Getting Publishers Past Step One

To misappropriate a line from another form of recovery, admitting you have a problem is the first step. Mercifully, a healthy chunk of the traditional publishing industry got past that point some time ago, and has since moved onto the business of grappling with the, oh, one or two bazillion small challenges they face adapting their businesses to the realities of digital distribution. But there are still a few stragglers.

MacArthur’s latest rant on the Harper’s blog is an extreme example of the same recycled, hostile attitudes we saw in the early days of digital publishing. And insofar as it devolves into outright name-calling, it doesn’t merit much in the way of a response. What is worth noting is that if you’re in charge of transitioning a publishing operation from the old world to the new, you need to be concerned with what is happening, not what should be happening, or still worse, what you wish was happening.

For the laggards who’d rather throw temper tantrums instead of getting on with the actual business of adapting, the following needs to be said: Pausing to pitch fits is a luxury you can ill afford. You just don’t have that kind of time. The ship has sailed. The house is on fire. This is your burning hand. Pick whatever metaphor suits your tastes. Whichever it is, please ensure it reminds you that this stuff is happening right now and is absolutely, positively not going away—regardless of whether you think it’s right or wrong.

Why does this matter? If the leaders of publishing’s old guard aren’t spending what precious little time they have left working on solutions, they are actively abdicating their seat at the table, along with their power of self-determination in possible new futures. And that’d be a damn shame when so many of their organizations still have something to offer.


Alexis Madrigal has written an appropriately mocking riposte that does a great job of highlighting the obtuseness of MacArthur’s contentions.