“Who here is in publishing?”
Maybe 20% of the hands in the room go up. I’m not sure how to answer and decide to leave my hand down. The speaker replies, somewhat scornfully, “You’re ALL in publishing!”
For the rest of the weekend, this exchange rattled around in my head. Why didn’t I raise my hand right away? How should “publishing” apply to my day in and day out work? What do I need to change in my career to embrace this idea more fully?
The speaker was Jeffrey Zeldman, chief mentor of the internet, and a personal hero, so I took his words seriously. And of course my answer should have been an enthusiastic “YES!”. I started out in journalism and print design at my college newspaper, driven by the power of media to create social change. After graduation, I went into textbook production and, eventually, magazine art direction. And now, a huge part of my business is building and maintaining websites for publications.
At the same time, the reality of making websites on contract is days, weeks, months of pushing pixels and tweaking code. As a freelancer, I’m frequently left out of the conversations about strategy and content development. So while I might be “in publishing”, I feel too far removed from the process to really feel in it.
Not everyone is — or should be — a publisher. It’s a difficult, frequently traumatic job. But more of us should be trying.
I’m simultaneously terrified and inspired.
In the months since this experience, it’s become clearer that I need to confront this fear and plow forward, even if it’s a little reckless. So based on my experiences as an employee or contractor for some pretty good publishers, here’s what I think it takes:
1. Be a leader
Talented teams of individuals aren’t enough. Good leaders will help everyone do their best work. This could mean mentoring, or paying for conferences and seminars, or maintaining a reference library. Whatever it takes to make there are opportunities for growth and connectedness with a wider community.
It also means living a healthy lifestyle, which is something I think many of us struggle with. I know I do. We spend almost all our work days in front of a screen, and a growing portion of our leisure time as well. Taking vacations, exploring other fields, making families, exercising, cooking dinner, these are the antidotes to uninspired, unsuccessful work.
2. Understand money
At many magazines, the publisher is in charge of all the finances. This means having a consistent grasp on cash flow and accounting, in addition to working with bookkeepers and accountants. Optimizing the way you spend that money requires at least a surface understanding of what everyone in the organization does. That includes copyediting, interviewing, human resources, photography, graphic design and snack selection.
It also means that you pay people for their work, and they should be paid on time. And that you foster new streams of revenue. Recurring subscriptions and advertising aren’t enough anymore.
3. Write well
Fundamentally, publishing is a business of words. There is a staggering amount of cumulative emails and drafts and rejections that go into a finished publication. And at some point in the process, everyone needs to step into the role of copyeditor.
The ability to write a clear email cannot be understated. Threads that go on and on are almost as wasteful as 2 hour staff meetings. Occasionally, you need to publish thoughtful essays that articulate ideas and motivate your community.
4. Know great people
The referrals and feedback you get from other talented people are genuinely invaluable. Fortunately, the publishing world is filled with these amazing, generous people dying to share their knowledge. You should be one of them.
As an introvert (INTJ), this sounds exhausting. The internet helps, but I still push myself to go to occasional conferences or meetups. And I have to continually remind myself to delurk, participate in discussions, offer assistance when possible and share solutions that other people can use.