A tale of two cultures

As more and more publishing houses bring in talented digital employees, there’s a likely clash of cultures on the horizon. How can publishers with their rich history work alongside technologists and their history of “disrupting” everything? Designer and developer Derrick Schultz takes a look at the future of the people behind the books.

A few weeks back, I was fortunate to hear Sarah Sampsel from The Washington Post speak about their work re-thinking how they do digital news. I’m botching the quote, I’m sure, but here was the point: in the past few years, The Post’s development team has moved from being an IT-like department to being a central part of the newsroom. Newspapers always seem a few years ahead of book publishers in these moves, but we’re not far off from this tipping point ourselves.

Look at that map (from the great Boris Anthony). At every intersection, I’d argue there’s a possibility for technology to aid and improve a publisher’s abilities. We can point at ebooks and acknowledge that “someone who writes code needs to make those.” But publishers need developers to do more than just the end product.

This past year’s major media news stories have proven that. Publishers would be smart to invest in their own ecommerce solutions lest they find their interests completely beholden to Amazon’s interests. And I hope every publisher is working to make their communications more secure after the Sony Hack. (I can only imagine what writer might be the Angelina Jolie of a publisher’s hacking scandal.) Can we skip the clichéd “disruption” discussion and just acknowledge that technology can assist—not own—these roles and more at a time when publishers struggle to grow? The answer is yes, but it won’t happen overnight and there’s going to be more than a few growing pains to get there.

Developer Culture vs Publisher Culture

Forgive this technologist for his blatant turn of phrase, but my time as a designer and developer working with books can best be described as a “Tale of Two Cultures.” The common developer’s ethos of “move fast and break things” runs counter to a publisher’s reality: books take time to develop, and that book damn well better be perfect when it’s finally published. It often took as much time empathizing and understanding the other side as it did creating the products together.

While it seems like these two creator cultures are at odds, there’s no need for one side to be the winner and the other the loser. The realistic outcome of book publishers adding tech to their infrastructure is that technology will change some editorial decisions, and likewise the publisher will change the technology we provide. Sometimes technology’s push to try things and fail will result in quicker learning for publishers, and sometimes publishers’ desires for quality and nuance over speed will allow technology to create better books.

The truth is, there’s no better time than now for these two cultures to start blending. It won’t change either side overnight, but in a few short years I can see book publishing competing with great journalism dev departments for the lead in making technology a great partner with publishing.

Derrick will be at ebookcraft and Tech Forum this March to talk about adopting CMSes for ebook development, and to continue the discussion on the books-meet-tech culture clash. See the full schedules here.