producing documentary books

Producing Documentary Books: Dealing with Changes

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When the book’s layout is close to final you will still be dealing with changes and some might be more burdensome than you can imagine. As The Ultimate Guide to Producing Documentary Books is now in Part 24, production is getting down to the wire.

One of the ladders leading to the Alcove House Ceremonial Cave located 140-feet above the Frijoles Canyon floor of the 33,677-acre Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. The cave was once home to ancestral Pueblo people during the years 1250-1600 A.D.
One of the ladders leading to the Alcove House Ceremonial Cave located 140-feet above the Frijoles Canyon floor of the 33,677-acre Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. The cave was once home to ancestral Pueblo people during the years 1250-1600 A.D. (Jain Lemos, Bandelier, NM; 2014 via Instagram.)

A wonderful thing about documentary books is that they deal with real life situations. That can also make them difficult. During the process of putting your book together, events taking place in the world of your subject matter can change drastically. Interruptions can happen in virtually any type of documentary coverage and there are cases where publishers and producers have chopped a book in layout stage because the inevitable changes were either cost prohibitive or the profitability equation drastically tanked. This doesn’t happen often but it’s a risk worth pointing out.

An example is a documentary on the history and future advances of solar photovoltaic technology. A large section of the book prominently features designs and interviews with Solyndra executives. At the genesis of the idea for the book, their ground-breaking systems were unlike any other solar products being developed, holding gigantic promise for the industry. Imagine reading the news of their bankruptcy filing at a cost to US taxpayers of more than $500 million just when you were waiting for bluelines.

Most fluctuations in stories won’t be that drastic. Still, trying to keep the book relevant and timely can be challenging during these last weeks before mechanical submission. There will be ideas swimming in your head and words marching across your newsfeed that cry out to be taken seriously as additions or substitutions to the book. Biographies are especially vulnerable and you can imagine why: An athlete is seriously injured or breaks a new record; a celebrity’s private nude photos are leaked to the world; a politician dies or breaks the law.

One of the most exciting changes I had to make was when I was working on Muhammad Ali: In Perspective by Thomas Hauser. We were already in pre-press when a major event happened. Ali made a surprise appearance during the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics. At Atlanta’s Olympic Stadium, he is passed the Olympic torch to start the games. Suffering from Parkinson’s syndrome, Ali hadn’t been seen in public for some time. It was such an emotional and significant moment that it had to be captured in our book. AP/World Wide had one of the very best shots and we licensed it for the back cover, the only place we could make a quick swap. We didn’t even have room to add a caption.

Whenever you can reasonably make text or photo updates that include new milestones or major developments, then do so. It might be possible to add a sentence or two to the flap copy or swap out a photo. If it’s really too late, then find ways to use the new information in conjunction with press and marketing efforts as the book comes out.

One of the ways to minimize the impact of dealing with changes is to keep laser focused on your production schedule. There is a drop dead date for that mechanical delivery. Next to you, your designer is feeling the most pressure. Your marching orders may come from other stakeholders and you are compelled to accommodate them. Stay positive, don’t panic and make lists of every possible solution, including the insane ones. Keep confident that everyone can be satisfied (placated?) and realize that last minute modifications can often end up looking like wonderful decisions.

In Proofing Everything, I’ll be covering version control and some specific methods for crossing every T. Maybe some of these quotes will help you navigate the ups and downs of coping with change.

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