Between 1996 and 2005, I served on my community's school board, overseeing a district of about 6,000 students. In the United States, at least, public education can be a rough-and-tumble affair. Most people have opinions on how schools should be run, and some are not shy about voicing those opinions.
In the time I served, I tended to default to policy to help govern the district. This is the textbook approach, as it separates the development of rules and regulations from the emotional immediacy of a particular situation. But, it can also feel a bit bloodless when talking to people about their children.
At any given time, the board included eight other members elected from the two towns served by the school district. In my last two years, I had a chance to work with a newer board member whose approach shifted my sense of what is practical and possible when facing difficult situations.
During those two years, we faced a number of situations that put the board's policies in a public spotlight. I tended to default to the public record, explaining what we had decided and why it applied. My colleague supported me, but on several occasions he took it further, seeking out and meeting with the groups most critical of a district decision.
I had served with other board members who were inclined to reach out to the public, but they sometimes did so from a position of weakness. Rather than acknowledge that differences existed and work to find common ground, they would privately disagree with a board decision and try to soften the blow by promising some sort of reconsideration. That approach almost always backfired, as hopes were raised without obtaining the information needed to sway votes.
In contrast, my colleague defended board decisions and asked the people he met with to consider their demands with his perspective in mind. Data-driven, he worked with the people he met – generally, those opposed to something we were doing – to refine and improve their arguments. Although I've been off the board for nearly nine years, his approach has stuck with me.
That experience came to mind last month, when Porter Anderson graced us with a (U.S.) Thanksgiving post, "Kobo's feast of burden". In it, Anderson recounts a presentation given by Michael Tamblyn, the eBook retailer's chief content officer, at this year's FutureBook conference, held in London.
Kobo had been subject to intense scrutiny for a perceived failure to police its self-published titles. Some had also criticized the company's public response, which was sometimes described as slow and incomplete. Tamblyn was a late addition to the FutureBook agenda.
Anderson provides the comprehensive summary, and I direct you to his work for the full story. For my part, I'll jump to Anderson's presentation of Tamblyn's conclusion:
Authors will push us, will challenge boundaries, will go as far as they can go. And they should. And we will continue to grow into our role of curator. Every ebook retailer now has to wrestle with this. I’m here because we are willing to do some of it out loud, to acknowledge that choices are always being made, and be thoughtful about what they mean. And we will wrestle with the danger and significance of saying “No.” And push always for, and appreciate the power and promise of saying “Yes.”
In that setting, Tamblyn could easily have blamed policy, or rogue authors, or just the sheer complexity of managing thousands of books that no human being at Kobo has ever read. Although he talked about each of these things, he came to the conversation expecting more from his audience than they may have expected from themselves. In the process, he delivered an important reminder of why we wanted to work in publishing in the fiirst place.
Things go wrong. We live in worlds in which those affected sometimes want immediate and complete relief. We even expect promises that bad things will never happen again.
It takes foresight and courage to engage, to acknowledge problems and at that same time refrain from promising the easy or the comfortable solution. A decade ago, I saw that foresight and courage in a colleague. I think it's worth joining Porter Anderson in seeing it in Tamblyn's timely reminder.