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Courtney Miller-Callihan
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Three Helpful Tips for Self-Appointed Technophile Gadflies of the Book Industry

Like a lot of people in the book business, I ended up working with books because I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. Books have played a powerful role in my life, and for me the deep associations they stir are not only joy, but knowledge, learning, literacy, freedom and an educated citizenry. Thus the stakes are high, yes, even when we’re talking Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Grey -- a way of thinking that sometimes seems hard for non-book people to understand. This is why, when criticism comes from self-appointed gadflies who don’t obviously share this bookish connection, I can’t help myself: the hackles go up and the claws come out. 

That said, like a lot of people in the book business, I understand the urgent need for the industry to change and adapt to the realities of modern life. (After all, we work with these issues every day; it’s our job.) So, after getting a little yelly at one of the Book^2 Camp sessions last weekend, I calmed down and decided instead to offer some unsolicited advice to said gadflies (Find Love and Save Publishing in 3 Simple Steps!) in the interest of making these conversations more productive and interesting for all of us. Read on below, after the before-and-after bikini pics.

1. Bother to understand the industry you’re criticizing, and not just by reading the blog posts and Twitter feeds of people who reinforce your preconceptions. Consider the possibility that some of publishing’s idiosyncrasies might be a necessary condition of working in a mature, low margin, creative industry rather than hopeless woolheadedness on the part of everyone who gets paid by a publishing house. To inform your opinion, try reading a book. It’s hard to do better than Merchants of Culture by John B. Thompson.

2. If you have thoughts to share about how the book business’s “gatekeeping” or care and feeding of writers can be improved, focus on the books you love rather than the books you despise. Does the thought of Snooki or Tori Spelling calling themselves authors make you cringe? Fine, but those books made money. However the existence of such titles may offend your aesthetic sensibility, publishing to market demand is not a sign of a failing business model. It’s easy to fall into the trap of dismissing the majority of publisher output as worthless schlock or a mass of poorly edited text doomed to obscurity. In reality, the publishing industry is large and diverse and hard to generalize. Better to start from the reason you care in the first place. 

What books do you love? How did they come to be? Do you understand how they made the journey from the writer’s mind through publication and into your hands as a reader? Chances are that somewhere along the line, other people who are passionate about books loved that book before you, and decided to put their company’s resources and their own time and and craft and professional reputation on the line to bring it to a wider audience. If you don’t understand that this passion and this process are at the heart of book publishing, you need to go back to step one. 

Your comments and criticisms are more likely to hit home if you start from an appreciation of what works as well as what doesn’t work. (And if you can’t come up with any books you loved lately, there are doubtless more productive ways for you to be spending your time.)

3. Understand that culture and creative expression do not often marry well to scale and replicability. The strength of technology solutions lies in gathering and retaining large data sets, and organizing that information to create predictable and scalable outputs for content. Complexity, exceptions, and unique cases gum up the works. 

Some forms of publishing respond well to technology solutions (see note above about publishing being large and diverse). Others, including the kinds of fresh human expression that probably caused most of us to fall in love with books in the first place, will not. This is not a failure of the books or the industry, it is a function of the fact that the power of long form writing as culture creation and artistic expression is exactly opposed to the strengths of information technology.

End rant. Happy Friday, everyone.

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