Saturday, June 10, 2006

Wouldn't you know it?

Galleycat, a Mediabistro spinoff and one of the hottest "cult" sites for those who like to keep their eyes trained on the publishing industry, gave SHAMblog a nice mention this past week. This bit of very helpful PR comes, as faithful readers will know, just as I take the blog into relative hibernation in order to pursue a couple of other projects in "acute" mode. The Galleycat mention also prompted a few lines in Grumpy Old Bookman, another industry-watching site that's maintained right here on Blogspot.

Though I've used the "maybe I need a self-help book about..." line before, it seems unusually apropos here: Maybe I need a self-help book about good timing. The story of my life, to date. But that's a book in itself.

It has long intrigued me, I might add, that publishing insiders themselves seem no more likely than the rest of us to regard the self-help movement, and its signature "literary" works, with awe. Their general take on the SHAM-scape might be termed bemusement-bordering-on-benign-contempt. This, despite the fact that as a class, self-help books rank among publishing’s most profitable segments, today generating upwards of $750 million in annual sales. How to explain this? Well, the denizens of publishing are not, by and large, stupid people. Most of these folks did not go into publishing to litter the culture with lowbrow, self-cannibalizing works by Dr. Phil or John Gray. In their heart of hearts, if they had their way, they'd be publishing a lot more Don DeLillo and a lot less Dr. Laura. Oh, they'll gladly put out her latest book, of course, and the hundreds or thousands of others like it each year, but they have few illusions about the quality of what they’re selling, to the extent that they'll even say so (or at least hint so) in public. Overall, they tend to remind you of the old master of late-night, Johnny Carson, calling attention to the foibles and failures of his own Tonight Show monologues. In truth, they can be somewhat more cutting about it, at times.

In few other places in today's consumer society are those who churn out a given product so open in their disrespect for the product they're churning out. And, perhaps, for the hordes who flock to buy it. Which, I think, is the key here. Their reasoning must be along the lines of, "Hey, if you people are dumb enough to buy this worthless crap, well, you deserve what you get. So here's some more of it. Happy reading..."

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P.S. In fact, as I reflect on my brief but illuminating career at Rodale as well as the entrĂ©e it gave me to New York's publishing inner sanctum (including such everybody-who’s-anybody events as BEA), it occurs to me that many of the high-powered editors and publishers I met didn’t even talk about books as books, per se. They talked about them as profit centers. As my mentor at Rodale (a thoughtful man and erstwhile accomplished journalist) would say of a hot new book, "It’s a beautiful piece of business..." I think it’s that intellectual distance that allows them to keep their sanity in a world of ceaselessly plummeting expectations.

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