Sunday, September 24, 2006

Worthless Authors

What do David Baldacci, Elizabeth Berg, Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham, Stephen King and Nora Roberts have in common? You could answer that they all write mega-bestsellers or you could say that their backlist books (their older titles) are absolutely worthless. Both answers are correct.

For years the Boulder Book Store store has struggled to sell these authors' previous books, but I blamed that on factors unique to the store and to our community. Although we sell their books used, these authors' new books aren't nearly as popular in Boulder as they are nationwide, and we don't do well with mass market paperbacks in general. So, I was surprised to find out that all of these authors, and dozens more, were truly worthless nationwide.

A few days ago, I received an email detailing "pre-shipment sorting guidelines" for a company that accepts donated books and then sells them on the internet. The proceeds are split evenly between the company and the store or library that has donated the book. Our bookstore sends them sale books we can't sell, rejects left behind in our used book buying office, and some books that we can't return to the publishers. It's a motley assortment of titles, but every month we get a check for a few hundred dollars and a list of books that have managed to sell for two or three dollars apiece on the internet.

The pre-shipment guidelines are designed to prevent the company from being inundated with unsaleable books. It saves the company time sorting through the titles and it saves money for the different libraries and organizations shipping them these books. The letter starts off innocously enough -- no damaged books, no books without ISBNs, no books written in a language that doesn't use the Latin alphabet -- but suddenly veers off into a list of popular fiction authors that are "uneconomical".

The list is a who's who of contemporary fiction.
In addition to those mentioned above, it includes such mystery stalwarts as Mary Higgins Clark, Sue Grafton and John Sandford, horror masters like Robin Cook and Dean Koontz, and sappy romance writers including Danielle Steele and Fern Michaels.

I love this list. So much of what I can't stand about publishing all compiled under the heading "popular fiction authors to avoid." I couldn't have done a better job myself. These authors' new books are foisted upon us time after time, season after season, no matter how bad they are. Instead of pushing well-written, innovative fiction, the publishers give us a huge marketing budget and a million-copy print run of the latest logorrhea from James Patterson and his team of "co-writers." It's all formula blockbusters all the time, and the publishers want to know why the independent bookstores don't sell their share of it. The answer is simple -- because we value thinking and originality.

The day before I received the email containing this list of authors, I was offered a deal from my Random House sales rep. She had a list of backlist titles that Random House was offering an extra discount on. I skimmed down the list, which was amazingly unremarkable for the biggest publisher in the business, until I came to a trio of ancient John Grisham titles. I looked up at my rep, and said, "I'm done. Does anybody sell these Grisham books at full price anymore? Who thought up this list?"

The market is flooded with these books, and the market tells us everyday: they are worthless. My only wish is that consumers would realize this when the books were brand new and pick up something different. After all, if you really need the guilty pleasure of Danielle Steele, you could just wait a few months and buy her new books for less than a buck. Amazon is currently selling her two 2006 releases for 79 and 22 cents.

Take a chance on something like David Mitchell's brilliant new novel Black, Swan, Green, or read Marisha Pessl's wildly inventive Special Topics in Calamity Physics. By the way, you won't find either Pessl or Mitchell's books listed online for pennies anytime soon. Now, if those two books headed the bestsller list, that just might force the publishers and even some of their blockbuster authors to start thinking.

1 comment:

Peter Mayer said...

Did I catch you dissing former Boulderite and national award winning author Stephen King? For god's sake - I'm 100 pages from finishing the Dark Tower saga and you tell me it will be worthless in a few months! Actually it is a hugely uneven series.

The blog continues to be terrific. I want some of those new kids books especially the duck and the new Skippy John!

Also - we found a third Joey Pigza book - "What Would Joey Do?". Zach loves it.