Pale King: an editorial

I get the feeling someone at Hachette wanted an excuse to create a widget.

For months, Hachette Book Group has been counting down to the April 15 release of the late David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel, The Pale King. (A gimmick, see: the plot revolves around the IRS and, as everyone knows, April 15 is tax day.) Hence the counter above, which can be downloaded from the book page at Hachette.

So when word began spreading Wednesday morning that the novel was available on Amazon and the Barnes & Noble website two weeks before its "official" publication date, independent booksellers--yours truly among them--were left to wonder why the book was not yet on our shelves. (As if Amazon, with its predatory pricing scheme, needs the boost it surely got by having an in-demand book available before most retailers.)

So much for fair competition.

While it's not uncommon for books to be shipped and sold before their official publication date, there's reason enough in this case, given the cult status DFW has attained since his suicide in 2007, for even the NY Times to wade into the controversy with this article, in which several booksellers express their dismay at Hachette's seemingly underhanded (or, at best, willfully naive) act. In its defense, the publisher's representatives state that the official on-sale date of the book was, in fact, March 22, while the official publication date remained April 15. Confused yet?

What does this mean, other than the fact that you could buy the book online before you could buy it in your local bookstore? Should you, as a reader, be concerned that a publisher seems to be favoring corporations with histories of driving out locally owned businesses and bullying state governments in an effort to avoid paying state sales tax? Is the fact that an employee at Melville House, a publishing house led by the staunchly anti-Amazon Dennis Johnson, felt the need to confess (though I hope this is his April Fool's joke) to ordering the book from Amazon indicative of anything other than a guilty conscience over just how desperate we've become for instant gratification?

A few weeks back, Pete blogged about Borders' demise and the efforts independent booksellers everywhere are making to remain viable, vital businesses--places, really--within their communities, places where people meet, where ideas are discussed and serendipity encouraged, and one of the few retail environments that invites its customers to spend hours at a time browsing. Hachette's seeming disregard for this aspect of bookselling and community has left a bad taste in my mouth. If you feel the same, I encourage you to voice your displeasure to the publisher's Customer Service department.

In the meantime, I'll leave you with an anecdote: earlier this afternoon, while restocking the displays, I overheard a conversation between two strangers standing in front of The Pale King (yes, we got our copies--on Friday) about how they'd been waiting for this book for months. Turns out this is the sort of thing that washes a bit of that bad taste out of my mouth.