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Sunday
Mar222009

Of Vorpal Blades, Ancient Rites & Missing Authors

In Brian Moore's novel Catholics, a helicopter arrives for the first time on Muck Island, site of a still-functioning monastery built in the 13th century. The flying machine has brought a young priest to the isolated Irish landscape, sent by the Vatican to confront the Abbot about his monks' persistence in celebrating the Mass in Latin despite prohibitions from Rome.

"His vorpal blade went snicker-snack," the Abbot says mischievously, citing Lewis Carroll to mock progress. "It would be a good description of that helicopter out there."

This week has become an odd mixture of vorpal blades, ancient rites and thoughts of lost authors for me. The genesis came on St. Patrick's Day (ancient rites), when I found myself swept up in the Twitterwave (vorpal blades) by posts about everything from green-clad drunken morning revelers to instantaneous reports from SXSW to the momentum building around John Wray's Lowboy as word spread about his bullhorn reading on the L train and people began handselling the novel to one another in 140-character pops (coincidentally, about the number of words on a staff recommend card in a bookshop).

With all that buzz and more heating up my MacBook Pro, what's a book person to do? Well, I turned away from the computer for a moment and glanced at my bookshelves; just another reader transcending worlds.

And there, within reach, were some of Brian Moore's novels: Catholics, The Luck of Ginger Coffey, No Other Life, The Magician's Wife, Lies of Silence, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The Colour of Blood, Black Robe, The Doctor's Wife, The Statement.

I stacked the books on my desk. I thought about everything we're discussing, speculating, proselytizing and worrying about in our business; and about this one author--born in Ireland, lived in Canada, died in Malibu, Calif.--whose books are largely out of print, but who matters so much to at least one reader: me.

On Twitter, I typed: "I must do this before midnight: I officially declare St. Patrick's Day 2009 to be 'Bring All the Novels by Brian Moore Back into Print Day.'" Random House sales rep Ann Kingman immediately retweeted, adding an enthusiastic second "(Yes, yes!)."

I spun the Twitter vorpal blades again, posting a quotation from The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne: "As he spoke, she heard America, eager America, where men talk business as others talk love."

Brian Moore was now in the Twitterstream, though I was aware, as the digital ancients say, that you can never step into the same Twitterstream twice.

A few years ago, I wrote an essay about Moore for the Dos Passos Review's Rediscovering Writers series. I mentioned that in the bookshop where I worked, I would often suggest one of the few novels still in print then (The Statement, The Magician's Wife) to customers looking for something "new." Without exception, as if part of a well-rehearsed chorus, my customers responded: Who?

Graham Greene once called Moore "my favorite living novelist." When Moore died in 1999, Tom Christie wrote an elegy in LA Weekly that began, "The most accomplished and least fashionable writer in Los Angeles died last week." In the Times Literary Supplement, Hermione Lee wrote that Moore's best quality also "prevented him from being as famous as he deserved, that he was always disappearing into his books, that he never wrote the same book twice."

I won't presume to call myself Brian Moore's ideal reader, but I do what I can to find him the audience he deserves. It isn't easy. Of his 20-plus novels, only a handful are still in print in the U.S. and that is a shame. Moore's narrative voice is crisp and disciplined. He finds a story's center and holds fiercely to it. What he doesn't reveal often reveals everything.

I love the speed of conversation on Twitter, the ability to share ideas and observations, pick up a thread and run with it or, in John Wray's case, give a deserving writer an instantaneous, word-of-mouth spike.

What are you reading . . . now!?

But I also need to savor the other ceremony: the turning away from my MacBook and iPod Touch screens to scan those bookshelves behind my desk; to remember, and suggest to you, that Brian Moore's novels should all be in print. On Twitter, I also left another quotation, a bookseller's lament: "They're all such great readers, Miss Hearne thought, it's a pity they don't like the same books as I do."

Friday
Mar132009

Is 'Doing Great!' the Wrong Thing to Say Now?

That's the question we asked last week. Aaron Curtis, Quartermaster of the buying office at Books & Books, Miami, Fla., observes that owner Mitchell Kaplan "has always been a 'business is booming' kind of guy. The trick for us in the buying office has been to educate customers without sounding desperate. So often, businesses and schools approach me saying they want to support our local business, not realizing that support means money. After providing specifics on discount and pricing of the title(s) the customer wants, here's the 'speech' I use":

We will never be able to compete with Amazon (or perhaps I should say, very rarely) when it comes to pricing. Huge companies like Amazon can offer deeper discounts because their buying power enables them to leverage better discounts from the publishers. Also, their overhead is significantly lower than ours. Our community profile says high end, but we are David in a sea of Goliaths.

On the plus side, the lion's share of Books & Books sales revenue goes back into the local economy, not to corporate headquarters or distant suppliers. We help make Miami a unique place, rather than a chain bookstore that can be found in any city in America, or an internet retailer 3,400 miles away. We live here, we work here, and your purchase will help keep us here. As long as the community thinks of us, we can continue to employ locally, as well as donate time, money, and books to local charities, hospitals, hospices, and low-income schools . . . and schedule great authors, of course. Let me know when you're ready to order the books.

Curtis adds that he empathizes with Fred Powell's story about explaining how the industry works to his book group. "I had a similar experience," he says. "One of our members belongs to another book group that has been meeting at Books & Books for 14 years. I was very frank with our group. I explained how consignment and returns frustrated our ability to keep titles in stock, and how publishers have become very unforgiving lately. She took this back to her other group, and sales from them have increased dramatically, both in the store and through our website."

Ultimately, Curtis believes, "Now is not the time for a stiff upper lip. Now is the time to let our loyal customers know we are suffering with them, and how much we appreciate their business."

So, what do our customers really know and when did they know it? That's a good question, too. Another bookseller e-mailed me the following message--received from a customer who travels to his area frequently enough to care about his bookshop--suggesting this might be "a representative 21st century customer":

"I admit it. I love bookstores," the note begins, "love the cafe atmosphere, too. Especially love independent stores where there are lists and signs telling me what the staff recommends. I could live in a bookstore. I read a lot--used to buy books a lot too. Now here's the real painful admission. I bought a Kindle. I love my Kindle--it's perfect for those books I just don't want to own forever. The ones I'd read and just give away anyway. Do I feel guilty? Hell yes. So guilty that I buy all my daughter's birthday party presents at my independent store now; I make sure I never purchase a knitting book or cookbook from Amazon. You can't buy those on a Kindle--they don't make sense. I'm guilty though because I've stopped buying fiction. And I was a big time fiction buyer before--sometimes 5-6 books a week."

She goes on to say that she does still buy some fiction because of staff recommendations or author events, but adds, "I don't know what this says other than bookstores that aren't also 'destinations' are not going to make it. What makes me go to my indie bookstore now? Coffee and lunch with friends, author events, toys for parties and when I have a must-have knitting or cookbook. Though I have to tell you in these tough times it's very hard not to purchase those on Amazon, too, since I have an Amazon Visa and get $25 gift certificates every few months as a perk. I try to save those for groceries or clothes though. So you see I mean well, but the Kindle is just so damn good."

She knows the challenges indies face, as well as the benefits we offer, and yet . . .

What do we tell her? What should we ask her?

Friday
Mar062009

'Time to Open Up the Back Room a Bit'

Sometimes you just have to tell 'em what's what. Fred Powell of Main Street Books, Frostburg, Md., thinks Linda Ramsdell's note to her Galaxy Bookshop customers explaining how she's controlling inventory during the economic downturn "really summed up what I have been doing at work for the past two months and put that work into a one-paragraph explanation that I can use for both my customers and my staff."

Although Powell believes small bookstores have always had to focus upon inventory control and cash flow, "this has been a time of getting smarter, a time to really read each title on every shelf, a time to find and promote your strengths as a bookseller and a time to get your 'house in order.' Survival of the fittest never seemed more real to me than it does right now (Belated Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!)."

Even armed with this hard-earned knowledge, however, he suspects that his customers are not always fully aware of the challenges he faces: "They think that the books are always in the store (and paid for!), and all they have to do is browse and enjoy. I think it is time to open up the back room a bit and let the customers know how we operate our businesses. By educating our customers, we also educate ourselves."

When I ask Powell if he thinks such discussions might be easier now that so many customers face painful economic pressure in their own lives, he replies, "Are they prepared? No. Do many care? No. The customer just wants the store open and stocked. Should the customer care? Yes. I think we will need to have more closings of every kind of business before people start to notice. There is still too much comfort for the average person in today's world. It will take a few more failures and stock losses to get folks to notice what is happening in their own communities."

That said, he does see the potential for opening new lines of communication. "In my store, at least, there is always a sharing of stories," he says, adding that since he has shared many personal stories with his customers over the years, "I should be sharing the current bookstore story as well. My book group asked me in our last meeting if I would take some time in a future gathering and tell them how the book industry works. Surprised me that they were so interested, but I was complimented at the same time. I think they wanted to know where my store stood in all that they are reading about the much-publicized lay-offs and downsizings of the major publishers. Maybe there is a longing for the return of the pot-bellied stove and the peanut shells on the floor of the local merchants of days ago."

So how do you resist the temptation to opt for the stiff upper lip, even if the boat is taking on water? Fred recalls that his father, a small businessman, used to tell him that whenever people asked how business was, he should "always answer in a positive fashion--'Doing Great!'--even if the business was not doing great. He felt it was not in the business' best interest to let folks know that your business was suffering. I have used that model for my business as well, but have been thinking recently that the residents of my small town need to know all is not well in the book world and the economy in general and that their support is needed. If the money is getting tighter, then customers need to make informed purchasing decisions and they should know that their dollars are supporting folks right in their neighborhood."

During the high-flying, if illusory, economic thrill ride of the 1990s and early 2000s, indie booksellers were already struggling to stay in business and compete. Did our customers, especially those earning big money and watching their property values escalate, make assumptions about the bookselling world? Since indies had an involuntary head start on the challenging business climate, were we canaries in the coal mine?

"Hasn't that always been true of small business," Powell suggests. "We incubate the idea, grow it, have it taken away by corporations (who tire of it and drop it) while we keep the idea going in some form all along. As the economy rises (when?), many of the small businesses will still be there, doing what they have always done. There will be a new canary in a new cage hanging behind the cash register."

Is "Doing Great!" the wrong thing to say right now?

Friday
Feb272009

What are We Trying to Communicate?

Times are hard. Tell me about it. These days the gory details of this common conversation may be diverse, but its essence is primal. You can find it in Steinbeck, in Dickens, in the ancient Greeks, in negotiations over the value of stone cudgels during the Paleolithic era.

How do we get customers to understand and care about hard times for independent bookstores? How do we get them to care about our survival? How do we inspire both empathy and action?

Communication is a one-word solution that gets batted around constantly in our industry. There may never have been a time in history when bookshops communicated with their customers as much as they do now. The pressure is on to get the word out monthly, weekly, daily, hourly, even instantly (think Twitter).

But what exactly are we trying to communicate?

When I received February's e-mail newsletter from the Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, Vt., I was impressed by something owner Linda Ramsdell had written to her customers under the title "A Note from Linda about Inventory Management (doesn't that sound exciting?)":

"You may notice that there aren't quite as many books at Galaxy this winter as you are used to seeing. I am taking a cautious and prudent approach in this time of economic upheaval. As many of you know, inventory management is a critical part of managing cash flow. To keep Galaxy healthy, I am managing the inventory even more closely than usual. In a practical sense, this might mean fewer copies of a title on the shelf. It will be precisely because we don't have big stacks of $27.95 hardcovers that Galaxy will weather this season. You can be assured that you will always find wonderful and new and treasured books to read at Galaxy. We also continue to offer our special order service, at no extra charge, and are able to get most books in within a week. As noted above, there is a lot to be excited about and look forward to. I will order all the new titles as I usually would, but likely fewer copies initially, with more frequent reorders. While the look may be different, the Galaxy Bookshop and the booksellers will continue to bring you a great selection of new book and favorites from over the years."

I asked Linda what compelled her to share inventory strategy publicly. I thought her note struck a perfect chord by simply--or not so simply--being honest. Booksellers often maintain a kind of "dance band on the Titanic" front with their patrons, who can easily mistake excellent, cheerful customer service for financial success. That disconnect from reality can be hazardous.

Linda said she had planned "to do a much deeper return than usual, and I thought it would be evident to customers. I wanted to avoid the sense that we couldn't supply the store, and make it seem instead like we were smart businesspeople responding proactively. I didn't want to get wrapped up in the panic, but to give a sense that we were putting the store in a good position to weather the winter and the economy. I was trying to exude confidence, and to go back to the Titanic analogy, to give the sense that there was a captain strong at the wheel with a good set of navigation tools. I also wanted to communicate that we would have the resources to keep all of the new books and books that were moving coming, and there is a lot to be excited about when it comes to new books.

"I think continuing to make people aware of why it is critical to shop locally is important. I think getting people excited about books and making it impossible for them to leave the store with only what they thought they came in for is important. I think keeping up an upbeat attitude is important. I hope to avoid the 'help, poor us' message and instead to emphasize that if people are buying books at all, we have lots of great reasons to buy them at the Galaxy Bookshop.

"The great thing about a business of this size, i.e. very small, is that we can actually respond quickly. We can also communicate very personally. I think it is incumbent on us to do both things well so that everyone is working toward the same end: keeping a bookstore a vital place in Hardwick."

I'd love to hear how you are bridging the business communication gap with your customers.

Thursday
Feb192009

A Congregation of Writers at AWP Chicago

All those headlines declaring the book is dead and readers are an endangered species seemed to have little effect on the 8,000 writers, give or take a few hundred, who inundated the Hilton Chicago last week for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs annual conference.

Registration lines were longer than one hotel staff member said he had ever seen for any event there. AWP's Bookfair--showcasing small and university presses as well as an array of lit journals--played host to erudite throngs. From Thursday through Saturday, as many as 20 separate panels and readings were taking place simultaneously in conference rooms all day long; countless off-site events were held; hotel restaurants, lobbies, hallways and even staircases were jammed with the published and the unpublished.

Did I mention the elevators? Not only were they consistently defying maximum legal capacity limits, but the Poetry Foundation's Poetry Everywhere video series had taken over, as if by literary coup, the small elevator TVs, which normally show CNN. How can we quote William Carlos Williams ("It is difficult / to get the news from poems," etc.) when verse supplants headlines?

Was everyone attending the conference carrying a manuscript in their back pocket? Probably. Was the possibility high that few of those books would ever see the light of publication? No doubt. Did it matter? Not so much, at least not last week.

At a panel called "Big House/Small House," author Rilla Askew said her experience with university press publishing had taught her many things, including patience with the longer process and the fact that she has "begun to become grateful for one reader at a time. My work is still long-term in ambition, but I'm grateful for readers who are looking for what I'm doing."

"Any discussion of large and small press publishing needs to be held in the context of our expectations," said Tracy Daugherty. "Every individual publishing adventure is unique. Books may be sold like canned goods, but they are not produced that way."

Daugherty suggested that writers have a realistic view of the process: "When we write books of poetry or literary prose, knowing what the market is, what do we think we're doing?" He cited Kurt Vonnegut's poem, "Joe Heller," in which Vonnegut asks how Heller feels knowing that the billionaire host of a party they're attending makes more money in a day than he has in Catch-22's history. Heller replies that he has something more valuable--"The knowledge that I've got enough."

"I know many writers, and so do you, for whom enough is never enough," Daugherty continued. "So, it's enough to know we've touched our core. In deciding what will be enough, my expectation of a small press is that I have a stimulating engagement with a reader [editor] I trust. You really need to be honest with yourself and judge your expectations candidly."

Molly Giles advised writers to consider small presses a legitimate publishing opportunity and "to support them by buying their books." Daugherty agreed, recommending that writers assume a "literary citizenship . . . Look at this conference. There are 8,000 writers here, and if we don't support each other . . ."

The lone bookseller at the conference was Barbara's Bookstore. Saturday afternoon, I checked in with general manager David Schwartz, who said that in addition to a display table at the Bookfair, he had been selling books at author events in other parts of the hotel and off-site. Although he'd begun with "high expectations," the conference "wasn't quite what I expected, but I'm certainly not disappointed. It's a unique conference in that most people are trying to sell their books rather than buy books."

That may be one reason why Saturday, when the Bookfair opened to the general public, there was a sales spike. "We sold twice as many books as the previous two days," said Schwartz, who expressed approval for the idea of offering a similar option--citing ComicCon as a successful example--at shows like BEA. "I think it's a great idea," he said, noting that AWP "put a relatively high price tag on this," which limited the final day crowd to serious browsers and buyers.

Supply and demand. What struck me initially at AWP was that the Hilton Chicago is also the site of CIROBE in November. As a former remainder buyer who attended for six years, I couldn't help but consider the fact that a place I normally associate with the end of a book's life (yes, I know, bargain book aficionados believe in reincarnation) was for a few days so thoroughly concentrated upon conception and birth. Also, perhaps, on responsibility. "The onus is on us," said LeAnne Howe, "to be good stewards of each other's work."