Readersforum's Blog

September 14, 2011

Cory Doctorow: Why Should Anyone Care?

Cory Doctorow

One of my most important formative experiences as a writer was working in bookstores. I worked in three shops: a specialist science fiction store (Bakka Books in Toronto), an academic store near the University of Toronto campus, and a dreadful suburban mall bookstore. Going into my first bookstore job, I’d been supremely confident in my understanding of the bookselling trade: after all, I’d been spending all my pocket money and after-school wages in book shops since I’d been old enough to ride the subway on my own. I didn’t just shop at bookstores, I haunted them. I could happily spend a day reading the blurbs on every single book in the science fiction and fantasy section, perusing every likely-looking magazine on the rack, looking through all the interesting reference books and the sale tables, hunting for…. Well, I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, and that was the point, right? I just wanted a great book, something I hadn’t heard of, new or old, used or new, genre or mainstream, just something that’d grab me by the ganglia that reading activated and drag me around for a few days.

Needless to say, the reality of working in a bookstore didn’t have much in common with my imaginings. On the one hand, I had been right that many bookstore clerks really liked books and were delighted to talk about them with customers (at least, I was that sort of clerk). On the other hand, I’d been totally wrong about the reverence I’d imagined that booksellers had for books. I’d been taught to handle books by librarians, taught to think of books as something more than mere articles of commerce. Books had lives and afterlives, living on as cherished friends in the bookcase and then resurfacing as precious used books, rich with history and old bus-transfer bookmarks.

But the reality of books was this: a publisher’s rep would come in and tell us breathlessly about the lead titles – how much promotion they were up for, how much the house believed in the title, how well the author had done before. We’d order a pile of hardcovers, generally a smaller pile than we’d been asked to take, and usually, they’d sell modestly well. Then we’d return the leftovers, and some months later, they’d resurface as remainders, with their dustjackets clipped or magic-markered lines drawn on their page-edges. Then they’d come in as paperbacks, hang around for a few months longer, and vanish. Sometimes, a copy or two would surface as used trade-ins, and sometimes a regular would ask us to order a copy, but within a short time, the book would no longer be in the publisher’s catalog in any form. It would be gone.

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