Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Publishing State of Mind

Every year round December time, our company's employees gather in an upstairs hallway, Dixie cups of wine all around, and take stock in the year just past, hoping that the year to come will be less precarious and more profitable. Our editor-in-chief then takes a few minutes to acknowledge the milestones that employees have reached--those who have been with the company 5, 10, 15 years, calling each one up to thunderous applause to receive recognition and a warm handshake. It's a big to-do, and it's more than a little bit aspirational--especially when the long-timers get up. 25 years, 30 years, 45 years, and once even 55 years . . . whole lives dedicated to one company, a lifetime of work. What can you call that except a legacy?

It's an often-repeated fact that people today may change careers--not jobs, careers--two to three times in their lives. People shift around, their thoughts on what they want change, and their lives bring new challenges that may take them to new locations. The number of unforeseeable factors that may force a change in career are endless, and so it absolutely amazes me that I know people who have spent their entire years--twice my time on earth--at the same company, in the same function, and never tired of it. And despite advancing age and changing times, they are intellectually as sharp as they ever were, with energy to spare and continued optimism about the future of book publishing.

There's a lot of debate right now about whether certain artistic inclinations can be taught--can an MFA ever truly teach someone how to become a novelist? Can you buy the instincts of a bestselling writer? Does honing your craft in graduate school mean limiting yourself commercially in the future? These are all valuable questions, and worth asking given the boom in literature, self-published and non, and the steady depletion of the reading community. But an additional question begs asking: can you, and how can you, teach people to be publishing-minded?

Obviously working for a commercial publisher requires a different set of skills than writing a novel--you're not marketing books in solitude, you're not designing a book jacket solely for yourself, and you're not seeking out paper vendors and overseas printers by way of your local Staples. But nevertheless, the skills of someone who works in publishing--a mind for both high art and low commerce--doesn't always come naturally. There are a handful of certificate programs, as well as some graduate degrees, that are meant to provide you with a "Master in Publishing." Programs like The Columbia Publishing Course (of which myself and another TKers are alumni) often provide access to industry leaders, giving participants the opportunity to ask unlimited questions and engage in exercises designed to teach you the mindset of the trade publishing world. (At CPC, we were split into teams to run our own imaginary publishing houses over the course of two weeks. I was serving as my team's CEO, and nearly had a breakdown because my editors couldn't get their shit together, having their ideas shot down over and over by real-life publishing insiders. After the exercise was over, however, I felt much more informed about the different elements of making a book imprint function.)

Clearly programs like these, where 6 weeks of participation (and a chunk of tuition) give you an enormous amount of information, qualifying as a kind of publishing boot-camp. But are they more valuable than real-life experience? Will you get more out of 6 weeks of seminars than you would out of a 3-month internship at a publishing house? It's hard to say, as everyone's experience is different. But either path will show you a few aspects of what ultimately become a lifelong calling, a 45-year commitment to making literature. I've only been in this industry about 4 years, but I have to wonder if I'll make it to my 45th, to that handshake and that applause, to the knowledge that I've built a life for myself inside this profession.

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