WE’RE STALKING...RUPERT EVERETT

Anybody out there seen my book?

I felt oddly liberated at Ms. Reisman’s utter lack of interest. But my poor assistant...

MARK STEYN November 6 2006
WE’RE STALKING...RUPERT EVERETT

Anybody out there seen my book?

I felt oddly liberated at Ms. Reisman’s utter lack of interest. But my poor assistant...

MARK STEYN November 6 2006

Anybody out there seen my book?

books

I felt oddly liberated at Ms. Reisman’s utter lack of interest. But my poor assistant...

MARK STEYN

Some years ago, back when this here Internet thing that the kids are crazy over was brand new, I remember reading a piece about Amazon.com. And some fellow was wondering whether he should invest in Amazon.com. “No,” said the big financial journalist, “you should be amazon.com."

From the murky slough of my memory, this thought swam up to the surface for the first time in years. The other day my new book was published—as you may recall, if only because it was the cover story in Maclean’s a couple of weeks back. Don’t worry; lest you think this is a book plug, I don’t think it’s possible to plug a book that at the time of writing is unavailable in any Canadian bookstore coast to coast, from Gander to Victoria. Authors have always been interested in inventory, of course. I don’t know whether he still does it, but for many years the “novelist” Jeffrey Archer had a habit of wandering into shops and surreptitiously autographing all copies of his books, thus rendering them unreturnable. Less motivated chaps, on discovering the local emporium has not a single copy of the magnum opus, tend just to shrug and move on to writing our next unwanted book.

Which is pretty much what I did when kind readers—well, technically, non-readers— wrote after the Maclean's cover story to point out that Chapters-Indigo-Coles-Smithbooks and all the many aliases of Canada’s multiappellated monopoly bookstore chain had no copies of my new book, whose title escapes me, as evidently it did Heather Reisman. Ms. Reisman, if that is indeed her name, is the proprietress of Chapters-Indigo-Aliases R Us, and is famous for ostentatiously announcing the simultaneous banning from all her chains of Mein Kampf, which is tough on visitors from the Middle East, where the new Arabic edition is a bestseller. (“Kampf” is translated as “jihad.” Really.)

I can’t speak for Herr Hitler and his Arabic translator, but I took a relaxed view of being excluded from the diverse Dominion. I was a walking Red Rose tea commercial: “Everywhere except Canada? Pity.” I felt oddly liberated at having been deemed of no interest to Ms. Reisman’s many chains: “Take these chains from my heart and set me free!” as Ray Charles observed in another context. But this is the Internet age, and so within 72 hours I’d had hundreds of emails from my compatriots demanding to know why I’d made the mistake of shipping tons of copies of the book to Des Moines and Buffalo but none to Toronto or Vancouver. And for the first few dozen, I wrote back explaining that it’s certainly not that we failed to deliver to Ms. Reisman, and thus her “World’s Biggest Bookstore” was reduced to filling the front tables with a groaning cornucopia of thousands of copies of unreadable anti-Bush tracts (Dwnbass) faute de mieux: Chapters chose to order that stuff.

But then, what with U.S. book signings cutting into my time, my assistant started sending out form responses: “Dear Sir or Madam, Thank you for your letter complaining about being unable to find Mark’s book in (delete as applicable) (a) Chapters; (b) Indigo; (c) Coles; (d-y) other wholly independent operating units of Chapters or Indigo, as the case may be; or (z) Mom ’n’ Pop’s Home-Style Village Bookstore.”

At that point, a helpful reader at my website pointed out that Chapters’ site had a convenient feature enabling one to search the inventory to find the nearest store with a copy in stock. A reader in Halifax then wrote back to say that she’d looked and there were no copies anywhere in Atlantic Canada, and after that she’d given up. Another helpful reader pointed out that there was a copy at the Chapters branch on Robson Street in Vancouver, which we passed on to the Halifax gal, as Robson Street is a convenient and easy drive from Nova Scotia. Mr. P. Mennel from Vancouver then wrote to say he’d been to the Robson Street branch and, although the computer did indeed show my book as being in the store, the clerk had been unable to find it. We posted this on my website in hopes we could catch the Halifax lady before she reached Saskatchewan.

By this stage, I was beginning to get a lot of mail along the lines of: “Ha! So Heather Reisman assured us that banning Mein Kampf was strictly a one-time deal. It seems her list has gotten a little longer...” Etc. I was reluctant to impute such motives to Chapters, but I did find myself recalling something Don Black, the lyricist of Born Free and To Sir With Love and Diamonds Are Forever, said to me years ago. He remarked how he always feels like a schmuck going into a Virgin Megastore or HMV and asking the extravagantly pierced young thing behind the desk for a Rosemary Clooney album. To be honest, I’ve always felt a bit like that in a Canadian bookstore. If they had, say, David Frum’s latest on the shelf, you could at least slip it in between the Pierre Berton and the Yann Martel and hope the guy in line behind you doesn’t spot it. But if it’s not on the shelf and you have to ask for it... A gentleman in Calgary inquired about my book and was told there was no demand for it. During this exchange, two other people asked the same question of a neighbouring clerk and got the same response. There’s no demand for the book, just a huge demand for the explanation that no one’s demanding it.

A frustrated Mr. Robert Werner received the following written reply from Laura Blight, Indigo’s “Coordinator, Selling Services & Solutions, Store Performance Department”: “Wow, this title is certainly generating interest!” In everyone except Ms. Blight and her colleagues, it seems. The book was at No. 6 at Amazon.com-, it was in its fourth printing in the U.S. on the day it was officially released; even at Chapters’ own website, at the time of writing 83 patrons have given it an “average customer rating” of five stars (or maple leafs, inevitably), and yet Ms. Reisman lists it as “not yet available.”

So in the end, we directed readers to Amazon.ca, which Chapters, you’ll recall, wanted banned from the Canadian market. At Amazon.ca, the book made the week’s Top 10 bestsellers on its first day and rose to No. 2, before selling out. At which point, Canadians had to go to Amazon.com and order from down south. And, if you do that, something called “the Canadian Border Services Agency” charges you a couple of bucks for GST along with a five-dollar “service fee.” It seems a little odd for a service agency to sting you with a service fee for the service they’re meant to provide. Rather as if Maclean’s charged you the cover price and then tossed in a five-dollar “service fee” for writing and editing. But I guess calling it a “service fee” is a way to disguise what it really is: a protectionist tariff that’s in breach of the NAFTA treaty. That’s if they let it through. A day or two before the cover story in Maclean’s was due to go to bed, I received an urgent email from the editor saying their copy had been “held at the border.” Hmm.

As a Canadian, I’ve found it an interesting experience to be on the receiving end of the decayed Dominion’s narrow definition of “cultural diversity,” and the peculiarly restrictive combination of government regulation in aid of corporate monopoly, in which Ms. Reisman decides what books she’s prepared to stock and the Canada Border Services Agency then imposes a shakedown fee on those that don’t meet her criteria. There’s nothing more damaging for a book than to get cover stories and interviews and whatnot, but for it to be unavailable in any store. And no doubt Chapters-Indigo’s decision to order three copies and use them to prop up the wonky rear right-hand leg of the Dumbass display means fewer Canadians who don’t already know about it will ever see my book, which is kinda sad, but weirdly lucrative. According to the CBC, in Canada a “bestseller” sells 5,000 copies. I was amazed to discover that we’ve already sold that many just on my little website. And a huge number of that 5,000 were shipped out to readers across Canada who’d tried and failed to buy it at Chapters-Indigo and, like Shelley Ide of Port Moody, B.C., wrote to say that “I will never set foot in a Chapters again.” If Heather Reisman carries on boycotting me, I should be able to retire to Tahiti within the year.

In a way, it’s very exciting. I could be the first Canadian author to win the Governor General’s Award without ever selling a copy in a Canadian bookstore.

But I expect they’ve got rules about that, too.