|My books, my homing pigeons
First you write a book and your publisher sells it. Fine. Then it’s remaindered or the publishing house closes. Happened to me twice – and on both occasions I bought 50 copies of each book, giving them later to unsuspecting relatives at Christmas or substituting them for those bottles of cheap wine you bring to dinner parties.
Fool. I should have bought the lot because now I’m forced to go cap in hand to second-hand booksellers – Amazon even – looking for copies of my own books to buy. Why? Because my most recent book – a travel book about Syria before the war – has reawakened an interest in my remaindered books and I get asked for them at book festivals and when giving readings.
A check of second-hand online booksellers reveals more than 50 copies on offer, which is great. However, closer investigation proves dispiriting. ‘Pristine condition’, trills the seller, meaning it’s never been read – though http://www.usedbooksearch.co.uk distinguishes between ‘gently-used books’ and, I suppose, those that have been hurled around like bags aimed at a carousel.
‘Some tanning’ means the book has been lying on a window sill among the dried up geraniums for aeons.’Ex-library’ means no one was reading it and anyway they needed the space. But at 0.01p per copy plus £2.50 postage you can’t complain especially if you manage to sell it at a reading, which is the whole point of the exercise.
So what’s it like, having your own book return complete with pages turned down or possibly a coffee-cup ring? One came winging back to me with a postcard inside from one reverend person to another, describing his holiday in Scotland with Hilda though glad to to be back home and hoping the recipient enjoys the enclosed book.
Another had, inside, one of those address stickers Oxfam send to encourage you to buy your Christmas cards from them – except the name was that of one of my neighbours. And he never said. Cheek.
Then there are the sellers.A hospice in Sussex badly needs £3 million and all I’m buying is one book and, oh look, here’s one that’s run by an NGO that helps people facing discrimination. Then there’s Tree Savers who are committed to recycling books rather than pulping them which, in the second-hand book world is tantamount to stamping on butterflies. According to the Publishers Association, 61 million books were returned unsold to publishers in the UK last year and that’s a lot of trees but nevertheless, says the PA, pulping is a last resort.
The idea of pulping a book is so terrible that now I lie awake at night worrying about adding to the crime of deforestation and the effects on the environment. Up till then, I thought saving my own books from pulping and wearing bamboo socks would do the trick.
However, take heart. No book is an unwanted book, a librarian in Killarney tells me. They’re simply redistributed or sold to readers.
The problem is space. At home, you can pile them up on the stairs or under the bed, but neither of these options is open to libraries. And no, no books are pulped, Jane Mason of Oxfordshire County Libraries says firmly. Instead, they circulate theirs among their 43 branches, which also hold regular book sales.
Where do they all come from, these pre-used though much-loved books? James Carruthers, who runs the Oxfam Bookshops, says many just come through the door as donations. Jake Pumphrey, responsible for The Last Bookshop – with branches in Salisbury, Oxford and Bristol – says he is in the secondary market not the second-hand book trade, which means he buys remaindered books from publishers at a reduced rate: ‘Publishers often print too many copies and with warehousing so expensive they sell on to us.’ Anything other than pulping.
Newspapers are usually awash with books. The Irish Times, for which I freelance, regularly holds an internal sale, the frenzy of which leaves the Harrods one standing. There’s also the case of the review copy. One of my books was self-published and my publicist – yes, that’s me as well – sent out review copies to all the reputable broadsheets and within two weeks some of those were being offered on Amazon. Cute hoors, those newspapers.
My recent trawl through the booksellers led me to one who advertised The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt quite poetically: ‘Unread, slight scent to mask damp smell: kept in an attic for 20 years.’ I emailed him and we chatted. ‘It was my mother’s,’ he said, ‘and I found it after she died. I’ll miss it but it really belongs to you.’
Reader, I bought it.