Monday, September 28, 2009


Used Books

Ah, used books. How do I feel about you now?

I'm on record expounding on the delights of my favorite bookstore of all time (with Powell's probably a tie). Much of my attraction to the Green Apple is its maze-like, ramshackle nature and superb selection. And then there is the used books section, which I have been known to comb through, methodically, until I have amassed a new pile of treasures to ship back to New York. Yep. I'll start at A and then walk slowly through the stacks until I get to Z.

But the other day, an acquaintance sent me an email saying he'd seen my book at the Strand (my book is not quite out yet, so how exactly was it for sale already?), and that he thought he might pick it up and read it. I bristled. There was the "I might pick it up" comment, which, you know . . . My cousin Brian occasionally refers to dithering behavior by using cats as an example. As in: "Are you in or out of the cat door?" If you have cats, then you know what I mean. Open a door for a cat, and he might take up an hour of your life, circling around, trying to decide if he likes your ankles, or the door, of if he suddenly needs to clean his foot, while some sudden bird activity looks enticing so he glances outside, and you open the door wider, but then just as quickly he's distracted by the sun patch on the dining room floor . . . And so on. And it's the same with people. Are you in or out of the cat door? I don't mind if people don't like my book, or don't plan to read it. But, you know, decide.

Artists who get to this point in their careers understand that you might not like their art, but that you might end up being friends or whatever.

Then, after thinking things over, I pointed out to the acquaintance that writers make their living off of book sales. This does not include copies of galleys re-purposed on Ebay or at the Strand or elsewhere. And I write this as someone who was so desperate to read Donna Tartt's new book that I actually forked out cash on Ebay to get a copy (I have since repented and bought the actual book as well). I write this as someone who, as I wrote above, methodically combs the stacks of the Green Apple.

I have also become periodically so obsessed with particular books, that I will collect and own several copies so I can give them away to people as presents when need be. This means, I will go through the stacks of a used bookstore to see if said copies of books require rescuing. I get upset to see these special books abandoned by their former owners. Like, did the previous owner not know he owned wisdom? I used to routinely have more than one copy of Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck. I also still have several copies of Erich Neumann's Amor and Psyche, because I think it's still an impressive work. Other works I won't mention because the writers are still living, and my writer crushes have evaporated. Oh, except I think I still have two copies of The Secret History by Donna Tartt. What can I say? I found one that was signed, and had to have it. Better that I own it, than it sit there, languishing.

But here we are now, on the eve of publication of my book, and every book sale will count for me, and will help determine what kind of a writing future I will have--or if I will have one. I think, now, of all the just-released books I bought second hand and feel very bad. Very bad indeed. And yet, I understand. I understand why I, perpetually stuck in this boho-poor lifestyle, opted for the cheap way to buy the book I wanted. I will understand why you do too.

So, here's my compromise to my acquaintance and everyone else. Just don't tell me if you bought my book used. At least for a while.

PS--When you buy the book used (which, yes, I have noticed some are doing, I don't get credit for the sale. Which, hopefully, I made clear above).

I know, I know. When I was young and single and broke, it was all about hours on end at Green Apple. When I was single and the economy was good and it was a one-person, one-income sort of thing, I was the second-best customer at my neighborhood bookstore. (Apparently the most lucrative customer bought every new business book in hardback the week it came out.) Now it's three people, one-and-a-quarter incomes, and blitzing Amazon at midnight after the kid's asleep and the work finished. Ah, ideals, whither have you wandered?
P.S. Recent big find: Signed copy of Kay Ryan's Flamingo Watching, seven bucks at my local used bookstore. Fangirls unite!
Score! Of course, you know I have her "Dragon Acts to Dragon Ends" thanks to the Green Apple. And obviously, I thought of you while I was staring at her suitcase, and then later found myself talking to her. You are probably one of, I don't know, 3 people who would understand just how ridiculously hyper I was over this entire incident. And as for Flamingo Watching--I think that was the first book of hers I purchased. It must have come out around the same time I heard her on NPR!
I've always exclusively bought used books from stores and garage sales, or found them in boxes on the street. A couple reasons for this; I can't be trusted by libraries as it can take me some time to actually read a book; this method exposes me to titles and authors I would never have heard of had their novel cost cover price instead of a buck fifty in the throwaway bin; I hate the idea of over-manufacturing while so many used widgets languish for eternity in rubbish heaps and dusty shelves...

Okay, also because I'm always a little shy on the cash... Yes, your numbers are affected by used copies exchanging hands and for the most part this cannot be helped-- sales lists will not track this and you won't receive any royalties... Sticking to the royalties issue, I like the tip jar idea as employed by many lesser known bands who give their music away free via download... If you like it you can drop a buck in their virtual tip-jar-- can't this be reconfigured to allow books a longer and more appreciated life? Bought the book used? If you enjoy it, consider throwing a buck or two in the author's tip-jar...

Just something long on my mind... A good friend of mine always buys new copies of his books while I'm rooting through trash on the streets... He wants to support the authors, I want to support a more considerate form of consumerism, etc...

By the way I really wanted to buy a new copy of your first publication but it was not published before I moved away from the States... Perhaps I can have someone send me a copy from back home...
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