Friday, October 26, 2018

"Where we're going, we don't need roads."

"To Busboys and Poets, Marty! To save a career!"

Time travel, into the past, I'm really not the one to ask about. I'm not sure where I'm going where my fortunes aren't the best moving forward from right now. I'll tell you what I see and how I see it.

I have a copy of an old Chester Himes first edition of IF HE HOLLERS LET HIM GO from Doubleday, back in the 1950s, Elliot Caprice's time period in The Tales Of..." If you flip it over, there are so many books by black fiction authors, it feels conspicuous. So many names, and a major publishing house, all cashing in on black folk's desire to read and write. I know black folk read books today the way black folk read them then, which is why Doubleday marketed Negro authors such as Ellison, Baldwin, and Himes, aggressively. They were also bullish on Bucklin Moon, an author of black stories who himself was not black (and the world didn't stop spinning, egads,) the one who saw Richard Stark in Donald Westlake and saw Parker as a hero rather than a villain. An author/editor who wrote primarily in a black American literary voice gave all you white boys Westlake and Parker. Macklemore, basically, was a shepherd for black voices who gave us a bunch of angry black men.  No angry black women, but well, publishing does like its traditions.

Pick yourselves up off the floor and we'll continue.

Now, this is the 1950s, where white folks are supposed to hate black folk, but frickin' Doubleday is all up in the book business for black folk, and white folks who want to read about black Americans doing American things are how they're making their money, otherwise why put James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison in your stable, because they're both primadonnas. Incredible works of American literary import were edited and shepherded by white folks. Weren't the 50s supposed to be worse for me? As a man with agency and autonomy, sure. As an author, I would be stuck in a quandary. As a man, no thanks.

So what if I didn't' go anywhere? How does my own time period appear to me as an author?

The barriers to entry in publishing have never been lower due to the commoditization of the means of production. This usually happens when foreign interests in American consumer goods drive production demand and control products because they make everything somewhere other than where we purchase it. The closer a business entity is to the means of production, the more control it has over distribution.

Whoa, that's a mouthful, but put simply, since capitalism thrives upon disposable income for their sales, and communist nations as production partners, everyone can publish a book. With Amazon, everyone can sell direct. There is no differentiation between, say, Danny Gardner's A NEGRO AND AN OFAY and Down & Out Books' A NEGRO AND AN OFAY to the bookstores that report into Bookscan and the New York Times. Hilariously, I went out of my way to make the world see I'm not self-published, just for it to not matter to the biggest core consumer I have: black American readers who are underserved by publishing, followed by poor white folks, all of whom are served by the same basic educational system. They have the most disposable income of anyone, but no editor in America figures selling books to black and poor folk is worth the bottom line. And they're the bosses. Except WalMart sells more books than just about anyone, same as everything else.

If you're wondering when the last time a market space was this crowded with producers, it was in personal computing in the mid-90s. Dell Computer Company rolled out their first IBM clones without IBM. I'm old enough to remember buying stock in Dell in the beginning as my first play around purchase day-trading. The bigger computer companies began to mass produce in China, opening the door for all the larger producers to start firing and dismissing all their brilliant folks in cost savings moves any corporation lusts for. Everyone ejected from the computer industry's supply chain found at least some aspect of productivity with Dell Computer, who is now the biggest pure computing company in America. Pure-play computing, too. Unlike Apple, they didn't bifurcate into a consumer electronics firm and a forgotten professional computing vendor (servers, production systems, point of sale systems, etc. - read these as IMPRINTS, if you will.)

They sell computers like New York used to sell books. So maybe I'd go back to the 90s, but I'm not exactly a silicon valley billionaire yet, much as I'm not selling nearly as many books as I can, because of arguments about race in the rooms I can't get into.

If I use this time machine, I have to go forward, because the past isn't so lovely for me in society and business alike. So if I hop in and abscond to a better era for me, what's that look like?

1. The name on the front of the book is the only one that truly matters, although the publisher's imprint on the spine is really important too, IF said publisher is active in my community, same as Bucklin Moon, the renowned author and editor in the 1950s who was as white as a snowflake, but gave the world beautiful black books and frickin' Donald Westlake.

2. The author is the one selling said books to their own community. If said author is a member of several different communities, as in my case, then the publisher that wants to make money off books markets to said communities according to the strengths of the book in that market, and several markets are a good thing, not a bad thing, because more work means more money to black folk and poor folk. Today, in actual and virtual New York, if a book requires more work to put in on the street, that means do not publish.

Can't imagine Bucklin Moon figured Chester Himes an easy author to publish. Yet according to Bronzeville Books' Associate Publisher Erin Mitchell, he still sells more than any of us. I'll let y'all figure out how I took that bit of information after spending money to look legit to the rest of you. Chester Himes would have shot up a panel had he attended one at all, and he still outsells all of us mild-mannered types unto death. In the hood, this is the point where someone puts their lips to the side of their face and goes, "Pffffft..."

3. Books and entertainment will no longer exist in separate pipelines but merge their individual production processes to reach readers in all the ways consumers demand. This isn't hard. Someone just has to be honest about how lopsided Hollywood profits from adaptations of New York publishing's products are. The literary agencies have retooled to get in that business around the same time Fuse Literary found their footing.  Some market indications are too strong to ignore.

4. Opportunity follows the supply chain and not the perception of quality which is centralized to the folks who always lose the most money on a book, even when authors and television producers reap riches. No editor at any publishing house in America can tell me they know the first thing about selling books to 40M black folk in America, and millions more around the world. They'd rather spend a lot of time and money convincing us no market exists. They have to do that because poor, unwashed people in communist countries print the books now. International print runs are coming from Chinese printing facilities in Nigeria, on the continent of Africa. Let poor black folk print the books but don't sell them any books they want to read sounds about right. Sounds real 50s, except in the 50s, New York sold black books to EVERYONE.

Please keep in mind that Barnes & Noble are retooling yet again, and away from crime-mystery-thriller regardless of what they say, as they need space to sell diapers and toys and clothes with all the baby books. None of your mean, murder books will be anywhere on the baby floor. I bet you'll be able to get some sort of spa treatment or take a class or have a community meeting in a Barnes and Noble within ten years. And our books won't be there, same as mine aren't there now, although last Erin and Tom checked, 7000 of them are in some warehouse in Tennessee because the IngramSpark ordering algorithm just straight snapped. Again, my nerdy day job makes me know about algorithms. Somewhere, Ingram's dataset believes it has 7000 copies of A NEGRO AND AN OFAY in a warehouse where black folk and poor folk are concentrated.

Y'all can power down the Criminal Minds time machine. It's feeling like I'm here at the right time.


For those interested in the works to which I frequently refer, check out these titles at your local bookseller, your local library, or online where you enjoy purchasing your print and e-books. As always, thanks for your support and encouragement.


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