Stanford Reflections

I saw my colleagues’ email before I opened my Publishers Lunch on Wednesday, September 30. “What’s up with Stanford?” she wrote, and I was confused. But I had producers who needed review copies sent to them overnight, and authors who wanted to know if Oprah had called yet, so I didn’t give it another thought until my 10 am morning break, when I finally read the news

I had attended the Stanford Publishing Program just two months ago, on a scholarship awarded by Wiley/Jossey-Bass. I was immensely lucky to have received it, because it is normally reserved for employees of a more senior level. I tried my luck and put much thought into my application, and was thrilled when I received the news. I had started looking into publishing courses similar to those offered by NYU and Columbia as soon as I moved out here, and Stanford had clearly stood out for being the best. I got awestruck when I read the names of the featured lecturers, feeling privileged to be in the presence of some industry luminaries.   

We met our fellow students at a reception dinner where we were welcomed by Holly Brady and Dorothy Kalins, among many others. “We don’t have the answers,” Dorothy admitted in her opening speech, “but if anyone can find them, it’s this group of people.” I looked around to take a good look at the sixty people around me, many from outside the United States. Everyone was smiling and clearly eager to share their ideas. I couldn’t wait to hear what experiences people brought to the table, figure out a plan of action, and then join forces once we got back to our respective offices to fight the looming signs of peril. 

Looking back, I guess it didn’t quite turn into the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers action I had imagined. There were signs of clouds on the horizon, but I didn’t expect them to turn into a storm so quickly. True, the attendance was down. But we’re in a recession and the course was expensive, so it’s understandable that companies were going to think twice before sending their employees away to frolic in sunny California for a week. While I’m sure everyone understands the need for professional development, the execs probably figured “There’s always next year,” and so did we who attended. But a 27% drop in Stanford’s endowment capital isn’t exactly loose change. Investment losses were approximately $3.5 billion and they reportedly cut over 400 positions earlier in the year, so from a financial perspective, yeah, I get it. 

But closing the program is going to come at a much bigger loss for the publishing community, and not just on the west coast. “The experience was priceless the people I met simply wonderful. It is terribly sad,” writes Amabel Niba, CEO of African Vibes Communications, via a DM message on Twitter. “My week at the Stanford Publishing Course this summer was such a phenomenal, enriching experience,” writes Tammy Tibbetts, Web Editor at Hearst Digital Media, via email. “Holly [Brady] led an incredible program, with an esteemed faculty that attracted professionals from all over the world and kept up with the trends in digital media.” Heck yeah! Even Martin Levin is on Twitter now. 

While I am not going to use this article to speculate the reasons of why I think the course closed down, I am going to use this space to lament. The week at Stanford wasn’t just bike riding into Palo Alto and drinking too much – we attended classes, discussed ideas and challenges, came up with prototypes, shared experience, developed opinions, broadened our minds. Saying we learned about Twitter and web page design doesn’t convey all the thoughts and ideas that were exchanged all day long (and sometimes late at night, too!). 

I know I am incredibly fortunate to have been selected to attend in the final year, but the announcement of the closing is kind of discouraging to young people in publishing, I being one of them. “Are book publishers seriously waving the white flag because they can’t understand and possibly feel threatened by something like Twitter?!?” my friend (who doesn’t work in the industry) asked me. And he’s right. We should be campaigning for the book, connecting publishers from around the world, listening to different perspectives on the same challenges, learning how to use technology to promote our books, and building on our collective ideas. Publishers should be having conversations, exchanging information, and working together. Like we did at Stanford.

One thing I was told before I attended Stanford, and that I certainly noticed while I was there, was to learn as much from the students as from the teachers. By continuing to exchange information and come up with ideas, we can all learn from each other every day. Let sales talk to editorial, let the author help with marketing. Collectively we will find a way to make publishing work. 

And class of #SPPC09 – here’s to you.

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