Wednesday, May 31, 2006


In Which We Learn the Three R's...

I've been very lucky in this career to have met and even hung out with some pretty impressive writers: folks whose books have been at the tops of best-seller's lists and who engage in multi-city book tours where they laugh it up with morning talk-show hosts, then go to signings where their legions of fans form lines out the door and around the block and up the sides of buildings.

(This would be the point where I would name some of them, but name-dropping is just so self-serving and fatuous that even I, with my monstrous ego, can't quite get behind it.)

They're all very different folks, these writers. Put them in a room together and they might all get along--or they might just start beating the shit out of each other with hardback editions of their books. But when I've made one particular observation to each of these people, nearly all of them agreed with me.

This observation was first articulated to me by my old college mentor, a man who made his living writing magazine stories for the likes of Life and Time and the Saturday Evening Post in their heyday. He also wrote more than a dozen books, all of them best-sellers. He was something of a stoic, and not easily ruffled. But I remember him telling me that in his long career, there were only three experiences in his writing life that ever struck him as surreal and vaguely unsettling. The three Rs, he called them:

Recognition: The first time a member of the public either recognizes a writer on sight or by overhearing his name.

Reaction: Instances of the writer overhearing perfect strangers discussing his work, as well as sitting next to someone who is reading or quoting his work, unaware that the author is right there, within touching distance. Perhaps the most famous example of this is in the film "When Harry Met Sally" when Carrie Fisher's character quotes a line from a magazine story, and it turns out to be the very story written by Bruno Kirby's character, who is sitting across the table from her. He becomes instantly smitten with Fisher, since no one has ever quoted him back to himself before hell, you know the rest, and if you don't, someone else can fill you in,

And then we have the third R:

Remaindered. In short, finding a copy--or worse, several copies--of one of your books sitting on the clearance table or stuffed in the bargain bin of a bookstore.

Recognition has never happened to me, and likely never will. I say "never" because when I say "never" I jinx myself and it ends up happening anyway, so I'm trying to make the jinx work for me.

Reaction has happened to me exactly once, when I was in college. It was in a lecture hall when I was sitting behind a gorgeous young woman who was reading the university newspaper--specifically, the semi-amusing column I wrote for the paper on a semi-regular basis. I read over her shoulder and watched as she smiled and chuckled in all the right places. I fell in instant love with her and was going to say something. But then she finished reading my column and handed it to her boyfriend, saying, "You have to read this guy, babe. He's a riot." But she so enjoyed my work I almost didn't even mind that I missed a chance to hit on her. Almost.

And then 19 years later, just this past weekend, I was wandering around my local Barnes and Noble, treating myself to a little buying spree (thanks to Big Brother for the gift card. I'll fight anyone who says you're a self-serving, thoughtless prick. Anyone except me, I mean). I sauntered by the clearance table. Then froze in mid-saunter, causing the woman walking behind me to utter a squeak and almost run into me.

I backed up, scanning the long table. Surely I had not--

Surely it wasn't--

Oh God! It was!

Five copies of one of my books. On the clearance table. At 80 percent off the cover price.

I'd been Remaindered.

Before we proceed, I just want to take a moment to address the aspiring writers out there who are thinking, What the fuck are you whining about, MM? At least you HAVE a book to be remaindered. I'd give my right arm/eye/nut/breast to have ANY book in a real bookstore, whether it was on the clearance table or not. And I appreciate that. I really do.

But now I ask you to imagine spending more than a year of your life reporting, researching and writing a book that runs to 700 pages, busting your ass to get it out the door early, driving yourself to exhaustion to flog the book across the country. And by the way, you're doing all this for money you've pretty much already spent.

Then imagine finding the sum of that work fallen to the depths of the $4.98 table. Wouldn't you find it surreal and unsettling too?

Well, never mind whether you would or not. It sure as hell struck me as surreal and unsettling. In the words of one writer who's experienced this, "It's like walking down an alley and tripping over a homeless person, only to realize the homeless person is one of your children." I don't know that I'd go THAT far. To me it felt more like visiting your parents while they're in the middle of a yard sale and discovering that your mom is selling all of your prized comic books. A collection you spent your childhood amassing, now in a box marked "25 cents each." It's not about the money, really. Barnes and Noble bought these in bulk and I got my money for the book a long time ago. They're just trying to move some overstock. Still, that does nothing to overcome the impression that something you worked on, that you put something of yourself into, has been arbitrarily devalued.

But that's not the worst part. The worst part--for me, anyway--was wondering what to do about this. I mean, my God, you didn't think I was just going to leave them there, did you?

As I saw it, I had a few options. Let's examine each in detail:

Option #1: Loiter around the clearance table until someone looked at my book. In this instance, "looked" is defined as "happened to brush my book with his sleeve while reaching for something by Douglas Coupland." Whereupon I would blurt out an unsolicited recommendation for the book the browser is resting his elbow on.

But no, that would be odd. And not just odd, but possibly even unnerving to the customer, since the book on clearance is the one I wrote about men and dating (the one that's flying off the shelves in China under the title I Am the Sex Man!)

Option #2: Sign them. No idea why this came to mind, except I thought it would be a nice surprise to anyone who actually bought it. Or if they were just browsing and happened to turn the page and see my signature, they'd be induced to buy the book and rescue it from the clearance table.

But then I formed a mental picture of me standing in the middle of the bookstore, opening each copy and scribbling in them. Some Barnes and Noble employee, fresh from a quick visit to the in-house Starbucks and amped up caffeine, spies me defacing store merchandise and sends me into the U.S. History aisle with a flying tackle.

As a further refinement of Option #2, I considered finding a manager and graciously offering to sign my books, thus allowing the store to put their special little "Signed Copy" stickers on them, and quite possibly even remove them from the clearance table, perhaps to a special display table of their own.

And then I recovered my sanity and realized how self-serving--and possibly even desperate--this would sound and so thought of...

Option #3: Buy them all myself. I mean, you can't leave your kid in the gutter; you can't let your comics languish in the yard sale bin. And truth to tell, I only have a handful of copies left (and a few of those are promised as prizes to people who discovered my secret ID this past year. You know who you are, and you know I haven't forgotten. But if you'd care to nudge me by email, feel free to do so). There are three version of this book (not counting the Chinese edition that is reputed to feature a picture of my very own ass on the cover): a hardback volume with a nice dust jacket featuring an author's photo and bio; a trade paperback version; and a hardback volume with no dust jacket--the cover art is simply embossed on the cover, making it look like nothing so much as a school textbook).

If these copies had been the dust-jacket or paperback versions, I'd have bought them: the paperback is weirdly scarce and I have only one copy of it. As for the dust-jacket one, certain favorite aunts and relatives have asked for them, but I only ever got two (giving the first one to my parents and keeping the second one for me). But the ones on clearance were the textbook versions and I have plenty of those.

That aside, there was the checkout desk to consider. I don't know what Barnes and Noble is like in your neck of the woods, but whenever I buy something at mine, two out of every three cashiers I get feel compelled to examine and comment on each purchase, partly to compliment me on my good taste, but mostly to demonstrate to me that they are not just cashiers, but well-read cashiers. I couldn't bear the idea of plopping five identical books on the counter, then handing over my credit card and having the cashier notice (and he would notice) that the name on the card matched the name on the books. I didn't think his reaction would be "Wow! A real book author! And I get to ring up his purchases!" but would instead be more along the lines of a nonverbal expression of pity.

Meanwhile, there I stood in the middle of the bookstore, staring at my remaindered books, wondering what to do. I realized then that in all the conversations about the three R's I'd had with other writers, it never occurred to me to ask them what they did when they encountered copies of their books on the clearance table.

So instead, I'll put the question to you. Gentle Reader, of the above three options, which would YOU have chosen? And if you happen to think of a 4th option (as I ultimately did), what would it be?

Let me know in comments below. There might even be a prize for the most creative answer.

As for me, I'll tell you what I eventually did, tonight or tomorrow.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

peel off the sale sticker and put them back in the regular section!
I don't know what you did, but I know I want a copy.

Could you hold another MM basement of crap style auction, set aside copies at the bookstore, and have all of us contact the bookstore (or you for us) and we can get copies....

Ah, ok, too much coffee too late in the day for a good answer. I was just too excited to hear that a piece of MM work is just out there, waiting for us! And on the reduced table no less!
I would gather up three of the copies and place them in different areas of the store.

1. The Adult Reading XXX Rack it is a dating book right?

2. I'd put one on the New York Times Best-Seller Rack

3. I would hide the last book behind the toilet in the last stall of the men's room. Right next to all of the Playboy and Hustler Magazines, horny middle schoolers have snuck into the bathroom to check out in private.
Set the bookstore on fire.

Fake a petit mal seizure.

Pull out a guitar and do a reggae cover of Bobby Vinton's "Mr. Lonely".

Stand outside the store and snag young women as they walk in, offering to pay them cash to buy a copy of your book.
Well, I would like to suggest you buy them all and then hold a contest for your loyal readers to have a chance to earn one. I would also love a copy and would happily enter any contest you created for a copy...signed, of course. BUT. I see your point about buying them all yourself. The cashiers at my Barnes and Noble are also nosy...or just really chatty and curious about the reading habits of the customers. You could have HLS go buy them all ...or a close friend who doesn't have your last name, if the cashiers are curious to the point of noting that your wife has the same last name as the author she is buying five identical books by. Perhaps you should just pay cash and tell the cashier you plan to give them away as gifts at a bachelor's a sex book right?
The idea of putting them in the NY Times Bestsellers section is really good too. You may create buzz about the book that didn't exist before.
Whatever you do, or did, I am willing to compete for a copy, if only to be one of the priveledged few who know your true identity!
Leave it to Johnny C, eh?

Wow, that would be sobering, wouldn't it? How do we find out what books these are? Do you have them somewhere on your site so I can find them? I buy books that are published by bloggers I know. So I'd support the cause if I knew what to look for.
There is clearly only one logical way to handle this.

You don't want the books to sit there on the reduced table, but you don't want anyone to notice you buying them. Take the dust jackets off of some of the other books on the table (probably ones with higher prices, in case you get caught) and put them on your books. Then find a cashier that looks like he/she has a sense of humor and keep them laughing with your extraordinary wit as you pull off this grand scheme.

If at all possible, you should also have a small music player with the mission impossible theme on it playing ever so softly in the background. And don't forget your cyanide capsules; they won't take you alive!
Perhaps speak with the manager about giving a talk about something or other and in promotion of said event having all copies of all your works relocated to a central location?

Or, maybe you could've grabbed a copy, started through it in absolute rapt fascination, and seen if others would have their curiousities piqued.

Or, one might suppose you could've slipped them into unattended shopping baskets (assuming Barnes and Nobles offers such things).

Or, there is always starting to read certain choice excerpts aloud in the hopes that passersby will overhear you and not just walk away from the weirdo reading aloud to himself.

Or, an option might've been to knock them to the floor in the hopes that some good samaritan might pick them up to return them and instead find them the answer to all their life's questions.

Or, ...
1. Just buy em yourself and tell the truth...we are all humans...ok...thats obviously not gonna
2. Ask them to hold these books for are a Prof. Mc Wiggly from XYZ university..and have listed these books on your sylabus for a class about modern suburban social practices and such,...students having a hard time finding...for papers and such...then have a friend who knows you, and how fragile your ego can be...go and buy them for you...I "the Class".....
I was going to say pretty much the EXACT same thing as Donnie. Except that I would use dust jackets of books of equal value (I'm a bargain hunter, alright?) and I'd be humming the Mission Impossible theme (yes, I'm the only person in the world without an ipod).
This post reminds me of the extreme outrage I felt a few weeks ago when I discovered a hardcover copy of Augusten Burroughs's Magical Thinking on the bargain books table. How could the author of Running with Scissors be insulted this way?! (The anger dissipated when I went to register to pay for it, however.)
I see what you mean, but I feel like the point of writing a book is to have it 'out there,' so I wouldn't buy it myself unless I had specific people in mind to give it to.

Moving them to another section, or several, seems the way to go if the clearance table bothers you though I wouldn't pull off the sale price. I appreciate a good cheap book find.
Perhaps you could place a $5.00 bill in the front cover with a polite note about the value of a good book and the desire to do share it with others :)

That way, you are not "defacing" the book, tampering with store inventories, or drawing attention to yourself (as I assume you did not want to do).

If you were so bold... you could sign your note so the new owner would have a signed copy- of sorts.
I would have found the nearest ATM and paid cash for all five of my babies. Then I would have told the cashier, had they asked, that I was getting them as gifts. I think I bought five copies of Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book once...
Buy all the books yourself. then place them in certain places that you allways see someone reading a book. Like a park bench or a docters waiting room. You could even donate them to your local library when they do a book drive. Maybe sign them before you drop them off and let people think they found a true treasure

I'm just trying to imagine how severely this would destroy my ego.

(Yes, destroy. My ego has been destroyed before. It regenerates!)

Let's imagine that someday I actually decide to work at writing. I've spent so much of my life avoiding writing work that I would have to have a ginormous emotional investment. And let's imagine that somehow I manage to get something published. I mean, wow. I would feel like I had finally met the expectations of all the people who've told me what a great writer I am. I would feel like I'd finally met my own expectations (which I'm not sure is possible).

And then, one day, to see that the bargain bin?!

Sure, my friends and family and teachers were wrong. What do they know? I know that my writing isn't any good. But I prided myself in my ability to fool people. I fooled my friends and family and teachers. And then somehow I fooled a publisher. And that made me think maybe I was the fool, that maybe in fact I was a good writer...

...but that would just prove that I wasn't, that I'd been living in a fantasy land.

I'm trying to imagine how I would react to that...and I just don't know.

I can't see myself buying them. And I can't see myself asking anyone else to buy them. I wouldn't want to draw any attention to my shame.

At most, all I can see myself doing is hiding the books somewhere, because by that point I would be thoroughly convinced of their worthlessness, and I wouldn't want anyone else to find them.

(You can see why this is all hypothetical. Until my personality changes, I will never be a real writer, will I?)
I suppose you didn't have a good fake disguise handy? If you really wanted them, you could have asked HLS to go back and buy the copies...or you could have done what I probably would have, and just left them there.
I rarely am able to buy books at full price-- I have to wait for them to go to the clearance bin before I can afford them. Yay for libraries!

I think you should be happy that you have books for so cheap on the bargain table. It's the only way some of us can ever own books!
I think you should sweep all the books off the "arts and leisure" table in a dramatic gesture, set up all of your books on the now-bare table, hang up an attractive sign that indicates "one day only! Get your copy signed by THE SEX MAN!!!" and commence with your impromptu book signing!
Two Choices.

One. Go home. Take the receipt that you have from the books you did buy and get the store phone number. Call the store and ask for the manager. Explain to the manager that you were a local author and through an interesting mishap (use one of your adventures like the sex pervert one or make up a new one, possibly about men and dating) you were currently tasked with performing some community service. Offer to run some sort of published author seminar or to perform a reading from one of your books. Explain how you don't have any copies to distribute but ask if he could attempt to get all of the available copies in your local area to be shipped to the store for that purpose. Show up for the appearance. If the store has out of embarrasment removed the clearance stickers, rejoice! After the appearance, offer to buy the lot that are left at the reduced price (it should show up when you go to the register). If the store has left them on clearance, explain during the appearance that the store has generously reduced the book price as part of the promotion. Again, buy the leftovers secure in the knowledge that you have all the copies in your local area.

Two. The same scenario as above but instead of needing community service explain that you want to participate in "take your child to work day" but as a published author it would be pretty boring for your son/daughter to stand next to your computer all day while you pound out your next best-seller (extra credit for having Thomas or the Brownie with you as you sell this). Offer the appearance as a chance to show your child what a published author's job is like. For book disposal follow plan in step one.
Another Idea.
Tell us what your names is. Then, every reader you have can call the Barnes and Noble in their town all around the same time on the same day. You can set the community phone call up here on your blog. We can all ask for The Sex Man Book (or whatever it is called here) by...MM. Certain Barnes and Nobles may get several phone calls inquiring about your book. Some quick thinking manager is bound to catch on. If it becomes known amongst the Barnes and Noble management that their stores across the country are being innundated with inquiries about this book...well, they are bound the mark it up and put it in the best seller section. Or at least off the clearance table. If they realize how many people want to buy this book there is no way they'll leave it marked at five bucks when they know they could get three times that for it!
One by one, I would take the books from the clearance table and lovingly place copies over every book by Dr. Phil and anyone else of his ilk to be found in the store.

Or, you could make up your own stickers that simply read "OPRAH!" and surreptitiously apply those babies to your books. Then, everyone will *assume* that Oprah has recommended it. Oh, and then, put the copies over every damn Dr. Phil book in the store. Smother them, MM.
Interesting how this has lead to the discussion of your secret identity. As someone who has, many moons ago, spent the good part of an hour in a vain attempt to sleuth out your true name, I can understand and empathize. Is this your attempt to passively raise the subject so you can reveal it, or did you not count on this when you wrote the original post? These questions and many others may be answered on the next episode of... Soap!
Okay I didn't read the other answers, because I didn't want to be influenced by them.

Leave them there. And here's why:

I'm usually BROKE. Very broke. But I LOVE to read. So, every trip to Barnes & Noble is tortuous to me as I see mounds and mounds of books that look so interesting and scream "BUY ME!" as I pass by...

Alas, as I pick up the book and become more tempted to buy it...I always turn it over and see: $32.95...$29.95...hell, even $22.95. I just can never justify not paying my cell phone bill because I bought a book. It's pathetic, I know.

But please...leave the books. Think of them as an opportunity for the broke-ass, just out of college gal like me to actually read and enjoy your writing.

What an unfair question on a day when this gal is too fried to be truly creative. (I did so love the Oprah idea, too!)

For me, I guess I would have left them there. It'd no doubt be terribly humbling, but you're not defined by your work alone, MM. Besides, some of your best stuff was waiting at home for you--ready to play ball or with a to-do list ready in a small fist.
My idea involves a little bit of a brotherly collaboration (BB, that means you have to be in on it, wink wink).

Talk to the bookstore manager and see if he will sponsor a mini-seminar with copies of your book for sale. A book signing, like, but with you giving a little speech.

Enter BB, who just happens to wander by arm-in-arm with a gorgeous babe, and he pipes up and says "Yeah! That's the book I used!" He then asks you for an autograph and to shake your hand. The gorgeous babe he's with kisses you on the cheek and thanks you for your book, because without it she NEVER would have met her cutsey wutesy (here's where she plants a big one on BB). Every lonely dude there buys one and gets quality relationship advice. Your books get sold. BB gets a kiss from a gorgeous babe.

Everybody wins.
Hey Shafa, I'm having a little trouble with your imagery: Big Brother, Gorgeous Babe... Big Brother, Gorgeous Babe... hmmm... Nope, not seein' it.
I figured that might be a problem Stu, however, a little bribery never hurts to advance any cause.
Ok MM, here's my idea and I'm going for most creative:

Stand by your books, drop trou, stick a pen up your rear and hang a sign that says "Free Autographs" (I'd buy one ; )
So like...does "today or tomorrow" mean "next week"?

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