Learning to Outsource and Then Let Go

In a few weeks I’ll be leading a session with independent editor Nicola Kraus at Grub Street’s annual Muse and the Marketplace writers conference, on “Outsourcing for Writers.”

When we first pitched the idea to Grub Street, the conference organizer confessed that the idea “freaked [him] out a bit.” After all, writing is such a solitary endeavor and as writers we like to think we can — and should — do everything ourselves, every step of the way.

Nothing else feels right. And after years of solitary drafting and revising, of silently dreaming and imagining what the pages will look like and what publishing this book will mean for your identity and your future, it’s hard not to feel anxious about getting help.

I get it. But the truth is, it’s becoming fairly standard in these busy, hyper competitive times for authors approaching publication to outsource a variety of tasks. Manuscript consultants and developmental editors like Nicola help get drafts into the best possible shape before submitting to agents. Research assistants check facts or make lists of conferences to attend. Social media pros help build up authors’ quintessential online presence. And with publishers’ resources squeezed, many authors opt to hire independent publicists to help get news and reviews once their book is out.

Still, chances are you’ll lose sleep wondering whether your manuscript consultant was right in suggesting you cut the scene you slaved over for months – and whether you should take his advice or ignore it. Or whether the independent publicist you hired is doing anything at all. So you enter your outsourcing arrangements determined to take what the pros you’ve hired say with a grain of salt and to keep a very close eye on them so they get it right.

As one who now sits on the “outsourced” side of this equation, I have seen that, paradoxically, this reluctance to let go is exactly where real disappointment begins. Because by definition, outsourcing means entrusting a project to somebody else, and letting go. Embedded in “entrusting” is trust.  Trusting the person or people you’ve hired empowers them to do their very best. On the flip side, not trusting them will result in immense frustration on all sides. And frustration is not the ideal backdrop for success.

Let’s take website design for example. I am personally guilty of not having let go here, even after hiring an outstanding, reputable firm. Through the building of two separate sites, I proceeded to second guess every graphic and every color the designer chose. Rather than complete the job in three rounds of back-and-forth, the designer needed almost ten rounds to accommodate my changes and directives. Over time he grew frustrated with my onslaught of requests. After a while he stopped trying to convince me of why my choices weren’t working and just did what I asked. The project wound up costing nearly twice the initial estimate, and after barely 18 months of having the site up and running, I see that he was right and wish I could redo it.

As a provider myself, I understand his frustration. Going back and forth with authors in response to questions about why I’m reaching out to one particular reporter instead of another at, say, the Boston Globe, or being given to-do lists and asked to account for each item takes time and energy away from doing my job and doing it well. At times, I have found myself slipping into the same mode as my website designer: that is, doing what a client instructs me to do simply to keep the peace, even if I know the results won’t be as good as they would have been if I’d followed my gut. All the while feeling somewhat resigned to having my hands tied or having to explain my every move — thus somewhat disempowered, and less motivated to give it my all.

In contrast, the most successful campaigns I’ve led have been those where an author gives my team and me carte blanche to do our thing. In those cases, the pure joy and excitement of being able to exercise our creativity on the job almost always snowballs into amazing results – including some wonderful surprises. I’ve heard cover designers, independent editors and social media specialists say the same.

That’s why I’m convinced it’s incredibly important for writers to learn to let go. True, as writers we value our solitude and the control we have over our work. But for our work to have broader appeal, to speak broadly to readers and to transcend our immediate networks, we will have no choice but to outsource at least certain core tasks at some point.  After all, it takes a village to create a great book and bring it out into the world.

How, then, can we bridge the chasm between solitary creation and outsourcing? Here’s my take:

Hire people you trust. Vet the professionals you hire through word of mouth, references and work samples. Take the time you need to talk with them before signing the dotted line. This is something they should be willing to do. If not: red flag.

Trust the people you hire. Once you’ve made a choice, commit to trusting those whose help you’ve enlisted. You hired them for their knowledge and skills. If you’re feeling a lack of trust, ask yourself whether it is founded on something real –for example, their behavior — or whether in fact it may stem simply from anxiety.

Accept that no two providers are the same. Just as no two authors will write the same book, no two designers, copy editors, social media pros or publicists can possibly yield the same results. Having made a choice, accept that the person you have selected will bring his or her own unique gifts and perspective and will deliver results that reflect these.

Resist the urge to micromanage. Micromanaging suggests a lack of trust, will take your provider’s time away from other, more strategic tasks, will take your time away from the things you do best and will inevitably lead to frustration on both sides.

Remember: There is no such thing as perfect. Each and every provider you choose to work with WILL have flaws. But remember: each one will also be able to make something wonderful happen that nobody else could.

Having made these choices, let go and put your time to use doing what you do best. Then see where your provider’s talents take you.

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