Once upon a time I wrote a book called A Game of Proof. I was very proud of it (still am) and even more proud when it was published in hardback in the UK by Constable & Robinson, and in the US by Carroll & Graf. Naturally, I thought I’d made it (all authors think this) and I was delighted to be invited to lunch with my editor in London where I could sign a stack of the first edition.
It felt a bit strange, or course, that the author’s name on the cover and the signature I scrawled in a couple of hundred books wasn’t actually mine, but that of a pseudonym, Megan Stark. How did that happen? Well, it was a wizard scheme dreamed up by my agent. ‘Your main character, Sarah Newby, is a woman,’ he told me (proving, at least, that he had read the manuscript). ‘Most of your readers will be women, too, like most editors today. So if you want to sell books, you must adopt a female pseudonym. Trust me, everyone does it.’
Hm, I thought. Oh well. A hundred years ago, the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, sent out their manuscripts under male pseudonyms – Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. George Eliot was a woman – Mary Ann Evans. Now the wheel has come full circle. I must pretend to be a lady. So I diligently practiced my flowing signature – Megan Stark. I got quite good at it, in fact; I preferred it to my own. And I sat there in the offices of Constable & Robinson signing a hundred, maybe two hundred copies.
Then after a jolly lunch with the publisher, off I went home to work diligently on the second book in the series, A Fatal Verdict. Occasionally I wondered what had happened to all those copies of A Game of Proof which I had signed. Apparently some people collect signed first editions by unknown authors, hoping that one day, some of them at least will turn into a good investment. Imagine how much a signed first edition P.D. James or Harry Potter would be worth today, for instance! Perhaps an early Megan Stark might be worth something too?
Amazingly, one day it seemed that this might actually be true. My wife found an ad for one of these books on the internet. ‘Rare book’, it said. ‘Could be a good investment. Very few left.’ That sounded encouraging. Amazing, but exciting!
Ah, but wait. There was a paragraph further down the page which explained exactly why these books were so rare. Apparently, it said, there had been an accident, a mistake. Most of the copies of this book, A Game of Proof, should of course have been distributed from the printers’ warehouse to the various bookshops – W.H Smith, Waterstones, and so on. There, like other newly published books, they would sit on the shelves for a few weeks, hoping to be bought, and then …
Yes, what does happen then? This is something we authors don’t like to think about. Our precious book, our masterpiece which we have brought to birth over so many long hours, months, years –what happens if no one buys it? A bookshop isn’t like the Tardis, after all; it doesn’t expand to infinite size. Every week new truckloads of books come into the shop, to be stacked invitingly on the tables and shelves. Some are bought, of course, but what about the rest? What happens to them?
Well they, unfortunately, are loaded back onto the empty trucks, and driven away to be pulped. (I’m sorry to tell you this. I know it’s a tragic story, one no author wants to think about. It can’t happen, surely, you say: not to my book!)
Ah, but it does. Imagine all those books, loaded up in the dead of night and driven away down the motorway – all the weeping and wailing of the characters within them, characters who will never get to tell their story to an audience as they were meant to, and who face instead … oblivion.
Worse than oblivion, even – humiliation. Because … well what do you think happens to the pulp which these books, and your characters, are soon to become? Cardboard, I would have thought; but according to this advert which my wife had found, it’s worse even than that. Apparently some of the pulp is actually used as part of a process to surface roads. (It sounds unlikely, I know, but I swear it’s what the advert said) And if that’s the case, then next time you drive down the motorway, you may actually be driving over your dreams! All those words you wrote, all those characters you created, lying there squashed under your wheels.
It’s a terrible thought, I know, but at least these books will have had a chance. Not for long, perhaps, but for a few short weeks they’ve sat there proudly on the shelves in W.H.Smiths or Waterstones’ or Barnes & Noble, all clean and fine in their beautiful new covers, waiting for their chance to be bought. Some are chosen, some are not. It’s the brutal way of the world.
For most books, that is. But not mine. Not according to this ‘rare books’ advert which my wife found on the internet. No. Because the reason why A Game of Proof by Megan Stark is so rare, the advert said, is because most of them never reached the shelves at all. What? Yes, really. Apparently there was a mistake, a cock-up in the distribution department. The truck which collected them from the printers didn’t drive to the bookshops at all. He drove them straight from the printers to the place where they were pulped.
The poor books never had a chance.
Is that possible? Hard to believe, but that is what it said. I asked my editor, I asked my agent; and from neither of them could I get a straight answer. They never denied it, never said it couldn’t happen. So perhaps it did.
An urban myth, or a true story? I don’t know. It reminds me of a similar tale of the importance of literature by the poet, Roger McGough. Getting off a plane at Heathrow Airport, he saw a sign on a litter bin which read: ‘Unwanted Literature.’ So he wrote a poem and put it in.
Luckily, there’s a happy ending. Because of Amazon and KDP, Sarah Newby and all the other characters in A Game of Proof, A Fatal Verdict and Bold Counsel are still alive and thriving on the internet. Not buried under the motorway after all.
But if you do find a signed first-edition Megan Stark, hold onto it. It could be worth a bit.
For UK link, click cover. For US link, click words in text.
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