Saturday, March 14, 2009

March 14, 2009: A Stimulus Package for the Publishing Industry?

A recent episode of Ugly Betty proved to be rather timely. To give you the Cliff Notes, Daniel Mead and Wilhemina Slater came to D.C. to ask Congress for a bailout of the Mead magazine publishing empire, which was slowly hemorrhaging money. The great Vanessa Williams played her role as Wilhemenia to the hilt. I practically hollered throughout the entire episode at the ludicrous premise. Until my mind took off on its own flight of fancy…

Is a stimulus package for the publishing industry all that ludicrous? If you watched the news recently, you saw every manner of industry bellying up to the government trough to nationalize their losses at taxpayer expense. In fact, John Stossel just did an ABC News 20/20 special called Bailouts and Bull, in which he talked about the very same thing. Ugly Betty explored the stimulus within the context of magazine publishing. I, however, wonder what a stimulus package for the book publishing industry would look like.

After all, it’s no secret that the publishing industry is broken. Imprints have been folding left and right or cutting back. Wednesday’s Publishers Lunch announced that National Geographic recently eliminated jobs in their book division. Reed Exhibitions cancelled Book Expo Canada, the Great White North’s answer to our BEA. Bookstores have been posting sub-par earnings, especially Borders, which is hanging on for dear life. I’m sure publishing industry professionals of all stripes would be in line if President Obama were feeling generous.

Would I co-sign a bailout of the publishing industry? Only if it came with some kind of Truth and Reconciliation Commission. With an ombudsman like the man from my neighbor state of Maryland, Congressman Elijah Cummings. I think he’d approach publishing industry powerbrokers with the same zeal he harnessed to take wayward bank CEOs and auto company chairmen to task. Of course, to get the money, they’d have to explain some of the interesting decisions that they’ve made (for example, the 1.1 million-dollar advance to a certain ex-football player to discuss the murder of his ex-wife as an anorexically veiled hypothetical immediately comes to mind). Instead of giving money to any of the Big Six major publishers, the “stimulus” part of the stimulus package would provide subsidies to small presses that look for unique voices and great stories, not the usual celebrity tell-all or warmed over formulaic stuff that seems to sell well but fails to feed the creative soul. The package would fund small independent bookstores in underserved communities… the ones that folded in the name of progress as Deatri King-Bey discussed here in her February 18, 2009 blog called “Hmm, I Wonder.”

Until some kind of salvation happens, I’m quite happy to sip on my cocoa and watch the happenings from the sidelines. Despite having no mainstream publisher, my book, Triptych, is selling well… so well that can’t seem to keep it in stock. For me, joining the publishing fray again right now, in the absence of some kind of restructuring, would be the equivalent of running out and buying a car made by General Motors. And, as Bill Maher recently said on his HBO show Real Time, the only way you’d get him into a GM car would be if you drugged him and threw him in the trunk.

I second that emotion.

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