Like many bibliophiles I’m well acquainted with all the nooks and crannies by which one might come across used books at a bargain. Indeed, my house is well insulated with walls of books mostly found at jumble shops, thrift stores, garage sales, used bookshop bargain bins, library blow-outs and even the odd car boot sale. I frequent all the local grottos and scour boxes or shelves for the odd treasure, much of the time returning home empty-handed for all my craning and sifting. And I’ll be damned that in every single instance, without fail, I not only find one book by a certain Jan Karon – but a veritable slew of them. Who the hell is Jan Karon – and how bad must she be to have all these numerous tomes gumming up the used-book works?
To be fair there is also usually a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love somewhere in the mix, or a few bricks of Dan Brown’s da Vinci Code propping up the shelves. And you can bet your mortgage that something by Janet Evanovich, Annie Rice or Dean Koontz will be loitering, dog-eared, in the corners. With such ubiquity you could be excused for thinking that there is something deficient with these (albeit rather famous) writers for being in every discard/resale bin and perhaps in some cases you’d be right. A quick googling of the ever-present Jan Karon, however, tells me that she is a New York Times best-seller and Virginia’s Literary Lifetime Achievement Award winner. Just maybe she is preciously absent from the bargain bins of Virginia then (one can hope!). But I think this phenomenon has more to do with how the commercial fiction publishing operates with its frenzied print-runs and viral marketing ploys.
Temporality is now more than ever the name of the game. Everything from your washing machine to your toaster to your car is manufactured to short-term specifications – and commercial book publishers have adopted the same ethos. We know that, of the above examples, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code was a top, top seller, literally churned out into the market place in 2003. It was then translated into 52 languages and garnered some hundred million sales within a couple of years, generating a little cottage industry of spin-offs and rebuttals along the way. This is the sort of ‘success’ that writers crave and yet it seems than many of his buyers decided to dump their copies, which are now vermin to resale shops. Of course, this is no skin off Mr. Brown’s nose as he’s already amassed a tidy fortune from the first-go-round sales. It’s fun to imagine that his readers, upon reading this mystery-spinner, found themselves agreeing with Stephen Fry’s damning edict that his writing is “arse-gravy of the worst kind” – but the truth is probably more mundane. Books, and particularly commercial novels, are now marketed toward a short-term explosion of interest followed by an abrupt death and discarding. They are designed to excite fever-pitch fervor – generate the quick-fire sale – but then end up in the same donation box as the failing toaster.
It is a pleasure, then, to be involved with a press that aims for the long-term, the slow and steady selling book that remains viable and relevant. This is not to disparage the Jan Karons of the world – but to elevate the author beyond the lurid state of temporal commodity value. ‘Shelf-life’ should be a literary determination not some corporate remaindering principle normally assigned to household appliances.