A Human Menagerie · A Sideways View

Books And The Building Industry.

What was it someone said to Dorothy Parker? “Oh, darling, I’m writing a book.” To which Dot responded, “I’m not writing one either.” It’s great to speak of writing a book, to actually write one implies a rather different situation altogether. Dorothy Parker was an experienced storyteller and journalist, and knew the pitfalls. Just wanting to write is not enough. But then, it never was.

I am a member of a particularly low grade group on Facebook that deals with uncreative writing. It’s like being a member of the Anthroposophical Group on Facebook, in that the members cheer each other on with posts in the form of “What inspired you to become [insert subject here]?” and they will get 101 responses from eager anthroposophists as to why they wanted to become anthroposophists. Not that this tells you anything about anthroposophy any more than such things tell you anything about writing, creative or otherwise. But that’s our modern world for you. These groups exist for people who would like to be an author but don’t want the graft.

I mean, if you want to be an author, it’s a great group to be in. You can post the synopsis of your proposed book and get lots of responses that will tell you how good it is and how it’ll make a brilliant book. Others can post snippets of books that they’re writing. But will somehow never finish.

Wot Is Rite And Propper In Publishing.

It was in this group that I came into conversation with a lady who was wholly in favour of the way the publishing industry works today. To cut a long and dull conversation short, her defence was that it was right and proper for a publisher to send sourly written rejection letters. Her reasoning was that they don’t have time to call up the author and meet them for tea so they can sit down and discuss what they think they can do to make their book better.

What I am getting at in this post is the reasons for believing in this kind of behaviour. As a former marketer, I know for a fact that if a business is going to establish a future for itself, it needs to invest. In the building industry, that means apprentices.

Not for nothing is an English apprentice carpenter started off cutting pieces of waste wood. Anybody can cut wood, only a master can take an 8” baulk and having marked the length with the tick of a pencil, cut it across. If the saw cut is not perfectly square, the master knows his saw’s blunt. Because if his saw was sharp, the cut would have been perfect. To within half a millimetre for a coarse cut on, for example a joist or a rafter.

I know, because I can do it, and it didn’t happen overnight: learning the basics takes a very long time and needs to be continually practiced. Putting on a roof that’s expected to last for at least fifty years – if not a hundred and fifty – demands skills that are specific and well honed. I’ll add that I was never a good roofer, but then, most roofers aren’t much good at swinging doors. They’ll make a decent job of it, but it won’t be as fast or as good as the carpenter for whom his talents are better suited. You know when a door’s been fitted properly because there’s a tiny amount of play when you close it.

It’s just enough space to allow it not to stick when the paint’s dry. That tiny amount of play is the thickness of the paint, by the way. Just you try doing it if you’re a publisher…

Why Bother Training Anyone?

Starting an apprentice at cutting wood is as good a way of starting as any. To the person I was speaking with about publishing, her attitude to apprentices was one of simple dismissal. Actually, she was speaking about authors, but the effect was the same: why bother with training when there are enough who want to train themselves?

I’ve seen the hard face of making a business run, and publishers have the luxury of a system where there is always another fish in the sea. Only they’re fishing for herring and throw the salmon back in the sea. This is especially true in a world where just saying that you’re writing a book is enough to be adulated.

Unless of course, you’re Dorothy Parker.

The building industry is rather different in that it doesn’t have the same caché as being an author. Britain has solved its problems by inviting the Poles and other assorted Eastern Europeans to fill the skills gap they unwittingly created. That’ll work for a while until the Poles, having adopted a measure of British ways, forget to train their own apprentices.

Which is what this post is really about. How many master carpenters have I ever met who complain that there aren’t any decent apprentices any more? The ones that come into the industry aren’t suited to it, and the ones that are, are off learning to be software programmers that they are equally unsuited to. All of it is the result of a culture that is fixated on the commoditization of the worker. Get the worker a certificate and they can do the job, because they’ll do exactly as the boss tells them. Which is good in as far as it goes, but doesn’t deal with the real problems of the building industry, where problem solving is the order of the day.

Problem solving is the work of the master, though, the experienced hand. It’s not something you leave to the apprentice; however someone who knows nothing about business, leave alone building, will be ignorant of this simple fact. To them, budding authors are all the same and should be treated as the dirt that they are because they’re not published authors. That’s the same thinking that leads to white collar managers treating experienced master carpenters as dirt because they aren’t in the office telling other people what to do.

Respect In Business.

The lack of respect in business is the most insidious of all business problems, and is a serious danger to the British economy. I point to Britain in particular because the workers in Britain have few of the rights that protect European workers. The real issue here is that it’s not just a lack of respect; it’s an unwillingness to meet those who do not share your view of the world. If you are a manager, it’s likely that in our day and age you will associate with those who are like you. It makes you feel safe, it makes for pleasant conversations that do not enter into topics that make you feel uncomfortable. Just as anthros do in their Anthroposophical Society.

That doesn’t mean it’s part of the way the world works, though. The master craftsman is a master because they’ve met the challenges that a poorly designed roof brings them. Yet they are dismissed as underlings by the white collars that created the problem in the first place. In the way newbie authors are dismissed as underlings by the professional, white collar publisher.

The publisher is right because they have a business and it is profitable. Despite all their attempts to undermine their own business. As my conversant confirmed when she said: “Increasingly publishing companies have to be very, very careful what they invest in because it is becoming less and and less viable to make money publishing.”

Is it any wonder that the publishing industry has found itself in exactly the same pit as the building industry? Or, come to that, practically any other commodity business on the planet? Even the Japanese have problems with it, but for very different reasons (which means the Americans and British will be clueless as to how Japan is still the #2 economy on the planet).

Leaving It All To Chance.

The point is that the publishing industry hasn’t a clue as to what they are looking for. Again, my conversant spoke an unwitting truth: “The book has to be right, no one really gives a damn about the author. If the book is a success – great. You don’t spend years training, teaching, and employing authors – it’s a one time chance. Occasionally someone hits the jackpot, more often then not they go back to working their day job.” In short, the publishing industry doesn’t know what the fuck it is doing any more than the Anthroposophical Society does. In the world of commodity, everything that is not directly under your control is left to chance. What the lady said confirms this.

In the building industry it’s a little easier: apprentices are relatively cheap, and training one to help usually means the time taken to train them is the amount of time they save you in undertaking work for you. No actual loss, then. That’s one helluva lot better than taking pot-shots at books you think might sell. Only to find that they don’t and you staked your publishing business on the gamble. Training an apprentice will very quickly tell you if they can do it or not: and for one very simple reason. Either they’ll be helpful or they’ll be a hinderance.

If they’re a hindrance, you can tell them to become a budding author and make the life of the publishing industry a misery instead. They know no better, they know nothing else, so why not pile it on? Because a master craftsman isn’t a fool where the publishing industry clearly is.


Note: the third revision of my book is up for criticism if you’d like to give it a read get in touch via the comments (and you can request that your comment is removed if you wish it to remain anonymous.) The more serious … nay, vicious the response the better. I thrive on the challenges my readers set me. I was in the building industry, after all.


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