Rocky Mountain High – Barry on working in books & newspapers

The following is a guest post from Senior Development Editor Barry Richardson about the similarities and differences between book and newspaper publishing.

When I was first married, I took a job as a reporter/editor/columnist with an award-winning weekly newspaper, The Summit County Journal, located in Breckenridge, Colorado, 9600 feet above sea level. Breckenridge has a rich and colorful history. Founded in 1859 when gold was discovered nearby, it boasts the oldest continuously operating bar west of the Mississippi (no closing for Prohibition in the mountains), the Gold Pan Saloon, which also opened in 1859 (surprise, surprise!). When I was there, the area was undergoing rapid growth due to the ski industry, but at the same time there were numerous condos standing empty due to overbuilding and poor construction, which were auctioned off once a week.

Newspaper work was fun, exciting, rewarding, and always interesting. Covering town board meetings and interviewing local officials gave me insight into the nuts and bolts of what was really going on in the area. And, boy, there was a lot going on—scandals, betrayals, battles over land use and water rights, even lively debates about how big signs should be. (Frisco was right off the Interstate, so its businesspeople wanted huge well-lit signs to draw people to their town; Breckenridge wanted small, tasteful wooden signs, so tourists and skiers could enjoy the old-time western flavor.)

I would sit with police chiefs and get their take on the main players—good and bad—in the community. I met Sir Toby, a Doberman Pinscher who worked with the Frisco PD on a federal grant. He was credited with the arrest of an armed and dangerous escapee from the Danbury (Connecticut) State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, who had cut a swath of murder, robbery, and destruction across the U.S. until Toby grabbed him by the throat at the Holiday Inn. For an entire afternoon, I interviewed the oldest resident of Summit County, a 93-year-old woman who had lived her entire life in that strange and wonderful place. I attended events like concerts, rodeos, and restaurant openings for free. All in all, it was a pretty sweet gig in an amazing location!

I’ve worked in book publishing for more than 20 years. There are similarities between non-fiction books and newspapers, since the intent of both is to clearly convey accurate information. Titles and headlines are both designed to draw in potential readers. Good sources are critical to both; badly sourced material can sink either a book or a newspaper article. However, here are a couple of key differences from my personal perspective:

  • Deadlines: Even for “rush” projects, the schedules in book publishing seem like an eternity compared to newspaper deadlines. At the Journal, I would interview people, cover meetings, and research stories on Monday, Tuesday, and most of Wednesday. Then I had to write four or five articles and a column. I stayed up most of Wednesday night, fueled by black coffee and an occasional trip to the Gold Pan (next door to the newspaper office) for a beer or two to fuel my creative juices. By Friday morning, my stories were right there in the paper for everyone to read. The funny thing is, as the deadline approaches for a book project, the pressure builds just as it did sitting in the Journal office at 3 AM.
  • Timeliness: With newspapers—even a weekly one—you can pretty much get the most up-to-date information into print. This is tough with books, especially when the subject matter involves technology, current events, or social media, where “new” information becomes obsolete overnight. I once opened a newly published book and realized that the chapter on MySpace was no longer true. If out-of-date facts are published in a paper, they can be corrected right away, or at least by the next week. With a book, you have to wait for the first reprint. One of the oldest rules in book publishing is to remove phrases like “next month” or “the new initiative” because they will date a book almost immediately. Of course, in a newspaper, such references are not only accepted, they are expected.
  • Recognition: My contribution to a book often goes beyond editing and includes writing, rewriting, and restructuring a manuscript while trying to maintain the author’s “voice.” An acknowledgment is fine, but it kind of pales next to true recognition. When my name was on a column and several articles in the newspaper, I got immediate reactions. People would come up to me in the street and start arguing about—or agreeing with—something that had appeared in the paper under my name.

I once mentioned in my column that I missed Schaeffer beer (which at that time was not sold west of the Mississippi) and had no taste for Coors (which was only sold west of the Mississippi). I arrived at work one morning to find an older couple waiting in my office. They lived in Philadelphia, but owned a condo in Summit County and subscribed to the Journal. They presented me with a six-pack of 16-ounce Schaeffers, which not only happily surprised me, but reinforced the idea of the Power of the Press, however small my world may have been.

Barry Richardson is a Senior Development Editor at AMACOM. Our in-house “book doctor,” he helps improve manuscripts while keeping the author’s voice and expertise–whether it’s heavy-duty editing, reorganization, rewriting, or coaching authors. Prior to joining AMACOM, he worked for 25 years at Prentice Hall (P-H). Visit our website for freelance development inquiries.

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