About FEN
FEN Elsewhere
Powered by Squarespace
Buy Books
Looking Backward
Shelf Awareness for Readers
Powered by Squarespace


Declaration of 'Bookseller' Independence

Shelf Awareness: Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Oxford English Dictionary informs us the term bookseller was used as early as 1527 ("Higden's Polycron. (title), Imprented..at ye expences of John Reynes bokeseller."); and showed up again, unnervingly, in 1615 ("CROOKE Body of Man 420 He dissected a Bookseller, and found his heart more then halfe rotted away.").

But during a week in which "independence" is a national theme, I'll move forward in time to consider the bookselling life of Henry Knox. According to David McCullough's 1776, Knox was Boston-born (1750) and self-educated. He "became a bookseller, eventually opening his own London Book Store on Cornhill Street, offering 'a large and very elegant assortment' of the latest books and magazines from London. In the notices he placed in the Boston Gazette, the name Henry Knox always appeared in larger type than the name of the store."

In addition to England's finest (McCullough: "Though not especially prosperous, the store became 'a great resort for British officers and Tory ladies.'"), the London Book Store's clientele included troublemakers like John Adams and Nathanael Greene.

A bookseller's life is inevitably compromised by his patrons, and though Knox joined the Boston Grenadier Corps, he also fell in love with one of his customers, Lucy Flucker. He married her in spite of the objections of her Loyalist father, a royal secretary of the province.

Knox became a Revolutionary War hero, playing an instrumental role when he conceived and executed the daring relocation of more than 50 mortars and cannons overland from Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain to Boston, an arduous journey of nearly 300 miles.

What a bookseller.

In honoring Knox's memory this week, we can also consider how easy it is to become defined by our definitions.

What is a bookseller?

A "vendor of books" says the OED. Webster's Third Unabridged suggests "one whose business is dealing in books; esp. the proprietor of a bookstore." The American Heritage Dictionary opts for "one that sells books, especially the owner of a bookstore."

But "proprietor" and "vendor" limit the definition immeasurably. For a book to find its way to readers, it often must be handsold again and again; from author to agent to editor/publisher to marketing/sales to wholesale/retail buyers to wholesale/retail sales reps and, finally, to all those mysterious readers. In the broadest definition of the term, who isn't a bookseller among this group?

On the other hand, is the proprietor of a pharmacy that features a 30-foot aisle of hardcover and paperback books a bookseller? Is a bookstore proprietor who doesn't actively handsell a bookseller? Is a frontline bookseller who doesn't own the bookshop not a bookseller? Is a great book buyer a bookseller? An events coordinator?

A bookseller by any other name . . .

During the busy holiday weekend, I worked four days straight on a bookstore sales floor. There were times when I felt like a bookseller and times when I felt like anything but. There were times when I engaged in intense and productive conversations about books, and times when I directed traffic (history books over here, poetry books there, children's books here, travel there, bathroom back there, etc.).

Through it all, however, I knew I was a bookseller.

In my working life as an editor, a writer, a teacher, a consultant, I am also always, somehow, a bookseller.

A colleague and I were debating recently whether frontline booksellers were in a sales or a service job. We compromised by deciding that it was both, to varying degrees, but one point upon which we agreed is summed up nicely in Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop:

"I am not a dealer in merchandise but a specialist in adjusting the book to the human need. Between ourselves, there is no such thing, abstractly, as a 'good' book. A book is 'good' only when it meets some human hunger or refutes some human error. A book that is good for me would very likely be punk for you. My pleasure is to prescribe books for such patients as drop in here and are willing to tell me their symptoms. Some people have let their reading faculties decay so that all I can do is hold a post mortem on them. But most are still open to treatment. There is no one so grateful as the man to whom you have given just the book his soul needed and he never knew it."

A position to which we all aspire, definitions be damned.

Happy Independence Day, booksellers, whoever you are.


Conversations at an International Table

Shelf Awareness: Wednesday, June 27

Just before heading to BEA last month, I met with several international publishing professionals, who were staying briefly at Ledig House as part of the Frankfurt Fellowship Program. My hosts for this excellent conversation were Christina Knight, interim director of the German Book Office, and Ledig House executive director DW Gibson.

The fellowship group around our conference table included representatives from France, Argentina, the Netherlands, Romania, Denmark, India, Brazil, South Korea, Spain, Mexico, Greece and Portugal. After our meeting, some of the international writers in residency joined us for dinner, as did Dennis Johnson of Melville House Publishing, who also led a post-dinner discussion.

Gibson later said the events "set off an evening of much debating, lamenting and championing of literature. On the last night, many of the writers and fellows were up until 4 a.m., discussing all manner of things."

Publisher Nelleke Geel (Uitgeverij Signature, part of A.W. Bruna Publishers) of the Netherlands called our conversation "most useful. . . . It confirms a few things regarding the approach of booksellers--an increasingly disheartening experience in Holland--and how we could try to change that around to make it more effective. In my acquisitions list, it's all about translations and very little about Dutch authors, which means that I introduce loads of authors that are still unknown in Holland. The bookseller looks at the catalogues with a very weary eye until second books of the same authors are coming in, and returns to his longstanding relationships with the more traditional houses that save him the effort of doing some thinking of his own. Understandably so, perhaps, but disheartening nevertheless. With the chains obviously this effect is a worse, because they have very few schooled personnel on the actual work floor, the store."

I had been thinking about Reading the World month in anticipation of this night, but as our initial generalizations about publishing quickly evolved into a frank discussion of specific challenges (how to reach booksellers; how to market translated work, etc.), I was reminded once again of the importance of conversing with--not simply reading--the world.

What was discussed at those conference and dinner tables probably won't solve the problems we face, but it felt like a step toward what Gibson called "establishing an international community that now has the opportunity to expand and strengthen in the future."

Conversing with the world.

Located in a pristine Hudson Valley setting, Ledig House is an intriguing institution. As Gibson explained, "Ledig House Writers' Colony invites up to twenty writers from all disciplines, from all around the world to live and work on our beautiful grounds in Hudson, New York, during the spring and fall months. Over the past fourteen years, Ledig House has hosted hundreds of writers and translators from roughly 50 countries around the world. The colony's strong international emphasis reflects the spirit of cultural exchange that is part of Ledig's enduring legacy."

He added that Ledig House works with organizations like PEN "to further the cause of literature in translation. Most recently we formed a partnership with an organization called freeDimensional. This collaboration allows Ledig House to house writers who have been censored or threatened by their governments because of their artistic work--these are writers who are, quite literally, looking for a home. This spring we welcomed Pierre Mumbere Mujomba from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Pierre's play, The Last Envelope, is a 'commedia-style' farce, which reveals excesses of the Mobutu regime in the former Zaire. Shortly after its first performance, Pierre was threatened and his landlord was kidnapped."

Although our meeting was about the business of books, there was also a shared, border-bending passion for finding better ways to bring literature and readers together.

As mentioned earlier, some of the writers in residency at Ledig House also took part. According to Gibson, "The idea was to allow the writers to meet editors and agents from all around the world and discuss literature, the state of publishing and reading in the 21st century. Needless to say, there were many different interests, points of views, and thoughts on the direction of literature in general. It was a tremendous thing to see a poet from Spain conversing with an editor from Bulgaria; a translator from India exchanging ideas with a literary agent from Holland."

What we all talked about during these meetings mattered, but continuing--and expanding--the conversations matters even more. I've thought about that weekend at Ledig House often lately, especially when I handsell a copy of a translated work.


Conversation with the World

Shelf Awareness: Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Conversations about translation continue this month. Some have come to me by email, opening new doors.

Laura Hansen, owner of Bookin' It in Little Falls, Minn., wrote in response to last week's column about translated mysteries with a recommendation: "I might add Dog Day by Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett (trans. by Nick Caistor), set in Barcelona, as one I enjoyed and recommend."

She shared what we'd call a "cool idea of the day" here at Shelf Awareness: During the past two summers, Bookin' It offered "a spin-off book club from the Reading the World list; the first year reading three novels and the second summer three travel memoirs. We took this summer off, but after reading the article I wish we had done mysteries in translation for this year. Maybe next summer!"

Hansen added that the world reading group "was lovely because we were able to meet away from the store, at my home on the river and a member's cabin at the lake. It attracted about half of our regular contemporary fiction book club regulars. One book I wanted to include in the first year of the world book club was Orhan Pamuk's Snow, but it wasn't out in paperback at the time. I think it is stunning."

Chad Post, one of the founders of Reading the World (and currently developing Open Letter Press at the University of Rochester) informed us he will soon be "launching a site dedicated to international lit called Three Percent. We work very closely with students from the developing literary translation program, giving them internships, helping them to do sample translations for the web, etc. Our focus is on 20th and 21st century international literature from around the world. Cosmopolitan literature, books that stimulate and provoke readers by doing something unusual and interesting. Books that will last. Known authors like Dubravka Ugresic, and new voices that should be known."

Jaime Starling of Stone Bridge Press confessed that our reference to translators' names vanishing from book covers "made me check the covers of our own translated mystery novels (Tokyo Zodiac Murders and crime novel The Inugami Clan), and they actually do feature the translators' names. Then again, most of our translated books do."

Rebecca Passick of Milet Publishing drew our attention to a Milet reference title, Outside In: Children’s Literature in Translation, edited by Deborah Hallford and Edgardo Zaghini.

So much that is good about the book business involves such conversations, and when I think about that word in connection with the Reading the World, I remember a man named Charles Tuttle and a brief conversation I had with him a couple of decades ago.

Tuttle, who died in 1993, was a native of Rutland, Vt., a small city where I lived for many years. He had served as an American soldier in Tokyo after World War II, and fell in love with Japanese arts and culture. In 1948, he established Tuttle Publishing to introduce this world to American readers. In 1971, he was named Publisher of the Year by the Association of American Publishers, and was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure by the Emperor of Japan in 1983.

It's not an exaggeration to say that I began reading the world in the 1970s because of Charles Tuttle. A significant part of my introduction to translated work came from a small bookstore Tuttle Publishing had in its Rutland office. It was there that I purchased my first copies of The Izu Dancer & Other Stories by Yasunari Kawabata, Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima, Seven Japanese Tales by Junichiro Tanizaki and so many others.

I once met Mr. Tuttle quite by chance on a golf course. We played a few holes together before I found the courage to thank him for the new doors he had opened for me. It was a brief conversation about how I learned to read the world. I think he understood.

One of the books I bought from Tuttle Publishing back then was Zen Art for Meditation by Stewart Holmes and Chimyo Horioka (1973). It rests on my desk as I write these words, open to page 90 and a Soseki haiku, translated by "Mrs. Yasuko Horioka":

    Butterfly! These words
    From my brush are not flowers,
    Only their shadows.

Read those shadows, too.


Translating Mysteries into Handselling Success

Shelf Awareness: Wednesday, June 13, 2007

During Reading the World month, we should acknowledge a sector of the publishing world that has been quietly integrating translated works onto bookstore shelves and into readers' hands for several years.

As a bookseller, I've watched this happen, read some of the authors and talked with customers who've been reading the worlds of mystery and suspense without realizing that translation was an issue.

Recently, I executed a drive-by translation hit at the Northshire Bookstore, where I quickly nabbed--without even trying hard--Before the Frost by Henning Mankell (translated from Swedish by Ebba Segerberg), Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason (translated from Icelandic by Bernard Scudder), Shadow Family by Miyuki Miyabe (translated from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter), Have Mercy On Us All by Fred Vargas (translated from French by David Bellos), The Patience of the Spider by Andrea Camilleri (translated from Italian by Stephen Sartarelli) and a new edition of The Hotel Majestic by Georges Simenon (translated from French by David Watson).

Many of these books are on displays or feature staff recommend tags. In other words, they are selling.

Is it a mystery that translated suspense novels seem to have found a niche? An investigation seemed to be called for, so I brought in two of the best mystery handsellers I know for questioning--Northshire Bookstore's Louise Jones and Sarah Knight.

Like any great detective fiction team, they chose to respond as partners:

Do literary fiction publishers have something to learn from the way mystery publishers have marketed translated works? I realize some houses do both, but does one hand know what the other is doing?

"Mystery readers are interested in the work itself--characters, plot, locale. They read mysteries for entertainment, provocation, and to learn something new--whether it's a quirky plot, the background, the sleuth's day job, or a different landscape--so they're eager to read novels set in other countries. Perhaps it makes them more exotic. Do our mystery readers care that they are in translation? We've never had anyone comment on this. The only difficulty is with a few clumsily written mysteries and that might have been because of the bad translator."

When you handsell translated mysteries, does the word "translated" enter the conversation?

"No. We may say they are set in a foreign country--for instance, an Icelandic mystery by the author of Jar City--but we discuss the quality of the book. We assume they know it's a translation, but it doesn't seem to be important. Sometimes a customer wants us to order the book in its original language. For Greek classics, yes, the translator is important."

Are the foreign settings and characters in mystery fiction actually a draw for readers rather than a problem to be solved for publishing folks, as seems to be the case for literary fiction?

"Customers who travel like to read mysteries set in the countries they have visited. Many of our customers find the foreign mysteries interesting because the political, social and cultural backgrounds are so different; for instance, those set in China and Japan. On the other hand, we have many customers who are emphatic that they want stories set in the U.S. or in Great Britain, but it isn't a problem; it's personal taste."

Do you think fiction readers associate "translation" with "literary" and would prefer something they feel might be more accessible?

"They may feel that if the publisher went to the trouble of having a book translated, then it is a high quality, or 'literary,' novel. And it often is. Also, most of the mysteries in translation that we carry--and are popular with our customers--are in trade size and are published by 'literary' publishers: Vintage, Soho (they were early with translated mysteries), Harcourt, Picador (Holt), Grove, Penguin, Vertical, and also St. Martin's and Delta (Bantam). Some are from special mystery book divisions and some aren't. Referring to your first question, maybe the different divisions don't talk and each doesn't know what the other is publishing. Stranger things have happened."

A clue worth noting for future reference is that not one of the books I picked up lists the translator's name on the cover. As a rule, translators have been relegated to the title page, though even this is subject to change. The advance readers edition of Javier Sierra's upcoming suspense novel, The Lady in Blue, lists the translator (James Graham, for those of you keeping score at home) only on the copyright page.

What does all this mean? The investigation continues next week.


Turning Pages to Let the World In

Shelf Awareness: Wednesday, June 6, 2007

We're Reading the World this month. You should know that. Maybe you do. During June, this column will focus on translated work from a variety of perspectives. I won't preach because, even though I try to make a place in my reading life for translated work, I could read more than I do.

Perhaps the best place to start would be the beginning, June 1, when I attended BEA's "Publishing Literary Translations: Reading the World Update." Moderated by Chad Post of Dalkey Archive Press, the panel included Esther Allen, executive director, Center for Literary Translation, Columbia University; Steve Wasserman, agent with Fish & Richardson and former editor of the LA Times Book Review; Barbara Epler, editor-in-chief, New Directions; and Karl Pohrt, owner, Shaman Drum Books, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Esther Allen cited the "absolutely massive quantities of export and very little import" of books in the U.S. as both startling and deeply problematic. She said that "only 20% of the world speaks English," yet "exporting books in English is a $3 billion industry, while translating books into English is viewed as not as important."

Steve Wasserman said, "I don't speak another language, so I'm in so much debt to translators." But he also expressed concern about the minimal attention being paid to translation, adding that "globalization is being driven by a provincial population. I sometimes think that no book in English, however mediocre, goes unpublished in America. We exist as a nation given wholly to our own navel-gazing."

He told a story from his tenure at the Los Angeles Times. He had chosen to run a feature about the Penguin Classics edition of the poetry of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, but some resistance to the idea caused doubts. When he took a lunch break, his waiter, a man who'd been educated in Mexico, noticed the book's cover and began speaking enthusiastically about her work and reciting lines from memory. Wasserman's decision was made in that dining room.

"Sometimes," he said, "your readers are ahead of your minders."

Wasserman asked Barbara Epler to recall an example of an unknown foreign author who achieved success here. She mentioned W.G. Sebald and Rings of Saturn. "When I received the translation, it was remarkable," she said, adding that one of the first manuscript readers had cautioned, "I wouldn't advise you to publish this book because it's too intellectual for Americans."

Generally, however, initial readings were positive, and a key ingredient turned out to be sending an early copy to Susan Sontag, who did some passionate handselling of her own, calling book review editors and anyone who might help the cause.

Case by case, author by author, and book by book, the possibilities exist, but how does a publisher like New Directions survive and sometimes thrive when so many other houses resist translated work?

"Because we're so small and because we've been doing it for so many years, we think it's possible," said Epler. "I don't think many editors can risk publishing a book that sells only 500 copies. You know you're taking a loss. You're taking risks. An editor is at risk with an American book, so they're at twice the risk with a foreign author. And some of the chain stores are really allergic to translations."

On the other hand, "It's the land of opportunity if you have the kind of publishing house that has the patience," she said.

New Directions is one of 10 publishers (and numerous bookstores) participating in Reading the World. Karl Pohrt hopes the initiative will continue to grow. "We'd like to be able to bring more publishers into the program," he said. "And maybe do a Reading the World for young people." During BEA, he formally asked the ABA board of directors to consider partnering with Reading the World.

"I prefer to use the term world literature over translation," said Pohrt, who also addressed the common objection that reading translated work is more difficult and tends to put American readers off. He pointed out that genre readers approach such challenges enthusiastically and drive a profitable segment of the book market: "I think about science fiction, for example. People are often dropped into a world where it takes a hundred pages to figure out what's going on."

Ultimately, the bookseller in him saw the best solution: "I've been selling books for 30 years and I still believe that you sell them one book at a time."--