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My WayBack Pages –or –The American Booksellers At Play in Foggy Bottom

[A recent exchange about the progressive feminism that infects publishing put me in mind of a series of items I wrote more than 30 years ago about the state of book publishing when I was the Senior Editor and Director of Paperback Publishing at Houghton Mifflin. I went to the online attic where a lot of these things are kept and managed to pull a few out of the old dusty packing crates and smuggle them past the ghosts. A few struck me as still germane to today’s publishing environment — even more so because so little has changed — except the names of the usual suspects. Don’t think it’s dated. This is probably a whole lot like what will happen this year.]

One of the favorite cities for the American Booksellers Association (ABA) to hold a convention is Washington D.C. This city of hard-core wall-to-wall floor-to-ceiling corruption factories somehow attracts one of the most inept businesses in the private sphere. It somehow calls them home. Perhaps it makes publishers, by contrast, feel smart and efficient. I don’t know. It is a city of large examples of neo-Federalist and Fascist overbuilding nestled next to one of the worst black ghettos in the nation; a city where the very streets and tempo speak of a benighted mindlessness; a city careful to close all its museums and most of its shrines on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend; and now a city of thousands of dazed bookstore owners pulling shopping carts along the streets as they head towards the annual show of most of the 57,000 books we will publish this year. Yes, this year. 57,000 brand. new. books.

The mind reels then pauses…. then leaves the body as one enters the convention center, pushes past the large banners proclaiming this to be “The Year of The Reader!’ Hope, always hope. Give us a reader, any reader. We gots the books if you gots the time. And thirty dollars.

But where are the books?

Books are not really that visible at the “Booksellers Convention”. Simon & Schuster has a lot of videos, a lot of failing audios, and a lot of covers blown up and glued down to plexiglass and backlit. These are supposed to be the stars, the big books, the ones all America is dying to read. Hard to make out the titles. They blur.

You pick up a catalog and move on.

All around you are booksellers with full-size shopping carts jamming every freebie they can get their hands on. Posters, buttons, stuffed animals…..Simon is publishing CATMOPOLITAN, a slavish bid for the cat market, a send-up of some magazine, and booksellers can duck behind a large six-foot blowup of a cover, stick their faces in a hole and get a free Polaroid of themselves as the cover cat of Catmopoliton. A thrill, a real thrill! There’s a line.

William Morrow’s booth…swarming with people but to no discernible propose. Get a catalog. Try to focus on titles. Useless. No books in evidence. No nothing in evidence. Turn the corner.

It is Zebra books…the walk-away winner for high schlock…this year a bit down from their usual high marks for real tackiness. They’ve installed a guy dressed in Louis the 14th duds playing classical guitar. Not at all the cheap Jackie Susan stuff we’ve come to expect from Zebra. Ignore catalog, walk on.

Very few real books are visible. Tucked away behind the banners, the free offers, the catalogs and order forms, the video monitors showing Dan Rather commenting on Ernest Worell  — who’s also got a calendar, got a commercial, got a movie coming out, got a special on HBO, buy his book, please? Dan Rather on a loop repeating an inane report over and over again for four days.

“Seen any books here?”

“Yeah, saw one two rows back. Probably gone now.”

 Grab a catalog, shake a hand, move on. Down endless rows. Some booths crammed with people. Other’s next door with only a woebegone and terminally bored sales rep sitting on a chair wondering why they got into this book business when there was big money to made in air-conditioning repair and maintenance.


Catalogs. Catalogs.


Booksellers flooding in now, shopping carts in tow. Filling up on freebies.

Can’t breathe.

Can’t see.

Can’t think.




He packed the trunk of the car with his catalogs and drove north. Along Pennsylvania Avenue, he saw a sign saying “Vietnam Veterans Memorial”.

He parked the car and walked into the park. He walked slowly down the ramp with the lists of the dead rising over his head on their marble slabs like some infinite tide that would never go out.

He thought he was a tough guy. He thought he had all his feelings from those years locked away in a trunk in some unvisited attic of his mind that he never had to enter again.

He was wrong. They were right below the surface and, as he went down into the monument, they came to the surface like demons suddenly released, and he found himself weeping as he saw what the war had cost.

There was a pair of worn combat boots left beside one column of names.

An elderly couple found a name. She touched it while he took a picture of her touching it. Then he touched it and she took a picture of him touching the name. Then they walked away.

Further on there was a small piece of notepaper lying limply over the rail of stone at the foot of the monument. He knelt down to read it:

“To my buddies of the 102nd.
I’m sorry I’m not with you.
I should be with you but God had other plans for me.
I still don’t know what but I know I miss you badly.
You were the best friends I ever had.”

There were 50,000 books in Washington that weekend, but that was the only thing he found that was worth reading.

25 May 1987

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Terry Hunt October 14, 2021, 8:46 AM


    My elementary school next door neighbor’s name is on that wall.

    One of my brother’s best friends in elementary school has his name on that wall.

    And there are more . . .

  • ghostsniper October 14, 2021, 10:54 AM

    “…smuggle them past the ghosts…”

    You can’t smuggle anything past ghosts, silly goose.

    My wife has done editing and indexing for all the big publishers for the past 20+ years.
    This morning she emailed me and said we need to start stockpiling cash because she may not have any work after the upcoming holidays. She says this every year, and we do, put then 01Jan rolls around and it’s another year of endless, mindless, books that are meant for whom, I’ll never know.

    The phase that books are going through now are much like all aspects of Hollywood in that they, the authors, are out of ideas. Everything now is about old ideas that were worn out the day they were made, or variations thereof, or subject matter that is repulsive to normal people. Just in the past month she indexed a book by a negro woman for negro women wanting to improve themselves and it was a hate filled rant with all the same old terms everybody is familiar with. Hate whitey underscored everything. She told S&S only negro’s were allowed to work on her book but when she saw my wife’s credentials she approved. The one before that was an anti-trump rant and the one before that was everything fag. Being engaged with that stuff wears her out, and I understand. My wife is always backwards at least $3k with S&S and they are the worst as far as that goes. They redefine the term “slow paying”. I’ve been telling her for years to cut them loose but she hasn’t. Hatchette is her favorite publisher. (Last month she indexed a book for them and it was a biography on Eddie Van Halen and the author was one of his childhood-lifelong friends. She emailed me the pdf and I started reading it.) The quality of their books is far superior to S&S as well and they pay promptly. Seems I’m dragging checks from the mailbox almost weekly from them.

    When I received that warning email from my wife I reactively replied, “Wanna learn AutoCAD”?, as my workload this past year has been monstrous. I could sure use the help but I don’t think I’d be a good teacher. But then, maybe I’ll just hafta try and see…

  • Lady Cutekitten of Lolcat October 14, 2021, 11:23 AM

    Deeply moving, thanks.

    Can you point me to your exchange about problems in publishing, I missed it.

  • PA Cat October 14, 2021, 12:40 PM

    If Gerard thinks that the annual booksellers’ convention was/is bad, he hasn’t seen misery until he visits the annual meeting of an academic professional association. It’s where desperate graduate students go to try to connect with some professor somewhere who might, if they’re very lucky, interview them for a part-time non-tenure-track position– which, in the current black hole that is the academic job market, better than nothing.

    Academic professional society meetings are also magnets for booksellers– I once went with a friend to a FASEB (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology; includes biomedical research as well as general biology) meeting; the place was jammed with booths set up by nearly every university press in North America as well as the major medical textbook publishers. Unlike Gerard’s horror show, though, these booths were piled high with books. The prices for books in any STEM field are obscene, as ghostsniper’s wife doubtless knows, but there was no shortage of customers at that meeting.

    It may be, though, that the wokeness that’s infested general trade books and the humanities is on its way to medical publishing too; the local medical school has gone crazy woke in just the past year, so the current crop of med school profs are probably already at work revising the classic textbooks. It’ll be interesting to see what the dermatology textbooks of the future have to say about melanocyte distribution in the upper layer of human skin.

  • Kevin in PA October 14, 2021, 2:57 PM

    I missed the draft by about 18 months. I’m part of that small group that never even had to register, before they implemented the “selective service” registration requirement. Older friends attended the S.E. Asia War Games. None had any good to say about it. I imagine it ain’t much fun coming home to an ungrateful nation, having participated in a lost cause that had been directed by crooks.

    I wonder what great things those who died there could have produced in their lifetimes, had their live’s not been cut short.

    • Tom Hyland October 14, 2021, 6:32 PM

      My birthday got tossed into the last draft lottery. My number was plenty low and I received my draft notice and a date to appear for the physical. About a month before that moment arrived the draft ended. I had watched Vietnam on TV since its inception and was greatly relieved to have no part of it whatsoever. I know I would have made a very crappy soldier. All of the “conflict” was a scam and a lie. Fortunes were made and Kennedy was one of the earliest fatalities for attempting to deny the bastards their money.

    • jwm October 14, 2021, 6:46 PM

      Much like my situation. I remember sitting in the living room at my parents house with a 1A card in hand, watching them draw numbers for the draft on TV. They were taking the first 100 birthdays drawn. Mine was way up in the 280’s. I called it a tie. They didn’t draft me, and I wasn’t going to volunteer. As stupid as I was back then, I probably wouldn’t have made it home from the war. I heard the stories. Tons of good weed, cheap heroin, over-the-counter methedrine, easy whores. Quick death. One guy I knew in high school is listed on the wall.


      • gwbnyc October 15, 2021, 4:25 AM


  • gwbnyc October 15, 2021, 4:24 AM

    Four names on The Wall, “boys up the street”, photos taken in our kitchen on Halloween.

    Look at the Wall, The Wall is a graph.

  • Snakepit Kansas October 15, 2021, 4:52 AM

    I just acquired LAST STANDS – Why Men Fight When All Is Lost by Michael Walsh. I saw an ad for it over at Daily Timewaster and knew I had to have that book. This read makes no excuses for high testosterone levels and explains how we should thank such for our current way of life, at least until we are all brainwashed with the soy-boy mentality.

  • Dan Patterson October 15, 2021, 5:59 AM

    Fuckin’ shit never changes. Vietnam and the casualty tendrils is only one example, a good one, but not the first or last. The people that we let be in charge lead us unfailingly and directly into the storm and make things much worse for everybody, every time, all along the way. Some very famous politicians and celebrity generals are in that mix and none deserve honor and glory, not to mention monuments in DC and portraits on currency; those If the past 50 years have taught us anything it is to question the motives and influences of those pounding the table and shouting into bullhorns; nothing is what it seems and false flags are all around us.
    Do you think we can vote our way out of all this, you poor bastard? Voting harder is the answer, is it?

  • LongKnife56 (1/9 Air Cav) October 15, 2021, 9:42 AM

    To fallen soldiers let us sing
    Where no rockets fly nor bullets wing
    Our broken brothers let us bring
    To the Mansions of the Lord.

    No more bleeding, no more fight
    No prayers pleading through the night
    Just divine embrace, eternal light
    In the Mansions of the Lord.

    Where no mothers cry and no children weep
    We will stand and guard though the angels sleep
    Through the ages safely keep
    The Mansions of the Lord

    Members of my unit (1/9 Air Cav) who died during my tour:

    Thursday, August 21, 1969
    RUPERT A FUNDERBURK JR, WO, Age 22, Monroe, NC

    DANIEL P HOLTREY, SP5, Age 20, Flat Rock, MI

    MICHAEL N MASUEN, WO, Age 19, Spring Valley, CA

    Saturday, August 30, 1969
    RONALD B CHURAN, 1LT, Age 21, Port Neches, TX

    Sunday, September 14, 1969
    DONALD S SKIDGEL, SGT, Age 20, Newport, ME

    Thursday, September 18, 1969
    CORDIS R WHITE, SP4, Age 21, Lamar, MO

    Monday, September 22, 1969
    GLENN M BRADLEY, CPL, Age 20, Owensboro, KY

    Thursday, October 30, 1969
    ROGER E CARROLL, SP4, Age 20, Avoca, IA

    Saturday, November 29, 1969
    LAWRENCE J BABYAK, CWO, Age 24, Van Nuys, CA

    KENNETH A LUSE, WO, Age 19, Cedar Rapids, IA

    Tuesday, December 2, 1969
    THOMAS E BROWN, SSG, Age 23, Red Deer, AB

    STACY KRESHO, SSG, Age 20, Pittsburgh, PA

    Friday, December 12, 1969
    CHARLES P HOOD JR, CPT, Age 27, Aledo, TX

    Saturday, December 13, 1969
    TIMOTHY J MC CREIGHT, SP4, Age 21, Aledo, IL

    Sunday, December 21, 1969
    CHRISTOPHER J GRAY, SSG, Age 20, Seattle, WA

    BARRY P KALETTA, SGT, Age 19, Cleveland, OH

    THADDEUS M YONIKA JR, WO, Age 21, West Middlesex, PA

    Tuesday, December 30, 1969
    JAMES R DEAN JR, SGT, Age 23, Orlando, FL

    THOMAS E SOMA, SP5, Age 21, Winnebago, MN

    Saturday, January 3, 1970
    GENE J OLSON, WO, Age 22, Minneapolis, MN

    JIMMY D SANDERS, CPL, Age 19, Del City, OK

    Sunday, January 4, 1970
    JAMES R WHITMORE, WO, Age 20, St Petersburg, FL

    WALDO A WILLIAMS, SSG, Age 39, Rockwell City, IA

    Sunday, January 11, 1970
    RICHARD B SPENCE, CPL, Age 20, Grove City, PA

    Wednesday, January 28, 1970
    ANTHONY B BATTEL, WO, Age 22, Oradell, NJ

    MICHAEL W HUNTER, WO, Age 26, Ann Arbor, MI

    Sunday, February 15, 1970
    MARK S DIORIO, SP4, Age 19, Salinas, CA

    NORMAN A TAYLOR, SSG, Age 23, Alma, GA

    Sunday, February 22, 1970
    ARVELL B HOLSTON, SGT, Age 21, Inkster, MI

    Thursday, February 26, 1970
    ROBERT B CROSBY, SP4, Age 23, Greenville, MS

    Friday, March 6, 1970
    KENT M ZERR, SP5, Age 25, Sinking Spring, PA

    Monday, March 9, 1970
    WILLIAM J FRANCIS, PFC, Age 23, Southfield, MI

    Thursday, April 9, 1970
    PHILIP A HARRIS, SP4, Age 18, Detroit, MI

    Wednesday, April 22, 1970
    JOHN S KEENAN, WO, Age 21, Lowell, MA

    Saturday, May 2, 1970
    RICHARD D BREWER, 1LT, Age 25, Big Spring, TX

    FRANK R CORONA, SGT, Age 20, Reedley, CA

    GEORGE D SLYE, SSG, Age 29, Tacoma, WA

    Wednesday, May 6, 1970
    GARY L MC KIDDY, SGT, Age 20, Miamisburg, OH

    TOMMY L WHIDDON, WO, Age 21, Eglin Afb, FL

    Sunday, May 10, 1970
    LELAND M CHESTNUT, SGT, Age 21, Conway, SC

    Thursday, May 14, 1970
    ROBERT K EVEREST III, WO, Age 21, College Park, GA

    LAWRENCE R GEIGER, SGT, Age 20, Colorado Springs, CO

    KENNETH M WALLS JR, SP4, Age 19, Georgetown, IL

    Wednesday, May 27, 1970
    DANNY W BOWERS, CPL, Age 18, Caro, MI

    DAVID J COMBS, SP5, Age 22, York, PA

    Wednesday, July 1, 1970
    WALTER M PUCHALSKI, CPL, Age 18, Cleveland, OH

    Tuesday, July 28, 1970
    KEVIN M FRYE, WO, Age 20, Jacksonville, FL

    DAVID E ZIMMERMAN, CWO, Age 22, Stockton, CA

    • Dan Patterson October 15, 2021, 11:29 AM

      And my sincere sympathy.