By Ace Backwords
I sell junk books for 25-cents at a vending table. Most of the books are headed for the dumpster before I salvage them. First I try to sell them at the local used bookstore. And whatever doesn't sell there, I'll sell at my vending table for a quarter. Boxes and boxes of them; I've literally gone through hundreds of thousands of books. And it gives you a weird perspective on the book publishing business from ground zero at the bottom of the book food chain. Beyond all the hype comes the bottom line: Will someone pay 25-cents for this damn book? The end of the line.
Some authors that you'd think would sell well, sell poorly. Guys like Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Joseph Heller. They sit there for weeks on my table collecting dust, even at 25-cents. Anything about gay or lesbian issues, or feminism particularly, sells terribly. The biggest surprise to me -- maybe because I'm a big pop culture fan and I'll read any bio about any famous person -- was books by and about pop culture celebrities and TV stars; they're among the worst sellers. Biographies of Cher or Dan Rather or Geraldo? Forget it. Even Howard Stern books have the shelf life of a fart. Stern has as much lasting appeal as O.J. Simpson jokes.
Cartoon books -- Garfield, Peanuts, Far Side, etc -- sell all right, but the political stuff like Doonesbury just sits there. Political cartoonists might as well print their stuff on tissue paper for all of its lasting appeal.
On the other hand, the time-tested "names" -- Shakespeare, Hemingway, Faulkner, Twain, Bukowski, even Vonnegut -- all that stuff sells quickly. The drearier stuff -- like Satre, Camus, Edgar Allen Poe -- eventually sells, but not that quickly.
On the other hand, the Science Fiction/Fantasy stuff is among the fastest sellers. Isaac Asimov, Heinlein, Stephen King: that stuff flies off the table.
Spiritual books and self-help books also sell steadily. Romance novels sell steadily -- certain women gobble them up like pornography, and often with the same vague embarrassment. And, of course, pornography itself flies off the table.
Maybe the worst sellers of all are "sociology" type books: studies of Urban Cities; economic theories; political analysis; business books; that crap. Forget it. Though anthropology books about dinosaurs or exotic tribes sell well.
I've even come across some of my own publications as I'm scouring the dumpsters. And yes, they all sold.
But the whole thing -- being the middleman in this long chain of traveling books coming from one owner and going to another -- it reminded me of a long-standing fantasy of mine. When I publish something -- 5,000 copies or whatever -- I always secretly wished I could somehow track down the fate of every single copy. Like a race. How many of them sputtered out of the starting gate, got glanced at briefly, and then thrown into the trash? How many of them changed hands 3 or 4 times, then got soiled or rained on and then thrown in the trash? How many got stored away in a dusty closet somewhere, like ticking time-bombs waiting to explode all over the minds of their next owner? How many copies are still left, 10 years later? Or 20 years? Or 30? I guess I look at my publications as little sperm, swimming up the stream; how many die along the wayside, and how many connect with the egg? It is a strange business. And I sometimes gaze at all the books on my table, all the authors that have come and gone; so many of them are dead. And yet their souls, their essence, are still packaged tightly within the pages of their books. I think of Jack Kerouac. Long gone. And yet his FEELINGS are still vividly being expressed and communicated, page after page. Strange. Its weird how the author's mind lives on, in suspended animation, even as his body is long dead. (I think of Woody Allen's great line when they asked him if he'd like to achieve immortality through his work. He said: "I'd rather achieve immortality by not dying.")
Some people have a lot of children and pass their physical genes on to future generations. Whereas authors tend to inject their mental energy into the spiritual bloodline of humanity. For once an author has affected the thinking of his reader's mind, there’s a chain-reaction that goes reverberating within time and space forever.
My Guru once said words to the effect: "When you look at the oldest books, the books that stand the test of time and are still being read centuries and centuries after they were written, they're almost always spiritual books. Because the only thing that really lasts is wisdom."###
(December 15, 2002)
All contents © 2008 by Gene Mahoney