Recently, recording artist Phil Collins (of Genesis fame) announced that he was retiring from the recording industry. Though he cited the desire to spend more time with his family and assorted health issues (some brought on by years of drumming), he also mentioned his dismay with the turns the music industry has taken in the past several years. He later issued a retraction, saying he’s not retiring, but he is taking time off to care for his ailing body.
Nevertheless, he said what he said, and it led me to wonder if his isn’t just the first in a line of defections from an industry that barely resembles its self of five to ten years ago. Of course, these will be older artists who really miss “the old days” when there was a distinct hierarchy of power and authority in the music and recording industry, and who can’t or simply won’t bring themselves to evolve along with it.
I see much the same thing taking place in the book publishing industry. Those who are heavily invested in what’s now being called “legacy publishing” have their reasons, and I’m sure they’re as different as the people who have them. But my experience tells me that most folks in this business didn’t get into it for the money as much as the love of books. And that leads me to wonder how, barring something like health issues that force all kinds of unwanted changes on the sufferer’s life, someone can just decide to “retire” from publishing.
After all, when the initial motivation is passion, one can’t simply opt out: The laws of physics say that energy cannot die or be killed or lost, it can only change form. I believe passion has this same characteristic: It’s not something one asks for or can really even control. All we can do is control our response to it. So, what does that mean?
I think it means that we must take a fresh look at WHY we wanted to become publishers in the first place. Yes, for some of us, it was all about the physical form of the content we were publishing. We. Love. Books. No harm in that. Yes, I love that whole tangible thing about books, too: The way they feel, look, smell. There’s a whole bunch of emotional stuff wrapped up in that little package we all know and love. But the business IS evolving, and we have to look beyond format. We have to ask ourselves, Is it REALLY just the package? Because there are many products with really cool packaging. But why BOOKS? What was it about them that aroused our passion. I think the package actually grew as a secondary love. It’s a Pavlovian thing: We love the package because for the longest time, it was the only way to get our fix of what it is that REALLY stoked our passion: what’s inside.
Seriously, think about it: Ours is a storytelling culture. People like to say that prostitution is the world’s oldest vocation, but I challenge that. I think storytellers came first. The desire for carnal pleasures develops later in our human development, and one could argue that it’s a form of human connection. But the ORIGINAL form of connection that we all grow up with is storytelling. Bedtime stories, babysitting stories to keep us out of trouble, ghost stories around summer campfires — all these evolved from mankind’s earliest vocation: telling ourselves stories around ancient campfires outside of caves, when it was dark and we weren’t sleepy yet and there was nothing else to do. We used stories to ward off evil, explain away scary things, make sense of our world before we knew about scientific study.
I think what we all fell in love with was the content sandwiched in between those two covers. First as readers, then as writers, and finally, as publishers. We wanted to be part of making that content happen. And now — with the rapid onset of new technology — we can actually do that better, faster, more efficiently and effectively than ever before!
I challenge you to get past the package and concentrate on the creation, development and distribution of the content that really tripped your trigger at whatever age you caught the book illness. Because it is something of an illness, or at least an addiction. I’ve never seen so many people in absolute thrall as I see in a library, bookstore or a publishing industry event. We’re slaves to this stuff, so we might as well admit it and find a way to make friends with the fact that the master has changed its incarnation. Let’s re-connect with our passion to get those stories out there — fiction, nonfiction, self-help, business, inspirational — doesn’t matter. What matters is that we understand what’s really happening so we can stop the hand-wringing and realize how lucky we are to live in the most exciting era of publishing since Gutenberg invented the printing press.
Traditional p-books aren’t going away, at least not in our lifetime. I sincerely doubt they ever will. They’ve just morphed into additional forms that allow more people to enjoy them. Authors are quickly accepting and learning to love this fact. Isn’t it time we publishers got on board?