Before I worked at a bookstore, books were just things to be read. I never gave much thought to the big glossy volumes that occupy a lot of shelf space in many book stores. But the world of so-called “coffee table books” is surprisingly varied, going way beyond books of art or photographs of faraway places. With impressive production values – and hefty price tags – these books are closer to works of art than literature. I was reminded of this after an article London Review of Books pointed me to a book called Disruptive Pattern Material: An Encyclopaedia Of Camoflage: Nature, Military, Culture. The heft and glossiness of such a volume, despite – or perhaps because of – its esoteric focus, somehow make it inordinately desirable to me. Taschen, the eccentric European publishing house known for its expensive and eclectic selections, also occasionally puts out books that have this affect on me, like the Cabinet of Natural Curiosities. And I’m a sucker for atlases, the bigger and glossier and more stuffed with maps and diagrams and charts the better, like the National Geographic Atlas of the World. I am especially intrigued by atlases devoted to a narrow topic like the Atlas of Contemporary Architecture.
[Editor's note: This week we've invited Megan Hustad, author of How to Be Useful: A Beginner's Guide to Not Hating Work, to dissect our contributors' first-job follies.]Max writes:When I finished college, I followed my then-girlfriend (now wife) to Los Angeles, where she was to attend grad school. Fortuitously, some buddies of mine from high school were headed to L.A. as well. I found an apartment with them and we set out looking for jobs. At the time, I felt singularly unqualified to do anything in particular despite just a couple of months before having been handed a diploma that had cost into the six figures.In L.A., of course, when you look aimlessly for employment, you land in the entertainment industry, which is exactly what happened to my friends and me. As I began my job hunt, I was sufficiently dazzled by this prospect even though I had never up until that point considered acting, directing, or screenwriting. As I would soon find out, if you're not the "talent" in Hollywood, you're just another guy at a desk.I landed at a second-rate agency in Beverly Hills as an assistant for a newly hired literary agent. We'll call him Bert. I was so clueless that every mundane detail was a revelation: "We send out thirty copies of this script to production companies!?" "I'm supposed to call your client and tell him 'I have Bert on the line for you?'" As I soon realized that the job mostly entailed getting coffee and related menial tasks and looking busy when the head of the firm came through, I pushed for anything that would make the hours there bearable. I got along with my fellow assistants but the bosses tended to look beyond me into the distance when I talked to them. Attempting to play to my strengths, I asked Bert if I could read some scripts.I tore into them ruthlessly. Part of this was because these scripts were undoubtedly bad - heist and car chase rehashes - and part of it was because I had never read a script before and had no idea what they looked like. I produced pages of notes cataloging logical falacies, stilted dialog, and poor character development (this for a knock-off of Vin Diesel-vehicle The Fast and the Furious) and included lots of snarky asides. I handed the notes off to Bert and he never mentioned them again.From there my trajectory was decidedly downward. I was transferred to another agent, in a move that I now realize was intended to punish her poor performance - give her the worst assistant so she knows she's on thin ice - and then ultimately "laid off" to punish her further. From there, I headed down the path of temp work and retail before turning things around by going back to school. As it has been for many, my first brush with Hollywood was humbling.Megan Hustad responds:Ever heard of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency? Me, too! I was an assistant at Vintage Books, and my boss handed me the manuscript (for the fourth in the series, I think, but none had been published in the U.S. yet) and asked me to make six copies. I was to keep one, distribute the rest, and read overnight. That was big clue Nos. 1-6; seldom were so many souls asked to weigh in on a manuscript overnight. But no, I strolled in the following morning with this assessment: "I dunno, it seems 'small' to me. I just can't picture the audience at all." I may have added an aside about library ladies too, but I've suppressed the memory, so I couldn't tell you.Thing is, the impulse to cough up withering assessments of proposals, scripts, or what have you, is strong. Especially when you're employed in a creative industry but mainly engaged in menial tasks-- how else, you think, can I help people understand that I'm capable of so, so much more than I'm being asked to do? This is what I learned, however, after eventually quitting Vintage (because my, ahem, "career" there had stalled out) and reading a lot of success manuals from the 1910s and 1920s, when snark was first in vogue: It's actually very difficult to make positive and affirming statements, using American English, and still sound like you have a brain. Very demanding, intellectually. I mean, Lincoln had it down, but it didn't come easy. You basically have to practice. Uselessness rating: 4For more information, please see these related posts:Welcome to the Working Week: Megan Hustad Analyzes Our On-the-Job FoiblesWelcome to the Working Week 2: EmreWelcome to the Working Week 3: GarthWelcome to the Working Week 4: Andrew
I had no idea that I was the one who introduced Scott of Conversational Reading to Lawrence Weschler. I'm glad I did because otherwise he might not have attended Weschler's visit to the City Arts & Lectures series and given us an excellent report. Every time I hear about Weschler I get more and more interested. I think, eventually, I'll read all of his books.I was also happy to see Scott's report that Weschler described Joseph Mitchell "as possibly the greatest writer he's ever read." I was introduced to Mitchell in an offhand sort of way in a literature course in college, and after reading Joe Gould's Secret and dipping into Up in the Old Hotel from time to time, he remains one of my favorites.
After spending a lot of time over the last week discussing Borders' new strategy to display more books face out (and thereby reduce the number of books a typical store carries), it turns out that the whole discussion may have been moot. The struggling chain had a need for more money to "remodel stores and pay for new technology," but, thanks to the rocky climate on Wall Street, Borders was initially unable to find a willing lender. Translation: without an infusion of cash, Borders was going to run out of money.This left CEO George Jones with few options. Pershing Square, a hedge fund with investments in many large retailers and Border's largest shareholder, has agreed to "lend $42.5 million and to make an offer for some of [Borders'] international chains," according to Bloomberg. The loan comes with a huge interest rate and comes with various provisions that give the fund ever larger control over the book chain's fate. Borders has also said that it is now seeking a buyer and the company has suspended its dividend. This deal is something of a last resort for Borders, and the stock plunged nearly 30% on Friday, the biggest drop in the company's history.So what does this mean to Borders customers and employees? It's still too early to know. the deal with Pershing staves off the possibility of Borders running out of money in the near future, and offers a life raft for the chain to get through the challenges brought on by the slowing economy. The path forward is tenuous at best; expect more developments in the coming months.
Louis Menand is one of my favorite regular contributors to the New Yorker, so I was excited to discover a Web site devoted to "the foremost modern scholar of American studies." The Essential Menand includes commentary by three contributors as well as a handy collection of links to dozens of Menand essays in the New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and Slate.
Some media pundits suggest that, as the new owner of the Wall Street Journal, Rupert Murdoch has set his sights on taking down the New York Times, or at least giving the paper a run for its money. So it was with no doubt some glee that the Times was able to report that the WSJ is a bit more thin skinned than Murdoch would have you believe.The Times yesterday reported on a parody of the WSJ, My Wall Street Journal, created by Tony Hendra and with contributions from Andy Borowitz, Richard Belzer and Terry Jones. Apparently, the WSJ wasn't too keen on the tabloid format send-up and actually sent people around the city trying to snatch up copies before they landed in the hands of the general public. Or as the Times cheekily put it: "It seems someone at The Wall Street Journal really likes a biting new parody of the paper - likes it enough, in fact, to leave at least one newsstand with no copies remaining for anyone else to buy."Media spat aside, it is also interesting to see an attempt at a one-off publication like this, particularly in the age of the internet. Fishbowl NY explained the business model:The goal is to break even and, ideally, make money on the printing. "The business model is pretty simple, Hendra says. "Sell a lot of them." Manhattan Media will be "well into break even territory" if half of the 200,000 available on newsstands are sold (an additional 50,000 will be sold in bookstores). At $3.95 per paper, the company will gain almost $1 million in revenue - an amount Murdoch "loses on the New York Post before lunch," Hendra jokes - if the print run sells out.They are even available at Amazon, sold as a "Single Issue Magazine."
Derek Dahlsad has never owned a bookstore and does not have "significant bookselling experience," but he has, nonetheless, put together some very compelling thoughts on how to make small bookstores more successful. In his article at The New Publisher's Journal, he lays out several ideas, some of which are very good ("3. Magazines are impulse buys; do not devote floorspace to a 'magazine area.'" and "7. Store hours can be from 2pm - 11pm."). It's a worthwhile read for anyone considering getting into the bookselling business or if you're just wondering what might keep all those little bookstores from going under.
This will probably be of little interest to anyone who is not a book industry professional, but I couldn't help myself. I happened to notice the other day a mention of the impending adoption of the 13-digit ISBN. ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number, and it's the 10-digit number typically found on the back of your books near the barcode. Every new edition of every book has its own ISBN, making it a unique identifier that can be used when organizing books in a computer library system. By 2007 all new books will be assigned 13-digit ISBNs. This is being done so that books conform with other products, which are all identified by a 13-digit number (usually next to the barcode.) I'm sure there are good reasons for doing this. Standardizing these numbers will probably streamline the business and make books easier to integrate with other products in stores. But I felt compelled to bring this up because I suspect the change might be detrimental to independent bookstores for two reasons. First, anything that makes it easier for books to be sold at the Walmart, Target, and the other "big box" stores is bad for independent bookstores (and chain bookstores, for that matter). Secondly, due to the expense, many independent bookstores do not have great inventory systems. Typically they have some sort of makeshift system, or they use an antiquated inventory system with poor tech support and little or no adaptability (the latter was certainly the case at the bookstore where I worked). Books are organized in these systems by ISBN, and I doubt that they are designed to handle an ISBN longer than 10 digits. While the chain stores probably have more robust systems and staff dedicated to the upkeep of their inventory programs, I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of independent bookstores scrambling to adapt when the 13-digit ISBN comes along. Then again, this could be another Y2K situation, which I'm blowing out of proportion. We'll see, I suppose. If you are really intrigued by this, you can learn all about it here.In other news, the New York Times has named one-time restaurant reviewer William Grimes its new book reviewer. He joins Janet Maslin and Madame Kakutani. It will be interesting to see how this changes the overall persona of the Times' book coverage. I should also note here that an inordinate number of people come to this website by searching for "Michiko Kakutani." She is the object of much fascination, I think.The Publisher's Lunch email newsletter mentions an upcoming book by one of my favorite writers, the inventor of rotisserie baseball and current New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent. "Daniel Okrent's new book will also form the basis of a Ken Burns documentary, an illustrated biography of Einstein."