Down Here: A Burke Novel
by Judith Moore
Originally published in the San Diego Reader, April 15, 2004
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR ABOUT THE BOOK:
Mr. Vachss, when I set up the appointment to speak with him, had mentioned that he had insisted that his publisher sell this newest book, Down Here, for $19 rather than the usual $24 to $27.95. (Vachss's Only Child, published in 2002, had a list price of $24.) I asked why Mr. Vachss made this decision.
"I've been told numerous times," he said, "that you're going to sell X number of books no matter what. And if you sell them for 30 bucks or you sell the books for 20 bucks, it's not going to change the numbers, except that everyone is going to make less money."
"Five dollars means a lot to a lot of people."
"It's not really five dollars; it's actually more than that, because if you dial the book up on Amazon, it's under 14 bucks. And if you think about the brand-new premium-house hardcover for under $14, that's pretty unusual. And you're saying 5 bucks, but that's assuming list price is $25. And it's not. It's gone north of that for quite a while now. There's all kinds of $27, $28 books; the theory typically in marketing is that if it's still under $30, it won't make any difference to the buyer: $27.95 is not going to deter somebody who would have willingly spent $26.95."
Normally, with each new book, Mr. Vachss has made a nationwide tour. With Down Here, his publishers decided against a tour. "Why," I asked, "was this decision made?"
"In effect, that was my decision because I was the one that wanted the lower price. Something has to give. Their opinion is that they're going to lose money by doing this. They're not going to throw money at it. In other words they're saying to me, 'If you're so convinced that rewarding loyalty by reducing a price is going to increase sales, then live your rhetoric.'
"I felt like the only way I'm going to get the answer is to try this. I've been saying it at book appearances for a decade, that it's impossible to be a working-class person and afford new books."
"And that's wrong. I'm trying to be consistent I'm trying to live what I say. As you well know, because you've certainly been on both sides of this, if the price point is reduced, then the royalties drop. So I take a minimum of a 20 percent hit on every book. But I believe people want more books than they can afford to buy. That's my thesis. It's simple as that."
"I do, too. I think they want more books and more music."
"Yes. But, see, with music there seem to be alternatives popping up, and I don't see that in books, and please don't say e-books. Because you know they're not an alternative. It's not like having some iPod and downloading a tune."
"You want to hold the book in your hand."
"It's not just that. It's that a piece of music might play for what, three minutes, four minutes. You can walk around, you can listen to it 50 times, you can let your friends hear it. An e-book, firstly you need a fairly expensive piece of equipment just to get one. And secondly, even if you don't get the tactile pleasure of holding the book in your hand, not everybody has got such perfect eyesight that they can read in ambient reflective light on a flat screen. I don't think it's that comfortable or nice an experience. I grant you that to some people it's a great idea. But the big difference between e-books and music is price. An e-book is not radically cheaper than getting a hardcover book. Whereas downloading a tune—what is it, a buck?"
"I don't know. I've never done it."
"I've not done it either; it's not something that I would want to do. But I think it's 99 cents. It really is an inexpensive proposition. I think an ebook, maybe it costs 12 bucks." (List price for The Da Vinci Code as an e-book is $14.95.)
"Do tours sell books?"
"The most logical analysis I've heard is this. That for some people, yes. It's not a generic answer. I think if you're a first time writer, exposing your work to people makes it worthwhile to do. But in terms of selling enough books to pay for a tour, that's ludicrous. I don't know how you could do that. I'm pretty well known for getting excellent crowds at my events. But if every single human there bought a book, it would not pay for the hotel room."
"I never thought of it that way."
"Oh, sure. You have an event where 125 people show up. Say, that's 125 books, and everybody bought one."
"Right, and how much money would that be?"
"Well, it's not even a question of how much money, it's how much profit. If you figure five bucks a book, end-to-end profit ..."
"That," I said, interrupting, "doesn't even pay the plane fare."
"Exactly, exactly. For book stores it's a good deal because it gives them activities and events that cost them nothing. But, then again, theoretically, they will then hand sell the author's book after he or she leaves. Certainly what they will do is be on good terms with the publisher. So everybody kind of likes that, but the truth is, you know, it's kind of dog and pony. If I don't go on a tour and I don't appear at, oh, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books on Tuesday night, you don't think there's not going to be somebody else there? Would I draw more than the other person? Maybe.
"But what has been told to me is this: people have come to my events, and they've seen the crowds, and what they said is, 'How many of these people would not buy your book if you didn't come?' And that's a devastating question, because most of them are bringing up half a dozen different other books in the same series to get signed. If the theory was that if I don't go to a particular city, my sales would fall off in that city? That's just been proven false. I couldn't think of a place I haven't gone in all the years I've been touring.
"But it doesn't change. If I go to Washington, D.C., let's say I sell 3000 books in the whole city. If I didn't go, the theory is I sell 2960 books. I like touring because I use it as a way to talk with everybody. But outside of that, in terms of cost effectiveness, I'm not sure."
"Doesn't touring wear you out?"
"I think it would if I did it the way people do it, which is to go and do readings. I think I would shoot myself. I can't believe these people go and read the same passage over and over and over again. But no, for me every stop is a new opportunity. Be it confrontational or supportive. So, no, it doesn't wear me out any more than speaking engagements wear me out or trying a case wears me out."
"Really, what you've done is that you've built a reading constituency."
Mr. Vachss agreed, adding, "The good news is I'm kind of recession proof. After 2001 when everything took a dive, the publisher called and said, 'It's amazing; sales are exactly the same.' Because I had a book that month. But the bad news is that there's probably a peak to that mountain. Whatever number of books I'm going to sell, it's not going to vary, so goes the theory, by more than 10 percent per book. Each book has outsold the previous book. But not by a ton. There's never been any quantum leap. I've never had a book fall off.
"But as far as younger people are concerned, you see, I don't think that selling Down Here for $19.95 will make that much of a difference. I think younger people, who tend to be more passionately committed to things, probably will find the money for something they desperately want to have. It's really the working-class guy who's got a couple of kids. One of the sweetest things anyone ever told me—although I'm sure it would not sound sweet to most people—was in Chicago once, a guy stood up and he said, 'I just want you to know something.' He said, 'I gave up smoking for a week so I could buy your book.'
"Don't get me started on why should a week's worth of cigarettes be enough to buy a book. I think that this [decision to sell Down Here for $19] is aimed at those people who maybe now could buy two books instead of one. But I don't think it has anything to do with kids. Because kids have shown that they'll find a way. I can't believe the letters I get from high school kids. They find a way to get the books. Now, it may be that they get them from libraries."
"I wonder how readers find you, the first time."
"I know what that is. That is exactly what this game is all about. They hear about some thing that connects with them. And virtually there's nobody they could confuse me with. I mean, if my name was, you know, Joe Anderson, it would be tough, right? But they seem to find what they're looking for.
"I think younger people, who tend to be more passionately committed to things, will find the money for something they desperately want to have.
"And to tell their friends. Also the constituencies are very, very varied. You can't really do demographics on sales. You can sort of do it off Internet postings. You've got postings about my books on everything from dominatrix sites to mercenary sites to skinhead sites to—well, there's no way to really lock it down is what I'm saying."
"Do you get more mail from men or from women?"
"Women, but by a narrow margin. But not any overwhelming kind of margin. If I had to use numbers, I'd say something like 55-45, that close. And it doesn't seem to vary with age. I get letters from 14-year-olds of both genders and 80-year-olds from both genders. I get a lot of letters from elderly people, but those letters seem to always be the same."
"What are they?"
"'I wish you had been there when I was a child. I wish you were writing books when I was a child. So maybe people would have believed me.' And it's generally a 'God bless you,' kind of message. They don't seem angry, just sad. There are young people that are in a fulminating rage. And an astounding number of them are willing to listen to me. I get letters from their parents saying, 'I don't know what you did, but he stopped shooting dope, and he's going to school.' And they always want to attribute this to the fact that I must have special powers, or I have a personal relationship with Jesus. I mean, that's the only thing that could possibly account for this. Never mind, you know, straight talk or logical argument."
"I don't do that. I tell them to watch Oprah for that."
"You get a ton of mail."
"I can't answer most of the mail that comes in; it's just too much. If someone says, 'You know, I'm depressed, and I want to kill myself,' they're referred to places that specialize in this. They don't get a letter from me saying, 'Hang in there,' you know. 'Life will be better.'"
"It may not be better."
"It may indeed not be. I also get letters from young people who say, 'You don't know me, but you helped my friend Zeus.'"
"Do you think the Web page [www.vachss.com] has helped book sales?"
"No, but I think it's performed a stunning public service. The resources section, I know that it's used by so many people, it would shock you. What we're talking about now is about a million and a half visitors a year. Visitors, not hits. Hits, it would be 150 times that—because one visitor can give you a couple hundred hits. These are visitors."
"It truly is amazing, and I don't think it helps sell books. There's a question that's asked in the form that they fill out when they write, 'How did you find this?' And they'll say they found the website in the back of a book. The website is in my books. Well, obviously if they read the book first and then came to the web site, the website didn't sell them a book.
"People find a way to use the information that's available on the website in a huge variety of ways and also to connect with each other. But in terms of selling books, I'm not sure that it does that. Because it's not an author's website. In other words, when you dial it up, the first thing you don't see is a picture of me—God forbid. And you don't see, 'Here's his collected works.' There's a bunch of buttons you can push. You can push those buttons and never hear my name.
"If you came there because you were searching 'child abuse,' you were searching 'rape,' you were searching 'domestic violence,' you're going to end up at the site. And just type those into a search engine and watch what happens. You're going to end up here. So, I think a lot of people come because they're fans, and they just want to visit what they think is a fan site, but I think those are people already committed."
"I go every once in a while to look at the dogs' pictures and dog true stories that are on the site."
"Sure. There you go. People whose passion is animal rescue, they love the site. There's people who use the site to prove that there are nice pit bulls in the world.
"So we don't really know why we get so many visitors, which are ever increasing. Those numbers have never dropped. And remember, I've had a website longer than most. This site actually was started as a fan site having nothing to do with me by a student in Hawaii. And we're coming up on our tenth anniversary of the site. In web terms that's ancient."
"Indeed, that's old."
"Sure it is, but we don't keep it old. Also, I could never afford this kind of website. If it wasn't for all the people who volunteer, it would be impossible. They're all volunteers. I couldn't pay for the designer; he's a world-famous designer in Norway. This is what he does. He puts together these extraordinarily complex things that don't look complex, which is their beauty, in which you can navigate around the site without even drawing a breath."
Before galleys for Down Here had gone out to reviewers, a galley appeared for sale on eBay. "How," I asked Mr. Vachss, "do you suppose that those books get on eBay so soon?"
"I know. I understand crime a lot better than most people who write about it. And it's clear that there's only two possible sources. One is the promotions department, and one is the warehouse. There's a guy who's advertising, right now, signed copies of the new book."
"I wonder who signed them?"
"Not me, because the books don't even exist. Fans get enraged about this, so they write and say, 'What's going on?' He says, 'I have a special arrangement with Mr. Vachss. He comes by and signs books.'"
"I don't even know this guy. And one online bookstore had the colossal fucking nerve to tell me that the way they've been able to get signed books of mine in the past is they had this special relationship with somebody at Knopf. And the book that had been shown to me, that was purchased from them, that wasn't my signature. 'So I tell you what,' I said to them. 'I think you're a bunch of fucking frauds. All you have to do is tell me the name of the person at Knopf with whom you've got this special relationship, and I'll apologize to you publicly.' Never heard from them.
"I don't know if they were doing it themselves. I don't know if they were simply buying books and then sending them to me to sign because what I used to do—we had a service available at the web site—'Just mail your book in with roundtrip postage, and I'll sign it for you. Why should you pay these stupid prices?' And naturally people start to really abuse that."
"Why do you think people like their books signed?"
"I couldn't even guess. If you know the person who wrote it—sure. You'd want that. That would be nice. But if you don't, I have no idea. I know that there's a huge traffic in this crap.
"There's one guy, on eBay, who buys every Andrew Vachss book he can find and then resells them. Now, this guy is not a collector or a fan—he's just a merchant. So I think merchants go after products. But the truth is, not one of my books is worth crap. Why people spend this kind of money, I'll never know. Because I've never had a small printing of a book. So how could any signed book be such a big deal? A typical book tour there are thousands of them. If you go to ten cities, you'll certainly sign 1000 books, 800 books. How could it be real? How could it be special?
"I think what happens is it's one of these markets like comic books were a few years ago or baseball cards were a few years ago. Before that, there are a few genuine collectors. But most of them are just merchants, and they keep churning the market.
"So, some poor bastard sees a signed copy of Strega selling for 75 bucks, right? He thinks, 'My God, I saw one unsigned on eBay for only $22. I'll buy that, I'll attend an Andrew Vachss book signing, he'll sign it, now I've made a $50 profit.' And that's exactly what they did. It's not hard to spot them because they come with boxes of stuff. Then they get mad because I won't do it. It's a question of I don't know how this person is in any way advancing anything I' m trying to do. I don't see how it's my obligation to advance their financing."
One of the many pleasures of reading each new Vachss novel as it emerges is seeing his characters develop. Michelle is a male-to-female transsexual, charming and hip and deep and smart. I said, "Michelle was extra good in this new book."
Mr. Vachss did not disagree. "Michelle was a pretty wild person early on. Some women grow into themselves, and it's as if they ripen and blossom, and they're really at their very, very best. She has. Other people, they're burned out. Absolutely. I think all of the people who have survived are different. That's one thing that has distinguished this series.
"Fortunately, I have this wonderful rich tapestry of a life to draw on. I'll never be stuck for information. I'll never be stuck with a blank screen in front of me, wondering, 'Oh my God, what can I write about?' Because if you combine life experience with sense of mission, I have permanent material."
We talked about the cars in Vachss's novels. Mr. Vachss said, "I got people who are fans of these books for one reason and one reason only. The cars."
"The Plymouth that Burke drives."
"That car, you know, there's an actual build sheet. You could, if you follow the instructions from the book, build that car. The guy that's responsible for it is actually mentioned in the book, Al deKay. He was a legendary street racer in Brooklyn years ago. He's a guy who wrote to me, quite a while back, and said this is the reason he's a fan, because he loves the car. But he thought he could make a better one. So as it turned out, the way the plot worked, Burke did need another car, so there you go."
"I have a sentimental fondness for good old Blue Belle."
"It's very interesting to me that that is the book that evokes the most emotion in women. I can't say men are indifferent to it, but if you ask them, it's never their favorite. There are all kinds of dogs named Blue Belle, and there are all kinds of Blue Belle screen names. Women relate to that book a lot more strongly."
"No," Mr. Vachss tells me, when I ask if he enjoys writing. "I never enjoyed writing a book or an article or an essay in my life. It's just that it's not fun to work hard. I'm a working-class boy, and my concept of work was, if they didn't pay you to do it, you wouldn't do it. It wasn't until I got to college where I was even introduced to the concept that people liked their work. It seemed so alien to me. No. Writing, it's just work. It's really hard, hard work.
"When I started writing, my biggest problem was book reviewers saying I had a sick imagination, right?"
"No one is saying that now. I wrote about safe houses for pedophile priests years and years ago. And you know, how could you make stuff up like that? Well, even modem trafficking and kiddie porn I wrote about, oh my God, 17, 18 years ago. I mean, the stuff now, you know, Belle's feeling about being a child of incest, those are words that were spoken to me. I know those words to be true. They're not writing in that sense. You see what I'm saying?
"If you wanted to see my best writing, you'd have to look at briefs or appeals. Because there you're playing for high stakes. You can't let yourself get into sloppy habits. You can't be extraneous. I would be among the ranked novelists if there were the same rules that applied. In other words, the strict word limit. The time limit. Lock me and all Pulitzer Prize winners in a room and say, 'You got 72 hours.' I could do it. Sure I could do it. I'd just access memory bank four. I could type fast."
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