By Alex Green, Guest Columnist
Four or five times a year someone comes into my bookstore with an incredibly guilty look on their face. They look as though I am going to punch them squarely between the eyes or scream at them to get out. They approach the counter cautiously, as though we are stars in a National Geographic documentary-a slight shift to the left or right, nothing too jarring or startling-and then they open up a bag full of books. They are among the thousands of self-published authors who write a book each year, and they would like me to stock their book.
Booksellers and publishers have often had an uneasy relationship with authors who publish their own books. Over the last decade, ways to self-publish have increased tenfold, and yet the rise of reading and bookselling in America has been so inextricably tied to the idea of large, streamlined distribution that self-published authors rarely break through. Amazon.com offers people the opportunity to sell their books, but little advocacy beyond a "buy now" button, and independent booksellers remain wary of the administrative burden which accompanies carrying a large number of individual titles by self-published writers.
Some of the industry-wide attitude about self-published writers stems from the view that they do not know how the process works. Amazon is able to use that to an advantage, charging a fee to list a book the same way that you are solicited each year to put your name into the every elusive, "Who's who in America" books. Indie booksellers worry that few authors understand the difficulty of taking in each title and managing sales and payment-and they fear facing directly a disappointed author when they have to return unsold books to them after a period of consignment.
A couple of years ago, a Waltham native with a Ph.D. in neuroscience wrote a novel. It is the story of a Harvard professor whose memory starts slipping at age fifty. "Still Alice" follows her descent into the darkness of early onset Alzheimer's and with tremendous compassion and precision, seeks out the irrefutable truths that make us all human, no matter how much we lose in the process. The author, Lisa Genova, published the book herself, and sold it out of the trunk of her car. A year later, she was on the New York Times bestseller list.
It would be easy to say that Genova's success is due to a fluke-a sort of literary lottery ticket. It would be wrong. Genova's book was acquired by Simon and Schuster and has become a great success because it found tremendous advocacy and deep resonance with a broad audience. 99% of all books published in America each year do not sell more than five hundred copies. This statistic has no bearing on anything whatsoever except the simple fact that even great works of literature have to find a reader at just the right moment, and occasionally there is a broad social sentiment that allows thousands, or even tens of thousands of people, to fall in love with a book simultaneously.
In the 1920's a dapper young Spanish writer's father helped him self-publish a little book of poems. They printed one thousand copies. I do not know if all of them sold. The writer was Federico Garcia Lorca, one of the greatest Spanish writers in history. Around the same time, a young expatriate Irishman was trying to convince a little Parisian bookstore to help him self-publish a large and seemingly unpublishable novel. His name was James Joyce and his book "Ulysses" is among the greatest works of western literature since Shakespeare. We get so bogged down by measuring the success of books, self-published or not, in terms of sales. As Genova's book so beautifully displays, memory is a beautiful thing, and we must remember that the joy of writing or reading a book is in the story not the sale.
Check out Back Pages Books and other independent book stores in this boston.com photo gallery.
Alex Green is the owner of Back Pages Books, an independent bookstore on Moody Street in Waltham. Back Pages is publishing Howard Zinn's "State of the Union 2009: Notes for a New Administration". They can be found online at www.backpagesbooks.com.