Who you gonna call?
And what does dishwasher repair have to do with publishing, you ask
Glad you asked.
One of the sessions I participated in at the PMA Publishing University a week ago was on the topic of how a publisher (small publisher, self-publisher, any publisher) could find freelances to work with–people like me, in other words, independent consultants who provide services to publishers.
As with appliance service technicians, a recommendation from a reputable source might be a good idea. But who is a reputable source? In a discussion that is currently simmering politely on one of the lists I participate in, the point has been made that some of the most reputable people in the business covertly accept fees from the people they recommend. Their doing so is covert because their lists of recommended vendors are not labeled as paid advertising. Others list anyone who asks to be included on their lists. This seems ethical enough, but there is no screening; so the implied recommendation doesn’t carry much weight. We might as well throw plain old advertising into this spectrum as well. For example, I pay for Google ads and people come to my site by clicking those ads. Even though Google scrupulously includes “ads by Google,” it is not at all obvious to me that casual users of the search engine realize some listings are paid and others are not.
I am not outraged by any of this. It’s business, after all, and companies, mine included, have to be able to get their messages out to their potential clients somehow. It would be nice to think that we can all survive on word of mouth, but as a practical matter, that’s not possible, especially for someone trying to break into the field. (I’ve been doing this kind of work for decades but only began my independent consulting business a few short years ago, and I don’t have thousands or even hundreds of satisfied customers to rely on for repeat business. In fact, most of my clients will never publish a second book.) It would be grossly unfair to freeze a newcomer out of all directories just because the directory owners hadn’t personally worked with that person already.
Still, the situation as it stands presents a problem for the publisher: How do you make a good decision based on information of unknown reliability? When I called the appliance parts place, was I getting an unbiased recommendation based on knowledge of the local repair trade or was I getting a plug based on a consideration paid to the owner of the parts store? I have no way of knowing, but I figured the odds were against the store recommending someone whose poor performance would reflect badly on the store over the long run. I took my chance and the results were satisfactory. The publisher also has to take some chances. Would someone with a reputation to protect recommend a vendor who provides unprofessional service, whether the recommendation was paid or free? Maybe once, but not after getting a complaint. Can you tell whether a particular list is vetted for quality? Maybe not. You might know that the restaurant listings in your weekly shopper are paid ads. You might not know that. Either way, you might decide to try a new restaurant based on what the listing says.
It’s certainly a postmodern dilemma that faces the publisher in this situation, akin to that faced by the reader of a novel with an unreliable narrator. Without having decades in the business, during which you’ve worked with hundreds of people and formed opinions based on seeing their work, how do you really know who can do the job for you? You don’t. But you can interview people, see what they have to say for themselves, ask for references, ask for samples, and ask a trusted friend to help you sort out the various proposals. Then go with your gut and hope you’ve made the right decision.
Ronald Reagan often referred to what he called an old Russian proverb: Trust but verify. That seems apt here.