March 24, 2005


--or --The American Booksellers At Play in Foggy Bottom

[Yesterday�s exchange about the liberalism that infects publishing put me in mind of a series of items I wrote more than 13 years ago about the state of publishing when I was much more engaged with it. I went to the online attic where a lot of these things are kept and managed to pull a few out of the old dusty packing crates and smuggle them past the ghosts. A few struck me as still germane to today�s publishing environment -- even more so because so little has changed -- except the names of the usual suspects. Don�t think it's dated. This is probably a whole lot like what will happen this year.]

One of the favorite places for the American Booksellers Association (ABA) to hold a convention is Washington D.C. This city of hard-core inept government somehow attacts one of the most inept businesses in the private sphere. It somehow calls them home. Perhaps it makes publishers, by contrast, feel smart and efficient. I don�t know. It is a city of large examples of neo-Federalist and Fascist overbuilding nestled next to one of the worst black ghettos in the world; a city where the very streets and tempo speak of a certain benighted mindlessness; a city careful to close all its museums and most of its shrines on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend; and now a city of thousands of dazed bookstore owners pulling shopping carts along the streets as they head towards the annual show of most of the 57,000 books we will publish this year. Yes, this year. 57,000 brand. new. books.

The mind reels, then pauses, then leaves the body as it enters the convention center, pushes past the large banners proclaiming 1987 to be "The Year of The Reader!� Hope, always hope. Give us a reader, any reader. We gots the books if you gots the time. And thirty dollars.

You enter the bottom floor exhibit hall. The first thing you notice is that Simon & Schuster, Morrow, and a few other heavyweights are on THE BOTTOM FLOOR! This pisses these folks off plenty since they are "heavy" and here they are stuck on the bottom floor which is mostly little publishers. Button at Morrow books:"I (heart) the American Book Cellar Convention." These big pubs are piqued because here they are out of the big time upstairs.

But where are the books?

Not really that visible. Simon has a lot of videos, a lot of failing audios, and a lot of covers blown up, glued down to plexiglass and back lit. These are supposed to be the stars, the big books, the ones all America is dying to read. Hard to make out the titles. They blur.

Pick up a catalog and move on.

All around you are booksellers with full size shopping carts jamming every freebie they can get their hands on. Posters, buttons, stuffed animals.....Simon is publishing CATMOPOLITAN, a slavish bid for the cat market, a send up of some magazine, and booksellers can duck behind a large six foot blowup of a cover, stick their faces in a hole and get a free Polaroid of themselves as the cover cat of Catmopoliton. A thrill, a real thrill! There�s a line.

Morrow's booth...swarming with people but to no discernible propose. Get a catalog. Try to focus on titles. Useless. No books in evidence. No nothing in evidence. Turn the corner. It is Zebra books...the walk-away winner for high schlock...this year a bit down from their usual high marks for real tackiness. They've installed a guy dressed in Louis the 14th duds playing classical guitar. Not at all the cheap Jackie Susan stuff we've come to expect from Zebra. Ignore catalog, walk on.

The autograph rows of heated, excited booksellers looking to get a free book autographed by someone they've vaguely heard of but there none the less. Upstairs we hear the dulcet tones of Joan Baez. She's here to promote "Have Guitar, Will Travel" or some such autobiography. Alas for Joan, Judi Collins is also her promoting her book. Fall 1987 will be the Battle of the Divas for sure.

Move upstairs. A MUCH LARGER ROOM. About ten football fields in area. Solid with publishers, videos, tapes, display stands, tee shirts, bookmarks, novelties, cards,posters, on and on in a numbing procession. Stuff the bag with a catalog and move on. Run into someone you vaguely know. Get their name from their badge. Chat. Move on. Where are the books?

Very few real books visible. Tucked away behind the banners, the free offers, the catalogs and order forms, the video monitors showing Dan Rather commenting on Ernest Worell who's got a calendar, got a commercial, got a movie coming out, got a special on HBO, buy his book, please? Dan Rather on a loop repeating an inane report over and over again for four days. More booksellers, more crammed shopping carts, coffee from a cart the color and taste of weak tea. Move on. More encounters. More brief conversations.

"Seen any books here?"

"Yeah, saw one two rows back. Probably gone now."

"Seriously, seen anything you might want to read?"

"Maybe four titles but I can't think of what they are right now."

"Keep a list. Let me know."

Grab a catalog, shake a hand, move on. Down endless rows. Some booths crammed with people. Other's next door with only a woebegone and terminally bored rep sitting on a chair wondering why they got into this business when

there was big money to made in air-conditioning repair and maintenance.

Erma Bombeck signing galleys for a cluster of rabid bookstore owners. Vague announcements of meetings and writers speaking somewhere down in the bowels of the building. Ignore. Grab a catalog and move on.

That night, to the library of congress for a reception hosted by the new old Little Brown. Amazing building. Soft music. Great buffet. Walk up the stairs and look down into the main reading room with your friend.

"Do you realize that this library has three copies of every book we've ever edited?"

"Yes, but are they all checked out at once?"

Off to Georgetown, eat Vietnamese food in a sidewalk cafe.

Head over for the Putnams party for the Temptations.

Are they going to play? Sure. Nope.

One just shows up and mumbles over the PA and leaves in a limo. The intoxicated dance on to recorded Motown memories. Back to the Hotel. Crash.

Up at nine and back into the show first thing. Very few people around. At last, I'll see what books are here.

Forget it. You still can't see the books, only the hype. Only the push. Only the big blow ups of books overblown before they got to the end of chapter one.

Grab a catalog and move on. When you get home you'll go through them all, see what everyone is up to, see what the trends are, see what America wants to read, or what New York thinks America wants to read.

Turn a corner and bump into an old friend.

"What's going on. Is this nowhere compared to New Orleans last year or is it just my imagination?"

"You're right. There's damn little here."


"They've blown $250,000 and up on about 150 books. These books are going to compete for about 50 slots on the best-seller list in order to turn a profit. Hence about 100 books at a minimum investment in advances alone (not even counting manufacturing and advertising)of say 25 million in aggregate are in big trouble. Hence the mood of panic under control. And no midlist at all, hence no books that are interesting."

"You're just a cynical unfair person. There's got to be something in all these catalogs."

"I hope so, because its hard to see on the walls."

"I guess so."

"Hey, call me when you come to the city. I'll take you to lunch."

Move. Catalogs. Catalogs. Aisles. Booksellers flooding in now, shopping carts in tow. Filling up. Can't breathe. Can't see. Can't think.




He packed the trunk of the car with his catalogs and drove north. Along Pennsylvania Avenue he saw a sign saying "Vietnam Veterans Memorial".

He parked the car and walked into the park. He walked slowly down the ramp with the lists of the dead rising over his head on their marble slabs like some infinite tide that would never go out.

He thought he was a tough guy. He thought he had all his feelings from those years locked away in a trunk in some unvisited attic of his mind that he never had to enter again.

He was wrong. They were right below the surface and. as he went down into the monument, they came to the surface like demons suddenly released, and he found himself weeping as he saw what the war had cost.

There was a pair of worn but brightly polished combat boots left beside one column of names.

An elderly couple found a name. She touched it while he took a picture of her touching it. Then he touched it and she took a picture of him touching the name. Then they walked away.

Further on there was a small piece of notepaper lying limp over the rail of stone at the foot of the monument. He knelt down to read it:

"To my buddies of the 102nd.
I'm sorry I'm not with you.
I should be with you but God had other plans for me.
I still don't know what but I know I miss you badly.
You were the best friends I ever had."

There were 50,000 books in Washington that weekend, but that was the only thing he found that was worth reading.

25 May 1987

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Posted by Vanderleun at March 24, 2005 3:52 PM | TrackBack
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