Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Confessions of a Markup Artist: An Open Letter to Farhood Manjoo

Dear Farhad,

My name is Josh Cook and I am thirty-four years old (fucking hell, I'm 34? Shit. That's still “early-30s” right? It's not “mid-30s” until 35, right? Right?) and I am a markup artist. I work for Porter Square Books and, with a few exceptions (staff discounts for booksellers and baristas at Cafe Zing, discounts on the twenty best new releases of the month as nominated by indie bookstores around the country, non-profits, teachers buying books for their classroom, members of Grub Street, people who buy in bulk, and customers who want to buy a book that shows some shelf-wear or other damage. OH! And we also sell remainders, which end up being like, $5.99 or something.) I sell books for the cover price. I've seen your response when someone points out that the definition of “markup” doesn't mean “selling something at the Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price or MSRP,” (you know the price that the item's manufacturers suggest...never mind.) so I won't spend too much time telling you that you simply refuse to understand what a “cover price,” actually is, or how to distinguish between “markup” and “more expensive for a shit ton of complicated and convoluted reasons some of which have to do with distinct business models and volumes of sales (both of which are legitimate reasons for price difference) and some of which have to do with being a monopoly and acting like it by dodging taxes as much as possible, treating your workers like ACTUAL cogs in ACTUAL machines, and extorting your vendors—what? No, Walmart, I wasn't talking to you, yeah, no, I mean, you fucks have built an empire on Eisenhower highways and foodstamps, but you're not at issue here—for preferential contracts,” nor do I particular want to rehash, yet again, that the most expensive part in the book production process (as it is in pretty much every production process that doesn't involve blood diamonds) is the people involved in the production including the writer, agent, several levels of editors, administrators, executives, IT technicians, and booksellers, all of which are present, with their damn mouths always needing damn feeding, whether the book is a hardcover or an e-book, because I know there really isn't a point; the idea of the “indie markup” and “overpriced ebooks” gives you and everyone who agrees with you conceptual permission to buy books for way less than they are worth and it is very very very very very hard to shake free of a belief that lets you do what you want to do, no matter how much nuance that belief willfully ignores in order to sustain itself. (Unless you think bookstores print the book covers themselves.) (Please, please, tell me you think bookstores print the covers themselves and thus have control over the prices on them.)

Just so you know how blinded by self-interest I am (in way that, obviously, you are not) around the issue of the cost of books, I should point out that I am a writer, wait, hold on—I should point out that I am a PROFESSIONAL writer who has been paid an amount of legal currency for a book that will be published. So, tell me again, why my thousands and thousands of hours of work are worth less than a really good sandwich (not knocking really good sandwiches) or an artisan cocktail (sure as hell not knocking artisan cocktails) or Imax tickets to the new Tom Cruise movie (fuck that guy), why there is something wrong when I ask for an economic system that at least has the potential to let me lead a materially comfortable life or believe that the output of one of the most important actions in human culture should be priced as if it is worth something?

The thing is, technically, I mean if we're using words and their definitions, if what indie bookstores sell books for is a “markup” then what Amazon does can't be a discount. And yet, all over the place they broadcast how much they “discount” off the cover price, as if the cover price were some kind of MEANINGFUL POINT OF REFERENCE. If Amazon's “low prices” were just “low prices,” they wouldn't be discounts, they would just be “low prices.” Listen if you have evaluated the evidence, done the research and understand the context, and decide to shop at Amazon that's fine. Sure, I don't think you should, but if you do, that doesn't mean I think you're a bad person or that I think you should be ashamed of your decision, it just means we disagree on this one particular issue, in the world of particular issues, that happens to affect my particular life in a world of particular lives. I'd just really like to use real words in our disagreement.

What I don't understand is, where are all these profits I'm making by selling marked up books? I mean we sell Capital in the Twenty-First Century for $40 plus applicable Massachusetts state sales tax, and we have been selling just buckets of them. (Yes, Cambridge, MA is a really, really, really, smart town.) I know the economics of scale ensure all this sweet sweet profit won't be enough for the store's owners to buy a private jet like Bezos or lavish us with exorbitant sales bonuses, but an automobile upgrade, surely, and maybe a really swanky end of the year party. I mean, last year the store sold over 5,000 copies of The Ocean at the End of the Lane in hardcover for $25.99 as marked on the cover; that's gotta be a Lexus right, or at least an Audi. (OK, maybe it would have been a Lexus if we had taken advantage of the fact that the books were all signed by a fucking living legend and charged more for the “added value,” as nearly every other retail industry does, or started raising the price as supply dwindled applying THE BASIC BUILDING BLOCK OF EXCHANGE BASED ECONOMIES, but I guess we were too full of truffle dusted caviar to think clearly.) How can we be marking books ups, selling thousands of them, and still making just a bit more than break even? Something about inefficiency maybe? Or it's not a fucking markup.

Oh, right, I'm confessing. I, Josh Cook, am a markup artist and I love every fucking second of it. I am mark up artist because I read galleys in my spare time so I know about the books you might ask me for. I am a markup artist because I learn about genres and books and authors that I personally don't give a shit about, because a lot of other people give a shit about them. I am a markup artist because my store remits the sale tax needed to keep schools and roads together. I am markup artist because you can duck out of the rain into my store, you can arrange to meet a first date at my store (can and SHOULD), hell, you can even drop your kid off at my store to read in our stacks for a couple hours. I am a markup artist because I love the interactions between books and people and people and people through books, whether its those I sell at the store or those I write at my desk. I mean, if I really wanted more money, which is what you imply by the whole “indie markup” phrase, I sure as fuck wouldn't work in a bookstore and write books, I'd be a banker. And you know what, if you also just wanted more money, you would blow off tech writing and also be a banker. And the thing is, the only reason why our society has readily available books at prices affordable to a wide range of members, is because, at virtually every level of the publishing process, someone decides to work with books instead of make more money.

My name is Josh Cook. This is the end of my confession and open letter to Farhad Manjoo, who is probably an OK guy with the exception of this one inexplicable persistent mistake. I am a writer, a bookseller at an independent bookstore, and therefore, a motherfucking badass markup artist.

No comments:

Post a Comment