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Friday
Feb052016

Super Bowl, Groundhog Day & the 'Library Scene'

This week is bookended, more or less, by Groundhog Day CXXIX in Punxsutawney, Pa., and Super Bowl L in the San Francisco Bay Area. Oops, I mean Super Bowl 50. After more than four over-hyped Roman Numeral decades, the National Football League was understandably intimidated by the "L" (as in loser). To celebrate the aligning of these two quintessentially American celebrations, I set for myself the challenge of finding ways in which they bordered my world of books. Impossible, you say?

I could submit for your approval the classic holiday movie Groundhog Day, in which Phil (Bill Murray) cites Anton Chekhov and reads from Poems for Every Mood to Rita (Andie MacDowell), who studied 19th century French poetry in college and at one point conjures up lines from Sir Walter Scott's "Lay of the Last Minstrel." Among Phil's books on the coffee shop's counter are Treasury of the Theatre: From Agamemnon to A Month in the Country by John Gassner and Johann Strauss: Father and Son, a Century of Light Music by H.E. Jacob.

Or I could screen a pair of Super Bowl 50 commercials for movie adaptations of classic novels by Lewis Carroll and Rudyard Kipling.

But wait, there's more!

Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, Va., is offering its annual Groundhog Week Sale, during which "books and merchandise featuring rodents and things we think are rodents but really aren't are 20% off. Books by or about politicians are not eligible for this offer."

Former New York Giants and Oakland Raiders defensive end Justin Tuck, who announced his retirement Monday, made a Groundhog Day appearance on the Dan Patrick Show (9:38 mark) and talked about R.U.S.H for Literacy. He and his wife, Lauran, founded the initiative in 2008 with the mission of "encouraging children to read, understand, succeed and hope." The Tucks also donated $250,000 to The Re(a)d Zone, "a signature initiative focused on investing in, strengthening and building the capacity of high-quality, literacy-enhancing programs that increase third grade reading proficiency throughout the Bay Area."

Changing Hands Bookstore, Phoenix, Ariz., invites you to "join us for Super Bowl 50!... We'll have Happy Hour prices at First Draft Book Bar ($1 off all tap and house wine and beer, plus nuts and pretzels), plus a screening of the Super Bowl on the big-screens in the Commons."

Watermark Books, Wichita, Kans., hosts its fourth annual Book Club Sunday.

The 16th annual Alternative Souper Bowl--a free, celebratory afternoon of live music takes place at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland: "Guests are invited to bring non-perishable food items and household items (listed below) for donation to HEARTH, which provides shelter to families that are experiencing homelessness and fleeing domestic violence."

The city of Mountain View recommends that visitors enjoy the well known bookstores downtown: East West, BookBuyers & Books Inc."; the Sacramento Bee suggests stops at City Lights Books ("a must-see for travelers from Bodø to Beijing") and Green Apple Books ("the vibe is warm and inviting"), while Denver's Fox31 offers a tragically unhip travel tip: "For you bookworms, check out the 'beatniks' at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, one of America's only truly independent bookstores."

Michael Oher, the subject of Michael Lewis's 2006 bestselling book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, will be playing in the Super Bowl as an offensive lineman for the Carolina Panthers.

For me, however, the clincher is an imaginary library that could have been a key moment in Groundhog Day. The movie's co-writer Danny Rubin recalled that his original concept called for a "library scene" at the bed & breakfast that would emphasize just how long Phil had been trapped in his time loop.

"I decided if he read a page of a book every day, he could remember where he was," he said. "So there's this big bookcase in the bed and breakfast, and every morning he goes down and he reads one page of one book. So you know that by the time he's gotten to the last page of the book, it's probably been about a year. And then he gets to the end of the row; and then he gets to the bottom of of the shelf. And then there's a very momentous day where he reads the last page of the last book of the last shelf, and you see him put it down and then, in a very depressed way, walk all the way back down to the beginning and start over again."

Sometimes the Super Bowl feels like that, especially during the halftime show. But there's always an element of surprise, even the literary kind, in the commercials. Remember when Apple channeled George Orwell's 1984 in the company's ad, directed by Ridley Scott, for Super Bowl XVIII? Now that was a game changer. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2684

Friday
Jan292016

'Fun at Work' Days

In case you missed it, yesterday was National Fun at Work Day. But don't worry. For some reason, today is International Fun at Work Day, so let's get this party started. Actually, those of you who attended ABA's Winter Institute should probably sit this one out for your own health and well-being... and recovery time. You've probably had enough fun for one week, and we have the photos to prove it.

National Fun at Work Day "couldn't arrive at a more ironic time, what with the grumblings over our national minimum wage and the sluggish progress of workplace equality despite growing protest," Signature noted in showcasing quotes from "8 authors who don't have time for National Fun at Work Day.... You know what sounds like 'Fun' to us? Reading commiserative quotes on the Internet when we're supposed to be working."

"Fun" can be a testy little word when it is asked to dance with a partner like "work." Of all the jobs I've had in my life, bookselling was the one that put the highest premium on having fun at work, or at least seeming to. It was also, quite often, fun. Just not always.

It begins with the hiring process. I've discussed this with many booksellers over the years, and know my experience wasn't unique. When I first applied for a bookselling job in 1992, I was interviewed initially by an extraordinary woman named Josie Rahe, who was near retirement age and had been a gifted handseller (I had no idea what that meant then) for many years. Her job description was a cross between HR and EG (Everybody's Grandmother). She was superb at both. Although the interview process was thorough, the message from Josie was clear: being a bookseller was fun. She radiated that pitch herself.

For the first two weeks of my life as a frontline bookseller, Josie was there every step of the way, introducing me to other staff members and customers, showing me the basics of my job as well as every other job in the store, and generally making me feel like this was anything but a normal retail job. It was a calling.

As you know, she was right. It is a calling. Still, when prospective booksellers are interviewed in many, if not most (if not all) bookstores, owners/managers tend to have a--let's call it, for the sake of argument, slight--tendency to oversell the fun part of bookselling, as in so many books, such bright colleagues and curious (in every sense of the term) customers.

The relatively low wages, long hours on your feet, occasionally demanding (perhaps once curious, then not so much) patrons and more are, for good reason, less emphasized. And prospective frontline booksellers are equally complicit because they (we) want to believe that working in a bookstore is everything we've always imagined it to be.

Great bookselling is theater and performance and even stagecraft, so it makes sense that the entertainment value of the job is stressed. But bookselling is also hard work (see "Bookselling Is Harder than It Looks" and "How Pleasant... to Just Work in a Bookstore"). The days can be fun, enlightening and uplifting, but also frustrating, boring and infuriating. Sometimes all of these and more in a single afternoon.   

How does a bookseller have fun at work every day, and not just on a randomly selected national or international Fun at Work Day? Here's the thing. We're word people. My dictionary says fun is "enjoyment, amusement or lighthearted pleasure." And this is fun's origin story: "late 17th century (denoting a trick or hoax): from the obsolete fun 'to cheat or hoax,' dialect variation of late Middle English fon 'make a fool of, be a fool,' related to fon 'a fool,' of unknown origin."

Is bookselling fun? Or are we fools? Consider Touchstone's counsel in As You Like It: "The more pity that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly.... I do now remember a saying: 'The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.' "

At some point early in my frontline bookselling career, I did find the answer to my question--"How then does a bookseller have fun at work every day?" You don't. It's okay. Really. You'd be a fool if you had fun every day... and not a wise, Shakespearean kind of fool either. Know what sounds like a Fun at Work Day to me? Handselling good books, whenever you can find the time. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2679

Friday
Jan222016

Answer Your Bookstore Cat's Questions Day

Open an Instagram account and follow a bookstore that has a cat. This cat will have its own Instagram account. The booksellers will pose the cat next to books the cat is "reading." --Helen Ellis, author of American Housewife, in a Powell's Books blog post headlined "How to Be a Patron of an Independent Bookstore"

Maybe you didn't know this, but today is Answer Your Cat's Questions Day ("Take some time and attempt to work out what questions your cat is asking, and make a concerted effort to fill in the blanks.").

Maisie has an editing question.

Since we're in a business with a substantial feline workforce, it's appropriate that we enhance the celebration by offering a variation on the theme: Answer Your Bookstore Cat's Questions Day.

Some cats, of course, may have only one question: Why bother? The best answer is one I'd give to my own cats: Why not? While they aren't, strictly speaking, bookstore cats, mine are certainly book trade cats, helping out at the office in their own unique ways. And they always look like they have questions.

Writer Midge Raymond gets it. She recently chronicled her editing cat Oscar's attempts to assist while she's working: "He walks back and forth across the keys until I pick him up and cuddle him. He has an amazing ability to step on the keys in such a way that a computer function that I previously had no knowledge of is suddenly revealed to me. Perhaps his greatest contribution occurred as I was reading through the first-pass edits for my novel, which were in PDF. Not knowing that I could make notes on the PDF, I was writing on a pad of paper when Oscar, rushing to attack the pen, stepped on the keyboard in such a way that a PDF Post-it popped onto the screen, thus cutting my editing time in half." (Warning: cat editing results may vary.) What would Oscar's questions be?

Al at Village Lights Bookstore, Madison, Ind.

To help celebrate Answer Your Bookstore Cat's Questions Day, Mashable handily got the q&a ball rolling last week, advising us to keep our New Year's reading resolutions because "the bookstore-owning felines of Instagram--where the #bookstorecats hashtag has become popular of late--have not forgotten. Your decision to neglect another book club meeting has not gone unnoticed by these fuzzy-bellied, hyper-judgmental bookworms." Among their queries: "Been a while since you picked up a book, eh?" And: "I recharge for 72 hours between every novel for maximum reading comprehension. Don't you?"
 
In that spirit, I wondered what other questions bookstore cats might have, so I conducted an informal poll. Here are a few of their questions. I'll translate, but you have to provide the answers on a case-by-case basis. Your inquiring cats want to know.

Sales floor
Why aren't your books organized by flavor and texture?
Do the "what I can chew" rules have to be so damn complicated and contradictory?
Don't you find it intriguing that new books taste better, yet old books smell better?
Why do you let so many strangers in this place? And why can't your customers control their kids?
Why do you have so many cat titles classified as humor or counter books? It's insulting.

Social media
Is that another photo of me going up on your Facebook page?  
Since you keep posting my pictures all over social media, do you think it's such a good idea to use my name as your password for everything?
Does it ever bother you that posts featuring me get dozens of likes, while all your other posts barely get a nibble?
Can't you come up with a synonym for "cute?" (Thesauruses are in the reference section, aisle 4.)
Aren't "cat selfies" over yet?

Office/service counter
Why are you always tapping your paws on that machine?
Why can't I catch a cursor?
How is it that giftwrap paper is totally off limits, unless you roll some up into a ball and decide it's a toy for me?
Why is that foamboard poster still at the end of the counter, blocking my sun?
Oh, were you reading this? (while standing on the pages of a book)

Personal
Why don't you read to me more often? I don't know what your words mean, but they sound nice.
Where do you go at night? Where does everybody go at night?
Who is the greatest writer about cats ever (and don't say T.S. Eliot)?
Why read when you can shred?
Where are you going now? Can I go to?

For some reason, many of the bookstore cats I contacted felt the need to quote Mark Twain: "If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve man but it would deteriorate the cat." Guess you'll just have to ask your cat for clarification on that one. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2674

Friday
Jan152016

When an ARC Makes a Statement

"I'm Reading as Fast as I Can!" That was the title of a blog post I wrote during the winter of 2005 as I considered the deluge of advance reader's copies that arrived daily at the bookstore where I worked at the time. I am in the book trade because I love it. I read books because, well, I have to, in every sense of the word. The question is: Why do I choose to read this ARC and not that one?

The answer is complicated, but I can tell you precisely why I knew I would read Martin Seay's debut novel The Mirror Thief (Melville House, May) when an ARC showed up at my door in the fall. The book's jacket--front cover, back cover, even spine--was drenched in smart blurbs from independent booksellers. I've been opening ARC packages for decades, but that presentation stopped me in my tracks. "You've got to read this!" a dozen booksellers I know and respect were all saying.

And so I did. The novel is as extraordinary as they promised, but that's another conversation. What I really wanted to know was how Melville House came up with the cover idea. So I asked.

"I was trying to make a statement about the business, as well as trying to find the best way to market a really great book," said Dennis Johnson, Melville House co-publisher with Valerie Merians. "The urge to make a statement was prompted, in part, from the frustration that Valerie and I feel about the way the marketplace has become increasingly dominated by historically giant players. It's always been thus, of course, but it's at an historic extreme nowadays, and it's very hard for smaller indie players to participate in that kind of marketplace. The bitter irony, of course, is that the system needs us both--indie booksellers for showrooms and handselling leadership, and indie publishers because, well, culture does not live by generic bestsellers alone."

Last winter, Johnson was exploring possibilities for a campaign to highlight that dilemma, as well as "do something that would remind indie publishers and retailers that we are the most natural partners in the literary ecosystem. As more than half our staff--myself included--have worked in bookstores, Melville House has always published books that resonate most profoundly with the business of indie booksellers, so I guess I was trying to imagine a roots campaign of some sort."

Dennis Johnson

During ABA's 2015 Winter Institute in Asheville, he had what he described as a "eureka moment" while reading the manuscript of a debut novel "that was making my publisher's antenna vibrate like crazy--a big, fat, page-turner that was part literary thriller and part historical suspense novel, the kind of sweeping saga you stay up all night to finish. It was called The Mirror Thief, and it reminded me of when I discovered another big, fat saga (and the biggest selling book in Melville House's history): Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone."

The Mirror Thief turned out to be the perfect book for the campaign he'd been envisioning "because this was the kind of book that indie booksellers could sell like no one else could," Johnson said, describing his right-place-right-time moment of clarity: "And then of course I just looked around me and the eureka moment turned into a Homer Simpson moment, whereby you slap your forehead and say, 'D'oh!' All these booksellers were walking around the hotel with book bags of ARCs and with manuscripts jammed under their arms and it came to me. If the book represented both what indie booksellers do better than anyone else, and what we do as indie publishers, why not really brand it as such, and build the campaign for it based on what indie booksellers had to say about it?"

The cover Melville House subsequently created for The Mirror Thief's ARC features blurbs from Mary Wolf of Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse, Stan Hynds of the Northshire Bookstore, Sheryl Cotleur of Copperfield's Books, Jeremy Ellis of Brazos Bookstore, Kevin Elliott of 57th Street Books, Steve Salardino of Skylight Books, Anmiryam Budner of Main Point Books, Ed Conklin of Chaucer's Bookstore, Chris Phipps of DIESEL, a Bookstore, Geoffrey Jennings of Rainy Day Books, Peter Matyskiela of the Doylestown Bookshop and Greg Berry of the Elliott Bay Book Co.

"At Winter Institute 10, watching booksellers walk around with the thousand-page manuscript for [Garth Risk Hallberg's] City On Fire and more, I realized again how open indie bookstore buyers are to things other buyers aren't--debuts, long books, literary novels, writers from outside the echo chamber," Johnson recalled. "I knew I could get many of them to hear me out and give it a read. And I knew the book was so good that they'd love it, and that would be the start of a buzz campaign. And I wanted to print the buzz--it came to me that I should make a galley that had nothing on the cover--not even the title--except what indie booksellers said about it.

"So that's what we did. Statement made." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2670

Friday
Jan082016

Reading & Resolutions & Predictions! Oh My!

As we all know, resolutions and predictions are New Year's traditions with a dubious track record. Remember when you resolved that 2015 would be the year you finally read Ulysses or War & Peace or Moby Dick? How'd that work out? Remember the guy who predicted in 2002 that vinyl albums and turntables would one day make a comeback as profitable sidelines for indie bookstores? No, I don't either.

And yet, we're always ready to give hope and forecasting another shot. Can't help ourselves, really. I've been collecting some great recent examples:

Resolutions
Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., hosted "our always popular Resolutions Mini Workshops... with inspirational options good for everyone."

Noting that "now is the time to make a commitment to your 2016 reading life," Sarah Bagby of Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kans., wrote she had "asked a sampling of the bookstore and cafe staff for their goals for reading in 2016. Everyone had one and no two were the same. Mine is to read a set number of pages per day, and have reading glasses in my reach at all times.... Happy New Reading Year!"

Catherine Weller of Weller Book Works, Salt Lake City, Utah, shared the bookstore's goals for the new year: "We'll continue to work on finding wonderful books--be they new, used, or rare--to share with our customers. All of us booksellers will strive to read even more.... For your new year we hope you'll consider reading more, loving more, and laughing more. We also hope you'll continue to support locally-owned businesses like ours, so Salt Lake City will continue to be populated by unique, vibrant shops run by your friends and neighbors."

"I have never been good at achieving my New Year's resolutions," observed Gwenyfar Rohler of Old Books on Front St., Wilmington, N.C. "I work at them, and chip away, but usually I make longer-term commitments than one year can contain.... Somehow it took until now to understand the heart of what this has been about all along. I thought it was about jobs; turns out it was about connections, and putting people, family and community first--ahead of expectations, ahead of big business, ahead of preconceptions."

In the Spectator, Laura Freeman recalled that "last year, I made a New Year's resolution to give up my appalling Amazon habit. What with one-click ordering it had become fantasy shopping, clicking on Penguins as if they were penny sweets. I was spending hundreds of unthinking pounds--and never visiting the bookshops I claimed to cherish. And I have stuck to it. With only one shameful lapse, I have bought my books in bookshops. What a joy it has been."

Several authors shared their reading resolutions with the Guardian, including Ted Dawe: "There is one thing I plan to do differently this year. I am sending galley proofs of my new novel to teen readers (15 of them) to get feed back and critique. I want to get a sense of what they like or don't get before I complete my final publication copy."

The Huffington Post's Jillian Capewell advised how to make non-intimidating reading resolutions, including: "If you live near even a mid-sized city with a library or bookstore, chances are there's an author visiting you soon. While visits from huge names even your mom will recognize (David Sedaris, Elizabeth Gilbert, etc.) are few and far between, there are plenty of authors with more modest followings that hold readings for recently released books. Research one who sounds intriguing and make yourself go--at worst, you got out of the house, and at best, you've found a new book to take home (and an author you can say you saw way back when)."

Predictions
Digital Book World featured "10 predictions for 2016":

  • Continued regrowth of print sales.
  • Increased focus on export sales.
  • Amazon spending some time under the radar.
  • The middle to continue to diminish with more consolidation.
  • Picking up a Penguin; keep an eye on Pearson.
  • Increasing Chinese influence.
  • Publishers taking advantage of licensing opportunities.
  • New English language partnerships.
  • Book fair evolution and the emergence of the micro-fair.
  • Struggle for subscription but steady digital sales.

Carolyn Kellogg considered "6 book trends for 2016" in the Los Angeles Times:

  • Books are back. Print books, that is.
  • The Star Wars effect
  • If you can't read George R.R. Martin, join him.
  • Long-form nonfiction is in peril.
  • Independent presses bring the vanguard.
  • It's a big, diverse world.

We'll be keeping score because predictions sometimes fade to obscurity in retrospect: "It wasn't too long ago that pundits were saying that printed books and bookshops were on the way out," Tim Godfray, CEO of the U.K.'s Booksellers Association, told the Bookseller recently. "This is now absolutely not the case. It has been really heartening to see booksellers showing such entrepreneurship and creativity in extremely challenging trading conditions."

For New Year's perspective, however, Emöke B'Racz of Malaprop's Bookstore, Asheville, N.C., summed it up best: "I may seem like I've already plunged headfirst into next year, but I have not even faced the fact that 2015 will be passing into 2016 imminently. I wish that we all may keep our hearts open, joyful and peaceful to meet the challenges of everyday life as it unfolds for every one of us. As we say in Budapest: B.U.É.K !!!!" --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2665