Monday, March 23, 2009


By now, anyone interested in the latest buzzing from the the book world has already read Gideon Lewis-Kraus' article "The Last Book Party: Publishing Drinks to Life After Death", in the March edition of Harper's Magazine. In it the author attends the Frankfurt Book Fair, where he eats, drinks and makes mildly merry with the agents and publishers, the movers & shakers of the industry. The portrait is not flattering, for the most part; many of the more important people the author encounters might as well be, in fact often are these days, little different from any other corporate plutocrats. As his introduction makes clear, publishing is now largely a division of larger entertainment concerns, vast corporate entities, run by the generic "barbarians" of the American MBA class, rather than the moneyed gentlemen of an earlier era, who turned "their parents' financial capital into cultural capital," and were "happy to make a profit of 3 to 5 percent." (Think Alfred A. Knopf for the latter. None among the former, quite rightly, will ever have so memorable a name.)

In all of this, there is little that is new or unknown, even to one so far down the ranks as me. The rise of the American bookstore chains, the dominance of the "superstore," happened at exactly the same time, and in much the same way, born of much the same business philosophy: bigger is better. Bigger publishers begat bigger advances, begat bigger promotion, begat bigger sales -- except when they didn't. Bigger bookstores begat better terms, begat bigger margins, begat constant expansion, begat record profits -- until Jeff Bezos. The corporate model may be unsustainable, books incapable of producing the demanded profits, publishing the least likely division of entertainment to produce regular blockbusters. Superstores, however large, comprehensive and exponentially multiplied, may ultimately prove an untenable expense in an online environment.

All such speculation is well beyond my pay-grade, and, as twenty some odd years in Independent Bookstores have taught me, about as exact a speculative undertaking as analysing the state of the Soviet Union by studying the line up of doddering monsters on the Kremlin wall each May Day. How many faux bestsellers have been said to herald the end of the super-literary-agent? How many bad seasons have been shown to predict the coming bust up of the mega-publishers? How many dips in their stock price have failed to produce the fall of Barnes & Noble? How many times has been said to have exhausted the patience of it's investors?

Always, next year in Jerusalem.

Now, with the global economy undone by its own devilish inventions, and greed superficially unpopular again, I know some independent booksellers will again spend their nights studying corporate financials, davening over PW, looking for clues, praying for relief, cursing fate with a renewed spirit. My own mood turns rueful at the news that a major publisher will lay-off a record number of employees one day, and announce an obscene advance for a cable-show-comedian's ghosted memoirs the next, but I don't presume to read much into such news. All auguries are inconclusive, all trends subject to abrupt change, all business models eventually inexact and unprofitable.

Fidel is still alive. The Kremlin is repopulated by a new generation of kleptocrats. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was pardoned. We're still in Iraq. The AIG bonuses, for the moment, are banked, though presumably now off-shore.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus does find much to be admired in smaller, independent publishers, many of them born of the very technological innovations that so many in the book business are otherwise so late to embrace. Likewise, even after the sad fall of so grand an institution as Stacey's Bookstore, in San Francisco, there are still booksellers opening shops here and there, nowadays, often as not, on ground abandoned by the superstores as unprofitable.

I am not so much an optimist as to hope to see the "buy local" movement, or earnest gatherings on Facebook, save the Independents. I am neither such a zealot as to waste another candle reading over The Wall Street Journal, (that vile, propagandist rag of the oligarchy,) prayerful for the decline of a point. I want no more moaning. I refuse to watch the skies.
I do not care to ever read another profile of the decline of publishing, or the passing away of the book. I have no more patience with such reading of entrails and smoke.

Tomorrow, I will go back to work in the bookstore. I will do my best. I will read, recommend, buy and sell books.

Fates, do your worst. Soothsayers be damned.

No comments:

Post a Comment