Bear with me, in this post there are going to be some metaphorical leaps and truly questionable analogies. I partly blame an excellent roundtable discussion by the JungleRed crew on “weeding someone else’s garden,” both literally and figuratively.
That post was on my mind when I went to my monthly book club meeting last night. Now, I love my book club for many reasons- it forces me out of my reading comfort zone (especially when it comes to non-fiction, which research aside I rarely read willingly), and also because I usually return home with some fascinating new bit of information. Last night was no exception.
One woman was complaining about a strange-let’s call it a compulsion- that her husband has developed. At 10:30 at night, he’ll suddenly get a message on his Blackberry and will run for the door, yelling, “I’ve got to go. He’s on 24th and Mission.”
Sounds suspicious, right?
Well, it turns out that her husband is a religious follower of the bacon-wrapped hot dog guy. That’s right, there’s a guy in San Francisco who operates a guerilla (read: unlicensed) food cart, selling bacon wrapped hot dogs. He moves constantly, staying one step ahead of the authorities (hopefully)–and people find him thanks to frequent Twitter updates.
This story struck me on many levels. First, how on earth is it possible that I’ve lived in a city for over a decade and had no idea that we even had street food vendors, never mind ones who sold bacon wrapped hot dogs? After further investigation, I discovered that the bacon wrapped hot dog guy is not alone. There’s a muffin man, a creme brulee guy, and a “magic curry cart.” Even one of my favorite restaurants, Chez Spencer, has a cart. This is critical, potentially life changing information.
This discovery also marks the first time I fully understood the point of Twitter (please don’t jump all over me, tweeters- I just hadn’t grasped any practical applications until now). The vendors post where they’ll be appearing, and followers flock to that intersection for $1 chai and amuses bouches. Genius.
When interviewed, a few of the vendors explained that thanks to the recession they lost their high end restaurant jobs, or couldn’t get one in the first place. So, rather than give up on their passion, taking jobs in telemarketing or retail, they decided to branch out on their own. It’s a lot of work, the margins are slim, but they’ve each managed to build up a steady and devout following (my friend’s husband apparently has many cohorts who share his obsession for the food carts- a tweet goes out, and they all flock to the nearest one. It’s become an impromptu party for them).
I found their commitment and creativity inspirational.
Okay, brace yourselves for the leap.
I spoke with my agent yesterday. He returned from BEA somewhat disheartened- apparently all anyone was talking about was the downturn of the industry, the plummeting sales. And when sales are down, acquisitions are down, which creates a self-fulfilling death spiral. Editors are even more overburdened than usual; if they still have a job, chances are they’ve picked up numerous projects that were initially acquired by laid-off colleagues. There were fewer vendors at fewer booths, and as opposed to previous years the air was heavy with doom and gloom (although whether or not that is a deviation from the norm is largely a matter of opinion).
Which is exactly what the restaurant industry is experiencing. Fewer customers, smaller margins, a sharp downturn. Maybe the publishing industry should take a lesson from the street vendors- when times are tough, it’s time to innovate. Maybe that means authors take advantage of something like the new Scribd publishing program we’ve discussed in earlier posts. Maybe it means eliminating remaindering and starting with smaller print runs, or figuring out a way to build support for new authors by tapping into the popularity of more established ones. Heck, maybe we should start wrapping our books in bacon. Adapt or die, as they say. And while you’re doing it, you might as well eat well.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I just got a tweet. The Korean Taco guy is a few blocks away, gotta run…
And special thanks to Cym Lowell for providing a link to this article on food cart vendors nationwide. I’m trying to convince my husband to visit DC so we can try the mango lassi popsicles.