What have they done to my Blue Book? My adventure as a published author.

I was noticing recently that over at the Dakota Free Press, that the Secretary of State’s office has returned to a practice that I bemoaned and refused to do while I was there – The full page vanity photo in the Blue Book Legislative Manual. I hadn’t bothered to read the latest edition, but now, I had it staring me in my face, so I was forced to go look.

The Vanity Photos are back? Aargh! What have they done to my Blue Book?

2011_blue_book_coverWith tongue firmly in cheek, I refer to it as “my book,” as during my tenure with the office, I wrote/compiled the 2011 book, which ultimately was issued as the “2011 South Dakota Legislative Manual”  or 2011 Blue Book.  Yes, that one. The sole softbound Blue Book in a century old lineup of hard bound volumes.

I’ve seen one or two people grumble about it, as if the world will stop turning if a state issued book is issued in a soft-bound versus a  hard-bound version. But there was a reason for it which I fought for because it was important in attempting to transform the concept behind the book from a vanity publication handed out to legislators, state agencies, libraries, and election nerds into an almanac and valuable reference of state information.

The genesis of being handed the book came about as one of those “duties as assigned” duties, where I was in charge of publications and printing, and this was a publication.  Probably the only publication bigger than a brochure, or election results booklet.

Yes, it is a book. A big book.

In looking at what was left in the office for files from previous editions, there were massive Microsoft Word documents in a folder and computer files that needed to be reviewed, and revised, along with collecting new information that needed to be gone through.  So, I sent out a nice e-mail to legislators that asked them to provide biographical information for the Blue Book, or update the information that they currently had, which they could find at a certain link, etc.

Most all got back to me quickly, so we could start the process of slogging through 105 bio’s, edits, and re-edits. I say most got back to me quickly, because Stan Adelstein chose the moment to send a blast e-mail to every legislator on the list, angrily demanding that none of his information be changed, etcetera, and so on. Which was probably the mildest thing he ranted about.

In other words, he was using the occasion to be a horses ass. I don’t think that was lost on his colleagues, whose responses to me varied from “Oh, Stan,” to privately offering me more pointed commentary.  I went ahead and changed his bio anyway, for historic accuracy, as his bio in the previous edition skipped over the gap in his service where he was beaten in a primary. Yeah, I didn’t miss that one.

Anyway, it was in the midst of this process when the office started to receive legislative manuals from other states.  And I noticed something about these books from other places. These weren’t the books which collected dust on the shelves of offices for decades at a time, until someone cleaned or died. They actually had useful information. They were directories, with phone numbers, and contact information. There were no massive page sized vanity photos of their elected officials.

These books actually looked like directories or almanacs. They didn’t look like they’d been printed off of MS Word on a state contracted Hewlett-Packard printer.  (Whirrr…. chunk. page 1. Whirr…. chunk… page 2) They looked like an honest-to-god reference volume that people used all the time. And from there, a genesis of an idea was sprung. God forbid – I wanted to actually make the Blue Book relevant.

We took a hard look at what the Blue Book required under state law, and were able to focus more closely on what we had to have, versus what had been in past volumes. And having been/being in the business of printing in my personal time, I knew that we could do better.  At that time, the office bought a license for the Adobe suite, which allowed concepts like layout, photo editing, typography, font kerning, and all those little things to enter into the picture.

Maybe….. just maybe…. we even could go from one column to two columns in places.  And we could dump the vanity photos.

Those vanity photos were actually a pet peeve, as they served no purpose, except to up the page count. You can’t tell me that John Thune, or Marty Jackley, or at the time Tim Johnson really care about whether their photo in the South Dakota Legislative Manual was a full page versus a 1/4 page, which is what I reduced them to.

In reviewing the books for other states, aside from a lack of vanity photos, we noticed a few things, such as the use of columns. They also used smaller fonts, which did not look like the larger fonts contained in South Dakota’s Blue Books. Even some of South Dakota’s older volumes before the days of desktop publishing would often use a smaller typeface.

There was change afoot.

Pressing forward in writing the book, there was a portion of the book that proved to be a tough nut to crack. Which I never managed to. The history portion of the Blue Book.

Looking at past volumes, the history portion of the blue book would vary wildly from short sentences in the early time of the state’s history to more recent times where is would encompass pages and pages in more recent history.  And the more recent history would include things that had nothing to do with South Dakota. We could do a better job of chronicling our State’s History than that. Couldn’t we?

Apparently not.  I contacted university history departments, professors, and others, desperately seeking an editor, or someone in the field who would want to ensure that going forward, we’d leave an accurate snapshot of our state’s events in particular years.  And no one was interested. At all.

The responses ranged from polite “thank you, but no, I don’t have the time,” to snippy comments about teacher pay.  Because a middle manager in the Secretary of State’s office has control over what you’re paid? Really?   So, we did the best we could do, and tried to parse a bit, and I had others temper my tendency towards verbosity.

The rest of the book came together a bit more smoothly. The State Bureau of Administration (Who I’ll talk about later) was gracious enough to hook me our with a couple of photographers in state government who did absolute yeoman’s work in photographing, and allowing the Secretary of State’s office to use their photos in the book. They made the portion of the book about state buildings happen. For their part, they were given photo credit in the 2011 South Dakota Blue Book, and in the 2013 edition which came after my time when they were used again.

In keeping with the goal of making over the blue book into a useful reference, we went beyond the information provided in past volumes, and added contact information for elected officials that was new to the 2011 edition.  We added contacts information, addresses, and dates that terms ended for County Officials.  For the first time, we added e-mail or website contacts for elected officials. And it was arranged in a format that was far easier to read than prior editions, allowing people to pick out information.

There were various other chores, such as gathering more information & photos, taking photos, obtaining information from the state archives, etcetera. And despite the occasional bump in the road (apparently many Judges don’t have pictures suitable for reproduction), the 2011 edition was really coming together.

Along with the information coming together, based on what other states were doing, and how the book could be modernized, I pressed hard for it to be a softbound cover. It was cheaper than hardbound by around $2000, and had other advantages. It was physically smaller to store. And that actually came up.

One thing that was discovered during the time of assembling the book and going to trying to make it more useful was how many books actually didn’t sell. I had to find an old one one day, and contacted the Bureau of Administration for it. And they informed me that they’d had quite a few old books taking up space for years.

Yes, they’d already been distributed to libraries, and every other place under the sun. But, they’d been ordered as they had always been for years… and nobody wanted them as they had in the past. So the pile of old books grew, and grew, and grew. Now it was pallets, and not piles.

We pared down the order list, and based it on the distribution list in statute, and what BOA had sent out in the past.  And a smaller softbound edition was not only cheaper to print, and easier to store, but it was less expensive to mail.

Yes, I was a pest about it, and pressed my case for it at every opportunity. And based on the economics of it in a time when things were pretty lean in State Government, I was able to argue it successfully.  So, softbound Blue Book haters, you can blame me.

Was it perfect? No. I wanted to do so more things with the reference portion of it, such as including more information on local divisions of government, such as municipalities and school districts. But, when you’re doing one of these things, you can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. You also have a deadline, and you can build on it the next time.

Yeah – We can do that in the next one!

Or, maybe not.

For better or worse, there was no 2013 edition in my future, as I made the decision to leave the office in mid 2012. Both I and my wife were sick of me living in my Dad’s basement, and commuting home to see the family every weekend. My ‘old friend’ Sen. Adelstein was taking every bit of silliness & rumor he could find on the Internet about me, forwarding it to the AG, and demanding it be investigated. Ugh. To say the least, I was not enjoying my job anymore.

I took a brief vacation in early July of 2012, and that was probably my downfall. I found that going back to work was the absolute last thing I wanted to do in the world. So I got back, and told the boss that I was going home.   A couple of weeks later, after going through 60,000 of my e-mails, and a million of the offices’ computer files, the AG concurred that none of Stan’s allegations were founded. At all. And Stan later begrudgingly admitted it might have been a vendetta against me.

But, I had already submitted my papers, turned in my keys, and was already moving furniture. And officially, the 2013 edition of the Blue Book was officially someone else’s task.   I got to come home and returned to writing South Dakota’s #1 Political Web Site.

For the 2013 edition, I was pleased to see they kept much of the interior format, although, they made the decision to go back to the hardbound edition. I ribbed Secretary Gant a little about it, but he’s even more of a South Dakota history buff than I am, and he opted for tradition.  I’m sure I would have argued with him about it if I was still there.

Even so, the 2011 edition remains something I remember with the most fondness of my time there, representing a minor footnote to an even more minor historical reference volume while I was there.  You won’t find an editing credit in the book for me. It was the Blue Book for the office, and designed with the intent of it being “for the people.”

It wasn’t the first print project I’d worked on, and it wouldn’t be the last. We had started the genesis of the discussion for the update on the compiled election results for the last 125 years, as it had been around 25 – 30 years since the last one was done by the SOS. It wasn’t a statutory requirement, but something the office did as the custodian of the Government’s records.

And there were other projects, but this is one I will always remember. My adventure as a published author. An actual book.

Within the broad confines of the law, every Secretary of State is given free reign to do with the Blue Book what they will in terms of design, layout, format, and more. Secretary of State Shantel Krebs chose to go back to the layout of the Blue Book as it had been before my time, and that’s absolutely her prerogative.   I know how difficult it is to assemble the darn thing, and more power to her for getting it finished.

But, I can’t also help but find myself a little melancholy for the book and the hopes of transforming it into something with loftier goals in mind.

Blue Book forward As noted in the forward of the 2011 book:

Gone are the page sized photos of elected officials in favor a smaller photo, with more emphasis on direct contact information; to allow the taxpayers of our state to reach out and communicate with the people they’ve elected to office.

As opposed to the prior volumes which sit on many shelves with little use, this edition is intended to be a reference for daily use. It is designed to give everyone the ability to send their elected representatives a message at a moment’s notice.

On behalf of the State of South Dakota, I am very proud to dedicate this years’ blue book to our spirit of open government.

It will be interesting to see how the Secretary of State’s office treats the book in upcoming years. A bill – HB 1009 – has already been pre-filed to drastically cut the already limited number of books produced and to allow electronic distribution, as well as some limited hard bound editions in “a price set by the Secretary of State.”

I know how much time goes into the darned thing. I suspect that compiling and printing the manual might be viewed by some as a bit of a chore. But, I can’t help but think that even in the time of the Internet, there is value in the permanence of books.

And maybe HB 1009 could be amended from the Blue Book being a statutory chore, and transformed into an opportunity. An opportunity for more accessibility, for open government, and a greater ability for the common man to reach out to their elected officials at every level of government.

At the very least, let’s get rid of the vanity photos. They are the worst.

4 Replies to “What have they done to my Blue Book? My adventure as a published author.”

  1. Anonymous

    Vanity photos? Like the photos included with the press releases from Thune, Noem and Rounds?

    1. Pat Powers

      Vanity photos as in the full page ones. I add the photos and headers to releases, because studies show that articles with pictures are read more.

      Don’t like them, don’t read them.

  2. Anonymous

    Since those books are a snapshot in history I think that those pictures are not to big of a deal. If feel that in 30 years i will like knowing what my AG and Governor looked like.

    Maybe others won’t but why not make sure they have a good picture.