Ahmed Baba, Meet Stephen King

     |    Wednesday May 29th, 2013

Someday, if all goes well, I’ll publish another book. My agent, in fact, is out there selling it as I type — or I hope he is. And, if all goes well, there’ll be more after that. It’s what I do: I’m a writer, and there’s nothing a writer likes more than writing a book. As the first person I ever knew who got a book contract put it “Well, at least you know what you’ll be doing when you wake up in the morning.”


It won’t be my first book. That was my Michael Bloomfield book, in print for approximately a week and then deleted when the publisher went out of business. I’m happy to see the price for used copies has fallen: it was going for $1200 last time I looked. That’s about half what I got for writing it. There were no royalties: it was a work-for-hire project. There is talk about a new edition, but I’m not holding my breath. Then there was the book I shared with two other writers. Again, work-for-hire, although allegedly royalties if it sold. It sold, and was used as a college textbook, in fact. When I asked for a royalty statement, I got two pages of the UK edition’s hardback sales report.


Then, I published two short e-books in Kindle format. One was fiction, a couple of long short stories about white kids who discover the blues, and the other was non-fiction, a story of a journey into a country that’s not there any more, eastern Germany in transition. I’m proud of both of them, and have no shame in recommending that you buy them both. For the first time, after all these years, I actually get royalties from them.  Not much at those prices, but it can potentially add up.


The one thing I don’t like about my Kindle books, though, is that they kind of don’t exist. Two nice covers, some nice writing if I do say so myself, but I’ll never have that glow of seeing someone on a subway reading one, or a neat stack of them at Book People in Austin or Word in Brooklyn. And the books that aren’t in that stack won’t be autographed, either. That’s why I have to salute Stephen King, who’s announced that his next book, for the pulptastic Hard Case Crime imprint, will be physical only.



I agree with the publisher, who said that King digs the way the books look, and I don’t think he means only the cool, lurid covers the imprint specializes in. I think that King, like me, likes actual, physical books. Of which I have too many, of course, and, some day, I’ll be able to whittle them down to a manageable, or at least intelligible, collection.


Stephen King is a celebrity author, of which there aren’t many these days, which brings up a recent article in the New Republic about how celebrities from Anthony Bourdain to Johnny Depp have started their own imprints to publish books they like, many of which are, surprisingly enough, literary fiction, a genre I don’t think has been very intelligently handled since American fiction authors have had to retreat into academia just in order to earn a crust of bread. Perhaps if these celebs can jump-start some careers, some young writers can achieve the status of rock stars, the way fiction writers did many decades ago. They’d be indie rock stars, of course, but rock stars nonetheless. The article’s hyper-snotty tone is unfortunate. I know nothing of Chelsea Handler, and her imprint’s books seem to be all by her, but if 50 Cent can get his audience reading, good for him, and the fact that it was Johnny Depp who got that lost Woody Guthrie manuscript out (one hears it’s not so good, but it’s still a valuable document) shows that he’s more than a pretty face.


Publisher. Image from Wiki Commons


The point is, publishing is in crisis, and it needs a little stirring up. Bourdain’s involvement is particularly good news: he wrote his non-fiction Kitchen Confidential and sold a million copies, and then wrote two mystery books before becoming a media star. American publishing hasn’t had a great cooking editor since Judith Jones retired, so if he sees fit, ol’ Tony might be setting himself up for old age here, while perhaps stemming the tide of useless celebrity-chef and fad-diet cookbooks. Hmmmm, I wonder if my agent’s pitched Johnny Depp or Bourdain…


* * *

So much for new books. This past week has also seen two reports from Mali, where, as I reported here at the end of January, centuries of Islamic learning stored in huge libraries by families in Timbuktu was under threat by Islamists who, seeing the intellectual heritage of their religion as a threat to their own misunderstanding of Islam, did the only thing they knew how to do and tried to destroy it. Some books did, in fact, get burned, and they’re irreplacable. Many more did not. The rescue operation is nicely detailed in this report from the Washington Post, the drama of sneaking out the treasured manuscripts and books under the noses of the invaders is nicely detailed — and, as a bonus, you get a slide show of classic photos by Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita, which includes amazing portraiture and some of the greatest pop music photos ever, since they were shot during an era when Mali’s music business was exploding. The Post‘s story is one of the few upbeat stories that came out of this whole mess, but even now, after the French moved troops in and put the rebels to flight, the intellectual heritage of Mali is still threatened.

How threatened is reported in a much more downbeat — and, sad to say, probably more realistic — story in the Guardian from a week ago. The fact is, the objects themselves aren’t all that are in need of preservation. The means to read them and evaluate their contents is also important, because the context in which some were written is still not fully understood by scholars and some of the writing styles are a bit arcane. Few scholars want to trek out into the middle of nowhere — and that’s precisely where Timbuktu is located — to the Ahmed Baba Institute where the bulk of the manuscripts will once again reside when it’s certain that the ignoramuses have been thoroughly routed.

And the moral to all of this is that books are just the start: it’s their ideas that make them important. The reason we like to keep them around physically is so we can grab them and turn to the right page and show someone where the words are that confirm a position or state a fact or express an idea or are just plain pretty. I want to contribute a few more to that huge stack. Not that they’ll be reading me in Mali — or who knows? Maybe they will be — but as a writer, I like it when people read. Informing and educating ourselves is a basic human right, worth defending, and developing critical thinking through reading and being educated to think critically (sadly disappearing in the U.S., from what I hear) is essential. No wonder it scares the pants off of those who want to turn the clock back.