Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The book business on a rainy day

Woke up this morning, people. Listened for the first jet outta Newark. Made a pot of coffee. Staggered to the kitchen table. Turned on the computer. Looked out the window. Lots of green life out there! Read a couple of stories on NY Times dot com. Liked Dwight Garner on sound and silence -- he's smart and entertaining. Liked David Brooks but he always writes half a column, one that starts strong, then peters out. Saw Maslin tackling a new biography of E. M. Forster. Yawn. Reread A Passage to India recently. Brilliant book. Who gives a fig about his sexuality? It started to rain again, softly, I listened to the pitter-patter on the leaves. It was a comforting sound. Whoa, came across this headline: "A New Clue to Explain Existence." Good god, it turns out that physicists have found that collisions at Fermilab's particle accelerator produced about 1 percent more matter than anti-matter. Took another sip of coffee. This factoid felt reassuring, in an abstract way. Dennis Overbye wrote, "In a mathematically perfect universe, we would be less than dead; we would never have existed." This is the kind of article I love to read in the early morning. It makes me feel smart, even though I haven't got a clue as to the science underlying such cosmic statements. Sadly, in my mind it becomes trivia.

I thought about the day ahead. My colleagues and I were going to present the Spring 2011 list to the Random House sales force. Eight fine books, each worthy of being published, each facing a difficult marketplace. In publishing, you're always living in the future. It's very unsettling. You talk about books that aren't books yet, so everything you say is made up of hopes and dreams, things that might happen if the stars align. Unfortunately, they align so rarely that some publishing professionals have never experienced the sensation. I feel bad for them. Because we're dependent on outside forces to get the message out about our wonderful books, we become fatalistic, irrational, even, in some cases, superstitious. Crazy beliefs to cope with a crazy business, one in which we try to manufacture Black Swans and mostly wind up with ugly ducklings instead.

The rain today was a bad sign, the barometric pressure too low to conduct a civil meeting. Going into the city, you could almost feel the pressure behind the eyes of commuters as they fiddled with their smart phones. It looked as though their heads were about to explode. Pop, pfft. Just like punctured balloons. It made me ultra-sad to be on a bus with a bunch of exploders like that because I couldn't concentrate on all the good books I had in my bag -- the ones I'd been reading day and night, trying to come up with fresh marketing ideas. On a ratty morning like today's, I came to the conclusion that there are no fresh marketing ideas, although I did fantasize that I was free to market directly to consumers, i.e. the actual people who buy and read books. But then I remembered all those hard lessons about channels and formats, discounts and distribution, co-op and placement allowance, and I got too discouraged to think about the actual end-user. I was forced to think about the intermediaries -- the chains and wholesalers, Amazon and the mass merchants, even the indies. I like the indies -- I feel as though they're on the side of literature and want to help us sell good books but the others are in it mostly for the money, which is kind of a joke, considering how little of it there is in publishing.

My old friend Quist used to tell me that I shouldn't think about work -- especially creative work -- when riding a crowded bus into the city. "It's too depressing, poot. You'll only drive yourself nuts. When you're stuck on the bus, read a crime novel instead. It'll make you feel better." I believed him. So today I brought a copy of an old and nasty thriller called
Violent Saturday by H. L. Heath. It's set in the south back in the 1950s. It begins like this:
The three men arrived in Morgan Friday afternoon on the two-thirty train from Memphis. They were the only strangers to get off the train that day, and several people noticed them but didn't pay them much attention. They might have been salesmen or minor businessmen of some sort. They only reason they were noticed at all was because there were three of them.
I blocked out the noise around me and I forgot that story about how colliding particles explained existence. I thought to myself, I bet robbing banks is easier than bookselling. Then I lost myself in the book. I figured the Spring 2011 list would take care of itself when the time came.

No comments:

Post a Comment