Do you need a wrangler for your self-published book?

Today I held in my hands an advance copy of a book for which I was executive producer. It was a proud moment: the cover was eye-catching and beautifully designed, on the back cover was a glowing endorsement from a prominent business leader, the pages were typeset in an elegant font, little graphics through the book made it very appealing to look at. I called the author and told her to prepare to be delighted.

Three months ago, I couldn’t have imagined this would be possible. The author (let’s call her Kathy) is founder of an organization specializing in applying brain science to organizational teams, and she had hit the wall with writing her manuscript. It was in pretty good shape, but it needed finessing to bring out the human element of her method. But here’s the kicker: Kathy needed printed books for a conference in May.

At first I told her it wasn’t possible to produce a quality book in that time. Unless I believe I can achieve the same standards as I would for a HarperCollins or a Simon & Schuster title, I won’t take it on.

But Kathy was desperate. She emailed me:

I have never published a book so I am completely in the dark about the process. I don’t want to sacrifice a compelling and quality end product for a deadline, but by the same token there are many things riding on its release. Would love any advice and help you can give.

I really liked the concept of the book and I could see how valuable it was going to be. And I had a good vibe about Kathy: I believed we would work well together. So I told her:

I totally understand that this is your first time creating a book, and I’d really like to handle the production for you if we can make it work. I would act as “executive producer”, setting up schedules and budgets with you then securing all the outside help. I have suppliers for everything from copy editing through to print briefing them, so I would commission them, check their work and generally make sure the wheels run smoothly (and quickly!).

Here’s what I said about that scary time frame:

12 weeks is do-able IF you are super dedicated to turning around approvals and somewhat pragmatic about letting go of any non-deal-breakers. The book has got to deliver great content, but if there is a minor typo on page 85 I don’t consider that a deal-breaker.

Kathy said she could be pragmatic and fast. So off we went.

Here is just a sampling of the questions Kathy and I worked through over the next 12 weeks:

  • I’m going bonkers trying to get these case studies right. Can you look at this approach and tell me if it works?
  • We have always this as our working title, but is it right for the final book?
  • Should the book have a sub-title too?
  • What author names should be on the cover – do I have to include two people who helped with early drafts?
  • How do I go about getting blurbs for the cover?
  • Should I get a big-name author to write a foreword?
  • Where should the acknowledgements go, at the front or the back?
  • Do we need an index?
  • Should I get an ISBN? A barcode? A separate one for print and ebook? How do I do that?
  • How do I figure out how many to print?
  • What about a hardback edition, can we do that too?
  • OMG, no one will be home to receive the printed books on Monday … Can the UPS driver leave the cartons on my doorstep?

Kathy is a smart woman. She could have figured all of that out on her own. But it would have taken a huge amount of time for her to consider all her options, research industry standards, and get second opinions.

Or she could ask me to navigate all of these things, because I’ve done it hundreds of times before.

Your executive producer does the work that, in a publishing house, would be handled by someone called a production editor or a project editor. Self-publishing authors usually don’t have one of those, so a colleague of mine came up with the term “executive producer” to describe this combination of project manager, freelancer wrangler, and general wave-smoother.

How much time does all this take? When I worked as a project editor at HarperCollins I would manage up to 15 titles a year, ranging from simple, text-only paperbacks to lavish coffee table books with photographs on every page. The simple books might take 15 days of my time to project manage, while the complex ones might consume 40 days, spread over many months.

If you are self-publishing your book, consider this. You could project-manage it yourself, the same as you could landscape your own garden or repair your washing machine. But what is your time worth? Do you want a duct-tape solution or a pro job?

An executive producer for your book might be just the thing you need to save your sanity and to ensure that in a few months from now, you too will hold in your hands a book that makes you proud.

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