the existing book. The successful bidder, who also was packager of the admired example, followed its previous text approach and specifications to the letter, as if not RFP existed.
Photo credit: "A'Beckett Tower—cropped," by Alpha (Melbourne, Australia)
The takeaway is that we cannot assume that a client wants its wheel reinvented. Template-based publications have always been anathema to the way we work, but clearly they have their place. When a potential client shows a prototype they like, it may not be their idea of fun or wisdom or expedience to stray from that approach. When they have in hand proof of what is possible, it may be nearly impossible for them to visualize books with varying specs or editorial and design approaches. At the same time, something new and different should not be ruled out simply due to a lack of information.
The four considerations that follow may help publication committees and decision makers determine whether to adopt a template-driven or custom-built approach to their new publication. (Of course, my observations and comments apply just as much to corporate histories or books published by nonprofit organizations, but since these musings arose as a result of a bid for an independent school's anniversary history, I focused on that segment of our client base.)
1. Aren't template-driven books more affordable?
Not necessarily. Although counterintuitive, neither approach can be relied upon to be more cost effective. Some large, well-known book producers work only with template-driven books, turning their resultant savings in editorial/design/production costs to underwrite hefty operating costs, with a net result of a big price tag. And shoehorning new material and intentions into an established grid can occasion more work and expense than developing a new approach based on the content at hand.
2. Will your readers care?
While we pride ourselves on shaping each project to the individual needs and desires of our client, that may not be important in every instance. Consider who will read your anniversary book and how likely they are to be familiar with similar publications from other independent schools. Even if they are acquainted with other examples, will they be bothered by similarities? In our experience, ca. 65 to 85 percent of anniversary-book recipients are alumni or parents—that is, people who aren't apt to see numerous other examples. On the other hand, a template-driven piece is likely to be disadvantageous if you plan to use it as a development and publicity tool.
3. Perhaps your school's visual content is all you need to set the book apart...
One independent school history we produced benefited greatly from an extensive, meticulously organized archive of visual material that had been collected assiduously throughout the school's long tenure. With that breadth, depth, and variety of imagery at hand, even a template-driven design would stand apart. On the other hand, another history we produced relied on an endless array of head shots of past executives, and it took extensive photo research and design originality to enliven it into a volume that appealed to its intended audience.
4. What image do you wish to convey to the book's readers?
Not every independent school will welcome outsiders' notions that it takes risks, pushes envelopes, or relies on nontraditional teaching methods. If its long-lived reputation rests on teaching a particular canon in a time-honored way, the educational institution may wish to adhere closely to a norm, making a template-driven book appropriate. Conversely, a school's reputation as progressive could suffer just as much from a type-bending layout that makes its reading a challenge.
Over the course of the past few blogs, I have been discussing some issues that designers need to address when formatting content—specifically text—for e-readers and PC tablets. That the technology for these devices and their apps are still in the early stages of development is evidenced by the limited, cumbersome presentation of much reading material. If you want to read a novel and are not too particular about its formatting, you are well-positioned to be an e-book reader, and judging from ebook industry sales reports, a great many people are more than satisfied with the products as they now stand.
When it comes to displaying art of any kind on an e-reader, however, it's a different story. Imagery can be problematic because digital reproduction for both video and still pictures were developed for viewing on computer monitors, which, on average, have grown consistently larger. With all that room to spread out, larger and more detailed images became available to a wider computer audience.
The recent shift toward much smaller e-readers and PC tablets re-introduced the conundrum of how to display large, complex images efficiently as well as effectively. Even zooming in or out of details is an ungainly process on a portable digital device, in part because magnification and reduction ratios are still based on the dimensions of a laptop or desktop monitor.
This becomes particularly problematic for the display of charts, tables, graphs, and especially maps. Generally, in order for them to be useful tools for comparison and contrast, information graphics must be seen in their entirety. A map used as a reference tool, rather than solely for navigation, needs to be divided into a grid so one can employ one or more reference point(s) from the smaller quadrants to the whole.
I wonder if the key to presenting info-graphics on smaller devices will be found in that familiar grid of quadrants that helps locate a desired detail within the larger picture. After all, isn't that old standby, the folding-paper road map, both an information graphic and a hand-held navigation device?