14 NYTBR essay highlights, outtakes, & asides

1. A little backstory…
I got the idea for this essay after I went to a small publishing conference for independent bookstores and local authors hosted at BookPeople here in Austin, TX. While hanging out with the staff afterward, we somehow got on the subject of shoplifted books. Steve, the owner, told me that the most-frequently stolen book was the Bible…and children’s department staff members Topher and Emily had funny and mystifying stories to tell about book thieves…and I thought: there’s an essay.

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2. Sobering info
I thought it would just be a quirky, funny piece, but in this economy, with so many stores struggling (at Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, $1.2 million is lost to theft each year), it turned out to be not quite so funny after all. Once I got on the subject of digital piracy and the transition from print to digital books, the information was even more sobering. The stat from the Codex Group, that only 28% of books read are purchased new, is particularly troubling (especially since the statistic is dropping.) More stats from the Codex Group are below. (see #11)

3. John Palfrey, Sherman Alexie, and digital books
On the subject of piracy and digital books, I wish I could believe John Palfrey’s optimism. When we first spoke I did, but after doing more research I do think the transition to digital media is going to be incredibly, incredibly tough on writers and the already struggling publishing industry, unless we come up with some innovative ideas and solutions. Taken out of context, Sherman Alexie’s quote about open source culture might sound alarmist; looking at the statistics (see #11 again) and thinking seriously about how writers may survive financially (or, more likely, not survive) in a digital world where people expect content to be free…well, he’s brave to be voicing his opinion, and I wish more powerful writers would join him. For more on his position, read this interview and a statement on his website.

4. Indie love
My favorite part of writing this piece was talking to dozens of indie bookstore owners and employees on the phone. I had a newborn baby when my book came out, so I never got to do an indie-book-tour, visiting lots of stores around the country…but I still dream of doing that someday, and meeting all these great people I spoke with. These stores aren’t just stores, but centers of literary culture. BookPeople is my favorite place in Austin. I would live inside that store if I could.

5. Outtakes
I enjoy writing pieces like this because talking on the phone is a nice contrast to writing fiction, which can get lonely…but, inevitably, it’s a bit heartbreaking how many of the interviews end up on the cutting room floor, since it’s just a 1200 word piece. Here are a few facts, quotes, and other interesting outtakes:

6. More on stolen Bibles

Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: Secret Fundamentalism and The Heart of American Power, said, “The idea of selling Bibles in a for-profit bookstore from a for-profit publisher will strike some people as very unclean. Some would say, ‘You’re not stealing this book—you’re liberating it.’” Sharlet also recalled a lot of books being poached when he worked at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachussetts, years ago. The most popular books to steal there? “Yiddish translations of Jack London and Mark Twain.”

One bookstore employee I spoke with, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that since their store was set inside a large café, they experienced little shoplifting; however, customers often chose to use Bibles as placemats. “I see ketchupy Bibles and maple-syrupy Bibles all the time,” she sighed. “I can’t even sell them after that.”

7. More on writers stealing their own books

“Sometimes when I do a book signing I take copies of my own books and don’t pay for them.” –Bestselling Writer (who asked to be anonymous, for obvious reasons)

8. Other hot-to-steal authors at indie stores
Chuck Palahniuk
John Fante
Hubert Selby
Jonathan Safran Foer
Cormac McCarthy
Tom Robbins
Hunter Thompson
Tucker Max
Neil Gaiman
Dave Eggers
Italo Calvino
Vladamir Nabokov

9. More quotes from indie bookstores

“A lot of bookstore owners get into this business for altruistic reasons—a love of literature, or they want to write—and it’s a very big jump from that world to arresting people,” –David Bolduc, owner of Boulder Books in Boulder, Colorado

At the Strand Bookstore in New York City, scholarly Judaica titles are frequently stolen. “Some people think knowledge is just wasted on shelf, and they think ‘Let’s get it out,’” –Fred Bass, the Strand’s president and co-owner

“I’ll never forgive Abbie Hoffman for titling his book Steal This Book,” said Nick Setka, the manager of Book Passage in California.

On holiday season theft: “Take all the shoplifting numbers and triple them and you have the holidays.” –-Steve Bercu of BookPeople

10. What’s stolen at women’s bookstores, children’s bookstores, & libraries

“We don’t stock stock Bibles, but wiccan and women’s spirituality books are incredibly popular to steal.”—Women’s bookstore owner

“I don’t think children’s books are as desirable to professional shoplifters as adult titles are…though a lot of mothers will ‘accidentally’ walk out with a kid’s book in the basket of their strollers.”—Children’s bookstore employee

“At our library, 133 titles–that’s Dewey-speak for the occult, and books about witches and wicca–are very popular to steal.” –Andrew Shaw at Salt Lake City Public Library

11. More sobering stats from the Codex Group

Books purchased new account for 31% of the books read by those 65+, but only 22% of those read by 18-24 year olds, who get 11.5% of the books they read from free downloaded or shared e-books vs. 4.8% for those 65+.

Three years ago, over 35% of books read were purchased new, which is now down to 28%. “Clearly the easy availability of free e-books from multiple sources is directly reducing the level of books being purchased new overall,” Peter Hildick-Smith told me.

12. More curious gender differences

Also according to the Codex Group: Men are 93% more likely to have read a free digitally down-loaded book, and 67% more likely to have read a shared e-book.

13. Charming author info

Jeffrey Eugenides is incredibly funny, down-to-earth, self-deprecating, and charming. I also tried to be immune to the charms of Paul Auster, but what is it about that man that’s so dashing? His deep voice, his old-world gentlemanly style? He’s like an old movie star, a rare breed.

14. P.S.: Please don’t punch me
Since this piece isn’t personal, I’m assuming this essay won’t inspire any controversy like the last piece I did for the NYTBR (not that I had any idea that would be controversial when I wrote it—but that piece caused one guy to threaten to “punch the author.”) I’m hoping no one’s going to threaten to punch me this time, especially since I’m due to have a baby in ten days, so that would be a particularly weird and creepy thing to say…but hey, this theory kind of explains things.

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