Thursday, December 29, 2011
"Can I help you find something?"
Writers like to think their work confers upon them a kind of immortality – until they come upon their books in the remainder bin, for a dollar.
Publishing today is more about commerce than literary longevity. It’s like everything else: Most of what’s produced is disposable, trafficked in volume. The days of committed editors developing lifelong relationships with writers honing their craft are gone. Instead, we have publishers whose primary (and in some cases, only) interest is in selling gazillions of mostly formulaic books to ready-made markets. Once a book appears to have peaked in sales, they’re done with it.
My book Mississippi in Africa was published in 2004 and got mostly good reviews, though a couple of reviewers attacked it quite angrily, over comparatively minor things. Writing as a guest reviewer for the New York Times, an aging curmudgeon and “distinguished university professor” named Ira Berlin built his case against the book around a citation it contained – someone else’s citation, mind you, which I cited – that got someone’s name wrong. Here was glaring evidence that I had no idea what I was writing about. Professor Berlin, clearly outraged that a non-academic would have the temerity to write history, proceeded to tell the book’s fascinating story as if it were his own and he’d snatched it from my unworthy hands.
But, I digress.
My point is, after two not-insignificant print runs, in hardback and paperback, my publisher, Penguin Putnam, lost interest in Mississippi in Africa, so they chose not to reprint it and the rights reverted to me. Fearful of the prospects of the book going out of print, I sold the rights to University Press of Mississippi, a small publisher that had done my first book, Ten Point, and has an old-school way of keeping its books in circulation. University Press isn’t exactly at the top of the book marketing game, but, if nothing else, they will keep Mississippi in Africa available into the foreseeable future. Which is not to say readers will be able to find it easily, alas.
I have a habit of looking for my books in whatever bookstore I visit, as I imagine most writers do. I note how many copies are on hand and where the staff chose to display them. It is not unusual for a book to be allotted the premium display space near the front door at the time of its release, only to be assigned to the bargain table a few short years later. It’s a brutal business, publishing.
Sometimes, as I wander a bookstore, I’ll find Mississippi in Africa in the history section; at other times I find it in the southern culture section, the African American section, or the “world” section (whatever that is). Wherever I find it, I typically ask the nearest clerk if they’d like me to sign their copies. Most stores are thrilled for me to do so, because for some reason readers really like it when their books are signed by the author, even if they never met them. I don’t really get this, but I oblige, if only because it attracts customers and the bookstores afterward get me to sign their remaining stock, which they can therefore not return to the publisher, and which they embellish with “Signed by the author” stickers and place in a more prominent display area. Once, for example, after my book Sultana was released, my friend Doug and I went into a bookstore in New York City so he could buy a few copies as gifts. As he was paying for the books he mentioned to the cashier that I was the author. She asked if I’d like to sign their stock. I said of course -- I thought you’d never ask! I then stood by the display, doing the equivalent of a drive-by book signing. No one asked me to prove that I was the author of the book. Afterward Doug and I considered going into another bookstore and announcing that I was some other author, and offering to sign copies of his books. We figured I might be able to pass myself off as William Shakespeare at Books-A-Million, where no one knows anything about, you know, books.
So: Finding my books is a favored pastime, and recently, while Christmas shopping at Lemuria, my hometown bookstore, I noticed that Sultana (“regional interest”) was there, but not Mississippi in Africa, nor, for that matter, Ten Point. Lemuria has always been good to me, hosting author events and giving me an author discount on book purchases, but I’ve noticed my books don’t excite them the same way as, for example, John Grisham’s, for obvious reasons: Lemuria is a store. They sell things. They especially like things they sell a lot of. But not seeing Mississippi in Africa on display during the Christmas season, particularly after its recent re-release, was disappointing, and my disappointment grew as I began actually looking for it in earnest and was unable to find it anywhere.
Eventually Joe, who works there and handles author events, asked if I needed any help. I said, “I don’t see Mississippi in Africa.” Mild panic appeared in Joe’s eyes. He began to scour the shelves – “southern writers,” “African American,” etc., but found nothing. Soon Johnny, who owns Lemuria, walked by and asked what we were looking for. “Mississippi in Africa,” I said, with unconcealed gravity. He then joined in the awkward search, noting, as he did so, that his inventory listed nine copies. I was impressed that he knew this off the top of his head, but it was cold comfort, given that the books could not be discovered by the person who wrote them, nor by the store’s staff. Eventually Johnny found the nine, huddled in the dark corner of a nether shelf – the part where perpendicular shelves adjoin, causing the end of one to be hidden entirely from view. In bookstore terms, this was deepest, darkest Siberia. Johnny pulled them to a more prominent spot. I didn’t even bother to ask about Ten Point, a niche market book that I’m very proud of, but which few stores seem to get.
After Joe and Johnny wandered off, I placed copies of Mississippi in Africa and Sultana in even more prominent positions, to catch potential customers’ eyes, as I always do. Typically I place my books in front of other people’s books that I think are getting too much attention.
I am in the business of selling books, and I admit that the serial dating aspect of the current book-selling market distresses me, and apparently I’m a glutton for punishment, because after I left Lemuria I went to Books-A-Million, a store I loathe, ostensibly because I needed something from the grocery next door and thought I’d pop in and see where they had Mississippi in Africa. As it turned out: Nowhere. I couldn’t find it, and when I asked a clerk, she looked it up on the computer and said, without a hint of regret, “We don’t carry that title.” Thank you for confirming everything I suspected about Books-A-Million! As she delivered this news, a man standing behind me, who had heard the title of the book I was looking for, volunteered, “Don’t believe everything your read in that book” – a comment I uncharacteristically chose to ignore, this being Books-A-Million. I later regretted it, of course. How many chances do you get to call out a hostile reader? Here he was, voluntarily instructing a stranger not to believe what I’d written in my book, not knowing who I was. He was a skinny, country-looking older guy. I would not have expected him to be in the book’s demographic, so I was kind of impressed that he’d even read it, even if he came away dissatisfied. Whatever. I satisfied myself that at least someone in Books-A-Million knew the book existed.
Afterward, I strolled over to the bargain bin to see what I could find. Sometimes you find good stuff there -- I once found Shakespeare in a bargain bin, and I took comfort in that, too.