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The Art of the Bargain Book

The morning after BookExpo last month, I strolled the High Line to the Whitney Museum of American Art. My annual ritual is to add music, art and/or theater to my post-show schedule as a biblio-palate cleanser, and wandering through the museum worked its non-book magic for a while. Then I reached a survey of Zoe Leonard's career, specifically her installation How to Make Good Pictures, featuring more than 1,000 copies of a Kodak manual, stacked by edition year--between 1912 and 1995--and almost mirroring the New Jersey skyline across the Hudson River. I walked around the piece, taking pictures with my iPhone--a technique not mentioned in Kodak's manual. I tried to focus on the art, but started thinking about books again. Damn!

To be more specific, I pictured piles of overstocks, hurts and remainders. For a few years around the turn of the century, I was a bargain books buyer at an indie bookstore. I ordered from sales reps; I went to CIROBE; I bought large at BookExpo; I even did the occasional warehouse buy. Being reminded of those days by a Whitney exhibition was unexpected, though I adapted quickly, knowing the time would come to recall this moment when I did eventually write about bargain books.

Brad Jonas, Douglas Kosovo, Alyson Turner, Janet Turner, Paul Secor, Crystal Reyes

That time is now. During BookExpo, the Midtown Stage featured a session titled "Raise Your Profits with Remainders." Crystal Reyes of Texas Bookman served as moderator for panelists Brad Jonas of Powell's Books Wholesale in Chicago (and CIROBE's co-founder); Paul Secor, buyer at the Strand in New York City; Douglas Kosovo, buyer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Alyson Turner & Janet Jones of Source Booksellers in Detroit, Mich.

"We all have very different retail environments that we work in," Reyes said in her introductory remarks. "I think we all have one thing in common, which is not only our love of books but particularly our love of remainder books."

"For me, I think the term is bargain books rather than remainder books," Jonas said, adding: "One of the things we were talking about beforehand is that the words don't sound very good. We need to come up with better terms. Because 'hurts' sounds bad, but there's nothing wrong with the book. Remainders sounds like it's a leftover, but there's nothing wrong with the book.... These are books that you can pick that are special for you but not all of your clients will see at the store next door."

Kosovo noted that most of what is ordered for the Met Store "as a remainder we've already had at full price, so we have an idea--this did well for us at full price, and now it's great to be able to bring it in for a whole new audience who couldn't afford the book at $50 but they can afford it at $24.98.... You can display it in a whole different way. Instead of ordering five copies at a time, you're ordering 30 copies at a time. You can make a stack and put a spotlight on it. Obviously, the margin is great. The high sales are great. But it's also nice that you're giving the customer a bargain. So that makes them happy."

For Source Booksellers, "remainders really allow us a broad base of books in the store," Janet Turner said. "We are a niche market bookstore because we sell primarily nonfiction books.... We have a nice mix and spread of books, but when we buy the remainders we can really go deeper into any of our categories.... We never know what people's interests are."

Jonas countered a recent theory that the bargain book supply chain may be drying up as publishers become more focused on tight print runs: "We've been afraid of this for years and years and years. It still seems there's a lot of books out there in a lot of different warehouses. So, it changes. And sometimes it's different sorts of things. One season it's all cookbooks and the next season it's all kids' books and the next season it's all art books. But I don't think anyone's so smart they've got the numbers dialed in."

At the end of the session, the panelists were asked for some words of wisdom:

Jonas: "Remainders give you great opportunity to experiment on books that you just personally love. Maybe they don't sell immediately, but you're not paying a lot for the investment and often the investment comes back and helps you out."

Kosovo: "If you're not already buying remainders, you should. Just don't buy the stock that I want."

Alyson Turner: "Bookstores need lots of books and customers need lots of price points."

Janet Turner: "I'd say don't be afraid. Jump on in. Try it out, and if it works well, good. If it doesn't, try again."

Secor: "Fred Bass would always say, 'Show me a buyer who doesn't make mistakes and I'll show you a bad buyer.' You have to take chances as a buyer. You have to go beyond what's just in front of you and what you know. You have to experiment. Remainders are a very good way to do that."

From any perspective, there's an art to acquiring bargain books. Don't bother to search for Kodak's How to Make Good Pictures, though. I suspect Zoe Leonard has nabbed them all by now.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3300


How Do You Fire Booksellers?

If you are a bookstore manager or owner, how do you fire bad booksellers?

There are 99 reasons why I'm not management material, and firing people is only one. It's a big one, though, and I realized this week that I've been going to education sessions at book trade shows for more than 25 years, but can't recall a single time that staff termination procedures, a decidedly unpleasant yet unavoidable task, have been the topic of a panel discussion. Maybe my memory is bad. Maybe I just missed those sessions. Maybe I didn't want to hear the war stories. Or maybe... we don't like to talk about it.

You're Fired!
You might think that "You're fired!" as a heading is inspired by our current president, who gained some measure of fame by reciting the line like a sitcom catch phrase on his former NBC show, The Apprentice. But I actually started thinking about all this a couple of days ago when I saw a Fast Company video featuring James Corden, host of The Late Late Show on CBS, sharing his own trepidation about firing people and then demonstrating just how bad he is at it.

"I've never fired anybody in my life," he says. "I don't even like saying the word fire anyone out loud. I don't mind delivering bad news. What I don't like is being the reason for that bad news."

Good Managers, Bad Managers
Good managers fire bad employees--and bad managers fire good employees--all the time. At this very second, all across the planet, hundreds of people are being asked by their bosses if they "could just step into my office for a minute." Shortly thereafter, they emerge shocked... and sacked.

I'm most curious about the good managers. Can you fire well? Is it always awkward? Are there ever regrets? I assume bad managers fire just as they manage--badly. Images come to mind of David Brent's horrid fake-firing of Dawn in The Office; or Bill Lumbergh's passive-aggressive mistreatment of Milton in Office Space; or Captain Willard's marching orders to terminate Colonel Kurtz's command "with extreme prejudice" in Apocalypse Now (1:50 minute mark). My mind works in mysterious ways.

As it happens, my favorite bad firing of all time is bookseller themed. It happened on Black Books, when Bernard axed Manny on his first day for the worst bookselling reasons ever (18:30 minute mark): "You sold a lot of books. You got on very well with all the customers. I'm going to have to let you go."

Studies Have Shown...
According to numerous studies, book readers tend to benefit tangibly in terms of intangibles like increased empathy. That would seem to be ideal news for booksellers, but just make things harder for bookstore owners and managers.

I've read many articles with variations on this theme (via Big Think): "Research shows that reading not only helps with fluid intelligence, but with reading comprehension and emotional intelligence as well. You make smarter decisions about yourself and those around you.... Recognizing the intentions of another human also plays a role in constructing an ideology. Novels are especially well-suited for this task. A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology found overlap in brain regions used to comprehend stories and networks dedicated to interactions with others."

Does enhanced emotional intelligence make it harder to dump fellow readers? I'd like to know.

The Peculiar Anxiety of Someone Else Being Fired
For any number of reasons, sometimes it just doesn't work out. They gotta go. And the person who has to break the news is put in the discomforting position of firing a bookseller they hired once upon a time because both parties considered this to be a good fit.

Although the whole closed-door, employment termination ritual is a mystery to me, I do have vivid memories of co-workers getting the axe. Occasionally I knew ahead of time that it was going to happen, knew when it was happening "in the office," and then saw the person as they emerged in their new identity as an ex-bookseller. It always sent a chill up my spine.

How Do You Do It?
In the book trade, we track title sales and store openings and staff promotions and new releases and everything else, but we have no idea, I'm sure, how many booksellers were fired last year. Sometimes those bookish casualties deserve it, though people can be, and often are, let go unfairly (bad managers again) or because of corporate closures (Borders) or flagging sales numbers (B&N).

It's complicated, yet I'm still intrigued by how firing is done. Call it constructively intrusive morbid curiosity. If you'd like to share any of your stories and strategies--on or off the record--please contact me. I'd love to learn more about this mysterious rite of passage out the door. How do you fire booksellers?

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3295


When a Book Is More than a Book

"She had always wanted words, she loved them, grew up on them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape. Whereas I thought words bent emotions like sticks in water." --Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

Ondaatje accepting the Golden Booker.

When you learned this week that the Golden Man Booker Prize had gone to The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, maybe you thought it was great news or maybe you thought of 50 other Booker winners who deserved the honor more.

Some folks considered the whole notion of a Golden Booker to be nonsense. Others suspected the popularity of Anthony Minghella's Oscar-winning film adaptation was the deciding factor, a theory Ondaatje himself didn't dispute. In his acceptance speech, he thanked Minghella, "who is no longer with us, but I suspect has something to do with the result of this vote." He also acknowledged "small presses everywhere," and cited authors--J.L. Carr, William Trevor, Barbara Pym, Penelope Fitzgerald, Alice Munro, Graham Swift, Samuel Selvon--who hadn't won a Booker but should have.

"Not for a second do I believe this is the best or most popular book on this list, or any other list that could have been put together of Booker novels," he said. "Especially when it is placed beside a work by V.S. Naipaul--one of the masters of our time, or a major work like Wolf Hall, or Penelope Lively’s beautiful Moon Tiger, or the heart-breaking Lincoln in the Bardo. I've not read The English Patient since it came out in 1992 and I suspect, and know more than any one, that it remains cloudy with errors and pacing."

While I admired his humility, I also wondered whether there's a point at which a book belongs to its readers as much as the author? When I learned that Ondaatje had won the Golden Man Booker Prize, I just smiled. Some books are more iconic than others, especially on a personal level. More than a quarter-century ago, The English Patient taught me--and still reminds me sometimes--how to be a better human being (a lot to ask of a novel, to be sure). It also, and this is no small matter, taught me how to become a bookseller and, specifically, a passionate handseller of books.

Where do handsellers come from? "Everywhere" is the easy answer. The harder, though more precise, response is that they are often like gifted Dickensian orphans, waiting for someone to notice them. I can only tell you where one handseller came from, though I'd like to know your story, too, if you care to share it with me sometime.

I became a handseller in the fall of 1992. When I started working at the Northshire Bookstore in May of that year, I'd never heard the term. The first person who interviewed me explained that customers often came in looking for reading suggestions. In its simplest definition, a handseller was a bookseller adept at helping customers find those great reads.

Sometime during the middle of August in 1992, the same person who'd interviewed me placed an ARC of The English Patient in my hands and said, "I think you might like this." The novel was due to be published in a month or so. I fell in love with that book on first reading and every reading since. You know how it goes: rookie bookseller reads ARC, falls in biblio-love for the first time, and can't wait to talk about it.

Customer: "Have you read anything great lately?"
Me: "The English Patient."
"Could you recommend a cookbook for my mother?"
"Maybe she'd prefer The English Patient."
"My father hates novels."
"Oh, I think he'd like The English Patient.
"I'd like to return this book to exchange for something else."
"Have you read The English Patient?"

We sold the proverbial bejesus out of that book--well over 200 hardcover copies before it won the Booker Prize. I told my customers about the irresistible voice, characters, settings, as well as the fact that I could open to any page and read them an extraordinary sentence or paragraph. When they asked me to prove it, I did.

With that novel, I learned what it felt like to make an author's book my book. I learned that being a frontline bookseller mattered in a way that was fundamentally crucial to my life at the time. And I really haven't stopped handselling since, even as a longtime editor at Shelf Awareness.

I did, however, gradually learn that genuine handselling discussions actually begin with questions (ex.: What have you read lately that you love?) rather than fervent answers (You've got to read this!). And I realized that the art of conversation trumped the lesser art of evangelism every time.

In the film version of The English Patient, Count Almasy asks Hana why she is "so determined to keep me alive." Her response is at once spare and complex: "Because I'm a nurse." Handselling isn't about life or death, of course, but for most of us a life without reading is unimaginable (Because I'm a bookseller.). A little dramatic, but there it is.

From the novel: "She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awakening from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams."

The English Patient was an ARC I read in the summer of 1992. The story continues.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3290


Reading the World Cup in a Ticket Stub

"If England win tonight, come & celebrate with us at our Late Shopping evening tomorrow!" the London Review Bookshop tweeted on Tuesday, just hours before the Three Lions advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals with a win over Colombia. With hard-earned British practicality/fatalism, the bookseller also hedged its bets: "If England lose tonight, come & commiserate with us at our Late Shopping Evening tomorrow! If you couldn't care less either way, come to our Late Shopping Evening!"

Despite the failure of the U.S. men's team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, there's plenty of excitement on this side of the pond as well. For example, Little Shop of Stories, Decatur, Ga., tweeted: "We are WORLD CUP CRAZY at Little Shop! We think we might have more soccer books than anyone. Ever. In the history of books. Come by and peruse our extensive collection! #worldcup."

In today's issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers, I highlight a few books on the beautiful game and celebrate the fact that this weekend's quarterfinal matches will include England, my "home side" by heritage (Gray and Turner are surnames on my father's side). Also mentioned with fondness are Roger Bennett and Michael Davies, the legendary (since the 2014 World Cup anyway) Men in Blazers, who also happen to be co-authors of Men in Blazers Present Encyclopedia Blazertannica: A Suboptimal Guide to Soccer, America's Sport of the Future Since 1972 (Knopf). Their recent national tour was considerably more than suboptimal.

George Carroll, whose review of Encyclopedia Blazertannica appeared not long ago in Shelf Awareness for Readers, posted a Roger Bennett quote on Facebook last month from a huge MiB event in Seattle, Wash.: "I just want to thank Elliott Bay Book Company... The first time I came to Seattle, I wandered into the Elliott Bay bookstore. I spent hours there perusing it. I loved it. It's a passionate place of wonder... Support Elliott Bay bookstore; it's truly amazing."

Bennett, a Brit who just became a U.S. citizen on June 1, wrote an extended analysis of the state of American soccer on Facebook recently, making several cogent points, including:

  • American Football Fandom is both hyper-local and deeply connected to the global, with no contradiction between the two.
  • The audience is so young.
  • It is hard to exaggerate the level of hope invested in the U.S. Women's Team ahead of the 2019 World Cup.

Even if the American men's team had qualified, however, I'd still be rooting for England because of a tradition I can trace directly back to 1966 for three key reasons: I was playing soccer every day; England won its lone World Cup championship; and I experienced a once-in-a-lifetime (or my lifetime, at least) event, the memories of which I can still conjure up from an old, talismanic ticket stub, faded red, with a few words and numbers printed on it:

Enter Gate 2
Section 34, Row H, Seat 14
Mezza Stand $6.00
World Championship Soccer
Yankee Stadium
Mon. Aft. Sept. 5, 1966

Just an old ticket stub, but mnemonic and iconic. That I can read it and find a story says a lot about imagination, memory, and the art of storytelling.

I was 16 years old when I used this ticket. A few weeks before, my high school soccer coach had asked if I wanted to join him and a couple of my teammates to see an exhibition game at Yankee Stadium: Santos of Brazil, featuring a 26 year old star named Pelé, against Inter Milan of Italy.

I surprised myself by saying yes to my coach. I was terrified by the idea of taking a trip like that. I was just a Vermont kid who'd never been within a hundred miles of New York City; who'd just begun his love affair with an old, international game that was still new to most of the U.S., and certainly new to my little town. Our high school had launched a club soccer team in 1965. We were about to begin our first season as a sanctioned team in the Marble Valley League, which was dominated in those days by Proctor High School's players, many of whom were the sons or grandsons of immigrant marble workers. They knew the game from birth in ways we never would. They literally and figuratively kicked our ass every time we played them.

But none of that mattered on a hot September day in Yankee Stadium, which was packed with 41,598 fans (I looked it up). Both teams were late. The crowd got restless and a little crazy, but when the players finally hit the field, all was forgiven. The noise didn't stop until long after the game ended.

Santos won. Pelé scored. It was a good day. If I hadn't been a soccer convert before then, I certainly was after. I continued to play the game through high school and college, and my love for it has never wavered. Therein lies the path to real passion for a sport; the kind of passion that can be rekindled simply by reading an old ticket stub, faded red.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3285


Trade Show Commonplace Book: Author Events

So much happens at a book conference or trade show. For me, keeping a digital commonplace book has become a personal as well as professional habit. Long after a BookExpo or Winter Institute or fall regional bookseller conference has ended, I want to be able to call up quotable moments that could easily have slipped away, memory (mine at least) being the sieve it is.

This is particularly true of the education sessions, where attendees participate in detailed conversations about pertinent topics. There are so many excellent "big picture" takeaway quotes from these sessions, offering perspective on this crazy business we've all signed up for. Ya gotta save some of them.

Andrea Kiliany Thatcher, Mike Onorato, Lynn Rosen, Megan Edwards, Mark Sedenquist

Consider, for example, the BookExpo education session "Making Indie Bookstore and Library Events a Win-Win-Win," which was moderated by Mike Onorato, executive director of publicity at Smith Publicity, and featured Lynn Rosen, co-owner of Open Book Bookstore, Elkins Park, Pa.; Megan Edwards, author of the Copper Black mystery series; Mark Sedenquist, publisher of indie press Imbrifex Books; and Andrea Kiliany Thatcher, marketing manager & book publicist at Smith Publicity.

While the discussion leaned more toward bookshops than libraries, some excellent points were made about hosting author events, including:

Sedenquist noted that Imbrifex authors are advised "that when they go to book events we want them to introduce themselves to as many booksellers as possible. So that for nonfiction books, they're recognized as an expert in the field.... If they're a fiction writer, their personality should be apparent because those booksellers will handsell the books long after the author is gone."

Although selling her books is "always at the back of my head," Edwards conceded that "I can't just walk into a room and say that's what I'm there for. Perhaps it's obvious to everyone, but I do like getting to know people, meeting people who already know about and like my books and interacting with them. And I love getting to know booksellers and actually these days just visiting independent bookstores and chain bookstores all over the country is just a delightful way to be a tourist."

She also put in a plug for her home indie in Las Vegas: "We have a fabulous independent bookstore that has become a tourist destination. You wouldn't think that Las Vegas would be a place where readers would come, but this store is really worth the visit. It's called the Writer's Block.... So I really like all of that interaction, and then of course the residual effect afterwards of my books selling better and in more places across the country, which builds on itself. If I've done a good job, maybe I'll get invited back for the next one."

Speaking as a bookseller, Rosen agreed with Edwards that book sales are an important part of author events, but not everything: "We like to think of ourselves as creating conversations and community around the books. So if we're creating an atmosphere, if we're bringing people in, and they're enjoying something and they're part of a literary activity then we feel like we've accomplished what we set out to do. We're always balancing an event with book sales versus an event that's sort of a marketing tool; that's just getting new customers into the store, even if they're not buying something that night."

As a former social media manager for two indie bookstores in the Philadelphia area, Smith Publicity's Thatcher said she "felt that the social media content--newsletter content, website content--that you get from an event can be worth the event even if you only sold five or 10 books. There is some cynicism around author signing events. People are questioning that a lot, and I like to point out that there is the national reach of that hashtag for your book. That if you are promoting the signing the best you can online and in social media, the reach is much wider than just that city where you're hosting the event."

The big question had to be asked: What if an event happens and nobody shows up?

"I'm always so afraid I'm going to go and there'll be nobody there," Edwards confessed. "And it has never happened, but I will say that one time there were two people there. But that's okay with me. It's still an event. And you might modify how you present everything or interact with the two people who are there, but you can still have a great event. And it can still achieve all the other things that can go with a great event even if the room isn't full."

Thatcher said she loved "hearing an author say that it is their responsibility to get people there. As a bookseller and also as a publicist, I've had a lot of authors feel like that's perhaps someone else's job. I try to give them the perspective that the bookstore is doing you a favor. They're hosting you in their space. They're doing a lot of marketing, but we like you to do an equal amount of marketing."

Rosen posed some questions of her own: "What's in an event for the potential attendee? What do you have to offer them? For me, that's really important in planning our events.... So I try to think about what people want. Way back when I was an editor at Ballantine, my boss said, 'People don't buy books because they need them. They because they want them.' So I want to think about what people want out of our events."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3281