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Books, Lies & Best Sellers

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A book sold is a book sold, right? Wrong. A book sold is a book sold only if the book sold is sold at a venue that counts as books sold -- Borders, Barnes & Noble, large independent book stores, and on-line at Amazon.com. Books otherwise sold fall into a large black hole, unaccounted for on any best-seller list, including the most influential -- The New York Times.

The utter incompressibility of this indefensible policy of not counting every book sold came to mind when Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian leader long associated with liberal political causes and issues of social justice (he went to jail for his opposition to the Iraq War), told me he was coming to Denver to speak on his new book, Great Awakening: Reviving Faith & Politics in Post-Religious Right America. He asked if I wanted him at The Denver Forum?

Of course I wanted him. He's one of most dynamic speakers in America and presents a Christian perspective our liberal culture barely knows exists; most liberals think "evangelicals" are all Fundamentalist morons who have only four issues -- guns, gays, abortion, and Noah's Ark.

But the plans I made for Wallis to speak didn't materialize. His HarperCollins publicist was fearful the Denver Forum's luncheon, a paid event, would conflict with a free event that evening with Wallis at Denver's famous Tattered Cover Book Store. This was mindlessly stupid. Free events conflict with paid events, not the other way around. But the publicist, in her constricted little PR mind, didn't get it.

But that wasn't the real reason. Books sold at Denver Forum events don't count; books sold by the Tattered Cover do. So the HarperCollins publicist saw no need for Wallis to speak at The Forum. In the publicist's mind, it was a waste of time, because it wasn't going to get Wallis' book on The New York Times' best-seller list.

Last year the Denver Forum, the City Club of San Diego, and the Great Fenway Park Writers Series (the other two public forums I lead), presented 49 programs, many of which featured writers like Bill Moyers, Naomi Wolf, Anne Lamott, Roy Blount Jr., Frank Deford, Paul Krugman, Valerie Plame Wilson, etc. The number of books sold at those events topped 2,000 -- not a single one of which counted toward the best sellers' list.

Some years back George Will was featured at a City Club luncheon. The price of the luncheon included a copy of Will's latest book, "Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball." Six hundred books were sold that day! But they didn't count, because a bookseller didn't sell them.

Dick Kreck was for years a highly influential columnist for The Denver Post. His book, Murder at the Brown Palace, sold more than 32,000 copies -- a remarkable record for a book of local interest. Dick gave more than 50 talks before library patrons and book club members; but, again, books sold at those gatherings did not count.

Earlier this year Gay Talese came to San Diego to speak at the Writers Symposium by the Sea, which is sponsored by Point Loma Nazarene University (the City Club is a partner). Before Talese spoke he and a small group were hosted at dinner by the university's president. Also at dinner was Phillip Yancey, a columnist for Christianity Today, a widely celebrated and respected Christian author.

As I sat there I couldn't help but think that Gay Talese, a writer of great distinction and critical acclaim, most likely did not know who Yancey was, even though Yancey's books have sold in the millions. Talese's books have been sold in accepted and approved circles, the Borders and Barnes & Nobles of this world, while Yancey's works were for a long time relegated to faith bookstores -- which the liberal publishing establishment ignores.

The City Club, in partnership with the San Diego Public Library, sponsors the Great American Writers Series. The series began in 1999, and 51 programs have been presented -- 41 were free public events. Speakers have included Paul Theroux, George Plimpton, Peter Matthiessen, Jane Smiley, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Richard Reeves, etc. SRO crowds have been frequent (more than 400 turned out to hear Smiley). We sold a lot of books at those events -- more than 2,500 -- but not a single copy counted on the best sellers' list.

The cost of attending a Writers Series' events at Fenway Park includes an autographed copy of the speaker's book. In four-years we've presented more than 30 programs and have sold more than 1,500 books -- not one of which counted toward any best-seller list. It didn't matter whether the books were by Bill Bradley or Justice Stephen Breyer, Frank Deford or Gloria Steinem, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend or Michael Gordon, they didn't count as sold!

In theory people in the publishing business are thoughtful and intelligent, but their inability to fix so fundamental an injustice of books counted and not counted because of their origin of sale raises serious questions about their thoughtfulness and intelligence -- and, not least, their idea of fairness.

Fixing this obvious inequity is not difficult. It doesn't take rocket science. It can be resolved through a simple mechanism: Every book shipped by a publisher counts as books sold (unless otherwise returned during a stipulated period), no matter where they're sold -- secular or religious bookstores, libraries, book clubs, and, yes, even at book clubs and public forums.

It's time to end book sale discrimination and best-seller favoritism -- and it is a clear case of discrimination and favoritism. It says not all writers are equal. It says not all readers are equal. It says that depending upon where you buy your books you may not count. If you buy books at faith bookstores or through your local reading group, it's as if no purchase was made. In short, you are a non-person; you do not exist.

The best-seller list is bogus and fraudulent. It favors the few writers at the expense of the many. It's time to put a stop to it. It's time for transparency in the book market.

Think about it: Can establishing fairness, justice and accountability in the world of book sales be that difficult?