It's an Ephemeral Business

Today was one of those weird days when two different emails revealed two dimensions of the same issue. The first was my semi-annual royalty statement from my publisher. The book was officially released in April 2019, but pre-release copies got a lot of terrific reviews prior to that, so sales were really quick to start. The publisher’s fiscal year is July to June, so my June 30 statement made me look like a hero.

But as they say, that was then…

The estimated statement for July through December tells a different story. Bookstores are now starting to return unsold copies in substantial numbers. It’s not like the book has an expiration stamp on it, but still, booksellers know when a book has passed its sell-by date.

The second email was spurred by my having come across a really nice review of the book a couple of days ago in the Winter 2019 issue of the Harvard Educational Review. I sent that along to a few folks, and one responded that it was good that the book was still getting coverage.

Still.

So many millions of people work for magazines or newspapers, in popular music publishing and performing—people who invest remarkable effort and care in work that they know is ephemeral. How many magazines go into the recycling, how many newspapers go into the woodstove or under the puppy? Their writers and publishers and distributors are on to the next issue, the next season.

But really, isn’t most of what we do ephemeral? Every kind word, every moment of affection, every encouragement in a classroom? Most of what we do isn’t one-and-done. It’s the work we do over and over and over. We don’t expect it to be enduring, we expect it to be ongoing.

One of my very favorite New Yorker covers was by the artist Adrian Tomine, published in February 2008. It’s a wonderful reminder that our hubris is rarely warranted.

Adrian Tomine, New Yorker, February 25, 2008.