Pride of workmanship, part 2

I moved to Indianapolis many years ago to take a job editing technology books. My first project was editing a new edition of one of the publisher’s biggest sellers. I drew this plum assignment not for my l33t editorial skills, but for being the new guy. You see, the author had a reputation for running his editors ragged, and nobody wanted to work with him. They were glad to scrape this book onto me.

I never understood why. Editing the author’s work was a pleasure – his writing was clear, engaging, and funny. When I made suggestions for improvement, he gladly took most of them. He even called me to discuss and improve on a few of them. He did require a lot of attention, all of it for the good of his book, as he sweated every detail. For example, I spent hours on the phone with him poring over proofs, which are draft printouts of the book after it’s been laid out. It’s the last stage before the book is printed. At this late stage, he sometimes rewrote entire paragraphs to make them funnier or reworked graphics to make them clearer, all of which never ceased to thrill the overworked layout department.

When we were done, we had a book to be proud of. After the book was printed, I displayed my copy prominently on my bookshelf. It then sold a bazillion copies.

Then I got my next assignment, a thick book about a communications technology still popular then. This author handed in cumbersome and clumsy text full of basic writing errors. His lame attempts at humor were often offensive. His technical explanations were usually incorrect and incomplete. I spent hours hammering his work into something marginally usable. He then ignored half of my queries and barely responded to the other half.

After he had handed in 100 of the book’s 800 pages, he announced that he was done writing. I was incredulous as he explained that the rest of the book would be documentation from shareware related to this technology. He wanted to publish 700 pages of crappy shareware documentation he didn’t even write! I accosted the acquisitions editor – that’s the guy who hired this author – and raised an unholy ruckus. I said, “This book will be useful to nobody!” He shrugged. “It’s his book. Is it on schedule?”

I spent the next several weeks with my stomach knotted from anger and disgust as I formatted and edited those 700 pages. I pinched my nostrils shut as I sent the chapters to layout. I suppressed my gag reflex as I reviewed the proofs. I rolled my eyes when my copy of the finished book arrived. I hid it in a dusty and forgotten corner of my bookshelf. Then I succeeded for several weeks at forgetting the whole sordid ordeal until I received a letter from somebody who actually bought the book. He wrote something that knocked me out of my chair:

“Dear Sir. I was trying to break into this communications technology when I found your book. I wanted to tell you that it was exactly what I needed. I played with a couple of the programs the book described and, with the book’s help, got one of them running. Thank you for publishing this book. Sincerely, Some Reader.”

I was humbled. No, I was shamed. Mr. High-and-Mighty Editor thought that the author created a steaming pile of feces while giggling at the teller’s window as he signed his advance check. Yet somebody found the book to be exactly what he needed. I started to see that maybe I wasn’t the final arbiter of quality, that maybe quality is what meets the customer’s needs. I’ve carried this critical lesson into every job I’ve had since.

But now, almost 13 years hence, I have learned another lesson from these two books.

That first book was Macs For Dummies, Third Edition, by David Pogue, a keystone of the juggernaut Dummies franchise. More recently, you might have seen David’s technology column in the New York Times (registration required), or his acclaimed The Missing Manual series of books, or maybe the occasional stories he does for CBS News Sunday Morning. David has done very well for himself since his Dummies days. It helps that David is charismatic and gracious in person, has a knack for leveraging opportunity, and sells himself hard and well. I think that David’s drive and ability to do top-flight work gives him something solid to sell that distinguishes him from someone who just schmoozes glibly.

I haven’t been very kind to the other author here so I won’t reveal his name or the title of his book, which did not sell well despite the one fan letter. I found his home page on the Web this morning and he seems very happy. But he has not achieved a hundredth of what David Pogue has.

The new lesson? Something modest may meet a customer’s need. But it sure is satisfying – and the hard work sure worth it – when you can really delight the customer. And David Pogue’s case shows that talent and hard work can still really pay off.


2 responses to “Pride of workmanship, part 2”

  1. Michael Avatar

    I guess 13 years ago the internet was still too new for the “fan” to have found and read the shareware docs himself. Or perhaps it was the 100 pages that met his need?

    So when are you going to release your own novel? I enjoy reading your compositions. You certainly have a flair for writing I’ve never developed.

  2. Jim Avatar

    Michael, you flatter me. This blog satisfies my writing jones for now.

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