As an author, I find a visit to a bookstore is nearly always a depressing experience. So many great books are in the bargain bin because they didn’t sell through the overly optimistic shipment numbers. So many great books aren’t even on the shelves in most of the “superstores” that carry only a fraction of what is listed on Amazon. And as I discover more often than not, most of the physical stores have really lousy travel book sections once you get past the best-selling guidebooks to the most popular areas.
Thankfully, some travel tales take on a life of their own and succeed almost in spite of an industry that seems perpetually 20 years behind in seeing where markets are headed and perpetually slow on the uptake when it comes to how and why people buy what they do. My Exhibit A for this post is a book that riveted me, something I couldn’t put down. A tale that is too bizarre to explain properly, but is truth, not fiction. It came out years ago, but is probably selling better now than it did when released, even if you don’t factor in the used book sales in South American backpacker towns.
I am talking about Marching Powder, subtitled “a true story of friendship, c0caine, and South America’s strangest jail.” Long story short, an Australian traveler named Rusty Young holed up in a Bolivian jail with a British inmate named Thomas McFadden and took down his story, eventually faking it as his human rights lawyer and turning the whole long ordeal into a book.
It’s not a simple story though, since this particular Bolivian jail runs like a pure mix of capitalism and Darwinism, with those who have money and power buying the best cells and running enterprises, while those who came in with nothing either becoming addicts or finding a way to make money doing odd jobs. The prison supplies next to nothing, but in return the prisoners can do what they please, within reason, especially if it makes the guards some extra cash. (Hence some of the best cocaine in all of South America.) Some of the inmates have their whole families living there, like an apartment on the outside, with kids in uniform setting off for school each day.
Marching Powder came out in 2003, but why did I pick it up? Pure word of mouth. I read about it in some person’s comment on a travel message board. Then I saw a film director in a magazine talking about how it was the book he had read lately that had really stuck in his head–four years after release date. So I ordered it from Amazon—I had no illusions that it would be in a retail store and didn’t even look. My wife read it before I got around to it and said, “This weird book you bought is about the most bizarre thing I’ve ever read. It’s fantastic!” Fate won.
The day I started reading it, I was hooked. A week after starting it, I was finished and was kind of bummed. It’s not dazzling prose that gets a Booker Award or some obstacle-overcoming soul-searching that makes it a shoo-in for book clubs. It’s just a damn fine story, told well. In the end, that’s what keeps something in print for years on end while other perfectly crafted pieces whither and die.
The way the publishing business operates, there’s the attempt to make a fortune in the first 90 days and then move on to the next title, so most books like this don’t have a chance. Thankfully we’re in a new world now. a world where my first book The World’s Cheapest Destinations can sell 5,000 copies and get translated into Italian without ever being on a bookshelf, a world where word of mouth can make Marching Powder a book that keeps going and going like the Energizer bunny for years on end. Because of The Long Tail, there is now some justice in the world. Mass market crap with no substance often fades away, while the good stuff people are talking about lives on.
Supposedly some big players are working on a film version of Marching Powder, with names like Brad Pitt and Don Cheadle being bandied about. We shall see.