Seeds, Fertilizer & Credit:
This time last year I wrote an expository posting on the Economy of Words. It’s that time of year again when I vent on that ugly business of money. It festered in me all last Saturday as I was doing our taxes. Tax time is taxing. New York state taxes are particularly evil and consuming. Sometimes I wonder if there are toupeed accountants that lobby to make the tax forms absurdly complicated so you have to hire a spectacled accountant to do them for you. They come up with these ridiculous algorithms that bifurcate and lead you in circles, to confuse you into thinking it’s higher logic, when it’s not. It’s criminal is what it is. In New York, they even make you transcribe your W2s by hand onto another form. Kind of like how they used to make you transcribe pages from the dictionary when you stole books from the library back in grade school. And it is especially taxing living in New York City. In addition to paying some 20 Gs in federal taxes, we had to pay another 8G in state and then another 5G or so in New York City taxes. All for what? We don’t use these potholed roads except to ride our bikes, and the roads around here are not even safe for bikes. The MTA already profits off the overcrowded subways. And on top of it all, New York City has the balls to ask you to pay sales tax on anything you bought outside of NYC! Come tax time, I get really depressed about living in this city, state and country. I wouldn’t mind paying taxes if it went for something good, like health insurance or helping people that get fucked over by hurricanes, instead of paying for people to go off and systematically kill other people in some other country, or paying for our ex-governor’s high-priced hookers.
Things are definitely looking "up." The IN is converging with the OUT. And what these numbers don’t show is that toward the end of 2007 I had an extremely generous donation of $5,000 from a very kind donor that prefers to remain anonymous. That made it “profitable,” I guess you could say, from a financial point of view. Not that it hasn't always been profitable in the ways that matter, which is the number of books living and reading in the free world. But this allows the printing presses to keep rolling. And it allowed me to give something back to the authors. So thank you oh anonymous donor!
In terms of expenses, the above numbers only reflect “direct” expenditures, and do not include indirect expenses, for which last year was costly (some 4Gs--a new computer, a new printer, a mailing machine, a camera, a sturdy table, fonts, artwork, etc.) Just the amount I personally spent buying other people’s books was $440. In the pretty little MsSweeney's box with 145 stories (which I reviewed a third of in the last post) DE included an insert that declares that we must buy ten books a year or we’ll be struck by lightning. Or a bus. This is his proclaimed “rule” and anyone that doesn’t follow it will be disemboweled by bears. Interesting scare tactic, but that makes it sound like books are a charity case. And frankly, being disemboweled by a bear is at the top of my list for exit moves.
Revenge of the Bookeaters
It’s one thing to buy books and it’s another to read them. I’d rather people read books than buy them. I don't even have time to read half the books I buy is the problem. I imagine McSweeney’s is a profitable press. I went to a fundraiser a few months ago with Demetri Martin and a bunch of hipster bands like Grizzly Bear, Spoon and Feist. Revenge of the Bookeaters is what they called it I think. I confess that I didn’t pay. My friend had free tickets. The McSweeney’s or 826 people were trying to get people interested in books by showcasing hipster musicians, which I guess makes sense. It’s a lot more exciting than going to a poetry reading. Books are boring, but Demetri Martin is a funny guy. He likes grapes, but thinks raisins are okay too. His grandmother prefers peaches. My friend that scored me the free tickets put out Demetri Martin’s CD. I tried to get him to get Demetri Martin’s grandmother to send me something for Sleepingfish or do an interview for this site. Yah, right. Not that I prefer peaches to grapes, I'm more of a berry guy. Of course Demetri Martin is too “famous” at this point. We all know his eating habits. We even know his grandmother's eating habits. But did you know he's a writer? On his website he has his writings filed under "other things". When you click on "prose," it comes up blank. Is he trying to tell us something? I tried to explain to my friend that I was more interested in Demetri Martin's grandmother. She’s the storyteller. We saw another side to Demetri Martin at that event. He almost lost his shit when someone heckled him. That’s the problem with being a comedian, you better be able to roll with the punches.
I diverge. This is not the direction I wanted to go. Back to this business of eating books.
Economy of Words
These are the details you should know if you are interested in starting a press or a book restaurant. The business of it, like any business, breaks down to IN and OUT, income and expenditures. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint, we are not single-cell amoebas that only have one orifice to share for eating and shitting. We have an input and output, and our subsequent needs as humans and entrepreneurs are based on this model. In terms of expenditures, here’s the breakdown of the above number:
There are other bookstores I should give props to that have generously paid for the books received, like Ada Books and Skylight books, but for every one bookstore that pays, there are ten that don't. I’ve been sending Quimby’s stuff for years, and although they keep saying they will pay, they haven’t paid me a dime. I still love them anyway. The following bookstores owe me money from invoices that are years old that I follow up only to get no payment and no response: Printed Matter, Mac’s Books, Beyond Baroque, Woodland Pattern, Boxcar Books, Modern Times, Freebird, Bookcourt, Spoonbill and Sugartown, etc. These independent bookstores are cool and dandy, but they don't pay the independent presses whose books they sell. I’m not blaming these bookstores, I’m sure it sucks for them too. The book business sucks all around. There's very few readers, and people nowadays expect things for free. I put my own book up online and one of the sleepingfish issues, and hundreds of people look at it every month, but only a handful of people actually think to support the creation of it, or even the web cost of hosting the file. Whose fault is that? Mine. When you give something away for free, you give the perception that it is worthless.
Proposition for a Slow Book Movement
What it really boils down to is consumer choices. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Slow Food movement lately, not just with food but with everything we consume. In a nutshell, you should question and savor everything you put in your mouth. You should buy your food directly from small local farms. And you should take your time cooking and eating it. The advent of fast food has timewarped our thinking, making us expect everything faster and cheaper, all at the expense of quality. The dominance of fast food is rooted in convenience and brand-recognition. People’s priorities are such that they want it fast, and they want it with a brand name they saw on TV. They don’t think about what they are sticking in their mouth or where it came from. This has bled into the media industry and to books. Most people mindlessly read what the media tells them to read, and they devour disposable tabloid junk as they are eating or shitting or doing whatever else. Not that I'm one to talk, I'm the biggest culprit when it comes to stopping to smell the salsa (when I'm reading). While I definitely live to eat and appreciate a good cut of sushi, I can't honestly say that about my reading habits. I don't take my time with books. Not as much as I'd like to. I don't create quality reading time. The only time I find to read these days is on the way to somewhere else.
So, my manifesto, rather than tell people to buy X amount of books or else be eaten by a bear, is that you should buy your books, just like your food, straight from farm. Question what's in them and where they came from. And then savor the book. Admittedly, it’s a pain in the ass if you want to get five books and you have to make a trip to five different farms or put in your credit card at five random websites. And you could argue that it's a waste of resources to send five separate shipments. I’m all for consolidators, and Amazon is a great idea in theory, the problem is they get a bigger piece of the pie, for what? "Fullfillment"? Ironic that they take credit for fullfillment. Shouldn't the fullfillment reside with the consumer? I’ve never even interacted with a human at Amazon. Everything is automated and goes straight to their bank account. Why do people buy their books from "them"? Because people have heard of Amazon and trust Amazon. Earlier today I read this quote: “It is almost unbelievable: 40% of total corporate profits in the US in recent years went to the financial sector that in itself does not ‘produce’ … but that ‘intermediates and organises’ the resources that do produce.” Our economy is becoming entrenched in making money off money, and not off products of labor. There’s all this faux tender and credit being created out of thin air and not from the soil. The implications are enormous--the countries whose economies are less and less rooted in substance are reaping the harvests of countries who rely on substance, growing something or making physical products, to eke out an existence. Africa is in a gaping hole of debt because of greedy bankers. I was in a meeting the other day at Millennium Promise (my current day job that fuels the losses for my nocturnal publishing efforts) where a colleague was talking about the importance of agricultural interventions in our efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. As a writer and publisher (nocturnally), I couldn't help but to think of the parallels between agriculture and book-publishing, despite one being driven by necessity and the other, you could argue, being a decadent privilege unnecessary for survival. In particular, he kept stressing the importance of three things: seeds, fertilizer and credit. These three things were the key ingredients to successful and sustainable agriculture. Of course there are other key factors, most notably water and climate, but climate is beyond human control, whereas seeds, fertilizer and credit are within our control as humans on this planet.
Good books and art in general also require these three same ingredients. You need the seeds to initiate the book. You need fertilizer to germinate and cultivate the book. And you need credit. In the agriculture world, this means credit to buy fertilizer and tools, and also money to get on your feet and weather the off-season or seasons of drought. In the writing and art world it’s the same. You need free time and a full belly to create art. Depending on your art, you need your tools of the trade. In the book world, the publisher should be the one that absorbs the seasons of drought and takes care of "credit" in the form of advances to the author so they can plant for the next season. But if nobody is buying the crops there's no collateral for credit. I’m not sure what the parallel of climate is in this scheme of things. Reading trends? The readers and critics of the books? Another interesting concept talked about in this meeting was “climate insurance”. One of our agricultural interventions involves offering climate insurance to African farmers to weather seasons of drought. Talk about playing god. I’m not sure where I’m even going with all this. These just struck me as interesting concepts. For my own part I don't believe in asking for money. I don't give handouts to people that ask me for money, especially if I don't know the whole story. One thing that attracted me to Millennium Promise is that they are not asking for relief hand-outs or aid but are trying to seed the juggernaut of sustainable development so it can run on it's own. Teaching to fish rather than giving fish. (In theory... whether that’s true in reality is debatable). I wouldn’t want people to just give money to support the press because that’s not sustainable in the environment we live in. Economics is simple supply and demand. If the demand dries up, then so will the supply. If small presses, like the small farmer, are doomed for extinction, then so be it. This is the way of the world. But it's not a world I want to partake in while I'm alive. It's not living.
(c) 2008 Derek White