How designing is like writing

Alternative title: How manufacturing is like publishing

Ostensibly I’m a writer so I read a lot about writing and publishing. Meandering, I find so many analogies from writing and publishing that are equally appropriate to designing and manufacturing. I realize that some of what I have to say doesn’t resonate so maybe an alternative context will make some things clearer.

First is a bit of humor. Janet Reid, Literary Agent, says this video is the best example she’s ever seen of how to pitch an agent. Or rather, you first get to see how not to pitch an agent. I can’t count how many designers have pitched me exactly like the bad examples. You can’t pitch a service provider, sales rep or buyer the way you would a consumer. Here are better suggestions.

Switching gears, many new writers (designers) have the idea that all they have to do is come up with a great story line (sketches) and a big publisher (manufacturer) will swoop in with their cape to give them an advance (royalties) and make the book (line) a bestseller (Vogue cover). In real life, the publisher (contractor) is only responsible for printing and distributing the book (cut and sew sale ready products). The author (designer) is responsible for writing a book (designing and producing a line) that resonates with consumers and to market it effectively.

In the same vein, some writers are able to secure book contracts for future work based on how effectively they do this. Apparel is similar in that designers become acquired by larger firms. The way that big companies grow is by buying smaller ones -and contrary to what you might think, it could be the best thing to ever happen to you. They’re not buying your designs or company per se (and they’re usually happy to allow you to continue to run it), they’re buying access to customers in your market niche. If you haven’t created consumer demand for your products, you have nothing to interest anyone who you hope will give you money.

Still, writing and designing aren’t perfect analogies; royalties being one example. Few authors earn a royalty, only the big names. That’s because authors must “earn through” the advance before they’re due royalties. Earning through means to have sold enough books to cover the advance because “advance” is short for “advance on royalties”. In this light, you might understand how a newbie who thinks they can get royalties for a sketch is a laughingstock -if only because the effort and labor disparity between a book and an article of clothing is in no way comparable.  The market also speaks and sees the relative value -namely, the market knows a sketch isn’t worth the same as a book that took years and a great deal of skill to write.

In other ways  you’re luckier than writers because the means of production is within your hands; you can sew stuff yourself but you can’t print your own book unless you buy a printing press and learn the printing trade.

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  1. clf says:

    Oh dear. Some erroneous information here. If authors were expected to market their books, the publishing industry would be in worse straits than it already is. Authors are notorious poor marketers.

    Authors are responsible for writing books *as specified in their contracts* (if contracted for a book on the 100 Best Fly Fishing Spots in America, don’t submit a novel about the Rapture) and for turning in the work on time.

    *Publishers* are responsible for marketing books and writers are expected to fall into line with the publisher’s marketing plan. It is *publishers* who send out review copies and bear those costs. It is publishers who pony up the money for advertising or a PR firm that will pitch your book to Oprah or NPR. You can bet that almost every book on Amazon’s or the NYTimes best seller list has been marketed by a publisher, not an author.

    The more successful a writer is, the more say he or she has in the way the book is marketed. But writers just starting out may have the title of their book changed, have to pose for a photo they find unflattering (or contrary to the subject of their book), and have to appear on television or radio shows that they don’t like.

    Should a writer be marketing savvy? Yes. Can a writer make a terrific contribution to the marketing of a book? Of course. But the ultimate responsibility for marketing a book lies with the publisher— because the publisher has the most money on the line.

    It is absolutely imperative that a writer think like a publisher when approaching with a pitch. You must show how your book is different from what is out in the current marketplace. How can it rise above? Who will buy it? It must be different, but not toooooooooo different, because it needs to be placed in a familiar niche in order to succeed.

    Much of the information/advice offered to novice writers is aimed at rank amateurs. (For example, Writer’s Digest is to professional writing what Threads magazine is to professional garment manufacturing.) You wouldn’t pitch *anything* to anybody in the manner shown in that video. Not an idea for an invention, not a restaurant concept or a clothing line. You couldn’t even sell somebody a running shoe using those tactics.

    The business of publishing is complicated and breaking in is not easy. The people who have the information you most need to hear are not willing to share their secrets. Other than that, I’m not sure about the similarities between publishing a book and designing a line.

  2. Paula Hudson says:

    clf – I agree with a lot of your post, and I wholeheartedly agree that the business of publishing is complicated, and breaking is most certainly not easy. I don’t agree, however, that “…the people who have the information you most need to hear are not willing to share their secrets.”

    I’m a multi-published fiction author, and even back in the day when I was a raw newbie with big dreams, a little talent, and no experience, I had many, many people in the industry who were the utmost in kind and willing to help. The “secret” was being modest (without being self-effacing), simply asking for help, and **waiting patiently** for an answer. Sure, there were some rude prima donnas, but who would want information from self-important blowhards anyway?

    Anyone who corners a professional and expects them to drop what they are doing to provide in-depth hand-holding deserves to be ignored. I have found that most professionals, when approached professionally, are quite happy to respond if you give them time to do so. There really aren’t any “secrets,” unless you consider researching your market, learning how to write for your market, and being smart enough to get your work critiqued are “secrets.” There is an absolute plethora of information about writing/marketing/publishing available to anyone who is willing to tamp down their ego and seek it.

    The “problem” is the folks who thing they are the biggest thing since sliced bread who expect instant attention, gratification, fame, and fortune. They don’t think time, patience, and honing their craft are things that apply to them. This applies to any craft, not simply writing.

    As to writers not being expected to market, I couldn’t disagree more. While writers may be notoriously poor marketers, it is becoming incumbent on us now to become better marketers. Unless you are an A list author, and probably even an A+ lister, you are NOT going to get ANY marketing support from your publisher. Unless you have an editor who thinks you are on fire, they are not going to send out ARCs, contact media, or do any other marketing to help you. Most of this is done by editors who are already abysmally overworked. Only the biggest publishers even have dedicated PR/marketing staff and you can bet they aren’t slating time for their MARCOM people to a new author, and they darn sure aren’t going to “pony up” the money for advertising on a new author! A newbie better learn how to properly send out ARCs and seek reviews, etc., because your editor doesn’t have time or budget to do so.

  3. H. says:

    Great discussion here- these are the right kind of questions to consider before bringing any new product to market.

  4. Laura says:

    I know this isn’t Kathleen’s intended direction for this topic, but I’m wondering how common it is for a publisher to decide where the information gaps are, come up with a book topic, and then search out an author to write it? If this were the case, wouldn’t a publisher normally reach out to an author they have previously worked with?

  5. Paula Hudson says:

    Laura — Publishers don’t “come up with” book topics. And publishers don’t reach out to authors. Authors court publishers. Editors have unimaginable numbers of manuscripts from pubs and unpubs alike, covering every story line imaginable, sitting in teetering piles on shelves and around their desks, awaiting review. For every Stephen King or Nora Roberts, there are many, many thousands of authors trying to get published. It’s like any industry: There are a few stars who have fame, glory, and can basically get whatever they want. The rest of the field fights for the limited number of remaining slots.

    If a subject is “hot,” publishers are instantly inundated with proposals. If they have a big name author who wants to write about it, you can bet they’ll get prime release dates. There is no such thing as a publisher wringing their hands and wishing they had something to print!

    Editors are human. If they have a successful author, or an author who has been good to work with, you bet they’ll take that author’s stuff first. You can rest assured, though, that editors don’t call authors and pitch an idea to them. It works the other way around.

  6. Laura, Paula,

    I think there are some sectors where the publisher is not entirely passive wrt content. Examples: Textbooks. Essay collections. Harper Collins’ “Best American” series, with different editors each year.

  7. Kathleen says:

    More ways designing is like writing:

    Authors are notorious poor marketers.

    So are designers!

    Much of the information/advice offered to novice writers is aimed at rank amateurs. (For example, Writer’s Digest is to professional writing what Threads magazine is to professional garment manufacturing.)

    [I’m relieved I don’t get information from either.] There’s tons of bad advice pitched to designers; the web is littered with it.

    The business of publishing is complicated and breaking in is not easy. The people who have the information you most need to hear are not willing to share their secrets. Other than that, I’m not sure about the similarities between publishing a book and designing a line.

    There’s plenty of people who will share their info about producing a line. The problem usually is that the information people most need to hear is not what they want to hear -so the people who know stuff disengage as politely and quickly as possible. For example, DEs always think that the only roadblock in their path is X but the truth is, if that were the only problem they had, they wouldn’t have that roadblock and wouldn’t be having the conversation. Pros love to help people who have it together because their words aren’t falling on fallow ground.

    Ways publishing isn’t like manufacturing:
    Publishers only pony up money for pitching A list authors.
    Designers have to do it themselves. Employee designers don’t obviously, their employer does but then authors aren’t employed by publishers either.

    It is usually in the book contract that the publisher can change the title of any book, even for the A listers.
    Designers can call their lines -and products (often to my dismay)- whatever they want.

    Authors (might, I don’t know) have to show how their book is different from what’s out there.
    Designers usually don’t, it’s almost the opposite. For backing, they need to be on trend etc. Being too different usually means unsaleable.

  8. “Publishers don’t “come up with” book topics. And publishers don’t reach out to authors. ”

    Paula, this is true for fiction, but not always for non fiction.
    (I know at least three people who were contacted by a publisher, because the publisher wanted a book about a special topic (non-fiction) and was looking for someone to write it. One of those three people is a professional author and gets offers like that more often.)

    But of course it might be completely different in the US.

  9. Laura says:

    Thank you, Paula, Alison, and Nowaks. I was appoached by a publisher recently, thus the question. The publisher is European, and me being a designer, of course the topic they wanted is a non-fiction “how to”, so it falls in line with what’s being said here. Nowaks, how did this work out for those three people?

  10. Kathleen says:

    Laura: It could be they see an opportunity and are hoping (?) for a replacement for a certain book the publisher let go out of print. I just sold mine for $90.

    I have spoken with given authors privately, names of which I can’t disclose but I would urge you to see if it is possible to have it written into the contract that you must approve all edits. The editing process is a double edged sword of going with an established publisher. On one hand they cover you stylistically, semantically, book design wise etc. On the other, publishers in this genre are known to edit less than judiciously and the instruction comes out choppy. Worse, you can’t say anything about it and will have to take whatever reviewers dish out. You’ll have to back it -can’t badmouth your publisher!

    You didn’t ask me how it worked out but of the authors I know, it was great as far as their professional credibility was concerned. Financially, not so much. Iow, one doesn’t do it for the money. You have the option of selling it yourself but you don’t get much of a price break from the publisher (+/- 20%) and that means competing with Amazon’s discount price. Some of your followers will snark and say you’re a money grubber, that they should be able to get a discount if they buy it from you. You’ll have to grow a skin and keep in mind you can’t please everyone…

    I notice your centered zipper tutorial is just like mine.

  11. Paula Hudson says:

    Mea culpa — I should certainly have made it more clear that my knowledge is entirely from the fiction world. I defer absolutely to those with knowledge from the non-fiction world!!

  12. Laura, as Kathleen said financially it is hard to really benefit from a book.
    As I mentioned one of the persons I know is a professional writer/ journalist he has several books an the market at the moment and as far as I know two of them are doing well enough that they make a remarkable part of his income. And of course he gets offers for articles to write because he is the author of this and that book and so his status as a “specialist” is confirmed that was.

    For the other two it’s a nice add on to their main occupation, but not something you could life on. (Though one of the books closed a gap on the German market for sewing books for home sewers. There was no book about that any more in German and older editions of the last book about that from the 1990s sold sometimes for 70 EUR at ebay. So I should ask him how it does when I next see him. This book is not out for so long yet.)

    I think if you really want to make money from it then it”s less the book sale but that you can “sell” yourself better. Like when you give classes you can charge more and so on.

  13. Laura says:

    Kathleen, thanks for your perspective on this. I’m not at all confident that a side career in authorship is waiting in the wings, but I’m sure that other designers would appreciate knowing the legitimacy of an approach of this kind.

    I apologize that I’m not familiar with your tutorials. I’ve taught sewing for many years, and the centered zipper method I use is common to the RTW industry, so I’m not surprised it’s the same as yours, though I am sure that your writing style and illustrations are much better!

  14. Thomas Moore says:

    Being both a designer and a writer I enjoyed the comparison. I write for several industry magazine and my brother is a publisher in an unrelated field. More times than I can count editors suggested that I pen a book, yet my brother described the road blocks ahead. In 1999 I self published Digitizing 101 – The Basics of digitizing for embroidery. I cannot tell you enough how this 300 page project has benefited both myself and the industry.

    The publication isn’t perfect, it hasn’t made the best sellers list and I don’t have talk show interviews calling my office to schedule interviews. The book has accomplish what I set out to do. Therefore, I am glad I did it even against the tide waters that suggest you can’t or shouldn’t. Sometime if you follow all the rules created by a system, important pieces of art are never seen.

    The context I gained from Kathleen’s piece wasn’t to compare Ralph Lauren to J. K. Rowling. I took away advice the creator of any product could use to bring their product to market. There are a zillion great voices out there trying to break into the music market. YouTube and American Idol have found a way to see more of them without actually getting an appointment with an agent. is another way small designers are able to break through the usual “system.”

    There is an established way of doing anything, it’s those who think big and dream big that will find a way. While they are dreaming it’s best to encourage them to have the strength and energy to keep going, than to show them how their idea will never work.

    I hope to have Digitizing 201 done by the end of summer. It’s going to be much better than 101 is. That’s a feat I wasn’t sure I would be able to achieve. I like the Nike slogan, “Just Do It!”

  15. Kathleen says:

    I deliberately avoided comparisons to self publishing (which I know well) because some people think that becoming a designer is akin to mechanisms comparative of traditional publishing. As my full time job is encouraging people “to keep going”, I thought it worth the effort of explaining why the traditional publishing model will not work so they’re better off trying more fruitful strategies.

    In real life, producing a line is closer to self publishing and always has been; therein lies more useful and pragmatic encouragement. I couldn’t write about the alternative (becoming a designer the way some writers can get published) even if I wanted to because I’ve never known anyone or known of anyone (in 30 years) who has become a designer with the equivalent of the traditional publishing model. Accordingly, I think it more useful to encourage proven methods (aka the self publishing model of apparel manufacturing) to generate the greatest good than it is to lose credibility by pandering to the few who want a magic wand. Besides, most of the latter don’t want to spend money or time on training to make it happen because they’re not really serious.

    Let’s say that theoretically it could happen, that one starts out with the idea of becoming a designer akin to the process of the traditional publishing model. The prospect would need to acquire skills (designing is so much more than drawing a sketch) in the same way a writer needs to have writing skills, to be considered. But right there you’d lose over 90% of the designer hopefuls because they want the short cut, the big red EASY button. They’re looking for the magic wand precisely because they don’t want to do the work (most in this category are not yet 18). Among the few left over who do take it seriously, through the process of training, they learn there is no such equivalent to traditional publishing for designers so the problem solves itself. In short, my point was that producing a line has traditionally followed the self publishing model and that it really is the only viable option which was why I avoided the discussion of self publishing as a comparative.

  16. Seth M-G says:

    Just to point out something that should be obvious; you *can* publish quite readily by yourself, given the internet. All you really need is a computer, internet connection, and the ability to figure out how to upload to a torrent site (assuming that you don’t want to actually make any money on the publication…). The vast majority of fan fic falls in this category. I know that there are musicians that work the same way; they have their own studio, do their own composition, performance, production and mixing, and then upload for free just because they like making music.

    I suppose that you could liken this to a designer that does custom one-off creations for individuals just because they want to. I’ve done that more than a few times. It costs me money, but right now apparel creation is an expensive hobby that’s paid for by my Real Job.

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