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The Mystery of Book Sales 

Every time I go into a bookstore I see dozens of new books that were never reviewed in the newspapers, never seen on TV, never talked about at parties. In addition to the jackets that do their best to catch the eye with vivid art and blurbs that cry "read me," these books are wrapped in silence. The unharried browser, a rare breed himself, might stop for 10 seconds to take in the cover art. If it's sexy, cartoonish or vaguely familiar, he might go on to take in the author's name. If the name's short, catchy or vaguely familiar, he might parse the title. If the title's one word or a vaguely familiar phrase, he'll pause to consider. If the word or the phrase has more than one meaning, such as "Chum," or "The Light Changes," he'll note that and then move on to the names under the blurbs. If the blurbs are from newspapers, he'll read them in descending order of importance, beginning with The New York Times. If he runs into the word "incandescent," he'll quickly scan the others. If the blurbs are from famous authors, he'll read the one from the author he vaguely remembers. If the blurb praises something that sounds vaguely familiar, he might actually open the book. He may or may not be conscious of this, but he is looking inside to find a sentence that answers a question he may or may not have consciously formulated. If the sentence his eyes fall on actually answers the question in a direct, familiar manner, such as, "Ted wrote her a brief note and that was the end of his suffering," he might actually repeat the process up to three times. If the book is canny enough to answer his questions each time, he'll look at the price. "Thirty dollars," he thinks. "Lunch for two at Sizzler." If he's on a diet, he'll have a brief, elevating thought. Reading is non-caloric. Success. The unknown author has found a reader. A new book can hope for perhaps 100 such readers. Not enough to make up for the publisher's meager advance. A week later there is no trace of the book in any bookstore -- not even an independent one, let alone the chains.

Have you ever asked a stranger to take your picture on the street of a foreign city? Just as the stranger clicks the shutter, a large person walks by and you have all but disappeared. When you bring your vacation pictures home, only the large passerby is visible. It is thus with books that have no advertising, receive no publicity, aren't hyped on talk shows, or promoted by chain stores. Every year, tens of thousands of books are disappeared behind big-budget gorillas. Why are they being published at all? Let's say that it's for the sake of that unharried reader who, given enough time and a place to browse in, might one day become an army. But the gorillas just get larger and more numerous. I know. They are standing in front of my books.

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