Does Your Shirt Have Buttons?

by Alton Gansky

You probably don’t have to check your closet before you answer the question above. Buttons (and here I mean those little round things on our clothing, not those little round or square things on electronic devices) have been around for a very long time. The oldest buttons were found in Pakistan and are 5000 years old. At first, buttons were ornamental, then became functional.
The zipper is a young pup by comparison. Elias Howe (he who invented the sewing machine) received a patent for an “Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure” in 1851 but did very little with it. Whitcomb Judson (inventor of the Pneumatic Street Railway) received a similar patent in 1893 for his “Clasp Locker.”
Good as the zipper is, it did not drive the button into extinction. Buttons are still doing their work with efficiency and style. Here in the second decade of the twenty-first century we continue use a 5000 year old technology.
Often we hear how much the world has changed, and that is true. We are reminded that everything changes. Also true. Before I became a writer I used to teach church leaders how to make the most of change. My presentation was called, “Change Without Conflict,” by which I meant “Change With Minimal Pain” since change is usually resisted. “Change is the only thing certain in life,” I used to say. The only systems that don’t change are dead systems.
We who walk the twisting halls of publishing know that our industry is changing and is doing so at a rate faster than anyone could have predicted. The rapid onset caught publisher and author by surprise. The first wave of change brought fascination, the second wave buried us all in confusion and, in some cases, fear. Most of us are in the middle of a fast moving current carrying us downstream, which is fine if downstream is the proper direction. Perhaps the most astonishing realization is that our publishers are dog-paddling in the same fast flowing river. This is disconcerting to those of us who have longed believed that publishers knew everything about the business. To see them flailing in the waters of change with us is unsettling.
When it comes to change, humans will either see pending gloom, the end of all things we know to be true and valuable, or see a much a needed revolution. Forced change is always resisted, and the new paradigm of publishing is nothing if not a forced change. People embrace change for one of three reasons. First, we change when it hurts too much to stay the same. Heart attacks and lung cancer have caused many people to give up smoking.
Second, people will change when forced to. Most people obey speed limit laws because they must, not because they think it is wise. We pay income tax because we have to, not because we know our country needs our dollars.
Third, people change when they have enough information to do so. This brings lasting change and comes with the least amount of friction.
The advent of e-books, e-magazines, royalty-based self-publishing, and other technological empowerments should not have been a surprise, yet it was. To some, it’s still surprising. At times I encounter those in the industry that think the new publishing paradigm is a fad doomed to pass the way tie-dye shirts did. One can’t help but wonder if the fifteenth century scribes of Johannes Gutenberg  (1395-1468) thought the same thing about the printing press. Gutenberg, a jeweler, changed everything. TIME magazine named him “Man of the Millennium” and rightly so. More books were published in the first fifty years after Gutenberg’s invention than the previous 1000 years. (Read that sentence again.) The difference in production is staggering.
Authors and legacy publishers stand on the same shore as the scribes of Gutenberg’s day. There is no going back. The change isn’t coming, it’s already here, landing with the same impact as the 1908 Tunguska comet that leveled  80 million trees in 830 square miles. 
What’s Your Business?
Yet, the more things change, the more important essentials become. Electronic books will not replace physical ones anytime soon, any more than television spelled the end of the movie industry, which continues to draw in money by the barrel. By the same token, television didn’t disappear either. E-books and e-magazines are as permanent as a tattoo.
Perhaps part of the problem has to do with how we define ourselves. Mary Parker Follet (1868-1933) was a social worker and business consultant, probably the first female management advisor. While consulting with the executives of a company that made lampshades she asked, “What business are you in?” They went with the “duh” answer: “Um, we make lampshades.” Ms. Follet corrected them. “No, you’re in the light control business.” A few beats later one of the execs said, “You mean we can make window shades too?” It change the company. The railroad industry almost committed suicide by insisting they were in the railroad business when they were really in transportation, meaning they could move cargo over roads if they wanted to do so.
When I’m asked what I do, I say I’m a writer. When I’m asked what my business is, I say, “I’m in the communication business,” meaning I can write, edit, podcast, and anything else that has to do with sharing ideas. The task before writers and publishers is to revisit the definition of their business. Is a publisher a company that prints books? Or is it a company that makes ideas available? Are authors people who write books and articles or are they people who go beyond writing on paper and write on minds and souls?
Flex a Little
I spent a decade in architecture, drawing plans for everything from room editions to condo complexes and midsize office buildings. I learned something from the structural engineers I worked with: “Rigid things break; flexible things survive.” A rigid building will fall long before one that can sway in an earthquake. Writers and publishers are at that point where they decide if they’re going to be rigid or flexible. The decision will change their future and the future of publishing.

Alton Gansky is a full time writer, director of BRMCWC, founder of Gansky.Communications and host of Writer’s Talk. He is the award winning author of over 40 books. Prior to turning to full time writing, he was the senior pastor to three Southern Baptist churches. In addition to his writing, he speaks to writers groups and church organizations.