Almost three decades ago, I came to publishing through the back door. I had grown up writing, so production wasn’t the place I had thought I would land. But land in production I did. In many ways, though, it was a good fit. I had studied chemistry in college and focused on operations while in business school. At the time, production was less data-driven and more a matter of brute force.
It often surprised and sometimes amazed me that the processes used to create, manage and distribute content were peculiarly idiosyncratic and iterative. It struck me then (as now) that publishers competed on content and its availability, not on the way that it was created or managed.
When editors changed in the magazine business, processes and schedules would change with them. In book publishing, every title seemed to have its own story. Most of the people I worked with liked it that way, or at the least they said it had to be that way.
In the time (now 13 years) I’ve consulted on cross-platform workflow assignments, I’ve come to talk about my career as a “fight to eliminate checking in publishing”. When anyone asked me how it was going, I’d observe that I was about halfway done (with my career) and “it wasn’t looking very good”.
Today, I’m much more than halfway done, and the idea of building an effective and efficient publishing business has never seemed more remote.
The recent push to pass legislation to “stop” online piracy contrasts the dominance of those who innovate and compete with the declared needs of what Robert Levine describes as “the culture business”. His recent book is a call to restore order to the content universe by restricting sites like Google, YouTube and the Huffington Post.
There’s a telling passage (page 68 in the print version of Levine’s book) in which an agent laments the deal that record companies signed with Apple in the early 2000s. He says:
“They thought, ‘It’s another way to sell music.’ But now I’m selling singles when I should be selling albums.”
I’ll come back to Levine’s core arguments another time; they deserve a full assessment. But there’s no cultural birthright that provides media companies or content creators with a lock on the formats that people can choose from when legitimately purchasing content.
I bring this up because it seems to me that the idea of restricting Google or YouTube (a big part of the SOPA bill now being debated) or HuffPo parallels the arguments now going on about Amazon’s library and price-comparison initiatives.
We’re trying to restore the old order and a measure of scarcity by going to war with the supply chain for content management and distribution. That’s not a recipe for success. Neither is trying to create a parallel supply chain.
What publishers could still do, if they chose, is move from “write once, read once” to “write once, read many”. This would include thinking about ways to make content accessible and interoperable across platforms and with an eye to reuse as well as new uses.
Honestly, I’ve said or written all of this before. For a long time I’ve kept at it because (somewhat like Robert Levine) I believed that the so-called traditional media companies provided a social benefit that deserved special consideration.
At the most recent Books in Browsers meeting in October, I had a side conversation with someone who shares my interest in seeing a new approach to content creation and distribution. I started to talk about what I thought traditional publishers could do, and he stopped me mid-sentence to say, “I don’t want to see them figure out how to change; I want them to get out of the way so that the rest of us can get on with it.”
It’s funny how life turns out, but I’m starting to understand that point of view. Three decades of trying to make things incrementally better isn’t something I’d take back, but I admit weighing the odds of faith in the face of doubt.