Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The job

Lemme tell you, a job is a job. I love it and I don't. It gives me eye strain, headaches, and a crick in the neck by the end of the day. Publishing: it's not an effin business, it's an industry -- a useful distinction Lanchester makes in I. O. U. A business is all about making money, whatever else you do is secondary, whereas an industry is about making something tangible for which you get paid -- it's the money that's secondary. Try telling that to an ignorant CEO and see how far you get.

The publishing industry, making books in whatever format readers want. The occupational hazards include a fat arse, carpal tunnel syndrome, ADS, and having business people who don't understand what you do tell you how to do it. Effin hilarious. They think it's a business. Lemme repeat, it's an effin industry.

And then there are those naïfs who think that writers make books. Not in my experience. Writers write, god bless 'em, but they don't make books. They don't acquire, edit, copy-edit, design, market, search for and occasionally find an audience, and obsess over the format for framing the texts they've composed. How could they spend time doing all that when they've got to keep writing so they can earn a living? Unless what they write isn't worth anything, in which case they're hobbyists, or kooks, or snake-oil salesmen. Go down to your local superstore on a weekday and take a look at the folks sitting there in the cafés -- there, among the students, young mothers, and retirees, you'll find the monomaniacs with their notebooks or laptops, books spread out across the table in front of them, so deeply mired in their waking dream you could push them over with one finger. For them, there's Lulu, AuthorHouse, Vantage, iUniverse, a local POD machine. Businesses.

You see the look of woozy incomprehension on the face of a businessman -- a salaryman -- who stares at a physical printed book and thinks, "Ah! so that's a book!" Eureka.

No, a book is not its format. Nor is it merely arranged text. A book is a collective enterprise, only completed when the last reader has gotten a hold of it and sucked the last bit of meaning out of it. A book is an effin journey from one mind to another, then another, then another, ad infinitum, a very complicated journey. Its complexity is something many people bemoan. They want the world to be simple. A writer writes, a reader reads, the rest is chaff. Okay, cool, brother, I'm happy to leave you to your own devices. Just remember, the Tower of Babel wasn't built by publishers.

Sometimes we understand one another, most often we don't. We need translators, mediators, explicators, even if they're wrong we need them. Meaning is not ours alone. Meaning is what we fight over and finally agree upon. Until someone new comes along and upsets the apple cart. You think reality stays the same? Ask someone who lived through the fall of communism whether everyday reality stays the same. And books? How can we expect books to stay the same? They never have.
Don Quixote. Gulliver's Travels. Robinson Crusoe. They don't belong to Cervantes, Swift, Defoe. Those guys are dead. They belong to us, their readers, and they change each time we read them. (So do we.) Format's got nothing to do with it. Look at the Bible: there's a different one for every one of its readers.

Quist told me once, "Get a job in publishing, you'll get to use your imagination." He was being optimistic. Most of the time, you sit at your desk and worry about the state of the industry, the culture, the country, and your own paycheck. Not much to imagine there. It's a job, and a job is a job.

Then, out of the blue, you'll come across a manuscript that speaks to you -- sometimes, rarely, even
sings to you -- and the imaginative journey begins, and you thank your lucky stars that you get to go on it again, finding yourself, among others, along the way.

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