Be an optimist, but not a wishful thinker

Optimism and positivity are good qualities. It’s great to work with people who are sunny and have a can-do attitude. But sometimes, oddly, too much optimism can itself be non-optimal …

“It’ll be fine!”

Maybe it will. Or maybe, sometimes, it won’t. We all encounter setbacks and delays. Who among us hasn’t experienced that awful sinking feeling as realisation dawns that an error has been made, or a promised deadline won’t be met?

Any experienced editor knows that things go wrong. Being a professional doesn’t mean never having difficulties or making a mistake. We demonstrate our professionalism by how we handle issues when they arise. That is, by keeping calm, thinking constructively, working out solutions – and above all, by communicating effectively.

The trouble is that nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news, and disappoint or annoy others. So there can be a temptation to go on reporting to colleagues/clients that everything’s fine, and hoping against hope that the magic problem-solving elves will come in the night and fix it: put out the fire, weave the cloth, make the shoes.

SPOILER: they won’t.

We mustn’t blind ourselves, and others, with hope and wishful thinking.

A need-to-know basis

Putting books together (at least via the traditional publisher route) is a team effort, and in teamwork communication is key. Before an illustrated non-fiction book gets to the printer it will go back and forth between an author (or authors, or many contributors), one or more editors, a designer, a picture researcher, an illustrator (sometimes), a proofreader, an indexer, and a production controller. Everyone’s efforts must be braided together carefully so that the right things happen in the right order, and each stage interconnects. It’s a carefully coordinated group dance which can fall apart if somebody misses their steps.

As a rule, the later a problem comes to light, the more costly it will be in terms of money, time, effort and everyone’s workload. The client or the team may be annoyed to hear about a problem when you tell them today. They will be FAR more annoyed in six weeks’ time when they find out for themselves, by which time a hiccup may have become a major headache.

False positives

Optimism is good, but utter lack of realism is not. When material is late, or lost, or over budget, crossing your fingers and assuring everyone, “Oh yes, it’ll be here by Friday!” feels like a positive response, but saying something doesn’t make it true. If you see potential trouble coming, the project manager and the people down the chain waiting to handle the next stages really need to know. (As a sometime project manager myself, I say this with feeling.) With some advance warning, action can be taken, people notified and plans changed. With none: a mess.

Freelance colleagues, in particular, need accurate information. Freelancers can’t afford (literally can’t afford) to be left without expected work, and shouldn’t be forced to disappoint their clients when schedules clash.

They’ll find out on deadline day

The fact is that problems can only be glossed over for so long. That error or delay or overspend will come to light sooner or later, and the reaction is likely to be a lot less understanding and sympathetic if it’s later. The time to shout ‘Fire!’ and grab the extinguisher is when you see the first wisps of smoke. Don’t wait for others to notice that the building is burning around them.

Don’t worry, be happy

It’s great to be positive, and the whole publishing endeavour would probably grind to a halt if book people weren’t, basically, optimists. Book-related problems, bad as they may feel at the time, are not the end of the world. Breathe – and communicate! Difficulties can be fixed; people get past even the stickiest situations.

No reasonable client will expect every project to be trouble-free, but they have a right to expect honest reporting and full disclosure. Keeping your client happy does not mean keeping them in blissful ignorance. We can all hope for the best, but we shouldn’t base our professional behaviour on the Magic Elf Scenario Strategy. Guess where that leads …

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