Potential not Possession

My best thinking usually happens in the swimming pool or walking the dog, as both provide lengthy opportunities for reflection plus the requisite solitude. Unusually though, yesterday evening’s swim involved a conversation, as I’d invited along Jenny - a publisher and friend with whom I’m (very much enjoying) doing some work at the moment. We were talking about the Eos Programme (a personal development course she participated in some months back, and of which I recently tested out the first component). Through Eos, Jenny had experienced something of an epiphany in a certain aspect of her thinking, whereas I was confessing I hadn’t.

Full disclosure here: I’m not an ideal or natural candidate for personal development ideas and tools delivered in neat modules, as my natural impatience and instinct for kicking the tyres of generalizations can get in the way of taking a usefully simplified idea on board. Sentences beginning “research tells us…” or “research proves…” make me bristle and ask “what research.., by who.., published where.., peer reviewed by….?”. It’s an example of how good habits can sometimes work against, not for me. I’d been fortunate to share the room with a group of highly intelligent and very interesting women. Eos, entirely properly, operates a “what’s said in this room stays in this room” policy. Given what I’ve told you about my disposition, though, it’s not breaking any confidences to confess to a certain uncharitable glee when one of my course co-participants, irritated by a generalisation, suddenly exploded with “well isn’t that all just post-modernist nonsense?” The level of my inner mirth was matched only by the expression of panic in the trainer’s eyes.

But lest you think this post is about knocking personal and professional development – or Eos – read on. Aware of my sometimes unhealthy tendency to cynicism, I’d decided to approach the day in the same spirit as reading a work of fiction, where I’m perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief for utility of being drawn into something I know is not real – but which I allow my mind to make real for the purpose of pleasure and, often, learning. It proved a useful strategy, and during my evening debrief in the pool we were talking about values – something Eos encourages you to examine or reassess. I’d been very struck by something Jenny had said in the office the previous day, when I had questioned whether there is currently pressure on her to deliver books in formats other than print. As part of her response to that question, Jenny had remarked that she sees herself as creating and delivering language learning materials, not making books.

That remark fed back into my values audit. I’ve worked in publishing for 25+ years because I value books, and, simplistically, I’ve always asserted it is important to me to that my work reflects what I value. As I sculled along on my back chatting with Jenny I posed the question - do I value books because they are intrinsically good, or because I grew up in a house stuffed full of them? And that one question led to a cascade of others… Do books actually represent my parents’ values rather than mine? Am I confusing value with familiarity? Is it the book that I value or what the book contains? What does the book contain (other than Hamlet’s “words, words, words“)? Which took me full circle back to Jenny’s view that although she is a publisher, what she is creating is not books. Pricked along by this, I came home and made a list of what it is about books that I value:

  • expanding horizons;
  • unlocking potential;
  • exposure to ideas;
  • emotional & imaginative journeys;
  • expansion of vocabulary;
  • delivery of knowledge/ understanding/ insight;
  • pleasure;
  • entertainment;
  • appreciation of skill (and/or excellence).

Curiously, books as objects don’t appear in this list. Yes – if you offered me a signed first edition of Ulysses I wouldn’t say no. An original Gutenburg Bible would make my eyes pop. But the value that I – or a dealer or collector – would place on those volumes wouldn’t make their contents any more accessible or desirable to me than they were anyway (or for me, in the case of Joyce, weren’t anyway).

So although Eos (named after the Titan Goddess of Dawn in case you’re wondering) didn’t provide an epiphany – she did cast a new light on a thought I’ve been nudging round the edges for a while. Which is that where books are concerned – the value is in the potential and not in the object. It is not what books are that I prize. It is what their contents might be or might unlock or might inspire, in the hands, minds and hearts of readers that makes them culturally and socially so important. And, more crucially, what makes them important to me.

A couple of years ago my friend Brian O’Leary coined a phrase that has gradually permeated the publishing circuit: Context not Containers. His phrase speaks to the fact that a publisher’s value-add is no longer in the physical container – but in meeting the context or need in which the reader engages. In the light of my conversations with Jenny and the Eos experience, I’m going to supplement that thought with another of my own. With apologies to bibliophiles everywhere (and a nod at the too many books on my shelves that are bought but unread) I offer you: Potential not Possession. And if this really is the case, and what I hold to be true and valuable, there may be consequences…

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1 Response to Potential not Possession

  1. Part of “context first” is built around the ideas in “Lean consumption”, an article that James Womack and Daniel Jones wrote for Harvard Business Review in 2006. In it, the authors argue that companies need to become better at aggregating solutions for customers. To make that happen, they need to focus on outcomes, reduce the time and hassle of finding or buying something, and compete on the value added.

    I wholly agree that “potential” (the outcome) trumps the physical object. Sometimes a physical object contains content that can transport you, but it’s the journey, not the object, that matters.

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