ATLANTA: Recently, I got a very sad letter from Random House, explaining that my first children’s novel, Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains, was going out of print in hardcover. The warehouse was writing to see if I was interested in purchasing copies of my book, at a deep discount, before it went to auction, and ended up in a remainder bin . . . somewhere.
I was shocked at first. The book had only come out two years earlier. Of course, it hadn’t exactly been a bestseller, but it had gotten good reviews. For a few seconds I wondered if maybe a mistake had been made, but deep down I knew better, so I set the letter aside and started making dinner, planning to talk to my husband about how many copies he thought we could store in our closet. We live in a pretty tiny house.
Then, as I cooked, I got to thinking about all the recession-era articles about books. Funding for libraries is being slashed in most states, and in some places, branches are closing down. RIF is in peril. Many schools no longer have the budget for a media center or specialist. Independent bookstores are folding. There are kids growing up without books in the home. Also, in case you haven’t heard, “publishing is dying.” Yet here I was with the option to buy perfectly fine new hardcover books for pennies on the dollar. Eight hundred of them!
So I did something that felt kind of crazy. Instead of calling my husband and asking him how much room we had in the closet, I called him up and asked him if I could spend a bunch of money we didn’t really have, on books we already had too many copies of.
“Sure,” he said. “Why not? We have way too much money anyway. The kids don’t need to go to college.” He’s a funny one, my husband.
This is how, a few weeks later, I found myself waiting on my porch to unload sixty-one boxes of books from a freight truck, and stack them in my minivan. So that I could give them away.
The hardest part was figuring out distribution. It’s one thing to donate a few books to your local library, and quite another to ship out eight hundred of them. Books are heavy and stamps are expensive (in this case, more expensive than the books!)
But luckily, I have wonderful friends, and it only took a few phone calls before a generous man named Joe Davich, at the Georgia Center for the Book, agreed to ship the books out to libraries who needed them. After that, another friend, Diane Capriola, at Little Shop of Stories (Decatur, GA) read a plea I’d made on Facebook, and emailed to say that me that she’d love to help get copies to a particularly large 4th grade class in her area. She offered to store the books at her bookstore, and then deliver the copies to the school herself.
That took care of distribution, pretty much. I saved a few boxes to give to the libraries at schools in my own neighborhood, but really — it was mostly Diane and Joe. In two short afternoons of deliveries (assisted by my surprisingly cheerful kids), the books were out of my minivan, and off to people who really wanted them.
The funny part of the story is not that I did this, but rather, how easy it turned out to be. The world is set up to make a donation like this simple, and now I’m wondering how to help more authors do it. Publishers are happy to make the delivery to a third party, if the author doesn’t have a big minivan like mine. All over the country, Centers for the Book exist to support initiatives like this. There are huge literacy organizations, and school districts that might be able to help. Many bookstores operate non-profits in their communities, and though I haven’t looked into it yet, I’m pretty sure this counts as in in-kind donation, so I might even be able to write it off at tax time.
My initial thought is that what really needs to exist is a kind of donor-author-recipient matching program. You see, authors have this amazing chance to buy their books at cost, but authors are also notoriously poor, and not all of them have husbands as generous/crazy as mine.
But what if donors were found and paired with authors about to go out of print? The donor could select the region to donate to, and gift the purchase price to an individual author. Then the author could “buy” the books with the donation, and designate the Center for the Book (or school district, or bookstore, or some other fiscal agent, perhaps).
The books would arrive in the area of need, and be shipped (ideally for free or cheap through interlibrary loan, or something like that). The school or library would get the books, the donor would get the tax write-off, and the realization that the same books, purchased any other way, would have cost about ten times as much. And the author? The author would get to know that even though their book was out of print, it was still being read by hundreds of kids on a regular basis.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so easy. Maybe we would need a warehouse. Maybe the publishing houses would resist my plan, because they want schools to buy other books, at full price. Maybe kids would rage and scream at being given out of print books, and not Wimpy Kids. Maybe we need a fiscal agent or something else I don’t really understand.
But even if those things complicate my idea, I think this is actually possible. I think mostly this is truly just a case of redistributing resources, for better value. I think it can happen. And this time next year, perhaps I’ll be running a totally insane non-profit, and falling behind on my next book deadline (in which case I apologize in advance to my editor. Sorry, Mallory!)
In the end, it feels to me like all this situation is — a house with two rooms in it. In one room, there’s an empty bookshelf, and a bored kid, falling asleep. In the next room, there are stacks and stacks of awesome books, but nobody to read them.
And between the two rooms is a door. Closed, but unlocked.
Could it really be that simple?