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'Why People Buy Books'

At the end of six months, nine-tenths of the books will be dead for the reason that something else will have displaced public interest. It may be a new war, the ghost of hard times or a presidential election--perhaps another book--but somewhere the public interest will be gone for something new, and the publisher and retailer who have not made their hay while the sun has been shining will have a painful job in balancing the credit and debit accounts of the house.

--H.A. Pavey, "Why Novel Is a Success," Chicago Daily Tribune (1905)

Pavey's intriguing blast from book trade's past begins with some pertinent, and still relevant, questions (pricing not adjusted for inflation): "How does the novel of today become popular? And once popular, how and why does the public invest $1.50, gross, in the volume which may have been two months attaining its popularity for only four months of life."

Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth was a top-10 bestseller in 1905

The initial reason given by book dealers is that "not being able to answer these questions lies unemphasized in the fact that three-fourths of the popular books of the type are bought by women or for women. The reason must be a women's reason." (Hmm...) Noting that "women are the buyers," Pavey suggests that "in the end woman's judgment and tastes make a story popular for its brief existence."

Oddly, the rest of the article employs a male pronoun, and thus--on thin ice indeed--we arrive at the eternal conundrum, masked in the piece as a section heading: "Why people buy books"

Pavey writes that the customer seeking a novel "will have known something about it before he enters the bookshop." This information comes from traditional sources like newspaper reviews or advertisements, "but better than these may have been the commendation of the story from the lips of a friend with whom the prospective buyer has sympathies in common."

The Library by Elizabeth Shippen Green (1905)

Once in the shop, the customer requests a particular book: "Instinctively he opens it at the first touch. Type and paper will be expected to make the first appeal in the physical makeup. An attractive frontispiece and title page will be convincing, as will possibly well done illustrations. Then the scrutiny of the cover will follow."

Now the handselling portion of our program, 1905-style, begins: "In the meantime the salesmanship of the salesman will be called upon as it so seldom is at the average department store's general counters. For any book that is in demand, the salesman will have had his own brief lesson. He will have read the reviews of the book as far as possible; he will have run through it himself perhaps as closely as does the average reviewer; he has at his tongue's end a striking situation or two of the situations needed to have made the work talked about and favorably reviewed."

The bad news (filed under the heading "Job security? What job security?"): "Under these conditions, if he doesn't sell the book, he is in line for a prize contribution to the Worker's Magazine on 'How I Lost My Job.' "

When considering the "psychology of publishing," Pavey charts the treacherous path for a new title "from the publisher to the bookshop and to the reader," stressing the importance of the publisher's "ability to convince the book buyer for the shop. The publisher's salesman does this through the advance sheets of the story, through the psychological influences of the publisher, and by means of the publisher's declared intent to push the book through advertising."

They are, however, "confronting conditions of a market whose whims and moods neither has a chance to determine beyond the hazards of a guess.... Timeliness, could that timeliness always be determined, is of great significance. But to try to determine timeliness is one of the most difficult of a publisher's feats."

Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic children's novel was published in 1905

Pavey notes that "a book from the publisher to the retailer--which will have cost the publisher all told 35 cents--will have had 20 cents expended upon it for advertising," about the same amount as the author receives in royalties.

Adding to the fickleness of the market is the fact that the turn of the century brought a new type of popular book reader into play for the book trade.

"The retail customer is a buyer of a type that did not exist 40 years ago," Pavey writes. "Ten persons of the type which did not buy books then are book buyers now. These modern buyers of the popular novel have no idea of putting the volume on a shelf; it is a book to read and soon afterward to pass along among his friends or to gravitate toward the second hand booksellers. Forty years ago the book buyer had the shelf first in mind, then the book. Today there is no shelf. The phrase 'summer reading,' for instance, becomes one of the characteristic indexes to the reasons why the modern novel is not placed alongside the volumes of Thackeray, Eliot and Dickens."

So, what's the magic key to discovering why readers buy particular novels? Don't ask Pavey for help: "One time this public demands that it be flattered; at another time it says, 'Show us ourselves.' And to catch either mood may mean the success of the book." In other words, there is none.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3526


#IndieBookshopWeek in U.K. & Ireland

Independent Bookshop Week 2019 is happening now in the U.K. and Ireland. Run by the Booksellers Association as part of the Books Are My Bag campaign, IBW showcases indies with events, celebrations, reading groups, storytelling, author signings, literary lunches and the always popular #BookshopCrawl. More than 400 indies are participating in the festivities. Here's just a few highlights from the bookish revelry afoot:

IBW began with the announcement of this year's Book Award winners: Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls (adult category), Catherine Doyle's The Storm Keeper's Island (children's), and If All the World Were… by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Allison Colpoys (picture book). The winners are presented with their awards in independent bookshops.

Richard E. Grant reads Alice's Adventure in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

Dominic Cooper, Natalie Dormer, Michael Palin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Nathalie Emmanuel, Richard E. Grant, Felicity Jones, Hanif Kureishi and James Norton are among the stars supporting grassroots campaign Just a Card, which has partnered with the Funding Circle to support independent bookshops through its Just a Book initiative.

IBW stat: The BA reported that 82% of indie booksellers had a different career prior to owning or working in their bookshop. The survey of 450 bookshops "revealed that before becoming booksellers people worked in a wide variety of fields, including software development, consultancy, radiography, investment banking, teaching, carpentry, HR and call centers with many citing their lifetime interest in books as being behind their career change," the Bookseller wrote.

The American Booksellers Association wished a "Happy #IndieBookshopWeek to our friends across the pond!" And Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, Mich., tweeted: "In celebration of Indie Bookstore Week in the U.K. and the U.K. publication of Notes from a Public Typewriter, five U.K. bookstores set out public typewriters! Many thanks to @BookaBookshop, @RedLionBooks, @EdinBookshop, @ImaginedThings, and @DrakeBookshop!"

The Bookshop Band, which was a big hit on its U.S. tour, including Wi14 earlier this year, tweeted: "Hey folks, if you didn't know already it's Independent Bookshop Week #IndieBookshopWeek which means they will all have tons of indie-exclusive reading treats inside, so get yourself down to your local and discover a new brilliant story." Blast from the past: the Bookshop Band playing "A Shop With Books In."

IndieThinking (HarperCollins): "In association with @Literacy_Trust, we are so so proud to announce the recipients of the HarperCollins Literacy Project Grants for Independent Booksellers!"

Typewronger Books, Edinburgh

Gutter Bookshop, Dublin, shared a Canongate Twitter thread, noting: "Look at this beautiful bookshop! This is why we need to support & protect indie businesses (not just bookshops)--they make our towns and cities special & interesting & joyful. I wish govt action echoed people's enthusiasm for supporting local."

Poet Brian Bilston marked the beginning of IBW with his poem "A Bookshop Life," and St. Ives Bookseller "loved it so much we put it on our shop door!"

Other IBW highlights:

The Book Nook, Hove: "Happy birthday faces. It's been a beautiful day celebrating #IndieBookshopWeek and our 10th birthday with all our lovely customers. Thank you for all your support and kindness."

Kew Bookshop, Kew Village: "We are all ABUZZ here during Independent Bookshop Week! We had the lovely @catherinedoart and Lucy from @iconbooks this morning, creating a beautiful painted window to celebrate the paperback publication of #Buzz by Thor Hanson...." And later, at Mr. B's Emporium, Bath: "A visit today from the brilliantly talented @catherinedoart created quite the buzz! How fabulous is this window?!! Thank you so much."

Cogito Books, Hexham, has been showcasing its booksellers by posting interviews on twitter, including "our lovely window artist Mandy to share her bookish thoughts."

Round Table Books, Brixton Village, London: "Make sure to LOOK UP when you visit the shop this week or you might miss the beautiful work that @DapsDraws has done for us. If you're visiting this #IndependentBookShopWeek we also have his and @NathanBryon's book and their beautiful pins in store right now!! Going fast though."

The Snug Bookshop, Bridgwater: "Only 3 days left of #IndieBookshopWeek @NielsenBook @nielsen @booksaremybag which is good because the Tshirt needs a wash."

The Portobello Bookshop, Edinburgh: "We're not open for another month but hope everyone is having a great Independent Bookshop Week! We do have some excellent news however which is that today is the first day of our newest team member @slouisebarnard who we're really happy to have on board!"

The Margate Bookshop, Margate: "It's Independent Bookshop Week! And tomorrow marks three weeks since opening the shop--funny how quickly things start to feel normal! Here's a friendly reminder that Amazon is evil and I'm nice."

Nathalie Emmanuel reads I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.

In the Guardian, author Damian Barr observed: "To reduce bookshops to selling is to mistake writing for typing or reading as a workout for your eyes. The best indies don't stock everything--every book must fight a sort of intellectual Hunger Games to win a space on the shelves.... If you get to know them, they get to know you and your tastes far better than any algorithm can. Indies that don't just survive but thrive do so because they celebrate and anchor a community....

"Every week is indie bookshop week in my house--I'm like one of those people who keeps their Christmas tree up all year. Books pile up on every surface, the half-finished lost among the much-loved, bath-swollen paperbacks compressed between hefty hardbacks. Layer upon layer of stories which will eventually form a pearl. A very dusty beautiful pearl."

The IBW celebration continues through Saturday.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3521


Authors Handselling at BookExpo

I'm a handseller. You're a handseller. Everyone in the book trade is a handseller if they routinely use two simple yet intricate sentences in daily conversations. One is: "You've got to read this!" The other was used by Will Schwalbe, Macmillan executive v-p and bestselling author, to open a BookExpo Downtown Stage event featuring a live recording of his podcast, But That's Another Story.

"As anyone who ever has met me knows, my favorite question is, 'What are you reading?' " Schwalbe said. "I ask it of everyone everywhere and I'm constantly surprised, amazed, delighted and challenged with the answers I get."

From left: Will Schwalbe, Aarti Shahani, Stephen Chbosky, Nicole Dennis-Benn

This discussion was a treat for me as well because I've always loved hearing authors talk about other writers' books. Schwalbe began by asking each of his guests to choose a work that had changed her or his life. His guests on the podcast were Aarti Shahani (Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares, Celadon) Stephen Chbosky (Imaginary Friend, Grand Central) and Nicole Dennis-Benn (Patsy, Liveright)

Shahani recalled that when she first read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, her engagement with the character Ifemelu was like the experience of meeting someone she immediately knew she was going to be friends with.

"She is a really sassy, self-made young woman who decided to leave where she was from," said Shahani. "And she loved where she was from. She had really good relationships with her family, with her friends there. She felt a deep connection to it. And still she ached for more and different. And the book is about that journey. And she's fun. She has access to really random and variant places.... I think that that woman who is not only capable of living in very different worlds, but whose heart actually needs to live in very different worlds; that's part of who she is, the constant navigating is authentically her. It's not one identity, but multiple coexisting. I'm drawn to that person. Those are a lot of my friends."

For Chbosky, the book that changed his life was Stephen King's The Stand, which he read while he "was living on 108th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam, and it was right about the time that I started writing The Perks of Being a Wallflower. You wouldn't necessarily look at The Stand and Perks in the same light, but I will say The Stand--even though I think the mass market is like 1,450 pages long and was very daunting to me--I started reading and I got to Page 70 and then I couldn't stop reading for four days. I blew off work. It was obsessive. And when I realized that you could have a narrative, a story that was that complex, that imaginative, but also that intimate... lf it's just an epic, I'm not terribly interested, and if it's just intimate--if it's great writing I'm interested--but to have them both at the same time is just fascinating."

Dennis-Benn said she first encountered Audre Lord's Zami: A New Spelling of My Name at the college library where she was a work-study student. "This was around 1999, 2000 and as I read Audre Lord's story, I saw my story in that book as well because I grew up not seeing myself on the page or seeing my experiences on the page. So when I started reading Zami, seeing that here is a writer who was also from Caribbean heritage, a self-proclaimed lesbian, a poet, you know, somebody who actually was raised under the roof of a very strong Caribbean woman and kind of pushing against that and also herself grappling with her new American-ness, with her immigrant family background....

"So, reading and writing were the ways I coped with being in this new country, and when I read Zami it spoke to me in many ways.... Audre Lord, in terms of her unpacking what her blackness, her queerness, her womanhood, to me seeing that intersectionality on the page was what drew me in even more to her writing and then subsequently to her poetry and her other essays.... And actually I ended up writing. That's how I started journaling because most of my journaling was really me processing my identity, and Audre Lord was a big influence on that."

At the end of the podcast, Schwalbe returned to his favorite question: "What are you reading?"

Shahani recommended Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist ("amazingly written") and This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant's Manifesto by Suketu Mehta ("a fantastic book"). Chbosky has "been on a kick" with Blake Crouch's novels and was reading Dark Matter, "which is fantastic." And Dennis-Benn is "delving into poetry," most recently with Warsan Shire's "amazing collection" Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth.

"When you're reading, you aren't just doing it for yourself," Schwalbe observed. "You're partaking in a conversation that includes everyone who has ever read that book, everyone who might read that book and everyone who comes to mind as you read the book. And you connect them in your mind and heart to the book you're reading. Reading is a conversation that connects us all."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3516


Layers of Storytelling at BookExpo 2019

If a good story is told well enough, you want to hear it again. And again. And then at least once more, because you're sure there's so much left to discover. --Ben Brantley, New York Times theater critic, in a recent piece on Jez Butterworth's play The Ferryman

The day after BookExpo ended, I saw The Ferryman, a brilliant Broadway production that is likely to win many of its nine Tony Award nominations this Sunday. Brantley, who has seen the play four times in London and New York, observed that Butterworth "tells a spellbinding story that is also all about storytelling. And I mean all forms of stories--national folklore, family legends, political news, even recollections of things that occurred only minutes earlier, which had seemed to turn into anecdote even as they were happening. The Ferryman is a celebration of the human--and classically Irish--urge to give life shape through narrative, and a lamentation for those who find themselves trapped in myths that assume the inevitability of fate."

Having just spent three days among hundreds of storytellers, I found myself thinking about how the layering of tales, real and imagined, weaves through our lives. In particular, I recalled two BookExpo events where layered stories were a central aspect of the presentations.

Frank Miller & Thomas Wheeler

One of the events featured Thomas Wheeler and the legendary Frank Miller, creators of Cursed (S&S Books for Young Readers), which will be released in October and is being developed as a Netflix series. The graphic novel re-imagines Arthurian legend from the point-of-view of 16-year-old Nimue, who first wielded Excalibur and ultimately became the Lady of the Lake.

While discussing his collaboration with Miller, Wheeler spoke about the confluence of storytelling on the page and on screen, a magical formula itself: "Cursed was intended to be a book. We were writing and illustrating a book, and Netflix started to reach out and say, we'd like to do this. We were keeping them at bay for a while and working on the book. I do think there was an interesting storytelling opportunity in that, as the book was approaching being finished, how this would be interpreted. There was a moment in time where we considered how do we tell this story in different ways.... I do think fans of the show will get content that is different from the book, that is still from the same creators. And those who read the book will have a more intimate relationship with the characters than they will on the show. I would say that the book and the show are friends, not family."

Miller observed that their interpretation of Arthurian legend "also carries great loss in an adventure story. That is, the heart of this is everything from love and romance to war to magic, and the nature of honor and civilization themselves. So this is a story that has it all. And in every interpretation of it that's been worthy, that I've ever read, it's touched in different ways on all these themes. So it's just..." He paused, then quipped: "I hate to tell you, but Arthur's a good story! I broke the news right here!"

John Cena

Whether you're a fan of professional wrestling or not, its essence is the art of storytelling and myth-making. One of WWE's brightest stars, wrestler/actor/writer John Cena, spoke at BookExpo on behalf of his children's books, Elbow Grease and the upcoming sequel Elbow Grease vs. Motozilla, both illustrated by Howard McWilliam (Random House Books for Young Readers).

A commanding presence on the Downtown Stage, Cena chose to tell a story about his own fear of entering the children's book world: "It's completely new, and I knew that often, as you are the book buyers and the book purveyors and the keepers of the information, I guarantee you see a ton of books with celebrities' names on them.... But when I went back to look at the data of actually who is following me, who enjoys the messages, what messages they enjoy, a kid's book seemed like the perfect thing to do. But then I had to convince you guys that I actually really wanted to do this.... So the book itself was about a two and a half year process and it's something that was a labor of love; something I truly believe in."

Noting that "in the storytelling business, if the audience doesn't care about the individual, you are done," Cena said it was through the WWE he learned the art of storytelling. And after a decade in the ring, "I really asked myself an open philosophical question--Why am I here? And the answer to that was I love storytelling. I come back every night, five nights a week in front of different audiences and tell this story. It's not the falling down. It's not the stunts. It's the good guy/bad guy, good vs. evil narrative that I enjoy so much.... I wanted to tell stories. And since then, whether you've liked what I've done or not, I can consistently say, without a shadow of a doubt, my heart is in the work, and it makes it easy to talk to you guys."

King Arthur and Frank Miller and graphic novels and Netflix and pro wrestling and kids' books--all in a day's work at BookExpo '19.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3511


1969 ABA Convention--4 Days of Peace & Books 

They don't make time machines like they used to; these new self-driving models still have some glitches. For example, last week I traveled back to the 1919 American Booksellers Association Convention, but when I tried to return to present tense I was suddenly rerouted to the convention held 50 years ago. What else could I do? I checked it out.

Yes, that 1969. You know the high- and low-lights, including the fact that the Woodstock Music and Art Fair would be held in upstate New York just a couple of months after a very different gathering of the clans took place in Washington, D.C.

"Three thousand booksellers, publishers, authors and book critics from several countries were in attendance today as the 69th annual convention of the American Booksellers Association opened in the Shoreham hotel," Robert Cromie wrote in the June 2 edition of the Chicago Tribune, adding that the event "provides a series of seminars, press conferences with authors, and a valuable preview, for the nation's sellers of books, of new titles which will be available for the Christmas trade." 

The first day's program featured a reception for the "first-timers" attending, and Dell Publishing hosted a wine-tasting party "at which excerpts were shown from the new Secret of Santa Vittoria motion picture made by Stanley Kramer from Robert Crichton's bestselling book.... The formal program, which is augmented by dozens of receptions and cocktail parties given by publishers to woo booksellers and show off visiting authors, will end Wednesday evening with a dinner dance at which the speaker will be Rod McKuen, musician, composer and poet."

The ABA "tried every trick from the Plant Lady of Television to Marshall McLuhan, but it could not disguise the fact that the soul of its convention at the Shoreham this week is the trade exhibits," the Washington Post reported. "The books world has been described as tweedy and diffident, but the group that circulated through the hall filling shopping bags with assorted giveaways was strictly narrow-lapel and breezy."

Looking for celebrity authors? Tiny Tim (I can’t possibly explain this phenomenon; see video evidence) "did a brief interview and then went right down the hall where all the booths were and spent the day signing autographs. People lined up halfway around the room to see him in the Doubleday exhibit," the Post wrote, adding: "Exhibits relied heavily on closed-circuit TV, slides and other audio-visual aids, including a TV cartoon called Dr. Grosslap, a booth built into an airline counter with uniformed salespeople, latest books listed as 'Arrivals' on the readerboard and a felt banner announcing something called a Bookazine."

Marshall McLuhan, the "prophet of the electronic age" touting his upcoming book, From Cliché to Archetype, was one of the Book and Author Luncheon speakers. The Boston Globe reported that he told his audience "the publishing business is tragically behind in the matter of research into the reading habits of the television generation. He warned them that the printed word is the cornerstone of civilization, its only cause, and that they have a mission to maintain its dominance."

"Children of the television age read best when the page is 4.6 inches away from their eyes, which makes the average book useless to the television child," he observed, adding that the book trade seemed to be doing nothing to understand the situation or to get itself off "the hardware hook" and evaluate the significance of "soft-ware" like Xeroxing.

McLuhan also said "the book is a very special form of communication" that "will persist," but the New York Times noted that his "comments came as a surprise to some listeners.... As author and as lecturer, he is usually associated with new trends in the communications media and as an exponent of television."

"The United States is the only country founded on literacy--on the Gutenberg press," he added. "Therefore, it is having the hardest time adapting to the electronic age."

The chaotic nature of 1969 hadn't quite registered with Rutgers University president Dr. Mason W. Gross, who in a keynote that could have been delivered in 1919, contended that "an obligation to maintain the precision of the English language rests with booksellers and others who distribute books, and he decried a trend toward using words inappropriately and in improper fashion," the Times wrote.

On more contemporary ground was speaker Theodore C. Sorensen, former special counsel to President John F. Kennedy and author of the upcoming book, The Kennedy Legacy. Warning that freedom of expression in the U.S. was under attack, he "said he was concerned 'lest McCarthyism in some new and insidious form return to weaken this country's values,' and charged the book industry with a special obligation to protect the right of free speech," the Times reported.

"Freedom of expression in America--particularly on our college campuses--is under increasing pressure from the New Left and the Old Right.... It will be all too easy for the voices of reason to give way to the voices of Reagan and Marcuse," he argued, noting that a special responsibility to reverse this trend rested with those who sell and publish books "before it spreads to your own profession."

My balky self-driving time machine grudgingly returned to 2019, and now I'm looking toward the more immediate future of BookExpo in New York next week. The distant future? My time machine is still a little skittish about that ("Books? Yes, we have books.").

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3502