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A writer gets antithetical about the alphabetical

June 19, 2005|Richard Zacks | Richard Zacks is the author of "The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd," "An Underground Education" and most recently, "The Pirate Coast."

My name is Zacks.

There comes a proud moment in every author's life when he or she goes to a bookstore for the first time to see years of work compacted into a book for sale on a shelf. Mine was spine facing out by the floor. Oh how I envied the Andersons, Burtons, Carrs, even the Gladwells. I felt petty thinking about shelf placement at this epochal point in my life, but the floor, the $#@$@#$@ floor, the end of the row. Sure, maybe a toddler might see the pretty colors, pull the book and hand it to Mommy. Or someone could trip, fall and, if incapacitated long enough, find it.

Then I started dwelling on the injustice of it.

I ask you: What if all overweight authors were put at the end of each shelf? Or all gray-haired women? Or all ugly authors? Or all African Americans? All Jews? All Germans? Would this great nation allow any particular group to be buried at row's end or plunked by the linoleum where dust bunnies gather, where middle-aged people with their creaky knees refuse to roam?

Would the government stand by and let this kind of discrimination take place? Perhaps it might, but that doesn't make it right, so why do we allow all Z-named authors to be put last, buried, hidden -- to be seen only by the most desperate browser who has sampled everything else first? Would Zola have made it today? In this context, Vidal's career is even more impressive.

I have always been proud of my last name: Zacks. It's short, punchy, dramatic; at first hearing, it has echoes of "sex." Growing up in Manhattan, people often heard it as "Saks" and thought I was some kind of department-store heir.

When my penniless grandfather David arrived at Ellis Island in 1901, the harried immigration official whittled down his long Russian name so he would fit in better in America. David Zacks soon sold junk off a horse wagon in rural New Jersey, saved enough to open a saloon in Providence, R.I., and in 1918 left his widow the startling sum of $20,000. He was a fine man, even if some of the rooms above the saloon were rented by the hour.

I knew there would be many hurdles in a writing career: years of learning the craft, finding an agent, followed by the ongoing struggle to garner enough good reviews to find an audience. But I never thought about having to overcome my last name. After writing my first book, "History Laid Bare," I repeatedly made the rookie author mistake of going into bookstores and sauntering up to the cash register, offering to sign copies. Clerks would often stare at me like I was insane or lost. Sometimes I would get that look reserved for wounded birds or lame puppies. Most authors know better. Eventually, the store manager would be called over, and he would find my book, spine out, three copies, knee-high.

So I approached my father and told him I was thinking of changing my name to Richard Z. Acks. I would become an A. I would join an A-list if not the A-list. Now I understand why all those companies in the phone book are AAAA Plumbing or AAA Taxi. Book publishers pay big dollars in co-op ads to get prime retail-chain placement. I could increase my visibility through a mere name change, by filling out a few forms at city hall. My father, then in his 80s, was a lifelong traveling salesman who still worked a bit from home and knew how hard it was to make a buck. The fact that I had chosen writer over tax lawyer still galled him. He said, "Sure, change your name, you can always change it back."

I approached my wife. She thought I was nuts. Then the absurdity of changing my name started to sink in -- and I realized that I'm proud to be Richard Zacks. That's my name. If my talents can't rise above shelf placement, so be it. Cary Grant's real name was Archibald Leach and one can understand why he changed it. But I don't want to be an Acks or an Ackerman. The popularity of my third book, "The Pirate Hunter," briefly broke me out of the Z ghetto to a front table. Now my fourth book just came out, "The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805." It is a historical thriller about America's first covert operation, to the shores of Tripoli.

I propose that for the month of June, bookstores put the Z titles first, then go from A to Y. Or else they could put on the end shelf all authors with pretentiously soulful jacket photos, or all the Ms. I'm sick of being there. Total reverse alphabetical order may be too much work, but how about a nice table up front for the long-ignored Zs? Who knows how many bestselling Z authors readers might uncover?

My father, Herman Zacks, died in 1996. I am still Richard Zacks and I am still chipping away, trying to elbow my way off that bottom shelf. But if reincarnation is real, you're looking at the future Abner Abbott.

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