I was having drinks with J. last night at the 'inoteca between Park and Lex. It was good to be out of the damp evening staring into a glass of Italian wine. We were talking about the book business. Again. These days there's a helluva lot more talk than business. Maybe that's the way it should be. She told a story about a friend of hers who had written a book -- she sighed, I sighed -- and gotten it "published" by one of those shyster outfits that claims to be a publisher even though all they do is post your unedited manuscript on a website and wait to produce an on-demand trade paperback when someone actually orders a copy. Maybe a relative, or a friend. J., who knows how hard it is to get people to pay attention to any kind of book, was aghast at her friend's naiveté. "She actually thinks they're publishing her book. She said to me, 'They're so supportive.' So I asked her how they were marketing it, and she said, "They've got it up on line and they're very supportive.' I feel bad for her, but, hey, everybody's a writer these days. You can't save people from themselves."
M. joined us. He works a block away and looked tired. Another day of dealing with the shite: the Borders bankruptcy, Baker & Taylor's stupidity, the effin inefficiency of Books-a-Million. He ordered a wine and poured out his guts for a spell. When his wine came, we toasted old friends and the happy demise of crap accounts, dopey companies that deserve to go under. What can one do? I took pity on M. Here was a deeply sensitive reader, an intelligent and morally-centered man, a real mensch, who now spends his days dealing with clowns and apes pretending to be bookpeople and businessmen. What a way to spend the twilight of your career.
We talked about disorientation and adaptation -- how the industry has changed so much in the last few years, especially for old dogs like us who grew up in the days of brick-and-mortar expansion. The days before Jeff Bezos showed up at an ABA Bookseller School out in Washington.
J. told another story. It took place at a hotel on one of her business trips. She was sound asleep when the room phone rang and woke her up. Some woman with an indeterminate accent on the line sounded irate. "This Citibank? This Citibank?" J. said no, you've got the wrong number. "No no. This Citibank. I need to talk to someone at Citibank." After half a minute of listening to this crazy shouting about Citibank, J. simply told the woman off and hung up. It was still dark out but she was now wide awake. "So I figured I'd do my morning work-out, half an hour on the treadmill, fifteen minutes Pilates, a couple of weight routines. Don't laugh. It keeps me sane and it keeps me in shape." M. and I said not a word. "After I work out I usually go and get my first coffee of the day. So I went down to the street, still dripping sweat from the exercise, and walked over to the Starbucks a block away. Guess what. They weren't open yet. And this is a place that opens at 5:30 AM. I walked back to the hotel lobby and asked the desk clerk what time it was. He stared at me and answered, 'Three fifteen in the morning.' Very calmly, just like that. I couldn't go back to sleep, so I spent the next three hours reading."
M. had had a similar dislocating experience recently. "I was out on the West Coast and had to get up the next morning to catch a 7:15 flight back to New York. So I set my iPhone for 5:15 and went to sleep. Slept like a log. The alarm goes off, I get up, take a shower, dress, pack up the rest of my stuff and go downstairs to check out and grab a cab to the airport. I get to the desk and there's nobody there, so I ring the bell and this guy comes out of the back office. I ask to check out and he asks me where I'm going. I tell him the airport and he says, 'You know it's two-forty-five in the the morning, don't you?' Of course, I had set my alarm for 5:15 but the phone was still on East Coast time, so it really went off at 2:15! What could I do? I was already showered and dressed, so I didn't want to go back to bed. Like you, I stayed up and read. Caught up on my New Yorker articles."
We talked for a while about Larry Wright's terrific piece on Scientology and Louis Menand's fine essay last year on depression and psychopharmacology. J. asked M. what time he had -- M. was the only one of us wearing a watch. He said, "Twenty after." J. roused herself and said she had to get to a dinner date in ten minutes. "Lovely to see you guys -- let's do it again soon." We paid, walked over to Park, kissed and hugged, then went our separate ways. Here it is, in the middle of the night, and that's all I remember.