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Fun but Dangerous Work: Surviving Professional Publishing

When recruiting new people into legal and professional publishing, while, obviously, scrupulously complying with and respecting the requirements of the law, both in letter and spirit, it has always been of interest to observe the motivation of applicants.

Among those who present themselves with specific academic or professional backgrounds, such as a law degree, an accountancy or tax qualification or who are legally qualified, occasionally one hears that the reason that they have applied is that things haven’t worked out well in the pursuit of some other career path. Perhaps the professional examination results have not been successful. Perhaps family budgets have not been sufficiently resilient to underpin professional training and the early days of practice. Perhaps the rigours of professional practice are thought to be greater than those of publishing and that the latter will be more adaptable to a work-life balance. Perhaps publishing, wrongly, reminds people of their cherished days in academic life.

It’s hard to feel a warm glow of affection and expectation for these people, particularly if one has targeted professional publishing for one’s own career and is proud to define oneself primarily as a publisher.

I recall a former colleague, now a valued friend, some months after beginning his professional publishing career, looking skywards to ask “have I died and gone to heaven?”, such was the personal pleasure he found deriving from the job. Many years later, he is still doing it and is deservedly perceived as something of a guru of his trade. His early enthusiasm was justified, as he found himself doing challenging and rewarding work, for which he was eminently qualified and in which his contribution was and is huge.

Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary for someone entering professional publishing to be a stereotypical Renaissance man or woman. I have never looked at the publishing industry with excessive emotion and love, particularly of books. I’ve been much happier collecting and then selling content to professionals who can add value and profit from it. The elements of publishing I like are to do with the business/commercial side and in knowing about specialist types of content and the exploitation of it. Being in areas like law and tax, as with any specialist discipline, I’ve always enjoyed playing a part in those worlds, so I guess it’s about digging deeply into target markets. A published view on these matters that I endorse to a significant extent is by Colin Walsh, in his article, The Snobbery of Publishing.

I don’t see it as a vocation or profession in itself. However, like any other trade, professional publishing is one into which committed people invest their skills to build, in some cases, lifetime careers. The problem is, again, I suppose, as elsewhere, that it’s unusual to see the investment delivering long-term rewards. Not in every case, but with disturbing frequency I hear of the irrational disposal of highly talented and committed employees at senior and junior levels. Issues of short-term cost-cutting to save the bacon of others, to cover up the outcomes of strategic and tactical errors, for reasons of apparent ageism and as an attempt desperately to hang on to profitability as revenue collapses, seem to prevail. It is so predictable to see these events enacted around the end of each financial year, as subsequent year budgets are submitted, with new promises and myths. I shall not forget a serious strategic planning conversation, when a particular finance director’s solution to the problems of the day was to propose another restructure, admitted to be of no value in itself but in order to buy a further year and have a new business plan accepted by the parent company. I know that this is a most common approach.

I find it amusing, in a tragic sort of way, that if a person working in professional publishing has done about 20 years or so in the trade and in gainful employment, they find themselves being referred to by their peers as “a survivor”. To find anyone at a middle or senior level in the office at or near normal retirement age tends to be quite unusual indeed. No doubt there are many reasons for this but as one senior and high-achieving executive said to me, having seen his own successful career suddenly halted, “Last week, apparently, I was smart. I didn’t suddenly get stupid!” While I have no doubt that these are phenomena that increasingly apply in all areas of work and industries, I suspect that some are saner than others. I mentioned this recently, in a consultancy meeting I had with a number of fund managers and investors who were focused on the professional publishing sector, suggesting that such fears and anxieties ought to be a matter of concern for and about the industry. I suppose I should have anticipated the dismissive shrugs, with responses of, “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? They’re probably just bitter and disgruntled”. Of course I had to acknowledge that to some extent this has to be the case.

I think, however, it’s more complicated and worrying than that. In my view there is a real duty to hire people extremely cautiously, slowly and with the application of rigorous financial and other standards but, in consequence, to be equally careful when it comes to bringing careers to a halt or an end. Otherwise we create jobs, not careers and an industry full of uncommitted, nervous, poorly-qualified passers-by, which, in the opinion of some, is the state of legal and professional publishing today.

The era of jobs for life, whether or not it ever really existed, is clearly gone. For my part I would shed no tears as the concept seems, for countless reasons, to be pretty unhealthy. Nevertheless, if, at the outset, the otherwise enthusiastic and talented potential entrant, after rational analysis, sees that it is too dangerous to contemplate a sustainable professional publishing career, the sort of recruitment problems faced by the Catholic Church in Ireland might become the norm. The law demands that employers should act fairly and reasonably in these matters and with good reason for all concerned. One has to recognise and argue in favour of duties on both sides, including those on employees to be diligent, to perform to the best of their abilities and be flexible and capable of change. Furthermore, I support the idea that, with exceptions, it is the purpose of commercial entities to optimise profits and grow. On those assumptions, it would be a shame to think that work which can be as dynamic, rewarding, challenging and pleasurable as professional publishing might be viewed as leading to dead-end careers.

That said, it’s good occasionally to note some pleasant “tart with a heart” gestures from this normally not too generous industry, this time from Lexis Nexis UK. For different reasons, it’s great to see an impressive initiative from the place I learned such basic professional publishing skills as I have, Sweet and Maxwell.

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Comments

  1. Scarily, it’s as if Robert McKay were writing specifically about the Australian legal and professional publishing scene! Thanks for showing us we are not alone.

  2. Very many thanks.

    One wants to hope, though, that it’s not just the bad stuff that’s universal but also the good.

    If you haven’t done so already, it’s definitely worth also reading Gary Rodrigues’ insightful column on the topic at

    http://www.slaw.ca/2013/02/01/more-on-surviving-legal-publishing/comment-page-1/#comment-937391

    Regards

    Robert