A few years ago I was in the office of a fairly prominent NYC literary agent. In those earlier days, back when we were still developing the Bleak House Books brand, I'd get nervous in Manhattan--worried like I was that somebody was going to ask to see my invitation or my membership card.
We talked about the biz, me sorta secretly freaking out at some of the books on display, wondering how the hell it was that I was discussing potential deals with the agent about some of the agency's lesser known clients.
I don't know if it was for show or a matter of routine, but the agent called for an assistant to get drinks. When the water and coffee arrived, there was a request to get something from a neighboring office. When that was done, there was something else. It wasn't the number of requests--that comes with the job--it was the tone of the requests. It was as though the assistant stopped being human and was only some kind of office support android.
That got me to thinking--how much could the agent do in and out of the office if left to the agent's own devices? If day-to-day survival wasn't facilitated by the hired help, could the agent run the office? And outside of the office, could the agent survive in the world at large without being able to order somebody around? And if the answer to one or both of those questions is "no," what does that say about the agent? And what if that agent is indicative of some of the people--publishers, agents, authors, and retailers whom we look at to make decisions about the survival of the industry we all hold dear?
There's a guy--something of a legend in my second hometown of Wewahitchka, FL--the locals call "Barefoot." He's the kind of guy that you reach out to if you've got a particularly bothersome rattlesnake or alligator in your yard, you need your house painted, or the engine in your car has blown out. He's also the kind of guy that has been stabbed on numerous occasions for one thing or another, still has left over bullet fragments in his body, and at over 50 years old, still doesn't have an assistant to boss around. He goes out and does what needs to be done. When Armageddon comes, he'll come out the other side--a survivor.
With all of the talk about the impending publishing Armageddon, I've been thinking lately that maybe we'd be a little better off looking at people who share Barefoot's instincts--facing problems and challenges head on--instead of waiting on folks who feel like they're entitled to business as usual or who count on the hired help to make the fix.
Not infrequently I hear authors/agents/publishers who have put in the years, dig in against things like e-books, and POD, and whatever publishing witchcraft is new this month, giving off the impression that the way to stop something like the Kindle's survival is to publicly state that an e-reader is an object that needn't be taken seriously.
But the office support android forgot to get the memo out to the rest of us.
A guy like Barefoot doesn't will a gator away by pretending it doesn't exist. When decisive action is called for, he's got a rope around the gator and a pick axe in his free hand. Survival isn't always pretty for everybody involved.
Thankfully, the publishing industry is full of creative types who are undeniably passionate about the power of words, and work like hell to make sure the storied legacy of the book, be it in print or electronic, continues to grow honorably. One of the people that I look to as an inspiration and a guy clearly unafraid to take chances, Richard Nash (formerly of Soft Skull and now Cursor), had the following to say in an interview with Jeff Rivera over at Galley Cat:
"Long-form text-only narrative will continue to thrive as it has since cavemen gathered around the fire, just as painting has thrived since Lascaux. The advent of more and richer iterations of multimodal entertainment and edification will not kill off others (either multi or single mode) in the future, just as they did not in the past, though they certainly will kill businesses with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement based on past success in a given mode."
I couldn't agree more. I look forward to see what the next generation of literary Barefoots and the Richard Nashs of the world come up with as the book speeds ahead towards the 22nd century. And I hope to help them along the way.