Saturday, July 21, 2012

Marketplace: What's really lost when an entire industry outsources.

In Dave Eggers' "Hologram," 

the fall of U.S. manufacturing

In his new novel, "A Hologram for the King," Dave Eggers muses on manufacturing and the global economy though the eyes of a struggling American businessman in Saudi Arabia.

Dave Eggers.
Image of A Hologram for the King
Author: Dave Eggers
Publisher: McSweeney's (2012)
Binding: Hardcover, 328 pages
Kai Ryssdal: Author Dave Eggers has a new book out. It's called "A Hologram for the King," about an American businessman named Alan Clay and how his career working for a bicycle company mirrors the rise and fall of American manufacturing, outsourcing and all.
Dave Eggers, thanks for being here.
Dave Eggers: Good to be here. Thank you for having me.
Ryssdal: This guy, Alan Clay, he's 54-something years old. He's down on his luck, having ridden -- no pun intended, actually -- having ridden the Schwinn bicycle company to some professional success, and then when that company faltered, so did he. What got you to Schwinn bicycles?
Eggers: Well I grew up a little north of Chicago, and you know, the Schwinn bicycle company was based on the west side of Chicago for almost 100 years. They made millions of bikes right there.
Ryssdal: I had one. Mine was red with a banana seat and a sissy bar.
Eggers: Yeah [laughs]. Well they were really well-built bikes, and they were built like tanks -- they would last for decades. And the idea was that they were built to, this was your one bike, or you can pass it along to your sibling and your children and grandchildren and it would still run. They really made a good product. Then in the '80s, they started shopping out some of the parts and more and more of the bicycle to Taiwan first, and then China, and pretty soon these bike-makers in China didn't need Schwinn anymore. Step by step, they sort of did a lot of different things wrong.
Ryssdal: When you first started doing your character sketches for Alan Clay and everybody else in this book, was it purposeful that you hooked it all on American manufacturing and industrialism, and sort of the rise and fall of it?
Eggers: Yeah, you know, I think that that interested me first. It started with Schwinn bikes, and you know, I guess I'm a publisher, so we create our books and we manufacture our books mostly in the U.S. now, but we experimented and still do here and there with books made in China. And so it was on my mind, sort of the difference in unit costs, and the advantages of shipping things over there.
Ryssdal: It's so interesting you mention your own experience because first of all, you're a book publisher in an economy that is moving toward electronic books -- which must just kill you somehow, right? -- but here's the other thing: This book, I'm holding it in my hand, it's beautiful, right? The cover is ornate, it's heavy; I don't know if it's carved or precision-drilled or whatever it is. But here's the thing: I'm a big one for reading the dedication page and then that page opposite it, and way down at the bottom, it says: "First printing, manufactured at Thomson-Shore printers, Dexter, Mich."
Eggers: Yeah. They're a medium-sized printer right outside Detroit, and so they were on my radar just for this nice local printer. And this was done at a totally regular unit cost, competitive with anything else you make in the U.S.
Ryssdal: Really? Because I've got to tell you -- it looks really expensive.
Eggers: Yeah, doesn't it? But that's if you work within the strengths of the printer, or any sort of manufacturer. If you can work with what you're envisioning and make it work with the machinery they've got, you can come up with something great. You just have to be creative. And it was a weird thing that while I was writing about this, we were sort of going through this same decision process that Alan went through years ago, which was like a lot of the outsourcing of this manufacturing, it's done by a little thousand cuts. And before you know it, you're shopping out everything. And all this knowledge base is gone, and the supply chain is gone. But you know, I think the advantage is to be able to call somebody on the phone, visit the plant very easily, you know, turn things around quickly. It makes a lot of sense.
Ryssdal: The book by Dave Eggers is called "A Hologram for the King." We have an excerpthere, and a picture of the cover above. Dave Eggers, thanks a lot.
Eggers: Thank you so much.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy. Follow Kai on Twitter @kairyssdal

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