Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Frankenstein's monster

It's tough being in the book business these days, what with explosive growth of of digital downloads -- mostly through Amazon, those pricks -- and the demise of brick-and-mortar stores. Managerial types in Manhattan may be looking at the margins on ebook sales, and the efficiency, and start thinking they're gonna make it to the land of milk and money. They're nuts. Every time a consumer buys a book for $1.99, the economic superstructure of the industry teeters a bit more. Higher margins on declining revenue ain't a great prescription for worldly success, poot.

The MBAs don't care. They're not in the business of selling books. They're in the business of delivering payloads. They love exposing the inefficiencies of production and distribution. People? Pain in the arse. Transportation? Too many variables. Warehousing? Ties up cash. IT? Demand that it become its own profit center. They love digital the way Dr. Frankenstein loved his monster -- madly, blindly, self-destructively. The way teen-age boys love their cocks.

Late at night, after making a few dull remarks at yet another desultory industry dinner, they head out to Staten Island to dance on the grave of the Printed Book. A convoy of black Lincolns and Benzes winds through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, down to the Verrazano, up and over into the borough of aging gangsters and unrequited middle-class dreams. There, streaked with paint like savages, naked except for buckskin loincloths, chanting in an incomprehensible tongue, they circle and whirl around the great smoking fire of Freshkills. Their eyes roll back into their feverish heads. They sweat and their faces contort with the mad desire to become like their hero, Jeff. They imagine themselves ruthless, cutthroat, and supremely engaged, just like Jeff. They imagine changing the game, making the rules, spreading the love, and engineering the future. Just like Jeff. They imagine a world without paper or glue, without ink or thread, without board or tape. In their frenzy, they imagine becoming bodiless, lifted up into the ether, neither human nor machine, but a groovy blend of both. Just like the grooviest micromanager of all, Jeff.

These are the same forward-looking individuals who spent tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of man-hours on category management for the now-defunct Borders chain. These are the seers and sages who agreed to release ebooks simultaneously with hardcovers. These are the brilliant minds who agreed to agency pricing as a means of leveling the playing field! These are the ones who make pilgrimages to Bentonville to beg for an additional holiday SKU. These are the ones who fire salespeople, then panic when sales go down. These are the hollow men, headpiece filled with straw.

Yup, it's tough being in the book business these days. Hell, it's tough being in any business, excepting maybe trash collection. My neighbor Teddy is in the recycling racket, says he's busier than a one-armed paper-hanger. Cute analogy. Says he wants his kids to take over the business. "I want them to be kings of the shitpile," he starts waxing philosophical, "This industry is only gonna get bigger in the future, not like publishing. You should see some of the stuff people toss."

All you need is a truck and storage space. Teddy's brother Tony claims to have furnished his whole house with recyclables. "Hey, one man's junk is another man's treasure." They watch a lot of reality TV when they're not out working and they take offense if you lump them together with third world ragpickers. "What we do isn't like that at all. We're not out there rummaging through landfills. We're effin connoisseurs. You won't see any books in our backyard."

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