Across a crowded room (full of books)

Here’s an interesting post by Cory Doctorow on marketing, or as he puts it, “getting people to care about the products of your imagination”. The article’s focus ends up being on self-publishing, but I think it’s relevant for any author, really.

What interested me most (because I approach everything obliquely for some reason) was the first few paragraphs where he described his early bookselling career. I’ve been a bookseller, too, and he’s got his finger on something I often used to feel: the pathos of publishing, that books (even good ones) are ephemeral. So many shine briefly and then disappear.

Long ago, I worked in an antiquarian bookstore in Chicago, where I eventually became a buyer. People would bring in old books and I would offer them money — or not. Age alone does not make a book valuable: someone also has to want it, and most of the books that have ever been published are long forgotten (often justly, but sometimes not). That was an unusual store in that it was tactically disorganized, forcing patrons to browse. I think young Doctorow, based on his description of himself, would have loved it. It was for exactly that kind of reader, in search of a serendipitous book, and that is the kind of context where books – obscure books, books that have disappeared undeservedly – are united with readers who will appreciate them. That was a beautiful thing, to my mind.

Later, I worked at Children’s Book World, where we prided ourselves on being able to unite books with readers in a different way. We all read extensively, we got to know our customers, and we played matchmaker. It was very, very satisfying.

Doctorow seems hopeful that the internet and electronic media will keep books available longer, but there’s still that crucial step, connecting reader with text. Sites like Goodreads help bridge the gap; book review blogs do too. I like to pretend to myself that I’m doing something useful in that direction right here. But I think readers are also an important part of the equation, readers who actively look for a book that will speak to them, regardless of how difficult it may be to find.

What’s the most serendipitous book you ever found, and how did you find it? Or – if you will permit me to pose the question spookily – how did it find you?

4 thoughts on “Across a crowded room (full of books)

  1. Teach Yourself Irish, 1960 edition by Myles Dillon and Seosamh Ó Cróinín. In a used bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when I was facing the prospect of being trapped for weeks in northern Manitoba with a lot of time on my hand. $5. Learned all of the grammar in one summer, forgot the vocabulary for a couple of years, then picked it all up again and then some. Agus tugtar stair an an gcuid eile den scéal,

  2. Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, which appeared in the grad school cubicle of my best friend. We were in the midst of putting together reading lists for our comprehensive exams, and we had decided to do a list on romances (from medieval to present) because we thought we should have fun with one of our 4 exams, and read things together. So we did. This book just appeared, in a dusty old edition, and we were intrigued. We’d never heard of it, or the author…but what a wonderful book! It’s set in Shropshire, and there’s lovely dialogue, and dialect, and an amazing plot in which goodness eventually wins out in a fight against greed, set against this backdrop of folk beliefs and customs. Such a mysterious happy gift. I think I shall re-read it now that you’ve reminded me of it.

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