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Remaindered But Not Forgotten

July 18, 1993|Daniel Akst

I always dreamed that my books would be sold right next to John Updike's. Unfortunately, I'm about to get my wish.

The irony isn't pretty. For years I have read from remainder tables, satisfying two of my most enduring appetites--for books and for bargains--from the forlorn ranks of volumes left behind by those who pay retail.

As a writer, one prowls these low-rent precincts torn between depression and glee. To take a break from scribbling, visit your local bookstore and find Cynthia Ozick, E. L. Doctorow, Tracy Kidder and Richard Selzer on sale--in hardcover!--for $3.98 is enough to put any mere mortal off his word processor.

On the other hand, you can get an awful lot of great stuff cheap.

Remainders--I prefer the term "differently salable"--are just books that, for whatever reason, didn't sell at the cover price. Publishers with cloudy crystal balls print too many, reviewers take their toll, the economy and even the weather might fail to cooperate. The result is a major markdown.

And plenty of good books are marked down for the remainder table, especially now that publishers and booksellers, like everybody else, have such short attention spans. These days, as Calvin Trillin put it, "the average shelf life of a trade book is somewhere between milk and yogurt."

When my publisher offered me 1,200 copies of my own book, "Wonder Boy," for $1.92 each, I felt like the parent of a smart kid who decides not to go to college. But it's not really so bad. Hard times have made many more of us bargain-hunters, and low prices mean more readers.

Besides, my life as a cheapskate tells me that I'll be in good company. Not long ago, for instance, I bought remaindered copies of Verlyn Klinkenborg's evocative "The Last Fine Time," Celia Gittelson's hilarious novel "Biography," and Mario Vargas Llosa's lavishly illustrated "In Praise of the Stepmother." And Updike, in fact, gets remaindered a lot.

One of the best sources for remainders is the Robin Moody's Daedalus Books catalogue--telephone (800) 333-5489--which sold me, for a pittance, Jonathan Franzen's "The Twenty-Seventh City" and Bruce Duffy's "The World As I Found It," both remarkable first novels. Moody has good taste, screens out the junk and writes the catalogue himself.

As for "Wonder Boy," I'll keep my eyes peeled. I've read it, of course, but a bargain's a bargain.

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