One year ago, I picked up this habbit of writing things down here, rather than in one of a number of journals that I keep. See my first post here. Competely accidentally, my blogging habbit shares a birthday with one of the sites that lead me down this primrose path, the ever swell Metafilter.
Okay. I have a problem. A book problem. I buy them when I shouldn't. I procure them, new or used, when I already have 5 on my nightstand awaiting my attention. I will even buy a second paperback edition of certain books just to have a copy to loan, or even for aesthetic reasons. I judge books by their covers.
But those who know me know that I can be…fickle, even picky. So I do not pick up books lightly. Even those five long neglected books on my nightstand will be read. By bringing them into my home, I have entered into a tacit agreement with their author, I will read this, or at least give you two or three hundred pages in which to catch my eye. Ultimately, it is that experience that occurs between me and the book that determines where it will reside in that hidden library – the one that exists in the same time and place as your tangible shelves and stacks, but takes as its ordering principle the essential value of the books. Books I enjoy, books that edify me in some way, take precedence and ascend to a higher cell in my own personal library of Babylon.
I have had some experience of such structures. One of my first post college jobs had me selling books at a large independent book store in Denver. I remember it fondly, though without money at all. I like to say that I started in the non-profit world by working in a bookstore first. Booksellers know the truth of this.
Add to this, my own tendency to scribble (scribble, scribble,..eh, Mr. Gibbon?), and you have the components for a fetish – an alloy of desire out of proportion to the base material fixed in its heart. And as we all know about desire, it can flatten, and reduce its object so that it has no past, no existence beyond its circumscribed role in your little passion play. With books, as with people, this means that we lose sight of much of the reality of books. We consume them alone, miraculously left to right and down, and we imagine their creation as an equally solitary affair.
So it was with great pleasure that I accepted, as part of my job, a chance to tour a facility for one of the largest publishers in the world. Hidden among the rolling hills of central Maryland, the location does not announce itself, and even does a good job of masking its dimensions. I arrived slightly early, perusing the new titles on display in the posh lobby, a rectangular, black marble affair with a large receptionist desk guarding the entrance into the offices. So I did not mind waiting, which I did for a few minutes before my appointment.
Contact met, meeting had, agreements made, we dispatched our business quickly, and we got down to the part of the meeting that I anticipated most: the tour. As you have guessed, a large publisher would not maintain its editorial offices in semi-rural Maryland. This facility serves as the main warehouse and distribution point for all its imprints, save for the children’s books which ship from the heartland – somewhere outside of Indianapolis. No New Yorker editors or reporters lunch here. No “talent” stalks the halls throwing tantrums after a 3 martini lunch. Or rather more realistically, there is not the fear and the hunger you see in the meager resources and the high stakes of the editorial circles. Here, books are objects, and the action they receive is motion.
The tour starts with a walk through the floor where completed orders containing combinations of titles in varying amounts ultimately leave the building on freight trucks bound for individual book stores. Your hear the noise first, or a general din of claxons, warning honks from incredibly fast, light forklifts, personal tractors, and some strangely hybrid cherry-picker that is somewhat related to an amusement park ride, or at least the safety harness suggests that. The sounds pile up on one another, loosing distinction until you come upon an individual noise’s source, or it streaks up behind you.
This single room is about a Quarter-mile square. I think. Its actual bound disappear in grey and brown shadows in three directions. A score of trucks have backed up to the docks. They have ample room to accommodate another score.
We walk past the docks. Since my time at the bookstorehas left we with question on how this side of the business works, I ask how fourteen miles of conveyer (actual fact) gets a single copy of a deep backlist title to an independent bookstore (among many other questions). My contact cannot answer that for me, but is great company for the tour. The next stop: the obligatory Death Star Room.
The Death Star room occupies a seemingly indeterminate amount of space. Its dimensions and function have created an interesting lighting situation. It has none. Perhaps “Death Star” references the wrong George Lucas picture – think instead of an updated version of the facility into which a faceless government employee wheeled the ark from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Instead of providing light for the entire expanse, completely filled with enormous shelves that form rows of inventoried grids that stretch out of sight (possibly not be all that far, true). The fork lifts for this room run on rails between two banks of shelves. Controlled from a stationary console at the end of each rail, the fork lifts may also move along a vertical rail as well. The forklift also had its own lights and video camera, allowing the driver to watch the progress of the lift and its tines. The Cartesian contraption could turn the twelve pallet-story shelves into its own crossword puzzle, pulling down millions of letters at time rather than as single character per box.
After the impressive atmospherics of the Death Star room, we took a quarter mile walk through the shorter stacks. When I say shorter, I mean 8 palette stories high. ON either side ran enormous boxes of books with such easily recognizable brands as “Grisham – Rainmaker” and absurd quantities. All the while, I continue asking questions about the process through which single books from the mid and backlists get to any bookstore, let along the independents. All the while, employees race along on upright forklifts that look a lot like heavy duty, futuristic Segways. As we continue past the mechanical repair facilities (the size of a small aircraft hanger), we come to the intersection of the rivers of conveyer belt that flow through the entire complex.
A two story cage, stretched out of sight ahead of me and to my left. The belts flowed in and out of both levels, eventually running down the right hand side (cardinal directions being meaningless, also, without graph paper to create the D&D type floor map). Within the cage resided shelves so densely packed with books that they resembled the deepest interior stacks of a large research library. Except that all the books looked new, were new. Crisp back and pages and beautiful trade covers, scratched a little because of the pressure of their neighbors.
In the cage, scores of employees, of pairs of hands, filled order sheets for individual bookstores. In the case where a store or chain orders fewer than multiple palettes of books, quantities arrive at the cage. Workers receive boxes with printed orders for the book store in question – a pick list. Then employees pick those books like any other crop. They stock each order with the requested books and send it down the line. They move quickly and work despite the maddening hum of the workers that moved up and down the stacks struck me as bees in a hive. We continued on.
Just off the cage, we saw the Print on Demand Facility. Here, books that once ran through the old presses but have fallen out of even the backlist have a second chance at life. Once a book no longer appears in Books In Print, it becomes much harder to get. Usually you have to rely on chance at the used book store (like this excellent store in Portland), or a foreign imprint, or chance. Our culture publishes such a volume of material that only a small part of it can stay in print at any given time. But at this publisher’s operation, books that they no longer retain quantities of may exist digitally. They store all text and associated art digitally and, when an order for one of their out of print books arrives, they can simply and quickly print a single copy. Workers then stack the pages, print the cover, and bind the book. It looks exactly like a standard trade paperback book, better than the mass market editions, and much better than the mimeographed pages of Books on Demand.
This room, in which typesetter labored on Macs, setting up digital copies of books, while workers actually bound books outside, contained a lot of noise. I wondered how the typesetters did it actually. But still I envied all of them their jobs. Standing in the room brought back a memory of working behind the scenes at the book store. An co-worker whose ideas I can frankly describe as “zany” once suggested using this exact technology (once marketed directly to booksellers) in order to break off relationships with the big publishers who favored the large chain book stores. By going directly to the authors, we could end the relationship whereby the manufacturer set the price rather than the retailer.
I didn’t think the idea had any traction when she first mentioned it years ago, and I see why it more properly resided at the publisher level at any rate. The volume that a large retail book store encounters demands certain efficiencies. These preclude taking 5 minutes to print a copy of a book. While that is extraordinarily fast for a single copy of a single book, it cannot match the speed of a large press. When confronted by the demands of the latest Harry Potter book, this system would still be printing pre-orders for this title alone. Meanwhile stock in everything else drops while a single title monopolizes resources.
Seeing the process gave me hope for the particular, and also drove home that the particular demands more work. All is right and proper with that.
After that, we continued the tour, meeting a woman about to attend her granddaughter’s high school graduation. She had raised her grandchildren after their mother left them to her care (an increasingly common story). The previous evening, she and the principal of her school had surprised her daughter by announcing that, in addition to her numerous awards, she had won a full scholarship to Washington & Lee University. She would be the first person in her family to go to college. Her grandmother beamed. I mention it because her story, her happiness made me so happy.
We walked the long tunnel that connected the two complexes that composed this campus. Walking from end to end, you would traverse 1.5 miles. I did not know the distance that a circuit around the perimeter would take you. I later saw aerial photos of the complex. They don’t do it justice. As we wound our way through the paths of a building similar in size and function to the first, I saw a series of palettes under wraps. They stood wrapped tightly in clear plastic with guards standing by watching them carefully. Turns out that these bundles contained the audio version of the new J.K. Rowling book. Since my visit preceded the release date, they remained here under guard until booksellers could legally sell them. No amount of chiding could allow me to look at the packages, let alone listen to its contents.
We completed the loop, returning to the area where completely assembled orders as well as large quantities of single titles left for bookstores and large distributors. We chatted in her office again. I received many complimentary books (I had forgotten about the free books – the galleys, the publisher copies, the preview kits, etc.).
I learned that over 900 people work at this facility. They handle the books, literally, that we read in our solitude. That we imagine springing out of some Prospero’s mind – equally solitary save for his muse, his Arial. But the reality is this: hundreds of thousands of people work in a business long said to verge on collapse. People who study literature closely sometimes loose sight of an important aspect: book as industrial artifact. Yes the tome in your hand represents an individual’s or groups creative process(es). It represents an editor’s temperament and fickle tastes. It also represents the physical labor of thousands of individuals doing some pretty unromantic work.
So this account really reads like “What I did over Summer Vacation,” by Brian, grade 24. But my visit does help me view these objects differently. Suddenly, I no longer speak directly back at the author (though that remains the most important conversation), but a whole host of would be participants enters the room, even if the remain mute. They speak their words through their work.
A short essay on the high jacking of Southern Baptists by fundamentalists, and how this creates some of the most unusual alliances in politics today - between Christian Conservatives and robber barons, and with a president who speaks a hidden shibboleth to one of the fastest growing religious and political organizations on earth. Via the ever post-full Metafilter.