Staying Ahead of the Curve in Publishing
By Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Chief Executive Optimist, Digital Book World
My first job in publishing came via a temporary assignment at K-III Directory Corp., publishers (at the time) of a variety of business-to-business periodicals and directories, including Pacific Shipper, The Pocket List of Railroad Officials and Musical America. What started out as a two-week stint in their Accounts Receivable department led to an open-ended assignment in their Circulation Department, which eventually led to a full-time job as a Circulation Manager after I seized an opportunity to teach myself QuickFill and took over for a departing staffer.
That was back in the mid-90s, when I was fresh out of the Army and knew as much about the publishing industry as I did about cars.
Despite having spent two years in Ft. Campbell, KY as a Light Wheel Vehicle Mechanic, I’d only learned how to change an oil filter and break down a tire, but perhaps the most important skill I gained was getting access to a computer at every possible opportunity and learning my way around DOS and Windows, WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3 and Harvard Graphics.
Nearly 20 years later, I built this website you’re currently reading, using WordPress and Darren Hoyt’s free MIMBO theme, in less than two weeks.
Having grown up in the 70s and 80s, in the midst of the personal computer and video game explosion, I find the label “Born-Digital Generation” almost as narrow-minded and silly as I did “Generation X” when it first started being thrown around to label my generational cohort. While I took “Keyboarding” in High School, learning to hunt-and-peck on an electric typewriter, I was also using my Commodore 64 and the desktop publishing suite, “The Newsroom”, to publish my own newsletter for my fantasy football league. (USA Today‘s Sports section was a godsend for manual scorekeeping back then!)
Throughout the 90s, I had a Compuserve email address that was all numbers; I had a personal website in the SoHo neighborhood of Geocities (and later, built one for my poetry series); and for the briefest of moments, I was the equivalent of many of today’s social media “gurus”, designing static websites for people too lazy to learn basic HTML for themselves.
Like the alleged slackers of “Generation X”, “Born-Digital” feels like another lazy, mass-media categorization designed to make some marketers’ cookie-cutter ad campaign look good on paper, while offering older generations a handy excuse for not staying ahead of the curve themselves.
Two great posts popped up today related to careers in publishing and how things have (and haven’t really) changed since I fell into the industry back in 1993, one from Zinio’s Andrew Malkin at Publishing Perspectives, the other from Tor.com’s Pablo Defendini at The New Sleekness. Despite a good 15 years, give or take, separating the three of us (I’m declaring Andrew the oldest and Pablo the youngest), there’s a common thread running through our varied experiences.
Don’t get stuck into a schedule or have one role only in mind for your career ascension. Definitely keep a goal in mind but remain flexible and open-minded. I’ve known people who were promoted well before they expected it, and those who finally received a well-deserved nod after several years. Thinking at age 28 that you will be in a given role at “X” salary with “Y” responsibility only puts pressure on yourself. Remember, most of life’s events aren’t scheduled.
During my tenure at JWT and other agencies, I saw art directors mostly take one of three tacks to attack the problem of their suddenly impending obsolescence:
a) hire a bright young thing to translate their hand-crafted comps into electronic desktop publishing files,
b) hunker down, learn the new tools of the trade, and become proficient in the new lingua franca of creative production, or
c) sit back with their head in the sand, coast on their reputations (and their sometimes exorbitant paychecks), complain loudly about how computers were destroying their livelihood, or how they were just a fad or trend, and would soon pass.
In an earlier post, also at The New Sleekness, Chelsea Green’s Kate Rados touched on the same theme, offering some excellent advice for publishing professionals looking to learn the digital side of the business:
Be A Sponge. To be a digital whatever [eg: Digital Marketer, Online Director, Digital Evangelist, Webmaster, Director of Digital Initiatives (zing!), eCommerce Dev Guru, Digi-Ninja, Gary Vaynerchuk], you have to absorb every bit of material pertinent to the industry. Read every pundit blog post (yes, even Godin). Read Twitter feeds of smart publishing people. Read Tech blogs, especially those outside of publishing. Attend every conference your budget will allow, especially those outside of publishing. There are free webinars, tweet-ups, networking lunches, working groups, party lines, soul trains, world of warcraft meetings…ok, getting carried away. Just be there and be ready to learn.
As Kate notes, “It’s not for the weak-hearted. Nor for the wallflower. ” But if you’re serious about ensuring you have a role to play in a transformed publishing industry, then having an insatiable mind and a passion for and curiosity about the broader industry are critical.
And being pro-active is important, too.
Don’t wait for the dust to settle — stay ahead of the curve; jump in feet-first and explore new opportunities; get your hands dirty and decide for yourself the career you want to have.
The alternative is having that decision made for you, but I’m pretty sure that anyone reading this doesn’t see that as a legitimate option.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez is the Chief Executive Optimist for Digital Book World.