Wednesday, January 28, 2009

It's a Bit Morbid, but Authors' Deaths Spur Book Sales

When an author dies, many bookstores put up memorial tables. Some, like Kurt Vonnegut and Studs Terkel, sell a lot of books, while others, who shall remain nameless out of respect for the dead, do not. For someone like the esteemed writer John Updike, who passed away at 76 this week, demand should be quite high. You will see tables, at least as soon as we can get more stock. Random House is cleaned out.

Booksellers never failed to be impressed by the regular interval at which Updike wrote books, most of them respectfully reviewed, though generally not nominated for the book awards. A novel was published last fall, a sequel to The Witches of Eastwick, while a short story collection is coming in June. A book of essays, one of poems, a third of golfing prose--you never knew what you'd get. One would imagine if one met him, he was probably writing to himself while engaged in conversation.

I wonder, had the books come out less frequently, would they have been taken even more seriously? One thinks yes, but then I'm reminded of Philip Roth, whose 1 1/2 to 2 year cycle did not reduce expectations for his output, if you exclude the late eighties. The joke we'd sometimes be told by his publisher Knopf was that it was hard to gauge enthusiasm for his books--a big book would get disappointing reviews, while a supposed minor one would get raves. I remember being suprised by the sales pop for Roger's Version some years ago. I didn't even quite understand what it was about.

Sales were pretty consistent for us. The last book of his to break out, the one that got lots of reads (they didn't always do advance copies for booksellers) and major reviews was definitely The Terrorist. The novel I'd most likely read were I to drop everything and read Updike now (and I just might) would be Rabbit Run. Some group the books together as one; it's collected as Rabbit Angstrom. The New York Times polled critics a few years ago and the cycle made the shortlist for best fiction of the last quarter century.

Had Updike won the Nobel Prize in his lifetime (and he wouldn't, not leftist enough), we would have suggested starting with Rabbit Run. So this is a sadder time to make a recommendation, but some of you will ask, and it's definitely the book to read.

And one last thing. We've seen the same thing at Schwartz. Our sales the week after our closing was announced were Christmas-sized. It won't save the store, I'm afraid, but the cash flow helps ease the transition to Boswell Book Company and Next Chapter Bookhops. Both are a way of saying goodbye, another way that books help in our lives.

No comments: