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March 24, 2015

Two For Tuesday: Are Corporations Totally Awesome At Everything?

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Booksellers at The Strand weren't the only people who didn't care for Andrew Cuomo's memoir. (Because no one cared for Andrew Cuomo's memoir.) (image via Twitter)

Booksellers at The Strand weren’t the only people who didn’t care for Andrew Cuomo’s memoir. (Because no one cared for Andrew Cuomo’s memoir.) (image via Twitter)

Topics discussed: airports, music that inspired airports but that’s not necessarily for airports, big corporations, bigger corporations, Google, Google Translate, Google Maps, Google Docs, Google Laundry, The Internship, The Interview, Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, $4 Pepsis, $700,000 Andrew Cuomo books, Andrew Cuomo, Mario Cuomo, selfie sticks, Michael Shnayerson, Fredric U. Dicker, the frontlist, the backlist, books as products (bad), books as products (not necessarily bad), John F. Kennedy, Newt Gingrich, commodity fetishism, Jonathan Franzen, the 1980s, Italy, Italians, profanity, trade agreements

Alex: Hi Mark! Hi Two For Tuesdayers. We were off last week, as some of you may have noticed, because we’re moving offices and also because Mark went to Italy so he could get better at yelling gross stuff at women while riding a moped. How was Italy, Mark? How were the bunga bunga parties? Good?

Mark: Way to bring me down right from the get-go, Alex. Yes, I went to Italy to try to learn how to be a better, Vespa-riding, gross comment-slinging version of myself, but every time I asked Italians for advice on these important life skills, they tried to sell me selfie sticks. Selfie sticks! This is the world in 2015, Alex. I saw two categories of people in Italy: people selling selfie sticks, and people already in possession of selfie sticks who were using selfie sticks. Mostly to take photos with, but also, sometimes, as canes. In conclusion, I learned nothing at all about how to be a better, more Silvio Berlusconi-like version of myself, but I did learn a lot about commodity fetishism.

Oh, I also learned about airports! Free airport wifi is only good for one thing, and that thing is reading Wikipedia pages about airports. During our travels home on Sunday (and I say “our” because I went to Italy with my girlfriend, who probably read the second sentence of the previous paragraph with some justified confusion), we passed through four different airports: Milan’s all-gray, post-brutalist Malpensa, whose aesthetic seems to have been directly inspired by side B of David Bowie’s Low; Copenhagen’s Kastrup, which is as functional and modest as you would expect a Danish airport to be; Oslo’s Gardermoen, which is less functional and considerably more self-congratulatory than you would expect a Norwegian airport to be (they actually brag about not making last-call announcements, which seems . . . like more effort than just making last-call announcements?); and New York’s John F. Kennedy, which, in its mix of general inefficiency, extensive yelling, and costly, poorly made, undeniably useless machines that made some government contractors in Arlington, Virginia very, very wealthy, reminded me that I’m proud to be an American. Not that I could ever forget such a thing, of course.

I saw things other than airports and selfie sticks in Italy, but I don’t want to talk about those other things. Instead, I’ll tell you about my flight from Oslo to JFK. On said flight, a can of Pepsi was $4, and to combat this state of affairs, I said to myself: what would Alex Shephard do if he were on this flight? And I decided that what Alex Shephard would do would be to watch The Internship, starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. Which I did, for over an hour.

Alex: I love that you went to Italy, the land of the Renaissance, of gelato, of the Gelato Renaissance (1647, very good year for gelato)—to say nothing of Frank Sinatra and pizza—and you returned with stories about airports. Airports! I actually am glad that you did, though, because I love airports. I drive everyone I travel with nuts because I like to get to the airport at least five hours early and hang out in the bar and shop for books (last time I bought Gene Simmons’s Me, Inc. which was maybe the best $35 I’ve ever spent) and be happy. I love airports.

I do not love selfie sticks, however. Mostly because I think they seem really dangerous? Also, Wikipedia claims that they were invented in 1983 and that is definitely not true and now I am convinced that selfie sticks have become sentient and are editing Wikipedia to make them seem like they have been around FOREVER and are definitely not a passing fad. You know what’s not a passing fad, though? (Great transition, Alex.) My enduring interest in The Internship. I want to see it! I wanted to see it when I came out and even all the terrible reviews and bad press about it being an ad for Google, a bad company, didn’t dissuade me. I still want to see it! I saw The Interview for similar reasons and it was terrible, but I don’t learn! I wish I could say “Oh, Mark, you read me wrong, if I was on that plane I would’ve watched Barry Lyndon for the seventeenth time.” But I can’t say that because it would be a lie. So how was The Internship? Did you learn a lot about our best friend who got us that great necklace that says “best friends 4eva,” Google?

Mark: I did, as a matter of fact. As you know, The Internship is about how great Google is. In the movie, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are two watch salesmen (because watches are for old people! Except now, two years after the movie came out, they’re also for annoying young people! Thanks to . . . Silicon Valley! Time is a goon) who lose their jobs and get internships at Google. I stopped watching a little more than halfway through, but I presume that at the end of the movie, Vaughn and Wilson get jobs at Google, as do their teammates. (They’re placed on a team with weirdo millennials, who mock them but are also inspired by them.)

The Internship is like if you reversed the idea of product placement, so that instead of placing a product strategically in a few scenes in a movie, you made a movie wholly dedicated to a product and then let things like character, plot, and themes occasionally creep in. But not for too long, so as not to disturb the product. There are speeches in praise of Google Translate in this movie, and odes to all sorts of Google products, and also expressions of awe at the fact that the food in the cafeteria is free, and that they have dry cleaning at their headquarters. Twentieth Century Fox should try making a movie like this about Twentieth Century Fox! That would be an act of . . . what, self-synergy?

Anyway, like most earnest corporate initiatives, The Internship did not end up fulfilling its intended goal of making Google look great. I may be in the minority on this–it’s possible that many viewers of The Internship came out of the theater (or stumbled out of their airplane seat, as the case may be) thinking that Google is an exciting, innovative company that they wish they could work for. But the Google this movie (accurately, I think!) portrayed was a self-congratulatory corporation utterly obsessed with its own rituals and rhetoric. The movie makes Google seem like a company where everyone works twenty hours a day but is happy about it because there is no world outside of Google. The employees never leave their corporate campus, and they can subsist on free bananas, and their dry cleaning is handled for them, and they don’t speak English because they speak SiliconValleySpeak, so why bother with the rest of the world?

If the creators of this movie had had any of this in mind, The Internship would have had a shot of being a good movie. But they’re just inept and not even good at making corporate propaganda films, which is why it’s a bad movie. Though who knows, maybe it gets really good in the last forty minutes.

Alex: Is there a world outside of Google? We are writing this on Google Docs, I am listening to Amon Duul II on YouTube, I used Google Maps to get to the apartment I am writing this column in. Maybe Google really is all there is? Maybe The Internship is what’s real and what we’re stuck in now is just a really long, boring line for The Internship? Maybe The Internship flopped because we already were, like, living in the internship man and we don’t need to pay to see what’s really real. We should watch The Matrix soon Mark. Such a great flick.

But we’ve checked off a lot of non-book boxes so far, so I think it’s time to talk about fucking books. Sorry, that came out wrong. To fucking talk about books? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll ask Michael Schaub. He knows a lot about this kind of thing.

In a way, the first thing we want to talk about has a lot in common with The Internship—like The Internship, it was a massive flop. It was such a big flop that everyone would’ve asked for a refund if anyone had ended up buying it in the first place, which they didn’t. I am talking, of course, about Andrew Cuomo’s memoir, All Things Possible.

HarperCollins paid $700,000 for the book, which is a ton of money. A shit ton of money! A fuck ton, maybe. (I’m no good with measurements, but I am feeling sweary today.) How’d it do? According to a Wall Street Journal piece published late last week, it’s sold 3,008 copies and 13 audiobooks. One thing that wasn’t possible? Getting people to read Andrew Cuomo’s book.

3,008 copies is not a terrible run for most books, but it’s an unmitigated goddamn disaster for a book bought for $700,000. And 13 audiobooks!? 13!!!!! I’m tempted to buy it, just because I would feel important. I really want to know everything I can about the 13 people that bought the audiobook. If you bought this audiobook, please email me at alex at mhpbooks.com and we will talk about how you can make better financial decisions. I mean, Jesus Christ, who read this fucking thing? Ben Stein? The Zodiac Killer? Adolf Hitler’s Ghost? Lana Del Rey????????

Anyway, Cuomo’s memoir being a flop has been news for a while—unfortunately, Cuomo’s political career didn’t flop with it (he is a bad governor whom I, a lifelong resident of New York state, despise, though he’s still better than George Pataki, a peanut in a toupee)—but the story got new legs with that aforementioned Wall Street Journal report.

Apparently, Cuomo and his team had been wooing Michael Shnayerson, who was writing an unauthorized biography of the governor, to jump onboard the Cuomo Bus and, instead of writing a (potentially) critical book, write a glowing puff piece with the governor’s consent. That is not shady at all, right, Mark?

Mark: I really liked your segue from The Internship to Andrew Cuomo, but another one you could have used was: “like The Internship, this story about Andrew Cuomo is about a giant corporation.” The corporation, in this case, is News Corp. Here is my favorite sentence in the (excellent) Wall Street Journal piece: “HarperCollins and the New York Post, like The Wall Street Journal, are owned by News Corp.”

What a sentence! (Your segue was much better, though.)

But yes, there’s so much great stuff in this Cuomo story that it’s hard to know where to begin. Is the best part when Cuomo himself calls Shnayerson’s literary agent on a weekend to try to convince her to convince her client to collaborate with him, instead of writing a potentially critical book? Maybe.

Or maybe it’s when Cuomo decides to collaborate with Fredric U. Dicker, who signs with HarperCollins (HarperCollins! Of course!) to write a glowing biography and then turns in a bad draft to Harper and is asked to work with an outside editor. At which point Cuomo “INTERVENED WITH THE PUBLISHER TO GET HIM AN EDITOR, TO HELP NEGOTIATE THE TERMS WITH THE EDITOR.” (The caps are mine, but the emotion is collective.)

Or maybe the best part of this piece is that a publisher apparently can ask an author to work with an outside editor? Is this the kind of thing I can do, too? I love my authors, but I’d really love to devote the next few weeks to watching a bunch of Pasolini movies (I stayed in the neighborhood in Rome where he shot many of them!), so I think I’ll just hire an outside editor to take over for me. Oh wait, no, I can’t do that, because editing books I acquire is actually my job. And it’s a great job that I wouldn’t ever want to outsource to anyone. Except Andrew Cuomo.

Anyway, this article! I’m actually not sure that there are any big lessons to be gleaned here because Andrew Cuomo is such a singularly unpleasant and controlling dude that he might actually be unique, even among unpleasant and controlling politicians. I haven’t even discussed the part where Cuomo basically refuses to do any promotion on behalf of his book because it might interfere with his campaign. He actually declined a Jon Stewart interview! In addition to probably leading his publicist at HarperCollins to (rightly) punch a hole in the wall of his or her office (if this were Little, Brown, cubicle walls would be punched–and probably knocked down), Cuomo’s decision makes no sense to me unless he’s smarter than we think. Here’s my theory: Cuomo knew that if New York voters saw a televised interview with him a month before the election–even a softball Jon Stewart interview–it’d make them less likely to vote for him. Because he’s so revolting. Maybe he really is a political genius after all.

Alex: My favorite sentence is this one, from Steven Cohen, one of Cuomo’s former top aides: “The book was on a collision course with the needs of the campaign, and the campaign’s needs ultimately took priority.” And what were the needs of campaign? That Andrew Cuomo not do any interviews with anyone who would ask him tough questions about what a shitty governor he was—or even just ask him non-softballs! One of the reasons why Jon Stewart is/was so good for books is that he is not exactly the world’s toughest interviewer. But he was too tough for Cuomo, because Cuomo is a thin-skinned fool who is so obsessed with the perceived “failures” of his father–who was a great politician but who lost occasionally because of his tendency to, you know, say what he thought–that he refuses to take any stand whatsoever. Andrew Cuomo is like Tommy Carcetti if Tommy Carcetti didn’t have an arc, or any potential to be anything other than a Machiavellian drip.

The great thing about publishing being a crapshoot is that blame is hard to pinpoint, so it’s usually safe and fun to blame the publisher—and it’s generally better to blame a corporation than an individual! But Andrew Cuomo is the human equivalent of a corporation and it feels so great to say that his book failed massively because of who he is—a risk-averse guy whom no one really cares for. (At least politically. I’m sure he has a pet or something.)

Of course, one thing probably wasn’t Cuomo’s fault: $700,000 is probably at LEAST—AT LEAST—$450,000 too much for this book. Even if Andrew Cuomo promoted the book—he didn’t tell HarperCollins he wouldn’t! which is nuts!—it would still be way, way, way too much money. There seems to be a lot of fatigue surrounding memoirs by politicians at the moment—especially memoirs timed to election cycles. No one is fooling anyone with these books, and paying the unpopular governor of, okay, sure, a large state nearly three-quarters of a million dollars does not seem like a good bet!

And yet, big publishing houses are, in my opinion, so addicted to overpaying for name recognition, in the hopes that a book will break out without much ground-level effort, that they will just burn money to make it happen. The fact that this happened at a publishing house owned by Rupert Murdoch makes it more delicious, but this whole debacle strikes me as inevitable: I get that they have investors to satisfy, but I’ve sensed a lot of annoyance at big publishers growing reliance on the celebrity memoir for a long time. (Of course, Cuomo has been very friendly to News Corp in the past and News Corp—and Harper Collins—have been very friendly with Cuomo. Whether or not that cozy relationship suggests foul play isn’t clear, but it definitely suggests the entirely too cozy relationship between government and big business that defines contemporary politics.)

Am I being too cynical, Mark? Is there a huge difference between Profiles in Courage and Andrew Cuomo’s dumb book? Are we just forgetting the dozens of books by people like, I don’t know, Ron Dellums? Is this era of celebrity publishing particularly awful or have things always been bad?

Mark: Is Profiles in Courage actually good? I’ve always assumed that it’s not, given the title, topic, and the fact that it was not-quite-written by John F. Kennedy. But maybe that’s an unfair assumption! I should never assume anything about books I haven’t read–except for all of Newt Gingrich’s books, which I haven’t read but which I’m confident are great.

But no, I don’t think you’re too cynical. It’s true that the appeal of a big name is huge, as is any kind of scale. How many times do the words “he has 50,000 Twitter followers!” come up in acquisition meetings at big publishing houses every week? I imagine that they come up a lot! A big name, or big numbers, or a big presence of any kind is a known thing, and what’s known is less terrifying. (Not even sneaking in a Rumsfeld reference here.) But as Andrew Cuomo’s experience proves, just because you’re known doesn’t mean that anyone wants to read hundreds of thousands of platitudinous words by you(r ghostwriter).

I imagine that the batting ratio is similar among celebrity memoirs as it is among books as a whole–most don’t work, some do, and a few work spectacularly well.

The tiny, earnest part of me that wasn’t totally crushed by The Internship does wish that these books were seen as books, rather than as products. (At least by their putative authors. And also by their publishers.) That sometimes happens, of course! At my last job, I was lucky enough to edit the autobiography of former treasury secretary Michael Blumenthal, and that book was wonderful! Not only was it written by the man himself, but it was funny and honest and insightful on everything from postwar Germany to American trade agreements. Trade agreements! Anytime you want to talk about the Kennedy Round, let me know.

But a book like Blumenthal’s (and, say, Andre Agassi’s memoir) is an exception. The norm is the safe, the cliched, and the churned out. And while readers will probably always want to buy books “by” a famous person they’re excited about at a given moment, it seems like a dangerous game to double down on the cynicism and keep producing this stuff with so little care. It’s one thing to opt for the celebrity book because it seems like a safe bet–it’s another not to invest the effort in making that celebrity book not totally lame.

Alex, you are now free to mock the tiny, earnest part of me that wrote the thing above about books being books, rather than products. Who do I think I am, Kenny Coble?

Alex: I don’t have a problem with product books! I brought up the Kennedy book, for instance, not necessarily because it was good (it probably isn’t, though I think my old neighbor Mr. Morgan told me it was?) but because it endured in the way you want a book to endure—certainly as a publisher but, fuck it, why not, as a citizen as well. People remember a book like Profiles in Courage. Political books occasionally hit—though it seems like ones people write before they try to get a better elected job never do. The looking back, what did it all mean, why did I invade all those countries/do that thing to that dress memoirs still work and they are still worth the exorbitant sums publishers pay for them—sometimes. (I should also add that I’m a total hypocrite in these matters, as I am currently reading Mick Fleetwood‘s memoir.)

But in general, this seems to be a problem with publishing itself, not with politics (though our shitty politics have made our shitty political books shittier) or with the genre of political memoirs. For decades, publishers big and small built a backlist that paid for a frontlist—obviously bestsellers were great when you could get them, but the drive (to speak very, very broadly) was towards sustainability. Since being acquired by giant corporations and merged to high hell, that’s all changed. For many of these publishers, these books really are just products. Nothing more, nothing less. You slot a couple in every year—maybe a half-dozen if an election cycle is coming up (and an election cycle always seems to be coming up) and hope that interest builds to the point that the book pays out. I had always thought these bets were fairly modest, because only an idiot would bet big on, say, a book by Andrew Cuomo, but I guess I’m wrong.

But this isn’t just true for politicians—it’s true across the board. And that’s a shame! Instead of nurturing, in the hopes that someone may produce something big down the line, the money is all riding on the frontlist right now. That’s why we’re getting carbon copies of carbon copies of Twilight and a huge decline in adult trade fiction and bad books by bad politicians that nobody cares about—if one thing hits, then publishers are going to milk that thing over and over again and then milk it some more. And you know what, Mark? Milk is bad. It’s for children. I don’t drink milk and I’m as healthy as can be. I did like thirty push-ups today.

Mark: Yes, milk is terrible. But more terrible is the image of you doing thirty push-ups in the Melville House office–an image so horrifying that it would surely alienate any readers we have not yet alienated. So let me assure you, readers, that this post was written in the comfort of our respective homes. I would never allow Alex to perform push-ups at the office. Also, there’s no way you did thirty push-ups, Alex.

Alex: I’m in better shape than I look, Mark—don’t let my beige, burlap-y skin fool you.

Oh, before you go, one more thing! While you were gone, the cover for your boyfriend Jonathan Franzen’s new novel came out. At first, I thought it was really bad! It has the weird pencil writing from The Goldfinch, a novel your boyfriend Jonathan Franzen surely hated, on it, and generally looks very similar to mass market, pretty unattractive paperbacks written by John Updike from the 1980s.

But you know what? I came around. It’s pretty striking and I think it’ll look great on a table and FSG released a pretty kick-ass animation of it. But we should probably save Franzen for another time, as we largely agree about his skill as a novelist, but completely disagree about making fun of him as a novelist. That will, I’m sure, be the subject of one of these soon enough. But I guess it’s time to play some sweet tunes, right Mark?

Mark: That’s right. We’ll have to talk about my boyfriend and his awesome, 1980s-style book cover some other time. So, in honor of my new favorite country, Italy, here are two classics by the man, the legend, Adriano Celentano. The video for the first, “Susanna,” features an amazing backdrop that’s as unabashedly 1980s as the new Franzen cover.. And the second song is . . . well, it’s simply one of the greatest songs ever written, and our readers (if we have any left) will be enlightened and enriched by its lyrics. Which is not necessarily something I can say for the words in the rest of this column.

MobyLives