used books and your favorite authors

There’s another round of letters about the Jane Austen Doe article mentioned here a few days ago. The thing about an on-line magazine like Salon is that there’s no space limitation, so they can bung two or three dozen letters up rather than picking and choosing the best. Thus you’ll find a lot of repetition, and a great deal of self promotion, most particularly a few of the lit-criterati waving their hands wildly in the air like the over-achievers in English class, wanting to be called on. I plowed through a lot of the letters and found only a few that made any new contribution to the discussion, most particularly this paragraph from a letter written by Kay Murray [edited to add: I think this must be the Kay Murray who is General Counsel and Assistant Director of the Authors Guild Foundation.]

Readers who want to support midlist authors should buy new, not used, copies and donate their used copies to people who can’t afford books instead of selling them online. Alibris, the used and rare bookseller that is going public this year, has revealed that it earns some $30 million in commissions alone on used and rare book sales. Imagine how much Amazon, which markets used copies aggressively, cuts into publishers’ sales.

This is a topic that few take on because it’s pretty contentious, but it is relevant. Used books are a sore point for any published author. We all have stories about this. My favorite happened to an acquaintance who was invited to speak to a bookclub here in town about her latest novel. This is something I’m happy to do locally, too — as are many authors — you spend an evening talking to friends of friends and answering questions about the book, your writing habits, your inspiriation. At any rate, she goes along one evening to a bookclub of about twenty people, and is told, right up front, that some of them had read the book as much as a year ago because (I’m still astounded even as I write this) — they had bought one copy and were passing it around. The novel cost $24, which means they each put in a whopping $1.20, and then on top of that, they ask the author to come by for nothing and entertain them. She was furious, and I was furious for her, when I heard the story. It’s rude, and insulting, and shows such a tremendous lack of respect that it’s going to be hard for me not to ask, the next time I’m invited to such a bookclub, what their buying habits are.

It’s a different matter completely when you’re talking about readers who can’t afford a book, but then that’s what the public library system is for. I am not upset when somebody tells me they got my novel out of their local library before deciding whether or not to buy it; that makes sense, certainly. On the other hand, if somebody tells me with great glee that they got all of my softcover books off of ebay for a total of twelve bucks plus shipping, I start to run numbers through my head. How much of a profit is the used bookseller making on my novels? Is s/he actually pocketing more from the re-sale of those three books than I did when they were first sold? Sometimes the answer is yes. And this is, to put it simply, frustrating. No wonder it’s hard to make a living at writing.

What to do about it? Nothing. We live in a free market, and some things can’t be legislated, but sometimes I wish people would think a little about what it means when they buy used books. Most especially I think about a used bookseller I once saw interviewed on television who said, very proudly, that his goal was to resell every book so many times that he put publishers out of business. Is this the height of stupidity, or greed, or some wondrous combination of the two?

I try to follow a few simple rules that make me comfortable in my own purchases. (1) I never buy an ARC before a book is published; (2) I never buy a used book unless that book is out of print; (3) I try to buy all my books from independent booksellers;* (4) I buy hardcover copies of books by authors who I admire and who are struggling to make a name for themselves — I think of this as a professional courtesy; (5) I donate books that are still in print and I can’t use any more to schools and non-profits who don’t resell them. I do use Alibris and Abebooks quite a lot, but only for stuff so old and musty it’s not available anywhere else. That’s what the online used booksellers excel at, and that’s what I use them for: finding esoteric books on particular research topics, old newspapers, and oddities.

There was one other letter to Salon’s editors that really got my attention, and not in a good way. It made me so spitting mad that I had to go walk the dogs to cool down. More about that, maybe, another time.

*updated August 31, 2007 to say that my stance on this has changed. See this post.

enough already

I’ve decided to give up reading the dozen or so blogs that (1) pride themselves on their literary acumen and taste; and (2) take it upon themselves to move beyond flogging others who do not live up to their standards to trying to get them booted off the web. This includes Mark’s The Elegant Variation (he’s the one that pushed me past the point of no return with his Dump the Book Babes petition; more below), Sam at Golden Rule Jones, Daniel of The Reading Experience, and a host of others. I’m so pissed that I’m not even going to include links to their blogs, so if you want to read their side of this, you’ll have to go find them.

here’s the thing. There’s a column at Poynter Online (news for the journalism community) called Book Babes, written by two women. It’s supposed to be, as I understand it, about the publishing industry, for its insiders. But TEV decided that they weren’t doing a good enough job as so he started a petition to have the column handed over to somebody else. Who? He doesn’t say, but he wants somebody more literary. More in tune with his view of literary, at any rate.

Let me be clear: I don’t particularly like the Book Babes column, and I don’t think they helped matters with the column in which they responded to the petition (nor did Mark with his response to that column). In this back and forth, a lot of very complex issues got jumbled together, things to do with gatekeeping (and that is the issue here, no matter what the LitCrit Police would like to claim); elitism (which I admit, pushes all my buttons; and yes, I have a Princeton PhD — that’s precisely where I learned to hate the pompous academic oriented literature types); censorship; reading as a cultural experience; definitions of good and bad in storytelling; and the nature of the publishing industry.

I never have read the Book Babes and I won’t be starting. It’s not my claim that they deserve a huge readership, just that they don’t deserve to be dumped on by the self-annointed LitCrit Police, who I won’t be reading anymore. However, if and when one of them has a novel come out, I’ll read that. And you’ll hear about it here.

Postscript: someone who wishes to remain nameless sent to a link to this article (“It’s a Little Too Cozy in the Blogosphere”) by Jennifer Howard (dated November 16 2003 at Note this memorable paragraph:

What began as the ultimate outsider activity — a way to break the newspaper and TV stranglehold on the gathering and dissemination of information — is turning into the same insider’s game played by the old establishment media the bloggerati love to critique. The more blogs you read and the more often you read them, the more obvious it is: They’ve fallen in love with themselves, each other and the beauty of what they’re creating. The cult of media celebrity hasn’t been broken by the Internet’s democratic tendencies; it’s just found new enabling technology.

Jennifer Howard has a website; there is also a discussion of her Washington Post article on blogging,
. And yes, I picked up on this late, but then I don’t usually read the Washington Post.

characterization, part three

mope florist

Odd photos can sometimes be the start of a whole novel, if you take the time to study them and think hard about the character. Looking at this guy, the first things that occur to me have to do with my father’s family (which doesn’t really make sense — but in this process, the associations don’t have to make sense and it’s usually more productive if they don’t).

So I look at this guy and I think: mope. Some young guy hanging out on the corner making rude noises at girls going by, bumming smokes. Goes home to his mother and expects to be waited on. His name (and this is a crucial step) might be Harry or Rollie or Steve. He looks like a Schneider to me, or maybe his name is more Dutch. Rollie Toon. Steve Staal.

Here’s the thing: there’s not much I can do, story-wise, with this mope called Rollie Toon. He’s not very interesting yet. Because I haven’t looked hard enough.

So I imagine him at work. For some reason, I see him delivering flowers. He makes jokes with the lady who owns the flower shop, but never gets much of a reaction from her. The money’s lousy. He could go work for his father in the (butcher shop? hardware store? train station?) but he keeps the flower delivery job, and he’s never late. None of his friends get it. Rollie, who was always the biggest screwup in highschool, never could get to class on time, rushing out of the house in the morning to deliver flowers. Bringing old ladies corsages. Rollie? Doesn’t make sense.

Except it does. How about this: Rollie does get in trouble at work, because he’s slow. Mrs. Woo (or maybe Mrs. Jackson or Mr. Price) is always asking why he takes twice as long as the other delivery guy. She’s always threatening to fire him, lazy bum that he is.

But here’s the thing. Rollie’s deliveries are always late, because as soon as he leaves the shop, he pulls around the corner to an old deserted strip mall. He opens up the back of the truck and looks at the flower arrangements, and he just can’t stand it. Mrs. Woo is a nice lady and all, but she should let somebody else do the flowers. Yellow carnations and pink roses, Christ, he says, I could do better blindfolded. So he does. He lines up all the arrangements, and goes to work. When he’s done he stands back and studies them. Now he’s satisfied, and he goes to make the deliveries.

Now, this just the start of a story waiting to be told. It’s what comes to me when I think hard about the guy in the photo. It’s a good writing exercise — try it. Study pictures in magazines and newspapers, and see who jumps out at you.

story ideas

it’s a really good idea to keep a notebook of story ideas. Bits of conversations you overhear that strike your imagination, newspaper stories, a photo from a magazine. I have tons of these kinds of prompts. Here’s one:

UPLAND, Calif. (AP) — When Maria Blackburn opened the contents of an abandoned storage unit she bought at auction, she found wedding pictures, champagne glasses and the body of the groom. … Darlene Bourk, 31, pleaded innocent to killing Robert Bourk, the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office said Thursday. Investigators believe he died in December 1996 when he was 27. It was unclear when the couple married. Upland police Lt. Ed Gray wouldn’t elaborate on the events that led to Bourk’s death or say how he died, but he said Bourk would have remained listed as missing had his wife not …

Continue reading “story ideas”