Friday, May 18, 2007

Shelf Life

Most markets have a section of shelves reserved in the Dairy Products Department for yogurt, where it is possible to find a range of brands, flavors running from the bland to the exotic, and a fat content running from non-fat to what is euphemistically called regular.

Many book stores, particularly such large chains as Borders and Barnes & Noble, have sections of shelves in the Fiction Department for such categories as mystery, romance, science fiction, chick lit, adventure, and juvenile.

It will come as no surprise to learn that the individual cartons of yogurt are stamped with sell-by dates and use-by dates, both reflecting the temporal nature of the content within. It will come as somewhat of a surprise to learn that many books in a book store have a sell-by date. If a given title does not sell, it is often returned to the publisher for credit, thus freeing the shelf space for a new book both the publisher and the bookstore hope will sell.

Although none of the books in the category section have use-by or sell-by dates stamped on them, the clock is nevertheless ticking to the point where it is both fair and accurate to say that some paperback novels have a shorter shelf life than a carton of yogurt.

The turnover is great--and wasteful. I have no idea what happens to yogurt that outlives its shelf life, what if any form in which it is reincarnated. On the other hand, I do know what happens to paperback books: The covers are ripped off and mailed back to the publisher for credit, and the text is sent through the shredder, making it possible for the novel you didn't buy last month to come back as something more alluring.

This recycling is as much a process in contemporary publishing and retailing as the process of a caterpillar evolving its way into a butterfly. This means that the paperbound books you see in thrift shops and used book shops have all been read at least once and are now being offered for sale outside the conventional market, usually at some ridiculously low price. A lovely way to build a functional library, but for one thing: the author is screwed out of the potential for royalty on these thrift shop and used bookstore sales.

Not to worry, you say; some of these writers do very nicely. Look at Candace Bushnell, for instance. After one of her novels was transmogrified into the TV series, Sex and the Single Girl,
could she possibly have to buy her Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik shoes from a thrift shop? And do those reliables of the paperback reprint trade, Harlen Coben and Lee Child, have to save up to go out for a steak at Smith & Wollensky's Steak House? Not hardly.

As in any field of endeavor, there is a pyramidal progression of real success as opposed to the very condition of being published. The average writer of these paperback category novels could, if he or she did not have a daytime job, qualify for food stamps.

And yet.

And yet, every month, there is a new tide of these novels, arriving in trucks from the distributors or in crates sent along by DHL, FedEx, or UPS. Men and women spend their waking hours dreaming up new ways to retell stories that have enthralled the generations before us.

Some foodstuffs have preservatives added to them to add to their shelf life, to extend their use-by date. Some books have preservatives added to their contents with the same motive in mind. One type of preservative is called sensationalism, another timeliness. But the best preservative of all in these category novels, these genre stories, is the one authors give that extra push to insert. It is called talent.

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