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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


#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


Reading in Bed, as Time Goes By

"We read in bed because reading is halfway between life and dreaming, our own consciousness in someone else's mind." Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life

How many of us still read in bed? In a recent Guardian piece, British author Howard Jacobson considered this question, observing: "Someone should write a history of reading in bed.... of the whens and whys of bedtime reading in particular: how long it's been going on, the difference electricity made, the dawn and demise of privacy, whether taking a book to bed is rarer now, in an age of multiple distractions, than it was.... I point no accusing finger. It's an age since I last read a book in bed. Once I couldn't sleep until I'd managed at least 30 pages of a novel."

Jacobson rightly points out that "there's an intimacy in bedtime reading that might have something to do with the pillows and the sheets, but is more about what happens when you move your eyes across a page."

credit: PBS

When I think about reading in bed, a very particular, soothing image comes to mind--that of Lionel (Geoffrey Palmer) and Jean (Judi Dench) in the BBC series As Time Goes By: Here's a snippet from one of their bedtime chats:

Jean: Why are you reading Winnie the Pooh?
Lionel: I went to the library today.
J: Don't tell me you went to the children's library.
L: No, I got some other books as well. I've got more time for reading now, so I thought I'd catch up on all the books I think I've read but actually haven't. I got The Grapes of Wrath, The Mill on the Floss and Moby-Dick.
J: Winnie the Pooh? Don't you think you're a bit old for that?
L: I wouldn't like to think so.

They're just the aging poster children my Reading in Bed Renewal Program, which began this week, needs.

Reading in bed is not, however, "a pleasure unalloyed," as the Guardian cautioned in 1976: "In the first place, as with coffee whose smell promises more than its taste delivers, realization doesn't always measure up to anticipation. Secondly, it is not a pleasure naturally acquired. Experience, discipline and training are all necessary before it can be fully enjoyed. And, of course, all the skill and experience are as nothing if the conditions are wrong--if the bed is lumpy, if your sleeping partner is restless, or, as happened to me the night before last, if the bedroom is freezing cold."

During the 18th century, reading in bed was considered "a notorious practice that was practically synonymous with death-by-fire because it required candles," the Atlantic noted earlier this year. "Readers were urged not to tempt God by sporting with 'the most awful danger and calamity'--the flagrant vice of bringing a book to bed." The practice was also controversial "partly because it was unprecedented: In the past, reading had been a communal and oral practice."

Hamblin glasses: spectacles designed for reading in bed; England, 1936.

In 1908, the Guardian reported that Dr. Hugo Feilchenfeld warned the chief danger of reading in bed "is to the eyes, for the familiar reasons, first, that it is difficult to arrange the lighting so that it is sufficient and yet does not fall directly on the eyes, and, secondly, that it is difficult to hold the book in an optically correct position.... Young people, therefore, whose eyes are not yet set hard, as in adult life, should avoid reading in bed if they can."

There was hope, however, for a distant future when "publishers will issue bed-books--not the kind of books one ought to read in bed; one can only choose those oneself--but books suitable in typography and binding."

Also looking ahead was the New York Times in 1944: "The well-equipped bed of the future will have a headboard that assumes a literate sleeper. A built-in reading light will be of variable brilliance, adjustable to different type conditions and different sets of eyes. This headboard will have the comfort qualities of a chair, and it will provide arm-rests and a support for the book, as if by magic, by the pressing of an electric button. Does this seem too fantastic? Not if we can wake up the bed-makers."

An intriguing bit of advice in this article cited complaints that reading detective stories before sleep might be "overstimulating," though a simple remedy was suggested: "Decide in advance exactly what hour you will attempt to go to sleep, and 15 minutes before that time lay down your detective story and pick up any book of poetry. No matter what your opinion of poetry, it will make you forget murder within 15 minutes and soothe you into something like slumber." Sweet dreams with Charles Bukowski?

Books, not backlit cell phone and tablet screens, are the stuff bedtime reading dreams are made of. From the Times in 1953: "The ideal bed-book must open quite flat; it must have stiff covers to prevent the page from bending, and small pages for the same reason; it must be of very light paper so as not to fatigue the hand; the type must be large; the margin must be very wide, especially on the outer sides, on one or other of which the book rests according to the side one lies on."

As Jacobson concludes: "Words keep any reader busy any time, but you feel you've earned your sleep when you've wrestled with the angel of meaning at the end of a long day. No matter how intense the internal struggle, a person reading in bed gives off an aura of achieved calm."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3126


Food for Thought at #MPIBA17

When school is in session at a book industry trade show, you have to choose from a menu of concurrent panels. That's a good thing. At the 2017 Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association Fall Discovery Show, I did what I usually do--study the menu and make, well, educated selections of education sessions. I made excellent choices, but probably couldn't have gone wrong with any of the offerings.

Ron Krall, Nicole Magistro & Vicki Burger

I was, as I often am, intrigued by food for thought, those quotable moments when big ideas are wrapped up neatly in a few sentences. A panel on "Back Office Operations" featured Nicole Magistro of the Bookworm of Edwards, Edwards, Colo.; Ron Krall of Off the Beaten Path, Steamboat Springs, Colo.; and Vicki Burger of Wind City Books, Casper, Wyo. They focused on financial operations, human resources and filing.

Or, as Krall noted in his opening remarks: "Okay folks, welcome to the most boring, most frustrating, most irritating topic of the whole Discovery Show. You're very brave. The reason I'm up here talking about this at all is that somewhere around five or six years ago I began to be aware of how much time and energy was being spent in doing what we're going to be talking about back office operations and beginning to wonder, Do we need to spend that much time and energy? And so over a bunch of years we worked to try to minimize these tasks."

He advised his colleagues to "spend a moment trying to think of how many hours a week you or your staff devote to those tasks.... Back office time is all the time you're not spending with customers. It's all time you're not doing activities that generate sales."

Magistro pointed out that they were "not discounting the other things that happen in the back office--buying, marketing, events management, anything like that that sometimes happens off the floor in some stores.... Those things are designed to be creating new sales, to be driving sales.... With the rising minimum wage issues, and with just in general living wage issues for our staff, the other way that you can think about this is not just as a savings to the owner or the bottom line of the store, but also to potential cash flow so that you can give more substantial raises."

Two questions were put forward to consider: For any task that is being done behind the scenes, does it need to be done at all? And if it does, how can you do it more efficiently?

"Being a small store, I don't have the luxury of having different people assigned different tasks like buyer, marketer, event manager," Burger said. "And some of the back office efficiencies I've learned I learned accidentally." She cited as an example a staff member who took it upon herself to bring order to Burger's admittedly borderline chaotic office practices. "Just being willing to take advantage of your employees in a sense really can make a huge difference, particularly if you're small like I am."

Magistro agreed, adding: "This doesn't mean eliminating people's jobs or eliminating hours, but instead it means optimizing and accepting that perhaps how it's being done right now is not necessarily the best way. And even if you do that, and you created that system, it's okay if somebody does it better."

Joy Dallanegra-Sanger, Valerie Koehler & the Literary Trivia Championship trophy

The American Booksellers Association presented an informative "Maximizing Backlist" session at the regionals this fall. For the MPIBA show it was helmed by senior program officer Joy Dallanegra-Sanger and Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex., who proudly displayed the Literary Trivia trophy won by the Texas team the previous night.

"You, too, can go home with this trophy if you take advantage of what you're going to learn today," Dallanegra-Sanger joked to open a session that explored important backlist title strategies, options and opportunities.

At one point, Koehler observed that "backlist is not just books that are a year old. For those of you who have strong children's departments, that's really where the backlist just shines because there's so much backlist in the children's department. And how many times can we sell Goodnight Moon? That's the beauty of the children's department is you have so many classics that never go away and that you always have on the shelf. And you can take advantage of those backlist offers to beef up your section."

"Angry customer" Matt Miller of Denver's Tattered Cover Book Store "confronts" Anne Holman of the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah, during a lively session of Bookseller Improv: What You Want to Say vs. What You Should Say

After they showcased numerous examples of creative backlist store displays and promotions, Koehler advised: "When you go back to your stores, ask some of your newer booksellers what's something you loved 10 or 15 years ago... and maybe ask your booksellers, what were we selling 15 years ago that we really liked? Because now you have some new customers, you have some new booksellers, and you can all get excited about some of the backlist titles that you did sell."

One last note: If you have any doubts about the importance of that Literary Trivia trophy and the camaraderie/rivalry surrounding it, outgoing MPIBA board president Anne Holman of the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah, brought the subject up once again when she told me after the show: "Serving as the president of MPIBA for the past three years has been a pleasure and a privilege. Our membership is increasing, the winter catalogue sales are better than ever, and the booksellers seem to get younger and younger. My only sorrow is that Utah hasn't won the Literary Trivia contest in the last six years."

For the record, I was on the losing Texas team in 2016 and the Utah team in 2017. Maybe... it's me. Food for thought.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3121


Authors Telling Indie Stories at #MPIBA17

Among my favorite moments at regional trade shows are the times when authors say nice things about indies, especially when it's more than a "thank you for your service" nod. The best ones are sincere and the product of direct engagement, experience and appreciation. Maybe after all these years I've become an author/indie gratitude connoisseur.

"We're from Salt Lake City, Utah. Shout-out to the King's English Bookshop!" Shannon Hale exclaimed at the Children's Author Breakfast during this year's Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association Fall Discovery Show in Denver. She and her husband, Dean, were talking about their The Princess in Black book series (Candlewick). Shannon had a message for indies: "I want to make sure that you know the impact of your work.... Your curation of books, your handselling, your insight into what's going to be the right match for a kid. And not every book is right for every kid, but you know, and I know you know, that there is a book for every kid. At least one. And we're really grateful for what you guys do out in the trenches."

Tayari Jones, Willy Vlautin and Sara Blaedel after the Authors of Future Releases Breakfast

At the Authors of Future Releases Breakfast, Willy Vlautin (Don't Skip Out on Me, Harper Perennial) said: "I really appreciate bookstores. I'm kind of a bookstore addict. Every town I go to I end up buying tons of books.... And any town I go to you know you have a safe place to hang out and someone that's a weird book lover. And anyone that's a little cracked is all right in my book. So, I'm sure I'd like all you guys."

Sometimes these expressions of author appreciation take the form of personal indie bookstore stories, which happened a few times in Denver.

During the Author Banquet, Uzodinma Iweala (Speak No Evil, Harper), began his presentation with a childhood memory. On Sundays in Washington, D.C., "we'd stop by this wonderful little bookstore, just up Connecticut Avenue from where I went to church, called the Cheshire Cat." That shop, which moved into Politics & Prose in 1999, "was a bookstore completely for kids, with all of the most amazing books that you could find.... And after church my mom (or dad) would take us to the bookstore and she'd let us pick out books, and it was like a total treat to be able to do this on Sunday.... Books, bookstores and libraries were a central, almost sacred part of my childhood."

When he went to Harvard, Iweala had to pass by the Harvard Book Store daily, and "I'm pretty sure I spent most of college when I should have been studying in the bookstore," he recalled. 'I'd end up walking around the bookstore and running my fingers over books from different authors, some of whom I knew, most of whom I didn't know.... It's that feeling, that sense of being surrounded by all that story, the weight and the presence of all that collective knowledge, imagination and insight curated by people like you, who love books and who really live books. What I'm trying to say is thank you, because it's people like you who care not just about selling books, but who care about how they're sold and the importance of the physical space of the bookstore as a location for growth and as a space for connection, which was so profound and so important for me."

Uzodinma Iweala, Amy Bloom, Matt de la Peña, Loren Long and Francisco Cantú after the Author Banquet

"You are my people. I would have no career at all without independent booksellers," Amy Bloom (White Houses, Random House) announced before sharing the tale of how she discovered what "handselling" was years ago at the first event for her debut story collection, Come to Me. The reading was held in "a tiny bookstore in New York that was honestly the size of two of these tables put together. I arrived an hour and a half early, and it was so small that I couldn't just stand there and stare at the manager, so I started shelving books for her."

A woman came in looking for a specific, if unremembered, Italian cookbook she'd heard about. The bookseller showed her a stack of possibilities, but the woman kept saying no until they ran out of options. Bloom said that just as the customer was walking out the door, "the manager says to her, 'If you like Italian cooking, and I think you do. And you appreciate sensuality, and I think you do. And you just really want something special in your life, and who doesn't? I have a collection of short stories for you.' And I thought... that is handselling."

Tayari Jones (An American Marriage, Algonquin), told her indie stories at the Authors of Future Releases Breakfast. The last time she was in Colorado, promoting her novel Silver Sparrow, she had to drive a Chevy Suburban over the Red Mountain Pass to an event at Maria's Bookshop in Durango: "It was dangerous! I was like I'm gonna die for my art! But I was thinking the thing about authors and independent booksellers: When we're on tour, you see us at our not best. By the time I arrived, I was not my best. But everywhere I've gone--and I went to 43 independent bookstores with Silver Sparrow--every place was a port in a different storm. I don't think I could have done it without so much care along the way."

Calling Silver Sparrow "kind of my comeback book," Jones recalled that it was at an indie bookstore in Miami where her career was revived. "I was at Books & Books. I was sad. My books were out of print.... And a woman said, 'Oh, I can help you,' and she introduced me to Elizabeth Sharlatt, the publisher at Algonquin. I was so humiliated that everyone was talking about how my books were out of print. I just wanted to get away. But Elizabeth held me by the hand and she said, 'Tell me, how do you know Judy?' I said I don't know anyone named Judy. And she says, 'No, Judy Blume who just introduced us.' I looked to tell her thank you and she had disappeared like a fairy godmother. And now she owns an independent bookstore. You see where I'm going with this? Magic happens in independent bookstores."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3116

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