Want better editorial? Reel in your review process

It seems every publisher has an ironclad policy when it comes to letting sources review stories pre-publication: either they forbid it, or they require it. These policies were set in stone some time around the Mesozoic era and any troublemaker who tries to alter them clearly does not understand A) journalistic integrity or B) the business objectives of the publication in question. In fact, these policies are taken so seriously, anyone who violates them faces grounds for immediate termination.

A post on UMagazinology, a blog about university magazines published by the editors of Johns Hopkins Magazine, tackled the subject of pre-publication review in a recent post (the bolding is mine):

“Why not? What’s the harm?

The harm, I think, is to our standing as professionals, and that is not a minor thing. University magazines produce the highest-quality work, and thus best exemplify and promote the excellence of their parent institutions, when they are allowed to approach the work as professional journalists. And it is part of journalistic professional practice to not show stories to sources before publication. No matter how strongly you stipulate that you are showing a piece to a source only for verification of accuracy, you are implicitly inviting everyone who reads the story to approve it, advise on how it should be written, and grant permission to publish it, and all those things undermine our standing as professionals. That in turn undermines our ability to argue for the freedom to publish substantive, credible stories that will be read because they matter and because our readers trust how they were produced. We don’t advise chemists, physicists, surgeons, literary scholars, historians, biologists, or mathematicians on how best to do their work. If we genuinely believe that what we do merits professional respect and an essential measure of autonomy, why do we so willingly accede to non-journalists telling us how to do our jobs?”

Yeah! Like they said!

Print-to-Web integration and the Advent of New Devices has Shaken Up Production. This coupled with the adoption of more user-friendly CMS systems and device driven publishing taxes most organizations on the production, project management and change management fronts.

“Publishers have got to do things that are richer, more dynamic and interactive, not just transfer a static page from print to digital.”

Steve Grande, VP of Sales for Fry Communications

This is exceedingly difficult when many publications originating as traditional print based pubs are now transitioning (see struggling) to move to digital. Excessive stakeholder reviews and print based project management/review processes are dinosaurs in today’s digital world —a world where news is immediate, influence is measured by trust and originality expands with devices and technology.  Brands that want to be successful need to embrace speed and adopt the concept of being nimble, whether they inhabit 500sq ft or 50 floors. It’s not just about undermining an editor’s expertise or dragging out a project. It’s about the final outcome. It’s about your brand.

—Britta

5 Ways to Make Your Custom Publication Way Better

We recently launched a redesign for a university magazine (finally!) and thought we’d pass along some of our favorite tips for making your own custom publication better.

1) Rethink your magazine architecture

BEFORE A front of book section that didn’t evolve with the magazine’s needs. Too many new sections had been added over the years, and the naming convention was starting to not make sense.

AFTER Help readers hold their place by redesigning the flow of the entire reading experience. For example, we converted several choppy sections into one umbrella FOB section that encapsulates the university’s mission. We gave the client a menu of various columns/formats that can be rotated in and out of this section from issue to issue.

This new format also creates a stronger branded magazine that a) is not re-invented each issue and b) begins to build recognition with readers.

2) Kill the “Wall of Words”

BEFORE Each page had one story and an average of 550 words. There were excessively long narratives about a single source. An earlier attempt to break up this text with subheads was ineffective because subheads were the same size/style as the body text.

AFTER Chunky, colorful, big and juicy. Get away from a traditional narrative style—there are a million ways to tell a story. Put two or three stories on a spread and let stories cross the gutter (which also means you’ll greatly increase the number of voices in each issue). Make numbers and subheds stand out from body text. Update your fonts.

Even better, ask yourself if your story could be more quickly communicated in a chart or graphic. For inspiration, start collecting “charticles” from New YorkEsquire and Good. Think those publications don’t apply to your trade pub? Check out what Inc. has been up to lately. Bring some much-needed inspiration to your weekly status meetings by sharing examples from Information Is Beautiful.

3) Don’t tell a life story in every story. Or any story for that matter.

BEFORE A 150-word piece about an award recipient, once in the hands of marketing and product stakeholders, morphed into a 600-word monstrosity.

AFTER Focus on a tiny sliver of the story. Do this by establishing very clear column descriptions and criteria (complete with word counts!) in your redesign. For example, one of the goals of this particular magazine is to get alumni to re-enroll. So we created a column called “How it Paid Off” which essentially demonstrates the “ROI” of spending thousands of dollars on an advanced degree. This could easily eat up 1,500 words. Instead, we created a list format:

HOW IT PAID OFF

Name/Degree
Job title before degree
Job title after degree
How my degree helps me make a bigger impact
Biggest benefit of earning my degree at x university.

We captured this in 102 words. In and out.

4) Use better art (without necessarily spending more)

BEFORE Stale headshots, outdated stock illustration styles, far too many “grip and grin” photos

AFTER Instead of sending distant sources to their local mall photo studio (shudder!), we worked with the same art budget and hired photographers across the U.S. who could capture environmental portraits (hint: get your sources outside). We also pushed sources for submitted images and gave them ideas on what we wanted to see. When we got good images, we ran them big. We saved the standard headshots for thumbnails (or not at all).

5) Remember: What’s important to your administration is probably not what’s important to your readers

BEFORE Too much real estate given to university news, and placed where the university thought it belonged—right up front. Long articles covering university events that already happened.

AFTER With a 2x/year frequency, news is not a primary purpose of this magazine. So we moved news section to back of book and capped the word count for each “brief.” (Again, build this criteria into your redesign. The more “rules” you can establish up front, the better chance you have against word creep.) Each news piece ran with a call to action to get the full story online (interested to see the metrics on those redirects).

For event coverage, which used to eat up spreads at a time, we offered up one 1/3 column where we ran big, chunky sound bites. Outcome? We were able to “cover” four events in 139 words.

What would have made this project even better?

A print-to-web integration, which is something all clients should include as a mandatory line-item on their publication budget.

Check out some great examples from min online.

Ready to launch your own redesign or improve your print-to-web integration?  Give us a shout.

—Britta

No Bad Clients

I just listened to a presentation by the super cute and wicked smart Liza Kindred from Lullabot. Presenting at DrupalCon San Francisco last April, Liza gives us a peek into Lullabot’s company’s structure, core beliefs and business strategies. You can listen to the full presentation, but here are some highlights:

1) Make mistakes.

Lullabot prides themselves as an awesome place to make mistakes. When an employee made a terrible data error, co-founder Matt Westgate told her, “You made a giant mistake, and you really screwed up here. That is why you are now Lullabot’s data import expert.” The company also bought her a massage.

Environments where people can’t admit mistakes become very hostile and dishonest work environments.

Fess up to your mistakes. Make them a highlight of your weekly team calls.

2) Room for stupid.

Smart people can ask stupid questions. “Take your stupidness and help other people become less stupid.”

3) Give it away/Have faith

Find out the awesome things you do and give it away. (But not all of it.) Have faith that by giving it away, you are making the pie even bigger.

Out-teach. Out-share. Out-contribute.

(Props here to 37Signals)

//

But one of my favorite parts was how they select clients.

When a potential client comes to Lulllabot, they need to meet 2 out of the 3 criteria:

1) They are a nice person.

2) They have a healthy budget.

3) They have a fun project.

“And one of them has to be that they are nice.”

How’s that for a rule to live by?

–Britta

When Content Curation Means Not Showing Up on What Not to Wear

Web people just loooove Zappos.com.

I’m an avid online shopper and a lover of all things shoes, yet I’ve never bought in to the Zappos hype. Why? Here’s why.

Most popular women’s sandals on Zappos.com:

As a new mother of two, I’m one bad click away from Keens, Danskos and “FitFlops.” I don’t need any encouragement.

Meanwhile, over at Piperlime, the trusty “comfy and cute” search option offers me this:

Which means Piperlime wants to make sure I don’t show up on the next episode of What Not to Wear.

And I appreciate that.

When it comes to fashion, I don’t want to wade through all the Teva look-alikes to find the good stuff. Because truthfully, I don’t trust myself to make good decisions. I need somebody to present some carefully edited items and say, “Here. These are your options.”

Because if you spend too much time looking at Keens, Danskos and “FitFlops,” you start to think, “Well these ones aren’t so bad…”

—Britta

Confessions of a Continuing Education Junkie

I’m a continuing education junkie. Ever since college, I’ve had a goal of taking at least one class each “semester.”

That worked out especially well when I was fresh out of school and working in advertising in NY. The options were endless, and my company footed most of the bill. I took portfolio-building classes at School of Visual Arts, teaching English as a second language at New School for Social Research, fiction classes through Gotham Writer’s Workshops, summer writing sessions at Sarah Lawrence. I took Susan Shapiro’s legendary “How to Write for New York City magazines and Newspapers” at the New School (she started the class by handing out a three inch thick stack of articles her former students had published as a direct result of taking her class. Talk about a selling point). Then I tried online courses—creative nonfiction through Naropa Institute, travel writing and a bunch of others through MediaBistro.

When the market tanked and I got laid off, I did what any reasonable person would do—I let the government lend me money while I got a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction. (And surprisingly, I use the skills I gained from that degree every single day.)

In the past five years, I’ve been too busy rebuilding a 1920’s cottage, growing a business and having babies to take classes. These life ventures have commanded all my research hours. But I’m happy to say I’m back on track, and this time I’m taking something I’ve never done before.

Tennis.

I am a complete tennis novice. The first day of class, I felt like a ridiculous tennis bunny imposter walking out of my house in my little getup and the racquet I dug out of the basement slung over my shoulder.

I’m such a novice that one of my hour-long lessons consisted solely of my instructor trying to show me how to throw a ball straight up for a serve. “Put the ball in your fingers like this…” My excuse for this pathetic lack of ball manipulation skills is that I was never allowed to do sports or dance or art in school because I was so busy kicking ass on the violin. But anyway.

In today’s lesson, after the miserable faux pas of whacking the ball into the players’ court next to mine—FIVE TIMES, and getting run ragged by a set of forehand topspin/backhand drills, the instructor left me with a little gem.

“It’s never about your opponent,” he said. “It’s only about the ball. Once that ball crosses over to your side of the net, it’s about what the ball is going to do, and nothing else. All you have to worry about is getting that ball back over the net.”

As I drove back to my desk all revved up and flush-faced, thinking about the challenges I needed to solve before picking up the little ones from school, that line really sat with me.

It’s never about the opponent. It’s only about the ball. It’s about getting that ball back over the net with the best form possible—no matter what condition it was in when it landed in your court.

—Britta

SXSW 10 Years Earlier

Old School SXSW bag

The last time I was at SXSW, it was year 2000. I convinced my ad agency bosses that as a copywriter on the Dell account, it was imperative that they send me AND my art director partner (the extraordinary Enrique Mosqueda) out to Austin to investigate all this interactive hoopla.

To put things in perspective, these were the days when we were making ads for PC’s that played music (replace your stereo!) and “Workstations” with “RDRAM technology, dual processor capability and a 133MHz front side bus.” (I can assure you no one in our company had the faintest idea what a front side bus was.)

At SXSW that year, there was a panel on something revolutionary called a Weblog. Epinions.com had just come out of preview mode. And panelists spoke of a future where Broadband would make it possible “to watch videos on our Palm Pilots and beam them to friends.”

And there was a group of cool kids who called themselves Content Strategists. These were the copywriters of the future, it seemed—the ones who would still have jobs in the foreseeable future. They lived in San Francisco, slept in late, worked from home or cafes, were incredibly well spoken and making tons of money. Some of them had blue hair. All of them wore jeans. (I have torn apart our office to no avail in search of my business card from 2001 with the title of “Content Strategist” printed in a glamorous shade of black. Enrique even jazzed it up with ironic lo-fi black square dots. No doubt it is in an old coin purse with expired credit cards, chinese fortunes and cute boys’ phone numbers pre-husband.)

Back in NY, agency folks from junior AE’s to group directors started jumping ship, trading the agency’s pristine environment of glass, leather and steel, where fresh flowers sat on reception desks of the agency’s 15 floors, for poorly ventilated one-room startups stuffed with desks, computers, bean bag chairs and boxes full of dotcom t-shirts. They traded print ads and press checks for banners and HTML, which they learned from Webmonkey cheat sheets.

Back then, we weren’t sure who would be left standing once the glitter inside the Silicon Alley snow globe settled. But we copywriters were adding “content strategist” to our business cards just in case. Even if we had no idea what it meant to be a “content strategist.”

Here we are 10 years later. I’m a partner of a content agency, which means I’ll be footing my own bill to SXSW 2010 (goodbye Driskill, hello Sheraton). Ian will be speaking about web content. And everyone will be talking about the iPad and its promise to bring our favorite magazines back from the dead. Looking forward to 2020, when all of next week’s excited chatter will seem just as archaic as that “front side bus.”

—Britta

Sweet Buy Button Dude

The list of oldest registered domains starts on March 15th 1985 with Symbolics.com. The top 25 oldest domains contain a who’s who of heavy computing including IBM, SUN and INTEL to name a few. Today’s top 25 most popular websites either provide content, store content or search for it. Where things are is important and SEO/SEM have a place (even if it is not in my heart.) Content may not be a magic elixir but it is the web. Take it away and you have a big fat buy button.

*This post was inspired by one of my favorite comments on the web:

Buy Button

—Ian

Finding a Publisher and/or Agent

As a former literary agent, friends and family are constantly asking me advice on how to get their book published. And since I end up giving out the same information over and over again, I thought I’d share a recent email I sent to a friend.

Chris emailed me because his friends have a b-to-b title they’d like to shop around. Being that the authors are M.I.T. graduates and have a successful medical consulting company, they have a pretty solid chance of getting noticed by a professional/medical book publisher. Here’s what I recommended.

//

Hi Chris,
Ian sent me your email. My experience is in consumer publishing, so I don’t have any editor contacts in the b-to-b sphere. However, some of the same search tactics still apply.

I did a search on Amazon for professional>medical books and got this result.

From this search, you’ll be able to identify book publishers who publish in your category. This is a good way to figure out who you should submit your proposal or manuscript to.

(NOTE: Chris doesn’t necessarily need an agent because his project is a professional/technical title. See below for more info on whether or not you need an agent.)

Once you narrow down your list, go to each publisher’s website to get specific instructions on how they want material submitted. And by all means, follow their guidelines so your manuscript doesn’t get trashed by some intern who was told to go through the pile and light fire to any submission that doesn’t fit their submission criteria–seriously!

McGraw-Hill is a good publisher, and you’d want their Professional-Medical division. From their description, your book would be right on target:
“McGraw-Hill MEDICAL provides students and professionals with the global standard of best healthcare practices by delivering current and comprehensive resources from leading authors and institutions.”

Here’s their page for authors who want to submit proposals.

They have a series of pages about submissions, and you’d want to be sure to go through their checklists before submitting.

In this case, it looks like they would want to see the full manuscript (vs. a book proposal).

However, if you find that other publishers want a proposal and if you need help writing one, I highly recommend the book How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen.

//

More about finding a Literary Agent
Authors hoping to get published by a mainstream consumer publisher (Random House, Penguin Putnam) will need an agent. Most mainstream publishers no longer accept submissions directly from authors. And no author should even think about signing a publishing contract with having an agent or experienced publishing lawyer (i.e. not your brother-in-law, the criminal lawyer) reviewing it first.

Don’t be stingy about giving away some of your royalties, even if you already have an offer in the bag. There are hundreds of stories about an author who didn’t fight for film rights—or foreign rights or that extra ½ percent—who got royally screwed. Agents typically have “boilerplate” contracts on file with major publishers. These boilerplate contracts represent years of haggling with the publisher’s legal department.

How to find a literary agent? Start by reading the acknowledgments page of your favorite titles in your category. Authors usually thank their agents, and agents tend to be interested fresh takes on the same topics. Don’t fret if a junior agent expresses interest in your project—do you really want to share an agent with Stephen King?

Additional tools for finding a literary agent:

But don’t just find the agent: find the agent who is going to add the most value.

In his recent post, “Where Have All the Agents Gone,” Seth Godin wrote, “Literary agents are crucial when publishers believe that their choice of content is essential but have too many choices and too little time. But publishers don’t trust every literary agent. They trust agents they believe in. Key point: anonymous agents are interchangeable and virtually worthless.”

Good luck!

–Britta