So What IS Production and (Gulp) What's the Future?
Last week, I was fortunate enough to moderate a meeting of the Bookbinder's Guild of New York (now renamed as the Book Industry Guild of New York), billed as "The Changing Role of Production."
A stellar panel was assembled: Jane Searle (W.W. Norton), Barbara Kittle (Pearson), Dylan Hoke (Hachette), and Nadine Britt (Penguin). Not wanting to get in trouble by implying anyone's age, let's just say that there were many years of experience, across many types of (mainly book) publishing on the panel.
The first interesting aspect of the evening was the turnout—close to 150 people at all levels of experience. I'm told it was the most well-attended monthly meeting the Guild has had in roughly five years. Starting with the safe assumption that they were not there to hear the moderator, what brought so many people to this event? Two factors come to mind.
One is the panel. Everyone on the panel is not just known, but known to have smart things to say about the current state of production AND to have interesting thoughts about the future state.
The other factor is that production people are, generally speaking, nervous about their jobs. I think that some people came to this meeting to get a sense from this panel of which way the wind was blowing. This emotional state of production (assuming there is such a thing) is not shocking. The rate and depth of change in that world is incredible. Thirty-five years ago there were still hot metal typesetters in business. For both staff and vendors, the world has changed dramatically. Think about how far we've come and the uncertainty, in some ways, of where we are going.
Another interesting aspect was the topics for discussion. In the prep sessions for the meeting, the panelists came to believe that we needed to first define "production" because of the wide range of meanings that the word carries. After all, the definition often varies from one publisher to the next: Does it include manufacturing? Where does responsibility for non-print product fall? What are the roles of staff in departments with similar job titles? And this does not even factor in how each company and each department is coping with the uncertainty and changes in the air.
Seems reasonable to have to define, and yet …
Listening to the recording of the meeting confirms what I thought I heard that night. Without planning it, the panel members agreed upon a core set of ideas that were remarkably consistent.
Nadine Britt started her comments with a dictionary definition of production that still remains true. "Production" is defined as "bringing forth" and "making or manufacturing from raw materials." This basic concept was one of the common themes. Each panel member, in their own way, spoke of the currency of that age-old truism. Some of the specifics of the raw materials and the end product have changed, and will continue to change, but the basics remain.
Which leads to the next common theme—the need for flexibility. Including a desire to learn new things. Time and time again, the speakers came back to stories of individuals and departments succeeding because of their openness to change. In some cases, it was individuals being able to move to other departments. In some cases, it was a department (and company) able to move forward due to leaders coming together as a team.
The third theme was an expanded role for production, and recognition of using the project management skill set endemic there in a wider role. This is showing itself, in some companies, as production (finally!) getting involved earlier in the planning and creation of projects. This was less of a change for some, but a big change for others.
So, once again, production people discover that they are more alike than not. The opposite assumption that is prevalent in publishing—I call it the "but my books are different!" syndrome—keeps us divided and makes larger solutions harder to come by. I think it's terrific when we find that's not true. It opens the door a little wider for us to find collective solutions, and not believe that everyone is on their own solving unique problems.
As for the future, again, there was general agreement:
• Books are still predominant; that's already changed some and is changing rapidly, but books will still be the driver for awhile
• For individuals working in production, the key is to look to the future, not hang on to the past. Those who are excited by the future, open to change, open to learning, and open to (possibly) a different job are more likely to thrive in the future.
A good meeting like this can accomplish so much. It's an opportunity for production people to share experiences and ideas. And not to sound overly optimistic (those who know me would scoff at the possibility), but it's also a chance to toss out the thought that maybe the sky is not falling.