‘No Image Available’: Amazon, spoofs, and Useless America


I am overjoyed to learn that my latest novel, Useless America (a catchy and fashionable title) was published last week in a hardcover edition by Viking Penguin. It’s a snip at £16.99 for 224 pages. And it’s selling. Slowly. How do I know? Amazon has been emailing any of its customers who previously bought my books on line. They offer a tempting Our Price discount. The truly impecunious can wait until September 2007 -when, evidently, the book comes out in paperback at £7.99 – during which time, no doubt, Useless America will have been entered for prizes and presented at Festivals and will have attracted the usual batch of mixed reviews, including the traditional splenetic rebuff from D.J.Taylor.


During the few minutes it took me to access Useless America’s details on Amazon’s web pages, the novel’s Sales Rank jumped from 70,301 to 69,844. It jumped another seven hundred places when I placed my own order. As the named author of Useless America I’m looking forward to my first sight of it.


The only hitch is that Useless America is a phantom book – and it’s not even a phantom of my own creation. I have in the past acquired a reputation for inventing non-existent writers and unwritten volumes. I even succeeded in smuggling an entry about the bogus Graeco-Roman geographer, Pycletius, into The Oxford Companion to English Literature. But Useless America is not another of my spoofs. It’s little more than a slip of the tongue.


I do have a new novel in the wings. It is called The Pesthouse but it won’t be published until next March and by Picador rather than Penguin who held the original licence. It’s set in America’s medieval future and is an inquiry into the world’s love-hate relationship with the United States. When Penguin contracted me to write the novel a few years ago, I had not yet decided on a title. But the first line of the book was going to be “This used to be America”. It was convenient to use that as a working designation. Nobody would know or care except me, my agent and my editor.


Now we are in the world of guesswork. When the book was “announced” all those years ago, someone at Penguin couldn’t type, possibly, or someone at Amazon was hard of hearing. Used to became Useless, an amusing error. But an error with a life of its own. The Amazon computer sucked the information in, fleshed it out, nurtured it, gave it provenance. The book, complete with its own ISBN number, is now available, although not a word of it exists. Is this the future of publishing? Order your copy, while stocks last. 


© Jim Crace 2006