Thursday, January 21, 2010


My friend Giacomo stands outside the W Hotel on Lex, thumbing the virtual keys on his iPhone. His dark gray overcoat is unbuttoned -- it's unseasonably warm for January -- and his scarf hangs loose. He looks up and grins when he spies me approach. "It's closed," he nods his head toward Blue Whiskey. "They don't open till five." He and I have taken to meeting mid-afternoon, before the offices empty and the midtown bars fill with workers trying to drown their daily sorrows. So we head up to the Benjamin one block north. The bar there is warm and woodsy in a faux clubby way, its denizens a motley assortment of dejected out-of-town salesmen, weary tourists, and a couple of spectral regulars. We find two stools next to an Asian chap who nods politely then goes back to looking anxiously toward the door. Jittery. Killing time.

The bartender has big hands and a broad face and knows the difference between Islay and Island scotch. Giacomo and I settle in. We've known each other for fourteen years, high and low, working with some of publishing's best and brightest, and have seen the industry we love fall ill. It's easy to talk about structural problems -- overspending on advances, returns policies, investment in technology at the expense of sales and marketing, bad debt, teetering retailers -- when you're sitting in a bar, but these are not the problems that drive us to distraction today. After all, though they are big and serious, they're not insoluble. It's the human problem that gets our goat -- the number of incompetent and unrealistic senior executives in the industry whose overweening desire is to preserve the status quo until they can cash out and find a cushy teaching position somewhere. Every big advance that fails to earn out is somebody's bad decision.

Giacomo looks at me with those eyes of his. He's just been listening to me extol the virtues of my new employer and praise its smallness. "Full circle, baby. That's what's happening in publishing. All these conglomerates can bid for the next celebrity bio or million dollar first novel -- who gives a shite? You know what they say about 'a fool and his money.' I think you're right on with Other Press. Publishing books, not just printing them. It's the small houses that are bringing back the honor to book publishing." He raises a glass and toasts the new gig. I think to myself, there are a dozen publishers in New York right now who would benefit no end by having this guy on their payroll, but they're too scared to hire a truth-teller. We clink tumblers, he sips his Maker's Mark, me my Laphroaig.

I think of the snake swallowing its tail, the imperfect painted circle, the essence of enlightenment. Giacomo knows what it means. Enso. No matter where you start or where you go, you will end up where you begin. He smiles and looks out over the room. A certain uncanny gaze that sees outward and looks inward at the same time. "Listen, poot, this is no business school bullshite, this is the circle of life. Things will find a way to return, in a different but better way, to the essence of publishing. When publishers take responsibility again for what they publish." He's talking to me, to himself, to the whole effin city. The circle is open, uneven, infinite. One imagines that the whole city is listening. I feel joyful and it has nothing to do with the drink. Giacomo must feel the same -- he starts laughing.
What is this?

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