Move over: getting young people into leadership roles in book publishing

Young leaders need to replace old ones. That’s the gist of my little opinion piece. Read on if you like.

So, I’ve been hearing that publishing is losing lots of revenue; people are taking their attention and money elsewhere. With revenue loss comes job loss, and the jobs cut are often the ones that have to do with innovation, digital publishing, ebooks, et cetera. The old people who keep doing it the same way they always have, presumably, keep their jobs, but the companies that surround these old people take cuts, which the young people pay for with the loss of their jobs. Seems like backwards thinking. Why not lose the old people and promote the young people, and then hire even more young people in entry-level positions to pursue a real publishing mandate for a change?

I don`t think many publishing houses have a specific vision. They just fill their categories with the same books they always have, and they grow in a certain direction (e.g. literary fiction) when they find they`ve published enough authors in the category to begin to draw agents and authors of literary fiction. Maybe a house comes up with a great new licensing strategy for its children`s series, turning the books into some MMORG that kids explore to find hints about the next upcoming book developer to use the characters in a game. But that`s not really vision. That`s branding and brand extension—popular business-book wisdom. Routine and obvious growth tactics.

A vision is something way less deliberate and contrived. Vision should start with daydreaming something cooler than “What if our book was a cartoon or a video game.”

Let’s go a step further and load the MMORG with all kinds of new settings and characters, one of which is “rumoured” to be appearing in the next novel— tons of hype, all kinds of kids online constantly trying to reach new characters and levels for peaks at what could be an element of the next novel. And they even circulate access to the game levels on which the new book characters/elements may be encountered with prepurchase of the next novel—prepurchase a whole year from the pub date. Wow. Maybe that’s a little more like it in terms of visionary (he thought as vomit reached his tongue root). But that’s just—marketing.

Real leadership starts with some young people wanting to change the world or at minimum deliver the coolest experience ever in some category of life or pseudo-experience. Authors do it by writing the best novel they can, perhaps hoping for some new factor in their storytelling that’s delightful, unfamiliar, transporting. What do publishers and editors do? Designers?

Funny, are publishers and editors even really creative in the same sense that fine arts people like writers and film makers are? Yeah. They’d better be. And right now I think these potential visionary leaders are almost all disempowered interns who soon become much less creative entry-level editors and marketers, who soon become old. And why not just play along to get along? No one in middle management or higher will fund the creation of R &D units in house, or creative cells of editors responsible for reconceiving what a book even is. Or what reading can be. Or how reading can become ever more a mixture of play, group interaction, scanning, deeper reading, and collaboration. Can reading itself be reinvented? We know the reading public has changed a bit from reading deeply and intensely to reading in shorter chunks, in nice floating compartments in the shallow but expansive areas of our minds. Can books be written that oscillate between the shallows and the deeps? I’m sure good people are on this at some houses. I just hope they aren’t all twenty-somethings on tenterhooks worrying about whether they’ll have a job, much less a promotion to a position in which they can influence their house’s direction.

But I bet I know who isn’t daydreaming like this. Old people. What gets them excited are publishing revolutions like Margaret Atwood’s Longpen, her long-distance autographing machine (LAM—get it? On the lam? What a wit, I know…). (The acronym is my invention, as is the term it stands for, but Longpen is real). And they get excited, of course, by Margaret Atwood’s latest work of pure genius—yes, folks, by yet another novel. And this time it will resuscitate the epistolary form in a way never before imagined! It will bend genres! Confound critics and university professors alike. Mystify undergrads! The novel will be written as a blog! What dizzying times of progress we live in, where culture and its forms evolve with such terrific speed!

I don’t mean to be so hard on old people. It’s just that I can’t stand them clogging up rivers of culture that are meant to flow a lot faster and freer.

I’m thinking that editorial directors and executive editors at relatively progressive places like Harlequin Enterprises need to be hired from out of their junior or middle management editing jobs when they’re no later than 27. Then they need to bring the ideas of people their age and a lot younger forward.

I’m not saying that old people have nothing to contribute to cultural industries. I’m honestly not thinking about old people at all. Why should I? I don’t think anyone much older than thirty ever thinks about new entrants into the publishing industry; if they do, they think of them in terms of their ability to absorb a house-specific old-people publishing ethos while still shoring up older workers’ gapped old-school skill sets.

But that’s petty and callous of me, and it’s not even really true of me. The reall reason I don’t think about old people is because I tend to find them boring. And cultural industries just don’t function properly when boring old people steer them instead of young people.

Oh, crap. Did I press “publish” or “save to drafts”?