(1)Ethics, Publishing, and Planning for the Future: Framing Choices with Eyes Open

Given at the Ethics and Publishing Conference, the capstone conclusion to the George Washington University's Master's in Publishing program, Washington, DC, July 8, 2013.

My intent over the next 30 minutes is to build an argument about publishing choices that integrates ethics, futurism, and long-term planning. (2)My focus is on books, more than journals, and (3)nonfiction more than fiction, but most of my arguments pertain to most forms of publishing.

This is not a talk about (4)epubs, or how to wag social media's long tails.

Nor is it about how, in the future, (5)jetpacks will fly us to our skybubble-libraries.

This is about both (6)philosophy and harsh reality; about both (7)idealism and economic realities. And it’s about making (8)smart choices about publishing and smart choices about the future.

Book Publishing

Book publishing is one of the few industries with a (9) three- or five-year time horizon for its products. Sure, we love the quick big hits, when they come, but they’re rare and mostly unpredictable. Most of our publishing careers will be spent on mid-list books -- the ones that sell in the thousands, but rarely in the tens of thousands.

Historically, there’s a (10) three-year squashed bell curve sales trajectory for sales of mid-list books (discounting the initial spike upon release). (10)

Publishers also know that it takes most projects 12 to 24 months, to complete the many steps from initially accepted manuscript, to book in hand.

It does seem strange: the manuscript we accept today can be more than two years old when it becomes an available book, and another two to three years before that mid-list title gets shifted to the suburbs of ‘the backlist.’

In a way, publishers try to "skate to where the puck will be" in two or three years' time, (11) as Wayne Gretzky called it. That is, we don’t start now on what’s hot now, but which will inevitably be stale in two or three years’ time.

Publishers are therefore almost required to be (12) cultural futurists.


Publishing is also about cultural encouragement -- our idealism tells us that the work we do nudges the culture forward in positive ways. That idealism usually directed our choice of careers, because we want our work to matter. (14) We want to be publishing stuff that deserves a bigger audience; we want to be helping authors send their ideas out into the world on the strongest of wings.

(15) Because of this strange confluence of long-range thinking and our idealism as an industry, book publishing is a fundamentally different business than selling toothpaste, or gasoline, or ethanol additives, or organic chicken, or fashion.

Not only do we want skate to where the puck will be, we want to do something important with the puck: we want to make the shot.

We want the works we publish to be substantive, no matter what the era, and we want to give our authors the best chance to succeed.


(17) Ethics is akin to practical idealism; it's about knowing right from wrong, and about making informed choices so that good results from them.

Ethics isn't about white lies, or even about absolute purity; ethics is about right living, about following a path paved with only barely measurable toxins like shame or guilt.

If we are sane, we all understand ethical behavior. It’s part of what makes us human. It’s part of every faith. It stems from empathy, and from community, and from the Golden Rule.

(18)Those who succeed unethically might be technically admired, but we tend to respond to them with distrust.

Ethical behavior, however, is worthy of respect, in all cultures.

Working The Future

As I said earlier, a book publisher’s job is to look toward the three-year, five-year, and even (in this era of the measurable Long Tail) the ten-year cultural trend. We must be cultural futurists, if we are to survive as individual publishing houses, and perhaps even to survive as an industry.

To be a futurist requires understanding the systems of the world well enough to project likely scenarios for where to skate, to get to where the puck will be.

(19)I co-edit a longstanding website, ApocaDocs.com, which carries the distinction of being the first humor site, focused on environmental collapse.

I've spent much of the last six years closely watching news releases and stories pertaining to what I call "the converging emergencies": climate chaos, resource depletion, species collapse, biology breach, and infectious disease. We even wrote a book about it (20).

The reasons we started this exercise in quipping growing misery, are best discussed with a MacCallan over ice.

Today, over those six years at apocadocs.com, my oldest bestest friend Jim and I have be-quipped and retained more than 7,600 news items. We've looked at four or five times that number of stories, every day of every week. (21)

And we actively thought about them long enough to try to make a joke about each of them. We didn’t just headline-surf.

Consequently, I'm arguably among the more tuned-in futurists around, because I've been watching the trend lines closely for more than six years. One might also suspect that I'm partially unhinged, from paying attention to bad news all these years.

But as a generally sober analyst whose predictions have historically been more right than wrong, I'm going to go with what I believe to be true.

As someone who has spent more than six years closely researching thousands of stories about what I feared was the "converging emergencies" of climate, ecosystems, and resources, let me tell you what I've concluded:

(22)It's all happening "faster than expected."

(23)It's all "deeper than expected."

(24)It's all "more chaotic than expected."

The momentum toward substantial near-term disruption (of civilization as we know it) continues unabated. North America may be able to stave off the worst of the awful a few extra years, but we are now members of the global community.

And the status of the globe is pretty grim. We may have already passed several planetary boundaries-- tipping points beyond which it is very difficult to recover.

(25)Climate: trajectory
Methane is being released by melting permafrost, and by massive vents in warming lakes and coast. The Arctic ice is thinner and its extent smaller than ever. Strange weather extremes continue unabated: Monsoons awry, seasons all a-kilter, and droughts and deluges and derechos bringing misery to far too many.

Worse yet, things would have been worse if the ocean hadn’t been absorbing about a third of the excess CO2. But even worser, when it absorbs CO2 it becomes more acidic, and many carbonaceous critters like coral, like many phytoplankton, like many shellfish, simply begin to fail in even mildly acidic conditions, because they can’t form their shells right.

Perhaps worstest of all is the latency effect -- even if we stopped everything today, it would be another century before CO2 levels would begin to decline.

(26)Resource depletion
Humans have already harvested most all of the easy stuff. The oil that spewed out of the ground is long gone, the thick veins of metals have all been found and extracted, the richest topsoil has all been farmed. We have overfished the ocean’s former bounty, and are mowing down rain forests for temporary cattle ranches.

Today, the most exciting thing on the energy front is hydrofracking, which means drilling down a kilometer or two, and then drilling sideways another kilometer or two, and pumping millions of gallons of fresh water and toxic chemicals to shatter the deep shale, to squeak out the gas and oil embedded in it. The energy and water costs are staggering.

And it will get worse. Aquifers of ancient water are being drained at an alarming rate, and clean fresh water is becoming ever more scarce, especially when the snow that feeds so many rivers is failing to fall.

(27)Species diversity
Worldwide, amphibians as a class are dying of the chytrid virus, which we humans spread. In North America, hibernating bats are dying of white-nose syndrome, which we humans spread. Orangutan habitat is being erased for palm oil plantations in Indonesia. Across the developed world, honey bees and other pollinators are being wiped out by neonicotinoids, a kind of systemic pesticide that is built into the plant. Field and songbird populations are plummeting, as their habitats disappear.

And it will get worse. As previously-stable ecosystems are destabilized, expect new extremes and nearly plague-like explosions -- because vermin (rodents, voracious insects, and the like) reproduce much more quickly than predators. In the absence of predators, up and down the food chain, vermin will prosper.

(28)Biology Breach One of the truths uncovered by modern biology is that everything’s connected. Ecosystems, whether city, county, rural, urban, forest, savannah, or desert, rely on a complex set of evolved interdependencies to function efficiently and sustain themselves.

Ecosystems, however, never evolved to deal with what we humans produce.

Toxins, alien species, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, endocrine disruptors, and more all stress whatever watersheds receive them. The ocean is full of dead zones where the disruption is so complete that oxygen is no longer available, or where poisonous plastic particles far outnumber plankton. At the base of the Mississippi, the dead zone is as big as Texas. Marine life all now carry PCBs, heavy metals, and other toxins in their flesh, even in the Antarctic. Water treatment plants don’t remove Prozac or birth control, and the fish downstream are changing.

The poisonous effluent of civilization is now disrupting the natural world’s previous balances, with uncertain consequences.

The world economic system was once based on property and capital. It is now based on debt, and its consequences. Collateralized debt obligations, hedged futures trading, and monetized insurance of insurance are now embedded. Trillions of dollars of so-called value is based on the presumption that all will remain normal, and that growth will continue unabated, forever.

If society acknowledged that everything was indeed different now, then the value of the stocks, bonds, growth funds, pensions, 401Ks, and financial instruments everywhere would suffer dramatic declines. It is therefore in the best interests of those with the most to lose, to carry on the status quo as long as possible, which of course means that when this bubble bursts, it will burst even more wickedly for most of us.
(30) Converging Emergencies
Any of these alone would be cause for worry. The bigger problems occur when these issues (and others) intersect. The vermin increase, and so we increase our use of pesticides and fungicides, which kill bad and good critters alike. The infrastructure of civilization begins to fail as bridges, roads, and plumbing reach the end of their fifty-year life span, just as the economy fails, making it difficult to afford fixes. Climate chaos creates droughts that require greater use of ancient aquifer waters. Economic disruptions make it harder to develop popular support for reigning in dirty energy use. And on and on.

These are all, of course, my own conclusions, based on data I've gleaned on my own. You should of course form your own conclusions, and I hope you’ll be googling some of the themes I’ve mentioned, and thinking through how they will interact, and how these and others not mentioned might affect the near-ish future.

(31)Making Choices

So: In a world of impending climate crisis, resource crisis, food crisis, environmental crisis, and economic crisis? what's a publisher to do?

You may be saying ‘It’s one thing if you’re Island Press, with a long history of environmental publishing ‘ but what does that have to do with me?’

These concerns might seem nearly unimportant, to a fashion publisher. Or to a culinary publisher. Or to a sports publisher.

But a fashion publisher will have to work within any economic meltdown, and confront its impact on fashion.

A culinary publisher will be dramatically affected by any food crisis, and would need to understand trends in locavores, and anti-GMO sentiment, and the ‘slow food movement,’ in the context of rising food prices, changing consumer demand, and rising consumer fears.

A sports publisher's audience (and market) will be affected by a climate crisis: if hockey or soccer is part of their portfolio, and climate chaos means that no kids can skate on a pond in rural Canada, it matters to their market: the size of the next generation of hockey players drops deeply, while the skillz entering the soccer market might begin to skyrocket in 2016.

Climatic, ecosystem, environmental, and economic disruption affects every bit of publishing, one way or another. This is not a fad, or a transitory trend -- this is a transformative shift of our world, and therefore of our worldview.

(32)We must transform our expectations of a benign, cornucopian Nature (which we were taught), into a recognition of limits, of overshoot and overuse of limited resources, and of a required realignment, in order to maintain a reasonable level of civilization.

And this isn’t even an idealist’s view -- it is becoming increasingly clear that any pragmatic, profit-focused entrepreneur needs to become a futurist, grappling with the trend lines of EROEI, species collapse, ecosystem service disruptions, and weather extremes.

Let me be explicit:

(33)a) I personally believe that unless substantial cultural change happens within the next five years (enabling a radical shift in our energy profile), we will be unable to "shift into reverse" in time to prevent dramatic environmental catastrophe.

In three years, if that cultural change hasn't started, then the markets will react with increasing upheaval over the next few years, as they try to cope with a radically (and inescapably) worsening world.

(34)b) the book market (whether ebook or pbook) will undergo its own dramatic changes, depending on cultural awareness of those same consumer-culture limits, either in the near term (3-5 years) or the long term (5-10 years).

c) If the future turns as sour as I reluctantly expect (and many think it will), then several imperatives become clear.

Publishers who acknowledged this change will be more likely to prosper than the publisher who tries to stay in the land of denial and hubristic optimism. Those who adapt are more likely to survive than those who adhere to the old, demonstrably failed models of the world.

Bluntly, publishing any book that is based on (35) intrinsically invalid principles is a dumb publishing choice.

Such a book risks very quickly becoming:

1) immaterial, 2) embarrassing 3) unpurchasable ‘old news’ out of touch with the real world 4) brand-degrading -- "they published *that’!*

Ethics, and good business sense, therefore dictate that we grapple with these larger questions, in our editorial selections.

We need to be part of trying to save what we can, for obvious and non-obvious reasons. Today, we should mistrust projects which have, as an underlying assumption, the idea that consumer growth can continue forever and ever.

Projects that presume a continuously benign climate, or ecosystem, or energy matrix, should be viewed with suspicion, unless they somehow actively grapple with it. Such a conclusion is a big hurdle -- since most legitimate evidence runs counter to that belief in the continuation of the status quo.

When 95+% of climate scientists agree that climate chaos is real and mostly human-driven; when the evidence of dramatic ecosystem disruption is unparalleled, and biologists are in despair; when corporate interests diverge so pointedly from the interests of the majority of humans; when people's voices have been muted, but long to be heard? these are the times that publishers should be at the vanguard.

We must listen to the future, and carefully.

In short, when issues of protecting an individual publisher's brand, and protecting the overall ecosystem, converge, then a new perspective on "publisher ethics" is required.

(37)Publisher Ethics

Publishers need to rise to this occasion, not just for ethical reasons, but for practical ones as well.

As a practicing publisher, our jobs are to:

(38)a) be aware of the landscape into which we're publishing (39)b) be alert to risks to the explicit (*and* implicit) underpinnings of our authors' works (40)c) be alert to the larger social movements (Transition, Permaculture, Locavore, non-consumerist, slow food, organic, anti-GMO, etc.) that indicate positive cultural change, and publish with them in mind (41)d) as always, try to publish works that have lasting value (in both monetary and cultural metrics), and with value that remains even in a changing world.

Our ethical imperative is to work for good, not destruction; to illuminate, not hide; to encourage the development of a sustainable civilization, not cheerlead the willful collapsing of a sustainable civilization.

(42)How do we achieve lasting value as publishers?

(43)* By educating ourselves about the "converging emergencies" * By publishing works that acknowledge the new real world; * By publishing works that confront (or at least combat) the worries and concerns of a newly-concerned audience, two to four years hence; * By grappling with a long-term perspective, even as short-term profit drivers seem both attractive and profitable.

Book publishers have no choice but to play the long game.

That long game, based on the evidence I’ve been seeing, is very different from the short-term game we see in most of the economy, which depends on everything else staying more or less the same.

Our strategies for survival must recognize that such an assumption is blatantly wrong.

Our ethical sense must acknowledge that supporting the status quo means supporting the unsustainable. Our practical strategies must grapple with a world in which ‘normalcy’ is increasingly unusual.

Everything will not stay the same. The world is changing, because we’re changing it -- and as publishers, our job is to recognize that change, editorially select with that change in mind, and even strive to precede the market shifts.

That is, it’s our job to not just nudge the future away from destruction, but also to build a list that clasps hands with a positive future.

These are tall orders.

I’m asking each of you to research these topics on your own, quite separate from the more normal research you do on markets, sales, and numbers. I’m asking each of you to put on your futurist cap, and imagine where things might be by 2017.

Then, I hope to hear from you about how you’re making choices that help nudge all of us in the direction of a more positive future.

(44)Our job as publishers is to blend practicality, idealism, futurism, and ethics into a working policy that results in not just a successful publishing strategy, but also a sustainable civilization.