Sunday, June 10, 2012

Just like a buzzin fly

After the rain, the wind comes along and shakes a little rain-water off the maple down by the rushing stream. The sun comes out and so does Mr. Frog. I spy him sitting on his rock as still as another rock. The goddamn sky cried for so long. When my shadow crosses the rock froggie jumps a good four feet into the roiling water. Even though I know he's gonna do it, it startles the bejabbers out of me. Life jumping around like that, it's some kind of voodoo. Just like the thud when big flying bugs hit the window and then keep going.

I went back down to the city to show my face at BEA last week -- Book Expo America. Dumb-ass name for it, especially when most of the talk is about digital content delivery systems and new-fangled business models. Amazon envy was particularly acute this year as was the palpable enmity between bricks-and-mortar and online retailers. There weren't as many people looking for jobs as there has been -- either the poor sods have landed somewhere or they've stopped looking, just like in the economy at large.

A 150-plus contingent of Russians showed up. I guess they were supposed to try and figure out why the marketplace for foreign literature is so fucked-up in the U. S. Fat chance they'd get any answers at BEA, other than the obvious one: Americans don't like to read that shite. Turns out that the Russians've got problems of their own back in the homeland -- ninety percent of downloaded books are pirated editions and one of the country's two largest houses was about to go under until its chief competitor bailed it out -- in a "joint venture" announced at the show. After the first day, I didn't see them again. Maybe their bus got lost at the other end of the Lincoln Tunnel.

It was hard to tell what the domestic publishers were up to: they brought a lot of personnel but few advance readers copies and hardly any catalogs. Maybe they're content simply to ride the higher margins they're earning on ebooks until that gravy train slows down, thus forcing them to get rid of more people. Anyone who thinks things have leveled off for good are dreaming. The editors, publicists, and marketers who work at the big six, like the indie booksellers operating in a rigged system, are my heroes -- imagine how hard they have to work to publish a few good books under the pitiless gaze of an upper management that doesn't give a rat's ass for anything except profits. Some have defected to the other side and appear willing to go along with whatever the starry-eyed technologists propose. Who can blame them? You gotta eat.

The organizers managed to squeeze some official book-talk into the convention; just enough to give the ungainly thing a gloss of high culture and cause the dutiful media types to rouse themselves and cover it. There were a slew of reporters and bloggers sniffing around, trying hard to detect some genuine buzz, the buzz that's grown fainter and fainter each year (yet is still supposed to be the raison d'ĂȘtre for the whole shebang). I'm not talking about the manufactured buzz, the one we got at the monied Buzz Panel. Bzz. Bzz. Snooze. Snooze. Nah, I'm talking about the stuff that the booksellers come to discover on their own. Last week, the only genuine buzz I heard at Javits was the sound of fucking power tools.

The Javits Center again -- an abomination with intermittent wi-fi, crappy food, and an undesirable location. Now, like much of Manhattan, it's a scaffolded construction site. How many years in a row has BEA been here? Enough so it's starting to feel like a life sentence at a correctional facility. What an effin euphemism -- "correctional facility" my arse: it's an effin prison.

It's shameful how quickly words are bent to take on new meaning, thereby losing most of their original sense. This year it was "discovery" -- a blobby amalgam of "merchandising," "marketing," "search," and "browseability." "Browseability" is itself a idiotic coinage. BEA was on top of "discovery." I could tell because they'd scheduled a coupla panels on it. I guess the savants who view publishing as a neanderthal business ripe for picking are operating on the assumption that books are hard to find. Hell, in my neck of the woods you can't help but stumble over them, there's so fucking many. Way too many to pay attention to. Just go down to the local library book sale and look at all the books, row upon row of cartons filled with 'em, and so many of them better than the godawful tripe consumers are downloading from Amazon.

But I promised myself I wasn't gonna get het up about the state of things, because the state of things is pretty effin superficial. There's a bunch of true believers that get it -- some publishers, a load of booksellers, and many, many authors. Colleagues all. The authors who pour out their hearts, work like dogs, hone their skills to enhance their talent, and try so hard to put into words what it's like -- to grapple with this shite, this exaltation and exertion, this life we lead. Most of the time they get nothing. A coupla bucks, a compliment or two, if they're lucky. They get squat while "the book industry" prattles on about terms of sale, lawsuits, technology, and finances. They trust us with their work and we go on a walkabout, like wanderers in the desert.

Lemme tell you, poot, the whole thing was amazing. This industry of mine, coming together, not necessarily wanting to overthrow the established order, but wanting just a little bit of peace for itself, to feel secure in the knowledge that what we do has meaning -- convincing ourselves that it does, it does -- has only BEA to look forward to once a year. And every day the sky cried and let loose a little rain but it didn't make a difference, we were in Javits and we were with each other. The four days were our affirmation and our albatross.

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