Overview of publication project management (Beyond the Red Pencil, 2015)

Melissa Duffes, editorial director of Marquand Books and previously head of publications and media for the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, moderated a panel discussion including three of her fellow project managers:

Anderson discovered she had an affinity for project management at an early age. “All the jobs I had sort of ended up involving project management.” She fell into her role after watching coworkers reinvent the wheel with each proposal they submitted and offering to make a template for greater efficiency.

“I became a project manager out of self-defence,” said Marsh. “If you’re an editor now, you’re already project managing: you take a big thing, break it into discrete chunks, figure out the order of the chunks, schedule, and distribute chunks to other people.”

“Project management is planning and being ready to change all your plans at the last minute,” Marsh added. It’s important to keep the big picture in mind, he said, because sometimes when you run into a problem, something else will come up to cancel it out. “Ignore it till it goes away,” he deadpanned.

Athans suggested looking at your set of skills as an editor: “How much of a project manager are you already?” You may find you can claim expertise as a project manager even if you’ve never had that title.

Anderson manages in-house staff and a couple of contractors in her work to produce content in a variety of document types, including websites, proposals, and reports. She calls it “controlled chaos” and understands that she has to be flexible when schedules shift. She tries to empathize with her contractors and authors. “My piece of advice is to try to put yourself in their shoes—be flexible, understand where they’re coming from, and always have a smile on your face.” A key component of good project management is “a ton of communication. I don’t expect people to come to me with updates. I have to go to them. I just have to bug nicely.”

Marsh agreed: “Communication is one of the essential abilities of a project manager. You need to understand the priorities of the client in terms of deadline, performance, cost, quality. You will have to make decisions and adjustments. Are they worth the cost?”

“A good project manager will put in wiggle room,” said Athans, but contractors should be proactive: “If you need you’ll need more time, the second you’ve determined that, communicate with the project manager.” Most of the time, if you ask for it, you’ll find you can get it. If you have a Friday-afternoon deadline, for example, you can be reasonably sure that getting your project in by Monday morning would be fine, but ask, don’t assume, and be professional about it. “It’s the difference between missing a deadline and blowing a deadline.”

“The first deadline you miss affects more than just you and your client,” added Duffes. “It affects everyone who has to work behind you.” And even if you know the deadlines will move, creating a schedule is still important, said Anderson. “It keeps things less chaotic” and helps clarify team members’ responsibilities.

Sometimes we all find ourselves so mired that we feel we don’t have time to plan ahead or hire someone to help, but that attitude is self-defeating, said Marsh. “Take the time now, even if you are very pressed, to save time later on.”

One of the major challenges Duffes has is to keep her team interested. Her company produces catalogues for art galleries and museums, and the projects are often an afterthought for the busy curators and gallery staff who have to supply much of the raw material and review and approve the various stages of book. “I remind them, ‘You’ll get a book in the end—it’ll be like a baby!’ I have to be like a scout leader and keep everyone marching forward in the nicest way possible.”

Project managers appreciate team members who actively check in with them. “Freelancers who get repeat work are the ones who communicate,” even if it’s to ask for more time. And if you get done early, that’s even better.

The panellists all seemed to use spreadsheets rather than specialized project management software to track their projects. Duffes prefers them, whereas Anderson and Athans said that the problem with a lot of project management software is getting people to agree on a system and actually use it. Spreadsheets are ubiquitous, and most people will agree to use them.

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Fellow editor Eva van Emden attended the same session and blogged about her main takeaways from the discussion.

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