In an earlier blog about finding the "right" author, I noted that Vern Associates almost exclusively works on projects that come with author(s) included. Times, the market, the nature of our clientele—something—has changed, however, and over the past few months we were called on to help find writers.
This post concerns two such quests and posits why one turned into a painful nightmare and the other's outcome was close to ideal. Let's call the former project Selling Beauty (or SB); the latter will be WT (for Wise Teaching).
Both manuscripts shared certain elements: quite similar specs; a requirement for an author with a concise, elegant voice, who also was able (and willing) to assist with picture selection. But I attribute much of the ultimate dissimilarity in outcome to the tight schedule for SB, which was obvious from the start, and the candidates' level of professionalism, which became obvious—just too late.
The goal set for both authors was recounting the compelling story of the client's 100-plus-year history. Writing style was to be lithe and appealing. A coherent, primarily linear narrative was crucial. And both clients made it clear that neither jargon nor tech-speak were welcome. These guidelines helped greatly with compiling candidate lists.
When searching for the Selling Beauty author, I presented prospective writers with the (ridiculously short) production schedule up front. That narrowed the list in short order: of the 29 individuals on my original cut list, nearly two-thirds ventured no farther. These particular writers all had experience with long-form writing, and most replied with the email equivalent of rolling eyes. The remaining seven were pretty evenly split between writers who had never taken on anything close to a 42,000-word manuscript and those so desperately in need of work they permitted their vision to become clouded.
Learning from this, we made sure we had sufficient time for authoring Wise Teachings, and I approached only 11 candidates. Only those who expressed interest were told about the more reasonable (but still skimpy) schedule. Ultimately, we submitted six dossiers that our client narrowed to the three candidates who were interviewed. And it's in comparing the interviews where this really becomes instructive. Surprisingly, both projects' interviews included one representative each of what I've come to think of as writings' Three Bears:
1. Too hard. Each one arrived with ideas blazing. They were determined to demonstrate how much research they'd already devoted to the project. The SB candidate's babble of facts, figures, and concepts were notable principally for being off subject and inaccurate. For WT, the hopeful writer provided a dose of unremittingly negative urban legend about the client that bordered on insult.
2. Too soft. While both of these authors were thoughtful, the clients described them as "hesitant." Genuinely taken with the her book's concept, the SB suitor had serious (and frequently mentioned) reservations about her ability to write a manuscript more than three times the length of her longest magazine article. Mr. WT, who should have had similar qualms, was so focused on the fee—would it make it worth his while to "tie himself up" and "take himself out of the pool" of journalists for several months—to consider the time frame.
3. Just right. The successful bidder for WT was poised, clearly adept at her craft, and presented herself as a professional. Within the first 15 minutes it was clear that she understood and was comfortable with the demands of the project. Her manner was open and confident. She didn't mince words.
Since the guy who got the SB job was "on assignment on the left coast," we agreed to interview him via conference call. What the client and I heard as energy and enthusiasm in his voice made him stand out among his competitors. Had we been in his presence, however, I expect we would have recognized his ebullience as something more akin to anxiety, but we didn't learn that until after he signed the contract.
Looking back on these two experiences, it's obvious that luck unquestionably was an ingredient for both author selections—and in neither instance was that healthy. Like anyone in a creative profession, before bidding for a new project, writers owe it to themselves as well as their potential clients to consider carefully who they are, what they actually have to offer, and what they want to attain by writing that specific manuscript.
Just as crucial, however, is the assistance we provide for our clients when they have no experience negotiating what can seem like a white-water process of author selection. Just as these savvy people would never jump into a kayak for the first time expecting to navigate raging rapids, neither can we permit them even to wade into these waters unprepared and unguided.
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.
Anyone who follows our blog will have noticed another long gap between posts. We are all too well aware that this is "bad practice #1" (in inbound-marketing parlance) or, just as succinctly, a "great big no-no" (per a business consultant). And perhaps some in the inbound-marketing world would consider treating it as the subject of a blog "bad practice #__."
But truth is, this conundrum is faced by thousands of service-oriented small and microbusinesses:
How do we continue to bring in new work when we are swamped doing the jobs already landed?
A brief look at the work done at VAI since January 1 this year illustrates the trouble. On the services front, we brought to publication:
• a mammoth project we have been involved with for just on three years;
• a high-profile exhibition catalogue for which we received art and text late last November; and
• another high-profile book contracted last September for which the requisite material didn't arrive until early spring.
• Meanwhile, we are also keeping editorial, design, and production balls aloft for three other books in the making.
On the operations front:
• we developed excellent working relationships with three new freelance consultants;
• we attempted to develop similarly beneficial associations with several others, with markedly less-satisfactory results; and
• we performed all the day-to-day management tasks that keep the doors open.
What's missing? The marketing component—arguably the most important function of the three and potentially the most time-consuming as well.
As a book producer, we face a couple of challenges that increase this conundrum's relative knotty-ness. First, most VAI publications require roughly six months to a year to edit, design, and produce, which puts a major crimp in our "capacity" (to revert to business-consultant-speak). The other complication stems from the fact that our principal type of client is not in the business (or habit) of publishing books, making population of our client list with repeat customers that much more difficult.
Presently VAI is making the transition from doing everything in-house to farming out major portions (copyediting, say, or layout) to trusted colleagues. Already we can see the benefits. Two of the three of those just-published books would still be limping along had it not been for the terrific help we brought in. But that other project actually required more work from us because a number of unforeseen problems stemming from outsourcing cropped up. And we could not have foreseen most of those difficulties.
We would like nothing better than to turn over the sales and marketing function to a dedicated representative. (Well, one thing we would like better is the kind of reliable business to foot the bill for such an employee.) Because so much of our marketing work entails educating potential clients about making books, book packaging is not the kind of service that can be developed through independent sales reps. We tried that a couple of times, and over those four-plus years not one project came our way as a direct (or indirect) result.
It is all too clear to us that VAI has reached a juncture where a significant reconfiguration is at hand, and the trick will be deftly managing this change in direction and operation. Some of that will require letting go of the notion that each book requires the company's principals' intimate knowledge of every sentence and picture. Also crucial is the careful renovation of our stable of experienced and reliable colleagues so that checking work before delivering it to a client will not require nearly two-thirds of the time and effort doing it in-house would have entailed at the same time as it increases our costs.
But the biggest challenge is reassessing the paradigm under which we have labored since 1994. We would be the first to tell others running service-based businesses that they should not strive to be all things to all people, so why is it so difficult to convince ourselves of that when it comes to our own?
We would love to hear from others who have reached a similar pass and have made the leap of reconfiguration. What was the landing like? How are things on the other side?
Illustration created by Libby Levi for opensource.com