Long-term thinking is hard, but it rests on some simple foundations. It’s too easy to lose your respect for key skills these days, with all the shiny toys we’re surrounded with. But don’t lose your love for the business.
I’ve worked for a few different publishers over the years, as both an employee and a freelancer, and there is one factor more than any other that determined whether I liked the job.
It’s not money.
It’s not workload.
It’s often said that people who work in publishing don’t do it for the money (because the pay’s often pretty poor) but because they love books. There’s often a passion in a publishing team that transforms the work from drudgery to joy – or, at least, that helps you remember that you’re involved in creating something of lasting worth. Something that will entertain, or educate, or uplift.
And this passion is a big part of why I love working in publishing. Because, whatever our part on the process, we know that we’re involved in something greater and higher than ourselves. Even when the task of the moment is perhaps falling short of that lofty goal, when the current project is stodgy or a cash-in, we know that the next one might be better.
However, there’s one thing that kills teams faster than any other: being devalued by your management. This can be overt, in poor wages or working conditions, or it can be more subtle – as when we keep being told that the future belongs to new, different, digital people.
When publishing companies are filled with skilled, passionate people who care about their work, it’s disheartening to see everything they do dismissed. It shouldn’t happen, but too many apologists for a ‘digital transformation’ say that the future for publishing means getting rid of the old and replacing it with bright young things who ‘get’ digital. I’ve seen editorial teams gutted and replaced, or production teams made redundant and their work sent off-shore.
The flaw with this isn’t just the issue of digital training I touched on in my last post – and, as I said, I think that digital is bringing great and positive changes to the publishing business. But there’s a big problem with the long-term survival of our business if we lose everything that made us successful in the past.
Publishing has many unusual features, some good and some bad. But one that can’t be got around is that it involves long-term thinking. Individual books might only be around for a few months or years, but authors (hopefully) last for decades. Brands are built slowly and can be destroyed quickly. So, we need to value continuity – which means staff who are around for the long haul, so that we don’t act like businesses with brain damage, with no long-term memory.
Whether we think about novelists who write a book or two a year (or even in a lifetime), or whether we think about a non-fiction business trying to build a community of readers, some things just take time. And you have to have people in the business who remember what was done two years ago, or five, or twenty.
This is because it takes time to understand something deeply. If your company only employs people who for long enough understand the business in a shallow way, they’ll make the same mistakes every couple of years. If you can keep people for a decade, they’ll help you make fewer mistakes – and keep hold of your successes.
The only way to keep people for the long term is to make them feel valued. And you can’t do that if you don’t respect them, honour their skills and help them to learn new ones as they’re needed.
None of us can stand still. But the wise person builds on a solid foundation. Only a fool builds their house on the shifting sands of current trends and fly-by-night staff.