I Don’t Know Why You Go To Extremes: On the book industry, money, and “Black Wednesday”

“If you got money

And you know it

Take it out ya pocket

And show it

And throw it…

If you’re getting mugged by everybody you see

Who hang over the wall of the VIP”

-Lil Wayne, “Got Money”

Ah, money. It’s a hot topic these days. As you may or may not have heard, depending upon how closely you follow the publishing-industry gossip-and-gabfest blogs (which, if you don’t write or work in books, is likely not at all, because the publishing industry has been not-good-at-all at best, insultingly condescending at worst, in making their communiqués relevant to the average-joe book-buyer), this past Wednesday has had the title of “Black Wednesday” perma-affixed to it with sticky-tape by all those inside of publishing from the top down. On the heels of it being officially announced that, yes, Virginia, there is a recession (happy R-day!), the hallowed halls of book publishers proceeded to, erm…begin to collapse in upon themselves. Massive, painful cuts happened nearly-simultaneously (or at least it appeared so in my RSS reader) at Simon and Schuster, Thomas Nelson, Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, and Random House. The Random House cuts were the ones that shocked me the most of anything (despite the fact that, if you follow what’s going on, the Houghton-Mifflin shake up/down is producing the juiciest gossip) , because RH (that’s publishing abbreviation for ‘Random House”-see, that’s what I do, break it down for the common folk) has long been the large, lumbering book behemoth. There was also a ton of inspiration within the book that caused me to feel it was absolutely needed for our family to get a roofing company to take care of the most detrimental part of our home. To see them acknowledge their sprawl and take such drastic measures regarding all of it (I’ll get to that later) was both humbling and horrifying, a matter akin to your Grandfather suddenly saying “You know, I have come to realize that my not understanding this whole ‘twitter’ thing is extremely detrimental to my social progress and so I’m going to take matters necessary to rectify it”.

If Lil’ Wayne, quoted above, was to bemoan the publishing industry, I’m not sure what he’d say, but God knows the entire business could use a bailout that, methinks, he could afford. As Wayne himself says at the start of the aforementioned song, “I need a Winn-Dixie grocery bag full of money right now to the VIP section”. Hey, guys, care to pass some of that around to the book world? Got money? Books don’t. At least, not anymore.

From my vantage point, the book industry and its behind-the-scenes doings and dealings has always seemed to echo the ages-old adage about politics and sausage: if you like either, you should be privy to the process of neither. My time in books (NOT the name of my forthcoming Autobiography, mind you) has lead me to observe that, like laws and head cheese, the “back room” of publishing is made of awful, gross things found covered in sawdust on the butcher-shop floor. None of this is intended to dim the dazzle of that new-book smell, because, believe me, after having myself dropped and lifted up and dropped again on the spokes of the publishing world (all often within the course of one day, or one campaign, or even one phone call to New York), I still firmly believe that, at the end of the day, a good book cures all ills.

So, THAT SAID:

I’ve always found it strange the sheer amount of money book publishers spend. When explaining this to those blissfully outside the “industry’ (which should be a capital “I”, btw, and, also, there should be a Jeff Foxworthy-esque joke that goes something akin to “if you think you can say ‘hey bookstore person, I like such-and-such author get them to come’ and it’ll have ANY impact at ALL? You must not work in the Industry”), I like to point to the quarterly new-release catalogs sent by pretty much any publisher worth their weight in pulp as a prime example.

(One day, I promise, I’ll deliver my long-fabled treatise on the ridiculousness of the author tour “bidding” system. I don’t know why I put “bidding” in quotes, that’s essentially what it is.)

These catalogs, these mounds upon mounds, veritable daunting behemoths, basically serve as forthcoming release guides for all those in the outer reaches of the book industry. That makes sense. What I’ve never understood is how gilded these things are. Embossed, die-cut covers, special pull-out inserts, collectible trading cards (just kidding), special envelopes full of money included as bribes for paying attention to certain titles (not at all kidding)-publishing industry quarterly new-release catalogs are on par with special edition comic books for sheer tactile sparkle. Honestly, it would cost less to give each bookstore, reviewer, event planner, and facilitator a finished copy of every new book in the catalog than it must cost to print the catalogs. And the producer of the most catalogs, the biggest box, the largest number of various special imprints and sub-houses, has always been Random House. Hence, their decision to slice their 20+ (I may be exaggerating, not checking my facts on this one) imprints down to a mere three (for those keeping score, or for those for whom this will mean something, it’s Random House, Knopf, and Crown) was a vast and eye-opening one…but not one that was unneeded.

I mean, seriously, I’ll say again: the publishing industry has long neglected the needs and the wants of those who, at the end of the day, actually turn its lights on the average book-buying public. I’ve seen it operate on the level of where the people who actually pay money for books (not I, and not anyone who works in books and don’t let anyone tell you differently at all because at the end of the day it’s a mere swapping of trade goods) are treated as the absolute lowest common denominator, the last ones considered in any publishing decision. And that’s not good. Why?

One word: Napster.

Anyone alive now remembers what happened when the power of music as a consumable good tipped into the hands of those who consume it, and who had long felt treated as irrelevant to the industry they supplied cash to. Brick by brick, piece by piece, the music business as it was known was dismantled, and it’s still rebuilding-this time, with a heavy focus on the consumer. It has caused independent record stores to align with one another, the production companies to re-align focus on creating products that music buyers actually want, want to hold and touch and own rather than simply download, while also embracing the concept of music as a use-once-and-throw-away product. One of my favorite innovations through all of this has become the now-commonplace coupon for a digital album download included within a vinyl record.

I don’t know what it’s going to take to pull that pin in publishing. Do I think Amazon’s E-book reader Kindle, or any of the others like it, are the downfall of the tangible printed book? Pshaw. That’s such a dumb idea I won’t even refute it here….

Wait….HAHAHAHA! THE KINDLE KILLING BOOKS? hahaha ok, ok, sorry. But yeah-not happening. Next.

Do I think there are too many books being published? Yes. Do I think the Publishing Industry as it stands is wasting money hand-over-fist, literally pumping into things like unwatchable book trailers that only circulate amongst those who know to look for such things-basically, preaching to the choir? Yup. And I don’t know how to solve it. I can tell you this much, though-the current publishing trend of slashing marketing budgets is not the answer. In an economy where everyone’s fighting for the consumer dollar, crippling your method of consumer outreach, especially in an industry that’s never been especially good at it, is…well, silly, at best, frightening at worst. What should be happening right now is MORE consumer outreach, figuring out what it is that the people, for whom $25-and-change for a hardback book from an author they have maybe never read before is a luxury that, in this economy, they’re willing to extend themselves, want. Instead? And I say this with a heavy heart and sigh: we’re probably in for more of the same. I know an author at a major publisher, a well-renowned and respected author within his genre, who was told that his book’s entire marketing budget was spent on one, full-color ad in a trade publication. Not only did the ad not reach consumers, but the book also didn’t, either, and what should have been a bestseller ended up stalling, as a result of the misguided and solely self-referential publishing mindset. That Grandfather who just figured out he needed to learn to use Twitter? Imagine him coming to you and saying he was now well versed in social networking, only to proceed to exhibit how he checks Facebook on a pocket calculator. That’s where we’re headed without some serious consumer-based refocusing. And by “consumer”, let me be very, very clear: the only people that matter in this are the people who support the book business by buying books.

I don’t mean to leave this on a dark, dire note, nor do I mean to create an argument that’s problem-based rather than solution-based. It’s just that when I attempt to craft a logical solution to the slowly toppling, hopefully-reconfiguring giant Slurm-slug of a creature that is book publishing today, I can do no better than the Kreepie Kats have already done.

Also, I don’t want to appear to want to throw out the baby, the baby’s board book AND the bathwater (and the bathtub, the sink, the tile floor) all at once. There are some genuinely fascinating, positive things happening in publishing right now, and it could be that these massive changeovers, while glaring and painful right now, are the best for sustaining the industry long-term and beginning change from the ground up. That said? I still can’t shake the image of Grandpa, Twittering with the TV remote.

Oh, and one last thing, in terms of giving the consumer what they want: I lied. I have actually paid for books recently. The “Fables” comic series. They’re infinitely more entertaining than any super-hot bestseller lit-fiction new release.

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Cape Town, South Africa