Wednesday, May 4, 2011

close call in new haven; saved by collaboration

During the last meeting at the end of a week of sales conferences in Cambridge and New Haven last Friday, I was nearly killed by a screen. There’s a not funny digital joke in there somewhere.

The Yale sales department brain trust was having a final walk through the fall list when the big projection screen on which we’d earlier watched skyped presentations by our London editors came down on me from behind on a gust of spring wind. I was saved by my colleague Adena Siegel. This was not the first time.

Once again, the three back to back sales conferences- beginning with The MIT Press, Harvard University Press in the middle, and ending with Yale University Press - were exercises in intellectual stimulation and humility. Each press has such a distinct voice, producing books that are more than the sum of the parts. I leave the meetings feeling both energized and muddled, but trusting that all the incoming information streams will eventually sort themselves into coherent presentations to booksellers, as they have for (yikes) 23 seasons.

As the grateful recipient of some recognition from colleagues for my work recently, the idea of individual achievement has been on my mind. And at the risk of beating a dead horse, I have to reiterate my belief that- in books and publishing anyway, but also in the world- true self-creation is a rare thing. In work as intensely collaborative as the writing and dissemination of books, every individual achievement is also a social one.

You can’t deny that a writer who creates a book that wins acclaim is entitled to the bulk of the glory. But even at the level of authorship, it’s often clear that the final product usually rests on a complicated collaborative infrastructure. Pick up any worthy book and check the lengthy acknowledgements pages, or the roster of interviewees, or even the librarians consulted and thanked for confirmation that great ideas don’t always spring sui generis from great minds. (With some exceptions, many of them on our lists.)

Though individual merit counts, so does family, education, and economic status. Writers who are lucky or connected enough to be dealt winning hands in those three categories have all the more reason to thank a multitude.

And when we celebrate the publication of a deeply researched magnum opus which took decades to produce, I often wonder who was paying the bills and doing the laundry and tending to the minutia of the author’s daily life, allowing him or her to be devoted to writing. Someone, I’d guess.

This collaborative ethic carries on through the process of bringing the finished book to market. Some authors (not ours, of course) seem to be so hypnotized by the promise of internet retailing that they think getting their book listed and ranked on Amazon is itself a marketing plan. Mission accomplished, I see my book on the screen!

But in my experience over the past week and years, the collective thinking brought to bear by the presses to make sure every book finds its customer is profound.

With some titles this week, we spent a lot of time clarifying the intention of the author to make sure we understand exactly what we’re selling; in other cases, the meaning seemed self-evident, but identifying likely audiences was the challenge. Where to find reviews, where to find special niche markets, how to use social media effectively- it’s a never-ending collaborative process. And in general, the more collaboration, the better the chance of success.

The myth of individual achievement and the self-made man is so inescapable that it’s sometimes hard to find ways to recognize collective achievement- in the sense of honoring it, but even in the sense of simply seeing it.

Making the case will get easier this fall when Yale brings out Richard Sennett’s wonderful forthcoming book (January 2012) Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. A follow-up to his earlier work The Craftsman, a bookseller favorite which celebrated the joys of work for the sake of work, he turns his attention now to the need for a more cooperative ethos. Or, as he might put it, collaboration as a form of craftsmanship.

Every achievement worth noting in bookselling and publishing is to some degree a social one. That’s something to celebrate collectively.

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