Wednesday, August 10, 2011

BoSacks Speaks Out: How to Survive in Publishing

Today's Publishing Career: We Are All Vulnerable
Talent and excellence are no safeguard against the winds of change.

By Robert M. Sacks

I'm a lucky man, and I know it. I have had the privilege and honor of working with some of the brightest minds and leadership, in my opinion, in our industry, and in the best of both worlds: I have worked as a self-employed magazine entrepreneur many times over, and I have worked for the best and most sophisticated publishing houses in the world.

In my rounds as industry provocateur, I have the freedom to meet with all levels of management from the very top of our industry, through middle management, to entry-level personnel and students at journalism schools.

I am mentioning this because of an interesting conversation I had this week with a major publisher at a major publishing house. My trick question to him was pretty straightforward: "Do you expect to retire from your current company?" His response was quick, but not immediate; I saw the wheels turning and his pondering, and then the honest answer was delivered: "No."

I have talked about careers in this column before, and I will most likely do so again. It was fascinating to me to know this man and understand the varied career path that took him to top of the publishing food chain, and to see that he forgot, at least for a little while, that he replaced somebody and that somebody will replace him, too. It is not an "if" question; it is a definitive "when" question. And if it is only a "when" question, then we need to ponder on whose terms will the "when" be when it actually happens. Yours or "theirs"?

My reason for asking him was to remind him of one of the most basic and obvious lessons of 21st-century publishing-we are all subject to the winds of change. From a career perspective, it is true that we are most vulnerable when we are the most comfortable.

On the same topic, I received a résumé yesterday from a man in his 50s, who is now out of work. I can tell you that he worked for his last company for at least 20 years and that he was very good at what he did. Being good at your job and having longevity at it doesn't matter at all in the world of disposable products and disposable careers. In his note to me, he said the cardinal sin of all personal careerism, "I didn't see that coming."

What? You didn't see that coming? We all have it coming sooner or later. That is why we must all do two things at the same time: We all must be the very best at what we do today in our current job and always have the next job lined up, or at least in our sights and in our heads. This is a case where I promise you that holding two completely separate ideas in your head at the same time will not make your head explode nor your career implode.

With all this drama about our careers and the changing landscape of the publishing world, I also believe that this is a great time to rethink the unthinkable. I have in my notes an expression that someone said. I didn't write from where it came, and it could even have been my own scrawling, but it is worth thinking about and perhaps agreeing with. The expression is this: "This is a unique and historic period where the unthinkable has never been more possible. We live in one of the greatest periods of experimentation, innovation and entrepreneurism that the world has ever seen." I believe that it can and should be a very exciting time to be in this business, if you can keep your wits about you and pay attention to the many swirling forces of change.

To the publisher with whom I was talking or the circulator with whom I was corresponding, I ask the same thing: Where are you going to from here, because you can't stay where you are. You can't ever say, "I didn't see it coming," because it always is. You can't rest on your laurels, because they are never strong enough to support you for very long.

In a market that is reinventing itself on a minute-by-minute basis, are you doing the same thing?

Bob Sacks (aka BoSacks) is a publishing industry consultant and president of The Precision Media Group ( He also is co-founder of research company mediaIDEAS (, and publisher and editor of a daily, international e-newsletter, Heard on the Web.