One of the best books of the last decade is in danger of going out of print, which, aside from being a crying shame in its own right, would make it harder for its author, Helen DeWitt, to get another book into the marketplace. But it doesn’t have to happen. As her latest post says:

Suppose one reader in each state and province persuades a non-bookselling outlet to stock 5 copies of The Last Samurai. Maybe you go to the same café every day, maybe you work in one; maybe you have a yarn shop, or a hardware store, or a motel; maybe you’re a vet or a dentist or a hairdresser with a waiting room and captive audience; maybe you’re an academic with helpful students; maybe you know of a Kurosawa festival, or a screening of Seven Samurai; or maybe you fall in none of these categories but you have persuadable friends or family who do. A couple of hundred or so books leave the warehouse. Paperpools publishes the details of the locations; we set up a Google Map; more copies are out in the world.
That may not sound like much. In the great scheme of Nelsen Bookscan (if you don’t know, you don’t want to) it isn’t much. But it does, obviously, represent a change of direction from steadily decreasing sales it puts the book in places where it can be recommended by people who like it; it would be a big help.

So if you’d like to help out an author who’s had more than her share of bad luck and could use a break, as well as make it more likely that we’ll all get a chance to read more of her work, give it a try; she says “The people to call are Customer Services, 1-800-242-7737.” (And if you know of a good agent, she could use one.)


  1. Coincidentally, I was leafing through The Last Samurai just this morning, and enjoying the wonderful first chapter. Anyone who has ever learned a foreign language will laugh in recognition at the paragraph beginning “It is truly something and something…”
    Alas, reading DeWitt’s blog left me with a rather poor impression of her professionalism as a writer.

  2. If writers were required to be “professional” in the sense you presumably mean, literature as we know it (or at least as I care about it) would come to an end.

  3. As it happens The Thread Everlasting is discussing books in this incarnation, so that might well be a good place to do some plugging.
    I haven’t read DeWitt, so I can hardly do it, myself, but do say I sent you, if you feel bad about barging in.

  4. I don’t know what you think I presumably mean, so I suppose I should just explain myself. DeWitt’s blogging displays a refusal to cooperate with publishing as it actually works, as opposed to her fantasies of how it should work, with the apparent result that she alienated everyone in publishing who wanted to be her friend. Given that she acted like such a prima donna with her first book, I don’t find it surprising that nobody wants to help her with her second book.
    And this is the impression that I get from reading her blog, in which she presumably presents herself in a good light.

  5. So DeWitt is a little like Sibylla? I don’t find that surprising somehow. In any case The Last Samurai really is a great book. Packed with ideas and still a very engrossing and entertaining read. If people in the publishing industry don’t want to help her maybe they’re getting too caught up in personalities and not in enough in the quality of the writing. But we live in a world where Jonathan Safran Foer is lauded, so there you go…

  6. Vanya, quite so. I really do hope that she gets published again anyhow, since The Last Samurai really is one of the best books I’ve ever read.

  7. John Emerson says

    Publishing isn’t to publish good books, it’s to make money. Professional writers understand that, but a lot of them write crappy books. Authors who write good books often have fantasies about what will happen when they write a good book, but that’s their problem. They’re unprofessional.
    And of course there are professional writers who write good books too.

  8. There is an update vis-a-vis the reachability of customer service at Also, if Helen is not “professional” then it may be that less professionalism would result in more better books being written (as well, perhaps, as more bad books, but I still think it would be a net positive).
    Also, thank you Steve for introducing me to The Last Samurai way back when! One of my (and my wife’s) favorite books. We’re now trying to work out how we can get in on this guerilla bookselling deal…

  9. SnowLeopard says

    I was also one to pick up The Last Samurai at languagehat’s encouragement and enjoyed it immensely. It was the first book since, maybe, high school, that I was actually unable to put down until I’d finished it, and I was delighted to encounter a mind so lively and perceptive. I also bought and read (and enjoyed) the PDF of Your Name Here available through her website and am intensely curious about the other books she has in the pipeline. Since I lent out my copy of Samurai and never got it back, I should probably stockpile a few extra copies for emergencies.
    I know little of the publishing world and can’t comment firsthand on whether her expectations of it are realistic, but I do follow her blog closely. It’s true that she prefers not to suffer fools, but her email correspondence with me in connection with the two books I read, as well as her blog posts, persuades me that she can muster tact and the other business graces when she chooses. So for my part, I tend to conclude that the problems she describes are neither unique to her, nor strictly of her own making.

  10. I tend to conclude that the problems she describes are neither unique to her, nor strictly of her own making.
    That is my sense as well.

  11. Graham Asher says

    Is there any need for it to be in print? It seems that enough copies were printed to meet demand, for used copies are abundantly and cheaply available. There are 17 copies of the hardback edition available from £3.02 upwards, including postage, on

  12. John Emerson says

    we don’t need the book to be inprint, but she does, and we’re friends of hers.
    There’s one small niche in the book market for highly specialized books that a moderate number of people want very badly, but not enough people to justify reprinting. Or books which are tied up in copyright battles, or whose copyrights are owned by insane people. For most books the second hand market works beautifully for buyers.
    But publishing has really never worked for authors.

  13. … As has not publishing.
    She needs the book to not go out of print if she’s to get a contract for her next book. I suggest that everyone order it at their local library; that should sell a few copies without it costing me a great deal of money.
    I noticed that Elif Batuman has started a thing on her blog for people to take photographs of her book, The Possessed, in prominent spots around the world. This is to show off its international qualities of bestsellingness. Someone took a picture of it in Jerusalem, that’s the only one so far. I thought it was quite a good idea, and that other writers should try it. I may take one of it in Norway with a goat or two in the background. Elif Batuman considers herself a C-list author, she doesn’t say whether she thinks that’s good or bad.

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