Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Shelf Life

The New Yorker has a great cover this week. For those of you who haven’t had a look, it’s a nine panel comic tracing the brief life cycle of a book. Here’s the breakdown, panel by panel:

  1. Hardworking writer slaving at her desk, outside it’s snowing.
  2. Hardworking writer in publisher’s office, supportive editor by her side pitches manuscript.
  3. Publisher gives a thumbs up to the manuscript; through the window behind him, we see it’s spring.
  4. Book is being printed.
  5. Book is on display in bookstore.
  6. Man in shorts on park bench reads book while sipping a cool drink.
  7. Same man (this time in a sweater) carries cardboard box out to the sidewalk for garbage pickup; the book is on top. Leaves fall from the trees.
  8. As the man walks away, we see a hand grabbing the book from the box.
  9. In the final panel it is snowing again. We see that the person who grabbed the book was a homeless man, and he tosses the book onto a fire to keep warm.

When I sold my first adult novel, a friend of mine thought I had achieved immortality. “You wrote something that will be on the shelves for 100 years,” he said. I appreciated his support, but I couldn’t help but laugh a little to myself. The teen books I had written had a way of kicking around for a long time—due to the new batches of kids that were constantly growing up—but I knew that things were much different in the adult market. I gave my book three, maybe five years, at best.

Was I in for a surprise. Even with great reviews and moderate sales, both the hardcover and paperback each had a shelf life of one year. Why? Because bookstores have limited shelf space for the thousands of books that are published every year. Stores have to constantly make room for all the new stock coming in. So if you’re not on the bestseller list, it’s not financially advantageous for them to keep you around. The industry is so saturated that you have to make an impact right away—within the first month or two—to have any hope of sticking around.

Still, it doesn’t bother me too much that at this very minute my book is somewhere in the bottom of a remainder bin, or maybe even fuelling a barrel fire. There’s a huge stack of extra copies in my closet that I don’t know what to do with and considering the cost of heating oil, burning them may not be such a bad a idea. I’ve enjoyed the brief run, I’m grateful for the readers who have found the book, and like the bookstores with their short attention spans, I too, have moved on to the next thing.

1 comment:

listplanit said...

I have a copy of your beautifully written book and it's shelf-life in my bookcase is permanent (except when it is being loaned out to friends or family).