Is the world moving in a way that may naturally heal the editorial-business divide?
This divide has been a constant in all areas of publishing, perhaps none as famously as scientific publishing. Some battles in our fields have lit up headlines over the years as publishers and editors have squabbled over high-end concepts like “independence” and “viability.” Aside from these fireworks, I’ve worked at and been able to visit a number of scholarly publishers in my career, and I’ve seen this divide far too often. Even titles as commercial as the Economist are portrayed as divided, as in a recent profile in the Guardian:
. . . [as] with every title, there is a separation between church and state
Sometime, I think I’ll devote some time to figuring out which is church, which is state, and why. But that’s for another day.
As a publisher who came up as much through editorial as through business, walking this borderland dividing editorial and business has been interesting. The lack of respect on each side can be stunning, but the need for each other is undeniable.
There are many editorial-business or science-business hybrids employed in publishing, but not as many as we might want or need now, and especially into the future. These people are the shuttle diplomats in many organizations, able to touch most issues with knowledge and experience, but never fully part of either camp. They’re the generalists. To people like this, the divide is sometimes shocking when it opens wide enough for them to feel it. They can easily forget it exists at all — until some strange behavior reminds them of the perverse power those wielding such divisiveness can invoke.
The divide between editorial and business seems to be strongest when publications are stagnant and successful. Success can lead to editorial and publishing offices that are overly formalistic, set in their ways, and over-confident of the path forward. Success and stability can quickly become lassitude, hubris, or arrogance. During such times, energies normally expended to humbly compete for audience, implement compelling new editorial ideas, secure stable business, and bring in revenues turns inward. Good times also give the illusion of enduring power structures inside the building, a scaffolding to compete over and within.
Editors often work outside of the publishing offices — in remote locations using a staff devoted to editorial. In the issue economy, when discrete content items were gathered together into issues and those issues were sold, that was fine. Even in the article economy, it was acceptable — issues became sets of articles, not a huge change. But in the attention economy, publishing an article isn’t enough. More is required.
There’s an intrinsic pecking order to the classic divide — editorial first, business second. Because editorial is viewed as intrinsically superior to business, governance bodies often make the mistake of thinking that editorial should be at the vanguard of the organization. This is essentially an extension of the “editorial fallacy” Joe Esposito analyzed a couple of years ago:
The editorial fallacy is the belief that all of a publisher’s strategic problems can be solved by pursuing and publishing the finest books and articles.
But an interesting change has occurred over the past decade, a change our power structures, governance practices, and work habits haven’t yet fully absorbed. Gradually, implacably, we are now almost always in launch or development mode, but on a smaller scale than before. Each article needs to be launched to its audience to receive the attention it deserves. Each issue has to fight for attention, which requires publishing expertise from editors and editorial expertise from publishers. Editors have to behave more like publishers, and publishers have to support and cultivate editors in new ways.
The old divide can now be stitched closed by everyone focusing on an ever-more elusive and fickle information consumer.
Data on actual readership has replaced the presumptions of print — in print, there was a lingering conceit that every article was savored by an audience craving its rarefied contents. Now, editors can know when an article has received zero — yes, zero — views or downloads. This is new and sometimes shocking information, but knowledge of actual uptake is becoming commonplace. Is it affecting editorial behavior? Sometimes, in some places. But there’s still enough of a veneer of print that online data can be viewed as anomalous. This won’t last, and editors will become more interested in controlling the destinies of their content.
At the same time, publishers can’t practice their craft as if content is simply delivered, fixed in a final form, and scheduled. More and more publishing is occurring on networks like Twitter and Facebook, and commenting is slowly gaining legitimacy. New editors are needed for these outputs, and this requires new support systems and talent. New media sources, curation techniques, and business models require closer collaboration with domain experts and editors.
Technology has quickly moved from being a distribution alternative to being a creative medium of vast potential. Video, audio, animations, data displays — the editorial potential is rich here, but as long as editors continue to view technology as something their publishers use to get their content out, this palette won’t be exploited.
Marketing, analytics, product development, business development, editing, composition, technology — these are the tools editors and publishers should both be wielding to succeed in a more competitive information sphere. To confine them along a familiar border merely out of a need for traditional structures — including the editorial-business divide — can be counterproductive.
Editors and publishers are working in the midst of a time of great change. Editors are no longer capable of creating unique resources that can’t be integrated into even more useful resources. Overlays like Google, PubMed, and other overlays provide every online site with most of its traffic. Publishers are no longer able to work at arm’s length. Editors have to come up with new ideas that fit the times, and publishers need to give them the space, support, and perspective to do so. To succeed, a new level of collaboration needs to emerge.
Those who still embrace the editorial-business distinction are living in a past in which content was fixed, audience interactions took months to occur, publishing infrastructure didn’t allow for echoes to be more powerful than the source, and content didn’t remix with other content on a daily basis. The path forward in one of synthesis, finding paths into workflows and attention zones, and aligning with an audience.
A house divided cannot stand, but both sides will surely sink if built for land and then put to sea.