Wing of madness

While visiting Los Angeles for a job interview in the mid-1990s, I found myself with a free afternoon. I studied a map, braved a few conversations with skeptical hotel staff and ultimately walked to a branch of the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

At the time, the museum was undergoing a renovation. Its open space was dedicated entirely to a Cy Twombly retrospective, much of the work created on a gigantic scale. I struggled to find a spot that would provide a reasonable perspective for the art on display.

Near the end of the exhibit, I came across a much smaller sculpture of a bird in flight, its name taken from the writing of Charles Baudelaire:I have felt the wind of the wing of madness pass over me.

The sculpture and Baudelaire’s words have stuck with me over the years. They came back to mind in February, as the role of libraries got debated in the wake of a publisher’s decision to license eBooks for a limited number of uses.

I’m not a library expert, so as the controversy over HarperCollins’ decision has unfolded, I’ve tried to read as much of the coverage and opinion as I can. Eric Hellman, whose blog posts address a variety of publishing-related issues, contributed a particularly adept analysis. (For a helpful before-and-after perspective, also take a look at a post linked to OverDrive that Hellman wrote in January, likely as HarperCollins was in discussions to limit its eBook lending).

We live in a free-market, capitalist society, and for-profit publishers have no direct responsibility for public goods like libraries. Thinking that a multi-national entity like HarperCollins, ultimately part of News Corp., would act in the public interest seems like a special form of madness.

But … I’ve also come to see libraries as part of an ecosystem of lending, borrowing and gifting that ultimately leads to buying. Unilaterally changing the rules on a primary market for lending (which promotes reading, and buying) could just as easily be described as madness.

In publishing, we tend to analyze our problems in silos, rather than employ the systems thinking best summarized in Peter Senge’s work. Unfortunately, optimizing one part of a supply chain likely guarantees a suboptimal result overall.

I can understand HarperCollins concern. Things feel as if they are changing a good deal in a short period of time, and we don’t know what the future will look like. But, this is just the latest in a series of changes and inflection points that signal a new order in publishing.

Borrowing metaphors from the last era and making changes at the margin continue to leave publishing vulnerable to disruption. Organizations like the AAP, the ALA and the ABA exacerbate the problem by (naturally) defending narrower interests at a time when overall demand for print books is falling quickly.

Coordinating efforts to increase demand for published content would be a better use of resources. I know: idealistic for an industry not yet dedicated to a transformation. But that’s me. I’m still hopeful I’ll hear back on my open letter to Scott Turow.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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