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.