Dealing with experts

By Dolores W. Gregory
Copy Editor
BNA Tax & Accounting

BNA State Tax & Accounting relies heavily on the contributions of outside authors. For my product, the Multistate Tax Report, articles by tax attorneys and accountants are a regular monthly feature. We generally have between two and four articles in each issue. This is an important component of our service, a chance for our readers to hear directly from leaders in the field.

The greatest challenge I have in dealing with outside authors is persuading them to write for us in the first place. The Multistate Tax Report is a bit of a hybrid; we publish short news items on state tax developments, but the outside author pieces are much longer, far more detailed, and usually heavily footnoted. They are more like law journal articles than journalism — though we gladly accept articles written in a more journalistic style.

Many tax experts are very busy practitioners for whom time is literally money, and the result is that they are invariably late with whatever material they’ve promised me.

Sometimes they are only days late; sometimes it takes months of phone calls to shake an article loose from a well-meaning author with an overflowing Filofax. It does not help that our product provides no compensation; we pay only in glory — and copies of the print edition. So I’ve learned to build insurance into the process by lining up more material than I have room to publish.

As a general rule, one-third to one-half of what is promised will never materialize, and the rest of it will not be delivered on time. While this can be extremely frustrating — especially in months where literally my entire schedule of articles has evaporated — I try not to let it affect my dealings with the writers. The key to success, I believe, is to maintain a constantly cheerful attitude with the writers and to be as respectful as possible of their time and their efforts. They are, after all, doing this in their spare time, for no compensation save the exposure the article will bring them. At the same time, though, we are giving them a forum for establishing or reinforcing their credentials as experts in the field.

Let the Author Set the Deadlines; You Control the Schedule

Generally I let the author set the deadline; I usually will give a three-month lead time, but if they express some concerns, I ask them to tell me when they feel they can deliver the article.

I check in about six weeks out to see if the work is in process and if they might need more time to finish it. If they need more time, I offer an alternative deadline and promise to check in again close to that date.

It’s not unusual for the date to be pushed back several times before the article finally comes in. I’ve had several really fine articles materialize after more than a year of back and forth with the author.

Provide Positive Feedback

Once I do get the article, I make a point of providing some specific, positive response to it — commenting on their analysis or research or writing skill. I try to make sure they understand the importance of this unique contribution to our product.

Allow the Author to Review the Edits

I generally use a two-step process in editing outside pieces. First, I edit the article in a Word file, and then I send a redline of the file to the author for review. This allows the writer a chance to see exactly what changes have been made. I make a point of explaining that I’m obligated to follow the publishing company stylebook, but that I’m willing to discuss any other edits that the author might be concerned about. Generally no one objects; those few who do raise issues about the editing invariably have a technical basis for their concern. In those few cases where someone feels very strongly about a certain wording, I try to accommodate him or her. If I have to make a case for something, I’ll try to cite an authority – such as Webster’s, or The Bluebook, or The Associated Press Stylebook.

Only after the author reviews the redline do I send page proofs — what we call galleys — for a second round of reviews. There are invariably changes between the redline and the galleys, because in the process of converting the file to our publishing software, we go through a second phase of editing. While this two-step process is more time-consuming than simply sending page proofs, I think the authors appreciate the thoroughness, and they can generally turn the proofs around more quickly if they’ve already seen the redline.

In my next blog post, I’ll talk about how I go about finding outside experts and soliciting their contributions.

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