Recently over in the sweltering, surreal wasteland that is Las Vegas did I participate in a curious and fascinating event, one that did not at all involve strippers, donkeys or hallucinogenic unicorns on the moon. Well, mostly.
The gathering was mounted by a big San Francisco ad agency and one of its clever leaders, a sort of boot camp/team building thing they put on a few times a year so new employees can test their mettle, strain their brainstems and come up with radically new ideas for a particular, usually imaginary product, as they stay up all night, drink too much Red Bull and discover their thresholds for being crammed together into smallish hotel rooms for four days straight without showering.
I was there to present myself, my new book "The Daring Spectacle," my recent adventure in self-publishing. I was there, along with a lovely young marketing whiz named Amy from Simon & Shuster in New York, to talk up the state of the printed book in the age of iPad/Kindle/eBook, to mourn the collapse of the traditional publishing business, to give my independent-author side of what is increasingly being called the tragic collapse of the publishing world overall.
I was there, in other words, because not only did I recently shun traditional publishing and put out a printed book on my own, but I also started my own little publishing corporation (called Rapture Machine) to do it. And my story was perhaps helpful, because for this particular event, these ad teams were tasked with one of most challenging questions facing modern media today, one that's near and dear to my heart, my medium and my livelihood: How to save/reinvent book publishing. And they had about 72 hours to do it.
I won't go into all the ideas and reimaginings they came up with -- there isn't space enough here, nor time. But I do want to focus on two surprises and one dramatic realization that popped out, and none of them has to do with how I lost, won, lost and then walked away about $100 ahead at blackjack over three days. Awesome.
I was first sort of amazed to learn just how few of these otherwise smart and well-informed folk had much of an idea how the book business works, from imprints to distribution, contracts to cover art. No one really knew how books get made, who makes which decisions, how little control authors have, what we're expected to do nowadays, and so on.
So immersed am I in the wicked funhouse of medialand, it struck me that few in the general populace know -- or care -- how it all works. Not that they should, but still.
No big deal, that. But it ties straight into the second surprise, which was far more troubling, albeit still understandable. For few also seemed to have much sense of just how bad it's become for books and authors, how much corporate consolidation has occurred, how increasingly extinct is the "undiscovered author" or killer book deal, how few writers can make a living at their craft anymore.
This has been brutally true in newspapers and journalism for nearly a decade now (hell, due to even more corporate budget slashings, this very column, after 10 years, has just been cut down from twice to once a week, starting, well, right now. Stick with me here).
But it might be even worse for books. Because everyone sort of takes books for granted; they've always been here, haven't they? And they've always been awesome? And easily available? Hell, everyone loves books. Everyone owns books, has a cherished memory or 10 about them. How bad can it be?
It's bad. Amazon might skew its numbers and claim that Kindle editions are outselling traditional hardbacks (not exactly true), but nevertheless, the printed book itself is in dire shape. Fewer new voices, fewer risks, far less money flowing through the industry overall. When's the last time you were in a bookstore? How many new authors can you name in the past few years whose books aren't lame knockoffs of cheeseball teen vampires, boy wizards, or dead old men of the Illuminati? It's ugly out there.
This is, of course, why the self-publishing biz is exploding, maturing just as fast as traditional publishing is imploding. In many ways, it's a savior. Of course, there's a huge catch. Like blogging, once everyone can do it, quality nosedives and we are aswim in white noise and garbage, in earnest people who have no idea what they're doing and can't actually write a bearable sentence. Expert editors are a good thing.
But the biggest surprise, at least for me, came when all the groups presented their rethinkings of the book business. Among all the many ingenious plans, not one idea actually touched the physical product itself. That is to say, despite all gizmos, websites, multimedia extensions, the printed book is still impossible to breach. It's impervious.
There's a reason for this, and it struck me to the quick as I presented my humble wares. It's because the book -- the printed one, wood pulp and ink, glue and sweat and blood -- remains a nearly perfect product.
Think about it. It hasn't been fundamentally improved upon for 1,000 years. Few other products in the world match it for reach and purity of function. It's cheap, transportable, sharable. It's immersive, transformative, offers universal and timeless appeal across all nationalities, religions, races, creeds, politics, classes, education levels. No other product you can name matches the book across the efficiency/cost/intimacy/experience matrix. It's flawless.
So of course, we have to kill it.
Or rather, progress does. Everyone says the book is dying, shifting, being stung to death by swarms of ravenous killer technology. A rather twee piece in the NYT Magazine recently took Amazon's bogus Kindle numbers and spun them into a tale about how some are now using hardbound books not as intellectual/spiritual stimulation, not as storytelling tools, not, as Kafka said, "as an ax for the frozen sea inside us," but as the raw materials to build ugly furniture. How quaint.
It's a dazzling realization, really. We simply don't have many perfect products in the world. Paperclips. Pencils. Hitachi Magic Wands. Hip flasks. Strippers. Christy Turlington. Swiss Army knives. Bali. Many come close, some are perfect for single utility. But books are unique in how, for just a few bucks and a handful of hours, you can have your entire worldview flipped over, gutted, slapped asunder. Or not. They are, in any case, a kind of magic.
You might say my grand takeaway of this Vegas experiment, then, was a slap of tragedy, mixed with a big, throbbing imponderable. I realized that, like sex, like single-malt Scotch, like the feel of a woman's lower back in the morning, you cannot reinvent a perfect product. You cannot improve upon something that refuses to be improved upon. This does not seem to matter. We're trying anyway.
It comes down to a sort of weird footrace. Everyone seems to sense, deep down, that the printed book is perfect, eternally enchanting, deeply necessary for a healthy and functioning society. The big question is not if we can reinvent it, but rather, if our appetites have become too frenzied and distracted to save it.