35 Tips for Crashing a Book
At a time when consumers expect an instantaneous flow of information, and technological advances have facilitated expedited workflows, more and more book publishers are choosing to “crash” books—that is, produce a book from manuscript to final product on an abbreviated schedule, sometimes in just a matter of weeks. Yes, weeks. Many times, a crashed book is tied into a headline-grabbing event—think Michael Jackson’s untimely death, or Sarah Palin’s vice presidential nomination—where capitalizing on the momentum of that event in the public consciousness is critical to the title’s success.
“It’s the ultimate publishing experience,” says Dennis Loy Johnson, publisher of Brooklyn-based Melville House Publishing, of crashing a book. “This is what publishers are suppose to do. This is what it’s all about. America was founded on a crashed book called ‘Common Sense’ by Thomas Paine.”
However, Johnson also is quick to point out that the process is not one to enter into lightly. “You’ve really got to have a reason to do it, not just to motivate yourself, but to motivate all of the people who you’re asking to do something out of sequence, [including your author, production team, distributor, booksellers],” he says. “You’re inconveniencing all of them terribly. You’re acting outside of budget. … So you really better be doing a worthwhile book.”
Here, Johnson and other book publishing executives share their tips and strategies for deciding whether or not to crash a book, and producing it successfully.
Should You Crash This Book?
1. Recognize when a proposal is one that requires a “critical response,” advises Emily Foote, managing editor, White River Junction, Vt.-based Chelsea Green Publishing. Ask yourself: Is it crucial to the success of the book that it comes out, say, two months from now rather than nine months?
“All of the books [we’ve crashed] are among the better-selling books in the company’s history,” says Johnson. “I think it’s because they simply were well-chosen.”
Chelsea Green has realized similar success with books it’s chosen to crash. “It’s interesting … that all three of Chelsea Green’s New York Times best-sellers were published on crash schedules,” says Foote. “In each case, we were able to grab the opportunity by getting the book out fast enough to take advantage of the timing of current events, and it paid off.”
2. Use your staff to gauge what readers’ reactions might be to the book. “When you … go to your staff and say, ‘We’re going to crash this,’ and you see them get excited, that’s a good way to judge how an average reader will react,” says Johnson.
3. Make sure that everyone who will be involved in the process is motivated to do the book on an abbreviated schedule. “It’s got to be more than a book that just the publisher wants to do,” says Johnson. “It’s got to be a book that everybody in the system wants to do.” When Johnson decided to crash the book, “What We Do Now”—a response to former President George W. Bush’s re-election—in November 2004, with a plan to have it in stores in time for the winter holidays, he was nervous about getting all the necessary parties on board at the busiest time of the year. “… We’re talking about writing a book, printing it and getting it into stores during the Christmas season,” he explains. “ … It [ended up being] the most perfect crashed book we ever did. It was the right idea. Everybody … got excited and [was] willing to put themselves out at the most difficult time to do that.”
The Editorial Process
4. From the onset of a book crash, make sure that the author is aware of the schedule and what the process will entail. “If everyone has the same goal in mind, it is much easier to keep everything running smoothly,” says Foote.
5. Work electronically as much as possible. “We certainly work electronically through developmental editing and copy editing, and sometimes even after, with proofreaders using software to electronically mark the typeset pages,” says Foote, noting that this saves critical days of shipping hard copies back and forth.
6. Establish relationships with freelancers who are willing to work on very tight schedules. “We have some people we work with who we know if, [for example,] we need somebody to proof something overnight, we know this guy has done it for us before; he may do it again,” says Johnson. “We have a list of [freelancers we can go to].”
“We have some [freelancers, such as editors, book designers and typesetters] who understand the nature of our work and are willing to work on very tight schedules when they know we are crashing a title,” adds Foote.
7. In addition to or in lieu of freelancers, utilize in-house staff who can copy edit and proofread, suggests Foote, noting that this can “slice days and even weeks” from schedules. Foote adds that Chelsea Green’s typical turnaround times for a crashed book are: copy editing, one to three days; book design, three days; and proofreading, one day.
8. Ask authors to review materials by the end of the current day, or the next day, advises Foote.
9. If the manuscript is not complete when the contract is signed, begin editing the chapters that are completed. “This can help the author move more quickly to finish the manuscript and get it into production,” says Foote.
10. Develop relationships with printers that are willing to provide you with quick turnaround times. “Our production director has developed close relationships with two printers … [that] are willing to give excellent turnaround times—sometimes shipping bound books within two weeks of our releasing the files,” says Foote.
“It’s key to have this relationship in place before you ask for the ‘near impossible,’” adds Susan Beale, director of manufacturing for F+W-owned Adams Media.
11. This is not the time to try a new print vendor. “Award these types of jobs to a print vendor you can rely on and whose quality you can trust,” says Beale.
12. Contact your sales representative at the printer as soon as the decision has been made to crash a title. “Your rep is your biggest supporter, and will guide the plant and take your needs up the chain, if necessary, to get you the best schedule possible,” advises Beale. “Follow up with a conference call [with] your sales rep and any plant representatives, such as customer service, quality managers and prepress, to align everyone’s expectations and concerns. Now is a good time to talk about alternatives or options with your vendor to save time, including [the] possibility of your printer handling the fulfillment, rather than [waiting] to deliver to your warehouse.”
13. Ask your printer to waive advances. “… Have your printer quality-check the product as it comes off the bindery (ask for at least two people—the shift supervisor and your [customer service representative], if possible),” says Beale. “This is where working with a preferred vendor is crucial, as they should have a good sense of your expectations. If you have a particularly complex design that requires you to approve the printed pages, opt for a set of printed [folded and gathered signatures] to be sent to you as it comes off press, [instead of waiting] to see a bound copy.”
14. Develop a template for crash schedules. “[We have] a base template for all crash work; then it is refined with dates and specifics for each particular title,” says Beale. “This was developed as a team effort between editorial, design/production and manufacturing. …”
15. Hold a production “kick-off” meeting with your team at the onset of a book crash “to outline dates and open lines of communication. Identify the team and responsibilities of each member,” suggests Beale. Also, “be sure your most experienced staff is part of the project team,” she adds.
16. Use face-to-face meetings or the phone for critical communication. “While e-mail is fast, it’s also time-consuming when you have a large team to synchronize all aspects of the production process in a very short time,” says Beale.
17. Know how to adapt. “The process and requirements will change with each project, so be flexible,” says Beale.
18. Utilize print-on-demand (POD) to get galleys, advanced copies and/or books to the market sooner than a traditional publisher could. “In one case, we delivered files to the POD printer early one morning, and they were able to ship the books out that same day for delivery the next,” notes Foote.
19. Reward your production team. “Offer small rewards like lunch or movie tickets …,” offers Beale. “[And] include their names on the credit page of the book!”
20. Have a clear-cut idea of how to publicize the book when you decide to crash it, advises Johnson. “With ‘What We Do Now,’ we knew [National Public Radio] should be interested in it. We had some big journalists [who contributed to the book], so certain newspapers should be interested in this. And people who we have seen respond to these kinds of things before, we [went] to again,” he says.
21. Rely on online word-of-mouth outreach such as blogs and news sites when lacking the standard time for advance reviews and conventional media coverage, suggests Foote.
22. Think outside the box. When Melville House crashed the book, “Revolt on Goose Island,” it released a live first draft on the publisher’s Web site, and termed it a “live book.” “Then, the author used [feedback on that] as … research to finish the print book more quickly,” explains Johnson. “The nice thing about that process is it allowed us to attack one of the problems with a crash book, which is you’re out of any kind of cycle, not only for production, but for getting attention for the book … . [The ‘live book’] gave us a nice, little run-up about the making of the book that flagged everybody’s attention. That helped a lot.”
Johnson issues a final disclaimer to publishers that are considering a book crash: “You really are going to be up all night,” he says. “You really are going to be eating weird. You are going to be a little sleep-deprived and crazed, and your staff is, too. People are going to get irritable, and it’s really hard. It’s a lot of pressure, and a lot of tension. [But the books we crashed] were books we really believed in.”