Friday, July 22, 2005

The Death of Information

Good god, so many things to be alarmed about and so little time to blog about them all, though I suppose I could summarize these concerns in a single category one might call "The Death of Information," which seems sufficiently vague to encompass nearly anything. But I'm not talking about just anything. I'm specifically interested in the silencing of many voices here in the blogosphere because of "business."

Most disappointing of all the examples I will mention is that of Mad Max Perkins and the death of BookAngst 101. I didn't always agree with everything Max had to say about the industry and the state of book publishing, but that was precisely his value to me and to the book community at large - he offered a unique perspective. I'm certain he has good reasons for quitting his blog, and his leaving is unquestionably a loss to the community, but it would be a far greater affront to justice if his reasons are primarily related to job pressure, or a sense that his contributions to the industry will be better felt through concentrating on his work in the office rather than his work online. This simply is not true.

Every business in the world benefits from frank discussion abouts its ends and means, and book publishing is no different. And the more varied the perspectives that participate, the more valuable that discussion becomes (see THE WISDOM OF CROWDS by Jim Surowiecki - a brilliant exposition of the benefits of democratic thought). Bloggers like Max and myself (and others in the publishing profession) are not simply out here giving away information about the industry - we're taking something away from it too. Writing about my job and the issues we are all facing in trying to publish books makes me better at what I do everyday in the office. My mind, my work, and my company are all enriched by my participation in this process, and it's no different for Max. His absence is not simply a loss for all of us, but for him as well.

Another issue of some concern is the recent spat of bloggers being fired from their publishing jobs for writing about them, most recently with a beauty editor at a major magazine losing two jobs (almost simultaneously) after being exposed as a blogger. [NOTE: We will from now on simply refer to bloggers as "sinners" (blogger=sinner). It's easier, fewer letters, no problems with spell-checkers, etc.] As I've mentioned before, my concern is not personal, but ideological. Writing (and therefore thinking) about the problems an industry faces is in the final analysis beneficial to that industry - it encourages communication and the sharing of information, which is not to say that it is only information going out. Learning happens in both directions. Trying to silence this dialogue is not only harmful to a company's growth, it's also bad form and makes the world of corporate publishing look paranoid and fascist.

Not knowing the specifics of this young woman's employment, nor the details of her every post, I can't say anything too specific about her case, but it is still troubling to hear these stories of people being fired from corporate America on the basis of being bloggers (I mean, sinners) - a thing which, in the end, stands to benefit the company.

Now, I understand the counter-argument. Not all of these blogs-to-pinkslip stories involve people who are contributing much aside from bitching about the office, but I would argue that these blogs are likely the least dangerous to any business because they tend to say more about the individual than the company or industry. Ultimately, these blogs are about what type of person this particular blogger (sorry, sinner) is - they're vanity projects.

The more critical concern a business faces is the possiblility that private information could find its way (very easily) into a public forum, which is why a company should be more concerned about a blogger (damn, sinner) like me than some of these others who have actually been fired. I'm not writing about the aches and pains of office life. I'm writing about what's wrong (and right) with our business, how it works, why it fails, etc. It would be very easy for me to leak information that could be harmful to the company, our authors, or my colleagues, but I won't be doing that. My aim here is to be as honest as I can in my analysis and ultimately benefit everyone involved. Unless you actually wanted to be fired, you would never actually release sensitive information into a public forum. It's professional ethics. It's the same thing that would keep me from mentioning to my friend at the NY Post how much we paid a certain author for a book.

There is also the concern about giving away ideas, or what we might call "intellectual capital." Mad Max touched on this a bit in his farewell:

The business is so f***ing hard now, and there's so much pressure on those working inside it, that either they don't have the time for (shall we say) pro bono discourse about (say) how to do some of the little things better; or they feel that giving away what few secrets they possess will put them at the sort of competitive disadvantage that might, soon, cost them their jobs.

There was a time when I might have subscribed to this mentality, but I am well past it now for one primary reason: imitators don't have ideas. I keep no secrets about my "tricks of the trade" because I know that the real intellectual capital exists in my head. The techniques and tools (both new and old) have been around, are accessible to everyone, or are at least "known" to all. I haven't tapped some secret marketing resource that makes what I do successful. It's all about new ideas, figuring out how to make old mediums work better, and asking questions. The secret is that there is no secret - all of the vital information is out there for everyone to use, and success is determined by those who use this information most wisely.

Max laments that the business is so hard now. The business is not any harder now than it was before, in fact, it's probably easier because there are more consumers, there's more disposable income, and there are more outlets for retail, merchandising, and marketing than ever before. The trouble arises from the fact that the business is so DIFFERENT than it has been. The world has changed, and thus far many in publishing have yet to accept or understand what these changes mean and what they require in order to survive.

You can hear some of what these changes require in the voices that comprise the literary blogosphere, which is precisely why every one of them is so essential to the industry. The very last thing we can afford is silence.


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