Thursday, August 13, 2009


There used to be a culture here in these halls, in these offices, and in these cubicles. It was based on trust, on the mutual conviction that the work everyone was engaged in had meaning, that each person's work supported the whole enterprise, and that good work was an end worth pursuing in and of itself. You did not need to be told to aim high, work hard, and strive for excellence. That was a given. It was lived and breathed by all who occupied these offices and cubicles. No one needed the Tom Peters speech.

This culture held the place together. It allowed for serious fun and unstrained human interaction. Relations between colleagues were easy. Not empty, or simply transactional, or emotionally stunted -- but
easy. Which doesn't imply the absence of conflict or tension. After all, nothing creative can happen without friction. In the tightly-woven culture that used to exist here, unspoken rules of engagement allowed talented people to joust without feeling the need to fight to the death. It allowed them to tell the truth to one another as they saw it, and shoot for a better result, period. People knew what they were supposed to do, and they knew where they resided in the grand scheme of things, and they understood how they could contribute. Friction did not mean lack of respect. You went out for drinks after work and laughed off the day's shite in favor of intellectual companionship.

You're thinking that it's a load of crap I'm selling, that it was never like that, that I'm painting a rosy picture of the past by employing selective memory. You're wrong. I don't idealize (or idolize) the past, although I do worry about preserving the best of it and feel ashamed when I haven't learned from it. But I'm not using a soft brush when I say that there really used to be a culture of excellence here. That this oddball high-risk, low-profit enterprise was based on a culture as richly palpable and specific as the people who lived it.

Sure, it was a bookish culture and a snobby culture. How could it be otherwise? We were all in the game because we loved books, and all book-lovers harbor their idées fixes and pit their knobby enthusiasms against those of the world at large. But we were also curious, open-minded, tolerant, interested in all kinds of artifacts, pop and classical, high and low, fatiguingly so at times, dilettantes in the best possible way. And here's the other thing. We were kids. I'm not talking about physical age. I'm talking about attitude and energy and playfulness.
We knew how to effin play.

That culture has been systematically choked off by the inexorable tightening of the corporate noose, the insane ideology of growth for its own sake.
Insane is the proper word, meaning unhealthy, as in the sentence: The industry is now widely recognized as unhealthy, even by those gray eminences who profited most by touting unlimited growth just a few years ago. Unhinged, unmoored from reality, those talking heads are talking still. Once you start letting people go so you can hit imaginary profit targets, your culture is dead.

Once the offices and cubicles are vacated, once the neighborhood watering holes feature empty bar-stools, the game is over. The kids become adults with furrowed brows. They learn how to keep their mouths shut. Or they lie to each other. Because they have no culture to protect them, they have to wear masks in public. So you can't see their tears.

No, making books and making money are not incompatible activities, but they are really hard to pursue together, whether you're a big corporate publisher or a feisty indie press, or a post-indie service bureau trying to navigate the uncharted waters of social media commerce. To do it well you need a robust, nurturing, and protective culture. Something like the culture we used to have here, in these offices, in these cubicles, in this town.

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