Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Helmsman

The Helmsman is an early adopter, he's got more gadgets and gizmos than you can shake a stick at and he collects apps like bottle caps. When I first met him, I thought to myself, this guy has the cleanest, emptiest desktop I've ever seen. Not a paper in sight. He kept all his work on the machine. And his shelves? Bare. He sat under the florescent light and tapped away on his keys. He was on time, he made decisions, he traveled light. If you had an appointment with The Helmsman, you better not be late.

He was the computer book king back when people still bought computer books in bookstores. Nothing was intuitive, the learning curves were steep. Before Windows, before Office. The early days of Lotus and Wordperfect. Before the huey was gooey. You had assistants type up your memos and bring 'em over to your desk for editing. It might've been slow, but the work got done. No reason to hit a recall button, no pounding on the delete key all day.

When you wanted to talk to someone you'd phone them or get up and go visit them. It was nice -- you knew what your colleagues looked like. Meetings were less frequent, you didn't need to touch base all the time. The Helmsman hated meetings, he would stand in the back of the room and sneak out if the discussion got off track. "I can't stand hot air," he said. "I've got things to do."

He's still just as impatient -- if you wanna follow him, you gotta do it on Twitter. California, London, Hoboken, home. He likes his Pom and he likes his wine. He's got a Helmsman's appetite for the good things in life and is always on the look-out for The Hot New Thing. Just don't talk to him about books. He doesn't read.

He says he's never seen it this bad -- sales have fallen off a cliff. "It's time to hunker down and weather the storm. So far no one's slitting their wrists, but we still got three quarters to go. Thank god for text books and their margins." I ask him about the Sony and the Kindle. "I've played with 'em and they're okay, but I want the functionality of the iPhone. Besides, I'm the wrong guy to ask, I don't read."

"Didja see that Steve Johnson piece in the
Wall Street Journal? First he says e-books are great, you can recreate a whole lifetime's library, then he says your ability to get immersed in the world of a linear book will be 'compromised.' He goes on to claim that e-books are great cause you'll be part of a wonderful on-going conversation, building your own never-ending annotated reading group guide, but then he cautions that a playlist of literature's best chapters will never work the way a music greatest hits playlist does. And I love it when he talks about a la carte pricing for modular books. You think he's joking?"

"One thing's for sure: if e-books become the norm, three quarters of the industry will be out on the street collecting unemployment. I think e-books're being promoted mostly by people who don't like books. Those who can't discriminate. A news clipping, a snippet of Tolstoy, someone ranting in a blog, advertising copy -- it's all the same to them." This is The Helmsman talking -- the guy who doesn't read. "Search optimization, Google rankings, those are the important things now. Traditional marketing is dead. I'm obsolete. We're all obsolete. I think this calls for another drink." These days, poot, all over Manhattan, fabled island of big-time publishing, middle-aged men and women are thinking the same damn thing, whether they say it out loud or not.

1 comment:

  1. The Steve Johnson article was all over the map. I think the focus a book takes to read is critical and compromising that last bastion of linear experience is a big deal. It seems as though we are fated to jump headlong into this experiment regardless of the ramifications. I'm sick of google searches and Amazon rankings. Just give me a decent book for crying out loud.