Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How to Get Books Cheap

An interesting experience came out of my recent book signing: I was allowed to shoplift my own books.

While the signing went off without a hitch, there was a problem with the distributor and the books the bookstore had ordered did not arrive in time, so I brought my own stock with me. As mentioned in my earlier post, they sold out (yesss!). But the shipment to the bookstore still did not arrive.

I ordered more books to replenish my own supply and they arrived the next day, so I gave some additional books to the bookstore so they could fill the back orders and put some on the shelves. This kept them going until their order finally arrived.

On Saturday morning, I went to the bookstore, confirmed that they had received their shipment and accepted a pile of books from the manger as repayment for the ones I had loaned her. When I got home, however, I saw that she had only given me the amount I had used during the signing, not the extras I had supplied.

So I went back to the store (it’s a five-minute walk—a double-edged sword if ever there was one) and found her scurrying about doing bookstore manager type things. She acknowledged her error but, as customers were pressing for her attention, she told me to just take them off the shelves.

Up until that point, I hadn’t even bothered to seek out the book, just so I could see myself on the bookstore shelves, but now that I did look, I found she had done me well. My book was in the travel section, the local section and set up on several display stands strategically scattered throughout the store. I was, to say the least, delighted. What I did not want to do, however, was take all of them from one place, as this would lessen the impact. The result of this decision saw me wandering through the store, apparently at random, lifting books from the shelves and stuffing them in my rucksack.

And nobody stopped me.

Only once did another customer look askance at me as I grabbed a few books from the Travel section and deposited them in my pack.

“Don’t mind me,” I told her, “I’m just shoplifting.”

She smiled, and continued her browsing.

When I had my quota, I shouldered my backpack and walked out of the store without anyone saying a word.

Now I’m not advocating stealing books because that would be wrong (and bad for my royalty statement) but it certainly was fun having permission to nick my own books. I only hope some people noticed I was stealing the same book over and over and thought, “Wow, that must be some good book! I’d better buy a copy.”

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Gone Fishin'

During the intense research I conducted this morning (i.e. web surfing) I discovered that yet another major newspaper has gone bust. As an empathetic sort, it saddens me to think of all those people suddenly out of work. As a writer, it disturbs me because the chances of seeing my words in print have been marginally trimmed (ask not for whom the Bankruptcy tolls; it tolls for thee). And as a person interested in history, I find it frightening.

I realize we are living in a time of change. The Internet, once the plaything of nerds, is now a major force. A lot of people are spending a lot of time on it so that is where a lot of the advertising dollars are going, instead of newspapers or magazines. Hence to rapid decline of printed media.

And the web is a wonderful place, bringing with it a thousand fold increase in writing opportunities. Photos, movies, pop-ups and other web wizardry can now adorn our words, making them more accessible and attractive to our readers than ever before. I've already discussed how, in the 1980's, if you wanted to start a newsletter or a small magazine, you could expect to spend hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars and put in some incredibly long hours, but just ten years later you could do the same for a much smaller fee on a web site, and now you can do it for free with a blog.

This has boosted interpersonal communication to a level never before imagined and, as a writer, has increased my potential audience from subscribers to my hometown newspaper to practically everyone on the planet.

So why the niggling unease?

First of all, while it has raised my profile among people who normally would not have heard of me, and has enabled me to publish a real book (the kind made of paper, with a cover, and my name on it) it has not raised my writing income at all. Perhaps I'm speaking too soon, because once the book takes off and starts earning me thousands of dollars in royalties I may change my tune, but right now, I am not making anywhere near as much as I made back in the 70s and 80s writing humorous articles and selling them to local newspapers. The web might offer writers the opportunity to write, but it doesn't pay very well.

There's also the esteem issue. When communication was expensive, more thought went into what was said. Back then, words were precious; today they are free. And, like it or not, people equate free with worthless. Even among paying markets, a person writing an on-line column does not get paid as much as a person writing a column for the print version; it just isn't regarded as important.

As a writer whose words are primarily on the web, that's something I have to consider. But this is all mostly down to change, and major changes like these have always brought with them a variety of peripheral issues, all of which eventually resolve themselves despite the hand-wringing of old curmudgeons like me. So none of the above bothers me as much as my final point: None of it is real.

The family history articles you wrote, the photos you took of your cousins wedding, your household accounts, all the bits and pieces necessary for future generations to assemble an understanding of what life was like at the turn of the century do not actually exist.

A rogue electro-magnetic eruption from the sun could wipe out all those electronic bits stored on hard drives, memory sticks and floating through the ether of cyber-space (note to the literally-minded: I made up that electro-magnetic thingy, but you get my point.)

The Internet might be ushering in an era as revolutionary to written communication as Gutenberg's printing press, but books produced in the 1600s can still be read while I've had an untold number of data files rendered useless because the software or hardware required to access them has already become obsolete.

Without newspapers and magazine to capture what we, as citizens of the new millennium, considered important enough to write down, this whole era, from about 1995 until we finally sort ourselves out, might be represented on historical charts by a big blank spot with a sign reading "Gone Fishin'" in the middle of it.