Publishing is in turmoil and we fear the end of days. But this happens to our industry with surprising regularity. The key to survival is keeping tight hold of what is important from the past even as we experiment madly with the exciting possibilities of the future.
Back in the dawn of time, paper ruled and editors were strong and free. We stalked the concrete jungles and had enormous and very long lunches. But the environment changed, culture changed and, finally, computers changed all that. Even the products we work on don’t always look anything like what we used to think of as ‘books’, ‘magazines’ or ‘journals’.
The history of publishing is replete with these times of transition: the invention of the printing press; stereotype; paperbacks; desktop publishing. Each time, the industry wailed about ‘the end of publishing’ and longed for the old days of the status quo.
But every time, the industry has won through and survived. The books and stories were still there, often in even greater number than before. The profits were still there, often being taken by new players who had learned the new ways more quickly than the others. In the process, the industry itself has always changed. Sometimes in small things, other times in large things.
In all spheres of life, the tools we use define us as human beings, and we need to select our tools carefully. Stone tools gave way to iron. Scrolls gave way to books. Print gives way to digital, perhaps. As the saying goes: “To the man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
Too often, though, we’re given the tools by someone else and told to make do – which leads inevitably to Heath Robinson arrangements and complex workflows with manual check upon manual check upon manual check. Computers are supposed to make tasks easier, so why do we spend so long doing admin these days?
In my own experience, editorial and production teams are being asked to publish more books, more quickly, in more formats, with smaller teams and for less money. And this can’t go on for ever.
However, when we talk about innovation, about exciting new ideas, about growth, it’s rare to hear people focus on tools, systems and workflows. We prefer the sexy new thing, whether that’s smartphone apps, tablet interfaces or wearable devices. But I believe that one of the most important things we should be doing as an industry is looking at how we currently do our jobs, and looking for better solutions.
This problem annoyed me for years, as I ran editorial teams desperately trying to respond to the demands being placed on them by the business. To solve it, you need to really understand what people do now. Not in order to improve it (although that’s ultimately the point) but so that you understand WHY people do what they do.
I’ve spent the past year and a half working on Futureproofs, a platform to help publishing teams work more effectively on screen. We focus on the proofing stage – when a team that’s often spread around the world needs to work closely together to ensure the quality of the final product. So, as well as providing powerful but straightforward markup, we also support real-time collaboration, we report live data and we deliver it all through your web browser.
The point is that there’s no good reason for human beings to adapt their behaviour to the software. What we should be trying to do is to adapt our software to the needs and desires of the human beings we serve. There’s no reason for your job to become simply feeding the machine.
Because, after all, we’re facing the death of publishing – again. We’ve got new competitors squeezing us out of profitable sectors. Our environment itself is shifting, with the easy food being stolen by both small and nimble mammals and gigantic behemoths lumbering in from entirely different areas.
Every time publishing goes through an existential crisis, it’s an extinction event. Some companies wither away and die. Others get swallowed up and persist only as a name.
Remember, though that the dinosaurs survived for so long because they were superbly adapted to their environment. From the giants to the obscure specialists, they excelled at survival. And, despite popular opinion, they’re still with us. They just changed, learned new tricks and became hugely successful once again – as birds.
So, yes, search for new products, new customers and new ways of reaching them. But don’t neglect the basics. Don’t let your vital skills die by neglect – or deliberate sacrifice – unless you’re very sure that you’ve already developed the new skills to replace them. For if you outsource everything, you’ve nothing left to call your own. Nothing unique. Nothing competitive. Nothing worthy of survival at all.