Lee Pitts: A life without books is incomplete, even though book business isn’t what it used to be
April 5, 2016
I love books and the minute you walk into our house, that becomes obvious. I may not have the 300,000 books that Larry McMurtry had, or the 133-pound book found in a Chicago public library, but overflowing bookcases line the walls of our home.
I feel uncomfortable in a home without books, and there must be others like me, because interior decorators are buying books by the running foot that nobody reads with fancy leather spines to decorate homes. I find I don't have much in common with people who don't read. They say Henry Ford didn't read books. Maybe that's why I'm a Chevy man.
The book business has been kind to my wife and I ever since we published my first book in 1985 and we refer to our home we've lived in for three decades as "The House That Dirt Roads Built." I've become acquainted with many interesting people because of my books, like Paul Harvey, an offensive line coach of the San Francisco 49'ers and the owner of the Minnesota Twins.
In 2004 when we published "A Collection of Characters," it was one of 175,000 books published that year. It seems that everyone wants to write a book, and I think half of them call me for advice. It's like someone once said, "To lead a complete life, you must plant a tree, sire a child and write a book."
Most of the people calling me about writing their memoirs say something like, "I want to write a book and I already have a title, a really funny joke and the page numbers."
It's a lot of work writing a book…and then the real work begins. It doesn't help that Amazon killed off a good chunk of the local bookstores around the country that would feature a book by a local author. And it's hard to predict what will sell. The New York publisher Harper Collins printed one of my essays as a hardcover book for children and I thought it would sell like hotcakes because the essay was all over the Internet, but most of those marked down books ended up in big stacks just begging people to steal them. Bookstores even took those security thingies out of them to make it easier for shoplifters.
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Being the author of a book is not all the glitz you may think it is. It's quite a blow to the ego to go to a local library sale where they sell boxes of books people don't want any more to find five of your own books there autographed to your neighbor. (I still don't speak to my neighbor after that.)
Like everything else, thanks to the Internet, the book business isn't what it used to be. My first book was called "It's The Pitts" and about a week after an ad appeared in our own livestock paper, my wife and I went to the post office and had a notice in our P.O. bBox to go to the front desk where they handed us 204 envelopes with money in them. We thought we'd never see another poor day! Guess what — in the 30 years since then, we've NEVER sold that many books in a day.
There were a couple highlights along the way. We had to reprint "People Who Live At The End of Dirt Roads" four times and we had big sales after a couple of my essays appeared in the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" series.
Speaking of which, I'm very embarrassed that our second-best selling book was a cookbook, and I can't even cook! Worse yet, it was called "The I Hate Chicken Cookbook," so for the next 25 years I've had sneak around lest anyone see me eating a piece of poultry.
Book signings are the worst. Someone, obviously an author, once compared them to being a prostitute, only with less dignity. I'll never forget the elderly gent who walked up to the table where I was signing and asked, "How much are these books?"
I replied, "They're twelve apiece or five for fifty."
He reached into his pocket, threw a crumpled single dollar bill at me and says, "I guess I'll take the package deal."
I was speechless when he said, "You have 50 cents in change, I hope." ❖