Friday, October 09, 2009

Why Should We All Get Along?

As soon as someone trots out that tired old Rodney King reference - "Why can't we all just get along?" - you know there's trouble. Chances are, the person using it is trying to take the air out of her or his opponent's sail and quiet a whole debate, and usually that person is the person who is on the side with more to preserve, if not gain. (I'm not saying this was the case with King himself - the phrase has clearly taken on a life of its own after the single, bizarre media moment.)

I read, then, Steve Ross' piece in the HuffPo with some skepticism. Ross is of course the former president of Collins within that beast known as HarperCollins, who recently lost his job in the re-org. He is a publishing veteran and probably a fine guy, and I did agree with some of what he said, but I disagree with his attempt to tamper down disagreements about e-books, and I can't sympathize when he whines, "at a time when it is in the best interests of everyone who loves books to help the major houses endure, they're being scapegoated, demonized and ridiculed for trying to survive with the crippling business model they've been handicapped with for decades." In his defense, however, he does come back around to explain why these big houses are screwed, and in fact manages to throw in some digs at the owners of these houses by noting "the audacious and perpetually unrealistic demands of the parent company for a 12 percent return on investments."

I also appreciate him calling out Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, for his post about the need for $4 books. I agree with Ross that this post is fallacious and simplistic, dressed up to appear straight forward. Ross pulls out details to show Coker's inaccuracies, with the larger message that Coker has a dog in the fight. Some of his one or two-sentence paragraphs do contain some logic and make useful points, such as when he states, "Lower cost ebooks help publishers retain customers who might otherwise abandon books altogether in favor of lower cost alternative media options." But then, as Ross points out, he says things that are just plain false, such as, "Since it costs the author or publisher next to nil to "print" each copy of an ebook, ebooks are extremely profitable on a per-unit basis, even at a low selling price." I can tell you from working at small publishing houses that converting files into digital formats can be costly and labor intensive. But again, dog in the fight.

Ross frustrates me with his feeble defense of corporate publishing, because he wants us to change our focus. Don't worry about the owners, whom I too can't stand, but think of the people: "Why do we demonize publishers as greedy, monopolistic and backward when they are peopled by such idealists and lovers of literature trying their best to navigate a ship that was corroding from decades-old rust well before the economic collapse placed icebergs in the water?" This might be neoliberalism, though it's too early in the morning for me to tease out why and how. I just know it's short-sighted and, again, meant to merely silence critics. Ross wants to make salient points about posts and publishing, but would rather others just run out to a chain and buy a Random/Harper/S&S book already - for the industry's good.

I can't help but mention this post over at HuffPo's competitor, Tina Brown's The Daily Beast, wherein Lloyd Grove uncovers some nasty news: Sarah Palin's editor at HarperCollins, Adam Bellow (yes, Saul's son), was co-author on a joke book Terminatrix: The Sarah Palin Chronicles last year, during the election. Grove describes the book:
Terminatrix: The Sarah Palin Chronicles—which has a cover featuring a Photoshopped governor in skin-tight leather and brandishing an automatic weapon—is a sophomoric send-up of Palin and her family, featuring digitally altered images and derisive captions, and packaged in a 5-by-7-inch, 96-page trade paperback. A representative gag: Palin’s face superimposed on a painting of Joan of Arc, with the mocking commentary: “In between junior high and high school, Sarah heard God's call to save France.”

Welcome to corporate publishing, Ms. Palin! The good (or not), the bad (her new one), the ugly (this pathetic joke book) - all under one big flashy roof! Suffice to say, Bellow wouldn't 'fess up, since he's obviously too busy bragging about the complete trash he's just edited that is number one at Amazon. Thanks for helping make Going Rogue a reality, Bellows!

I suppose it makes sense that Ross, someone from HarperCollins, which insists on publishing whatever can make the most money regardless of the ideological beliefs of the authors, should argue for us all to get along.

Pshh, forget it.

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