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Some things in this business make absolutely no sense to me. Take, for example, a book that's behaving irrationally in the marketplace. By "irrationally," I mean that it's performing far better than it seemingly has any right to. I monitor things like this as much as possible because, if I can figure out what's going on - shine a light on underlying forces that are driving prices - it helps me spot other books that stand a good chance of behaving the same way.
Mostly, eventually, I'm able to figure things out, but occasionally a book comes along that defies my best efforts. I've been monitoring just such a book for some months now, watching it rise meteorically to prominence. The last time I looked there were 28 buyers waiting for it on Amazon Marketplace. 28! A copy sold on eBay a few weeks ago for $127.50, and there's another copy up, as I write this, that already has multiple bids and will no doubt end up in 3-figures as well. A recent global search on the Internet turned up no other copies - I take that back. I did find one copy on the German Amazon site at the, uh, perhaps ambitious price of $316.88.
First, let me tell you something about this woefully unimpressive book. It's a 224-page trade paperback cookbook issued in early 2000 by a mid-range publisher who specializes in food and other health-related titles. Tens of thousands of them have been printed, and its Amazon ranking fluctuates between 300,000 and 400,000. The publisher in question doesn't exhibit a pattern for producing books with strong resale value. A recent survey revealed that the great majority of its titles are available used on Amazon Marketplace for a dollar or two, sometimes pennies. Moreover, my mystery title isn't a specialty cookbook, something that might appeal to, say, advanced chefs. I wish it were. That would at least help explain the phenomenon. But no, it's an unremarkable collection of everyday recipes targeted at amateur cooks (you and me, in other words) who are too busy to spend long hours in the kitchen preparing complex meals. In short, it's the very type of book that quietly takes its place alongside similar, humble books on bookstore shelves everywhere. Not so long ago you could buy them at WalMart for $11.31 plus tax.
Intrigued? Let me tell you something about the author. "Perky" is the first word that springs to my lips. If you've seen The Mary Tyler Moore Show much, you might recall the now celebrated scene in Lou Grant's office when Mary Richards interviews for the position of associate producer. At some point in the conversation Lou looks at Mary, grins devilishly, and says, "You know, you've got spunk." Mary replies, "Well, thank you." There's a pregnant pause, the Cheshire smile still menacingly frozen on Grant's face, whereupon he snarls, "I hate spunk." When reminded of this line years later, Ed Asner confessed to having second thoughts about it: "No one could hate spunk, not even a curmudgeon. I should have said, 'You know what? You're pretty goddam perky. I hate perky!'"
Exactly. Perky is a serious problem for me too, especially in this instance, and triply so since my mystery author has three syndicated TV shows on the Food Network - that is, sightings are inevitable. It doesn't help matters that her dog's name is Boo, nor that she murmurs "mmmmmmm" a dozen or so times during the course of a 30-minute show, then giggles like a pigeon in its death throes. And I'm only getting started. Do you know what EVOO is? You don't want to know. Strangulation has crossed my mind more than once, and if you think my take on this is a minority opinion, Google her name juxtaposed to the word "annoying," and watch thousands of confirming results appear before your eyes. Oh - and if you haven't figured out who this is yet, here you go (and you can thank me later):
The book I'm talking about is none other than Rachael Ray's Open House Cookbook (Lake Isle Press, Inc., ISBN: 1891105043).
It was originally marketed as a companion volume for a local TV news segment she did in Albany, New York, called "30-Minute Meals" - that is, it was published before she became internationally notorious. As soon as this and one other show ($40 a Day) were syndicated, however, and she began to attract a following on the Food Network, things heated up. And this brings me back to the enigma.
Do you get this? I don't - I mean, I can understand this thing having some value. On a good day, maybe $20. $30 tops. But $127.50? 28 Buyers waiting? On which planet?
My first thought was that, like John Kerry's The New Soldier (a forgettable, formerly low to mid-range book published decades ago which has consistently sold for hundreds of dollars in recent months), this is simply a matter of a book being valuable because it pre-dates a rapid onset of celebrity status. It was written when she was nobody - or almost - and when she suddenly became somebody, it was sought after for the same reason collectors enthusiastically seek anything that's early and far less common in a writer's life. Well, 2000 is not early; a print run in 5 figures clearly spells "common," and celebrity status? There are dozens of TV chefs who enjoy (or in the past have had) more status than Ray; many have written books in similar circumstances; and yet, after an exhaustive investigation of dozens of TV chefs first books, including those with highly rated shows on the Food Network, I wasn't able to come up with a single comparable example. Even Emeril Lagasse, Food Network's flagship chef, eats Ray's dust.
Another thought was that we might have cult figure in the making, but if so, surely she's got to be the most unlikely candidate for one I've ever seen. Cult status is usually achieved by relatively fearless individuals with a predisposition to live on the edge, to push the limits of what's been previously acceptable and venture into new, sometimes dangerous territory. A cooking show that demonstrates easy to make family meals hardly qualifies as a hotbed of controversy, and Ray herself is about as edgy as a soccer ball.
This could be grasping for straws, but desperation has produced one other possible explanation. Word is there's a new drinking game that's sweeping college campuses across the country. 30 minutes long, it is, no time-outs, and it's played in front of - you guessed it - one of Ray's shows. Every time she utters a Rayism (e.g., "party in my mouth," "come to mama," "this is insanely good," "yummo," etc.) or does something quintessentially Ray (like rolling her eyes and tilting her goofball head at a coquettish angle, slopping more garbage into her infamous garbage bowl, or mimicking a short orgasm when she tastes something she's ordered at a restaurant), you take a stiff drink. Heck, even if you aren't playing the game, this may be de rigueur. Some Rayisms are so revolting that a chug is summarily ordered. (I won't inflict an example on you here.) Anyway, the point of the game is to make it through an entire show without passing out or - and I'm guessing this happens to even seasoned players - bolting from the room in an advanced state of horror, wailing, "No more! No more!"
So - is this the force driving the collector's engine?
You tell me. I've supplied you with the facts as I know them. And, after revisiting them during the process of producing this monograph, I remain officially baffled. If you're not, write me, post something in the forum - whatever. Please. I need to get to the bottom of this before I spend one more culinary moment thinking about this and become a helpless, brewski-pounding Raybot myself.
Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark
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