Friday, March 9, 2012

On Going Out-of-Print

What's the average lifespan of a book?

I'm not referring to the length of time a book can survive in a library or private collection, but the time between a book's publication and its eventual, inevitable obsolescence. How many novels published twenty years ago are still in print today? How many from two years ago, even? (At the moment, I'm only considering books published traditionally by publishing houses, not Print on Demand titles--even though POD technology is rapidly changing the way we conceive of the life cycle of a book.)

Without any recent statistics (or, rather, the motivation to dig them up), I'd be hard-pressed to come up with anything more than an educated guess, but I doubt I'd be too far off by estimating that 70-80% of books don't stay in print for more than a few years. If we limit the discussion to novels, I think this number may be even higher.

This isn't to say that a book's death is necessarily a tragic event--at least not for those of us who feel overwhelmed by the enormous quantity of books being published every year (close to 300,000 in the U.S. alone, according to UNESCO). A book's author suffers, I'm sure, and every book has at least one or two devoted readers who will lament its passing, but the fact is that most books are published, sell poorly, then fade into oblivion, perhaps to be resurrected later. It's the natural progression.

In the abstract, this all sounds like a fine argument for the obvious necessity of a sort of literary Darwinism, in which the fittest survive and the weaker go the way of the dodo. But as a bookseller, I've seen too many fine books slide into oblivion to believe that fitness, to extend the metaphor, is the most important characteristic of a book's continuing existence. Unless we're okay with equating fitness to sales figures (I'm not), what do we make of a masterpiece like Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe--a novel as perfect and haunting as Albert Camus' The Stranger--being permitted to slowly fade into obscurity?* Or one of my recent staff favorites, Roland Topor's cult classic The Tenant, which we sold hundreds of copies of before it too became a ghost? Or, to use another personal example--and the impetus behind this post--what of Wilcock's Temple of Iconoclasts, a book Roberto Bolano called "one of the funniest, most joyful, irreverent, and most corrosive books of the 20th century"? (Our inventory tells me we have one left on the shelf, so if you want it, come and get it.)

By nature, this consideration is very personal: these are all books I've loved and done what I could to pass on to other readers. Yet they have nevertheless gone out-of-print. What's a bookseller to do in this situation? Feel guilty that I couldn't more convincingly persuade you to read them? Or feel humble pride that I was able to sell the copies I did? In a paradoxical sense, the guilt I feel is less for my inability to turn these books into bestsellers than it is for speeding them along the road to oblivion: if we'd sold fewer copies, they'd still be on our shelves--for a while longer, at least.

In the end, my only recourse may be to lament all the factors that lead to a book's death--the cost of printing, warehousing, and distribution; the sometimes odd constraints of acquiring rights; the difficulty of getting a book noticed among the avalanche of other books; our suffocating copyright laws. It's a helpless feeling, but more than ever, with the POD technologies mentioned above and the increasing digitalization of books, it may be that in the future we'll look nostalgically at the days when books had a lifespan. It may be that in a subtle way, the threat of disappearance is part of the reason we so cherish the books we love.


* Buzzati's novel is technically listed by its publisher as being Out of Stock Indefinitely, which is a polite way of saying "We're waiting to pull the plug." My inquiry to the publisher, David R. Godine, about the status of the book wasn't answered.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The lit keeps quaking

I've been very excited to work with Litquake this year, co-producing their monthly reading series, Epicenter. At Tosca. That's right. . . Tosca Cafe, the hallowed North Beach watering hole.

The idea for Epicenter is actually to have a little less reading, and a lot more discussion - this is why we are booking two authors at the same time and encouraging them to shoot the breeze to our hearts' content. Please enjoy a couple of photos of last month's guest, Steve Erickson, above and below. Steve was in conversation with San Francisco journalist Kevin Berger, and it sure delivered!

Next on the Epicenter calendar is a double-header for the ages: Geoff Dyer and David Thompson! Thompson, the notable film historian (you may have heard of his The New Biographical Dictionary of Film - an absolute classic, now in it's fifth edition) will be the perfect cohort to Geoff Dyer, whose new book, Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room takes on one of the greatest cinematic experiences of all-time, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Each author has scads of books published, and this event is certainly not one to miss. Did I mention that it's at Tosca Cafe?

The Epicenter series has been very successful so far, which is a fancy way of saying, "Get there early, as seats fill quickly." Check our website for more details.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Judging a Book by its Cover...

One of the tried and true clich├ęs in the book world is the age old adage don't judge a book by its cover. Unfortunately, a lot of the time that's what my job requires. When buying remaindered books I rely on my knowledge of what sells in our store but also I take a chance on titles I don't know. I don't have the luxury of reading every book I see (at abook fair or warehouse I see up to a million titles in an eight hour day) and when a sales rep comes they usually bring only the covers. So a lot of times this is all I have to go on.

On the other hand sometimes that is just what a book needs as it's sitting on our new release tables. One of those books has been on various display tables since I saw the cover in the summer of 2006: Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan (who has now become a friend of mine after a pretty fun reading we did with him. We have since sold 635 copies of the paperback, 150 remainder copies, and if I remember correctly almost 200 in the original hardcover edition....

I picked up this book after one look of the cover and didn't put it down after the first paragraph:

"I was stealing saltshakers again. Ten, sometimes twelve a night, shoving them in my pockets, hiding them up my sleeves, smuggling them out of bars and diners and anywhere else I could find them. In the morning, wherever I woke, I was always covered in salt. I was cured meat. I had become beef jerky. Even as a small, small child, I knew it would one day come to this."
I was in the middle of two other books when I walked past Tupelo Hassman's first novel, Girlchild, on our newly released hardcover fiction table. The library card over the trailer-home in the desert photo caught my eye and I picked it up and started reading:

"Mama always hid her mouth when she laughed. Even when she spoke too gleefully, mouth stretched too wide by those happy muscles, teeth too visible. I can still recognize someone from my neighborhood by their teeth. Or lack of them. And whenever I do, I call these people family. I know immediately that I can trust them with my dog but not with the car keys and not to remember what time, exactly, they're coming back for their kids. I know if we get into a fight and Johnny shows up we'll agree that there has been 'No problem, Officer, we'll keep it down.' "
From there I couldn't put it down. This is a dark, compelling, and poignant novel about a young girl and aspiring girl scout trying to escape the history of the women of her family and escape the Calle, a mobile-home town outside of Reno full of white trash, drunks, and the danger of being from a long line of damaged women.

- npb