Friday, May 15, 2009

Strategies for survival

It was windy in Philadelphia yesterday. We sat outside at the Parc Restaurant opposite Rittenhouse Square watching stemware getting blown off tables. I closed my eyes then opened them slowly. No, it wasn't Paris. A stocky busboy raised the awning, then stood guard with his broom, ready to sweep up more glass shards. The sky to the north boiled dark green. Down by the the boathouses on the Schuykill, runners held onto their hats while the Drexel women's crew pondered the chop out on the river. From the museum walkway we watched heavy gusts raise hairy spume over the Fairmount Dam while human traffic crawled on the opposite bank. The whole thing looked like a Max Beckmann painting.

At least the sound of wind tearing at trees and rushing water masked the typical urban symphony -- sirens, horns, construction equipment, human wailing. Tell me, poot, is there no way to turn it off?

My old friend N. hollered over the din, "I've never seen it like this." He was talking about the marketplace for new books. "It's changing so fast. Projects that made sense when we took them on just a year ago look like terrible risks now. Nothing is safe. The only thing you can do is look to dominate a couple of categories and prune back the rest. So many books are losing money. You should see our acquisitions meetings -- you need librium just to get through one. It really makes me question whether or not I can stay in the industry."

N. is usually one of the most optimistic people I know. His voice had an edge to it.

"And everyone is into cutting their sales departments. It's crazy. Not enough people to follow up. No continuity with customers. No building of trust. No opening of new markets -- forget about prospecting -- and no way to impart product knowledge. Not even a great sales rep can sell a thousand titles a season effectively. They try, but they can't. It's not fair to them, or to the books, or to the customers."

A leathery blonde two tables away held on to her shivering Yorkie for dear life. A middle-aged guy in a black raincoat across the street had a lit cigarette blown right out of his mouth. I thought to myself, this wind is nothing compared to the one that's blowing through the book business.

"And it's not just the book business, it's everywhere throughout the economy, throughout the country. Didja see that hysterical Nick Paumgarten article in this week's
New Yorker? It was like a bad piece of apocalyptic fiction."

"There's definitely a whiff of despair in the air. Which doesn't do anybody any good. I think you've gotta believe a man-made crisis can be solved by human beings. But maybe not. Maybe the whole shebang is kaput."

It was too windy to eat outside. But it was Happy Hour inside and the after-work crowd was getting drunk and loud. We needed to get out of there and find someplace else to go. It was dark and stormy and it was going to stay that way.

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