The day a publisher discovered a promising project in my portfolio
The typical project cycle for me, back when I was student studying graphic design, always ended the same way: Submit the final project on the due date, receive the grade feedback from the professor, then photograph the work to upload to my online portfolio, and move on to the next project.
Until one day, when a book publisher representative on the other side of the country discovered a humble but imaginative book project in my portfolio; and proceeded to message me…
My name is Aaron Downey. I’m the managing editor of Rio Nuevo Publishers in Tucson, Arizona. Your Navajo Code Talker Manual looks really cool; glad I stumbled across it. Do you think that’s something that you would consider modifying into a book format for publication? This is a project I would love to pitch to my boss. We are a wing of a distribution company that does a lot of business on the Navajo reservation. Please let me know what you think.
I hadn’t given this book project a second thought in the three years since my graduation; but thanks to the wonder of the internet—and the peculiar mystery of search algorithms—my project was elevated to the top search results for this day.
The book project was an overview of the Navajo Code Talker Marines. Men from the Navajo Indian tribe served in WWII, and were given the task of creating a code using their language; this was developed into a system used by more than 400 fellow Navajos to relay valuable information during the war. Their coded language was so unique and complex the enemy forces were never able to break it.
After I responded very enthusiastically to the initial message from Aaron, the publisher managing editor, he reminded me that he still needed to pitch the book idea to his boss, but he was impressed with the originality of my project and he was confident in its potential.
The company I worked with was Rio Nuevo Publishers, based out of Tucson, Arizona. I knew they were a perfect fit when I learned that they have a close relationship to the native community of the Navajo peoples, and they have a passion to produce books and materials that honor and preserve their rich heritage. I immediately understood now why my project attracted their interest so quickly.
A few days later I received a new message from the editor—we got the approval! Contract discussions commenced (which I was wholly unprepared to navigate, but quickly tried to educate myself with some brief research online so I didn’t sign away all my rights to my work). Aaron was super understanding and helpful to walk me through their terms, and he genuinely wanted me to feel comfortable signing with Rio Nuevo. I think this was a big benefit of working with a smaller scale publisher rather than a large corporation—they took the time to walk me through the process.
The Rio Nuevo team was committed to publish the book in a manner that would be as true to the original as possible.
The editing process to transform my original student project into a print-ready proof was slow but steady. The Rio Nuevo team was committed to publish the book in a manner that would be as true to the original as possible — including custom paper stocks, the unorthodox vertical book orientation, and expressive typography layouts. I was ecstatic that they wanted to publish the book as I had imagined it, and they went to great lengths to negotiate with their print production house to make the production accurate and affordable.
They took the reins to revise all of the text throughout the book, since my original project was a collection of paraphrases and cited sources that was lacking in continuity, not to mention originality. As part of the editing process, I even had my book reviewed by the daughter of one of the original 29 Code Talkers, who is working on her PhD about the code! They were very conscientious to respect the flow of my design and book concept, so replacing the text did not have a massive impact on layout changes.
It was fulfilling for me to meticulously reimagine each of the layouts.
I enjoyed the challenge of opening up the old design files from the project I had wrapped up years ago and evaluating how I could improve the design further. The publisher was very amicable and receptive to give me freedom to change the page layouts as I saw fit. It was fulfilling for me to meticulously reimagine each of the layouts. Everything was up for critique: font choices, page layouts, paper craft, and the occasional grunge texture for realism. As Steve Jobs is famous for saying, “Details matter, it’s worth waiting to get it right.” My goal was to make the book more dynamic and engaging for the reader—a book worthy of being published!
It was a surreal moment to let that reality sink in. I was now a published author.
The long-awaited day finally arrived. On the 12th of August in 2019, a full year and a half after the first message from Rio Nuevo, I received in the mail a stack of shrink-wrapped books with a familiar cover design — my published book had arrived. A packaging slip included in the box designated these as “Author Copies.”
It was a surreal moment to let that reality sink in. I was now a published author. Albeit by a series of unexpected events that only God himself could orchestrate.
The original project had such humble and ordinary beginnings as a university assignment, but now the Navajo Code Talker Manual can be enjoyed by people all over the world.
So that’s my story. I hope it sparks some hope and idealism for you that if you work hard to craft excellent work and post it on the internet, you may find yourself with a message in your inbox one day from someone who sees potential in your idea.
And that’s a message worth responding to.
P.S. I was recently interviewed by the Gallup Sun Newspaper about my book. You can read the interview on their website here.