Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

April 15, 2011

The Sadness of Books We Can’t Sell

There’s a depressing side to returns season. It comes near the tail-end of the fiscal year, when we can delay the inevitable no longer and have to send back books which we’d been holding on to as long as possible for sentimental reasons; books which “should” sell.  What’s maybe more depressing is that books that don’t sell usually fall into very specific categories, and so maybe as booksellers we should learn simply not to order from these lists.  After all, our job isn’t to snobbishly insist readers should be reading one thing or another, it’s to provide them with a good choice of things they might be interested in. So why, after years of failing to sell some of these books, do we keep ordering them? Optimism, I suppose.

Young Adult Literature Not Featuring the Occult

This is an especially sad category considering the wealth of absolutely amazing Canadian YA lit being published. I have no doubt that companies like Groundwood Books do stunningly well through the school and library markets, but we sell precious none of them off the shelves.  Children’s books – picture books – do very well, probably because it’s parents who buy them. YA fiction featuring vampires, wizards, witches, time travelers and talking animals also do just fine. Classic children’s novels like The Secret Garden, Five Children and It, Swallows and Amazons and so on also do fine (though, again, often purchased by grand/parents).

But good, insightful plain fiction aimed at young adults?  Forget it. Not that that stops us from filling the shelves with Glen Huser, Polly Horvath, Alan Cumyn, Tim Wynn-Jones and Paul Yee.  We just have to send them all away again at the end of every year.

Chinese Literature

Literature in translation goes through fads and phases until a region has accumulated a critical mass of Nobel Prizes or Booker Internationals.  These days Middle Eastern literature is starting to come into vogue. And, you know, great! Fabulous books like Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building and Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun are getting well-deserved love, and Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East ed. Reza Aslan has been a surprise best-seller for us.

But oh man, China. Its day in the literary limelight has not yet arrived. Gao Xingjian won the Nobel prize in 2000, the first Chinese writer to do so, but I defy you to name offhand a single book of his (I had to look it up on Wikipedia, and even then nothing looked familiar).  We do bring the translated books in – A Cheng’s King of Trees, Bi Feiyu’s, Three Sisters, Jiang Rong’s, Wolf Totem and much more – but they don’t go back out again. Tuttle Publishing is even doing wonderful new editions of “Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature” – The Dream of the Red Chamber, The Water Margin, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Journey Into the West – which we have valiantly kept on the dusty shelves these past ten years, to no avail.

Post-Soviet Russian Novels

You’ll be surprised to know that Russian literature didn’t die with Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn!  Despite forays into internationally renown territory like Victor Pelevin’s contribution of Helmet of Horror to the Canongate Myth series (which also brought us, among other things, Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad), I think I’d be safe in saying that post-soviet Russian novels are being completely ignored by Western media, critics and readers.

But there’s plenty to be had. NYRB has published some of the best offerings (though, see below), including Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx and Vladimir Sorokin’s The Ice Trilogy (which I cannot wait to read, for reals).  Plenty of Pelevin’s books have been translated and published by big, international publishers.  But buyers?  Well, not here.

NYRB Classics

We don’t sell none of these, so maybe this isn’t a great example.  But we do tend to order absolutely everything they publish because their books are so damn good, so when it comes time to return and we’re sending back most of them, it looks particularly bad.

NYRB publishes some truly under-represented bodies of work, like literature in translation outside of your usual Nobel laureates and international bestsellers and literature from the 20s and 30s not written by Faulkner, Hemingway or Fitzgerald.  Perhaps, then, this is why they tend to be slow in the selling. It’s hard to sell Elizabeth von Arnim as “frontlist” or “new” when she died in 1941 (and doesn’t have the cheerleading squad that Irène Némirovsky has), even if The Enchanted April is in a beautiful new edition and a wonderful book.  People haven’t heard of her, and they’re more likely to pick up the new Cynthia Ozick or Eva Hoffman.

Always exceptions, of course. As I mentioned, Arabic lit is all the rage around these parts nowadays, and NYRB brought us Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih, which sells like those proverbial hotcakes.

Oh well.  I suppose if it weren’t these books, it would be something else going back!  There are so many books and so little time. Maybe when I finish sending all these lovelies away, I can get to work reading some of the survivors!

14 thoughts on “The Sadness of Books We Can’t Sell”

  1. Panic says:

    I will totally back you up on the Russians. Sacred Book of the Werewolf was kickass.

  2. Roshen Dalal says:

    Thanks, an interesting article. You may like to read my article on Gao Xingjian on my blog {earlier published in hindustantimes.com]. I loved his books.

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  4. tamarapaulin says:

    Thank-you for the insight from the retail front. I am fascinated by what I overhear in the YA section of bookstores: the young girls point out to their friends what is “good” and “really good” (paranormal) and then separately, well-meaning aunties ask the staff for recommendations for anything that is NOT paranormal, since it’s all “such trash.”

    I was a teen in the 80s and I loved the slim section that was labeled “occult”. I felt a bit dark and twisty for it, but now it seems to be the stuff everyone likes.

  5. Does not surprise me much. Someone once said that people do not buy books, they buy authors. So only those authors who can create some kind of personality cult for themselves seem to be in favour with the buying public. Rather sad that the product is worth less than the celebrity status of the author. Not sure what can be done about it.

  6. Kat says:

    I’m crazy about the NYRB series, and have never read a bad one. I own over 100 in the series, and they tempt me with their rainbow precision on my bookshelves. But, alas, you’re right, they do not sell to the masses. A fun way to show their relevance might be to pair them with their intro authors, all well-known contemporaries who DO sell. I’m in the habit of reading a NYRB and following with a title by its intro author, e.g. Novels in Three Lines, followed by Sante’s Kill All Your Darlings, or Journey Round My Skull followed by Oliver Sachs’ Anthropologist on Mars. Makes for a great reading experience!

    1. Charlotte says:

      Actually, this is a really neat idea! I know I’ve picked up some NYRB books (notably The Long Ships by Bengtsson) because of who did the introduction (Michael Chabon). Making that connection more overt might serve us well!

  7. Pussreboots says:

    I wish you were my local indie. I’d be buying all the books you mentioned. I adore Polly Horvath’s books, Chinese books in translation and I seriously need to replace my tattered copy of Enchanted April.

  8. Kat says:

    Charlotte, keep us posted with your ideas about merching NYRB. I’m curious to know what you come up with!

  9. Kat says:

    (Also, meant to say “contemporaries of ours,” not the authors’.)

  10. Sarah says:

    With all due respect, the cover of AFTER SYLVIA is absolutely awful. I can’t imagine too many self-respecting young readers picking it up. It reminds me of the early-mid 1990s novels with similar covers which we had to get rid of because NO ONE read them. Who would want to go farther than the cover?

    We do have more teens coming in for mystery/adventure stories which are mostly realistic. Unfortunately, there is still too much paranormal/vampire/angst/futuristic/dystopian stuff being published. Yes, I know those are the trends, but not everyone is “trendy”

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