Book Publishing Operations: Project Management Basics

14 Jun

As I’ve mentioned in passing over the last few weeks, we’re in the process of making a significant shift away from having two full-time production personnel in the office—graphics and editorial—as opposed to having one project manager overseeing freelance writers/editors and graphic artists. Grace Arsiaga had been our our graphics specialist for the last year and a half but, given that she was handling more and more complex graphics assignments (hundreds of images being produced by multiple interns for even a single book project), it made sense to move her over to be the project manager to utilize those skills she’s developed. So, over the last month we’ve been revamping what she does and how it’s down to allow her to act in a primarily management capacity on any given project instead of doing the majority of production work herself.

Once upon a time when I first got out of the TSTC Waco English department and started with book publishing I was officially a project manager. It’s one of those useful titles because it’s not particularly well defined and can apply to almost anyone or anything. Especially during that first year I read a lot about project management—I’ve already lent Grace my Complete Idiot’s Guide to Project Management that I spent many a morning at 5 a.m. reading at the dining room table while drinking too much coffee—and there are a couple of basics that have stuck with me.

First, project managers manage projects, not ongoing processes. A project has a beginning, middle, and an end (the deliverable). Ongoing processes—complex or simple—will repeat forever instead of having a clearly defined final product that ends that process. So, taking a book from manuscript to production to publication is a project since it will happen only once for that book. That’s a process with a terminal end point. On the other hand, calculating and paying out royalties is an ongoing process that happens twice a year and will continue on indefinitely.

Second, there are three basic components to every project: scope (what is the deliverable going to be?), time (how long is there to complete it?), and resources (what are the available personnel, money, and other materials?). At the front end of each project each of these categories must be clearly identified. Otherwise, if not, you’ll end up with a project creep: a project that slides further and further out of whack in all areas until one non-sunny day you wake up and wonder how in the world you got here from where you started.

This is not to say these three element don’t change over the course of a project. Most likely they will to some degree no matter what. But, if one element of the project significantly changes—less time, greater scope, shifting resources—that demands the other two categories be adjusted as well. This relationship is kind of like what a friend of mine, Dwayne, says about getting your car repaired. There are three basic options: fast, cheap, and good. You can always have any two of the three—fast and good but not cheap, fast and cheap but not good, good and cheap but not fast, and so on—but never all three together. That means you have to keep in mind how all of these work together and decide what outcome is most important to you in a given situation.

So, Grace and I spent a couple of days last week making lists of all the projects we have in the works and then roughing out the basic parameters of each. To that end, we sat down with worksheets like the one below and began filling in the blanks until every single project and all of its related information was documented.

For example, on the new Welding TechCareers book that would be project name: Welding TechCareers book. The scope is a new publication (as opposed to an updated reprint or new edition). We started the project on 6/6/08 when I went to talk Frank Wilkins, the chair of the TSTC Waco welding department, to see if he was interested in helping with it. The due date—which is typically when the final print run is ordered—is 8/15/08. As for resources, we’ve contracted with a freelance writer to work with Frank to produce the text. (Thankfully, based on the Biomed TechCareers we just finished we have a pretty firm structural/content template worked out.) Plus, with the editorial resources, we’ll also have another freelancer we’ve already talked with copyedit and proofread the manuscript just before it goes to page layout in addition to taking another pass at in once the page proofs are done. As for graphics, there are two basic kinds of work to be done: interior and exterior layout. We’ve already scheduled a freelance graphics artist—one of our former interns who is familiar with the work we do—to do the interior. Grace may do the cover design since we’re moving those assignments away from the interns who have typically done them in the past.

Finally, you have your milestones: the dates as to what will be done when. (Two project management pitfalls to look out for are the floating start date—the project that never quite begins—and the floating end date.) Many times, it’s easier to work backward such as in our case because we know the end date: 8/15/08. So that becomes milestone #5. Milestone #4 is 8/1/08, the date the files are sent to the print shop for a bound proof copy. (That gives us two weeks for the proof copy to be produced, have one last long look taken at it, make any final corrections, and then send it to print for the final print run.) Milestone #3 becomes interior & exterior layout which will begin on July 15 so we can allot two weeks to have everything ready for a bound proof copy (plus having a set of page proofs looked at). That means you need your manuscript delivered by July 15 to begin page layout. So, milestone #2 is the date manuscript production begins. In our case that’s June 13, the day that our freelance writer is coming down to meet with Frank Wilkins. Then, all the way back to the beginning, milestone #1 is finding the welding department point of contact to act as the content matter expert as well as contracting with a writer to work with the content matter expert. All that was due this past Friday . . . so we’re on schedule!

There are a couple of things I’d note. On the one hand, I wouldn’t generally recommend that anyone try to do a book from start to finish in under three months. On the other hand, we had some budget constraints that demanded the whole thing be finished by the end of August, so we had to plan accordingly. And, of course, there are plenty of software programs and Web-based applications that aid project managers in tracking all the elements of their projects. All I’m saying about our basic form above is that it allows Grace and I to rough out the basic parameters of a project which will then be more thoroughly broken out and documented as time goes on. But, the worksheet above is like an elevator pitch: if you can’t reduce a project down to its most basic elements you’ve probably got some fundamental problems with how you’re defining your project/deliverable from the get go.



4 Responses to “Book Publishing Operations: Project Management Basics”

  1. PM Hut June 14, 2008 at 10:19 pm #

    Excellent post, it’s definitely the Project Management Basics. I like your clear distinction between projects and processes, as well as your definition of the Scope Creep.

  2. Stephen Tiano June 17, 2008 at 8:58 pm #

    Mark, nice explanation of, not just the Project Manager title, but of the process of project management.

    I certainly can’t imagine getting from soup to nuts in less than three months. From my end, even the most organized and prepared-for book layout projects wind up taking me about three weeks simply for layout (including correx). When I design, too, the back-and-forth over samples till we finalize a template can easily add another three weeks to the schedule. More, if the client pulls a Hamlet or I get into designing a la the Sistine Chapel method.

    That says nothing about the editorial process. I’ve been on projects where the author had too much input for way too long, rewriting sometimes up till I made the last pages.

  3. Mark Long June 25, 2008 at 6:28 am #

    Steve, I would agree three months is less than optimal for a book from start to finish. On the other hand, as you know, it just kind of depends from project to project. We did a network book where the manuscript was ready to when we received it and six weeks later we had books on the shelves. Then we did the infamous hand tools books that had 300 illustrations that had to be done from scratch that took almost two years from start to finish.

    Thankfully, with the welding book we’re working with an author that we’ve contracted before so we know who we’re dealing with there. Plus, the book will be relatively short—100-150 pages—made up mainly of text and using a page layout template we’ve already developed.

    But, yes, I’m officially the big worrier in the office—nobody is allowed to worry or be more tense than I am . . . that’s the rule!–so as we do more of these technical career guides next year we’ll certainly have a longer lead time on all the editorial and production areas.

  4. Isoken Uwadiae May 23, 2012 at 2:47 am #

    Very nice plan!

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