All wrapped up

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Or is it? This blog post is not all that it seems at first.  It isn’t about Christmas, for instance.  I don’t do Christmas on principle until we get to mid-December, which explains my idiosyncratic habit of wandering through stores with my eyes closed at the moment.

It IS about packaging, however.  More specifically, it is about getting to the end of a packaging project and reflecting on its (mostly) ups and downs.

Over the last few years, I’ve done a lot of project management on both print and digital products  and have written blogs about it.  But this is the first time that I’ve packaged a project from beginning to end, including commissioning and liaising with picture researchers and design teams.  It has involved sending updates to the in-house team, coming up with the proposed budget, defining roles (including my own), writing the brief for the content and, in general, setting more parameters than usual.  All of this autonomy is very liberating, but it can be risky.  So what are the risks involved and how can they be dealt with?

People don’t read things in as much detail as you do

In order to get your project costing accepted, it’s sometimes necessary to prioritize tasks.  For example, whilst you might feel that your time is best spent reviewing the content at each draft stage and looking thoroughly at first proofs, you could decide to take a step back at the later proof stages when the content and style has been firmed up and artwork has been approved.

If you do make this sort of decision though, it’s probably a good idea to talk it through with the in-house publisher once they’ve received it.  An itemised excel spreadsheet may seem as clear as day to you (especially when you’ve pored over it for hours) but your client may not have the same amount of time to review it.  Also, it’s a good idea to bear in mind that one person’s idea of ‘normal’ is not another’s.  If a client feels very strongly that they want you to take responsibility for the final ‘sign off’, it’s a good idea to then review your costing and put this into place.

The same goes for contracts. An author paid a fee may not feel that they can reasonably be expected to look at proofs.  If reviewing of proofs is stipulated in the contract, you could feel that you are covering your back. But a packager needs to bear in mind that not everyone reads contracts thoroughly, particularly if they’ve already begun work on a project with very tight deadlines. In order to avoid bad feeling when proofs come in, it’s probably best to talk through the points in the contract with your associates.

Picture researchers need briefs too

It’s tempting to think that, if the development editor has a very detailed idea of the aims, look and feel of the course, that a clear artwork brief will suffice for the picture researcher.

Not always so. If your project is intended for a specific market, for instance, the Middle East, it’s a good idea to share any documents you have about cultural considerations with the picture researcher.  It’ll give them a general feel of what type of images might appeal as well as things to avoid.  It’ll also mitigate the need for the poor editor to spell these things out throughout the brief.

Packaging a project means I have complete control…doesn’t it?

The packager walks a fine line between not bothering the client unnecessarily and flagging up things that the client might want to know. (As an aside, I’ve found that it’s always best to have a couple of suggested solutions to issues that have come up before you debrief the client.)

Although it’s tempting to keep the project under wraps until a particular stage is complete and you’re feeling proud of it, doing so is risky.  What if the client doesn’t like the font you’ve chosen?  Or what if they’d rather you extend the content to an extra page rather than cutting overmatter or reducing artwork size? Particularly if the brief from the client is non-existent or somewhat elastic (and as a result, the project has ‘evolved’), I recommend putting professional pride in the product aside and checking with the client.  It’s their course after all.

Limitations of the amount of control you have also apply to your associates. One of my freelance colleagues referred to project management as ‘shepherding’ the other day and I think it’s an accurate analogy. Freelancers’ timetables and commitments vary greatly and sometimes events come up that mean that they have to go off course and stretch the schedule. Fortunately, my associates have gone the extra mile to make up lost time but the project manager needs to be able to step in when needed to fill in.  Which brings me to my next point …

Final final corrections and the need for wiggle room

Itemised cost sheets can mean that it can be difficult to submit a proposal for extra time dedicated to ‘wiggle room’.  Understandably, this makes clients nervous. Why would it be necessary?  Well, one reason could be that a client requests a last-minute change to a design feature that your designer hadn’t costed for.  Final proofs become final final proofs and the designer becomes frustrated.  The project manager is then in the position of either negotiating with the designer or informing the client that they’ve gone over budget.  Neither of these are tempting prospects.

As mentioned above, project managers often have to step in to edit, if they are not happy with the direction the content is taking or if an editor needs more support than anticipated. This is another good reason for wiggle room to be included in the schedule and the budget.

Rather than label extra time as a lump, it’s probably better to add it onto the various tasks in your itemised costing.  That way, if nothing untoward happens, you have the satisfaction of coming in under budget.

And everyone’s happy!



  1. I really enjoyed reading your post Verity. I love the concept of ‘wiggle room’ which sounds much better than ‘contingency’. Hope to catch up soon, Jemma

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Jemma. Contingency sounds a lot more professional than ‘wiggle room’, but it was the first term that came to mind! It would be lovely to see you soon.

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