Moving to cubicles is the latest sign that traditional publishing is ass backward

picard-face-palmBusinesses have a bad habit of backing themselves into corners. For example, the way traditional publishers backed away from their promotional responsibilities, pressuring all but a tiny bestselling minority of authors to run themselves ragged promoting their own books.1

Build a platform! Engage your audience! Brand your work! Do a marketer’s tasks instead of writing!

As it turned out, promotion was one of only a few contributions traditional publishers made to an author’s career. Once online resources (including networking between writers, editors, and cover artists) eliminated the other “middle man” contributions of publishers, there really wasn’t much of a role for traditional publishers among authors who, driven by marketing neglect, had already trained themselves to be self-promoters.

And now one of those traditional publishers, the bumbling and stumbling Hachette, is backing itself into a physical corner by adopting the cheapskate “open office plan” architecture (read: low-walled cube farm) despite the massive flaws researchers have discovered about this set-up. Predictably, Melville House (whose own office seems solidly embedded in Hachette’s read end) commented on it rather cautiously.

But, this penny wise, pound foolish open office idea was a horrid fad that disrupts workplace operations and reduces the quality of communications. And, because it’s based on taking up as little space as possible with as many people as possible, organizations that adopt it paint themselves into a real estate corner from which they cannot easily extricate themselves.

The devil in the details.

What are some of these flaws? Well, open office plans are “damaging to workers’ attentions spans, productivity, creative thinking…” (But, who needs creative thinking at a traditional publisher that can’t keep up with a changing business environment?) Plus, they make workers feel helpless and get sick more often.

Icing on the cake: the negative effects of open office plans are worse for seniors. Good going, boss!

According to management experts, “people have shorter and more superficial conversations in open offices.” Again, there’s nothing better for a company buffeted by technological change than truncated communication about things that don’t really matter!

Worst of all, open office plans “sap motivation” and create “cognitive load.” These are the last things you need when you work for someone who can’t remember contract expiration dates and can’t meet their own deadlines for counter-offers, as Hachette clearly can’t.

But don’t they help workers collaborate?

Researchers find that any “collaborative” gains made by workers in open offices more often seeking help from colleagues are more than offset by losses those colleagues suffer from having their own work more often interrupted, so let’s throw that collaboration excuse right out the window.

The push for open offices was really about being cheap with real estate costs, so many organizations are now stuck with little floorspace in which to create private spaces to replace cube-farms or provide time-shared alternatives, so they end up scrambling with lame gimmicks like acoustic tiles and diner booth-style raised seating.

So, let me offer my congratulations to Hachette for being backward not only as a publisher, but also as a business in general.


1 I’ve written on author self-promotion extensively, on how it’s a bad long-term business strategy, how it stumbles into the infamous Dunning-Kruger Effect, and what publishing pros can do to counteract this effect.



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