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Online Bookselling


Occasionally I'm astonished by what I find on Amazon. For example, I knew that my memoir, Happenstance, was published as an e-book but was surprised that other books, The Nonfictionist's Guide, Following Isabella (not the book about a sheep but the one about Colorado), and Postscripts, had also been published that way. (Note to self: read contracts before you sign them.)


A while back, these surprises made me check up on my older books. None had been converted into electronic format, but some offered pricing surprises. For example, E. B. White: The Emergence of an Essayist was available for $91.83 new, only $18.99 used, and was listed as by Robert L., Jr. Root and Robert L., Jr. Root. Difficulty figuring out what to do with a suffix like Jr. is one reason I stopped using my middle initial and suffix, but I can't guess why my name is there twice, as if I were truly identical twins. Recovering Ruth came up on the search first as merely an over- (but accurately) priced paperback; however, though the book only had one paperback edition, it's listed five more times, at somewhat staggering prices: $80.85 (three separate times), $71.37, and $134.75 (perhaps an inadvertently gold-plated copy). All these other listings are apparently for private dealers rather than Amazon's retail department, and they suggest that used book and/or private booksellers have no sense of proportion about pricing.


It gets worse. My second book, The Rhetorics of Popular Culture, now thirty-five years old, sells direct from Amazon for $107.95 ("Only 1 left in stock [more on the way]"—really?) and, from two other sellers, for $323.85 and $259.08. When the book was published it was overpriced for libraries so, when I taught from it, I advised students to photocopy the whole thing for around $11.00. Happily, my first book, Thomas Southerne, is only listed as used for $17.00 and the anthology Landscapes with Figures is sensibly priced at $23.95, but it starts getting wackier the longer I search the Amazon website. Working at Writing goes for $56.40; the first edition of Wordsmithery goes reasonably enough for $22.95 and $24, but the second edition, apparently a more wonderful book to judge by pricing, is variously priced, from a mere $57.52 through $132.95 used and $199.58 new to a spectacular $1,133.85 (used). (I have several new copies I'd sacrifice for half that price, with free shipping, in case anyone's tempted.) The first anthology that Mike Steinberg and I edited, Those Who Do Can: Teachers Writing, Writers Teaching, is priced at one site at $4,999.00—that's nearly $19 a page. (I've also got a few of those in the garage; make me an offer.) All editions of The Fourth Genre were priced higher than we'd liked, as happens in the textbook market, yet the idea that the sixth edition runs $69.64 but Amazon will rent it for $53.75 is disturbing, and the offer of the fourth edition for $999.99 is ludicrous. In other entries the first edition goes for $290.21, the third for $115.56, and the fifth is priced at both $254.56 and $319.15. College bookstores who buy used copies at the end of each semester have much cheaper copies, a good many of them with no sign of ever having been used.


Compared to ads for rare books in The New York Times Book Review, these prices may seem like chump change, but as author/editor of the ones above they seem bizarre. Does anyone ever pay those prices? They seem symptomatic of a certain aspect of the online marketplace for books: a casual disregard for either reader or author. Not long ago, needing a newer edition of Walden, I found a host of them available for cheap as e-books. Almost none were scholarly editions or products of established trade or small press publishers; instead, they were mostly versions scanned and uploaded by people hoping to sell public domain books in the e-publishing market. All kinds of out-of-print classics and not-so-classics are subjected to this approach. Like Jane Austen or Dante? Find an uncopyrighted nineteenth century edition or translation, scan it into your computer, and start your own e-Collection of Jane Austen's works or your own Divine e-Comedy. You never have to have read a word of either author or ever have written a word about them to sell them online. Plagiarism runs rampant. Thanks to the Internet you can rip people off online without ever getting out of your pajamas.


I've self-published electronic and print-on-demand versions of two manuscripts with a very limited audience—for her descendants, my grandmother Betsy Root's 1937 newspaper column in How to Develop Your Personality; for anyone who remembers hearing them, my decades-old series of radio scripts in Limited sight Distance —and I appreciate the availability of these resources, which have removed part of the taint self-publishing had under the label "vanity publishing." As someone who can no longer shop at Border's and can seldom find an older book at a Barnes & Noble or ever-more remote independent booksellers, I appreciate the availability of books online. But I'd feel more comfortable each time I do these things if I didn't feel I was implicating myself in something at best sloppy and shady, something at worst crass and corrupt.


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