Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Chopping wood while chopping wood

When I got laid off by Random House at the beginning of 2009 and spent almost a full year out of work, I came to see publishing as hopelessly mired in outdated processes and policies, presided over by an unholy alliance of autocratic dinosaurs and clueless MBAs. (In my self-righteous and self-justificatory mode, I conveniently forgot that I'd been part of the system for twenty some-odd years.) It all seemed wrong to me, especially the parts we couldn't fix -- stupid anachronisms like the returns privilege (dating back to the Great Depression), co-op advertising pools (subsidizing the growth of the chains), bidding wars for supposedly hot manuscripts, unattended author events at venues that couldn't care less, an inefficient distribution system resulting in an acceptable returns rate of 25%, kowtowing to ignorant buyers at mass merchandisers because of the financial power they wielded, absurdly high advances for celebrity properties, and on and on. It was like being married for twenty years, then waking up one morning and realizing you'd been sleeping with a hag. A hag whose faults were all too easy to identify and enumerate.

In the depths of my depression, angry and resentful as hell, I saw the whole thing as problematic, broken, and unworthy of reform. Best to let the publishing industry die an ignominious death and hope for a literary rebirth in a new mode of being, one in which all the bad shite had been left behind. I looked around me and found that I was not alone on the doom-laden island of Manhattan where ex-publishing folk roamed like a wild pack of dogs, snouts buried in each other's arseholes. When you're out of work and licking your wounds you don't care that the kids in Brooklyn are playing games, even if you secretly wish you were on the field with them. You think you're too old, too set in your ways, too tainted by years of "I tole you so, bud," so you start walking the memory plank and declaiming like a prophet.

There goes Ezekiel, late of Random House, walking through the Valley of Bones. Give the geezer a consulting gig, will ya?

So what did I do? I joined another publishing company, this one operating on a much, much smaller scale than the Beast of Broadway. Yet we do the same thing -- we try to publish good books successfully. So I'm back in the game. Chopping wood. And, from this vantage point, publishing doesn't look like it's dead, or even dying. All those processes and policies that so irritated me when I was out of work, that appeared so foolish and antiquated, now seem to me to be a part of a wonderfully evolved and intricate filtration system, one that is working as hard as it can to maintain a certain level of literate culture in a country that can ill-afford to lose it. This is not to turn a blind eye to its faults. Like any true lover, I can tell you in detail what is wrong with the object of my affection. But I am again a lover, not an outside (and often bitter) observer. She is my hag, largely unchanged, but these days I don't mind her snoring.

It is a wonderful thing that it is so difficult to publish a good book, one that edifies, informs, gives pleasure, revives an art, does whatever well, whether it speaks to a niche or to a whole society. Good books are rare, like home runs, fine wines, tropical orchids, or hurricanes. A good book originates with its author but it also runs through the hands of many talented, caring collaborators before it makes its appearance to the world of readers. (And once readers get a hold of it, it becomes something else again.) These collaborators are not cynical, sinister gatekeepers, seeking to protect a tiny (mostly unprofitable) piece of turf. They too are lovers -- seekers, dreamers -- who want to find something rare and beautiful that they can present to the world in the best possible way, even if they have to discover that way anew.

Uh-oh, it sounds like old Ezekiel has done morphed into Pollyanna. The laid-off crank become the dewy-eyed employee of the month. Okay. So what? I know which picture is true for me right now. I can't help you determine which picture is true for you. My friend PT once said, "The way you view publishing -- it's attitudinal, not rational. Like the way you view life." It's hard to give a better explanation than that.

Sure, I've still got that list of faults that desperately need reform: returns that are stupider than ever in a digital age, payment terms and advertising dollars that favor retail behemoths who couldn't care less whether they sell soap or noodles, bidding wars on manuscripts that are wasteful and demeaning (and do nothing for authors except get them that first check, after that -- nada), pricing policies that are dictated by online retailers, celebrity properties that crowd the marketplace with junk, co-op advertising for placement and discounting that doesn't work (especially now that the one chain is dead and the others are floundering), author "events" that take place in empty back rooms, and on and on. Plus confronting the transformational idea of what a book really is and whether or not its format is intrinsic to the reading experience.

Because I love this industry these things don't cause me to despair or wallow in bitterness. They make me happy that the hag is still alive. For I know that she is capable, though rarely and reluctantly, of producing a good book every once in a while, as difficult as that is to do.

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