Before I get all too wrapped up in the release of Tinsel, I got an e-mail recently that brings the real business of books into rather sharp focus.
The e-mail is from Picador publishers, which is the paperback imprint for Henry Holt and other publishers that are all part of the same company. They’re the ones who put out the handsome paperback edition of my first book, Off Ramp, and now it’s time to say goodbye. It’s been a little more than four good years in paperback (five since the hardcover). They write:
… Unfortunately, the current rate of sale for the trade paperback edition of Off Ramp does not justify our continuing to keep the book in print.
… I would like to offer you the opportunity to buy some of this remaindered stock at the price of …
This is the natural cycle of things, and it’s one of the final items you read over in your book contract when you sign here and initial there with such optimism. When a book goes out of print, the publisher notifies the author. (I think there’s even an appellate process in some cases, but maybe not; I’d have to go through the 2003-04 boxes and find the contract.) At that time, they are required to offer you a chance to buy part or all of the remaining stock. And yes, I would like a few dozen, thanks. Put ’em on my Visa.
You didn’t think every book ever printed remains in print, do you?
There are lots and lots of copies of Off Ramp out there, hardcover and softcover, and I look forward to encountering them in used-book stores everywhere I go, for years. Sometimes when I see them, I “rescue” them and buy them, because I always have a use for them. (I also look to see if it’s signed, and to whom? So far, none of them have said “To Mom,” so that’s good. Today’s tip: If you sell used books that were authored and signed by people you know, consider using the broad strokes of a fat, black Sharpie to lessen the blow when you sell them or give them to charity. Unless your author friend became famous and died since the signing, then hold out for top dollar.)
Spare copies of Off Ramp were invaluable to me in the early stages of working on what became Tinsel. They acted as a calling card — I would give people a copy to help them understand that a.) I really am a writer, who’s really working on a serious book and b.) here is exactly what sort of writing I have done and might do about you. I must have given away a few dozen copies in Texas in 2006 and 2007 while I hunted for the right people to write about in Tinsel.
You ask: How many copies of Off Ramp sold, overall? Excellent question. I don’t know, because the sales statements have not come with regularity. I can tell you those royalty statements are impossible for a neophyte to decipher, except, of course, I do know what a minus sign looks like, and the bottom figure is always a minus sign, as regards my advance versus my royalty.
Nevertheless, in the last four years, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to many journalism and creative writing classes who all read the book as a text and had so many great questions for me about how the stories in it were reported and written. And just when I thought nobody was reading it anymore — even now — an e-mail will arrive from some random reader who found it, read it, and wants to talk about the stories in it. (In fact, when I got this e-mail from the guy at Picador, and the subject line was “Off Ramp,” and I thought, oh, good, it’s been a couple months …)
Sigh. I used to hope that the book would capture a sort of pre-millennial 1990s vibe of modern life, which it does, which it always will, especially as one decade becomes another and then another; and then I hoped it might be useful for journalism and feature-writing teachers to encourage their students to experiment with the newspaper format — which maybe it has been, in a small way.
But as time goes by, I see the stories that are in Off Ramp as more rare and more dear; mainly, no matter the many subjects, they were about me. Even if I was a master scrapbooker and diligent diarist, I could not imagine a better keepsake of who I was and I what I did and who I met and what fascinated me in my 20s and early 30s, so maybe it really is just a selfish little collection. I don’t think too many young men and women in the newspaper biz will ever have the serendipitous, strange fun I got to have, and then? To have a bunch of your clips collected in a book? That will be out there forever? I am rarely proud of much, but I do feel good about that book.
I was a lucky shit. And I still am.
So long, Off Ramp!
(Anyone want to buy a copy? Cheap? Apparently I’m a dealer now, and how could you resist, after this heart-tugging blog entry? See — the shilling never stops.)
UPDATE 11/4/09: A reprieve, for now!
My copy of Off Ramp (signed by you, of course) is still sitting on
I have TWO copies on the bookshelf: one is mine, one is my best friend’s, and both are signed. I pick one up every now and then just to read a story or two — because it’s fun to do, and because it allows me to fantasize about being a certain kind of writer in a certain kind of place at a certain moment in time. I envy those experiences, that skill, but lucky for me the stories are written with a strong sense of self, which makes reading them feel like a collaboration between reader and writer, even 10, 15 years later.
I got that letter yesterday, from Holt, re Tested! So flippin’ depressing. $1.83 a copy. I think I will buy every one of them, just to be spared the site of them on a remainder table one day.
Hi Hank, I just came across one of your signed first addition books the “Off Ramp”. I can’t wait to read it! I live in Columbus, Ohio and I just bo
ught it in perfect shape at the Library book shop.