producing documentary books

Producing Documentary Books: Setting Absolutes

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The next topic in my Ultimate Guide to Producing Documentary Books explains how setting absolutes can start your project off on the right page. Since you’ve been figuring timing to be sure there is continuity in your book’s launch and release, you’ve probably also been thinking about the team you want to hire. I’m going to cover Building a Team in Part 11 but for now, take a mental inventory of the fundamentals that must be in place for you to have the maximum confidence in your project.

I absolutely must ride my bicycle this week!
I absolutely must ride my bicycle this week!

What are the necessary absolutes that must be in place before deciding to produce a documentary book? Here are my personal criteria:

  • Confidence in the book’s premise and endorsement of its theme
  • A clear, substantial and accessible storyline
  • Photography, writing and design of the highest quality possible
  • A feasible marketing plan with an interesting hook or tie-in
  • Available resources to achieve the desired results

Those are not low hurdles, which is why few documentary books are produced. Without hitting these marks it’s going to be harder to succeed. I measure every proposal against these types of standards. Consider the ideals that will guide your hand and if they meet up to your expectations, then you’ll be amazed how much smoother your project will develop.

You need to know where you stand on plenty of other specifics, too. As the producer of the project, you’ll be setting up the workflow based on your preferences. You might insist on details such as: RAW image file delivery, layout using Adobe InDesign CC, printing the book in North America, hiring local contractors or using photographers with newspaper experience. These likings can drill down further to cases where you want to work with a specific designer or insist on giving the job to a particular printer. Remember, now you’re getting into territory where if you are non-negotiable on some aspect of the production, you might become beholden to the availability and price points of working with these choices.

If the designer you had in mind isn’t going to work out, start thinking of the attributes that another designer absolutely must have. I have a favorite designer but she admits she doesn’t always read the text she’s flowing into the design! That can cause us to go through extra change rounds but for some projects I’m willing to endure those—and schedule more time into that phase of production—because her design is right for the look we want. Figure out the same peculiarities and preferences for all the members of your team and have at least two back-ups for each role, including someone in mind for the parts you figured on doing yourself should you not be able to complete them.

Make decisions and set some absolutes about how money is going to be handled, too. I totally insist on handling all of the accounting of a project, meaning I write the checks, balance the statements, create the invoices and handle collections. If you don’t have that capability or don’t want to take on bookkeeping, please make sure you have real-time (cloud sharing) access to all accounting systems so there are no questions or mysteries. The same goes for deal memos, contracts and licenses. You absolutely want everything at your fingertips and in writing.

Rolling right along, the next part I’ll teach about will be on Determining Specifications. By the way, there is a philosophy of the Absolute, which might make for a great documentary book! Descartes said the only thing he could be absolutely certain of was his own existence. Alan Lightman gives us a lot to think about when it comes to our place in the Universe.

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