Friday, May 7, 2010

Beatrice & Virgil stole the loot

So my buddy Giacomo sends me an email. Hey, poot, these wankers over at Random House paid more than three million smackeroos for the Yann Martel and Bookscan is showing less than 20,000 sold. Disaster. You think they're gonna lay off the right people -- the dopes who bought the blasted thing -- or are they gonna go after the little guys again, those who simply love books, want to do a honest day's work and make enough dough to survive? I think to myself, who knows? They've got that German printer in charge over there -- can he even tell the difference between a novel and a novelty? -- marking time until his tour of duty is over.

But it's not just the big house gasping for breath, it's the whole tired lot of them, still bidding on books that will never earn out, getting caught up in the emotions of an auction for a property that'll wind up worth less than half of what it went for. No one knows what value to put on these things, these 'books-to-be.' You read a piece, or a proposal, you take it on faith that the writer has the skill and courage to work it through, then you've got to turn a Word doc into a book. And listen, poot, it don't make a diff if it's an e-book or a p-book: it still takes an enormous amount of effort to effect the transformation. Anyone who sez otherwise is smokin bad weed. Of course the system of acquiring books is crazy, that's why only madwomen and madmen belong in this biz. Not real business people with their legal-size spreadsheets, overseas budgets, and fancy degrees in some fictive discipline called 'management.'

Yann Martel, Audrey Niffenegger, Charles Frazier, the list goes on and on. The writer's sophomore jinx, the publisher's sophomoric approach to bidding on a second novel after some cat's first big success. Happens all the time. Who cares whether the property is any good -- when you spend millions on an acquisition, you've got to turn a bunch of words on a page into An Event. Even though everybody knows that most books are anything but. It's nobody's fault, it's human nature to get excited at an auction. You ever see those Japanese guys in suits at the dock when the tuna boat comes in? Same crazed look in their eyes. No wonder good sushi is so expensive.

Okay, we're living in 2010 and sales are in the shitter, revenue is dropping like a lead sinker in mudpond, so maybe the punch-drunk MBAs in their aeries are getting the message -- publishing isn't a business, it's a crap-shoot, a stab in the dark, a quest, a chase, an attempt to make something beautiful and meaningful out of fragile human language and wit, with an inherent worth that cannot be measured in dollars. Within the context of a culture that has no other way of measuring value. An effin Picasso goes for $106 million at auction and the media seals clap their flippers and bark, "The economy is looking up! The idiots with money are spending it again. Yea!" Tell me, poot, what is a Picasso worth? His energy, his fury, his restlessness, his vision? A canvas, some blue paint, wood?

Giacomo says things are gonna have to change, but I don't know how you do that unless you tear the human being apart and take out the nervous system. You try to sit still during an auction, you try to keep your hands to yourself when the other guy is reaching for the last crumb. Go ahead,
don't bid on the next book by a hugely successful author. Stay on the sidelines. Publish your midlist that sells a couple of thousand copies if you're lucky. Keep reducing staff and cutting costs. Count the number of paperclips you use and put a lock on the postage machine. If the car companies and airlines can do it, you can do it too. Remember: you don't need staff -- you've got software. Yes! - you can deliver a profit on declining sales. Hell, even Simon and Schuster can do that.

Or you can acknowledge that this is publishing, poot. If you're looking to make money, get out of the biz and go play somewhere else. I hear they need clean-up crews on the Gulf coast.

1 comment:

  1. (Second attempt to post this)

    Wow! You and I may be in different professions but our professional experiences have parallels. The business people are “sucking the science and spirit” out of scientific software.

    Venture capitalists and investment analysts often contact me to inquire about the potential size of the market for some type of new software that some professor or entrepreneur seeking funding wants to bring to market. I explain what I perceive to be the likely dynamics of how the technology is likely to play in the market – the opportunities and the challenges. I think this part is easier with software than books.
    I feel that they are barely listening as they continue to insist on the effing number for their spreadsheets–that is, the potential size of the market for such software. I do my best to contain my frustration when I then ask them how often any market estimates for software opportunities have been correct? I am more than happy to give them contextual information so they understand the nature and the implications of the potential investment. But, I refuse to give them such an estimate which (as in your industry) cannot be predicted reliably.

    When I work with the software developers, as in the book publishing industry, it is challenging to turn the concept software into “industrial strength” software.

    Also from your posting, I perceive that the “aficionados” in your industry are the people in the trenches. while most of the senior execs are “suits.” The scientific software industry is increasingly dominated by “suits” with MBAs from prestigious universities. When I first started in this industry, it was dominated by people with passion and vision. These pioneers were real scientists and engineers (like me) who had passion and knew what software needed to do to add value. Today, the scientific software industry is increasingly dominated by “suits” with MBAs who don’t know “poop” about what they are selling. They hire “consultants” who coach them on how to make effective business presentations. They infuse the presentations with just the right acronyms to make them sound knowledgeable. But, once someone asks a question that goes below the veneer, the response is often embarrassingly vapid to people “in the know. “ Yet, the clueless investment people are frenetically taking notes.

    By the way, I once bought a technical book for $99.95 that gave me insights resulting in $125,000 in business. If the author and I knew that “a priori,” how much would he have charged me for the book? How much is a book worth that makes me see the world with greater clarity? ….probably a lot more than I paid for it.

    Sorry for the length but you really struck a chord here. One last comment regarding your reference to the Gulf Coast clean up. You might already know this or heard this quip recently, but the U. S. government already has experience housing “oily slime” under a concrete dome. (see