Thursday, January 12, 2012

Yes, dammit, there is such a thing as a dumb question

I understand the rationale behind saying to an inquisitive child, “There is no such thing as a dumb question.” We want to encourage children to explore the world and ask questions about it, not shame them into passive silence. Fine. I’ll cooperate and never tell a child the question is a dumb one, even if it really is.

I have no such compunction with adults, however. I calls ’em as I sees ’em, and if someone asks a dumb question, I’m liable to say so. I am a curmudgeon. Love me, love my dog. That’s all I’m saying.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Presses, printers, and publishers

I have encountered a lot of confusion of late, particularly in some discussions on LinkedIn, among people who have gotten their books “accepted” by a “publisher” as well as among people who had their books printed by a “press.” Let me try to untangle this mess a little bit.

When the word press is used in the context of producing books, it can mean a machine on which books are printed; it can mean the printing company that owns the machine; it can mean the company that publishes the book; or it can mean the newspaper and magazine industry taken as a whole. This can lead to some confusion.

Historically, many publishers owned their own printing and binding facilities. Another way to look at this is that many printers published books. Before 1500, it was pretty much a given that the printer who printed a book also published it.

Today, many publishers use the word press in their names. Think of all the university presses, for example. But virtually none of these publishers would consider owning a printing plant (I’ll posit that there are exceptions, even if I can’t think of any offhand). Instead, they pay book manufacturers to produce the books for them.

A number of book manufacturers, as well as other kinds of printers, have the word press in their business names, with no intention of deceiving anyone into thinking they are publishers.

Other companies, called subsidy publishers or vanity presses, also use the word press in their names. They are not publishers or printers; they’re companies that enrich themselves on the ignorance of authors, trying to give the impression that they both print and publish.

But what about the referent of this popular metonym? What’s the synecdoche about? When books were generally printed from raised metal types, those types were literally pressed into the paper. When offset photolithography became economically feasible, it was natural to call the machines that laid ink on paper offset presses, even though the image sat on the surface of the paper rather than being pressed in. And today, with the “photo” part replaced by direct-to-plate electronic imaging, the printing is still done on offset presses, where the paper does get squeezed pretty tight (pressed, as in pressing a sheet with an iron), so the word makes some sense if only as a metaphor. Digital printing, which is just a more sophisticated implementation of the basic technology your desktop laser printer uses, is even further afield from the letterpress of yore, but we still sometimes call the machines that do the printing presses.

Where am I going with this? Well, I’m asking you to be clear in your mind that printing is not the same as publishing, that the “press” that published your book is a publisher, the “press” that printed your book is a printer, and that a vanity press is neither. If I’ve helped you understand the difference, then I count this as a good day.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

"Market yourself"

For those of us who have freed ourselves from wage slavery (whether by choice or by layoff) and have chosen to go into business for ourselves (whether by choice or because the man must be paid), one of the hard questions is how to go about promoting one’s business and attracting paying customers.

For people of the editorial persuasion, this is a real challenge. For one thing, many editors are naturally introverts. Editing is a good fit for introverts for a number of reasons. The admonition to “market yourself” may come naturally to extraverts, but it’s often hard for introverts to take on board. Combine that with the fact that, for the most part, people associate editing with bad memories of high school English papers coming back with red marks all over them, and you can see the problem.

Today on the copyediting-l mailing list, a colleague posted her plaint that she has never figured out this marketing stuff. I posted a reply, and another colleage, Katharine O’Moore-Klopf asked me to post my little essay here, so she could link to it from the Business Tools section of her Copyeditors’ Knowledge Base. So, for what it’s worth…
Different people figure out how to market themselves at different points in their lives (some when they’re still children, some of us not until we’re laid off in our forties or later). But eventually, someone will provide the right prompt, and the idea will suddenly click for you. The penny will drop, as the saying goes.

Let me try this angle: Forget the phrase “market yourself.” It’s meaningless. Instead, focus on solving problems for people (which is what you do all day). The question a prospective client has is not “Who is Jane Smith and how talented and experienced is she?” The question is “What’s in it for me?” In other words, “What can you do for me?”

This is the reason so many marketing materials (in all fields) begin with a question or series of questions: “Feet hurt?” “Bills piling up?” “Need a vacation?”

For the most part, people do not wake up in the morning thinking, Gee, I need to find an editor. So you have to find the pain point that makes them realize they need an editor. Once someone recognizes a problem, you can pitch a solution and position yourself as that helpful person who can provide it.

I’m getting some long-postponed projects done in our house. I don’t care how much one contractor desperately needs the work versus another contractor. I don’t care whose kids are in college. I don’t care whose truck broke down or who’s in the hospital. I don’t care who has an engineering degree and is doing carpentry to make ends meet versus who dropped out of high school and learned the trade as an apprentice. I care who’s going to show up on time and do the work I need done. People who retain editors are just the same. They don’t care about a list of qualifications, education, and awards. They want to see what you can do and that you can do it on time and for the agreed price. So if you can communicate that—keeping your focus on the customer’s needs rather than your qualifications—perhaps this whole marketing thing will begin to work better for you.