Surviving Professionally in a Time of Catastrophic Change

When the river of catastrophic change flows through your life, you're left with a lot of bridges to nowhere.

When the river of catastrophic change flows through your life, you’re left with a lot of bridges to nowhere.

I’d like to do a semi regular column on what to do when catastrophic change hits your field.


To begin with, what is catastrophic change?

Catastrophic change is the term bandied about in my field for what we’re undergoing, but I can’t find a reliable page to point to, since the search engine takes me to links on psychoanalysis and climate predictions, and that’s not at all what I’m talking about here.

Catastrophic change is what happens when things change so fast that there’s no time for plateaus of stability in between.  The image is say that of a raging river.  Before the flood, there are the river banks, after the flood there are different river banks, but in between there is only turmoil.

My field, fiction writing, is at the very beginning of catastrophic change. Amazon opening the ability to self-publish to the public, and now Create Space opening the ability to get your printed books into bookstores are game changers on a scale that hasn’t fully been felt yet, across the publishing industry.  Right now, it feels like the water is ripping up all the familiar landscape – but this is just the very beginning.  I only became aware of this option in 2011, and though it felt to me, when I became aware of it, like I’d missed the boat, in fact I was one of the earliest professionals to dip my toes in publishing.

At the time I took a workshop with Dean Wesley Smith whose excellent Think Like A Publisher details some ways for professionals and beginners to profit from the change.  His wife, (and massively successful traditional-and-indie author) Kristine Kathryn Rusch wrote an article about how this change is affecting some of the old prosJudith Tarr did a post on what the industry was like to writers (and readers) before.


By and large, at least in my opinion, this change is positive.  But even though a flood might bring much needed water to a parched region, in the middle of it it’s very hard for any individual to know where to be, what to do, what will bring success and what will destroy a career you’ve spent years establishing.

For those who don’t want to dwell into the dysfunctional bowels of the publishing industry ante nor the confused bowels of the publishing industry after (and trust me, it’s all bowels, all the way down,) since you’re reading this at PJmedia, it might be easier to understand the process of catastrophic change as it hit journalism started in around 2001.  Around 2000, we had newspapers, the main stream media, and plucky voices of dissent like Reason or National Review.  Now, newspapers are caught in a tsunami of change that has them scrambling for an online presence, trying out new ways of doing business, and still at risk of failing because the new, plugged-in model is leaner, more diverse, and – born of changing circumstances – better able to survive chaos.

Sometimes you can't get out of the way of catastrophic change

Sometimes you can’t get out of the way of catastrophic change

Glenn Reynolds captured this well in An Army of Davids.

What does all this have to do with you, other than as a consumer?  Well – you might not be interested in catastrophic change, but catastrophic change is interested in you.

Technology seems to plug along, making minor changes in the way we live and work till eventually the accumulated mass of everything that has gone before is so large that it rips everything out as it passes and changes the way people live forever.  Think of it as a rain storm starting with a few drops and ending up in a massive flood.


The last time of radically catastrophic change was the industrial revolution which tore up the way life had been for centuries and ushered in a new era of prosperity and knowledge… along with the French Revolution, two world wars and other convulsions.

In fact, any time that “the way we do things” was changing radically it is followed or happens at the same time as a lot of bloodshed and turmoil.  I am of course hoping to avoid it this time, but I’m aware it might be inevitable.

That’s a post for another time – and another blog. For now let me note that compared to those other changes in technology, we seem to be changing faster.  Perhaps it just looks that way to us, but I don’t think so.  At least, change disseminates faster, due to our more connected world.  And technology changes faster too, because each innovation is known almost instantly, and the next one can improve on it.

I can tell, because I have friends in these, that all entertainment industry, journalism (yes, still,) K-12 education and college education are already either ahead of books, or just behind them, caught in the roiling waters of catastrophic change.

Rumors of things like radical changes in dentistry (my dentist talks of “seeding teeth” and vision (plugged-in glasses, implanted lenses, innovative surgery) have been persistent for ten years.  It might come to nothing.  Or, like ebooks which were talked about for twenty years, they might all suddenly come to fruition. You probably know what is changing in your own area of work better than I do.


So what can you do about it? What do you need to do to survive?

Whether the flood is much needed water, or wanton destruction, many people will fail to survive who might have thrived in the new model.

I can’t claim to speak to every industry – of course – but since mine is caught in the flood, I can see how to survive in mine.  Maybe.  I can at least come up with a list of strategies and what is working for my friends.

I’ll post about it, as each comes up and try to explain how it applies not just to my industry, but to others as well, when caught in the rapids of catastrophic change.

Some strategies will translate, some won’t, and some you don’t know they translate until you’re caught in your own rapids.

But since there’s a good chance that will happen and not too long now, you might as well have a general idea of how to whitewater raft – or survive catastrophic change.

It's better to be on top of the flood than under it.

It’s better to be on top of the flood than under it.


Images via Shutterstock / Ammit Jack / M.M. / Parys Ryszard

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