During a recent visit to a campus bookstore, I found the bargain bin of literature. Novels, short story collections, and poetry books slapped with ugly red 50% off stickers, and shoved into the bottom shelves of the book rack. I recognized some of the names as visiting authors and mentors of the MFA program on campus, and I wondered, why are these books here?
A sadness accompanies the sight of bargain bin books. An author could easily spend three to four years or more researching, writing, revising, and marketing a single book. You get close, build a relationship with this work, much like raising a child. Katherine Ingram, author of Washing the Bones, found her book in a bargain bin, and said this in her blog:
The thing that every writer fears happened to me a few days ago. I took my children to the annual book sale at our local library to rummage through their detritus, and there it was: my book. The one it took four years to write. The one I painstakingly published not six months ago. There was the beautiful, familiar blue and white spine looking up at me, stuffed amongst two dozen other cast-offs in a broken down cardboard box. Ouch. Double dog ouch.
Granted, a book can’t stay on the bestseller list forever. Most don’t make it that far to begin with. Books are marked down all the time. Bookstores need to make space for new releases. The campus bookstore at the University of Tampa is one of the smaller stores I’ve been in, so the practice is inevitable.
Still, these could be authors you’ve read. Maybe you’ve met them, or been inspired by their pedagogy in the classroom, and seeing their names partially covered with ugly stickers is heartbreaking. What will this do to their reputations? Suddenly, I wanted to grab as many of these books as I could hold in my arms, tip-toe up to the counter, and buy them all. I wanted to save these authors from the horror of the bargain bin. I wanted to, but I’m a writer. I can’t afford to be the savior of author reputations.
One title, Under the Frog by Tibor Fischer, is a debut novel. Another title, Ayiti by Roxane Gay, is a debut collection of fiction and essays. Their first books, and not their last. Both authors have read from their latest works and held book signings during the University of Tampa MFA program’s Lectores Series. It makes sense that the bookstore would make available their previous works. These books aren’t marked down for being outdated, or unwanted, or terribly written. Under the Frog was short-listed for the 1993 Man Booker Prize, so there’s that. The books existed in the bargain bin simply because they were passed over for the authors’ more recent works.
Then it hit me. I could buy two of these books for the price of one. Twice the reading, twice the inspiration. Suddenly, I’ve morphed from savior wannabe back to reader, and I began digging through the bin and scanning the back covers.
Fischer and Gay are both mentors of the craft. They continue to write and speak and sell books because they want to inspire us. Their work outdoes itself, and for that, we get discounted books. Will they care that their debut book is in the bargain bin somewhere for half off? Maybe. Will it discourage them from continuing to write? I don’t believe so.
Now, when I see stickered books in a bargain bin, I’m filled with hope. It doesn’t matter that these writers’ books are here. What matters is that writers continue writing, and readers continue reading.