At the beginning of the digital revolution, I had one point of view. I was a publisher for one of the top five houses in New York City, all of which were frantically meeting over the incursion of something called an ebook, not to be confused with a pbook ( ridiculous corporate doublespeak for a book made of paper) that was going to be sold on a computer, not in a store. I’ll bet those conference rooms still bear the odor of terror on the walls.
I do not work for a commercial publisher any longer. I was downsized a long time ago along with hundreds, if not thousands, of others. Now, I am part of what happens when an industry releases so much talent at once: We drift. Where do we land? Books. It’s what we were trained to do. We’ll stay at home and work on ebooks because we can. Anyone can. Whose piece of the publishing pie do we take? The top FIVE.
A similar situation happened at the television networks ABC, NBC and CBS. Massive layoffs sent employees home to their bathrobes and hurt egos. From there, they moved on to lower salaries in cable television and we know how that story ends: The Wire, Homeland, Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, Mad Men. The list goes on and it is some of the best storytelling of the century, so far. I love what those men and women did.
Cable television and its stories inspire my work as an editor and if I had said that in a publishing job, sweater sets would have turned and said, “We don’t own a television.” <sniff>
Since 2007, commercial publishing has lost 400% of its market share, according to a Bowker analysis. In the 2011-12 publishing season, they lost 50% more. What must it be like to work inside the walls of such a company these days? Sure, a Hollywood hit like Divergent will give you a great year, but publishing is living paycheck to paycheck and they know it. Publishing is holding on to old, sluggish business models they do not need. A book is made with a WiFi connection now, not a printing press.
When I was supposed to be sitting on the couch, nursing wounded feelings after my layoff, I went West. I told young person after young person (isn’t that who works in Silicon Valley?) what I wanted to do – I wanted East Coast editors to join with West Coast tech experts – and create an ebook company. I kept talking and asking stupid questions and finally a couple of these kids laughed and said, “We’re in.” With those two little words, genius entered my life. I call and ask something of their technology and they answer with “it can and shall be done. By tomorrow.” I’m dumbstruck. Another book is getting made.
My point of view is wildly different today, obviously. I read books on my phone and feel awe at having the equivalent of the Library of Alexandria in the palm of my hand. I edit and publish 85-year-old women, quiet little Grandmas, who want to tell their story about smuggling for the Jews of the Forest at the end of World War II. I edit and publish cookbooks by stockbrokers and novels by stay-at-home moms. We don’t have an ebook “template” to fill out: We do it all ourselves. We design the book, flow it. Give it a look. We provide structural editing and copy edit until we are blue in the face: Errors are not tolerated in a finished ebook out of this company. I am on the phone or email with the author all day long, and I hope I’ve returned the editor/writer relationship to a dignified level of humanity. Producing a great book is community at its best: We all enter the story, burnish and protect it.
Ebooks blew a huge hole in the publishing wall for writers: They can now sell their work without the inexplicable prejudices of publishing companies. (I worked for a bunch and still don’t understand them!) But ebooks did something bigger too: They saved our stories. We can read about the grandmother, once young, who packed her car with gold bullion to help teenaged Jews hiding in the sewers of Vienna at the end of World War II. From these stories, we build the sense of who we are, our history, our differences, our bravery, our love.
Ebooks are nothing more, then, than the continuing story of humankind. Their promise is huge: the stories, the information, the new perspectives. An extraordinary artist may come out of nowhere and take us all by surprise. Ebooks are about building the future with as many voices as we get to help us navigate the way, and that includes the grandmothers and stock brokers and stay-at-home moms.
No, they don’t have a “platform” or tv show or newspaper column. They have lives and stories and ideas. They will connect and sell their work. I’ll help them do it with metadata and SEO. Together, we make the book rise. We do it with WiFi, wherever we are, and it never stops because for us, it’s not work: It’s one long glorious story.