Can We Delight in Digital Publishing?

As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.” (Never fear, we’ll save the imaginary conversation with Oscar Wilde for another post.) For the past couple of days I’ve been reflecting on a short piece that asks the rhetorical question, “Can we make books fun again?” [Joanna Cabot, TeleRead]. The gist of said piece is that most publishing news is not only difficult to follow but also, once successfully followed, depressing. Ms. Cabot makes a plea for more uplifting (some would say fluffier) coverage of the book business. My reflection on this sentiment was a multi-step process. 

Step one: Test primary hypothesis. Is publishing news really that much of a downer?

Independent booksellers sue Amazon and publishers over eBooks [New York Times]
the uncertain future of the Nook [US News and World Report blog]
a librarian’s concerns about problematic trends in digital collection development [School Library Journal / The Digital Shift]
a warning that we are losing the book as a symbol in the digital age [TOC O’Reilly]
Journalism is now a potential career path for robots []

Conclusion: Well, I’m not exactly breaking out in warm-fuzzies. 

Step Two: Test secondary hypothesis. Are happier stories the answer? I.e., are they valuable additions to a conversation about an inescapably complex and often frustrating industry?

An awesome Slovenian library, also mentioned in Ms. Cabot’s post, gives out “mystery packs” of books handpicked by librarians [TeleRead]
LaVar Burton gets really excited about the digital reincarnation(s) of Reading Rainbow [School Library Journal / The Digital Shift]
book-themed cupcakes can be custom-made to tie in with your favorite literature []

Conclusion: That’s nice. I’m now inspired to host a literary-themed cupcake party. If I read the whole Reading Rainbow article, I may even have learned a bit–although, as I’m sure Ms. Cabot would agree, I still need to keep tabs on the “real” news if I want to know what’s actually happening in publishing. 

Step Three: Realization. That’s not actually the point. The larger meaning of “making books fun again” isn’t just that we need to inject more cheeriness into our news roundups. It’s that the people involved in the book industry–from authors to publishers, to the intern who marks up eBook manuscripts for phrase-highlighting (hi!), all the way to each indispensable reader–should be having fun with it.

Elaboration. Workers work better when they’re having fun. Students learn better when they’re having fun. Buyers buy more when they’re having fun. And while I’m on a roll with blanket statements for which I have no statistical confirmation, I’ll add that most people who work in publishing are doing so because they truly love it. There is magic in it. Even when the big picture is dominated by number-crunching and lawsuit-filing, and when the little picture involves hours of eBook phrase-highlighting, at the end of the day, there are books, and there is, still and always, magic in that. So why not harness our love of that magic–the sense of wonder and curiosity and excitement that sometimes gets trampled by the “business side” of things–as a means to step up our game? Instead of framing our goals merely in terms of survival, or keeping up, or even selling books (all of which are essential, of course), why not ask, “How can we make this fun?” 

Demonstration. At Lerner, we want to make reading fun for kids. We also want to offer teachers, librarians, parents, and booksellers materials about which they can get excited–materials they’ll enjoy sharing. And sometimes, if we’re Adriano Fruzzetti, we want to bring in board games to play at lunchtime. So let’s say I have fun playing a board game with colleagues during lunch. I then return to my phrase-highlighting task feeling refreshed and even inspired, which allows me to complete a necessary step in the process of preparing an eBook for release. That eBook–written by an author who had a blast researching a fascinating topic, and shepherded along by a team of people who get a kick out of the wacky yet gripping manuscript–eventually finds its way to a teacher who thinks, “Perfect! A new way to engage my students!” and finally reaches a kid whose reaction isWhoa!” Creativity flourishes, books are sold, young minds are expanded: all in a day’s work.

Step Four: Conclusion. Publishing is far too important not to have fun with.

Secondary, Lerner-specific conclusion. Mission accomplished.