Publishing is a Community Service

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Only those who know nothing of the history of technology believe that a technology is entirely neutral… Each technology has an agenda of its own. It is, as I have suggested, a metaphor waiting to unfold.

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

There’s a lot of hand-wringing and finger-pointing happening in publishing these days, both by those struggling to find solutions to the challenges the industry faces, and by various Joker-pundits who apparently “just want to see the world burn.” Demagogues and idealogues love the spotlight, and attention-seeking media outlets happily provide them a stage to stoke faux controversies over what’s not being done, or is being done wrong, yelling loudly about the inevitable end of publishing as we know it!

Personally, I’m pretty confident that the end is not near; in fact, I’m very optimistic that new generations of readers will continue to be served by ambitious authors, passionate publishers, and brazen booksellers for many years to come. The individual players and channels may will change, of course, but that’s neither new nor a bad thing.

Change is good, inevitable, and in publishing, very necessary.

For all the talk of publishing’s supposedly imminent demise, there are far too many passionate people working in and around the industry, at every level, to let that happen. And whether they realize it or not, it doesn’t matter if they’re working for one of the major publishers or an independent press, in senior management or as an editor, author or bookseller — there’s a wide and fertile common ground we all share and it’s best represented by the community we all serve: the readers.

Ultimately, it’s readers’ changing habits that are driving the fundamental changes in the publishing industry — everything from the types of books they’re reading to the formats they prefer reading them in — and as a result, it’s the current business model of most publishers that’s under stress, not the community service of publishing itself.

I’m in Frankfurt this week for Tools of Change and the Book Fair, and I’m particularly excited about the opportunity to see Cory Doctorow, Richard Nash, Dominique Raccah, and the Pecha Kucha presentations at the former; and to get a glimpse of the global publishing community, including this year’s guest of honor, China, at the latter. I’m also here on behalf of Digital Book World, meeting some of our Advisory Board and sponsors, and getting feedback on the exciting program we’ve put together for the event in January.

Among the hot publishing topics of the moment, the eBook debate is perhaps the most torrid, and a particularly annoying one when it’s treated like a zero-sum game — Print vs. eBooks in a Battle to the Death! Death!! DEATH!!! It’s also fraught with larger implications for both publishers and authors alike that too many pundits willfully overlook (while pushing their own self-serving agendas), like DRM, international rights, and unequal access to information and technology.

Publishers are also facing the difficult question of justifying their role in the supply chain when the Internet has cracked the playing field wide open, making verticality a more viable model than it’s ever been, and enabling savvy authors and small presses to outmaneuver their larger, more established competitors.

On the flight over I caught up on some reading, a one-two punch of the July/August issue of the Harvard Business Review, and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death.

Postman’s must-read classic could easily have been written in 2009 about the current Internet era; many of his critiques of television apply doubly today, especially with regards to social media, and there are many interesting parallels to be made in the current “battle” of print vs. eBooks.

HBR‘s “Managing in the New World” special issue offered a thorough and insightful look at what’s changed and what needs to change for businesses to survive in 2010 and beyond, noting that, “An organization that depends solely on its senior managers to deal with the challenges risks failure.”

Coupled with that statement, perhaps the most relevant article in the issue is Henry Mitzenberg’s “Rebuilding Companies as Communities“, which argues that in order to succeed in the future, companies have to become places “where people are committed to one another and their enterprise.”

Leadership at the center. A robust community requires a form of leadership quite different from the models that have it driving transformation from the top. Community leaders see themselves as being in the center, reaching out rather than down. They facilitate change, recognizing that much of it must be driven by others.

This week, I’ll be giving a lot of thought to what I can do to help move the industry forward in a community-centric direction, and I already have a few intriguing ideas that will unfold over the coming months.

What are some of the things you’re doing from your vantage point to serve the publishing industry’s community of readers?

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3 thoughts on “Publishing is a Community Service

  1. Publishing is an odd community service in that everyone wants water to flow and wants to be published, but not that many people want to be famous for digging their own well.

  2. Look forward to reading Mitzenberg's article. Could not agree more. Importantly, I think there's a need to re-define community.

    In today's landscape most people see communities as being all like-minded people.

    The truth is to get anything done, it takes more than one function or expertise. For example, journalists are not going to figure out what will replace newspapers by themselves. And technology companies are not going to form a sustainable e-book market without collaborating with writers, and, oh by the way, readers.

    But technology enabling the proliferation of people publishing or broadcasting doesn't lend itself to community. When all voices are equal, but separate, community is scarce. Because to be heard, individuals choose to be loud and extreme. And often the easiest way to get attention is the story of what “they” did to “me.” Lots of mistrust. Very little “we” or sense of community.

    Katherine Warman Kern

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