Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Could it be that the structural obsolescence everyone’s been crowing about for the past decade—defeat at the hands of digital media,, etc.—would have been less painful than this, or at least more world-historically meaningful? What lies ahead instead is a necessary scaling back of ambition: an age in which the gambling spirit that has kept book publishing exciting gives way to a shabby, predictable environment that cows its participants into avoiding all things adventurous and allowing only the proven few a seat at the table.

Will the survivors envy the dead?

No! says John Oakes, who was an executive editor at the independent boutique Atlas Books before financial troubles there led him to leave the company earlier this fall. Mr. Oakes is working with a university in Manhattan on establishing a new summer training program for college graduates seeking careers in the publishing industry. Two such programs, both six weeks long, currently exist—one at Columbia, the other at New York University—and though between the two of them they already send more than 200 young people onto the job market every year, Mr. Oakes is confident there are still more eager beavers out there in need of training.

“From what I’ve seen of their operations, they seem grand, and really wonderful setups with great histories and some important people,” Mr. Oakes said Monday, shortly before flying off to the Frankfurt Book Fair. “But I think that a good overview can be provided in less time for less money, and these days, from what I understand, people seem to be concerned about their time and their money.”

Mr. Oakes envisions an intensive, “nimble” course, with guest speakers who work in the industry providing lessons on every aspect of the business, from design, manufacturing and digital distribution, to marketing, royalties and contracts.

“Particularly in rough times, this makes more sense than ever,” Mr. Oakes said when asked whether the course he’s developing amounts to sending lambs to the slaughter. “Jobs are hard to get, absolutely, but what was wonderful about publishing is still wonderful about publishing, in that it’s a mysterious and wonderful art. Some of the smartest people still stream into publishing, so a course like this can maybe prepare them for what to expect. And there are some jobs out there, and maybe via a program like this they can meet people that will help them get those few jobs that are available.”

I love hearing about the CPC - Lindy and Susan run a fantastic program, and honestly, all the voices in the media presenting them with unqualified praise would not be enough to do them justice. But what a strange article! The headline suggests that publishing is in trouble, that editors will take fewer risks with new writers. The first page of text says that advances will be inflated and book sections are shrinking. But the final section asks whether publishing is over, then has that Oakes quotation defying every point the article seemed to make. Does the Observer believe that our fresh energy injected into the industry will find ways to bring back book reviews and/or up book sales? How will we be able to do that?

We should probably have an online discussion board for CPC grads to discuss the best method to give life to the industry. Assuming, of course, that the industry needs life. Ick, so many death metaphors! This article is no help. When you argue the binary - publishing is either dead or alive - you shove aside some very important grey matter. People who declare publishing alive and well seem ungrounded in economic realities, and people who pronounce it dead seem to be dismissing it from any intellectual, cultural, or monetary potential.

The question is not DEAD OR ALIVE. The question is how to nurse it and nurture it and help it grow. I don't know whether we're nursing it from a new infancy after a digital rebirth or nursing it back to health after sick advances prompted by pressure by shareholders and the burst bubble of the 90s, but it doesn't really matter. Either way we're having a conversation about how to move forward.

Both sides have different senses of urgency. But they admit that a discussion needs to take place. So... let's go. What will we do first?

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