Thursday, June 07, 2007

Who you gonna call?

The appliance repair business is opaque to me. I have no way, just opening the Yellow Pages (paper or virtual), to determine who is a good mechanic, who will show up when he promises (haven’t encountered a she yet in that business), or who will charge a fair price. So how do I choose someone? Certainly not by the size of his ad budget. Instead, I look for a recommendation. I know from experience that asking a few neighbors on the block for recommendations is not a reliable method. Each of them may have experience with only one or two people for scattered incidents over a number of years. Statistically, that’s meaningless data. So my solution, last week when our nearly new dishwasher burned out, was to call a parts store where I’ve gotten good service myself on do-it-yourself projects. Without hesitation, when I said “dishwasher,” the counterman at the parts store gave me one name to call. It turned out that when I called that repairman, his phone message said he was out of town but I should call a second person. I followed that secondhand recommendation to a friendly competitor of the first guy, and I’m entirely satisfied with the result. The method worked.

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.


Anonymous said...

That about sums up my dilemma in trying to expand my client base. I wonder if I don't theoretically have it easier in that what I do--book design and layout--results in samples that are lot less work for a potential client to get a sense of than your work, editorial, might be.

I mean, they can look at a sample of my work and pretty quickly decide whether they like what they see. With your work, they need to read and engage themselves for a bit, taking a close look at the words and sift through them for sense and appeal.

But you've given me something new to consider in how I choose the samples I put on my website. That is, shouldn't I put up things that are the most visually engaging pieces of work I've done? But, then, that kind of flies in the face of my stated philosophy of book design: don't distract from the author's words.

Dick Margulis said...


In both your case and mine, it has little to do with the potential client looking at design samples and evaluating them. In the first place, any scam artist can steal samples and claim to have done the work or can show samples that he or she made only minimal contributions to. So samples provide partial and unreliable information at best (an aspect of the postmodern dilemma the client faces).

Far more important than anything someone might or might not glean from samples is whether the client and the consultant can work harmoniously together toward a finished product.

There too, a skilled con artist can come across as quite persuasive.

So what it comes down to is creative interviewing (by email or phone), references, a gut check, a friend's help....

I can provide editing samples directly on the prospect's manuscript, rather than showing some finished piece I've edited in the past. For typography (whether we're talking about my doing it or your doing it), that's harder, because doing the design work for free would amount to giving away the store. That's why establishing a relationship of trust and respect in the first place is so critical.