Sunday, August 25, 2013

Pick up the new Baffler now: ten good reasons

Twenty-five years ago Tom Frank and friends started a small journal in Chicago called The Baffler.  Like his first book, The Conquest of Cool, the journal limned the many ways cultural authenticity has been co-opted, branded, and regurgitated by corporations and institutions.

There was a lot of subject matter to work with in Millennial capitalist America.  The magazine struggled, and even took a break for awhile.  But most of the early issues, some of which have been anthologized, stand up amazingly well.  If anything, the corporate onslaught has become even more refined and insidious. 

Recently The MIT Press picked up distribution of the journal.  The Baffler website has been spiffed up, its back on a three times a year publishing schedule, and the roster of contributors just keeps getting better.   There’s really nothing like it in the world of cultural and political long-form journalism.  And for twelve bucks!

The 25th anniversary edition of the magazine, just out, is fantastic.  I highly recommend that you stop reading this right now and go out and get yourself a copy and read that instead, cover to cover.  But if you need nudges, here are a few of the sacred cows smashed in this issue:

1)  In “Academy Fight Song,” Tom Frank shows “how virtually every aspect of the higher-ed dream has been colonized by monopolies, cartels, and other unrestrained predators.  The charmingly naïve American student is now a cash cow, and everyone has got a scheme for slicing off a porterhouse or two… ours is a generation that stood by gawking while a handful of parasites and billionaires smashed higher ed for their own benefit.”

2) “Facebook Feminism, Like it or Not” is a much needed takedown of Sheryl Sandberg’s phenomenally successful Lean In, by feminist scholar and journalist Susan Faludi.  “Never before have so many corporations joined a revolution,” Faludi writes.  “Virtually nothing is required of them- not even a financial contribution.”  The transcript of her attempt to get some questions answered by the Lean In PR department is sad and hilarious.  (Example: “Q: Would you encourage a Lean In Circle to picket a discriminatory employer?”  A: blah blah blah blah blah.)

3) In “Networking into the Abyss,” a pointed and genuinely Menckenesque critique of the altcult mecca South by Southwest, Jacob Silverstein efficiently eviscerates this trendy marketing event.  “During SXSW, Austin becomes a money-soaked mélange of hyper-consumerism and techno-utopianism… the marketing machine doesn’t only want to sell to you; it wants you to sell your own networked persona on its behalf.”

4) In “All LinkedIn with Nowhere to Go” Ann Friedman makes mince meat of the ubiquitous get-ahead site, and its philosophy of wish fulfillment as business model.  “The roots of the LinkedIn vision of prosperity-through-connectivity lie in the circular preachments of the positive-thinking industry,” she writes.

5) In “Street Legal: The National Security State comes Home,” Chris Bray makes a bone-chilling case that “the contest between the centralization and decentralization of information is the real culture war of our moment.”

6) The rise of the right-wing think tanks is explored in all its depressing glory in Jim Newell’s “Good Enough for Government Work: Conservatism in the Tank.”  “The perpetually aggrieved American right can rest easy: the conservative movement has, indeed, won the war of ideas.”

7) In part, as Ken Silverstein explains in “They Pretend to Think, We Pretend to Listen,” because of the corporate takeover of liberal think tanks!

8) In “A Nod to Ned Ludd,” (worth the price of the magazine alone), Richard Byrne does a huge service by illuminating the true story behind a term we throw around as if we knew what it meant: “luddites.”  Just about everything you think it means is wrong.

9) “On Wittgenstein’s Steps” is a surprising and lovely rumination by Croatian writer Dubravka Ugresic on pigeons, sculptures, and the meaning of public monuments in a time of political transformation.

10) And in “Sacking Berlin,” Quinn Slobodian and Michelle Sterling mourn the disappearance of the whimsical, playful, authentic Berlin that emerged post-1989 and its replacement by “branding, clicking, swiping… a privatized Berlin.”  They lament that “the monuments of East Germany have been demolished, social services have been sold off, and with them have gone the memory of the city as a place of shared public goods.”

And there’s more!  Poetry, stories, cheeky graphics and cartoons, book and movie reviews- 162 pages that will make you laugh and make you a better person.  Inquire at your bookstore or see for more info.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Hothouse blindspot

As I met with booksellers over the past few months, I kept hearing people talking about Boris Kachka's just-released history of Farrar Straus & Giroux, Hothouse.  It was an authentic case of a much-coveted phenomenon: bookseller buzz.

So there's a small irony in the fact that in this entertaining portrait of possibly the most consequential North American publisher, one big cog in the success machine is conspicuous by its near total absence: the booksellers.

Granted, the book is as much a Great Man biography as it is a history of a publishing company.  It's a Roger Straus warts and all wet kiss.  And granted, the process by which reps and booksellers decide how books will be represented and sold in stores is definitely not as sexy as the acquisitions soap operas, editorial meltdowns, and the quest for just the right pretty cover.

But it's very weird to see bookstores so willfully written out of a story which, one might argue, wouldn't be a story at all without them.

While the retail book landscape has changed significantly over the past six decades, you could argue that the bookstores were even more important in the forties, fifties and sixties, during which time some of FSG's bell-weather literary coups took place.  A mid-twentieth century reader probably bought books from an independent retail bookstore, (or a department store) who had been alerted to them by a sales force employed by the publisher.

Yet again and again in Hothouse, this happens in passive voice.  A book "sells," as if the act of bringing it into physical being was synonymous with publishing.  After conjuring the book,  customers somehow miraculously, automatically, find it and buy it.  (This is a misconception that is currently driving to despair gullible authors who have been seduced by the self-publishing siren.  It seems you have to figure out how to sell a book after you print it!)

I was a book buyer in a Midwest regional bookstore chain in the late eighties and nineties,  We had several excellent sales reps over the course of those years who sold us FSG books, including many of the success stories Kachka celebrates.  While a very small handful of titles became runaway bestsellers, for which we essentially had to just chase demand, the vast majority of new FSG titles each season were pored over and considered- book by book, catalog page by catalog page.

Each store knows generally what it can sell, sometimes drilling down to the specific customer level.  It knows its inventory situation, when the rent is due, whether the street will be under repair this fall, and hundreds of other factoids that go into the mix on deciding whether and how to get behind a book.

A key consideration was always the informed input of our reps.  They had often read the books, they knew our stores intimately, and, because they met with many other booksellers in that long ago pre-social media world, they could tell us how the book was being received in other stores.

The great FSG reps- I'm thinking here of Mark Gates, who inexplicably eludes Kachka's notice- could quite literally make a book happen by getting galleys into the hands of individual booksellers he knew personally, and checking back to see what they thought.  Much is made in Hothouse of the in-house staff enthusiasm for Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, but In the lead up to that book I heard dozens of booksellers raving about it.  They may not have made the book on their own, but had it not lived up to the hype FSG envisioned for it, they certainly had the power to sink it by withholding enthusiasm.

This rep-bookseller component of successful book-making is not ancient history.  It's the way book buzz is created in 2013, as it was for Hothouse itself.  FSG and every other publisher that wants to be taken seriously sends reps to visit the 6,000 independent booksellers in North America, despite the fact that they represent a diminished percentage of actual book sales.  But buzz bubbles up from them..

Perhaps Boris Kachka was bored by the grunt work done by the peons of the book industry.  Like his references to books which magically "sell," the significant reviews he mentions simply "appear."  Surely an over-worked and underpaid marketing and publicity department gets some credit for patiently working the book media and preparing the ground for that nice front page New York Times Book Review rave.

It's odd that Kachka wouldn't appreciate booksellers as a kind of crucial punctuation mark on the story he has to tell.  Especially since in a recent New York magazine column, Tears for Goliath, he frets about whether a B&N dispute with his publisher will undercut his sales.  "The initial order on my book was bleak- less than 100 books for more than 600 stores- but improved, ironically, after the ABA touted the title."

Hothouse is a good story, if a bit breathlessly told.  It's well-worth reading if you're a book lover and keen on 20th century literary and publishing history.

But as my friend Ben McNally observed when I complained about the bookseller blindspot, "it's not at all uncommon for the Sherpas to be over-looked."