November 02, 2011
For most of the Nineties and Oughts I regularly visited a barber in the New York area, an old-timey guy who wore an unfussy comb-over and a zippered blue smock. Let’s call him Mario.
Mario, a man in his late fifties and early sixties when I knew him, kept a small shop with a striped barber’s pole attached to the facade and two cutting chairs inside that rested on warn-out linoleum tiles. By the entrance stood a three-foot tall glass-front cabinet, the top buried in papers and the inside cluttered with items that had witnessed men and boys climbing in and out of the nearest chair a thousand times while the decades cascaded by.
Nobody ever used the spare chair, not even to sit. There was only one barber in the place and he was Mario.
Mario kept his combs in a canister of neon-blue Barbicide. He had a green sink that probably looked outdated a year after he opened his store in the Sixties. When he finished with a hairbrush, he flung it into that sink from behind his back. He’d had a lot of practice; he almost always hit that shot.
Only one thing in the store ever changed. That was a growing pile of Playboy and Penthouse magazines, which sat not so discreetly in a corner by the coat rack. If you asked Mario what he thought of any of the women in those magazines, he’d sigh and bark out a string of admiring profanities such as, “Oh! That’s some fucking pussy! What fucking pussy!”
Mario had arrived on American shores as a young teenager. Despite having spent eighty percent of his life in the States and only visiting Italy twice in all those years, his English was very poor. He had the curse words down, however.
Although Mario tried to be social, we didn’t have a lot to talk about. As a consequence, I regularly asked him how business was and the answer was always that business was bad and getting worse. When the economy was good, people went more often to the fancier salons. When it was bad, they got their hair cut less frequently. On the day before a holiday, they stacked up by the door and Mario couldn’t hope to service all of them, so he missed those few opportunities that the world gave him to catch up. He worried monthly over the rent and the phone bill, and he counted his cans of Oster lubricant.
Mario loved children. He never cursed in front of them in my presence and, despite his economic hardships, he always had a lollipop to offer. Always, because nothing ever changed in Mario’s shop, nothing but the aging faces of his customers.
He placed an occasional ad in the local paper with the same message every year and that was all the marketing he did. He tried to raise prices now and then, but his oldest customers resisted. His only concession to modern times was to push the girlie magazines farther into the corner when mothers — rather than fathers — escorted their boys to the shop, which was increasingly the case. Naturally, Mario always attributed his hard times to anything but the business decisions that he had made or failed to make.
Last month, two small and discouraging items with regard to book publishing made me think of Mario. The first was a post by John Biggs on TechCrunch, in which he predicted that ebook sales would surpass “all other books sales, even used books” in 2013 and further predicted the “death” of independent bookstores in 2015.
The second item was a blog post by author (and famous atheist) Sam Harris, in which he asserted that: “Writers, artists, and public intellectuals are nearing some sort of precipice: Their audiences increasingly expect digital content to be free.”
Harris argued that he finds himself resisting paid content and being less willing to read lengthy (non-fiction) books, and asked rhetorically how he can logically expect others to do any differently. Meanwhile, as we know, internet advertising alone will not keep the lights on at the New York Times, and (he could have added) advertising doesn’t even appear as a rounding error in book publishing business models.
Not long before this depressing argument appeared, the author (and marketing genius) Seth Godin observed in a recent Domino Project email that “the stuff upfront, the risk and the guts and the hard work to make a great bit of content, is actually going up, while the price we’re willing to pay for a digital copy is plummeting, and will continue to plummet.” He warned: “Prepare for a continuous erosion of what you pay for digital content…”
Of course, if he’s asking people to prepare to pay less, that means most of us writers should prepare to earn less, at least on a unit basis. But prepare how?
It’s easy to see that Mario’s unwillingness or inability to change would become his undoing. In an increasingly hygienic world, that once-encouraging jar of Barbicide looks scary. When mothers replace fathers as a child’s main escort to the barber shop, maintaining a stack of pornography doesn’t seem like a good career move.
But these things are more easily judged by the occasional visitor. From where Mario stands, by the time he sees that change arrive it’s too late to act and all he can do is hunker down, retreat into the familiar.
Similarly, from inside a writing game that’s undergoing massive — and, quite possibly, catastrophic — change, the path forward becomes hard to discern. Tens of thousands of journalists are out of work and you’re reading this for free. Amazon and Apple rake in more revenue in a year than every writer on earth combined. Consumer wallets grow tighter while attention spans may be growing shorter.
Or not. Who really knows?
It’s worth noting that while Mario’s business continues to shrink, people still go somewhere for their haircuts.
The book has a future. If we want to be part of that future, we authors had better prepare to participate in its creation.
Last week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 32: Being Asocial
Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 34: Timing is Almost Everything
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