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'Editors Tell Stories Behind the Books'

"I want editors when they come in wanting to buy a book to be so excited that their hair is on fire." --Morgan Entrekin, Grove Atlantic president & publisher

During q&a at nearly every bookstore author event, someone in the audience will ask the question: "Where do you get your ideas?" Although publishers and editors are generally less exposed to such public interrogations, if they were the equivalent question might be: "How do you decide which books to publish?" (Second only to: "Will you publish my book?")

l.-r.: Corinna Barsan, Peter Blackstock, Katie Raissian and Morgan Entrekin

That decision-making process was explored at BookExpo during an Uptown Stage event called "Grove Atlantic: Hear the Editors Tell Stories Behind the Books," featuring Morgan Entrekin along with editors Katie Raissian, Peter Blackstock and Corinna Barsan.

Entrekin recounted the tale of how he acquired Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down 20 years ago. When an agent called and asked if he'd read the nonfiction proposal she had sent, "I said no, what's it about? She said well, if I tell you what it's about you'll turn it down over the phone. And that intrigued me enough that I went and found the proposal. It was for something called Helicopter 64 Down and the cover letter said it was about the battle of Mogadishu. And I'm going oh my goodness, I can't sell a book about the battle of Mogadishu, but I started reading the pages... and went, wow, this is incredible. So, I picked up the phone and made a deal for the book within about a half-hour."

Black Hawk Down went on to sell four million copies and was adapted into a hit film. "For a book like this, you've just got to make the leap of faith," said Entrekin, who later approached Bowden with the idea for a book that eventually became the newly released Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam.

Raissian, who works very closely with Grove v-p and editorial director Elizabeth Schmitz, spoke about the acquisition of Megan Hunter's The End We Start From (November). "This came in and we read it at one sitting," she said. "It's a very short book.... We fell in instant love with it. And quickly preempted it overnight before the London Book Fair last year. We both said this is the female version of The Road by Cormac McCarthy. We moved quickly and were lucky enough to land it."

Although Schmitz couldn't make the panel, Entrekin recalled how they acquired Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk: "The way she tells the story is that she brought me a proposal. She said here's this really beautiful proposal from an unknown poet academic at Cambridge, England, writing about how she got over the death of her father by training a goshawk. My response apparently was, 'My, that sounds like a big seller.' But I said how much is it going to cost and she said a number and we bought it. We were the only ones to make an offer on that book. It's funny, after the success of it, another editor at another house said how did you ever get that P&L through your editorial board, and Elizabeth said we don't have an editorial board."

Entrekin noted that "one of the things about being an owner of a company is it's sort of like playing with my own money. It focuses the mind wonderfully, as some of you who are independent booksellers know."

Blackstock discussed Viet Thanh Nguyen's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer, describing the acquisition process as "a real education for me about how we build a book at Grove, and also how we have the opportunity to publish a book like The Sympathizer. This was a book that was sent out by a very reputable great agent... I thought it was a fantastic book. I got Morgan to read it, Elizabeth to read some, and we were very passionate about it, and we were very lucky because as it turned out we were the only bidder. Sometimes you get lucky in this way.... We wouldn't have had the chance if I'd been stopped by an editorial board and if they'd said this book is really great but it's going to be difficult to sell."

He also highlighted the challenges presented by Matthew McIntosh's upcoming novel theMystery.doc (October), which is 1,700 pages long "but probably shorter than The Sympathizer" because of its creative use of text and pages as well as myriad images. When the huge manuscript arrived, "We started reading it, with some trepidation, as you can imagine. It's just unlike anything you've ever read.... I really think this is a book that is born out of the Internet age. When I talk about it, I say it's about birth, death and the Internet."

"This is definitely one that we didn't do a P&L on," Entrekin joked.  

Sarah Schmidt's novel See What I Have Done (August), a reimagining of the 19th-century case involving the murder of Lizzy Borden's parents, was a challenge of a different sort, since so many people think they know the legendary story. "It was amazing in-house to see everybody's reaction to the book," Barsan said, "to see them running to Wikipedia and looking up the Borden case and getting more and more information about what actually happened, which is a testament to how Sarah has made it feel so real on the page."

While acknowledging the good work done by many big publishers, Entrekin observed: "I think that more than ever there's a place for independent publishers and for people to be able to take a chance like we do. I see the work of Akashic and Melville House and Counterpoint and Catapult and Graywolf, incredible over the last couple of years, so I think that there's room for everybody and hope that there continues to be. I'm going to always insist that we buy books from passion."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3024


A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to #BEx17

John Hodgman (Vacationland, Viking) took the microphone in front of a packed house just before the start of BookExpo's Downstage event "Do I amuse you? The Work Behind the Laughs." Also featured on the program were Isla Fisher (Marge in Charge, HarperCollins) and Denis Leary (Why We Don't Suck, Crown Archetype).

But Hodgman took the mic first. I'd seen him do this years ago, just before an MPIBA show author breakfast in Colorado Springs. That time, in the shadow of Pike's Peak, he told the story of how "America the Beautiful" was written and led a room full of booksellers in an impromptu, a cappella rendition.

Hodgman, Leary and Fisher entertain the crowd.

This time he announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, Denis Leary and Isla Fisher are here. I'm just going to do about 10 minutes of warmup. How you all doing? Where are you from, sir? Dallas, Texas. I've got no joke for that. It's a joke in itself, he says. He knows where he lives."

Relative order was quickly restored by moderator James West of Mother Jones magazine and an entertaining conversation ensued.  

Noting that his first book was Why We Suck, Leary said "the new book is Why We Don't Suck.... Hey, I'm really original on the titles, aren't I? Nine years later, I came up with Why We Don't Suck. It's optimistic progress."

When Hodgman displayed a sampler for Vacationland, Leary advised: "John, show the cover. F**king guy!.... It's not the finished product, we hope."
Hodgman: "No, this is the whole book.... I wanted to actually sell some copies. I'm like, give them a little less."
Leary: "And it's a quick read. You could read it right now. In fact, I'm going to read it to you."

The discussion turned to being funny in what may seem to be an increasingly unamusing world, specifically referencing the recent examples of Kathy Griffin posing for a photo shoot with a model of Donald Trump's severed head and the "covfefe" incident.

Leary, whom West had described as a "bad boy of comedy," said, "Listen, I saw that picture before it first hit, before she had to apologize. And I'm not a f**king Trump fan. I mean I'm no Hillary fan either, but I was like, I don't know, man. This bit better be really f**king funny if you're gonna decapitate the president's head."
Hodgman: "I will say personally it wasn't funny."
Leary: "I think the line is hard to draw, right? But if it's funny you can get away with anything. I just didn't understand what was funny about it.
Fisher: "I don't find violence that funny. That's all I'm going to say about that."

Hodgman cracked that he has "never had to apologize for a joke because I'm a very good boy and I always say very safe things that people applaud rather than laugh at. That's my style of humor."

In a discussion of the Internet's influence on children, Hodgman asked: "Dennis, when your kids were young did they have a problem with getting bad stuff on the telegraph?"
"It was a big issue, yeah," Leary countered, then recalled: "When I was a kid, we saw Lee Harvey Oswald get shot live on TV on a Sunday morning. It was f**king awesome.... We were just eating our cereal watching a black and white TV show where the guy who shot the president came out and some other guy shot him.... I feel like that paid off in my life. I made a career. It turned me into a comedian. So I think kids should be scarred early by violence they see on television because it will turn them into better artists."

Fisher talked about writing to entertain kids. The protagonist in Marge in Charge is loosely based on her daughter. "I sort of am now seeing the world through her eyes as I write, which brings me closer to her and my other daughter," she said. "But, yeah, they're fierce critics and when they're bored they just walk out of the bedroom. And, of course, when my editor gives me notes, I run those notes past my children and if they don't approve, then they overrule the editor. That's how much they matter."

Asked what makes kids laugh, she observed: "Well, I think kids laugh at different things at different stages. When they're babies, they laugh at a tickle or a raspberry or a funny face. They're not that smart. But then as they get older and develop language, they find knock-knock jokes and poop jokes. I think ultimately children laugh at the same things adults do. I think the foundation is just stupidity. Even my two-year-old finds it hilarious when I try to wear her shoes, or when I misunderstand a rule that she assumes I, as an authority figure, should be following through with. And it's the same with us in all cultures. We find stupidity hilarious.... We're allowed to feel superior. And we're allowed to laugh when someone's an idiot."

When q&a began, Hodgman took the mic, naturally enough, and performed his "Phil Donahue move" as he ran up and down the aisles to reach questioners.

One audience member described the event as "the most fabulous and enjoyable panel I've ever been to here," and Leary, who had earlier noted that all of their books are coming out in October, decided a road tour might be in order: "Thank you for your comments. I think we do make a great panel. The superheroes of publishing. That could be our f**king name!"

Hodgman capped off the event by sharing an experience he'd had upon arriving at the Javits Center earlier: "I come walking in at 8:30 in the morning, and Stephen King [who'd spoken at the Author Breakfast] is walking out. I'm so excited."
Leary: "Maybe he was here overnight."
Hodgman: "Spooky convention with Stephen King."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3019


Yet Another BEA Loomed. What Was I Thinking?

BookExpo is about anticipation as well as participation. I've been writing pre-BEA columns since 2005, initially as a bookseller/blogger and then as an editor at Shelf Awareness. Year after year, yet another BEA loomed. What was I thinking?

2005: "Ladies and Gentlemen! Boys and Girls! Children of All Ages! You are just a few short days away from a weekend of thrills! A weekend of gasps! A weekend of giggles! A weekend at BookExpo America in New York City!

"This year's edition of BEA, the publishing world's annual bigtop extravaganza, will happen at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center ('Marketplace to the World'), perched upon the glittering waters of the Hudson River. But unlike Ringling Brothers, our circus won't be limited to three rings. In fact, we'll have dozens, maybe hundreds, of rings.... Business mixes seamlessly with pleasure, so the work day runs, or feels like it runs, from the dawn to dawn. Welcome, my friends, to the show that never ends."

2006: "Mostly, however, I'll enjoy the spectacle of books that is BookExpo. Big publishers and small publishers looking for business; self-published authors looking for an audience and a few unpublished authors looking for publishers. Everybody talking books. Thousands of people talking books and nothing but books, day and night, for the better part of a week. Maybe somebody is still reading out there. You'd think so at BookExpo."

2007: "But the future is more than just idle speculation in our business; it is the water in which we swim. We routinely read in the future--manuscripts, catalogs, ARCs--and at BookExpo, the full utopian vision is on display. Books that will be published next fall have not failed yet; first-time authors are always promising; any book might grow up to be a bestseller."

2009: "As you walk through the airport concourse upon arrival, you can spot the 'book people.' Just as you think you're imagining this, you see another one coming your way. It turns out to be somebody you know. And when you look in the rest room mirror to check on your own post-flight status, a book person stares back at you bleary-eyed. You're not surprised. Or disappointed."

2010: " I'll be on the lookout for indie booksellers at BEA. I used to be one of them. No, in many ways I'm still one of them. Former booksellers just don't fade away.... And now we're headed back to BookExpo. Handselling and handwringing will continue unabated, and we'll talk it all out once again with our eyes on the digital horizon. Enjoy the ride anyway. How can we possibly resist the temptation to yell 'Woooooooo-hooooooo,' whether we're plummeting like Icarus, or just skydiving while waiting for the parachutes to deploy?"

2011: "When some of us gather in New York next week for BookExpo America, we'll once again discuss the future of reading and its potential effects on books (print and digital), bookstores (chain and indie; online and bricks & mortar), publishers, writers, readers and anyone or anything else connected to our wordy world. We will, for the most part, be anxiously, if politely, asking each other: What's going to happen to us?

2012: "In a few days, we'll gather in New York to talk about the future of books. 'Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't one today,' Bill Murray said in Groundhog Day. Don't worry. Tomorrow starts next week, once again. It's a paradox we've been living with for a while. You get used to it."

2013: "We will, of course, need our stinkin' badges when we descend upon the Javits Center next week for BookExpo America. We'll need them to get in, get around and get acquainted. Identity is everything.... Although my trusty Shelf Awareness holder still has last year's badge tucked inside at the moment, it seems anxious to acquire the updated version I'll pick up next week. Hope to see you at BEA. My stinking badge will say Robert, but you can call me Bob."

2014: "If you've observed BEA attendees before in their unnatural habitat (aka the Javits Center), you may have noticed a wide range of walking styles negotiating their way through the bookish throngs. Since Sibley hasn't yet published a field guide to identify all of these varieties, I tried to assemble a sampling here to illustrate just a few of the walkers you're likely to encounter--or become--during your #BEA14 pilgrimage."

2015: "Next week, we bookish folk will infiltrate New York City for BookExpo America, each of us covertly bringing our own home library identity with us, along with our book trade identity (bookseller, publisher, author, etc.).... This year, however, I've been reminded... of something that struck me during my first book trade show, at the moment I walked into the Miami Beach Convention Center in 1993 for ABA's annual event. I'd been a bookseller for less than a year, but knew at once I belonged there. Maybe that was just my home library identity overcompensating, but it was a useful survival tool nonetheless."

For some reason, I didn't write a pre-BEA column last year, so I'll end with something from a 2005 blog post, when I was still a frontline bookseller: "My prime directive at BEA is to find the unexpected book, the one that might never cross my desk otherwise. Everything else is just work. Finding the unexpected book is pleasure. Well, finding the unexpected book when it is buried under the number of books on display at BEA is also work. But I ain't complaining."

The anticipation grows. See you at BookExpo

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3010


The Bookseller Convention Time Machine

What would we have been writing about a century ago if Shelf Awareness was covering the annual spring booksellers convention? Thankfully, we have the New York TimesMachine, so I could just travel back to find out.

1906: "The sixth annual dinner of the American Booksellers Association, held at the Aldine Clubs's rooms, 111 Fifth Avenue, last night, was a notable gathering of those who toil in the making, producing, and vending of books."

1907: "For the first time in more than twenty years there is an increase in the number of booksellers. The increase is not local to any section of the country. This condition may be credited chiefly to the efforts of two book trade organizations--the American Booksellers Association and the American Publishers Association--to maintain equable retail prices."

1908: "At their eighth annual convention, held this week at the Victoria Hotel, there were enough delegates--some seventy or more--from different parts of the country to give to this meeting of the American Booksellers Association something of a representative character."

While demand for books was on a par with prior years, there had been decreasing profits, chiefly because fiction published "at a nominal price of $1.50 or more was sold by the department stores and others, to whom the sale of books was merely a side issue, at prices on which there was scarcely any profit. The remedy for this appeared to the members to be along the lines suggested by the Publishers' Association last year--the publication of books at net prices from which no departure would be allowed among individual dealers."

1909: "About 400 members of the American Booksellers Association attended their annual dinner in the Hotel Astor last night, and afterward heard speeches.... The souvenirs were books by each of the writers that spoke, and a little bottle of sherry labeled 'Tono Bungay,' after H.G. Wells's book of that name."

1910: "Prof. Harry A. Franck of the Technical High School of Springfield, Mass., told the members of the American Booksellers Association at their dinner in the Hotel Astor last night how he journeyed as a vagabond around the world a few years ago, starting without a cent in his pocket and encircling the globe without begging."

1911: In a discussion titled "How to Increase the Volume of Your Book Business," F.L. Reed of Grosset & Dunlap Company said, "I would suggest a series of educational advertisements to be run in the daily papers, telling the people how much enjoyment there is to be found in the society of books, what books mean to the home, and how many phases of life which touch upon the experience of each individual are depicted in books."

1912: Speeches and education sessions included "Juvenile Readers as an Asset"; "Bookseller and Public"; "Fewer Books and Better"; and "The Publishers' Advertising Man."

1913: In a presentation titled "More Steps Forward," William Arnold of the Syndicate Trading Co. and the H.B. Claflin Co. "put forward a suggestion that must have seemed revolutionary in the trade, and spirited discussion ensued. The suggestion was that booksellers should have the privilege of returning to the publisher or jobber any copies of a book on hand after one year, receiving a credit check for 90% of the purchase price."

Program from the 1914 American Booksellers Association banquet (via)

1914: "Eighty-seven percent of the reading public is unable to get the new books as published, despite its desire for them, according to a report made to the American Booksellers Association yesterday at the Hotel Astor by Richard B.G. Gardner of the Publishers Co-operative Bureau; and despite the recent added facilities of cheap transportation through the parcel post, a mere 17% of the booksellers' market is being served.... The formation of a single organization including all the booksellers of the country to prevent price-cutting without conflicting with the trust laws was strongly urged."

1915: Fred Melcher, who sells books in Indianapolis, "told at some length how the booksellers out there had got the idea of making the bookshops a sort of public institution." Melcher said: "The booksellers in Indianapolis have the highest ideals, and they get their clerks together and discuss literature and the business end of it and the plots of books. The bookstore, more than any other line of business, can become a part of the community spirit."

1916: For its first convention outside New York, the ABA met in Chicago. The session, "Some Mistakes of Booksellers," was presented by David Koeller, Jr., who advocated modern business methods: "Efficiency counts in every business but the book business. We are not credited with having much sense or ability; if we had, I guess we would be making money instead of working for glory and the little crumbs the big fish overlook."

1917: In a piece headlined "War Lifts Literary Taste," the Times reported that "because the war has created a demand for more serious literature," booksellers were urged by ABA president Ward Macauley "to stimulate the sale of books that offer authoritative information upon the issues involved in the struggle. Mr. Macauley pointed out that what was needed most was selective literature. The public, he said, was no longer in the mood to be merely amused and entertained, but wanted knowledge."

And now, we return you to your regularly scheduled 21st century BookExpo, soon to be in progress.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3005


'You, Mr. Bemis, Are a Reader!'

Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers, a bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president, and a wife, and a world full of tongue cluckers, and the unrelenting hands of the clock.

In "Time Enough at Last," every bookworm's favorite Twilight Zoneepisode, Rod Serling introduces the character played by Burgess Meredith with those words. On Monday, I was inspired to watch the episode again for the zillionth time shortly after seeing a headline in Business Insider: "Wall Street is expecting the worst of the retail apocalypse this week."

The piece blended apocalyptic stats ("roughly 3,500 brick-and-mortar retail stores are expected to close over the first half of 2017.... Retail trade lost nearly 30,000 jobs from January through March") with pessimism ("analysts are not expecting to be impressed") and Warren Buffet's confession that he'd been "too dumb" to invest in Amazon early.

For perspective, I turned to a mid-April blog post--"Can Indie Bookstores Escape the Fate of Other Retail Outlets?"--by Lynn Rosen, co-owner of Open Book in Elkins Park, Pa. I'd bookmarked it as an excellent commentary on the April 15 New York Times article headlined "Is American Retail at a Historic Tipping Point?

Rosen observed: "It is my hope that the independent bookstore may be immune from this fate.... With the help of the American Booksellers Association, the independent bookseller community got a head start on fighting back against the shrinkage of bricks-and-mortar retail sales. Over the last several years, the number of independent bookstores in the United States has been growing, and numbers indicate that the health of the industry is good.

"I hope I am not being overly optimistic in saying that I believe we can continue this upward trend, despite overall statistics about retail in the U.S. We booksellers will continue to create spaces that serve the communities in which they reside by providing personalized selling and events that reflect the make-up of the community. We have knowledgeable and passionate owners and employees, and, of course, we sell a product, the book (yes I know many object to calling it a product) that we hope our society finds to be indispensable."

Well said. Adaptation has been the key for indie survival. This isn't the question: "What do we do?" This is: "What do we do next?" And that made me think of Mr. Bemis.

In the Twilight Zone episode, based on a short story by Lynn Venable, Mr. Bemis is a dispirited bank teller who's called into his boss's office to be disciplined for reading David Copperfield when he should have been waiting on customers.

"Now, Mr. Bemis," the bank manager says imperiously. "I shall come to the point of this interview. I shall arrive via the following route, which is what constitutes an efficient member of this organization, vis-a-vis a bank teller who knows his job and performance, i.e. an organization man who functions within an organization. You, Mr. Bemis, do not function within the organization. you are neither an efficient bank teller nor a proficient employee.... You, Mr. Bemis, are a reader!"

"A reader?"

"A reader! A reader of books, magazines, periodicals, newspapers. I see you constantly going downstairs into the vault during your lunch hour. Ultimatum, Mr. Bemis! You will henceforth devote your time to your job and forget reading or you will find yourself outdoors on a park bench reading from morning till night for want of having a job. Do make myself perfectly clear?"

Poor Mr. Bemis has other issues, as those of you who've seen the episode know. His poor eyesight is trumped by his even poorer foresight, though he does have a brief moment of luck when he takes his lunch break in the vault just as (classic TV spoiler alert) a massive explosion turns the city above him into post-apocalyptic wreckage.

He may be the only survivor. Eventually Mr. Bemis makes his way to the ruins of the public library. Despite the surrounding carnage, this pleases him. (We may sympathize more than we should.) "All the books I want," he marvels. "The very best thing of all is there's time now. There's all the time I need and all the time I want."

But just as he is celebrating his good fortune, he accidentally shatters his glasses. The world becomes a blur. The last reader cannot read.

"That's not fair at all," he cries. "There was time now."

This is the moment when I lose sympathy for Mr. Bemis. It's his city. He lives there alone now. Even half-blind, he should be able to find his way to the ruins of a nearby Duane Reade or Walgreens (Isn't there one on every block?) and sift through the rubble for some high intensity reading glasses. Then head off in search of LensCrafters debris for even better options.

Adjust to circumstances, Bemis!

That is precisely what indie booksellers have had to do in preparation for this so-called retail apocalypse. Fairness had nothing to do with it. Bookselling, as Mr. Serling might put it, is "a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between science and superstition. It lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination...." Even under the circumstances Mr. Bemis faces, a bookseller would have stopped whining and opted for a little post-apocalyptic resilience.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3000

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