Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
More bookstore kvetching. Did you see that used bookstores are making a comeback?
Actually, I don’t really want to kvetch about used bookstores. They were always my favorites, partly because one of my earliest exposures to great books was at one of them. It was a downtown St. Louis store, and, sure, it happened to have an adult section curtained off in the back (with a couple of peepshow machines squatting just inside that provocative portal), but it was stocked floor-to-ceiling with every kind of tome you could possibly be interested in. And the smell in there was both exotic and familiar, a musty bouquet that’s like a bookworm’s cocaine. Once you’re addicted…
And when I was in London doing the year-abroad thing, I could be found in one of the ubiquitous used bookshops up and down Charing Cross Road, poring over cheap but seemingly ancient editions of every writer from Robert Burns to Joseph Conrad. I still have some of the treasures I bought that year.
Even more recently, my local bookstore in Sonoma County (where I lived till last March) had a terrific used section downstairs. I sold them several of my own books when we moved. (Should have thrown in a copy of Parts Unknown, now that I think about it!)
I’m also investing the littlest bit of hope in some nearby used bookstores up here in the foothills, on the off-chance they’ll be willing to carry Town Father on consignment. They might not have the same aversion to everything Amazon that the uppity indies have.
The best thing about used bookstores is that they’re not stocked with the hyper-hyped bestsellers you see in the windows of every Barnes & Noble all around the country. They’re idiosyncratic. You might find Cancer Ward by Solzhenitsyn, Loon Lake by E. L. Doctorow, The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler, or a manual on how to go treasure hunting in the Caribbean Sea. One of my favorite used books is a long Bertrand Russell essay, laced with argumentative margin notes by an earlier, cantankerous reader. I feel like I’m eavesdropping every time I pick it up.
So what’s the downside of a used bookstore?
Well, for one thing, the writer doesn’t get paid.
In theory, the writer got paid when the book was originally purchased. It’s a one-shot deal. According to the linked article in the Washington Post, used bookstores buy their stock for ten percent of the cover price then sell it for roughly half that price. It would be nice if the writer could snag another cut of that resale, but it’s like the used market in anything: Ford doesn’t get paid when you sell your old Taurus, and U2 isn’t getting royalties on those old CDs of “The Joshua Tree” either. We might ask, Why doesn’t intellectual property get a different arrangement? If copyright lasts 75 years after the death of the copyright holder, shouldn’t a writer get paid any time a book changes hands?
Even as a writer, I think there’s a sour grapes side to this complaint. It’d be nice to get paid again and again, but it’d be even nicer if publishers went back to living-wage advances, especially for mid-list material. These days you’re lucky as a first-time novelist to get a $10K advance, and even at that level you’re not likely to reach the threshold for receiving royalties. The economics of publishing, at least from the writer’s position, would be completely different if publishers paid, say, $50K, which would give the author some cash to spend on a publicist, not to mention pizza.
In other words, there are so many injustices front-loaded into the publishing business where writers are concerned that to moan and groan over the back end seems self-indulgent. We should take used bookstores as they are: depositories of tales that await rediscovery. Warehouses of imagination. Nostalgia farms.
They’re homes for literary orphans. Now go out there and adopt some needy books.