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State of the Art: The Publishing Fiasco

How the creative community needs to respond By Dave Nagel
In case you hadn't noticed, publishing has found itself in a rather sorry state of late. And I don't mean just Web publishers, but everyone—from the giants of print publishing to newsletter producers to independent contractors who depend upon the publishing industry for their livelihood. Bad times all around, financially speaking.

Just two years ago, the publishing business looked to be on the rebound. Jobs were available everywhere, so much so that many of us found ourselves in the position of practically dictating our own terms. Web publishers started stealing away staff from print publishers, and print publishers responded, in large part, by offering incentives to their current employees just to hold on to them.

I know.

What I don't know is how all of this changed so suddenly and in so many different areas of publishing all at once.

Web publishing is probably the most mind-boggling of the industries to crumble. On the one hand, Web publishers had everything going for them—zero production overhead, investment capital and enthusiastic employees seizing the opportunity to move beyond the limitations of print.

Again, I know.

What happened next has been covered by many before me, but never to my satisfaction. Outsiders can't explain away such a massive failure just on "overspending" by executives. Sure, there were some stand-out examples of really poor executive decision making. I know of one Web publishing company that spent something like $3 million on parking for its employees alone. But that's not an explanation for the failure of an industry; it's just a curiosity.

The fact is that some of us have survived and continue, in one fashion or another, to ride out this massive economic downturn—scaled back for the most part, hanging by a thread in some cases. A whole lot of us are in doubt about our immediate futures, but I don't think anybody disputes the long-term viability of any form of publishing, including the Web.

I still have no explanation for what's going on in the Web publishing business. If you think you do, you're probably wrong. A general economic downturn? It's a contributing factor. Industry-specific problems? Absolutely a factor. My own industry was hurt very badly by past strikes and threats of strikes in the entertainment business. Production companies wrapped up the projects they were working on and simply stopped buying new equipment. That hurts manufacturers, who happen to be our advertisers. But this is short-term. Manufacturers have to sell, and this means advertising. And in tough times, accountable media, like the Web, direct marketing and other forms of results-based advertising, make a whole lot of sense, especially when companies like ours are trying their best to make advertising dollars work more.

But the response can't come only from the sales department. We, as creative professionals, have to do our best to protect what is ours. What is ours? I'll tell you what. "Ours" is the most fortunate position anyone can hope to be in. Creative production is easily the most important enterprise in human history, and we get to be at the core of it. Art, design, music, literature, sciences. Unlike so many, we've all chosen our paths in life based upon what we love to do, and what we love to do happens to be at the core of humanity—the drive to create, to be expressive. As a little added bonus, we get to make our living doing it.

I'm not telling you to stand proud and hold yor head high or anything like that. I mean that what you have is more than what most people have, and it's at times like these that protecting what you have takes your active effort. You can't just sit there and let others do the worrying. Your part is production, and what you can do is more of it and at a higher quality. If you think you can just sit there and keep doing what you've been doing—even if what you've been doing is already far above what you think you "should" to be doing—you're tragically mistaken. You need to do more.

What we do is what makes our publications. Design, layout, art, words. If you crap out, you produce crap, and that's what your publication becomes. Economic recovery takes a short time in the scheme of it all. But a failure to rise to the needs of your audience is not something that can be erased. Your audience and your advertisers need to see signs of strength in order to regain the confidence they need to shell out the cash that pays for your dream job.

Don't be under the illusion that anybody's going to be grateful for your extra effort. They won't be. What's more, your managers will take credit for your work. That's just what ambitious people do. But you're not doing this for them. You're doing this for you and for an industry that matters. Your art is yours, no matter who makes money off it or who holds the copyright. The recovery of this business prolongs your ability to keep doing what you love and protects the same for those you are still to come.

This isn't everything, of course. High-quality publications can fold just as easily as any other. Look at Brill's Content, which shut down this week. You need solid circulation, a competent sales staff and strong ties with your market. But your extra efforts can only help, not hinder, the recovery of the publishing industry. Hey, if they don't, at least you'll have some great clips to show for your work.

Your goal is to keep up your creative efforts and to bring this industry back to viability. When it does come back—and it will—you will once again be in the position to name your price.

Dave Nagel is the producer of Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; host of several World Wide User Groups, including Synthetik Studio Artist, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, Adobe LiveMotion, Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; and executive producer of the Digital Media Net family of publications. You can reach him at [email protected].

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