There’s a dark side writing that few people have dared address. I’m talking about the single most dangerous foe to the writer’s resolve; the thing that can stop even the most dedicated wordsmith dead in his or her tracks; an element of the publishing business that renders all of us absolutely powerless when faced with it.
No, it isn’t the dreaded book signing that finds you sitting at a table for 90 minutes, during which time the only person to approach you and the unsold stacks of your new book is someone asking for directions to the bathroom; it isn’t having someone discover you’re a horror writer and asking (almost as if compelled to do so by a Congressional Decree): “So, do you know Stephen King?”; and, no, it isn’t that utterly radiant, mettle-testing moment when you open that first royalty statement to discover that your book has, in the course of one year, sold only one-third of its print run so obtaining that more pricey loaf of bread is going to have to be put on the back burner once again. Yes, all of these can test you, no doubt; they can chip away at your confidence if you let them; and they can make you a real buzz-kill who doesn’t get invited to many parties, but I’m not here to discuss my dreadful personality problems.
No; the single biggest foe to the writer’s resolve, confidence, and determination is (insert ominous chord here): the Horror of the Used Book Store.
We all shop at them. We’re writers, for pity’s sake, our major source of income is our writing (see Laura Anne Gilman’s previous post to learn more of that particular daily terror), none of us can afford to shell out 30 bucks for each new hardcover or 8 bucks for each new paperback on a consistent basis. We go there to find a bargain, or perhaps to locate a book that’s been hard to find or out of print for several years. While we’re doing this, we remind ourselves that the First Sale Doctrine, codified in Section 109 of The U.S. Copyright Act, allows the original owner of any book to transfer ownership of the phyisical copy in any way they choose, so, technically, there’s nothing legally or morally wrong with our purchasing any books here.
Besides (we tell ourselves), stores like this make books affordable to folks who otherwise wouldn’t have the money to buy them. So it’s all good … until we find ourselves face to face with copies of our own books.
Don’t shake your head at me; if you’ve ever published with a mass market house, odds are you’ve found yourself in this situation. And what is the writer’s first reaction? But, my work is eternal, it speaks to the deepest pain of the human condition, my books are things to be treasured , to be passed down from generation to generation, not end up here!
The first time I discovered copies of my novel In Silent Graves on the shelf at a used book store, I felt a slight twinge of disappointment — who wouldn’t? We all hope that our books will be things that readers will want to keep around to read again someday, but here we are, faced with the bald hard truth that not everyone who buys and reads our books is going to want to keep them. I at least had the pleasure of knowing that the 3 copies I found on the shelf had been well-read, as evidenced by the wear on, and cracks in, the spines.
Two weeks ago, I’m in another used book store with a friend of mine who also happens to be a writer, and he points out to me that another copy of Graves is on the shelf. I’m really into this now, I’ve adopted a helathy attitude, I want to see how well-read the copy was, enjoy the sight of those cracks in the spine, hold it in my hands knowing that whoever had owned it before read the living shit out of it before selling it here.
Well, guess what? (Here’s the moment that really tests the mettle.)
It hadn’t been read. It hadn’t even been opened, as far as I could tell. It still had the Walpurgis-Mart sticker covering the bar code on the back.
“What is it?” asked my writer friend.
“This hasn’t even been read,” I whispered.
“You don’t know that,” he replied. “maybe the person who sold this is like you, they take care not to damage the spine when they read a paperback. Maybe they’re just very careful with their books.”
“And maybe they just didn’t read it.” (Outwardly, I’m doing the Healthy Attitude Shuffle, I’m very calm and cool and collected; inwardly, I’m jumping up and down and throwing a fit and threatening to hold my breath until my face turns blue.)
“Okay,” my writer friend said, “then you gotta tell yourself that there was some earth-shaking emergency that forced them to sell this book. They lost a job. They lost a limb. Their Workman’s Comp ran out. They had to do it to put food on the table for their family, man! You know they had to do it to put food on the table! Dear God, why else would they part with one of your books? IT WAS A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH!”
“So what you’re telling me in your own subtle way is that I’m over-reacting?”
“God, no! You’re a hero, Gary, a lifesaver!” He threw his arm around my shoulder and began talking very loudly. “Because of you and your book, somewhere in this city tonight, a man’s family is not going to bed hungry. They can afford Grandma’s medication for another month. Little Eunice can get that knee surgery so that her dreams of the Joffrey Ballet needn’t be forever buried, thus turning her into a bitter, empty shell of a human being before she turns 13! And it’s all because of this book on this shelf. I’m sorry, I’m … I’m getting emotional, tearing up. So moving, it is. I so rarely get to witness acts of decency and heroism. It reaffirms my faith in humanity. We must all hold hands,” he cried out to the terror-stricken customers. “Indeed, we must all hold hands and sing out our joy at being here to mark this resplendent moment in human history. Come, sing with me, all of you: ‘WHEN YOU WALK THROUGH A STORM, KEEP YOU HEAD HELD HIGH, AND DON’T BE AFRAID OF —‘”
“So I’m over-reacting, is this what you’re telling me?”
“Nah. They probably got through the first 20 pages and decided it was too much of a downer. You gotta admit, this thing ain’t gonna make anybody’s list of My Top Ten Favorite Chuckle-fests.”
“I feel so much better now, thanks.”
“Hey, take your pick: They did it to put food on the table, or they did it because they thought your book sucked the dimples off a golf ball through 40 feet of clogged garden hose.”
We’re writers, we exist because of fantasy and delusion and our ability to convey them on the page. And when you have to rely on your writing as your major source of income, any delusion helps, especially if you know it’s a delusion.
So I helped a stranger put food on the table for his family. I feel good about myself.
Hey, I’m a writer. Delusion is my business.