Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Winter Institute is not an institution

When journalists characterize the state of book retailing in the U. S., it sounds dire: bully Amazon reigns supreme, Borders is croaked, Barnes & Noble is desperately trying to reinvent itself, mass merchants have captured the bestseller business, and independent bookstores are a Lilliputian piece of the market, a mere shadow of what they were scant decades ago. Worse, printed books are going into the dustbin of history – soon everyone will read digital files on an electronic device, thereby upending the tried-and-true business model (whatever that is). In other words, paradigms are shifting, the sky is falling, and experienced bookpeople have become fossils. I read it in the newspapers, in blogs and online journals, in tweets from conference floors and corporate halls. Everything is utterly transformed, from acquisitions to production, from contracts to distribution, from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Do the prenatal crouch, baby, and suck your thumb.

If this story is true, why were five hundred independent booksellers gathered in Washington, DC the third week in January and why were they in a good mood? I saw some of them dance late into the night, high on their own animal spirits, singing karaoke, feeling their oats. Were they nuts? Others were more guarded, taking to their hotel rooms after late dinners, curled up with dreams of the Next Big Book, happy to be amongst their own kind for four warm days. Those days were full. They petitioned their lawmakers, they celebrated a strong holiday season, they taught each other and learned from each other, they looked unflinchingly at the new technology -- and decided it would help them, not hurt them. I thought to myself, it's a good thing that these guys aren't reading their obituaries. They don't know that they're obsolete.

And why were there so many young people there? These twenty and thirty somethings, with their Blackberrys and iPhones, their fearlessness and optimism, their talk about curation and community, trying to tell me there's a future in bookselling. The graybeards I understood -- after all, I'm one of 'em. You come to hoist a little shot of nostalgia, talk about the old days, see if you can still stay up past midnight and get dixie fried. But the young people weren't there to rehearse the past. They might've be standing on their elders' shoulders, but they were looking ahead. When the elders looked up, they laughed and sang and kicked the nostalgia bit. "Save the reminiscences for another day," they seemed to say, "there's work to be done. We've got books to sell."

Even more improbably, why did three-dozen publishers -- including all the majors -- show up with their ARCs, sponsorship dollars, and a host of authors to show off at the Thursday evening cocktail party? Was it only because they were scared shitless that Borders was about to go belly up, leaving them with even fewer places to shove their books under the public's snout? Clearly the indie presses were at home amid the scruffy crowd. Hell, they thrive on idiosyncratic individualism, and had given up on Borders long ago, when there were still some real booksellers out in Ann Arbor. But it was fairly instructive to see Simon & Schuster, Random House, Harper, Penguin, Hachette and Macmillan playing the courting game after years of giving preferential treatment to the chains, those dying behemoths. Nothing like a crisis to remind you who your real friends and allies are, is there?
Take another little piece of my heart, now, baby.

Listen. The reason we nerds and crazies are in this business is because of the joy we take in discovering something on our own. Ecstasy. We know it to be real. The rest is commerce, neither good nor bad, necessary yes, and meant to be conducted honorably and honestly, but no reason for celebration. We celebrate the books, the authors, the voices that give us voice. We came to Washington, DC at the end of a 'low dishonest decade' to give lie to conventional wisdom. We had our moments. Now we can go to work for another year.

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