A source of innovation for publishers

William Jovanovich
The intrepid William Jovanovich
The division of labor allows specialists to focus on their strengths in the marketplace. The idea is as good and useful today as it was when Adam Smith first talked about it in The Wealth of Nations. But the division of labor can also create other divisions — divisions of assumptions, incentives, communication, and creativity. Sometimes I think that these divisions can do as much damage to a business as the division of labor does it good.

Wise minds in the industry have addressed this problem in the past. “Editors try to please authors and so tend to accept dubious books,” writes famed publisher William Jovanovich in his book Now, Barabbas. “It is an unfortunate attitude, and now a common one, that because a publishing house hires editors its management perforce consists of financiers whose job is to make money and to prevent editors from losing it.”

This distinction between the finance people and the editorial people is relatively new in publishing. It only happened as publishing firms grew in the last century, and the sheer size and scope forced specialization and division. It used to be that the publisher was the editor and the bookkeeper. In small boutique houses, that’s sometimes still the case.

Jovanovich had something to say about this divide: “[I]n the best publishing houses, whatever their size, there is no clear distinction between editorial judgment and managerial judgment.” This is smart thinking (regardless of how true the statement is). If the editor’s judgment is primarily a function of his relationship with the author and the literary quality of the book, then it is easy to miss the business concerns. Similarly, if the spreadsheet sultans determine what’s published, then literature will suffer and authors will be among all people the most pitiable.

What we need, a la Jovanovich, is a unity of labor. Editors need managerial judgement; managers need editorial judgement. This is why in Purple Cow Seth Godin tells marketers to “take a design course.” More than that: “Send your designers to a marketing course. And both of you should spend a week in the factory.” The idea is to create a business culture of empathy, one where the needs and desires of different sectors are understood by all, where someone wearing the financial hat can appreciate (even if not fully understand) where the editor is coming from, and vice versa.

This isn’t to suggest that the financial analysts should edit manuscripts, the designers should acquire new authors, and the marketing department should coordinate print runs. But it does suggest that each knowing a bit of what goes into the other can help, and each being able to speak into the experience of the other may have real value. An empathetic culture bridges a lot of divisions and can have serious payoff related to creativity and innovation.

Good business is in some sense just the efficient coordination of disparate knowledge for profit. Working in silos makes coordination difficult. Jumping out of those silos is the quickest way to shake loose all of that knowledge and make new connections. Consider this observation from Eric Hoffer about misplaced people in business:

It was not conventional businessmen but misplaced poets and philosophers who gave American business its Promethean sweep and drive. To a potential philosopher turned businessman all action is of one kind, and he combines steel mills, mines, factories and so on the way a philosopher collates and generalizes ideas. . . . Misplacement induces a tendency toward overstepping, initiating and innovating. . . .

In a market such as ours, overstepping, initiating, and innovating are crucial to success. And it will often come from unpredicted sources. Just think of what’s happening with digital developments: IT departments are going from tech support to product creators, from expense lines to profit makers. Given the divisions in publishing, the cool thing for us is that we don’t always have to reach outside of our industry for those misplaced dreamers. They’re sometimes sitting in the very next cubicle.

We have the know-how. We just need to get better at appreciating and sharing it — coordinating all that specialized knowledge for the general use of our companies.

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