“If the people who make the decisions are the people who will also bear the consequences of those decisions, perhaps better decisions will result.”
John Abrams, The Company We Keep: Reinventing Small Business for People, Community and Place
I hate pundits.
[ETA: Maybe I should have said I hate Twitter? Update at the end of the post.]
Whether in politics, sports or publishing, on radio, TV or Twitter, they’re the know-it-alls who usually have no skin in the game, no accountability and, worse, no interest in seeing the big picture. They love to hear themselves talk, to offer their opinions on how things should be done, and to stir things up just to see what happens.
They also tend to love motivational quotes, dropping them into their speeches, and blogs, and tweets as if they were offering actionable advice and original insights; precious wine from water for the thirsty!
“Meh,” I say. “Meh.”
One of my favorite memes these days is that eBooks are teh future, and that publishers who aren’t jumping on the bandwagon are… well, stupid and deserve to go out of business. Most of these Ann Caterwaulers and Glenn Blechs of publishing have little to no real experience actually working in publishing, nor any public recognition that, as Richard Curtis noted, “Ebook publishing is fiendishly complicated.”
“The people running a new venture need to be free to do what’s best for that business, regardless of the potential impact on the old.”
@BookOven [see update below for attribution]
It was partly because of its cavalier dismissal of “the potential impact” — aka, collateral damage, people losing their jobs and livelihoods; not unlike eminent domain — but also because it’s the kind of broad, meaningless statement pundits love that lacks any nuance and rakes in the speaking fees. As if there’s no difference between a pure start-up and an established company transforming its core business.
What’s “best for that business” can’t be looked at in a vacuum unless it’s wholly self-supporting, and most “new venture” revenues in publishing tend to represent a fraction of the “old”, while being completely dependent upon its continued existence to grow.
I’m all for aggressive transformation and strategically seizing upon new opportunities, especially when the old ways have become increasingly less profitable, and I would go crazy working for a publisher that refused to acknowledge that times are changing fast. It seems like there are a lot of them, but only they know what internal discussions are and aren’t happening, and what “fiendish” complications lie in their path.
The Internet is littered with companies that tried to run before they could walk.
In his notes from Clay Shirky’s lecture at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, Ryan Chapman noted some of the more interesting issues related to ebooks that go way beyond the topics du jour of pricing, prioritization and piracy:
But what will define ebooks two years from now will be the nth level changes, such as: What new tools will we use now that author/book discoverability is on par with the crowded field of blogs and the rest of the internet? Which literary forms will pop up with such a low barrier to entry for writers to find their micro-communities? With an increase in noise, will the value of editors increase as the value of authorship decrease? Etc.
Every publishers’ digital challenges are going to be different. Some are much further behind the curve than others; some are able to make adjustments much faster than others. There are no magic bullets, no one-size-fits-all solutions, no motivational quotes that will alter reality and simplify the transition.
As such, the gleeful snipers with all of the answers taking potshots from their comfortable armchairs get really tiresome after awhile, especially when they have no skin in the game, and they’re not going to be held accountable for their ideas when they result in another round of layoffs or outright bankruptcy.
Decisions that are made “regardless of the potential impact” are, as Abrams implied, rarely made by those who would actually “bear the consequences of those decisions”.
UPDATED: Thanks to Mark for passing along the link for the source of the quote @Bookoven posted that indirectly sparked this post, John Temple’s insightful “Lessons from the Rocky Mountain News“. It’s a worthwhile read that largely falls into the “hindsight is 20/20” category and doesn’t qualify as the kind of punditry I was ranting about in this post; there’s also some clear takeaways for those in book publishing to mull over.
The point Temple was making in the quote, though, was related to the particularly complicated issues of unionization in the newspaper industry, and it’s really a subordinate point to the larger (and much more important) questions of strategy and purpose: “You have to have a strategy and you have to be committed to pursuing it.”
My core argument still stands: the new doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and the rules are very different for a start-up than for an existing company trying to transform itself.
Also, pundits (and Twitter) should be taken with a huge grain of salt!