Wednesday, June 27, 2007

This Business of Books

The great thing about having an acclaimed first book is that the quality of your rejection letters gets so much better. Having gotten used to models of politeness like that yellow “NOT FOR US” card that Soho Press took the time to mass print and send to me, it did come as a rather pleasant shock how nice some of the letters were. These were some of the most heartfelt, personable and downright gripping no thank you’s I’ve received ever since I was sixteen and thought telling this girl she could sit in my lap instead of the bus seat was hot. One publisher wrote “ I know, I know, I know that I’m making a mistake turning this down but I have to,” contradicting my belief that Publishers never had to do anything. Another could rhapsodize about her favourite major and minor characters (some of who I had never given a second thought) but still decided that her publisher would not know what to do with it. And so on it went the torrent of nice let me downs, letters that let me know that I was a very good, but ultimately too risky proposition to publish.

And here I was thinking I was a Victorian. I’m not sure what being a risky writer means. Granted my new book is almost 500 pages of Slave dialect from the nineteenth century, but does that make a book risky? Hasn’t everybody seen Roots? My let’s call it affinity for sexual and scatological explicitness is well documented but I don’t know if it’s any worse than Ulysses or The Bluest Eye or Sabbath’s Theater for that matter (not that my work is anywhere near as good). I’m beginning to think that rejection letters say more about the publisher than the book being rejected. In some cases it’s simply a matter of the wrong publishing house. And granted I’m not so stuck up my own ass that I thought I was writing the great masterpiece to end all literature, but it’s puzzling to me just how cowardly the industry can be. Puzzling because too often this cowardice is written off as good business sense.

Contrary to what others may think, I have no problem with publishers being all about the money. Publishing is after all a business, not a charity. My problem with publishing is not that these guys are too mercenary but that they are nor mercenary enough. For an industry that all about the dollars very little done makes business sense. Take for instance the dependence on blockbusters, something the industry picked up from music and movies. Given how bad the state of publishing is, the dependence on mega cash cows couldn’t make less sense. And yet every publisher does it, waiting for the breakout book that will save the industry. So 8 million is spent on Charles Frazier’s new book before anybody even read what is truly a bad novel. Here was an industry setting up expectations that nobody could have matched anyway. And yet that hasn’t stopped the hunger for the next blockbuster novel.

At the Frankfurt and London Book Fair a malaise descended on the proceedings because there was no major breakout book. None except The Raw Shark Texts that was not only hyped the year before but has yet to justify it’s enormous push (Some say it has—see comments—, but I'm not seeing Cold Mountain/Corrections/Everything is Illuminated ubiquity yet). This makes no business sense. It doesn’t surprise me that so many roads lead to BMG because this is exactly the BMG/JIVE way of doing things. Comedy rocker Mojo Nixon said almost two decades ago that instead of giving Aerosmith 80 million dollars, why not give 40 bands two million dollars, that way if three or four or ten of that 40 amount to nothing there is still a wide playground of opportunity. Or put another way were Steven Tyler to croak he wouldn’t be taking your company down with him. The publishing equivalent of that would be the midlist, but there is no such thing as that in publishing anymore, despite whatever somebody might tell you. Again in the search for the next blockbuster, basic rules of business, taken for granted in every other industry are ignored. Things like building brand loyalty, nurturing the audience, exploring untapped markets, growing with the artist and the audience—nobody does that sort of thing anymore, well next to nobody anyway. Publishers have always said that this is an unquantifiable industry and I’m inclined to agree, but some things don’t need analysis, only common sense.

Some people may say that the publishing industry has always been this way. Forty-eight houses passed on Catch 22 and the biggest novel of the 50’s was Peyton Place. But the nature of the business, the character of the business has changed. Somebody has tried to make the business quantifiable, a matter of scientific numbers and nerdy analysis and I think I know whom that is. People old enough in the music industry moan that they don’t make stars like they used to and they are right. Prince broke through with his fifth album, Bruce Springsteen his third, Madonna her second. As everybody scrambles for the next big hit, nobody nurtures talent anymore and as a result there is no artist with a solid, successful career. Publishing is not much different. And yet if you take that business model to any other enterprise; no we don’t care about nurturing talent because this one thing right here, it’s gonna be the bomb, you would have been laughed to scorn. I can’t imagine the videogame industry one of those blamed for taking away music and publishing’s money running like that. To have everything riding on one videogame to be the blockbuster that sells billions instead of nurturing ten or twenty titles so that they can all eventually make a billion each would be a ridiculously stupid idea.

And in all the publishing industry's bawling about the shrinking size of their reading audience nobody seems to be paying attention to a rather unexpected bonus. Say what you want about the Harry Potter phenomenon but the fact that it created a kid (millions rather) who would rather read an 800 page book than watch TV or play a videogame is an astounding phenomenon that should not be taken lightly. Here is an audience that's massive, young, loyal and malleable. And starting next year they will be without the one thing that pulled them together. The industry has a unique opportunity to build on an already existing audience, to do the long haul thing, to respond to the wide gaping hole left by Harry Potter's absence by keeping these readers hooked to other stories and growing as they grow. Or they can just sit by and let the audience—the first massive loyal reading audience in nearly century— splinter and ultimately disappear. My money is on the latter.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Down and Out in Fort Lauderdale Airport

It’s June 4, 2007 and I’m in terminal F of the Fort Lauderdale airport wondering which preposition to use. ‘At’ sounds right, but ‘in’ sounds more apt. I feel not just in but locked inside the Airport, delayed and trapped for several shitty reasons. And when at 7:35PM, Spirit Airlines tells me that the flight is delayed for perhaps an hour, perhaps more it’s the culmination of an evening of delays that makes me want to sob and laugh at once. I do neither, but curse under my breath while not trying to picture what my Pastor best friend would think. Instead I sit on the floor, whip out my pen and book and write this blog.

Spirit Airways left Kingston at 3:30 and landed in Fort Lauderdale at 5:30. Being one of the few Jamaicans who understand the convoluted and confused FLA customs system I went to the empty ‘Visitors’ line and was in front of a Customs Officer in seconds. I would have given my backside the proverbial pat but then the Customs Officer said, “Come with me sir,” and my heart sank. Disappointed, of course but not surprised. My trips to the local police department in every American Airport had become standard ever since I had the sparkling wisdom to study for a Creative Writing Degree in the United States. After some inexplicable bureaucratic snafu, the school forgot that I had enrolled, the INS terminated my visa and I went on the F1 warning list, sharing company with Mohammed Atta and countless other Muslim terrorists, drug dealers, and illegal aliens who were all in the country on student visas, but not in school. Since 2005 I have been through so many Airport security departments (NYPD in New York) that the officers have begun to recognize me. This never-ending third degree becomes annoying after the thirteenth time but I had long decided to roll with it, nostalgic for the days when I was merely mistaken for a drug dealer.

The first customs officer, let’s call him Alpha, told me to sit in the same room that exists in a hundred airports. The same room that makes me wonder why am I in this place with Jamaicans who look like they were deported a week ago. Jamaicans, whose only flaw may have been unsophistication and others people, usually men whose only flaw might have been that they look Arabic. I’m already bored by the procedure until I realize that this C.O., let’s call him Beta, means business.
“Marlon James?”
“That’s me.”
“You’re here quite a lot.”
“I sorta have to be. I’m a writer, New York is the center of the publishing world.”
“You’re a writer. How do you support yourself, Mr. James?”
“I have a Graphic Design Company in Jamaica.”
“Can I see your business card?”
“I only have my writer’s card. I don’t exactly search for design business here.”
“When were you last here, sir?”
“Ahhh...a week ago? I was here for six weeks. Teaching a course for Gotham Writer’s workshop.”
He then left his desk came around to search my carry-on. He flipped through my laptop, my Jamaican house keys, the Peter Godwin book I was still reading and the homework my students sent in.
“Is this a register?” he said, looking at my roll call sheet.
“You know I spoke to the State Department about this. They said if I was invited and I’m working for an honorarium it was fine. I don’t need a workers permit for that.”
“Your trip to Toronto, what was that about?”
“Which one?”
“My brother’s wife’s funeral.... oh wait no, that was a book tour. I’ve been to Toronto twice and Vancouver once.”
“Miami in November?”
“Miami book fair.”
“You’re here an awful lot. How long are you staying this time?”
“Two weeks.”
“Can you remove your...oh you’re wearing slippers, never mind.”
“Honestly, am I going to get this every time?”
“Well sir you’re F1 visa raised a red flag and looking at this you’ve been stopped several times.”
You think? I said, but not to him.
“You’re here an awful lot and usually that means you’re not visiting, but living here, and then, you are from Jamaica.”

He finally said it. So clear from the get-go that he did not even need to finish his paragraph. A sentence with a subject that includes “Jamaica” needs no predicate—we know the rest of it by heart. Now that airports have gone back to pre 9/11 laxness my grace period was officially up. I looked up at the reflective glass and suddenly realized that were I a customs officer I’d think I was a drug dealer too. Before 9/11 customs detained me all the time. Ever since I stopped combing my hair everybody asks what band am I in, even as they pull my belt buckle to watch my jeans drop to reveal skivvies. Thank god I stopped going commando to airports. I thought wearing slippers would make things easier but that made it worse. With low-rise jeans, dreadlocks, loose shirt and hippy slippers I had molded myself in the perfect Rastafarian, Ganga smoker/dealer cliché, a patsy who needed only a “Pick Me” sign to stick out more. I had gotten lax myself. Back in my suspected drug dealer days I had always made sure to dress extra yuppie for international flights. A suit when everybody else wore jeans, something to over-compensate for streaky locks and three earrings.

So C.O. Beta began to type and did so for a very long time. I wondered what he was typing and why did he have to type this whole shit over again. I wondered if I should switch from Creative Writing to teaching American police personnel how to operate the SAVE key. I wasn’t afraid or even angry, but annoyed. And Beta was really only doing his job and he was quite nice despite the three score and 10 questions.
“Is this going to happen on my next trip, because I’ll be back in July and early August,” I say but like all the other times with all the other C.O’s, Beta had no answer. He continued typing and the asked if I’ve ever committed a crime or transported drugs. Then he asked, “What’s your religion, sir?”

“Christian...I guess,” I said, not doubting my answer but absolutely stunned by the question. By now all the passengers on the Spirit flight and a couple hundred more from other flights were gone and I was alone in customs. Even the ‘Arabs’ were gone. Beta continued to type.
“I’m here all the time on book business,” I say. “I’m coming back in July for the Harlem Book Fair.”
Beta tried to look interested. An hour passed. I thought of the Pennsylvania University that got me into this mess and the countless customs officers who kept stopping me for the same damn reason and wondered when will this supposedly first world country get to the point where local, regional and federal authorities share information so that Beta doesn’t have to type the same shit over and over. I looked at him and remembered crime scenes botched in the Bronx because the three authorities were too busy fighting over whose dick was the biggest. Why was I treated like this every time I came to the States? There’s not a single thing I have ever gotten from the United States that I’m not paying for, whether that be an education, food or Levis Jeans. I called my friend Bill and got his voicemail, knowing he would not call back. I thought of teaching another course: Accessing Voicemail 101 for Americans who do not know or cannot be bothered. Or maybe an opening a voicemail reply service since nobody ever returns messages in the US.

Then Beta stamped me. But unlike every other time I had traveled to the USA, he stamped me for one month, not six. I knew already that when (now if) I came back in July, my one month stamp would raise a brand new set of red flags and I would spend an hour or three, in an office just like this one, explaining all of this to an officer who will pretend to buy it as he types all this data over again. Beta explained that my student visa plus my frequent comings and goings had set off red flags and I agreed with him. After all, the world is brimming with fantastic nations and cities so why did I fly to New York so often? Why did I subject myself to this time and again for the nation that voted for George Bush twice? Far from disagreeing with him, Customs Office Beta gave me a mini epiphany. Maybe I do come to the States too much. I have never been to Europe, or Africa, or South America or even most of the Caribbean. Why was I coming to spend quality time with customs officers when I could be hiking through Europe or teaching English in Shanghai? I’m so going to blog this, I thought, blog being my new favourite threat, and would have whipped out my notebook had C.O. Kappa not been waiting on me.

Kappa told me good evening, too one look and sent me to the B line. The oh no Mr. suspect drug dealing illegal alien terrorist, we’re gonna check every crevice or crack including your ass crack if we feel like it line. But customs officer Kappa, who searched my bags, was actually kinda sweet. Maybe she just felt sorry for me after I told her that I was about to miss my connecting flight. Maybe she thought I was cute. Maybe she mistook me for Wyclef Jean from the Fugees. She searched quickly, smiled and sent me away but I could not move. Across the room C.O. Epsilon had a mango and things were about to get ugly. Seized from a Jamaican passenger, the mango had no choice but to be undressed and raped by the C.O. With blue gloves on he eviscerated the thing, stripping every piece of flesh until he was left with the seed. Then he snapped it open and swabbed inside. I didn’t know if I should have been insulted that he thought we’re so desperate to sell drugs or impressed that he thought we had such superior intelligence that we had already figured how to genetically engineer a mango fruit to bear a Ganga bud. Or a bomb. Thoughts of bombs led to thoughts of planes and I remembered that I have a flight to catch.

As I rushed to the gate I glanced a newspaper and saw why the Beta had asked about my religion. Three men from Trinidad and one from Guyana were arrested for hatching a plot to blow up JFK Airport. One of the Trinidadians was a sun and sea-born Muslim fundamentalist who had tried to overthrow the government before. Turned out that I had hit the trifecta after all. I was a suspected drug dealing, illegal alien terrorist. At the gate Spirit announces that the flight to New York is delayed. I feel like dropping an F-Bomb but can only laugh and the 7.25 price tag for a Pastrami sandwich in Vito’s Restaurant makes me laugh more. The plane arrives earlier than expected and as it lifts off I look around for something wooden to tap. There’s nothing but the paper on which I’m writing this blog. It will have to do. I do not reach Harlem until 2 in the morning forgetting to pay the bus fare and not giving much of a fuck. I am tired, fantastically pissed off and sporting a massive headache that I can do nothing about since only in Harlem is there no such thing as a 24 hour pharmacy. I do the best I can under the circumstances: drink super-drowsy cough syrup, put on Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate and go to bed.