Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Book Business 3

Yesterday I had lunch with The Backlist Gang. Pizza and vino rosso in a half-empty restaurant off Fifth. We'd all worked together back in the late 80's, early 90's, when the book business was expanding like a balloon on a helium tank. Exciting times. A superstore in every market, a big box at every highway exit. Chairs! Coffee! 150,000 titles, real wood shelving, green carpet, free parking, open long hours. A book consumer's paradise. Darwinian capitalism in action -- sniff out the good markets, target the indies, fight for the best location, finance your growth by growing. Effing magic, wasn't it?

And there we were, The Backlist Gang, with our PCs on our desks, and our modeling sheets, and our crude formulae. A stores, B stores, C stores, and so on. A little Tolstoy here, a lotta Tolstoy there. One Austen, two Dickens, three Ludlums, four Druckers. Processing times, shipping times, lead times, minimums, maximums, and batches. We had the lingo, we had the secret knowledge. Our leaders had the backing of the Free Market Boys. The Gang was in the saddle and our spurs were bitin hide. Shoot, it was fun back then, with new boxes opening every couple of weeks, you couldn't miss your target. Bang bang.

And the big houses just kept pumping out the marketing dough -- hey, you gonna give us more eyeballs, we got the cash. You gonna give us the storefront, we got the baksheesh, baby! You wanna reserve us the top shelf, we can cut a deal. The Backlist Gang was behavin like The Wild Bunch, ridin into town with six-shooters blazin, terrorizing the locals. You could see clouds of dust risin up over the plains for a hundred miles with that lazy harmonica tune playing on the soundtrack.

You know how the story goes -- the primary markets get filled, the secondary markets are glutted, and the tertiary markets groan with cartons of unopened books.

So the big boxes had to start opening in the one-hoss towns, where only the school-marm reads books, the barber doubles as a dentist, and the croaker hangs a mail-order degree over his desk. The Backlist Gang figgered it was time to pack it in. The Day of Reckoning would be upon us soon. So we divvied up our loot and split, some goin south, some west, and some stayin in Gotham, goin underground. And we sprinkled our backlist knowledge over the dusty earth wherever we went, and a quavering book industry was grateful.

That was then. Now you got the decay setting in, all over town, all across the country. Dustballs the size of cantaloupes rollin around the green carpet. Backed-up drains in the parking lot. Varmints roamin the back rooms, amid the unprocessed paperwork and used tissues. And copies of Tolstoy sittin there, dog-eared but dignified, waitin for the inevitable return to dust.

The pizza was alright, the wine was necessary. The rest of the Gang looked good but the photos of their kids looked even better. It was a fine thing to spend a little time in their company, whittlin down the memory stick, lookin back without regrets. We shuffled out into the bright New York afternoon and swiftly headed our separate ways.

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