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'In Conversation' at the NEIBA Fall Conference

I just ran the numbers. The word "conversation" has appeared in about 300 (more than half) of my columns, dating back to 2006. And here it is again, because that is precisely the word that came to mind often during last week's New England Independent Booksellers Association Fall Conference in Providence, R.I., where the atmosphere was a generous blend of conversation, energy and enthusiasm. And books, of course... lots of books.   

Zadie Smith and Christopher Castellani

It all launched Tuesday at an extraordinary keynote event, featuring Zadie Smith (Swing Time) "in conversation" with author Christopher Castellani, who began by saying, "We've already started our conversation, so you're just joining us."

Smith covered a wide range of topics, including the challenges of writing in first person ("It's quite curious the power that the 'I' has."); power dynamics ("Nobody thinks of themselves as an unimportant country or an unimportant person, but the world is structured in such a way that you're made to accept that role, or asked to accept it."); privilege ("There is no such thing as a perfectly right or authentic position to exist in.... I kind of work from the assumption that everyone is in some kind of existential pain."); cultural appropriation ("To me it's always a specific matter between an artist and a subject, between a reader and what they read. I can't generalize on the topic."); and the bond between authors and readers ("The relationship is fundamentally unfinished unless there is someone on the other side to talk about it with.... I do absolutely need readers.").

(l.-r.) Tom Wickersham (Brookline Booksmith), Zadie Smith, Karl Krueger (Penguin Random House), Carole Horne (Harvard Book Store), Christopher Castellani (Grub Street), and Ellen Jarrett (Porter Square Books)

Claire Benedict of Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vt., described the keynote as "the highlight of my NEIBA experience. Her thoughtful and compassionate discussion on everything from cultural appropriation to Facebook to Anthony Weiner was inspiring. I particularly appreciated what she said about cultural appropriation being more about aesthetic failure than ethical failure--I couldn't agree more. I now have a massive crush on Zadie and am smack dab in the middle of her gorgeous new novel."

Jan Hall of Partners Village Store, Westport, Mass., agreed: "I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation between Zadie Smith and Chris (another favorite author). Hearing her speak has added several other dimensions to reading Swing Time. I can now hear her voice, and respect more the story's time, place and characters. Zadie Smith is both elegant in visage, and eloquent in words."

The keynote, which NEIBA executive director Steve Fischer called an "extraordinary and a wonderful way to open the conference," proved to be an excellent launching pad for three days of panels, meetings, exhibits and celebrations, along with less formal yet equally important bouts of "talking books." Fischer noted that while the number of exhibitors at this year's conference was up 7% and authors (64) up 10%, bookseller attendance (400) was level with 2015, though we both agreed it felt like there were more booksellers.

"It has to be because the vibe was so positive and the enthusiasm for the authors and education was so apparent," Fischer said. I'll write in more detail next week about some of the education sessions I attended, since so much useful information was shared. This week's focus is on the events.

Andrea Beaty

As is often the case, authors celebrating booksellers was an ongoing theme. At the Children's Author & Illustrator Breakfast, Andrea Beaty (Ada Twist, Scientist), said, "You are the lifeblood of children's books.... The love you've shown for all my books has been breathtaking." She ended the presentation by reciting her "Ode to an Indie," which began "I want to say thanks to you indie booksellers/ Thank you book gals, and thank you book fellers," and concluded:

You are the heart of great kids lit.
Without your fine work we would lose much of it.
Not to get mushy, but I think it's true
That so many great books would be lost without you.

So thank you once more, yes thank you indeed,
For just the tonic this cranky world needs.
Your shops and your books soothe us like dogs with their bones,
And the best thing of all, you don't even need drones.

Fischer noted that he was "very happy with what we've done making the Awards Banquet such a festive evening of food and drink, authors and recognition of reps and bookstores." In addition to honoring Anne DeCourcey as this year's Gilman Award winner for outstanding rep, Norwich Bookstore for its Indie Spirit Award, and Elizabeth Strout as President's Award recipient, the banquet showcased the 2016 New England Book Awards winners and finalists.

In brief remarks, finalists Robin MacArthur (Half Wild: Stories) described indie bookstores as "holy places"; and Howard Frank Mosher (God's Kingdom) offered his thanks "for all you've done for clueless scribblers like me and for millions of readers throughout New England. Thank you so much for everything you've done for constitutional rights."

Sabaa Tahir

During the author breakfast on the final day, Sabaa Tahir (A Torch Against the Night) spoke of the range of people she writes for, adding: "You are the purveyors of such stories. Because it was someone very much like you who gave me my first story that, by extension, set me on this very crazy and twisty and weird path that has led me here in front of you. So, I want to say thank you for all that you do for readers, whether they're young or they're old."

And Min Jin Lee (Pachinko), whose first novel, Free Food for Millionaires, had been a BookSense #1 Pick a decade ago, summed it all up nicely: "If it had not been for independent booksellers, I would not be here today. I would not have a career."

"With 400 booksellers representing just over 100 stores we are firmly a retail booksellers conference," Fischer observed. "Our education is focused on bookseller education and the authors we choose are there so they can meet booksellers and booksellers can learn more about their books. The strong sales that most of our stores have been having for the past couple of years continued through the summer. Fall is teed up to be very strong which feeds in to a positive mood about the business in general. And wasn't it a relief to not harp on e-books and Amazon and to stick to our knitting and do what we've all been doing so well for so long--sell books!" The NEIBA conversation continues next week.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2850


BA16 & '#livingthedream'

As regional bookseller trade show season begins to heat up in the U.S., the annual Booksellers Association of the U.K. & Ireland Conference and Gardners Tradeshow was held earlier this week at Warwick University. The 2016 program, "celebrating the current confidence in bookselling," explored "how high street bookshops are breaking the mold of the typical bricks and mortar bookshop and exploring new ways of shoring up their place on the high street." I followed some of the biblioaction across the pond through the Bookseller's coverage as well as social media (#BA16). Here are a few highlights:

@kibworthbooks: "@BAbooksellers Can't wait! Lovely day for it #BA16"

Bookshop Day: The BA will hold its first Bookshop Day on Saturday, October 8, close on the heels of a very big date on the U.K. publishing calendar (October 6), when several major autumn titles are released. Alan Staton, the BA's head of marketing, said Bookshop Day "is a key part of Books Are My Bag's 2016 autumn campaign, and is all about getting shoppers to visit their local bookshop, whether it be to discover a new book or enjoy an in-store experience. We're very much looking forward to seeing the creative and fun ways bookshops up and down the country will celebrate Bookshop Day come October."

@mrbsemporium: "At #ba16 listening to fascinating study on reading to kids, print vs digital, from @egmontuk. Go to their website and read 'print matters.' "

@DubrayBooks: "Most children's books are bought in physical bookshops--being able to look, browse, enjoy the treat of visiting is important." And: "Few things more rewarding than reading with your children--scream it from the rooftops, says @callypoplak! @EgmontUK." And: "Great growth in children's books... now 24% of book market. Kids reading print despite lure of devices. #BA16."

The Booksellers Network: Frontline booksellers are being invited to join the Booksellers Network (@Booksellers_Nwk), which "aims to provide a vibrant ideas-sharing platform for grassroots retailers who are either young or new to the role.... The group has been founded after calls from some young booksellers: Jasmine Denholm of Wenlock Books, Robyn Law from Blackwell's, Marion Rankine from Foyles, Charlotte Colwill from Dulwich Books and Katie Clapham from Storytellers, Inc. are on board for the launch."

Meryl Halls, head of membership services at the BA, commented: "We all saw the merit in creating an informal space for young and new booksellers beyond that traditionally encompassed by the BA. We wanted to create a positive, mutually supportive and fun group, to attract shop-floor staff who work across the country in independent and chain bookshops. They have a lot of experience and enthusiasm to share, and we want to facilitate them coming together."

@BAbooksellers: "Helen @ForumBooks links up with local businesses including biscuit company--'booky cookies'. #BA16"

Bad day, good advice: Entrepreneur Jo Malone was interviewed about business strategies and her upcoming memoir, My Story. @IndieBound_UK tweeted: "Advice from @JoMaloneMBE for booksellers starting--never quit on a bad day #BA16."

Adopt a CEO: BA president Ros de la Hey, owner of the Main Street Trading Company in St. Boswells, wants to launch Adopt a CEO, a new initiative encouraging "those who lead the publishing world to step outside of London and their local neighborhood and spend some time inside a bookshop."

A former publisher at Bloomsbury, she "spent years taking authors on tour so I should have been fairly well informed about the life of a bookseller. In reality, I had never stood behind a till, never dealt with a tricky customer and never unpacked 12 boxes of books before 11 a.m. I tended to see each shop through the prism of the event I was attending.... I'd like to encourage publishers to rediscover the joy and beauty of the shop floor, coaxing them to join us in the fun of day's bookselling, speaking to actual customers." Faber CEO Stephen Page and Canongate CEO Jamie Byng have already agreed to visit the Main Street Trading Company.

Clare Christian, founder and publisher of RedDoor Publishing, agreed: "Specifically, we are three steps removed. We sell our books to our sales teams, our sales teams sell them to the bookseller, and the bookseller sells them to the customer. Publishers are effectively commissioning books based on trends and probably witchcraft. Unsurprisingly, the results are mixed." In July, Christian spent a day at Barton's Bookshop in Leatherhead.

@westbournebooks: "Martin Brown gave us and @gulliversbks a mention last night, but then his ferret went missing! #BA16 #wheresmyferret."

BAMB Readers Awards: The BA is launching the Books Are My Bag Readers Awards, which will ask the public to vote for the best books in fiction, nonfiction, biography, autobiography and children's categories, as well as a "breakthrough author." The shortlist will be unveiled October 6, and winners announced November 24.

Home again, home again

@drakebookshop: "Weighed down like a book pack horse. Can only mean the end of the #BA16 conference with @gardners. Alas poor Warwick @CathyReadsBooks !!"

@BookaBookshop: "Tired, happy booksellers heading home. Thanks @BAbooksellers for a great conference #BA16 #Warwick #livingthedream."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2840


The Underrated Art of #ShowingUp

We often run into people who understand their job to be showing up on time to do the work that's assigned.... Showing up is overrated. Necessary but not nearly sufficient. --Seth Godin in a 2013 blog post

Sorry, Seth, but I think it's more complicated than that. "Showing up" is, and maybe always has been, the essence of the working life, but there's been some misdirection over time about its meaning in the workplace. I chose to momentarily leave out a couple of sentences from the passage quoted above (see ellipsis): "We've moved way beyond that now. Showing up and taking notes isn't your job. Your job is to surprise and delight and to change the agenda. Your job is to escalate, reset expectations and make us delighted that you are part of the team."

That's true. And for great booksellers, it is the magic part--handselling, coming up with dynamic displays, hosting great author events, engaging in meaningful conversations with patrons and colleagues, community involvement. And much more.

All good. But not all.

Anyone who has worked as a bookseller knows the best ones show up day after day, ready for whatever the job requires, even when--perhaps especially when--they aren't in the mood. There is the magic of bookselling and there is the grind of bookselling, though the former tends to get better publicity.

So this column is celebrating the booksellers who are #ShowingUp for their stores every day, and it draws inspiration from a few disparate sources. The first occurred earlier this year as I was listening to Marc Maron's WTF podcast and he said to a guest, "But you showed up for your kids, right?"

That's what got me thinking about the phrase. Then I read a New York Times piece about Jodie Foster in which she said she had the chance to direct movies early in her career because so many male executives "knew me as the 8-year-old who showed up on time, and they didn't see it as a risk. They looked at me as if I was a daughter. They'd seen me grow up. They knew my professionalism." Producer Lara Alameddine (Money Monster) said, "Talk to anyone who has worked with her. They'll tell you the same thing. She is the most prepared person. She's the first one there and the last one to leave."

BooksActually's resident feline booksellers Cake, Pico & Lemon shared a pic of boss Kenny Leck #ShowingUp on their Facebook page: "while our hooman is #nevernotworking, we're #nevernotnapping."

Although I made note of the phrase "showed up" at the time, I didn't think about it again until recently, when I saw a notice about quarterly six-week BAxs internships being offered by one of my favorite-bookstores-I've-never-visited-but-want-to-someday: BooksActually & Math Paper Press in Singapore.

On his Facebook page, owner Kenny Leck noted: "Just to be sure, before you drop us an e-mail, bear in mind, it is going to be knuckle grinding work. Kid you not. But you will learn things, and it will be learning without any hand holding. You will make mistakes, and as long as it is an honest mistake, I will suck it up for you. Because. Only because you are BAxs. #BAxs #BAextrasmall #internship #nevernotworking."

And then I read an Inkshares interview with Allison Hill, president and CEO of Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena and Book Soup in West Hollywood, Calif., in which she was asked what she thought was the key to running a successful indie bookstore. "The answers to this question seem obvious--passionate booksellers, an awesome selection, hard work, but clearly that's not all it takes because we've lost a lot of great bookstores that possessed all of those characteristics," she replied. "Ultimately I think it requires resilience, adaptability, attention to the bottom line, creativity, a strong sense of identity, AND passionate booksellers, an awesome selection and hard work."

#ShowingUp in the best way possible.

I was a full-time bookseller from 1992 until 2006, and part-time until 2009. On September 12, 2004, I launched a blog called Fresh Eyes: A Booksellers Journal with these words:

It would be tempting to begin a journal like this on a day that might serve as an official portal into the bookselling world--the first day of the year, for example, with the journal reaching its climactic finish during the mad holiday season.

But bookselling isn't a dramatic profession. Often people who envy booksellers do so because they imagine some idyllic little bookshop myth, where the bookseller reads peacefully at a counter, his well-fed cat sleeping near his elbow, and when the little bell over the door rings, announcing a customer's arrival, he looks up casually from his book and welcomes the newcomer to biblioparadise.

I haven't had many days like that. I love bookselling, but part of that love is not unlike the day to day reality of any relationship. There are moments of wonder, moments of pleasure, moments of surprise, moments of joy, and these are all balanced with moments of melancholy, anger, boredom and frustration.

Like life

Here's to the booksellers who are #ShowingUp for their stores... every damn day.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2835


After The Unquiet Daughter Found Me

I am the sequel he never wrote. --Danielle Flood, The Unquiet Daughter

When I find the right book, or when the right book finds me, it's cause for celebration. There should be a ceremony. Maybe that's what this column is.

The Unquiet Daughter: A Memoir of Betrayal and Love by Danielle Flood was released yesterday by Piscataqua Press, which is run by Tom Holbrook, owner of RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H.

Flood was a staff writer for the Associated Press and five newspapers, has freelanced for many publications and is currently working on three novels. She managed to earn a U.S. Coast Guard fishing boat captain's license along the way, and is a self-described "proud Mom" who lives with her husband, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, in Ogunquit, Maine. But (and herein lies an amazing tale), she was also the daughter of a complex (woefully inadequate word in this case) French/Vietnamese woman who was part of a wartime love triangle that inspired the one in Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American.

That was the initial hook I stumbled upon earlier this summer, and how the book found me. I'd read Greene's novel many times over the years, and was intrigued to know more about the story behind The Unquiet Daughter. While the Greene connection may have lured me in, it was Flood's compelling "sequel" that kept me riveted as she chronicled her often harrowing childhood, an intensive search for her real father, and finally the unraveling of impossibly fine threads woven between her parents' lives and Greene's fiction. Journalist and storyteller are in perfect sync in these pages.

Danielle Flood

I was also fascinated by the story of how The Unquiet Daughter had found its way to Piscataqua Press. So I asked both Flood and Holbrook to share that tale.

"For the last three years, Piscataqua Press has been doing what I tend to call 'assisted self-publishing,' and it's safe to say that our publishing endeavor has been instrumental in keeping the bookstore going," Holbrook said. "As we've been doing this, we've been keeping our eye out for books that we could produce as a regular publisher; books that we thought had the merit to be published by the big publishers but just never made it there. As a longtime bookseller, I've always secretly wanted to publish a book that was a commercial success. Danielle Flood has had a long career as a professional journalist, and I believe spent some time shopping the book through an agent before coming to us. I recognized right away that not only was the quality of the book a cut above, but that Dani had the ambition and drive to make sure that the book found readers."

Flood told me that she'd had an offer six years ago from one of the then Big Six publishers, "but 'something happened' and I don't talk about it because it wasn't the fault of the executive editor involved and I don't want her publicly embarrassed. As far as I'm concerned her strong actions in support The Unquiet Daughter were something that kept me fueled emotionally until publication." Two other big publishers had the manuscript for a month each, but Flood said her "disappointment when all fell apart caused me to be unable to try and sell the book again and unable to work on it for about four years." She left her agent when he declined to seek out independent and university presses. 

Tom Holbrook

Eventually, however, the story took an unexpected turn: "RiverRun and I decided upon each other after I discovered it while looking in its bookstore window. I saw a charming little sign that said: 'We Publish Books.' Tom Holbrook does help some authors get self-published, but this is not a self-published book; I don't need to self-publish a book, though I thought about it. Tom is publishing me and I find it kind of lovely that his little publishing house and my book support his independent bookstore. There's some kind of symphony there, it seems. And, what a breath of crisp, new air: I am treated nicely with respect, politeness; after the struggle, it's a delight."

The Graham Greene connection was not the primary reason for Holbrook being drawn to The Unquiet Daughter. "I was more interested in the mommy dearest type childhood, and the way Dani was able to portray that story through the eyes of her younger self," he recalled. "There are things going on that the reader understands but that young Dani doesn't understand--and this is a tough trick to pull off. There was a point in the book where somebody she was counting on actually came through for her, and I heard myself exhale because I had been so tense waiting for the next terrible thing to happen."

Flood said she is "excited about release day because I know in my heart that my book will help a lot of people and they will finally get to experience it. I wrote The Unquiet Daughter so that the fatherless feel less alone and in hopes that some young men and women would see how much it mattered to someone to have a father and that they might hang in there and stay together for a child, or at least stay in touch with their child. Just because plenty of people don't have fathers in their lives doesn't mean it's okay. It's not okay."

And now, a gifted author and a dedicated indie bookseller/publisher are just looking for some readers.

"I love, love stories and I love David and Goliath stories," Flood observed. "I am in favor of the thriving of all bookstores, but especially the smaller independent bookstores that in their spunk to stay alive sing of their identities and struggle to prevail. I say: bravo and bravissima. The independent bookstore is and can forever be a strong community force and book reading the best form of entertainment I can imagine."

Holbrook added: "We've found a side business that takes a lot of work, but is very rewarding and deeply tied to our mission, so much more fun than selling socks or coffee mugs or other sidelines. And who knows? We might find the next big thing--stranger things have happened."

Booksellers with questions about wholesale pricing or author events for The Unquiet Daughter can contact Holbrook directly at info@riverrunbookstore.com.

I'm glad The Unquiet Daughter found me this summer. That in itself is a story with a happy ending.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2831


Recent Studies Show Reading Is (Fill in the Blank)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the release of a study that specifically links reading books to a longer life span. Reading is good for you. Who knew? It can, however, become a little complicated once academic researchers get involved. What did you think? That it was just about picking up a book and turning the pages? Silly reader.

This week, the Guardian reported on a paper just published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts that found "literary fiction by the likes of Salman Rushdie, Harper Lee and Toni Morrison helps improve readers' understanding of other people's emotions... but genre writing, from authors including Danielle Steel and Clive Cussler, does not."

"This is not to say that reading popular genre fiction cannot be enjoyable or beneficial for other reasons--we suspect it is," said David Kidd, one of the researchers. "Nor does the present evidence point towards a clear and consistent distinction between literary and popular genre fiction. Instead, it suggests that the broad distinction between relatively complex literary and relatively formulaic genre fiction can help us better understand how engaging with fiction affects how we think."

Author Val McDermid had some sharp and justifiable reservations about these findings: "So it seems that this research demonstrates fairly conclusively that people who pay attention to what they read and hear are also pretty savvy when it comes to doing quizzes. Hold the front page.... Good books make us care. It really doesn't matter whether they include murderers, aliens, philosophers or kings."

On another front, I was heartened by a New York Times column earlier this month headlined "The Merits of Reading Real Books to Your Children," in which pediatrician Dr. Perri Klass, national medical director of the program Reach Out and Read, used the release of the new Harry Potter book to examine the impact of "book-books" in kids' lives.

She noted that developmental behavioral pediatrician Dr. Jenny Radesky is one of the authors of an upcoming American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on media use for children from birth to age 5. "Preschool children learn better when there's an adult involved," Radesky said. "They learn better when there are not distracting digital elements, especially when those elements are not relevant to the story line or the learning purpose."

Dr. Klass wrote: "Part of what makes paper a brilliant technology may be, in fact, that it offers us so much and no more. A small child cannot tap the duck and elicit a quack; for that, the child needs to turn to a parent. And when you cannot tap the picture of the horse and watch it gallop across the page, you learn that your brain can make the horse move as fast as you want it to, just as later on it will show you the young wizards on their broomsticks, and perhaps even sneak you in among them."

Reading book-books as good medicine. I like that.

By the way, using readers as research guinea pigs has a long, and occasionally odd, history. Here's a sampling from the archives of the New York Times:

1883. "The boys of the Polytechnic showed a decided taste for the better class. For example, Dickens is the prime favorite of 43 Polytechnic boys and with only 14 of the public school boys. Horatio Alger, Jr., has 2 admirers in the Polytechnic Institute where he has 18 at the public school."

1929. "Dr. William S. Gray made a survey of the reading habits of Americans for the American Library Association. He found that stenographers as a class are interested in inspirational, and prefer the classics to sentimental novels."

1945: A "scientific and exhaustive nationwide survey of the taste of the American reading public revealed [that]... 95% of the people read the Bible, compared with the 84% who read Forever Amber and the 57% who perused A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.... 70% of all books published are read by 21% of the people; 94% of those on the market by 50% of the people."

Impromptu survey: Are you reading for longevity? Are you reading the right sort of books? And what about the kids?!!

In the Telegraph, Oliver Pritchett, tongue planted firmly in cheek, added some digital age perspective: "I have been interested in the recent correspondence about the menace of people reading books while walking along the street, becoming so engrossed that they bump into each other--or into us innocent passers-by. In my experience, it is the fiction addicts who are the worst."

Perhaps we need a research grant to study that curious phenomenon. Reading is complicated... and it's simple. But we already knew that.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2826

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