Your Old Job in Publishing Doesn’t Exist

Don LinnBy Don Linn, former owner/CEO of Consortium Book Sales & Distribution

I had the good fortune to attend Firebrand Technologies‘ Community Conference (FBCC10) a couple of weeks ago in Newburyport, MA. It was a beautiful autumn week in New England, the conference was well-attended, the energy level was high, and there were some excellent conversations, both official and unofficial, over the two-day period.

The highlight of the conference for me was a brilliant presentation by Peter Brantley, whom many of you know as @naypinya on Twitter. Peter’s associated with the Internet Archive and is one of the most thoughtful people I know on the future of books, libraries, accessibility and other print-to-digital matters. While we don’t always agree, he’s a terrific guy and a great resource for people interested in those subjects. If you ever get a chance to see him give a presentation, please take advantage of the opportunity.

Peter’s presentation at FBCC10, “Organizational Fields and the Book Industry,” was a survey of the seismic disruption the book business is currently undergoing and its underlying causes. Peter posited, and I agree, that the combination of new technologies (digital tools) and new industry participants (in particular, Amazon, Google and Apple) have broken down the organizational (and personal) relationships that have existed for decades (and in some cases centuries) in the business and that, therefore, a new industry model is required before a new equilibrium among authors, publishers, distributors, retailers and readers (however they’re defined in the future) can be established.

That’s a gross oversimplification of a very complex presentation–the best description of the industry’s state of play I’ve heard–but states, I believe, the heart of the matter. The only thing I would’ve added is that, based on my experience, the disruption has been accelerated and amplified by the dismal economic conditions of the past few years, making gradual change impossible.

[slideshare id=5254329&doc=orgfieldsbook-100921205522-phpapp01]

Peter ended on a hopeful note, saying that the amount of experimentation going on now, and some of the new firms and new alliances being formed among industry participants, will ultimately lead to the creation of new organizational fields as it has in other industries that have undergone major disruptions. Following that hopeful conclusion, one of the first questions from the audience was (paraphrasing), “How long do you think it will take for things to stabilize?”

Well, I think the answer is probably never.

Or at least if a new equilibrium is established, it won’t be long-lasting and we’ll soon be looking for ways to establish the next one.

The rate of technological change’s continued acceleration and the near-instantaneous nature of communication of new challenges, threats and opportunities are key factors contributing to a continuation of unsettled conditions, and these are here to stay. The tools that allow for cheap and relatively easy innovation are also important. Finally, societal norms, which once emphasized stability, tradition and personal relationships have shifted so that change, disruption and more transactional relationships are accepted and even encouraged, making permanent structures and organizational fields much more difficult to sustain.

The lesson from this is to get comfortable with near-constant change, disruption and, well, discomfort. It’s here to stay and your old job, whatever it was, doesn’t exist anymore (even if the title does).

This post was originally published at Bait ‘n’ Beer, and has been reprinted with Mr. Linn’s permission,.

Don Linn has a sordid past as an investment banker, cotton and catfish farmer, book distributor (as owner/CEO of Consortium Book Sales & Distribution), publisher (The Taunton Press), entrepreneur and general ne’er-do-well. He’s a graduate of Harvard Business School and Vanderbilt University and is endlessly fascinated by books and publishing and their collision with technology. Among other things.

7 thoughts on “Your Old Job in Publishing Doesn’t Exist

  1. Jack W Perry

    I agree that the change on publishing is revolutionary and it will never be the same. There are new skills that must be learned; new relationships that must be formed; and new concepts that must be tried.

    But I also believe there is tremendous value of knowing the past. Although the new world is dramatically different, there are many legacy items worth keeping.

    Publishing can still be fun.

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  4. Mike Artell

    All true. But I do think that relationships are still the key in this biz. And distribution is always the big challenge for authors/illustrators. Yeah, I know there are new distribution outlets on the ‘net but without “gate keepers” there’s going to be a lot of schlock published and distributed. I don’t know how the publishing model will evolve but the music biz is probably a good analog.

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