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'Booktopia' at the BOTNS Readers' Retreat

Sometimes an event that seems fresh and innovative when you are in the middle of it gradually loses luster afterward. Not this time. It has been almost two weeks since I attended the Books on the Nightstand Readers' Retreat in Manchester, Vt., and left energized by the atmosphere Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness fostered there (Shelf Awareness, April 15, 2011). My enthusiasm has not waned.

I've asked myself why. The answer seems too simple and yet inevitable: If you spend a considerable amount of time obsessed with the past, present and future of the book, you occasionally forget about readers as individuals. The BOTNS retreat was an excellent refresher course.

For example, Linda Johnson and a friend drove from Ohio to participate. In the Springfield News-Sun, she wrote, "The attendees are still communicating online about how wonderful the weekend--christened 'booktopia'--was. All are eager to do it again. Others who could not attend want to next time."

She also told me about something she'd overheard at the retreat: "Someone commented that most of us were probably introverts (true in my case), but how outgoing we were. My realization was that I don't often know how to get involved in 'small talk,' but books I can talk about. So, if outside the retreat I talk to someone who doesn't read much, we don't have anything in common to generate the talk. At the retreat, we were like-minded and could discuss our passion."

Those casual conversations among readers played a central role in creating booktopia, and the author sessions offered participants a chance to peek behind the book industry's curtain--or between its pages, perhaps.

At one session, Katie Henderson, an editor at Other Press, and author John Milliken Thompson discussed their work together on his novel The Reservoir, which will be published this June.

"Pretend that we're 20 people at a dinner party with a great author and a great editor," Ann said in her introduction. "I thought it would be really fun to talk with an author who is in this process right now."

And it was. Readers don't meet editors every day. On receiving an ARC of John's novel, one audience member said, "I've never read an ARC before. Can you tell me the difference between that and a final copy?"

It was a good question, which they answered. There were many other great questions, particularly for Katie: Do you still read for pleasure? Do you ever read something and wish you could steal that author? How can we follow an editor like you and learn about your next books? Could you name a book you've edited that was successful, and one that didn't reach the pinnacle you wished for it?

"Two things really stood out to me," said Katie. "First, the feeling of camaraderie among the attendees and authors was almost immediate. If there was ice to be broken, it was long gone by the time I got to the welcome reception on Friday night. Ann and Michael have built a community using their podcast and website that already understands how to interact. We all just take our cue from our hosts, who are--effortlessly, tirelessly--friendly, intelligent, and enthusiastic. If you respect and appreciate Ann and Michael enough to come to Vermont with a bunch of strangers and talk books, you're already okay with me.
"Second, I felt incredibly lucky, as an editor, to be able to mingle with so many wonderful readers. As a group, editors tend to spend the majority of their book chat on each other, talking to other publishing folk and of course reading reviews. The occasional cases when we get to witness a book club meeting over one of our books or spy on a particularly meaty Goodreads discussion are invaluable, but all too rare. I loved talking to the readers at the retreat, and it made me want to work twice as hard to find books they’ll love and get them into the best possible shape."

Although John has written several nonfiction books, he said that, as a debut novelist, he had "never been to anything remotely like the BOTNS retreat, so the bar has now been set unrealistically high. My book comes out in two months, and I can't imagine a better, more congenial, more stress-free setting for launching a book promotion."

He added that one of the things that made the retreat "especially appealing was its spontaneous feel: Katie and I were drinking wine at the Manchester Inn on opening night, mingling with book lovers and other authors, and then we found ourselves heading out in a caravan with Ann Kingman, her Australian friend and two young teachers to a boisterous tavern called the Perfect Wife, where we stood around talking, then sat down to platters of meatloaf and barbecue (yes, in Vermont), while talking about Dickens and J.K. Rowling and e-books vs. real books. And Matt Dicks and his lovely wife entertained us with hilarious stories about their book group. "

As I mentioned in last week's column, telling the BOTNS retreat story requires time and space. Next week, we'll conclude with a few thoughts from some of the other writers, including Matthew Dicks's intriguing last-second decision at the Saturday night Authors Celebration "to forgo speaking about my work in favor of encouraging the audience to write."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue#1446.


Cool Idea of the Year--BOTNS Readers' Retreat 

Sometimes I have an experience that gives me hope for the future of the book world. Last weekend, as I drove home from the Books on the Nightstand Retreat in Manchester, Vt., I felt... optimistic (not my natural state, as friends, colleagues and even enemies will attest). What happened to melt my cold professional heart? It will take at least two columns to explain, but I'll try.

The BOTNS retreat was conceived and brilliantly executed by Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman. In addition to being first rate sales reps, they have built a loyal following among readers in--and more importantly outside--the publishing industry with their Books on the Nightstand podcasts. They are also generous, informative and entertaining participants in the social networking world.

In addition to their hard work as organizers, a key reason the retreat turned out so well was its focus on Readers, with a capital R. More than 75 guests, representing 15 states (including California, Oregon, Washington and New Mexico) and three countries (U.S., Australia and Canada), made the trip to Manchester to talk books. They were allowed the time and the space--two inns and the Northshire Bookstore--to engage in casual but focused conversations about their reading lives with other readers, as well as with several authors and an editor.

"We started with the reader," said Ann. "Every plan we made, every idea we had, started with the reader in mind. We did this for them, not for the authors and not for the bookstore. I didn't realize this really until one of our guests said, 'It was a reader's retreat, not an author's retreat.' "

Attendees weren't charged a ticket price. They made their own travel and lodging arrangements, and all events were free. They came because they wanted to be there. Hope, who made the trip from Australia, told me over lunch Saturday that an online friendship she'd established with Ann made the decision to attend an easy one, despite the distance.

"Hope and I were both part of a knitting message board," Ann recalled, "and when I announced there that Michael and I had a new podcast, Hope downloaded our first episode and listened. She was also the first caller to our voicemail line. So when we decided to go forward with the retreat, I sent her a message with a special invitation. I never dreamed that she would actually be able to come, but everything worked out well, and I'm so glad. Many of us from this weekend will now count Hope as a friend."
The atmosphere was social, conversational, fun and yet primarily--as would happen among a crowd of readers--about books. High on the list of impressions that stayed with Ann after the retreat concluded Sunday were "watching readers make new friends with other readers; seeing them make breakfast plans, and knowing that they will continue their friendship electronically after the weekend; watching readers find a connection with an author as a result of an offhand conversation; hearing people talk about how they understand an author's book so much more now that they have shared a few moments with the author."

Michael observed that "part of the reason the whole weekend went so smoothly is that everyone was so nice. When you bring together a group of this size, there are likely to be a few folks who are just naturally cranky. Every single last one of the attendees was amazing and I count them all as friends now. At the end of the day on Saturday, I realized that my face hurt from smiling all day. I wasn't smiling because I had to be 'on,' I was smiling because I was having the time of my life."

Chris Morrow, general manager of the Northshire Bookstore, was pleased to see "the passion about books so vibrantly alive. It really showed the power of individuals talking to other people about books. It was proof, if any were needed, that people sell books. There are lessons to be learned about the links between online communities and real communities--about the strengths of each medium. It is clearly not an either/or scenario. Ann and Michael did a fabulous job organizing the weekend. Publishers would be wise to cultivate online communities and work with bookstores to transfer that energy into real life community and book sales."

And, he noted, "We did sell some books!"

In addition to sales from a full display of titles by guest authors in the bookshop, about 90 copies of Two Books I Can't Wait for You to Read sold. Before the retreat, each author and guest had been asked to recommend two favorite books. Michael created an electronic file, which was printed on the Northshire's Espresso Book Machine. Ann said that proceeds from sales would help offset other expenses they incurred. She also expressed gratitude to Other Press, which sent author John Milliken Thompson and editor Katie Henderson to the retreat, and Permanance Matters by Glatfelter, sponsor of Saturday night's cocktail party.

"All of our other authors paid their own travel expenses and gave of their own time--nobody came as part of a publisher's author tour," said Ann. "Our authors were already part of our BOTNS community and many asked to be included, for which we are honored."

Participating writers included Chris Bohjalian, Jon Clinch, Wendy Clinch, Matthew Dicks, Susan Gregg Gilmore, Steve Himmer, Ellen Meeropol and Elizabeth Stuckey-French.

"The authors were incredible," Michael said, "so engaging in the smaller sessions, entertaining at the big event and gracious with their time at the signing after. The audience at the Sunday morning session on the future of books and publishing was so interested in what goes on behind the scenes. Many were very knowledgeable about the difficulties facing the industry."

This week I've heard from several of those authors, who were just as enthusiastic about their experiences at the BOTNS retreat. I'll be sharing their thoughts with you soon.

I attend a lot of events; I was a bookseller for many years; I worry, occasionally, about becoming a little jaded. But, as I said at the beginning of this column, last weekend made me optimistic.

Ann believes "it's impossible for anyone who was part of this weekend to not be excited about the future of books and reading. It's becoming easier and easier to connect readers and authors, and to connect readers with readers, and when it happens, it can be magic. The retreat exceeded my wildest expectations."

I agree, which may be why I can't stop writing about it. Much more on the BOTNS retreat next time.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1441.

Photos by Patty Berg


A Month for the Casual Reader of Poems

I am a casual reader of poetry. I read the poems I want to read, and take from them what I can. The poems I love have a precision and clarity that I can find in no other art form. I don't know many casual readers of poetry. I have several friends and colleagues who are dedicated readers of poetry; friends who are poets; friends who are poets and dedicated readers of poetry. While I may examine the cracks and seams of a well-crafted poem, as I might look at the brush strokes of a painting up close, they can see through those cracks and seams and tell me how the poem was made. I admire their knowledge and focus and insight, but do not envy them.   

The sports world is always chasing after the "casual fan," that fickle person who has little interest in a particular sport or team until something magic--Tiger Woods in his prime, for example--happens and even non-fans become obsessed. Poetry has a hard time attracting casual fans, though I don't think that's because poetry hasn't found its Tiger Woods yet. Sometimes I wonder if poetry even wants casual fans. You'd have to ask poetry that question.

Every April, National Poetry Month appears to have modest success with casual readers of poems, though cynics inevitably ask whether the poetic attention span of the reading public is longer than 30 days. But I'd like to think there is considerable potential for attracting more casual poetry readers, people who might not be in shape to hike poetry's sometimes forbidding summits, but would find pleasure strolling through a collection now and then.

In thinking this week about my life as a casual poetry reader, I suddenly wondered how the last few books of poetry had managed to enter my house. I don't buy poetry to make some kind of statement, and I don't buy poetry in April only, so this seems like an appropriate question to ask:

Where do my poetry books come from?  

I think poetry must
I think it must
Stay open all night
In beautiful cellars

The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton (New Directions) is a book I coveted for a long time, but resisted buying for myself. Late last year, my wife bought it for me as a gift and ever since I've been opening the 1,000-page book at random and reading whatever I find there. Like this:

Why not more pictures? Why not more rhythms, melody, etc.? All suitable questions to be answered some other time. The realm of spirit is two doors down the hall. There you can obtain more soul than you are ready to cope with, Buster.

Currently I'm reading Seamus Heaney's Human Chain (FSG), which I purchased for my wife last month. Wandering around a bookstore, I saw it on display and recalled her saying that she'd like to read it. The book just followed me home. Now she's read Human Chain and it's my turn, part of a ceremony that is, as you know so well, one of the many wonders of having a good book in your house--the gift for someone else becomes a gift to you as well. A sampling of Heaney:

A great one has put faith in "meaning"
That runs through space like a word
Screaming and protesting, another in
"Poet's imaginings

And memories of love":
Mine for now I put
In steady-handedness maintained
In books against its vanishing.

The most recent collection to enter this house is a copy of Wendell Berry's Leavings (Counterpoint) that was sent to me. I've thumbed through it, and will read more closely soon. Even during that initial peek, however, I found treasure. This often happens. Thumbing through a poetry collection is like strolling through a museum, knowing there will be a work of art that compels you to pay attention. Berry stopped me here:

Poem, do not raise your voice.
Be a whisper that says "There!"
where the stream speaks to itself
of the deep rock of the hill
it has carved its way down to
in flowing over them, "There!"


What I don't know about poetry could fill a book, a library. What I do know, however, is that there is a place for the casual reader of poetry in this world. There!--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1435.


Opening Day for MLB's Pop-Up Bookshops*

Last year's false rumor that newly acquired Boston Red Sox outfielder Carl Crawford wanted to open an antiquarian bookstore turns out to have been a diversionary tactic. Baseball and books are a team after all.

Fans arriving at stadiums this week for Opening Day are seeing an unexpectedly bookish addition to the usual array of food courts and souvenir stands. Every ballpark now has an official MLB Pop-up Bookshop, thanks to a last-minute deal worked out between Major League Baseball and the American Booksellers Association. The kiosks, designed to resemble dugouts with bookshelves, feature airport bookstore inventory, but with a distinctively indie staff picks twist.

The idea for this project came about last summer when Geoffrey Jennings of Rainy Day Books, Fairway, Kan., read an article in the Kansas City Star about dwindling attendance at Royals games. The team drew an average of just under 20,000 fans per game in 2010, compared with 46,000-plus for the New York Yankees.

The article was accompanied by a photograph of a Royals fan, sitting by himself in an otherwise empty section and reading a book during the game. Baseball, with its slow pace and intermittent action, is a sport particularly suited to the reading life.

"My first thought was 'baseball and reading: the perfect combination.' Most people wouldn't bring a book to the stadium, but they might buy one there," said Jennings. "So I made an appointment with the Royals P.R. department. They were very receptive to the idea, and by mid-August we had a rudimentary pop-up bookstore in place at Kauffman Stadium."

The experiment proved to be such a success that Jennings shared his story with colleagues during the Midwest Booksellers Association fall trade show, and ultimately with ABA's Len Vlahos.

"After that, things moved fast," said Vlahos, who approached other regional bookseller associations to help coordinate the plan. Using Jennings's initial connection with the Royals' front office, Vlahos was able to meet with MLB officials and work out a preliminary deal that has resulted in the soft opening of MLB Pop-Up Bookshops this week. Proceeds from sales will be split between the regional associations and MLB. The kiosks and promotional materials feature three logos--MLB, ABA and the appropriate regional association.

At one point during the negotiations, MLB executives began exploring a possible deal with Barnes & Noble or Hudson News, but the ABA and regional associations kept the pressure on, pointing out that shopping local is important for big cities, too. The chains--like a pop-up, an easy out--were soon gone from the scene. 

The negotiations were top secret. "We weren't absolutely sure until the last minute if this was going to come together, so we couldn't announce it until now," said Vlahos. "We think it's another great new way to get the 'shop indie' message across."

MLB Pop-Up Bookshops will carry books only. MLB spokesman Rick Simpson said, "We already sell non-book items at our concession stands, and we decided that magazines would not create the right impression on television. A fan reading a book is multi-tasking; a fan flipping through a magazine just looks bored."

Although MLB is putting a positive spin on the addition of bookshops in all stadiums, some analysts say the real advantage will be for bad teams like the Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates, who struggle to attract fans as the season wears on and wears out. At least three teams are already planning late-summer Bookmark Nights.

Even good teams can take advantage of the option, however. Book lovers are everywhere, on the field and off. St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa "is an avid reader who would like to own a bookstore." Chicago Cubs outfielder Fernando Perez is a published poet who studied creative writing at Columbia University. And World Series hero Brian Wilson, the quirky closer for the champion San Francisco Giants, "has an abiding interest in crossword puzzles" and recently fulfilled a lifelong dream when he became a New York Times crossword clue.

The Red Sox owners sponsor the Great Fenway Park Writers Series, and the Boston Globe boasted that "only in one major or minor city could a sports franchise fuse the disparate passions of baseball and books into an enterprise as successful as this."

Sound like fighting words to me. Will MLB's Pop-Up Bookshops answer that challenge? On Opening Day, anything's possible.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1429.

*Note: This essay appeared in the annual April Fool's Day issue, so no, you won't be finding any MLB Pop-Up Bookshops at ballparks... this year.


At Home with a Bookseller's Books

"Bookshelves up a staircase, a corridor of books joining two rooms, book walls that partition a room, define rooms in open space, a house occupied by books from entrance hall to attic dormer, books hidden behind mirrored doors to preserve the private memory and creative privacy of a writer, books in the bathroom, books stacked on side tables awaiting disposition, piled on bedside tables where people read, propped up by pillows... like children, there is no end to the persistent, lovable, but sometimes intolerable presence of books."
--from At Home with Books: How Booklovers Live with and Care for Their Libraries.

During the past eight months, and for the first time since I was a child, I haven't been surrounded by books at home or at work, after decades spent filling bookshelves with a steady accumulation of volumes new and old. In the apartments and houses where I lived, there were always bookcases in the living room and in my office; and books stacked in little to-be-read piles here and there throughout the rooms.

Before moving to this house last summer, we scouted the premises and imagined how the large, high-ceilinged white rooms, with their wood floors and walls of windows, might complement our book collection. Ultimately, however, we opted to nurture the open space and create a library in the finished basement guest room. That's where our books are now--aisles of them--below the surface of the earth, as if hidden from barbarians.

Near my office desk is a single bookcase, but only the bottom two shelves hold any volumes, mostly reference works and several ARCS just passing through. "Hi. Read me. No? See ya." Others will replace them. As the wise ones say, you never step into the same ARC river twice.

I hadn't really considered how radically my domestic book environment altered until I read a pair of articles this week. The first was Mark Medley's "Confessions of a book hoarder" in the National Post's Afterword blog, where he wrote, "I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten rid of a single book.... I think the severity of my problem finally dawned on me a few weeks ago. After much pleading from my girlfriend, I finally spent an afternoon pruning my book collection. The shelves themselves have long since began to buckle; the weight of the books reshaped them from a sturdy, even plank into a smile, as if they are laughing."

Another perspective surfaced in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, where Nancy Bass Wyden, co-owner of the Strand bookstore in New York City, spoke about the care and feeding of her 2,000-title personal collection. Anyone who has spent time wandering the Strand's vertiginous "18 miles of books" might expect Wyden to say there were no books in her Manhattan home. Instead, we learned that she "allows herself to display 500 books, which include antique leather-bound books from the 1800s and works of contemporary fiction and nonfiction. Ms. Wyden houses the books in a dark-wood, built-in structure with adjustable shelving, which allows her to change up the display."

"A person's library is a reflection of the person's taste and interests," said Wyden, who added that the key to a healthy book collection is constant editing. "If it keeps getting tweaked, what you have is more meaningful. It keeps your library fresh, and you feel more engaged with what's in there."

But I haven't just edited my collection to keep it fresh; I managed to edit a lifelong book environment. I do love my books, but will also admit I have enjoyed not being engulfed in them day and night. Now I can even single out titles as individuals, choosing which ones will occasionally spend some time aboveground before returning to the shelves below.

I suspect that after years of reading and bookselling, writing and editing, I gradually became biblio-nearsighted. I could see row upon row of jacket spines at the bookstore or in my home, but they tended to blur up close.

Basement library as corrective lens.

At the moment, there is one book on my desk. I just made a special trip to find it, carried the volume upstairs and thumbed through its pages, looking for remembered sentences about stairs and books: "The staircase had lost its lower steps during the fire that was set before the soldiers left. She had gone into the library, removed twenty books and nailed them to the floor and then onto each other, in this way rebuilding the two lowest steps."

Soon I'll bring my book downstairs, out of sight again, but never out of mind.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1423.