Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Some publishers are luckier than others

It's a tricky thing to do, to find something wonderful -- really wonderful -- that someone's written, something that affects you, that knocks your socks off, a piece of writing so entertaining or so profound or so beautifully wrought that all you want to do is share it with others. You can't will it into being, a work like that, because you're not an author -- you don't possess the voice of authority. No, you're a publisher. Your role is that of a searcher, a seeker, someone devoted to looking for this rare thing, this wonderful novelty which moves you, which demands to be read. When a written work makes your hair stand on end, you want to shout out your discovery far and wide, and then market the hell out of it.

It's a very tricky thing, because you never know if you're going to find it, in fact you aren't even sure it'll be written in your professional lifetime, this wonderful new work that warrants your full attention. You know many kindred spirits who have sought it out for years without success, but still you keep the faith and don't lose heart. It's a calling, this quest, like hunting down the Grail. It takes patience and stamina and a supernal belief in one's own power of divination. It's the kind of quest poets have written ballads about. You know starting out that it's mostly kismet, pure luck, actually, if your search pans out, if by some twist of fate you do find that wonderful new work. Because the vast majority of swans are decidedly white, and you're looking for the black one. That's what your years in publishing have taught you. So you accept your likely destiny of dashed hopes, harboring the sneaky suspicion that the Great Wheel is spinning away from you.

And now the kids are telling you that you're an anachronism, a dinosaur, an effin relic without a future, just like you told your elders way back when paperbacks were less than a buck and publishing was not yet a Big Business. Just a short time ago, you handed your keys to these kids and what did they do? They put sand in your tank after trashing the joint. An archetypal scene. You thought you had a role to play, but the timing was off. And now you don't want to let these smart-ass kids back in, do you? And why should you? You've still got your passion and your wits. Your quest isn't over yet.

The kids don't care. Talent is ruthless. So is technology. Things are changing faster than you can adapt. You took great pride in being able to roll with the punches through all the stupidities of the past thirty years -- the fruitless mergers and acquisitions, the barbaric bosses who couldn't tell a book from a brick, the rise of the chains, the astronomical sums for properties of dubious value, the estrangement from the community of booksellers, the loss of prestige, the drive to efficiency, the rise of IT, the bar-codes and lay-downs and co-op expenditures and bloated bureaucracy, and now the bloody internet, all of the shite you put up with just so you could pursue your quest, to find that wonderful new work -- you put up with it all and now the kids want to put you out to pasture. Telling you that the marketplace has left you behind, and all your experience is worth a pile of sawdust. These kids like their machines, and reading text on little screens, and making connections through metadata. They may like you and respect you, but they want your quaint arse out of the control room.

What do you tell them? That there is no inner sanctum? That you have no other keys to give them? That they too are subject to the spinning of the Great Wheel? You want to tell them that the only thing that matters is to keep searching, to keep looking for that great work hidden somewhere -- if it exists at all -- in a vast sea of inert words, a sea of vain, lesser works, eminently marketable in an offhand way, but not what you're really after. You have so much in common with these brilliant and passionate kids, this small band of true believers, your natural allies. Perhaps all you can do now is turn them on to the grandeur of the quest. And hope they get it.

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