Last night, I went down to 18th Street to meet my buddies and raise a glass. Mateusz is a true believer which makes him vulnerable, but he's been in the book business long enough to know when not to believe. Call him a skeptical optimist. "You get hold of a manuscript and you think, shoot, this is the real deal. An original plot, believable characters, and a terrific voice. You hit the trifecta. Then you start showin it around to your sales force and they give you that quiet stare. So you start to second guess yourself. Okay, maybe it is derivative, and the characters two-dimensional, and the prose self-conscious. Maybe it's a dud. But wait. You read it again, and think, no way, they're the ones who're wrong. This thing is as good as I thought it was. We gotta publish it. They'll come around."
Mateusz sipped at his pint, took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "Sometimes you're right and sometimes you're wrong. There's no accounting for taste. In this business, if you bat over .300, you're gold. At the end of the day, someone's got to make a decision one way or the other."
"So what did you do?"
"We published it and it bombed of course. Over sixty percent returns and we dint even get that many out. But it wasn't a fortune we paid, and maybe we can do something with the paperback, there's still hope. Even so, it was the right thing to do. It was a terrific book worth publishing." I thought to myself, good for you, imagine what the reading lists of today would look like if years ago they only published bestsellers. No Moby-Dick, no Walden, no House on Mango Street.
The Free Market Babies who run the big houses can't be thinkin that way, though. They gotta show results each quarter, no matter what they got comin down the pike. It ain't about the books, it's about the overhead. Mateusz remembers. In the old days, he and I watched it unravel -- that's when the chains were opening forty new stores a year and all you had to do was take your buyers out to lunch to earn a bonus. They loaded up the trucks with pallets of books. Hell, books were cheaper than wallpaper. After all, you can return books.
I ast him, "But whaddaya do now? Focus on the business and forget about the actual books? Or focus on the books and forget about keepin the business afloat?" He chuckled, then sighed. "You know, poot, I been workin on that problem for a while now. And I'll admit, you gotta be a rare bird to sit on the horns of a dilemma without scorin an extra hole in your arse. I don't know of anyone who's done it. Do you?"
I still had a swallow left in my mug but it dint appeal to me just then. Mateusz was right -- nobody could keep straddlin the fence for long. You either had to hold your nose and jump into the shite-hole, or find yourself a rich patron and follow your nobler instincts. Either way, you knew the book business was never gonna be the same. I thought to myself, neither are we, poot, neither are we.