Very early in my career in book publishing, I worked under the direction of an individual who was a ferocious and diligent networker. It was a terrifying experience.
I can still vividly recall how thoroughly impressed (and dismayed) I was by her skills. This was my second job in subsidiary rights, as an associate at one of the larger New York trade houses. I sat outside the door of the department director, and every day she would return from lunch with a trove of gossip, news and insights into recent book deals. She would then spend the next hour or so on the phone sharing what she knew and gathering more snippets of information along the way.
It was really just basic market intelligence—who was paying how much for which properties—the kind of thing that’s essential for making accurate forecasts and getting the best deals for her own properties. The success of the strategy was clear to me, but also deeply troubling. How could I ever build out that network and, more importantly, find the energy and desire to spend so much of my time relentlessly collecting and sharing scraps of information? Should I think about finding another career track?
Fortunately, my next job was quite different. It involved managing international rights for a diverse professional and reference publisher with a large and sprawling list. The deals were small, and volume, rather than market intelligence, was the key to success. I also had the good fortune to be given my first computer (a Mac!). So rather than laboriously typing out labels and tracking submissions by hand on large file cards, as was the practice in my prior jobs, I was able to automate the process and was soon able to greatly increase the sales volume for the small office.
Around the same time, Michael Cader launched his now famous newsletter Publishers Lunch, where he reported for all to see the kinds of deal terms that my former director had diligently collected on her own. It was not lost on me that the formidable information gathering skills I had found so intimidating were suddenly going to be worth a little less in the future, and that the new computer skills I was bringing to my job were going to increase my own value in the marketplace.
These days, I talk to a lot of people in book publishing, and one common refrain is that many of them feel as if the future of their work will be a growing struggle to try to roll a bigger rock up a steeper hill every year. And to a great extent, they’re right. Cutbacks, layoffs, restructurings—they all seem to involve pushing more work back on to the ones who remain, in what is sometimes referred to as the “whip the slaves harder” school of management.
For those of us who love our work and our industry, what is to be done? Is there no alternative but to hang on for as long as possible and hope that one’s weaker or less able colleagues will fall away? I don’t think so.
In my view, it all comes down to ongoing professional development. How do we increase our own productivity as well as that of the co-workers on whom we depend for our success? Traditionally, most book publishers have followed a strategy of hiring in new talent who bring with them a different—and hopefully better—way of doing things. Sometimes this works really well. A new manger or director will shake up their department and new processes are put in place that do in fact help everyone get more done. Sometimes new ways of working are formally brought in as part of a new technology platform or software system. Every now and then we figure out a new trick or two on our own.
My 30 years in the business (a dozen of them as a consultant) have taught me that this is not enough. Very few of us feel that we have the time to keep up with the many changes in our industry, let alone find the clarity and energy required to learn the new skills that will help us get ahead. So what can we do? Subscribe to more newsletters? There are so many already. Take a night course at a local institution? These can be right for some people in certain circumstances, but most of us are tired at the end of our busy days.
Flawed as the model may be, the publishing industry conference is the one opportunity that most busy professionals have to put aside the day-to-day requirements of their jobs for a bit and open their minds to new ideas, new skills and new ways of doing things that may make the rock a little smaller and the hill a little less steep. When done well, they leave you energized and excited for the challenges ahead. And even when done less well, most find them a valuable breath of fresh air.
So all this is a long way of saying why everyone who cares about their careers should take a quick look at some of the topics we’ll explore at the newly reimagined Digital Book World in January. While many of the details are yet to come, I know that most of you will find information, insights and inspiration in the new program that will make a real difference in the coming year, and, more importantly, in the many years ahead. So stay tuned, and get ready.
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