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Books in the 21st Century: 'The Onion' Timeline

The best satire tweaks reality just enough to make it yell "Ouch!" yet still manages to keep us in uncomfortably familiar territory. Few publications do this better than the Onion when it is on its game, and over the years the book world has come in for its share of well-deserved attention.

Decades from now, when biblio-archaeologists are examining the relics of our reading culture, they could do worse than consider the Onion's take on the turbulent early years of the 21st century. Here are a few highlights:

Celebrities writing children's books are all the rage. Offerings this year include Dennis Hopper's The Boy Who Was Out of His Freakin' Mind, Man.

Headline: "Man Reading Pynchon On Bus Takes Pains To Make Cover Visible"
Headline: "Nation's Teens Disappointed By Banned Books"


The film version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone "turns children on to the magic of not reading," Hannah Foss of Dayton, Ohio, says. "My daughter Julia never liked to sit passively and stare at a screen, but this new movie has really locked the power of her imagination. She can't put her books away fast enough."

Jessica Kingley, author of Bitter Root, "expressed regret Monday that she had 'pretty much used up all the hardship' from her early life in her recent first novel, leaving her nothing to write about for her follow-up book."

In Minot, N.D., a meeting of the Book Buddies reading group "degenerated into a discussion of the upcoming Academy Awards."

Headline: "Barnes & Noble Staffers Mock Orson Scott Card Crowd From Back Of Room"

Pottermania strikes again. Why are so many people buying Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix? Some were "automatically sent book by Amazon after computers showed May 2001 purchase of Dragonriders of Pern," while others "just couldn't get into Atonement-mania."

Self-help for books. "In spite of the odds it faces in the ultra-competitive self-improvement segment of the publishing market, the forthcoming self-help book The Life-Changing Power of Perspective firmly believes that it can be a bestseller, the 179-page nonfiction paperback said Tuesday."

Headline: "Author Dismayed By Amazon Customers' Other Purchases"

Aspiring novelist Sandy Bellman "took the last step in her personal journey as a professional writer" by becoming a Barnes & Noble bookseller. She "is expected to sell her first novel, most likely Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner or James Patterson's Judge and Jury, shortly after beginning her training shift next Monday."

American Voices. Most large retailers will be pricing the new Harry Potter book at cost or less. Pam Knackert: "Even more damaging to bookstores is the fact that you can purchase Harry Potter books at most vending machines."

Spoiler alert. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is criticized because it "blatantly answers every looming question in the 10-year-long saga, even going so far as to divulge what happens to key characters 20 years into the future."

Dr. Seuss tells Hollywood to stop making movies based on his books:

When your mom would give Horton a voice extra deep,
And turn the last page as you drifted to sleep.
Instead you'll have boxed sets, shit movies, and... well,
You'll have plenty to watch while you're burning in hell.

American Voices. The Kindle DX is expected to change the way college textbooks are bought and sold. Jennifer Barkley: "If there's one thing I learned as an English major, it's the value of a great book whose pages you can touch and feel and tear out just to spite the next reader."

New features and improvements on the updated Kindle include streaming functionality that "allows user to read latest Nora Roberts novel in real-time as the author writes it."

American Voices. B&N releases Nook Color. Barry Kaplan: "It's only a matter of time before Oliver Twist is peppered with pop-up ads for gruel and waistcoats."

Longtime customer Stephanie Brear is furious about the closure of indie bookshop Shaker House Books: "I put so much time into supporting my quirky local bookshop, with its charming window displays and us-versus-the-world attitude, and for what? Countless hours wasted quietly browsing their shelves when I could have just ordered this shit for way cheaper online."

American Voices. E-books surpass hardcovers in Amazon sales. Mick Aveling: "Well, if you're reading a hardcover book, strangers try to start conversations with you. If you're reading off a Kindle, people just stare at your awesome Kindle."

Francine Massey, author of A Lighthouse Keeper, tells reporters at Word Mentality bookstore that "she does her absolute best for everyone who comes out to see her, whether it's just three people or a much larger crowd of nine people."

Those biblio-archaeologists may ultimately discover the beginning of the end in 1997, when the Onion ran this obituary note: "Béatrice Berceau, the planet's last literate person, died Monday, marking the end of an era. Berceau, widely renowned in her native France and around the world for her remarkable ability to decipher coded inscriptions of symbols printed on paper, was 98 years old."--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1597.


The Xmas Creep: A Halloween Tale

Stay, if you dare, in the bookshop on Halloween... after closing, perhaps. The store is dark, the moonlit stacks "haunted by the ghosts of the books I haven't read. Poor uneasy spirits they walk and walk around me," as Roger Mifflin, proprietor of Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop, so aptly put it.  

These are not the ghosts that frighten you on this most frightful of nights, however. Even the window and table displays near the front of the shop are no longer shocking: the unsettlingly cheery ghosts and monsters on the covers of children's books; the "hot" vampires and werewolves lurking in YA fiction; the inescapable horror cascade of Stephen King titles.

Your potentially terrifying, unsold Halloween-themed sidelines inventory--all those greeting cards, Edgar Allan Poe masks, black cat earrings, jack-o'-lantern mugs--is also something you can withstand, comforted perhaps by the knowledge there are other retailers in more harrowing situations than yours, like those haunted bookstores (Dare we invoke the name of the dead--Borders?) that have been transmuted into Halloween costume shops this year.

No, you are not scared yet. You're a bookseller. You've been through hell before, or at least read about it.

But as you move deeper into the store, a chill runs down your spine. Lurking in the corners, everywhere you turn, are mysterious objects as white as ghosts and as red as blood. You get closer, and the shapes of these talismans become familiar--Christmas cards, Christmas books, Christmas ornaments, Christmas wrap, ribbons and bows. There are even stacks of calendars boldly predicting an as yet unforeseeable future--2012.

You're frightened now, aren't you? We understand. What you see is not normal, not the way it once was, the way it's supposed to be in a rational world. Something evil this way came, and over time it has altered the fabric of the holiday universe.

Your fictional bookselling ancestor, Mr. Mifflin, once said, "Now that Thanksgiving is past, my mind always turns to Christmas, and Christmas means Charles Dickens." But those times are long forgotten. Black Friday as the beginning of the holiday season is as much an illusion as Marley's ghost.

The Xmas Creep, as evil a shapeshifter as ever dwelt in these lands, manifests himself earlier each year. For him, all other holidays after July 4 are simply inconveniences, brief stops along the red-&-white brick road to Christmas. He will outlive that day, too, in the form of post-holiday sales that extend his reign into the following year.

What does the Xmas Creep look like? One of his arch-enemies is the Consumerist, which has been tracking the Xmas Creep's movements "since the days when it wasn't yet common to see wreaths, trees, and tinsel on sale in September," and has now "combined our love of DIY crafts with our not-love for Christmas in July" to create an icon that can be used as protection against this evil force. The Consumerist advises loyal followers to "go out there and spread the Christmas Creep cheer."

ABC News has taken notice of the Consumerist's battle against the Xmas Creep, saying that "those who think the commercialization of the holidays has gone too far, including seeing Christmas trees in shopping malls before Halloween, have taken action. Consumers fed up with Christmas decorations and products creeping into retail outlets earlier every year are trying to shame retailers into patience."

Chris Morran, senior editor at the Consumerist, is not afraid to speak evil's name. He told ABC News that "seeing Christmas decorations in July or August not only cheapened and watered down the actual holiday shopping experience but also tended to override the holidays that should be getting 'the proper attention.' " The Consumerist has "received numerous complaints from readers who hunted in the past week for Halloween decorations or costumes, only to find they had been replaced by tinsel and Christmas lights."

What should you do? What can you do? The Xmas Creep has already infected our culture and infested your inventory, so there's no point in resisting. Nordstrom's fired a warning shot at him, but I hear that even Dr. Seuss's Grinch is now under his spell, working as a barista in Whoville's B&N, where he sells Starbucks Christmas Blend coffee by the pound.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1592.


The ARC Question

We hear a version of the question often. By "we" I mean those of us whose desks, bookcases and floors are essentially buried in an avalanche of advance reading copies. The primary question isn't, as might be expected, "How do we clean this mess up?" The question is: "How do we decide which ARC to read next?"

I tend to make impulsive reading decisions, like a kid in a toy shop ("I want that one! No, that one!"), but a recent experience has me thinking about the question in a new way. I'm currently reading three great ARCs simultaneously, all because of a conversation. The books are:

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed (Knopf, March 2012), a memoir woven into the chronicle of her solo, three-month hike on the PCT in 1995.

Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron (Algonquin, January 2012), a novel about a gifted young runner caught in the Hutu-Tutsi conflicts of his native Rwanda.

Contents May Have Shifted by Pam Houston (Norton, February 2012), a fictional tour of the world through a series of personal vignettes.

So how did I decide these were the ARCs I would read next? And why read them at the same time? It took a trip across the country to make the decision for me. On October 1, I was in Denver at the MPIBA trade show, where Cathy Langer, lead book buyer for the Tattered Cover Book Store, introduced her three guests--Strayed, Benaron and Houston--at an "Authors of Future Releases Breakfast."

This wasn't a standard writer-talks-up-her-book presentation. It was a conversation. Langer began by asking about the complexities of the "I" character, even when, as is the case with Benaron, the story is told in third person about a man living in another country.

"You take the stuff that happened in your life and you shape it into something beautiful," said Houston, whose protagonist in Contents May Have Shifted shares her first name. She recalled that her editor told her "we want them to think it's Pam and it's not Pam," but Houston also cautioned that she moves freely across the blurred borderline between fiction and nonfiction. "I was James Frey's first writing teacher. He took intro to creative writing from me," she said, drawing a laugh.

Strayed discussed her approach with Wild, which is an account of something that occurred 16 years ago. "My book is me, but it's sort of the younger me." With her first novel, Torch, "I took my life and made a lot of other stuff up about it. To me, the job of the nonfiction writer is to say, 'Here's me'; to make that personal story a universal one."

Benaron, who was writing about a country and culture with which she has developed a deep personal connection, observed: "I think this complex layering of truth and fiction makes a powerful statement about art."

Langer also asked the authors how the "physical" aspect of their experiences affects their work.

"I really decided to take this trip at the lowest moment of my life," Strayed said. "I went from weeping and wailing every day to confronting the reality of the hike. You set the boundaries, and every day you go out."

Houston spoke of the advantages of "feeling fluid in the world. That you can go and have a degree of safety no matter what is happening."

Benaron, a triathlete, said, "You get to the point where you don't think you can go on, and then you just take one step at a time. You're so focused on right now, right now, right now."

All three noted the importance--in what is perceived as a solitary profession--of encounters with others in the world, ranging from Benaron's connections with the people and culture of Rwanda to Strayed's experiences on the PCT. "All summer long, I would meet people and we would bond," Strayed recalled. "The hikers had their own subculture and language."

Houston added: "One of the things I'm interested in is the way people use language and the impact it has upon them."

That morning in Denver, the conversation, the language of these writers had an impact upon me. I began reading Wild on the flight home, and soon added Houston's and Benaron's voices to the mix, weaving a pattern--an arc of ARCs--that I am now sorry to see coming to an end as I reach the final pages of three excellent books.

How do we decide which ARC to read next? Sometimes that decision is made for us and it turns out just fine.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1586.


Indie Booksellers Go Off Script

When I asked about POS scripts for independent bookstores recently, I anticipated the answers would lean toward the scriptless end of the spectrum. This proved to be not only true, but essentially unanimous, as current and former indie booksellers expressed their disdain for a scripted retail experience. At the same time, however, most admitted that some guidelines must be established when training staff to avoid the chance of someone going into a full-tilt Bernard Black off-script rant while serving customers.

The POS script column triggered some harrowing memories for a couple of former chain booksellers. Unfortunately, I shattered the pleasant recollections of Todd Stocke, v-p, editorial director at Sourcebooks: "Good heavens, Robert, I had been remembering everything about my old bookselling days as cozy, warm experiences. Filled with joy, laughter, creative banter. Turns out I’d been suppressing memories of having to sell that infernal B. Dalton discount card (shudder)."

Ilyssa Wesche, advertising sales rep for Baker & Taylor, was a Borders bookseller "for several years (many years ago) and also at plenty of other retail stores, just like all of my English major brethren. I never minded the POS script as much as I did the phone script--anything beyond 'Thank you for calling X, how may I help you?' seemed like forced telemarketing. At one time, Borders had a phone script that went on for over a minute--that coincided with the original shift in management. Hmmm."

Indie bookseller Sarah Pishko, owner of Prince Books, Norfolk, Va., had no doubts regarding the topic: "I don't like 'scripts.' Each of my employees do their own thing. They must be friendly and appreciative of the customer, but I want them to display their own personality."

She added that she has been lucky in not having to train new staff for more than a year, "so memory fades. I think I just have them watch me a few times, or watch someone else. If something strikes me as inappropriate, I'd just tell them. But I discourage clerks from discussing what the customer is purchasing, like when someone brings up Fodor's Tahiti, and they get asked, 'When are you going?' However, at present, my folks are experienced enough to know when to talk about the book purchase and when not to."

"No scripts here, presumably a decision by the owners," Carol Schneck, replenishment buyer at Schuler Books and Music, Okemos, Mich., assured us. "We're meant to greet the customer, ask if they found everything they wanted, and thank them at the end of the transaction, but there's no set language for doing so. Personally, I detest scripts; they're dehumanizing. Even the necessary questions you ask over and over (Would you like a bag? Do you want your receipt with you or in the bag?) can be tedious, and I'd always try to avoid making them sound mechanical by varying the wording (that way, I once got to say, 'Would you like your zombie in a bag?') One of our former staff, an actor, would always ask if the customer would enjoy having a bag. I thought that was great and I still use it occasionally. I especially hate shopping at stores where they expect you to give them personal information at the register. Any time I'm asked for a ZIP code, I tell them a different one. 94112 is a favorite."

Diane Van Tassell, owner of Bay Books New Used and Rare, San Ramon, Calif., said, "I have to admit that I am more concerned that every person who walks in our door is greeted. This is not done in most shops and I think that this is about the most important thing to developing your store as a friendly place to shop. When I walk into most bookstores (and I do go around and visit other indies), I am usually completely ignored. They don't even seem to notice that I am there. A warm welcome or even a smile would do wonders toward making customers feel like they are valued.   
"The person at the register has the job of greeting everyone--no matter how busy they are--as well as ringing up sales. I would like them to upsell and talk about events, etc., but I am happy if they are engaging the customer in conversation about whatever."
To script or not to script? That is not the question. Van Tassell offered a scriptless alternative: "Selling a friendly atmosphere is really more important to us than getting e-mail addresses or upselling books."--Published by Shelf Awareness Pro, issue #1581.


MPIBA Show--Partnerships, 'Unofficial Booksellers' 

"I look around this room and see the people who have made my career," said Bruce Machart--author of The Wake of Forgiveness and soon-to-be-published Men in the Making--during the Author Banquet for Literacy at last weekend's Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association trade show in Denver, Colo.

"Find somebody who does what you do, and find out if they do it better," advised Neil Strandberg of the Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, at a panel about retail metrics.

"This is the one time we all get to legally plagiarize and steal from our colleagues," said moderator Andy Nettle of Back of Beyond Books, Moab, Utah, at the always well-attended "Best Thing I Did this Year" session for booksellers, where partnerships were mentioned frequently. Several people also said they had taken ideas from last year's discussion and put them into action.

Building partnerships with other booksellers, with suppliers, with authors, with libraries, with local businesses and communities--both online and offline--was at the forefront of many discussions during the show. The retail numbers game and numerous creative promotional ideas will be explored further in upcoming columns. They are unquestionably conversation starters. In Denver last week, they also were emblematic of the show's overall theme.

Relationships matter.

At a "Publishers--What's the 411" session, moderator Ruth Liebmann, director of account marketing at Random House, led a conversation about the ways in which booksellers can take advantage of the "blurring of the lines" in the book world to harness the passion and energy being generated by reading groups, teachers, librarians, bloggers and the myriad social networking connections that comprise an army of "unofficial booksellers."

A "Building Vibrant Partnerships with Local Libraries" panel generated considerable attention and buzz. "I do think a big theme of the conference was community building," said panelist and MPIBA president Meghan Dietsche Goel of BookPeople, Austin, Tex. "The great thing about that session was that while the three of us on the panel were all talking about specific approaches that had worked for us, we also had a number of people in the audience with their own experiences to share. We even had several librarian voices there who could speak specifically about how to best collaborate with those in their world.

"I think the lesson of the panel was that there really isn't one way to develop successful community partnerships because they ultimately reflect each of our individual communities. A lot of us in the room have found that by simply opening the door to those conversations and exploring how to pool our resources, our stores, our libraries and our local readers can really benefit."

Anne Holman of the King's English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, Utah, was also on the partnering with libraries panel. She noted that the "theme at MPIBA this year seemed to be relationship building; not just between the new executive director, new board members and new attendees. There's an eagerness to engage all kinds of other people in the business of bookselling. The panel I was on dealt with how to work together with libraries big and small, public and private, city and county to bring books and community together. Librarians and booksellers in the room were excited about new ideas to try and new relationships waiting to be forged."

For Daiva Chesonis, the show was an opportunity to build relationships for the first time as an owner after years as a book buyer. Ten months ago, she and Bobbi Smith purchased Between the Covers Bookstore, Telluride, Colo. (Shelf Awareness, December 13, 2010).

"We’ve attended MPIBA the previous three years, but this was our first show as owners," Chesonis observed. "Did it feel different? Yes. The congratulatory remarks sure felt good, even 10 months in, and our absorption levels seemed to go up a notch, as if we had sprouted ears all over our heads. These regionals are invaluable at any level of vested interest... and the post-sessions chit-chat over cocktails is like night school without notebooks. Viva la regionals!"

MPIBA executive director Laura Ayrey "found the conversations surrounding the 'unofficial bookseller' to be intriguing and of importance now more than ever. It's been said again and again, but with the closing of Borders stores in communities there is a stronger opportunity to capture those consumers. Original methods of communication have become so incredibly broad with social media and networking that within your own communities there are undoubtedly local bloggers, people with large Facebook & Twitter followings and even just local 'big mouths' that can be powerful advocates for your independent bookstores."

She was also pleased with the positive response to a pair of new programs--Bring On Your Books (BOYB), through which booksellers can have their membership fees waived if they permit the MPIBA to place book ads on their shop websites; and a new consumer facing website Buzzaboutbooks.org.

"In this ever-changing industry we have been focused on creating additional revenue streams to not only keep Mountains  & Plains solvent (which we are), but to also find new ways to support and expand awareness for our stores," Ayrey observed. "We're pushing the boundaries of how we've operated historically and it's a very exciting time for MPIBA."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1577.