Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Opinion: Young publishing professionals, to fear or not to fear?


“Exciting,” “unpredictable,” “unprecedented”…and let’s not forget “terrifying.” Those of us still on the threshold of the publishing industry have been bombarded with adjectives in reference to the digital transformation, many of them laced with fear. With the decline in print publishing and the advent of the Great Tablet Wars, any number of individuals, companies, and service providers in the book industry have been caught in the crossfire, and are thus justifiably terrified. Yet these same people seem convinced that publishing students, the young professionals hopefully on the verge of employment, should be aglow and atwitter (literally) about all these opportunities the digital age has to offer.

So let’s talk about these opportunities for a moment, shall we? And while we’re at it, we might reframe them as slightly terrifying expectations. Publishing students are increasingly expected to arrive armed with knowledge of ePub versus Mobi, the benefits of HTML 5, and the tomfoolery of CSS. But here’s the thing—there’s a reason why programming is a career in itself. That stuff is hard, yo. The other night, during an electronic publishing lesson on the nuances of XML, I was struck by the fact that I didn’t fully understand a single one of the three bullet points on the professor’s slide. Now, as the child of a programmer and some sort of hardcore mathy person (my mother apparently once invented a stereometric algorithm for conveyor belts; she’s also very nice and pretty and someday I will understand how my DNA derived from hers), I may not love technical thingies but they also don’t scare me. Yet I readily admit that anything beyond a very shallow understanding of programming and its intricacies is beyond my grasp.

I’m certainly not saying that none of us have the potential to become really good at that stuff. In fact, I’m sure some of my classmates and peers are super awesome at floating commands, child selectors, and that other thing with the hashtag. But is it reasonable to expect those of us who are entering the publishing industry because we love manipulating the written word, rather than the very technical metadata surrounding it, to double as programmers or website developers? If it’s a more general conversancy with the new publishing landscape that’s expected, our generation is at a bit of a disadvantage—unlike those who will come after us, we haven’t all converted to e-readers and iPads yet, and most publishing programs are likewise in the process of adapting. There’s still a distinct absence of a happy middle ground between the brief mention of ebooks in overview courses, and specialized classes that delve into the technical aspects of web development and electronic publishing. On-point courses like Emerson’s “Amazon, Apple, and Google” are rare and precious finds.

So what’s the take-home from all this? We have the advantage of being Web-savvy, and the Internet is currently the best resource we could ask for, so let’s choose to not be terrified. Along with our very own Appazoogle, Joe Wikert’s Publishing 2020 Blog,O’Reilly Tools of Change for PublishingTechCrunchTeleReadcyberjournalist.netpersonanondata, and ReadWriteWeb are great resources to add to your RSS feed—and if you don’t know what that is (I didn’t, until a few months ago) now’s the time to learn! Also, don’t feel really sad when you can’t make your hedgehog parenting website look anything like the prototype you designed; even seasoned programmers will tell you that CSS positioning is just plain mean-spirited. And soon, there will be turkey.


This entry was posted on November 15, 2011 by in Culture, Opinion.

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