Wednesday, May 22, 2013

An industry on the skids

I work in an industry -- traditional book publishing -- on the skids. Or at least that's what I'm led to believe by the pundits, few of whom accomplished anything of note when they worked in it. The former six-figure mooks are the worst of all. They opine publicly on their electronic soapbox like rejects from the self-help circuit. Some of them are gleeful, some are rueful, some are resigned, and some mask whatever emotions they're holding inside behind a facade of objectivity. There is no such thing as objectivity in publishing discussions these days. Who knows? Maybe objectivity itself is a myth.

One thing's sure: those who have been laid off or have been otherwise sent packing can't even pretend to be objective. Too many of them have had to settle for smaller salaries and fewer responsibilities, if they've clawed their way back into the workforce at all. Labor no longer frees them, they have moved beyond their middle years, work is a grind, and they are bored. The mask they wear is the interested face, behind which fatigue grimaces and panic simmers. They’ve got kids who cost money. They’ve got mortgages and health problems. And the world doesn’t give a shite about them.

They have contracted a communicable disease. Former colleagues avoid them. Who wants to catch a depression? Those old-time values, fixed ideas, and never-ending conversations about all that's been lost. No bloody pills for that. They are losers, angry and dismayed at having had the keys to the playground taken away from them. That's what work had been -- a playground filled with pliant playmates and a bi-weekly deposit into their checking accounts. A vacation from pondering all the bad shite that can happen to a person.

Now they write, looking to explain their predicament to themselves. It’s got to be systemic. Nothing personal. They ruminate, compose manifestos, make lists, effect analyses. Their sentences hurt my eyes. So many words, carelessly tossed about. The legacy publishers are dying, the windblown earth is being repopulated by self-publishing wizards, Amazon is the immortal big dog, seventy cents on a buck is the least an author should get for her work, even if it only costs a buck, one must grow vertical communities, direct to consumer marketing is the only marketing that works, libraries are mausoleums, the web is a portal to discovery, and so on.

My effin eyes are tearing up even now. Who says anybody should be making a living wage in this game? It’s all hot air and wagering. Take an effin bus to Foxwoods.

I work on the island of Manhattan, a kind of laboratory in which big money experiments with sheer verticality and tourists maunder about like cows awaiting milking. It is across the river from Brooklyn where people intent on being creative muster their talent during the day and drink at night. Few make a living at it. This thirteen-year old century has been cruel to too many -- we look in the mirror and old fat people stare back at us, weary of the grind, one foot in the grave, the other on the banana peel. We got a lesson that we find difficult to acknowledge -- ideas are tied to money. When you run out of one, the other doesn’t do you any good. Most days I don’t even have the energy to be bitter. Instead, I read about the impending apocalypse and hunker down with my Scotch, calling it medication. I don’t give a shite who believes me any more.

I figure it must be true, that this business is going down the tubes, led by Jeff’s epigones out in Seattle. The way it was conducted once upon a time, by courtly gentlemen in navy blazers who drank martinis at lunch -- thank goodness that shite is over. Those were the days of half-days when you could read a book cover to cover. Now the health club and prescription pills blunt the pain of stress. Twelve hour days are the order of business. Weekends? Forget about them -- there’s no such thing as free time. And, as my friend Cosmo says, “We live in an age of uniform individuality. Better learn to love it. If you want a safety net, get outta town.”

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