Lawrence Block. His latest novel, The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, continues his burglar Bernie Rodenbarr series, but let Bernie and Larry tell you about the book and the road to self-publishing!
From Lawrence Block:
Scene: An old-fashioned antiquarian bookshop on East Eleventh Street, in New York’s Greenwich Village. A tailless cat, either a Manx or a Manx manqué, dozes in a sunny spot in the front window. A young woman, cute as a button, browses at a bookshelf, iPhone in hand. A clean-cut young man, boyishly handsome, sits behind the sales counter, holding a book; he is BERNIE RHODENBARR, and is the store’s proprietor. A much older man, bald and bearded, stands across the counter from him; he is LAWRENCE BLOCK, and we sense that he would be more comfortable sitting, or perhaps lying down, with a cold cloth on his forehead. There’s a briefcase at his feet, but we barely notice it.
BERNIE RHODENBARR: It’s a fine-looking book.
LAWRENCE BLOCK: Glad you like it.
BR: I didn’t say I liked it. I said it was fine-looking.
LB: You don’t like it?
BR: I didn’t say that, either. I remember that topcoat.
LB: Checkered, like your career.
BR (rolls eyes): I wore it throughout the late 70s. Then one day in the early 80s I looked for it and it was gone. I’ve always wondered what happened to it.
LB: Maybe somebody stole it.
BR: Who’d steal a man’s coat?
LB: Who indeed? You stole a man’s shoes once.
BR: I didn’t really have much choice, and it didn’t hurt that they were Allen-Edmonds, and a perfect fit. I still have them. But here I am on the new book, wearing that coat again.
LB: And looking the same as you did back then.
BR: On the first four books you wrote about me. Burglars Can’t Be Choosers, The Burglar in the Closet, The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling, and The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza. Then you switched publishers, and I never saw that coat again. Yet here I am, wearing it, and not because you’re back with Random House. You published this book yourself.
LB: I did.
BR: And found the original artist, Emanuel Schongut, and somehow euchred him into turning out a gorgeous painting that’s got everything—a spoon, a whole bunch of brightly-colored buttons…
LB: And the coat.
BR: Right. And, you know, I read the book, and I have to say you did a pretty good job with it. Aside from changing a couple of names and addresses, and sneaking in the occasional groaner of a pun, you stayed remarkably close to the facts.
LB: Glad you approve.
BR: But there’s something I don’t begin to understand. You published the book yourself—I’m fine with that part—but as an eBook…
LB: You don’t approve of eBooks?
BR: How could I? I’m a bookseller and a burglar, and an eBook is something I can neither sell nor steal. But you didn’t let me finish. You published it as an eBook, and as a trade paperback.
LB: A HandsomeTradePaperback, actually. It’s all one word.
BR (rolls eyes again): Whatever you say. Still, eBooks and paperbacks. Didn’t you forget something?
BR: Where’s the damn hardcover?
LB (picks up briefcase which we barely noticed, opens it, removes and brandishes book): Right here.
BR: And it’s gorgeous. Dark green leather cover, gold stamping, Manny’s cover art tipped on, text on high-quality 80# stock. Limitation sheet’s signed and numbered, and bears a custom-made US postage stamp, canceled with three asterisks.
YOUNG CUTE-AS-A-BUTTON WOMAN: Asterisks? That’s hysterical!
BR: But this is a collector’s item! It must sell for a hundred bucks, and—
LB: $79.99, with free shipping.
BR: That’s all? Even so, it’s a good fifty dollars more than you’d pay for an ordinary hardcover book. You’ve essentially published my eleventh adventure as a paperback original, with a high-ticket Collector Edition as a back-up.
BR: Is it a sneaky way to get an Edgar nomination? You figure there’s less competition in the Best Paperback Original category?
LB: The book’s self-published, remember? That renders it ineligible for Edgar consideration. And let me stop you right now before you start saying that’s unfair. MWA’s policy is both right and inevitable. As it stands, committee members are swamped with books they have to read. Open the process to self-published books as well and they’d all resign, and who could blame them?
LB: You know, a book is a complicated thing.
YCAABW: There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away
Or any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
They stare at her.
That’s Emily Dickinson. I forget the rest.
They continue to stare, and she disappears into the stacks.
BR: You were saying.
LB: I was saying that the whole definition of a book has been changing. You might say it’s been bifurcating.
BR: I wouldn’t. But I suppose you might.
LB: On the one hand, it’s a device for conveying information, whether fact or fiction. For that purpose, the consumer can decide which vehicle works best for him.
YCAABW (off-stage): Or her.
LB: Uh, right. That may be an eBook or a printed book or an audiobook, depending on where you prefer your words—on a screen, on a page, or in your ear. To the extent that The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons is about reading, those three media are there to serve the reader. And the HandsomeTradePaperback does the job as well as a hardcover, with the same page size and type face. If anything, it does it better—and at half the price.
BR: And on the other hand…
LB: On the other hand, a book is a physical object. You can admire it, you can collect it, you can cherish it. Any sort of physical book can serve in this capacity, and a collectible volume may be esteemed because it’s the first state of a first printing, or because it’s an association copy, presented by the author to someone noteworthy, or for no end of reasons. It helps, certainly, if it’s attractive and well-made.
BR: This one seems to be both.
LB: That was the idea. It was produced less to be read—although it certainly lends itself to that use—than to be esteemed by its owner as an objet de vertu. The average commercial hardcover book doesn’t really serve that purpose. All it is, really, is a paperback book with a cheesy hardcover, tucked out of sight within a dust jacket.
BR: That’s another thing. Your book doesn’t have a dust jacket.
LB: Nope. The original dust jackets, you know, were to protect the book while it sat on a bookstore shelf waiting for someone to buy it. When you got the book home, you typically threw away the dust jacket before you read it. Or you kept it on, using the flap to mark your place, and then tossed the jacket when it got ratty.
BR: Which is why books printed before 1950 are rarely found with dust jackets. See that shelf? There are half a dozen books on it ranging in price from fifty to a hundred dollars. If they had dust jackets, the range would be more like five hundred to a thousand.
LB: So the dust jacket is worth ten times as much as the book itself. You don’t think that’s crazy?
BR: No crazier than anything else in a free market. Collectors came to regard a book without a dust jacket as incomplete, and the prices reflect this view. Something similar is happening with autographs, you know. With modern first editions, an unsigned book is thought to be missing something. But you’d probably rather talk about something else.
LB: Almost anything, really. Even dust jackets, but I don’t have much to say on the subject. I’d rather put production dollars into the book itself, and I’d rather make the book’s actual hard cover a thing of beauty.
BR: But anybody who wants a hardcover—
LB: —has to pay a high price for it, but they’re getting what they pay for. The collector who buys an ordinary commercial hardcover pays a little less and gets a little less. But not everybody who buys commercial hardcover fiction does so for a collector’s reasons. He—
YCAABW (off-stage): Or she!
LB (with commendable restraint): —wants to read a printed copy, and doesn’t want to wait six months or a year. Well, that’s what the paperback is for.
BR: The HandsomeTradePaperback, selling for $14.99.
LB: Right. And the hardcover is the true first edition, you know. It went to press first, and it even has two minor typos you won’t find in the paperback. And it shipped to customers on December 21, four days before the on-sale date of the eBook and paperback.
BR: And will this be how books are published in the future?
LB: Oh, hell, how do I know? Maybe everyone will have his—or her!—own reality show, and nobody will read anymore. I barely know what the present holds, let alone the future.
BR: I’m the same myself. Look, if I ever have another adventure, would you write it up?
LB: If I have the strength.
BR: And would you publish it yourself?
LB: I can’t see why not. This is the most fun I’ve had in all my years in the business.
BR: And if all that happens, would I get to wear the coat again? Wait a minute, you don’t have to answer that now. I have a feeling Emily Dickinson’s cutest fan needs my assistance.
He disappears into the stacks. The older man looks around, as if trying to remember who he is and what he’s doing here. He returns the book to his briefcase, walks past the sleeping cat, and goes out the door.
The curtain falls, and not a moment too soon.
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