Column

A Round of Applause for the Middle Men and Women of Culture!

There’s a tendency, and I can be more guilty than most, to moan about how awful can be the major international professional information providers. Yet, compared to so many other sectors that affect our private, community and working lives, they’re, in relative terms, harmless and not especially evil. It’s not that they’re the oil polluters, the auto industry, the military-industrial complex, the tobacco industry and the like. Law publishing causes few deaths, helps professional advisers to perform valuable work and is generally on the positive side of the balance between democracy and totalitarianism.

So, for a change, I’d like to sing the praises a little and remind myself why it can be a pleasure, privilege and rewarding to be a part of the professional publishing trade.

Here’s how I see it. You’re an enthusiastic graduate with a background or interest in law. Thankfully, not everybody can or wants to be a practising lawyer, accountant, librarian, academic, public servant or a politician, so, what about professional publishing? What’s not to like about:

  • Using background training and interest to earn a living in the media
  • Being able to applying research skills and market intimacy to areas of specialist interest
  • Being able to work in something that really enthuses you and to which you can bring real value, doing a job in which work and pleasure are indistinguishable
  • Knowing the language and ways of thinking of your customers and understanding, anticipating and delivering change and realising the commercial benefits of it
  • Being involved in the market and its activities, in learned societies, professional or trade bodies, etc., yet not being so much on the inside that you lose objectivity, flexibility of the potential to think laterally and counter-intuitively
  • Getting invited to and participating in key events in the target markets, always in the best places
  • Using the skill-set of intelligence, knowledge, competence, enthusiasm, talent and commercial drive, without which, in any case, there is zero chance of success or job satisfaction.
  • Understanding that quality is very important, as are authors, even when they’re awful and that working with the good ones is a privilege
  • Working with technology for solutions to problems, efficiency and innovation 
  • Being in a people industry where teamwork, skills exchange and multi-tasking are necessary and where established roles and preconceptions of what traditional jobs are changing all the time. 
  • Being able to earn a living in an industry in which, for the most part, it is civilised, full of the best people and where, chances are, nobody’s killing anybody or getting killed but equally, where no-one’s exactly saving lives, so everything in proportion
  • Discovering that you may or may not get rich in publishing but probably won’t be poor, never forgetting that it is about money.
  • Having the opportunity to be in the industry via a range of roles with enormous possibilities beyond content management and development, extending to sales, marketing, advertising, PR, finance, subscription management, administration, logistics, general and specific management, etc.
  • Realising that publishing and its functions can be viewed in countless media and communication in all their forms
  • Never forgetting that professional publishing is, generally, a commercial, money-making activity and not a hobby, pastime or alternative to doing something better; it’s about shifting product.

That represents aspects of what I think are core elements of the legal publishing trade. Naturally, many can be applied to many careers but that’s for others to boast.

Given the similarity in type and backgrounds that, in my opinion, tends to exist as between those in legal publishing and their customers, evidenced by frequent career movement from one to the other, it seems to be such a missed opportunity not to have more harmonious relationships across the divide. It must be assumed, logically, that if the customer is always right, the onus is on the publishers to move closer to their way of thinking, perhaps in ways that the banks should also do. To reinforce the point, I recall, with only a little embarrassment, the private, jocular, never publicly-uttered slogan of one subsequently acquired House, in respect of customer service standards, “we’re no worse than our competitors”. I suspect that some still have that aspiration.

Among the issues that can detrimentally affect both supplier and customer are those of conservatism and fear of change. The market isn’t growing and, looking at it from a UK perspective, is occasionally slow and frightened to embrace technology, thereby suppressing profit growth that might otherwise derive from a more wholesale shift away from the print tradition. Sometimes, all the publishers know is how to maintain profitability by over-inflation price increases, cutting costs and uninspired product development. In truth, though, this is changing steadily and there are impressive initiatives, particularly from Lexis Nexis.

However, on the other side, one sees frequently demands for the publishers’ output to be made available free-of-charge, or at prices and in ways that in no way reflect the added-value excellence, expertise and requirement to make a living among those in publishing. An outcome often appears to be a continuous battle of each side pulling in opposite directions, one to screw out as much money as is possible, while the other trying to screw into the ground. One way or another, everybody’s getting screwed.

Now, I don’t want to go all soft, rose-tinted and self-delusional. There is no doubt that within the professional publishing industry there are some managers and staff who can occasionally appear to be wicked, stupid and, worryingly perhaps, suffering from mental illness, in the way they attempt to conduct their business, thereby helping to diminish the standards and reputations of their companies. This is a great pity, as it harms those who care passionately about serving their customers, working ethically, honestly, efficiently and for the achievement of just reward, expressed in terms of healthy profitability. Sad to say, as almost any job-loss has to be mourned, such is the nature of the sector, that at senior levels, heads continue to roll at regular intervals, so that some of the perfect babies get thrown out with the stagnant bathwater. So, biased as I may be, I believe I only occasionally seem to meet people in professional publishing who conduct themselves in ways that are unethical, devious, dishonest and uncaring. For the most part, those who are, after a relatively short time, disappear to business environments to which they are better suited. 

Some see things otherwise. Of publishers, Cyril Connolly, the writer and critic opined:

As repressed sadists are supposed to become policemen or butchers so those with an irrational fear of life become publishers

Whereas, Salvador Dali saw their likes among 

those middle-men of culture who, with their lofty airs and superior quackings, come between the creator and the public.

Doubtless there is an element of truth in both views but I hope that if I search extensively, I’ll find a more positive analysis. So, I’d say, give the law publishers a break occasionally and, unless there are very good reasons to believe otherwise, assume that they’re only doing their jobs and making an honest living.

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