Keeping Books Away From Readers

You can’t buy Half of a Yellow Sun, a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that has won the Orange Broadband Prize, was a finalist in the 2007 Morning News Tournament of Books and has been praised in Vanity Fair and the New York Times Book Review, in any bookstore in midtown Manhattan. Or, apparently in the greater New York City area.

I’ve been trying to buy it for the last four weeks, going from store to store — not as a Michael Moore-style publicity stunt, but simply because I want to read the damn book — and I’m now realizing just how little our prestige publishing companies care about pushing their international authors.

The publisher of Adichie’s novel is Alfred A. Knopf, which, ironically, has a stellar literary reputation to uphold. I’m sure they’re boasting of their association with this award-winning book, but they don’t seem to care that readers can’t find a copy. Apparently last year’s hardcover run sold out after the book won the Orange Broadband prize, and Alfred A. Knopf doesn’t consider it a priority to print any new ones. The paperback version is coming in September, and employees of two of the bookstores I’ve been to gave me pathetic smiles and told me to come back then. Thanks a lot.

To their credit, the employees at the Borders in Westbury, Long Island, the Barnes and Noble in Forest Hills, Queens, the Borders on Park Avenue and 57th in Manhattan and the Barnes and Noble on 53rd and Lex in Manhattan all tried their hardest to find the book for me, and I’m happy to report that three of the four of them had heard of it. One of them even recommended several other recent African titles as a replacement, which I suppose was the best she could do.

So, big shot publishing executives, let’s hear why Alfred A. Knopf/Random House is unable to get ten copies of one of the summer’s hottest international titles to the biggest bookstores in Manhattan during the months of June or July, when there’s a Kinko’s right down the corner that could turn out 100 copies by midnight? Please, explain. Are you done yet? Okay. You suck. It’s really as simple as that.

I always hear about how one or another book publishing executive is “brilliant” or “a genius”. But it’s really hard to swallow that our book industry is run by the best and the brightest when they can’t find a book printing and distribution model that doesn’t constantly kill their buzz (the little they get).

* * * * *

(UPDATE: based on some informative comments which you can read below, it seems the direct fault here is with the retailers, not the publishers. Apparently the book is available in warehouses, but stores won’t order the hardcover with the paperback edition pending. I still don’t feel inclined to blame the store chains as much as Knopf here, though, because it is the publisher’s responsibility to promote its award-winning authors and make sure their books can be bought. If the hardcover format is known to kill distribution, why not rush out a paperback edition when a book wins a prestigious prize? They did it for Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” when it became Oprah’s pick … our modern printing technology should theoretically make this entirely possible. Better yet, why not skip the bloated overpriced hardcover altogether, and just publish the book in an affordable paperback edition in the first place?)

9 Responses

  1. Hi Dan –You know, it often
    Hi Dan —

    You know, it often happens when I complain about dysfunctional pricing and printing decisions made by major publishers that people ask me “why don’t you just go to Amazon?”, or “why don’t you take the book out of the library if the hardcover is too expensive?”, or “why don’t you buy it used at the Strand?”.

    But, just in case it’s not obvious, the point of this article isn’t too make you feel sorry for me because I can’t find the book I want. I’m just trying to ask the question: are the business leaders in the publishing sector doing as good a job as they should be doing?

    You probably already knew that, though.

  2. special orders?As a former
    special orders?

    As a former bookseller, I’m bewildered that none of the bookstore employees offered to special order the book for you. A quick check with Ingram, one of the major book distributors, through a bookseller connection of mine shows that they have plenty of copies of the Achidie book on hand (95 copies in the PA warehouse that likely serves NYC stores). A bookstore could have the book for you in ~2 days… And they could get more for the store…

  3. Very interesting, Max. I do
    Very interesting, Max. I do think one of the four suggested this, but at the time I thought I’d have better luck in another store so I didn’t try.

    At the Barnes and Noble on 53rd and Lex, though, there was a strange story. Apparently there was a single copy of the hardcover in the store, the employee told me, but according to the computer it had just been packed away for shipment back to the publisher in advance of the paperback publication which would replace it (though not till September). The employee actually spent ten minutes trying to find the book, and couldn’t, and I also wondered if the copy might be damaged. She also showed me the listing on the computer, which indicated that the upcoming paperback publication was available for order but that the hardcover was not. Very strange …

  4. It’s the retailersI just
    It’s the retailers

    I just checked Ingram and it is in stock. The problem is, I suspect, the retailers. They don’t want to order hardcovers, even though they could, because the PB is en route.

    Incidentally, three days after JAMESTOWN was announced as a Quills finalist, B&N decided to return 1900 copies. When remonstrated with, the buyer said they’d wait from the PB in March 2008…

  5. Wow … that is a key piece
    Wow … that is a key piece of info, thanks.

    I have to say, though, I still feel the responsibility lies with the publisher to adopt a pricing/format strategy that isn’t self-defeating. I guess this all points back to one of my favorite yelling points of all time: Two-Tier Book Pricing Has Got To Go!

  6. Retailers reduxHey Levi:We
    Retailers redux

    Hey Levi:

    We can’t force the motherfuckers. Believe me, the person who wields the power, Sessalee Hensley at B&N say, national fiction buyer, was told all about all these awards. Cause I know that Kim Wylie, head of Sales for PGW, and a person who Sessalee has a lot of respect for, tried several times to persuade her to not return 1900 Jamestowns. And it happened anyway. Corporate publishers do not have the leverage. They can slap a bunch of money down and buy some space and attention for the first 6-8 weeks, but after that, Sessalee’s about the sales velocity…

  7. Thanks for the explanation,
    Thanks for the explanation, Richard. That makes a lot of sense.

    I still wonder, though, if a writer like Chimamanda Ngozi Achidie wouldn’t have been better served with a slim $15 paperback original in the first place. Then they wouldn’t have had this problem in the first place …

    But I don’t mean to be trying to get the last word here. Thanks, Richard, for coming by and sharing your knowledge of how the industry works (since this is something few of us actually have).

  8. BookCourtLevi,I recommend

    I recommend trying the friendly and knowledgeable staff at BookCourt here in Brooklyn. I know they had copies quite recently, and they’re very on-point with special orders. I believe the url is

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!