February 25, 2009

Ousted editor tells his story — and maybe ours


Colin Robinson

Colin Robinson

“I’d hardly settled behind my desk when one of my bosses asked if I would join her in the corner office. ‘Please close the door,’ she said as I entered the room. Seldom a good sign. ‘Why don’t you take the comfortable chair?’ Oh dear. Three hours later I was back at home, jobless.” And so began what is now known as Black Wednesday for Scribner’s editor Colin Robinson.

In an essay for the London Review of Boooks, he does more, however, than merely give a glimpse of what it was like behind the scenes on that historic day. He provides one of the most succinct summaries to date of the treacherous situation serious book-makers find themselves in today, facing a collapsing economy, seemingly insurmountable problems in retailing (discounts, returns, a thuggish Amazon), and techonlogical developments happening too fast to process.

Making it refreshing — in the sense that this kind of honest accuracy should always be welcome — is that, as the former head of Verso and the New Press before taking the job at Scribner’s, Robinson offers a deeper persective on it all than is typical of book industry reporters. But also that he seems willing to confront a core question most in the industry avoid: “Perhaps the problem has to do with more than just the way in which words are transmitted. People bowl alone, shop online, abandon cinemas for DVDs, and chat to each other electronically rather than go to a bar. In an increasingly self-centred society a premium is placed on being heard rather than listening, being seen rather than watching, and on being read rather than reading.”

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives