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Magical thinking and the end of publishing

by John Pettigrew

‘Magical thinking’ is allowing our own ignorance of a topic to give us the impression that there’s something special, ‘magical’ about the people who do understand it. It’s a common failing but it’s having an unfortunate effect on the publishing industry’s approach to ‘digital technology’. And some critical shortsighted mistakes are being made as a result.

There are surely fewer more ridiculous terms used in publishing than ‘digital natives’ – apparently, people in their teens and twenties who have grown up with technology and so ‘get it’ in ways that older people don’t. The assumption that all people in their 40s, 50s or older somehow don’t ‘get’ technology (especially odd given that this is the generation that invented most of it!) is just wrong. After all, the fact that I grew up with cars and learned to drive one as soon as I could doesn’t mean that I could make one, or even begin to fix anything but the simplest issues when it breaks down!

Why, then, do we talk as though ‘young people’ somehow have a magical grasp of technology that older people don’t?

Magical thinking

We see magical thinking all over the place, but perhaps especially with subjects that are perceived as difficult – finance, science, technology. Because it looks difficult to us (who don’t understand it), we overestimate the difficulty of the subject.

This can have two opposite unfortunate effects. The first is when we undervalue or even devalue the subject area – because we don’t understand it, it must not be very important, and those people who do think about it are somehow lacking in finer feelings or social niceties or whatever. This approach is often associated with perceptions of Maths, Science and Engineering. We hear, “Oh, well, I don’t understand Maths” used almost as a badge of pride – in a way we’d never hear, “Oh, well, I don’t really understand literature.”

Ghetto mentality

The opposite tendency, though, is the one that seems to surround ‘digital’ for publishing folk. We see companies getting rid of all established Production, Editorial and even Marketing teams, and replacing them with young people, ‘digital natives’, who ‘get it’ in a way that the previous team apparently didn’t. (My belief is that the team that’s really not ‘getting it’ is actually Management – because they’re treating it like magic.)

I would be the first to say that we all have to learn a lot, all through our lives, and digital is the same. But placing huge and undue emphasis on ‘digital’ skills too often just ends up treating ‘digital native’ as ‘someone who uses Facebook and Snapchat’. And that, by itself, would be no help to someone working in a rapidly changing publishing world. Even when we mean ‘someone who can code a website or an application’, it still misses the point.

If we don’t understand something ourselves, how can we create a team who will bring these skills into our business? Only by finding people who already combine both skill sets already, and then trusting them to do the job without interference.

The point

The point is that ‘digital skills’ are actually pretty easy to learn. Like most areas where we use magical thinking, there’s actually nothing very hard going on. The issue’s usually just one of interest!

Where we should be investing our time and effort is in identifying and retaining the skills and aptitudes that are actually hard to find and particularly valuable for the publishing business. It’s pretty easy to teach an experienced editor the knowledge and skills they need to deal with digital products (once we’ve worked out which ones we’re going to publish). What’s much harder is being a good editor in the first place!

By getting rid of the experienced editors, companies are making a double mistake. First, they are robbing themselves of the skills they need right now to keep making winning products – market knowledge, an understanding of how content works, and especially the mindset that quality matters. Second, they are setting themselves up for a future world where the key skills that will matter in publishing success (of creating worthwhile content, while simultaneously eliminating the people who can actually create that content) without the people who have experience at doing it.

In other words, these companies are actively creating their own future competition, as experienced Editorial, Production and Marketing (etc.) staff find themselves on the outside. Many are setting up their own businesses, working directly with the up-and-coming self-publishing authors who need these skills.

‘Publishing’ will survive, and editors will survive. But businesses that rob themselves of core skills because of magical thinking? Not so much.

About the author

Hat wearer, recovering editor and now CEO & Founder of We Are Futureproofs, John Pettigrew has over 15 years of experience in educational, illustrated and academic publishing, and a history of successful print and digital product development.

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Comments

 Meri – February 24, 2015

Hi John,
I’m the person you say next to at that Groucho Club event, here to prove I read your blog just as I claimed 🙂 Really enjoyed this post — I never questioned the whole ‘digital native’ myth but I do now.

     John Pettigrew – February 24, 2015

    Hi, Meri – good to ‘see’ you again! I never doubted you. 🙂

    Glad to hear that the post caused you to think, and rethink!

 Judyth Mermelstein – February 24, 2015

Spot on! But often the management types you refer to are themselves the MBAs of the 1980s and later who are not only unaware that older editors have been adapting to new technologies as they arose since the mainframe era, but seem not to realize that many of us know and use social media at least as well as the younger folk.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that they are simply uncomfortable about dealing with older people who are outside of corporate management and have skills whose impact on ROI can’t easily be calculated on a spreadsheet. The insistence on quantifying everything that leads to the bottom line means contributions that must be evaluated rather than counted and graphed (as in numbers of sales or “hits”) are assumed to be unimportant. Meanwhile, most managers’ technology skills are limited to intermediate use of Microsoft Office and rely on IT support for anything else, which makes it rather ironic that the people they are “downsizing” are often those accustomed to learning new software and customizing it as needed to suit the publishing process in use. “Magical thinking” it may be, but I would call it ignorance of the kind that doesn’t acknowledge how much it doesn’t know.

     John Pettigrew – February 26, 2015

    Thanks for the great comments, Judyth. It is indeed rather depressing when someone who can barely use a word processor is somehow thought to be capable of deciding a company’s digital strategy. The refusal to acknowledge the limits of your own understanding is definitely a part of it, I agree.

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