Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Jack of all Trades, Master of None

For the vast majority of our history as a species, humans were content to live in relatively small groups and spend their time hunting and gathering—and no wonder: most hunter-gatherers work about twenty hours a week to get their living. Yet in the last 10,000-year blink of the evolutionary eye we suddenly have cities and civilizations exploding all over the planet. The culprit, according to a number of anthropologists, is the specialization made possible by agricultural surpluses.

The power of specialization is obvious to every writer who dreams of walking away from the oppression of the day job and devoting his or her full-time to the craft. Imagine the all books we could write—perhaps two or three a year—if we weren’t limited to an hour or two of writing each day.

If you think artisan publishing offers a shortcut to becoming a full-time writer, I have bad news for you: artisan publishing is actually a shortcut to becoming a full-time publisher.

The difference between a writer who is published and a publisher who writes begins with the contrast between the passive phrase, “a writer who is published,” and the active phrase, “a publisher who writes.” One of the reasons for the traditional separation between authors and publishers is that it allows each partner to specialize: the writer delivers a finished manuscript and then the publisher goes to work.

There’s so much to do as an artisan publisher that you can’t afford to specialize. Serious writers understand how much time and effort it takes to go from idea to finished manuscript. Publishers understand how much time and effort it takes to go from finish manuscript to book for sale. You’ve got to be a generalist if you’re going to do everything that needs to be done between the idea and the book. Even if you engage freelance editors and designers you still need to understand enough of what they do to be able to review and approve their work.

But it’s worse than that. You actually need to become a serial specialist. Many of the nontrivial tasks—like writing and design—require focus and skill. And yet just as you’re getting the hang of it you need to move on to something else. In practice this means you’re constantly relearning things. If you feel like you’re being pulled in too many different directions when you try to write now, you’ll find artisan publishing more frustrating than fulfilling.

Image: Simon Howden /