Graduation!

I was quite flattered to be asked to speak at my graduation, in company with my classmate Dehlia McCobb. I could go on for ages about what a great time the publishing program at PSU was and how much I learned there, but my speech summed it up pretty well. So here it is:

So, we’re finally done! It’s been a great experience for me, and a lot of the credit for that goes to all of you. The best part of the Ooligan experience, after all, is the freedom that we’re given to figure things out on our own, and a lot of the figuring out that happens is us helping each other. I remember a conversation with Dennis a year ago or so in which he said that when the program first started, the instructors needed to explain just about everything to the students. After a few years, though, a sort of collective pool of knowledge built up, and suddenly the instructors didn’t need to explain what things like BLADs or drop caps were, because everyone seemed to know already. That pool of knowledge comes from students teaching each other, which happens because of Ooligan—the work we do on the press teaches us at least as much as our classes do. So, thanks to all of you for helping to teach me so much.

So that’s the past. Mostly, I want to talk about the future. I know that when I talk to people about how I’m about to get a master’s in book publishing, the first reaction is “oh, that’s cool!” and the second is “so, what are you going to do with that?” There’s a lot of talk about the dire straits publishing is in and how the whole industry is going to fall apart because of ebooks, or the internet, or nobody reading any more. And there are all the layoffs happening in New York, and the occasional bankruptcy—all kinds of bad stuff out there to terrify the freshly-minted master of publishing. And it’s true; business models are collapsing and taking businesses with them.

The thing is, there are also a ton of new opportunities. Personally, I think this is the best time to be getting involved in publishing. The big houses are facing some trouble, it’s true, and nobody really knows what to make of the whole ebook market yet, but more and more books are being put out every year, and people are reading them. And they’re not just reading printed books; they’re reading on Kindles, on cell phones, on their shiny new iPads—all over the place, and in lots of different formats. And all of those formats are opportunities for us to use the skills that we’ve polished in our time at Ooligan. Ebooks need to be edited too, and a good designer can make ebook conversion a million times easier. And of course, ebooks need to be marketed well.

In some ways, the marketer’s job is going to be the most important in the years to come. More and more books are coming out, and most of those are being self-published. Ebooks creation is getting easier and easier, and even the Wall Street Journal is reporting that authors can make more money putting out ebooks on their own than going through a traditional publisher. Clearly, this is pretty good news for freelancers, because these ebooks and POD books will still need editors and designers. It’s also a great opportunity for publishers, though, because it gives us the opportunity to tell people which books, out of all the thousands that come out every day, they should read. If publishers can set themselves up as authorities in a particular niche, they can reap the rewards as people who like that niche try to figure out where to get the books they want. This is the trouble with a lot of the big New York houses; they don’t really have a niche, they just produce books.

Niche publishing is going to be the way of the future. This is going to mean smaller sales and less money—but if any of us decided to get into publishing for the money, well. . . that would be a mistake. It also means that we get to focus on what we really want to read; we get to publish what we think is good.

Social media let publishers reach out to readers more than ever before. It lets us get involved in conversations that readers are having and it lets us tell them what we like and what we think is good. The thing is, people don’t want to be advertised to on the Internet. We’ve all developed pretty fine-tuned bullshit detectors, and if we think someone online is just trying to get us to buy something, we tune them out pretty immediately. So we need to be genuine when we deal with readers.

So we focus on a niche we love, and publish the stuff that we love, and talk to readers (who we should start thinking of as friends, really) about the kind of stuff that fits in with the books we love. That sounds like a pretty good future to me, but it gets even better.

My prediction is that ebooks are going to continue to rise in popularity. If we’re lucky, they’ll take the place of the mass market paperback. But people will still want print editions of their favorite books—nice leather-bound hardcovers with two-color interiors, that sort of thing. And those are a lot more fun to design than yet another mass market paperback. So we get to publish the stuff we love, talk to readers (or friends) about the books we love, and have fun doing really cool editions of our favorite books.

New media platforms create even more opportunities for us. People are designing computer games, and creating transmedia platforms, and organizing alternate reality games, and all of those things require the kinds of skills that we’ve learned here. Anything with text needs a good editor, and anything with a story needs someone who can spot the places where the story bogs down. Designers will always be needed to make sure that things look nice, and marketers will always be needed to make sure that potential buyers know about products.

This is a great time to be getting into publishing. I can’t wait to see where it all goes.

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