Below the Beltway
The book on Gene: It's less than you expect
I have in my hands the worst book ever published. It is worse than "Mein Kampf," which has some value as a cautionary tale. It is worse than those "Chicken Soup" books, which are thick enough to make good kindling. This scrawny volume couldn't heat a doghouse.
Plus, it's a rip-off. I bought it on Amazon for $19.99, which is what you'd pay for "Moby-Dick" and "The Great Gatsby" combined. The title is not catchy: "Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing Winners: Ron Suskind, Gene Weingarten, Peter Rinearson, Rick Bragg, Nan C. Robertson, Howell Raines."
I know what you are thinking, but you are wrong -- I didn't buy this book because I have a hideously bloated ego. I found the book because I have a hideously bloated ego; I search for my name on the Web all the time. But I bought the book because of my hideously bloated greed. I'd never authorized this particular publisher to use my words, and I was hoping a copyright lawsuit might make me rich enough to buy yachts and throw them away after using them once, like disposable razors.
It was not to be. The book is actually a compendium of short, bland Wikipedia biographies of me and a bunch of other journalists who happened to win a prize. It's a boring book. Journalists are boring people who lead boring lives. The most scintillating fact in this book is the disclosure that, when she was in college, Madeleine Blais roomed with Mercedes Ruehl.
The book also has an index. It appears to have been compiled by a senile computer. One indexed phrase, for example, is "United States," which refers you to Page 5, on which you find that "United States" is ... my "nationality."
The publisher of this volume, "Books LLC," specializes in this kind of shabby product: They have hundreds of them available on Amazon, all similarly awful and pointless: There's a book on actors from Wisconsin (Tyne Daly -- who knew?), German female murderers, Jewish porn stars, and one, so help me, on Croatian comic strips. All are cribbed entirely from Wikipedia -- which is not copyrighted and, thus, free for the taking. It's all legit, if inane. But who would buy these books? Almost no one! Turns out, that doesn't matter!
Books LLC keeps a pretty low profile, but I finally got through by e-mail to Andrew Williams, the company's PR manager, who cheerfully explained the business plan. It's ingenious.
There's almost no overhead. None of these books even exists until some sucker like me -- through ignorance, accident, ego or astonishing naivete about the Web -- shells out 20 smackers for one. Only then is the book quickly printed up and mailed out. It doesn't matter whether 99 percent of these volumes don't sell a single copy -- each occasional purchase is almost pure profit. Williams swears he doesn't get many complaints from readers; he theorizes that they get what they expect, because they don't expect much.
I didn't really know what to think about all this, so I called Richard Nash, a publishing industry consultant. He laughed, and urged me to stop thinking like a journalist and start thinking cheesily, like Books LLC. "What you have in your hands," Nash said, "is a rare first edition."
He's right! According to Williams, only four copies of my book have been ordered, including the one I bought. This means that there are fewer extant copies of "Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing Winners" than there are Gutenberg Bibles. Fewer than there are 1909 Honus Wagner baseball cards!
Here's what I should do, Nash said: "Autograph it, and get the other writers to autograph it, and sell it on eBay for a thousand dollars."
I e-mailed Williams and asked what he thought of this.
"Sounds like a good business plan to me," he said.
E-mail Gene at firstname.lastname@example.org.