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The World's Most Perfect Product

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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?...

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Mark Morford is the author of The Daring Spectacle: Adventures in Deviant Journalism, a mega-collection of his finest columns for the SF Chronicle and SFGate. Get it at daringspectacle.com or Amazon;. He recently wrote about the dark, magnificent horror of the BP spill, the rise of insufferable women, and the justifiably infamous KFC Double Down. His website is markmorford.com. Join him on Facebook, or email him. Not to mention...