BEA 2013: Shaping the Future of the Book

On Wednesday afternoon, Open Road Media CEO and co-founder Jane Friedman demonstrated her commendable skills in repeating the same talking points that she delivered at IDPF last year: (1) don’t ignore the elephant in the room (that is, the e-book), (2) we have to think of books in terms of p and e, and (3) Open Road is not a self-publisher. One wonders how many times she has enacted the part of a tottering robot. At least she had the honesty to tell the audience, “All of what you’ve heard so far, I’ve been hearing for 40 years.” But this year, Friedman was speaking before booksellers instead of wild-eyed evangelists who would erect a small nation of geodesic domes if it meant a universe where people read nothing but digital.

Two booksellers attempted to tell Friedman very politely that she was a misguided fool on the subject of e-book implementation in independent bookstores. The first bookseller was a respectful man with long gray hair who informed Friedman that customers would happily download e-books from their computers rather than patronize a physical bookstore. “it’s too easy to get somewhere else,” he said.

“You’re dealing with a universe that’s telling you what they want,” replied Friedman.

This was a sharp contrast to John Sargent’s strepatements this morning, in which he declared with confidence that “the growth of e-books is pretty much pegged.” But then Friedman keeps the Open Road portfolio tied up in digital only and has a natural interest in ignoring any stagnation realities if it means squeezing a few more dollars. (Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch was careful to point out, “Our job is to be nondenominational.”)

When the first bookseller respectfully shambled away from the microphone, Word Brooklyn manager Emily Pullen stepped up to point to the problem more lucently: “If I were to sell an e-book to every consumer coming through, I would go out of business in a week.” Friedman replied, “Not all e-books are 99 cents,” which severely misses one of the chief reasons why consumers are attracted to e-books.

If that condescending remark wasn’t bad enough, Friedman continued by telling Pullen, “if you sell one e-book to a customer in your store, that person comes back to your store and downloads ten books.” But there’s a fundamental problem with this thesis. When the consumer can simply press a button and have a new book turn up, why would she want to spend the time and gas to hit an independent bookstore? And why should the independent bookseller have any reason to shack up with a snake oil saleswoman — indeed, one who referenced “back to the future” three times during the interminable hour — who undercuts her business.

For the bookseller who was concerned, Friedman took a cue from the 1990s informercial king Tommy Vu. She couldn’t explain to the booksellers in person why her strategy would work, but insisted that they come to her seminar…er…BEA party.

This was the high point in a fairly dull panel moderated by a gentleman who was dull in his relentless agreement with various points and whose questions revealed the regrettable patina of inexperience. I wanted to scream. So did several other booksellers, many of whom offered audible sighs at the people entrusted to “shape the future of the book.” Well, I’ve seen the future. It involves smug people making enemies out of booksellers with hubris (“Maureen Dowd, who is a columnist at the New York Times” — yeah, I think most literate people know this), left in the cold when the bubbles have long fizzled out in their champagne.

The Bat Segundo Show: Paul Murray, Part One

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On December 5, 2010, the Irish novelist Paul Murray encountered one of Mr. Segundo’s many agents before a full audience at Word Brooklyn. The two gentlemen proceeded to talk, with smart audience interjection and Mr. Murray reading from the book, for a little under 90 minutes. Just as the tape ran out, the very patient Word Brooklyn staff wisely put an end to this gabfest. The two gentlemen had no idea they had rambled on for so long. From all reports, neither did the crowd.

The first part of this conversation is now available for your listening pleasure as The Bat Segundo Show #370 (also referred to as “Phyllis Presents,” for reasons known only to those possessing the appropriate handbook). It is about 41 minutes long and involves the initial Q&A between Mr. Murray and our most mysterious agent.

The second part of this conversation is now available for your listening pleasure as The Bat Segundo Show #371 (which does not possess any alternate name, we are sorry to report). It is about 38 minutes long and features Mr. Murray reading from his latest novel, Skippy Dies, along with further questions from our agent (and many from the crowd). If you listen carefully to this second part, you may be able to detect a broken haiku.

The producers wish to thank Brian Gittis, Stephanie Anderson, Jenn Northington, Sarah Weinman, and (of course) Paul Murray for their great assistance (much of it at the last minute) in making this special conversation happen. We hope to offer similar “live” conversations in the future.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Recoiling from the pleasures of being applauded by a recorded audience.

Author: Paul Murray

Subjects Discussed: The influence of cinema, Gene Tierney, Glengarry Glenn Ross, the “Intelligent Eye” system, constructing a soundtrack for life, characters who flee reality, Anthony Lane and the Beijing Olympics, the camera increasingly pervading existence, Murray’s hero worship of David Lynch, balancing audience demand for traditional logic with shocking character revelation, Twin Peaks, not making sense as a bold aesthetic move, David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Lynch vs. Pynchon, David Shields’s Reality Hunger, excavating the old in the quest for new fiction, Tristram Shandy, the importance of having a big nose, gutting from reality, Russell Hoban’s “feeling unreal is an essential part of reality,” mid-century Irish naturalistic writers, Irish fiction’s failure to interrogate modernity, video games as a teenage refuge, gamebooks of the 1980s, the Walkman as a shift in the way we perceive reality, The Legend of Zelda, Team Fortress 2, Shigeru Miyamoto, computer games and narcissism, Skippy Dies‘s slips into second person, the frustrations with maintaining a dimwit first-person perspective in An Evening of Long Goodbyes, the Celtic Tiger, writers and bank statements, the unexpected rise of phones in Ireland, lattes in Ireland, working in a cafe without comprehending focaccia, Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches, ineffectual use of outdoor jacuzzis in Ireland, property fairs, Robert Graves and the Great War, Gallipoli, World War I Irish involvement erased from the history books, the Church and child abuse, Michael Durbin of The Irish Times, derivatives, and whether the novelist is guilty in ignoring certain narratives while coating reality within a fantasy.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Murray: It needed to be structured in a way that wasn’t linear and that wasn’t naturalistic. Because I just don’t think like that. I wasn’t trying to be experimental. I just thought that, if you are a kid nowadays, your life is not very linear and it’s not very naturalistic. Because you’ll spend most of your time looking at your phone or looking at a screen. Or watching the TV. You’re very rarely actually where you are. Do you know what I mean? I guess maybe that’s part of the human condition. Never to be actually tuned into what’s around you. But it seems like the whole thrust of the 21st century is just to take us further and further and further away from where we are. And further away into strange digital fantasies.

Correspondent: And this probably explains why so much of Skippy is about this meshing between reality and fantasy. That, in your efforts possibly to examine life with these delimiting technological factors, you’re saying that it led inevitably to this blur between reality and fantasy?

Murray: Yeah, I think that’s what you do when you’re a kid. As I say, when I was a kid, there was no Internet. And computer games — I wasn’t quite Pong era.

Correspondent: Asteroids maybe.

Murray: Yeah. But I think the teenage — the way you kind of cope with the stresses of being a teenager is to take refuge in TV shows or films or computer games. Like I was really into those — well, I wasn’t into role playing. But there were these gamebook things.

Correspondent: Oh yeah.

Murray: Where you rolled the dice and fought orcs.

Correspondent: Yeah. Like the Lone Wolf books?

Murray: Yeah! Yeah! Totally!

Correspondent: I totally played those. They were great.

Murray: Don’t tell anyone.

Correspondent: It’s on tape, I’m afraid.

Murray: Ah! Again with the orcs! Oh no! When are the orcs going to get along?

Correspondent: I know.

Murray: That’s what you do. You’re constantly — like when I was growing up, the Walkman arrived, you know? And I’m going to argue that the Walkman is a major shift in the way we perceive reality. Because for the first time, you can carry music around you. And you start narrating your life. Like the self-narration just shifts gear. Shifts higher up. And that kind of process is — as I say, what technology gives us is more and more elaborate ways of doing that. So the kids in the book, because they’re young and they’re afraid and they’re lost, they take refuge. The big example is Skippy. Skippy’s this fourteen year old, quite reclusive boy who is addictively playing this computer game. Kind of a Legend of Zelda-like computer game. And have you ever played?

Correspondent: Zelda? Yeah, yeah. That thing sucked too many hours out of my life.

Murray: Yeah, it’s crazy.

Correspondent: Now it’s Team Fortress 2. If we’re going to be professional.

Murray: Yeah?

Correspondent: Oh yeah. Oh god.

Murray: Okay. We can talk about this later.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Murray: I mean, I’m not a huge computer games player. But my brother had a — whatever the machine was to play Zelda.

Correspondent: NES.

Murray: And it’s the same guy. The same game designer. The guy who invented Donkey Kong back in the ’70s has now done Legend of Zelda. And he creates these incredible worlds that are so powerful and are like art forms in some ways. In the richness of detail and in the beauty of them. But they’re not like art forms in the fact that they don’t challenge your perception. They don’t challenge you as a person at all. They make you like the master of this world that you find yourself in. Which is like a really narcissistic kind of fantasy. And the kids lose themselves in these fantasies of control and power. You know, like the same way if you walk down the street and you’re listening to Tupac, you kind of imagine that you’re Tupac. And even if you’re fourteen and very small, if motherfuckers come at you, look out. So that’s what you’re doing. I guess the really obvious conceit of the book is that that’s what everybody’s doing these days. That as an adult, being an adult or being mature is less and less part of the adult experience. Instead, being old and adult is someone with more spending power who can buy better enhancers or escapes from reality. Part of the reason the world is so — I’m trying to say fucked — is because we feel less and less responsibility for the world around us. Instead we’re just fleeing into whatever Apple has just produced and for a thousand dollars.

The Bat Segundo Show #370: Paul Murray, Part One (Download MP3)

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