The difference between quality and excellence

It’s Down the Road’s fifth blogiversary!
All month I’m reposting favorite stories from the blog’s early days.

My long career in software development was briefly interrupted in the mid 1990s when I took 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. The author had a reputation for running his editors ragged, and the other editors were glad to scrape this book onto me.

I never understood why, because 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, and he used this time to polish his work further. He sometimes rewrote entire paragraphs to make them funnier (as humor was his book’s hallmark) 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. I displayed my copy prominently on my bookshelf. It then sold a bazillion copies.

My next assignment was to edit a thick book about a communications technology still popular then. This author handed in cumbersome and clumsy text full of basic writing errors. His humor was lame and sometimes offensive. His technical explanations were usually incorrect and incomplete. I spent hours hammering his work into something marginally usable. He ignored most of my suggestions and avoided taking my calls.

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 remaining 700 pages would be reprinted (and poorly written) documentation from shareware related to this technology. What laziness! What gall! 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 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 cashed 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, many 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, or his acclaimed The Missing Manual series of books, or maybe the stories he does for CNBC and for CBS News Sunday Morning, or the four-part series he did for NOVA on PBS. David has done very well for himself since his Dummies days. He has worked very hard for it, leveraging every opportunity with his characteristic energy, wit, and grace. He could have gone a long way on those traits alone. But his ability to do top-flight work truly distinguishes him.

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 sold poorly 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.

Originally posted 6/23/2007. Read the original here.

This post’s original title was “Pride of workmanship, part 2.” That means there was a part 1. Read it!


6 responses to “The difference between quality and excellence”

  1. ryoko861 Avatar

    That “Dear Sir” letter sounds alot like the spam I get on my blog. “This is exactly what I needed”. How come I don’t get a publishing deal?

    There will always be someone who goes against your grain. I know the feeling of just doing what you have to do to just get it done. Just because he got a pat on the back from someone doesn’t mean it was a success.

    Did you know that there’s a “Depression for Dummies”? LIke what could possibly be written in that? Directions on how to properly slit your wrists? “Grasp the razor blade as indicated in figure 1.”

    1. Jim Avatar

      They’ve extended the Dummies line beyond all reason. We editors were worried about how the extension was diluting the brand even back then, 15 years ago. It is very hard to find an author who is both deeply knowledgeable about something and funny to boot (since humor is a part of the Dummies experience).

      1. ryoko861 Avatar

        True that there is an awful lot of “Dummies” books out there. I think I have an “Excel for Dummies” around here from ,my father.

        1. Jim Avatar

          I was still editing when the company published Sex for Dummies. They flew Dr. Ruth in and we all got to meet her.

  2. Ted Kappes Avatar

    I agree that David Pogue is one of the best writers of his type. It was interesting to hear of your experience with him. I often wondered back in the days when I was reading a lot of computer books which authors were doing the best they could and which were just slapping something together because such books were good sellers at the time.

    1. Jim Avatar

      There was truly a class of computer-book authors who slapped things together. The reason why the acquisition editors hired them is because they would write anything. The bigwigs would determine the titles they wanted to publish each year and then it was up to the acquisition editors to find authors to write those books. Some of the most important books, the “A titles,” were easy to match to great authors. The B and C titles, not so much. The book about that communications technology was definitely a C title.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.