Text Message from Los Angeles
On the demented, celebrity-crazed, surrender-happy, endlessly-on-the-verge-of-being-wiped-off-the-planet publishing industry. (Note to panicked book lovers: Everything is going to be okay.)
Larry King's backyard in Beverly Hills, with its high hedges, glittering pool, and verdant lawn, is full of Industry People. Besides Larry King, there aren't any movie or television stars here, but you get the sense that these are the people who hire the stars. There is a giant portrait of Larry King made entirely out of Jelly Bellies in the room overlooking the lawn. On the buffet table in the dining room is a mountainous spread of medium-rare bison, a layer-cake-like dip composed of seven varieties of goat cheese, dishes of duck pâté, and platters of other things so bizarre they almost seem like they were ordered off a menu from a myth.
Media mogul and honest-to-god billionaire Ted Turner is wandering around, looking small in his gray suit. He walks up to a woman, goes for an air kiss, and stops himself. "Oh, I'm sorry," he says. "I thought you were my old girlfriend." His accent is very Southern—downright Suhthuhn, in fact—and the chuckle in his voice causes the woman to demur and forgive him. "Meet my new girlfriend," he says to her, introducing a woman not quite half his age, then wandering away, his new girlfriend trailing behind. Also in attendance are a couple dozen booksellers from around the country, here in town for BookExpo America (BEA), the annual book-industry convention. Though the booksellers are dressed in literally the best clothes they own, they still look cheap next to the tanned, coiffed, and face-tucked rich folks standing next to them, simply because a $500 white shirt is always going to look better than a $50 white shirt. The haves and the have-nots stay in their cliques for the most part. A few enterprising book publicity people try to ascend the social ladder, but their small talk doesn't gain them purchase. They are pushed back in the face of having absolutely nothing in common to discuss beyond the air we're all sharing.
A bookseller, noting that her heels don't sink into the grass the way that they do on the lawns of cheaper events, bends down to tug at it. The entire section of lawn rises, tentlike, when she pulls. The lawn is a convincing, vegetal toupee. King, as dry and shriveled as a gremlin, walks across the lawn and stands by the pool, next to his sixth wife and his two young sons, Chance and Cannon. He starts off, as all public speakers have been taught, with a joke. He mentions the age difference between him and his wife: King, who is 74, says that people ask him if the fact that his wife is only 48 worries him. Not at all, King says: "If she dies, she dies." The crowd ripples with the kind of laughter that you get when you make a joke about your wife dying. One of the little boys gets a frightened look on his face. King puts a comforting hand on his son's head and says, "I was just kidding. It was just a joke."
King segues to what we're all here celebrating, the publication of Turner's new memoir, Call Me Ted. Then Turner comes up and talks about how excited he is to have a book coming out, and people applaud him. (Call Me Ted's cowriter isn't mentioned.) When everybody is paying attention to Turner, he seems to swell in stature; he cuts the sort of figure that Teddy Roosevelt must have, the figure of a man who issues sweeping statements and spends a good amount of time sating his large appetites.
After Turner finishes, I grab a beer and slip back inside the house. Unsurprisingly, there are some books by Larry King on the bookshelves—I resist the urge to see if they are lovingly inscribed from Larry to Larry. Though the shelves probably cost more than my father made in six months at his job in a paper mill, the collection of books is roughly identical to my parents'. There are some mysteries, a couple of inspirational-type books, a dictionary. There's a People Magazine Almanac from 2006. I imagine what would happen if, like in the TV show 24, an atomic bomb went off in Los Angeles and all these people and I wound up duct-taped into Larry King's house, waiting out the fallout. We wouldn't suffer for food, of course. There's enough bison and cheese for everyone, so the class struggle wouldn't turn to violent cannibalism or anything like that. There's enough booze to keep us insensate through the apocalypse, too. But the books. The few times in my life when I've been deprived of books, I've become monstrous and depressed, as though going through physical withdrawal. What would I read if I wound up trapped in here for a few weeks? I look at Larry King's shelves. There is nothing that interests me. It is a barren wasteland, and if I had to subsist on it, I'd die.
Turner looks increasingly ill. He slumps on the edge of a couch while his girlfriend has a car called around for him. He hugs King and thanks him for the wonderful party, and his voice gets syrupy with sentiment. "I want you to be my pallbearer," I hear him say to King, thumping him on the back. And then he repeats it. "If I go first, I want you to be my pallbearer. If you go first, I'll be yours."
King agrees, and they part.
At 9:00 p.m., people are coaxed to the door with trays of sticky-sweet desserts. There are gift bags waiting on the front steps filled with, among other things, Call Me Ted baseball caps. The booksellers chatter among themselves about which party they're going to go to next; the party at Prince's house doesn't start until 10:00, so they'll have to head to the Chateau Marmont, where Weinstein Books, we'll all soon discover, has paid for an open bar and waiters descending staircases bearing trays of bacon-rich appetizers. The booksellers try not to let on that they realize that this conversation is crazy, especially for people who barely make more than minimum wage in their everyday lives, but this is Los Angeles, this is BEA, and people in the book industry firmly believe they're in a dying field, so they'll take whatever they can get while it lasts.
The publlishing industry has been "dying" for decades. As with every year, there are fresh signs of imminent demise. Publishers Weekly, the industry standard magazine for reviews, recently made the shocking decision to cut freelancers' pay by exactly half—from $50 a piece to $25—and newspapers across the country are cutting their book sections either drastically or entirely. To certain people this is a sign of the End Times, but it's really a kind of corrective measure. The book-reviewing community had allowed itself to shrink, lazily, into a boring, self-reflexive subindustry with little value to a general-interest reader. But good reviews, well-written ones, are published on blogs and websites and in other alternative news sources now more than ever. These are places that, unlike newspaper book-review sections, actually treat book reviews like pieces of writing with value unto itself, more than just your standard buy-this/don't-buy-this gloss. Nevertheless, people in publishing point to what's happening in PW and major-market newspapers as yet another sign that the industry is about to disappear.
BEA attracts 36,000 booksellers, publishers, publicists, sales representatives, agents, lawyers, and authors (along with 1,000 journalists who report incredibly polite accounts of the weekend's events) to a different city every year, and every year the American Booksellers Association (ABA) kicks off the weekend with a party in a grand ballroom. This year, there is actually something to celebrate—something that cuts against the industry's self-fulfilling death wish: One hundred new independent bookstores opened in America last year. One speaker describes "recolonizing the parts of America that chain stores had left barren." This is, by any measure, a big deal. A few years ago, the talk from ABA was that, for the first time in years, as many independent bookstores in America had opened as closed. After hundreds of great bookstores had already been lost, that had seemed like a milestone.
One hundred new bookstores. Everyone applauds at the news. Buoyed by the applause, ABA head Avin Domnitz, who resembles Harvey Weinstein and is wearing a gray suit, announces a new branding program called IndieBound. The precursor to IndieBound was Book Sense, and it was intended to do battle with the buying power of Borders and Barnes & Noble by creating a collective bargaining platform for stores that previously had none. Most ABA member stores carry copies of the Book Sense 76, a monthly flyer recommending new books based on independent-bookseller enthusiasm, and they're required to have a Book Sense display. As near as I can tell from IndieBound's website—which promotes the Next List instead of the Book Sense 76, and flaunts backlist promotions called Indiessentials—the only major difference between the two branding programs is that IndieBound talks a little bit more about why buying books at a local independent bookstore is important.
This is an important point, but the branding for the IndieBound program is a nightmarish corporate-style adoption of 1960s revolutionary lingo. "The revolution is with us," the man in the suit literally says. Consumers can buy red T-shirts with giant white phrases like "Peace. Love. Books." Bookstores can download business cards, "a little piece of Indie soul," to hand out to customers to "start a conversation, to rally someone who 'gets it,' to give customers a talking point for when they want to spread some Indie." Bookmarks can be downloaded from the "IndieBound Free Will Catalog" that say, in the most annoying you-are-a-special-consumer-snowflake corporate casual, "This is the first page of the rest of your book." The best thing about Book Sense displays and flyers, with their tame color palettes and boring design, was that they tended to disappear in most good bookstores. These faux-ironic monstrosities, all red and white and "revolutionary," demand attention and then repay it with the most annoying vocabulary set since The Smurfs went off the air.
When Domnitz first says the word IndieBound, the logo, a sketched heart with a lowercase "i" buried in the middle, is flashed around the giant hall by light cannons. The other lights in the room dim to a dark red, IndieBound's signature color, and girls bearing glow-in-the-dark red necklaces and copies of the IndieBound Declaration of Independence—"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all stores are not created equal, that some are endowed by their owners, their staff, and their communities with certain incomparable heights, that among these are Personality, Purpose, and Passion"—skip around the room, passing cheap free geegaws out to booksellers staggered by the embarrassing spectacle. Domnitz doesn't offer any actual information about the program, choosing to say, instead, as a parting word, that "We are bound to succeed! This is our moment! Let the revolution start!" and leaving a roomful of confused and worried booksellers sitting there, glowing red in the deep red light.
But fuck those "book" things, we're in California! It's time for more celebrities! All weekend, booksellers relay to each other, with a charming faux nonchalance, details about parties attended the night before. One woman talks about the Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen party she went to. Another talks about the party for Alec Baldwin's forthcoming book on parenting—oh, man—titled A Promise to Ourselves: A Journey Through Divorce and Fatherhood, where Baldwin gave a rambling speech that never directly referred to his ex-wife, Kim Basinger, but did make reference to divorcées as "monsters" who "get an almost sexual satisfaction being in a room full of lawyers." (Little brother Stephen Baldwin was there, too, because he has a Christian novel coming out this fall.) A few others had hit up a George Hamilton party where the orange-skinned actor reportedly stayed far away from the other attendees, choosing instead to stand at a table peopled by Loni Anderson and other actors from 1980s television. Other authors at BEA this year include William Shatner (with a new autobiography), Danielle Steele, Anne Rice, Garrison Keillor, Slash of Guns N' Roses, 1970s television funnyman and eternal sidekick Dom DeLuise, and Leonard Nimoy (with a collection of nude photographs of plus-sized women).
It's not just because we're in California that publishers are dragging out this parade of dried-up has-beens and celebutards to impress the rubes. It's because they've literally got nothing else up their sleeves for this fall; releases for the remainder of 2008 from the major houses are among the weakest anyone can remember. Autumn is traditionally publishing's equivalent of the summer blockbuster movie season—the big names come out, the books that readers have been drooling over for years finally materialize, and the exciting new names are given lavish debuts. But publishing people are crowd-following cowards.
By way of example: There are shuttle buses from our hotels to the Staples Center, where the BEA convention floor is. The first day of the convention, though, don't-take-the-shuttle rumors are flying. "Traffic is going to be so bad that the shuttle buses are going to be stuck on the highway forever," people whisper. Some posit a two-hour commute from the hotel to BEA. "It's better to take the subway," a woman says, and her friend nods. Everyone feels special upon hearing this, like they're getting inside information. The next morning, I'm outside the hotel and a bookseller from Washington, D.C., passes by. "Are you taking the shuttle?" I ask her. "Are you kidding me?" she says. "There's gonna be so much traffic. I'm taking the subway."
L.A.'s subway system is pretty frequent, fairly clean, and safe—I'd taken it the day before, to test it out—but it's not air conditioned. And so, against the prevailing wisdom, I decide to take the shuttle. There are maybe 15 of us in the giant, refrigerated coach. Thanks to a driver who knows what he's doing, we beat the subway-goers to the Staples Center by about 10 minutes.
Publishing people are crowd-following cowards.
What, really, is everyone so afraid of this fall? Why are the only major book releases this fall by mystery authors and puffball chick lit, books that would sell no matter what—the equivalent of literary crack? The theory that most bookstores' buyers give for the reason behind this dearth of exciting new books in the fall of 2008 is the presidential election. Somebody in the industry got it into his head that the American book-buying public will be so preoccupied with the 2008 election that they won't be able to even think about books. As a result, the publishers have taken their toys and gone home. There will be a new Philip Roth novel this fall, but there is practically a new Philip Roth novel every fall. In the we-better-not-try-to-release-any-real-books-this-fall hysteria, big names like Salman Rushdie were pushed up to the spring and others, like Jon Krakauer, have been pushed back to winter. Nobody thought to consider the fact that everybody pulling out creates an opportunity for a brave publisher to dominate bookstore shelves. Nobody seems to have considered the fact that the Democratic nominee for president is one of the best-read politicians to run for public office in recent memory, not to mention one of the best writers to aim for the office since Lincoln or Grant. Somehow, none of the majors thought to use this to their advantage. Publicity departments are all too scared to produce a bomb, what with being so overburdened already with their perpetual certainty of the industry's imminent demise, to do anything but take the safest route imaginable.
In the big publisher's booths, the mood seems subdued, confused, and angry. One publicist in the Macmillan booth spots my name tag and yells at me for a negative review of a memoir by Mike Edison—the former editor in chief of High Times and publisher of Swank—called I Have Fun Everywhere I Go, that Ari Spool posted on The Stranger's music blog, Line Out. "You really hurt Mike's feelings," she exclaims, and continues, "And I think it's borderline irresponsible journalism for you to be running things like that." A couple other publicists step in and try to defuse the situation with humor—"Oh, imagine that, someone didn't like Mike Edison, ha ha!" Ignoring the fact that Spool's post was fairly evenhanded, this has never happened to me before, and I've written reviews with the express intent of pissing off publicists. The mood of sales reps and publicists in the majors' booths usually tends to be bored aloofness; this year, they seem aggressive, neurotic, and strung out.
Maybe part of the reason for this mood is that the biggest dog in the room is starting to learn some new tricks: For the first time in eight years, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, has deigned to attend BEA, and the reason why he's chosen this year is pretty obvious. Bezos gives a PowerPoint presentation about Amazon's e-reader, Kindle, that amounts to a 20-minute infomercial. The reception that he gets from the standing-room-only mob is akin to the worship that Larry King earns at his house: awestruck, uncritical, deferential. Chris Anderson, who is the executive editor of Wired magazine, lobs softball questions at Bezos. Does he really plan to have every single book ever published available on the Kindle? Bezos chuckles and says that he does. Anderson asks if Bezos wants to project how many books would be on Kindle at this time next year. Bezos declines to give numbers. Anderson asks Bezos how it feels to have "started a revolution in books." I don't hear the answer to that question over the thunderous sound of my own eyes rolling back into my skull. The two lovebirds seemed ready at any moment to burst into song about Kindle's mammoth importance in human history.
Amazon has a Kindle booth set up at the show, and foot traffic is heavy. People want to feel the device. Video screens in the booth feature authors such as Daniel Handler, Neil Gaiman, and Toni Morrison singing the praises of the Kindle. Their chorus of hallelujahs are so effusive one has to wonder whether they're doing this out of their love of the technology or whether some compensation was involved. (A quick call to a publicist at Amazon days later confirms that each of the authors did receive a promotional Kindle, and that their comments "were, of course, not scripted." Beyond that, though, "We're not at liberty to share whether they were compensated for their testimonials.") I manage to get my hands on a sample Kindle, and it really is an impressive device; it's light and easy to use. The keypad seems unnecessary and obtrusive, but it's easy to get wrapped up in the experience of reading on the thing. I'm more inclined to believe that some other multipurpose device like the iPhone, with an easy-on-the-eyes e-book reader that everyone can use that isn't tied down to one restrictive company, will most likely be the thing that really catches on. But whoever does that will obviously have to study Kindle in order to get there.
As I'm reading the first three pages of War and Peace that I just uploaded wirelessly from the Amazon store, an angry publisher with an Australian accent bursts into the booth. "You wouldn't want to leave this thing on a beach, though, would you?" he says, pointing at the Kindle in my hand.
And then he adds, "Hah? You sure can't abandon this thing on a beach!"
He storms off.
I look at the Amazon evangelist and blink, trying to recall if I've ever abandoned a book on a beach and why I would want to do that in the first place.
When you look up from the big publishers' booths at BEA and cast your eyes across the giant convention floor, you see a lot of odd and mortifying things. There are publishers dressed like teddy bears and giant puffy devils trying to draw people to their children's books. There are unscrupulous booksellers grabbing as many free books as they can get so they can (illegally) sell the advance reader's copies online when they get home. (A few years ago, convention officials banned rolling luggage carts from the floor, but some demented booksellers find ways around that: One woman wheels into the hall in a wheelchair and then stands up and wheels the empty chair around to stack books in the seat like a wheelbarrow.) There's a tooth-whitening booth that promises to brighten booksellers' smiles with a brief $99 treatment; the process involves the whitenee lying on his back while a device that looks like a mad scientist's ray gun points into his mouth, his teeth emitting an unearthly blue light from within.
After the strange frightened ferocity of the major publishers' booths, the small-press booths feel like oases of intelligence. Akashic Press, which has a sweetly sincere banner that reads "Reverse gentrification of the literary world," is planning on doing business as usual in October and November, they say. Employees of Milkweed Editions, McSweeney's Books, Small Beer Press, and Soft Skull Press likewise look at me as though I'm crazy when I ask whether they're releasing books this fall. Of course they're releasing books this fall. It seems that none of them had heard the gossip. This could result in a kind of coup for the small presses this year; without a major name to attract attention, the relentless book press (even the safe, unoriginal news outlets) could be forced to turn their hungry eyes to the independent publishers.
There are so many exciting independent-press books coming out between now and the end of the year that a complete list could be as long as this article. Some particularly outstanding ones: Vacation, by Deb Olin Unferth, from McSweeney's Rectangulars, a playful novel about a man following his wife around the world; Counterpoint Press's release The Flying Troutmans, a new novel from Miriam Toews, the writer of the excellent A Complicated Kindness; Small Beer Press's Couch, by Benjamin Parzybok, about three men trying to move a couch out of their apartment; Soft Skull's new release by Bainbridge Island author Jonathan Evison, All About Lulu, about some bodybuilders wrestling with the death of their mother; and, for nonfiction, Graeme Thomson's I Shot a Man in Reno, from Continuum, about death in popular music; and Lennard J. Davis's study of Obsession: A History, from the University of Chicago.
If one indie press gets the spotlight this fall, chances are that others will gain from it. When you talk to any one employee of an independent press—say, Richard Nash of Soft Skull—he'll put four of his own upcoming titles in your hand, but he'll also direct you to the fabulous work that Milkweed Editions has been doing lately. When you talk to Emily Cook of Milkweed Editions because Nash did such a good job of promoting their stuff to you, she'll praise Continuum's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste as one of the best books she's read in forever and potentially a template for a new kind of book criticism. The recommendations can keep someone running around the convention floor for hours at a time, and it's simply because these publishers love good books and are willing to promote them regardless of who's putting them out.
This is the hour for these independent publishers to ascend. By fully embracing e-books, blogs, and a public that is dying to not be condescended to, any one of these independent presses could thrive in this year's market. The fact that bookstores are opening in huge numbers and that the independent bookselling industry appears healthy, especially in this economy, is a sign that everyone should be paying attention to. These small publishers should work with these new independent bookstores in ways that the arrogant major publishers never do, by promoting each other and by telling the world, in no uncertain terms, that books are alive and well and doing just fine, thank you very much.