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Friday
Dec222017

'What's the Best Book Gift for a Non-Reader?'

The magic of Christmas is that it gives the book trade a glimpse into another, almost [Philip] Pullman-esque, world: a place where non-book buyers buy books.

--Philip Jones, The Bookseller

There are some things I don't miss about working as a frontline bookseller during holiday season crunch time. For example, I don't miss this conversation:

I need to find a book for my uncle.
What kinds of books does he like?
Oh, he doesn't read.

Or variations on its theme, like this one (recorded on my blog Saturday, December 17, 2005): "This afternoon I heard a customer say: 'I want to get a book for my uncle. Have you read this (holds up copy of Bad Dog)? He doesn't have a dog, but....' "

And yet, against all odds, right now all over the world booksellers are handselling myriad titles as gifts for non-readers. Learning how to answer that bookish near-koan ("What's the best book gift for a non-reader?") is a rite of passage for new staff members. The question will come up, and this time of year it will come up a lot.

The media knows: "Gift Guide: 17 books for the non-reader" (Chicago Tribune) or "Books to give this Christmas to harassed mum, non-reading nephew, fulminating uncle--and 13 other headscratchers" (Telegraph). For another perspective, read David Barnett's Guardian column headlined "This Christmas, don't give books to non-readers."

"Books expand our minds and give us a greater understanding of the world around us; yet, a lot of readers persist in looking down on those who don't read. And there might be many, many reasons for why they don't," he wrote, adding: "Reading is important. Literacy skills are vital. Children's reading drops off massively after the age of eight, which can cause problems in adult life. But being literate and having a love of books are two different things. Books might furnish your walls... but this Christmas, don't buy books to 'fix' people who don't want them."

While Barnett's advice might work for amateur holiday gift-givers, it does not apply to booksellers, who are pressed to answer the question in real time, on bookstore sales floors, again and again by eager holiday season customers.

Booksellers have long met this challenge with grace and creativity. The December 17, 1876 edition of the New York Times proclaimed: "Then there are the bookstores! What wonderful things they have prepared for the holidays! Surely, there was never anything like it since printing and engraving were invented.... There are books for the learned and the unlearned, books for the aged and for the young, and for all the periods in between. Everybody may be satisfied with a book. And it would really appear as if those who provide books were perennially engaged in studying the human race in order to meet the requirements of those who may have been heretofore overlooked. At the very worst, there is no human creature so dull that he may not be moved by a beautiful binding of a book, or fail to respond to the universal language of pictures. This season we have some of the best works in the English language in dress that may be properly called high art."

What's the best book gift for a non-reader? The question sparks a couple of memories. In the early 1970s, I was student teaching at a high school. The assigned book for the class was Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, but one boy flat-out refused to read it. On a whim, I handed him my copy of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire and asked him to just check out the first few pages. Abbey's cranky voice worked. A decade later, I ran into this guy at an adult league softball game, and the first thing he said was how much he'd loved "that f***ing book you gave me." Said he still had his ragged copy somewhere. Maybe he hadn't read anything since, but he'd read that one.

And a few years ago, a friend having dinner at our house said he hated poetry because it made no sense to him. I grabbed a couple of books by Gary Snyder and David Budbill off my shelves, asked him to just give them a chance. "Now this," he said after sampling, "I like."

Sometimes the best gift book for a nonreader is simply... the right book. Often it's more complicated, but I've known many booksellers over the years who could unlock that mystery with just a question or two of their own. As Christmas Eve draws near, booksellers everywhere will spend the weekend saying variations on these magic words: "Tell me a little more about your uncle." Then they'll make a recommendation. It's a small Christmas miracle.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3154

Friday
Dec152017

For Indie Bookstores, Weather Can Be the Grinch

As a rule a bookshop is horribly cold in winter, because if it is too warm the windows get misted over, and a bookseller lives on his windows.

--George Orwell, "Bookshop Memories" (1936)

Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, Mich.: "There’s nothing cozier than a bookstore during a snow storm all aglow."

Forecasts for the book industry have always been cloudy, with at least a 50% chance of contradiction. For independent booksellers, however, gauging the weather is more than just a retail metaphor; it's a tangible factor in their day-to-day business decisions.

Weather can be the Grinch this time of year anywhere, if for different reasons. What is good weather for bookselling? That varies from region to region, of course. Often, however, the best bookstore weather is just a little bad, to lure people indoors, but not so bad they can't drive to your store at all. It's a fine line that gets razor thin during the holiday season.

My thoughts turned to bookselling weather last Saturday, when I spotted a great "Snow Safety Advisory" tweeted out by Belmont Books, Belmont, Mass.: ‏"To increase car's traction in snow, purchase 20-50 lbs. of books from local #IndieBookstore and put them in trunk. Also doubles as emergency reading supply if power goes out. #YoureWelcome."

Then Changing Hands posted the following on Facebook Wednesday: "77 degrees and sunny in Phoenix. Still, a winter wonderland." It was 16 degrees outside my office, with single digit wind chill, when I read that one, but I appreciated the sentiment nonetheless.  

Throughout December's all-important gift-shopping season, booksellers must chart weather forecasts with an alchemic blend of meteorology and wishful thinking. The window of opportunity can be slammed shut harshly by an ill-timed storm front, especially as the countdown to Christmas Day accelerates.

Titcomb's Bookshop, East Sandwich, Mass.: "The view from here, a winter wonderland!"

Civilians--aka customers--may not realize how important the weather is to bookstores. They might assume that since bookselling is an indoor job, what's happening outside--short of a blizzard--can't possibly make or break a store's year. But it does matter, big time, to the Scrooge-ish bottom line, which doesn't give a tinker's damn whether the sun was shining in 2016 on this date, when sales were up 11% over the previous year day-to-day.

Weather excuses? Bah! Humbug! 

Seeking the middle ground between "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas" and "the weather outside is frightful," most indie booksellers have been charting storm patterns online since Thanksgiving, and now hope predictions for Christmas week are not frightful, and that any lurking predatory storms will run out of time or strength before they can seriously threaten the rest of this crucial home stretch.

Please, Santa, all we want for Christmas is the absence of blizzards, Nor'easters or "freezing rain events" (as the Weather Channel people like to describe such things). No early afternoon closings. No snow days.  

"As the largest external driver of consumer need, weather is more than just a conversation-starter for retailers," the National Retailer Federation noted this week. Evan Gold, executive v-p of global services at Planalytics, a company that helps retailers account for weather, said the trick is to remove weather-driven volatility from historical data to arrive at the 'weather-neutral baseline' from which retailers can plan, allocate resources and buy product in advance of the next season." Nice trick if you can pull it off, Evan.

"The secret around weather is that it very rarely repeats," he observed, adding that a common misconception among retailers is that year-over-year, they expect consumer demand to repeat previous patterns, but they overlook weather, particularly consumer's reactions to a chill in the air... or more. "50 degrees in Miami is very different than the same 50 degrees in Minneapolis."

Planalytics has identified "five myths about the weather's impact on retail":

  1. You can't plan for the weather.
  2. It all evens out in the end.
  3. Consumers will shop during the holidays, regardless of the weather.
  4. My products aren't seasonal, so the weather doesn't affect me.
  5. I'm an online retailer--the weather doesn't impact me.

My favorite may be this tidbit from myth #3: "During the holidays, weather not only influences if a customer goes into a store, it also influences the items they place in their basket. For example, 18% of boot sales are influenced solely by the weather in December...." Maybe boots could be an unexpected sidelines hit for bookstores next year. Or a holiday season cross-promotion with a shoe store? Does AccuWeather have a brainstorming forecast module?

On December 16, 2005, during my last week as a full-time bookseller, I began the day with a blog post at Fresh Eyes: A Bookseller's Journal: "Weather affects any business, but Vermont weather is a particularly nasty ingredient for a bookstore this time of year. Everything, or nearly everything, is riding on what happens between Black Friday and New Year's Day. One bad Friday or Saturday can be crippling financially in a way it wouldn't be in, say, mid-February. But Mother Nature doesn't give a sh*t, and this morning I woke up to sleet, freezing rain, snow, and, for extra spice, no heat in my house. So, the house was warming up some as I left it to drive the treacherous dozen miles to the bookstore. Now I'm at work and I don't expect to see many customers until after noon, assuming the roads clear and we don't get much more of what the weatherman cheerily calls 'wintry mix.' "

Later that night, I added: "The 'wintry mix' didn't deliver a knockout punch today (we opened and stayed open), but it certainly delivered a few good, stiff jabs to the chin. Tomorrow. we'll try again." Because that's what booksellers do, weather be damned.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3149

Friday
Dec082017

O Bookmas Tree (or Chalkboard)!

He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods--the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn't thought of them as Christmas Trees.

--from Robert Frost's poem "Christmas Trees"

I was in New York City earlier this week for what has become an annual pilgrimage, with a friend, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to visit our tree, the 20-foot blue spruce decorated with an 18th-century Neapolitan Nativity scene. We also stopped by Rockefeller Center to see its more garish if wildly popular descendant and, finally, for the second year in a row, paid respects to the Christmas tree vendor who has staked out a sidewalk claim on the Upper West Side with a sign of the times: "Gluten-Free Trees!"

I may have mentioned before (actually, just about every year, more or less, for the past decade), that I do not have a Christmas tree in my house. It's a little Grinchy/Scroogey of me, I know. And I'm sure there are many deep-seated psychological reasons for my arbor-less Yuletide habit.

But I've also noted the contradiction that I love other people's Christmas trees. For me, it's a spectator sport. I enjoy seeing them posed fully decorated in houses and store windows; strewn undecorated and for sale across parking lots like pop-up forests; and strapped triumphantly to the roofs of passing SUVs. I've even developed a tolerance for those giant inflatable Xmas tree-shaped lawn decorations being buffeted by icy winds to the point where they appear ready to take flight like blimps.

Bookmas Tree hunting has also become one of my Christmas tree traditions. I love discovering what booksellers and other bookish elves are doing with variations on the Bookmas Tree theme. This year, once again, I've been dashing through the virtual snow in a digital sleigh to find what social media's holiday global village has on offer. Here are a few highlights thus far:

Battenkill Books, Cambridge, N.Y.: Owner Connie Brooks shared a pic of the shop's "book-tree-ladder" designed by staff member Heather Boyne.

Murder by the Book, Houston, Tex.: "Our Annual Advent promotion kicks off tomorrow. Each year we pick 24 books to highlight, one for each day of Advent. This year our theme is Edgar award winners and nominees. We’ve also selected 8 books for young readers to represent Hanukkah. All our picks are 20% off. And while you’re in, check out our new holiday decorations."

Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, Mich.: "A book tree glows in Tree Town."

Lake Country Booksellers, White Bear Lake, Minn., shared a photo last month of its holiday season book tree.

Posman Books at Rockefeller Center, Manhattan: "Time to decorate your tree, and your window! Make it warm with these sweater-like ornaments."

Stirling Books & Brew, Albion, Mich.: "Decorating for Christmas!"

ReadWithMe.Raleigh‏, Raleigh, N.C.: "Our #givingtree benefits the Raleigh Rescue Mission's children. Help us to #givebooks this holiday season. Gifts will be delivered Friday so please stop by or email us soon if you'd like to participate. Thanks!"

Katy Budget Books, Houston, Tex.: "While the store is decorated, we do not have a book tree up this year. Do you have one? We want to see them!"

Ink@84 Books & Drink, London: "Wassail! We're celebrating our 2nd birthday this Thu Dec 7th with mulled wine & mince pies from 6-8pm to say huge thanks to all our lovely customers for their fantastic support. Stop by!"

Booka Bookshop, Oswestry, Shropshire: "A BIG BIG thank you to Emily Sutton for creating a fantastic #OneChristmasWish window display today--we love it!"

Gullivers Bookshop, Wimborne, Dorset: "We're open every Sunday until Christmas. Wimborne is lovely place to spend some time at this time of the year!"

Books A Plenty, Tauranga, New Zealand: "Mmm... smell that pine! Thanks Kaimai Christmas Trees."

And taking a chance that this counts under the unwritten Yuletide rules, here are a few seasonal bookshop chalkboard signs (The frames are made from trees, right?) to help set the mood:

Women & Children First, Chicago, Ill.: "To do: Make list, check 2x, find out who's naughty & nice." 

Ferguson Books & More, Grand Forks, N.D.: "It's beginning to BOOK a lot like Christmas."

Red Balloon Bookshop, St. Paul, Minn.:‏ "Gifts for everyone on your list (even the grownups)."

Main Street Books, Mansfield, Ohio: "Dear Santa, How good must one be, exactly, to get ALL the books (asking for a friend.), the Bookstore Lady."

Mitzi's Books, Rapid City, S.D.: "Perfect! We needed just a dash of snow to set of our holiday decorations! #deckthehalls."

Maybe Frost's poem, which I hadn't read in a long time, will be my Christmas tree this year:

A thousand Christmas trees I didn't know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn't lay one in a letter.
I can't help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3144

Friday
Dec012017

On the Indie Bookstore Road with Jessica Keener

Let's begin with a moment from Jessica Keener's fine new novel, Strangers in Budapest (Algonquin): "Outside, seeing the road and the cars heading toward the city center, she thought of the many thousands of people living their lives, hauling their hidden stories. Hundreds of thousands. Millions. The entire planet was full of people hauling secrets, struggling to come to terms with them...."

That passage eloquently crystalizes the interwoven lives of the handful of characters who inhabit this story, each in their own way a stranger in a strange land. A December Indie Next PickStrangers in Budapest was praised by Linda Bond of Auntie's Bookstore, Spokane, Wash., as "a tight, well-written thrill of a story you will not forget." That it is. And Linda's prediction has been true for me. I continue to be haunted by these strangers and their secrets.

In addition to saying "You've got to read this!" (the handseller's mantra), however, what I'm focusing on this week is Keener's recent journey through a landscape in which she is not a stranger--the Northeast. Recently, she and her husband, Barr, embarked from their Boston area home turf on a three-day book-signing tour of 14 bookshops scattered across the region, rolling up 855 miles through five states in a small Zipcar, "eating oranges and organic potato chips out of paper bags," as Keener recalled.

Jessica Keener with Yankee Bookshop co-owners Kari Meutsch & Kristian Preylowski

The itinerary included the Bookloft in Great Barrington, Mass.; New York indies Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany and Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs; Vermont's Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Bartleby's Books in Wilmington, the Yankee Bookshop in Woodstock and the Norwich Bookstore in Norwich; New Hampshire indies White Birch Books in North Conway, Water Street Bookstore in Exeter and Gibson's Bookstore in Concord. The home stretch featured stops at Maine's Bridgton Books in Bridgton and Print: A Bookstore in Portland before ending up at Jabberwocky Bookshop in Newburyport, Mass.

Northshire Bookstore Saratoga bookseller Molly Halpin & Keener

The genesis of the tour? "I was invited to attend the NEIBA conference in September and was blown away by the indie bookstore owners and staff that I met there," Keener said. "Talking to these people in person--seeing their faces, feeling their passion for books--it was inspiring. It made me want to visit their stores. So, the indie book signing tour became a chance to both celebrate the publication of my new novel and shine some light on these cultural oases that live in our neighborhoods and villages. Bookstores and the people who staff them are, in my opinion, purveyors of magic. Plus, the tour was a perfect excuse to get away from the city for a few days, breathe some country air, and go on a fun road trip with my husband."

The Bookloft (l. to r.): owner Pamela Pescosolido, Keener, Julia Hobalt (buyer), Tim Oberg (social media) & Giovanni Bovini (bookseller)

Highlights of the pilgrimage included "the unique beauty and tranquil atmosphere of these stores" as well as "meeting the staffs," Keener noted. "I met owners and part-timers. Book people have an endearing eccentricity about them. For instance, several booksellers made a point of showing me the craftsmanship of their store's custom-made bookshelves. I loved seeing this pride in the store's design as well as the books themselves."

An unexpected highlight was the "feeling of freedom of being on the road, following the trail of these beautiful treasures whose very existences enrich society," she said. "No two indies are alike--except that all are exceptional, and the people who staff them are incredible for their obvious love of books, stories, authors, and readers."

Keener & Jabberwocky Bookshop manager Paul Abruzzi

Keener credited her husband with keeping them moving: "In order to successfully visit all 14 stores in three days, we averaged about 20 minutes per indie store. It sounds short, but it was enough time to introduce myself, chat a little, sign books, take a photo and leave behind a small gift bag of candy by way of thanks. Plus, staff people need to tend to store business. I didn't want to interfere with that."

She also praised her hometown store, Brookline Booksmith, where she had her launch reading: "Brookline Booksmith is a 10-minute walk from my home. I go there several times a week. Sometimes I stop in for five minutes--it's almost like a checkpoint for my day. Maybe I'll have a specific book in mind. Maybe not. I like to browse the tables and I like to see other people browsing too. It's not a stretch to say that Brookline Booksmith is the heartbeat of our town. It's a place where you can let your mind wander or ponder, focus or drift. There's something there for everyone."

Keener & Oblong Books & Music co-owner Dick Hermans

The success of her book-fueled road trip has "inspired me to keep going," Keener noted. "I've visited several more in the Greater Boston area (Harvard Book StorePorter Square Books, Trident Booksellers & Cafe) and intend to visit more over the next few weeks." Last night, Keener read at Newtonville Books in Newton.

Book people, she observed, "shine in quiet and powerful ways. It was fun, a little unnerving the first day, but we got our bearings and were almost experts at getting in and out stores with pictures and signing by day three. It was great to see the stores busy and thriving. The trip was a wonderful chance to celebrate the unique oases of culture that we call indie bookstores. No two are alike--except that all are exceptional, and the people who staff them are incredible for their obvious love of books, stories, authors, and readers."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3139

Friday
Nov172017

#WorkinPublishing Week in the U.K.

If you're reading this, you probably 1) love books, and 2) decided at some point in your life you'd like to find a way to transform that love into a profession. There are myriad ways in which the dream can be realized, of course, though the route is often circuitous... on a good day. 

No GPS exists to plot your journey into the not-so-fantasyland of writers, booksellers, librarians, editors, publicists and the like. You can, however, drive anywhere, even in the dark, if you have good headlights.

Shining lights just down the road is, I think, what's happening this week in U.K. where the Publisher's Association has been hosting its third annual Work in Publishing initiative "to demonstrate the broad array of jobs available in the publishing industry," the Bookseller noted. The PA partners with online apprenticeships guide Not Going to Uni, graduate jobs website Milkround, Creative Access, the Bookseller, Inspired Selection, Atwood Tate, bookcareers.com and the Society of Young Publishers on activities designed to promote career options in the trade.

I've been intrigued by many things I read this week (Warning: all #WorkinPublishing links are potential digital rabbit holes for anyone interested in this topic), including:

Quarto's "profiles of its young people from various backgrounds, including how they got into publishing." 

Advice on "Getting Started: Working Outside of London" from Jennie Collinson, head of sales at Liverpool University Press: "So my advice to anyone considering a career in publishing and has resigned themselves to moving south--don't automatically think there is one path to follow. There's an easier one for sure, but there are rewarding opportunities to be found if you are willing to be patient, work hard and are not afraid of a long commute!"

Quercus editor Emily Yau's answer to a question from the Bookseller: "The best advice I can give is the same for pretty much anyone with at least a toe in the publishing world, and that is to read often and widely. Skills can be learnt and refined along the way, but you can't teach someone to have the right instincts or the right market knowledge. Being passionate about the genres in which you work is a lot more than simply saying 'I am passionate about reading' on your CV. It's about being able to say which authors and publishers you admire, why this is and then being able to identify where this stems from and how you can use that knowledge in your own work. Of course, publishing can be very subjective at times, but if you are well versed in your area you will always have something to offer--something I would stress even more to younger people starting out: forty-something-senior-professionals will invariably have differing worldviews to a twenty-something-intern, and both perspectives are equally as valid."

Five top tips for working in publishing from Cambridge University Press‏'s academic marketing & operations director: 1) Learn about the industry, 2) Understand customers and their changing needs, 3) Get involved in industry events and initiatives, 4) Think digital, 5) Be flexible.

The Building Inclusivity in Publishing conference (#inclusivityconf17), run by the PA and London Book Fair, chaired by the BBC's Razia Iqbal: ".@SharLovegrove touched on a very important point there. It doesn't make sense that an industry whose primary purpose is to invent different stories and have us experience different perspectives, still struggles with creating inclusive workforce's and content." (@KatKrusch)

Sweet Cherry Publishing's Amy Wong, editorial & production assistant: "Remember that doing a publishing internship isn't the only way of gaining relevant experience--for example, running a student society or working in retail can teach you valuable skills as well."

Stephanie Cox, assistant copy editor at Trigger Press, in a Twitter q&a session: "Check, check, and check your application again. Don't call Trigger Press 'Trigger Publishing' in your cover letter, for example. Make sure you definitely want the job you're after. It will be apparent in your application if you don't. Network like crazy."

Answer to a Society of Young Publishers #SypChat question (How did you learn about the different roles in publishing and which one would be best for you?): "Turned up at @EdNapierPublish w/ my red pen after having to choose between it and the creative writing masters, blissfully unaware of the eight bazillion roles that I was about to find out about until I received a smile and instructions to present on a marketing campaign #sypchat." (@sj_mooney)

And, finally, this: "In honour of #Workinpublishing week, thought I would share my first step on my career ladder working with #books..." (Maria Vassilopoulos‏, whose day job is in sales at @BL_Publishing). In a blog post headlined "Christmas Temp paying the gas bill," she wrote something that will resonate with many of us: "So sometimes taking a leap of faith in the right direction is worth it. That is the actual no-frills way that I got a job in a bookshop, not because I had thought of all the amazing things about working in one, but mostly because I needed to pay the gas bill. Otherwise, I may have looked at the offer in front of me and thought that I was too good for it. I am very glad that I went with my heart rather than my head."

#BeenThereDoneThat. #Wouldn'tChangeaThing

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3131