"There will always be books. There will always be conversations about books. The way that conversation happens is what will continue to evolve."--Rick Joyce, chief marketing director, Perseus Books Group, speaking at BookExpo America in New York City this week.
BEA is all about the conversations. Some of them occur formally in scheduled meetings, but most just happen naturally as we meet old friends or make new ones. So words always matter here, whether they are air-, print- or digitally-borne. For all of us in this business, the need to talk about books and the book trade ranks a very close second to our collective obsession with reading books.
You already know that.
I'm writing this while still in my New York hotel. The show has just ended. Over the next week, it will be dissected by experts worldwide analyzing the switch to midweek, the change to two floor days and an almost infinite number of other issues. For a few precious moments tonight, however, it's a pleasant blur of fresh memories. Call it BEA afterglow.
I'm still trying to filter the dozens of conversations I had during the past few days, but for now I'll share a first impression I found particularly striking. It has to do with my completely unscientific measurement of tone in the voices of the booksellers I spoke with, ranging from industry veterans like Paul Yamazaki of City Lights Books, San Francisco, Calif.--who is celebrating his 40th year with the store--to Sarah Carr, who opened Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C., with Jamie Fiocco and Land Arnold less than a year ago.
I heard it again and again in quick chats with great booksellers like Roger Doeren of Rainy Day Books, Fairway, Kan.; Neil Strandberg of the Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, Colo.; Susan Novotny of the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, N.Y.; Betsy Burton of the King's English Bookstore, Salt Lake City, Utah; Susan Fox of Red Fox Books, Glens Falls, N.Y., and so many others.
That tone was a distinct blend of curiosity and fighting spirit, reflecting a passion to adapt and innovate rather than merely survive. It sounded good to me.
I was a bookseller during the golden age of whining that began, or at least flourished, during the rise of the chains and Amazon, and has gradually diminished over time as the bookstores that made it through that perilous gauntlet found ways to stay the course. The book business hasn't gotten any easier for indies. Times are tough. Our industry morphs hourly; the future is a bully threatening to punch indie booksellers in the mouth every day and stealing their lunch money.
But I heard something else in their tone of voice here. I heard the sound of booksellers talking primarily about their vision for the future, exploring possibilities, working hard to figure out what diverse pieces of the changing book environment--digital options, community partnerships, in-store POD sales, shop local movements, etc.--they might be able to thread together to make indie bookselling a business with a viable future; to make the bully use his own damn lunch money for a change.
Adaptation and innovation.
At an ABA Day of Education session called "The New Reality: Alternative Bookstore Models," Chris Morrow of the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt., offered the following concise bit of advice about innovation: "Anything you do like this is an experiment and you have to adjust as you go."
I'll write more about that session next week, but the tone of voice filled that room, too. Morrow, Chuck Robinson of Village Books, Bellingham, Wash.; and Carol Horne of the Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, Mass., were saying "This is the kind of stuff we're trying to make our businesses better. These solutions aren't everybody's answer. You'll figure that part out yourself for your bookstore, your community. Don't do what we do. Do what you do best and enhance it with some of the new opportunities available. Standing pat is no longer an option."
Meeting the challenge requires not just a willingness to experiment, but an eagerness to do so; maybe even a downright pleasure in punching the future, bully that it is, right in the nose.
And that's what I heard in the voices, the words, the casual conversations and formal observations of indie booksellers at BEA 2010.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1197.
Let them address you.
The iron in irony rusts if I weep.
It's a matter of words and words matter. As NPM comes to an end, I wondered what poetry publishers and poets were thinking. Since I couldn't ask all of them, I opted for one of each.
"National Poetry Month is a great idea (thank you Academy of American Poets) and many good things are done to support it, but I can’t really say we’ve seen a significant growth in our sales of poetry books during April. We’ll sell more poetry books when more people are reading poetry books," observed Tom Lavoie, director of marketing and sales at the University of Arkansas Press, which was founded in 1980 and this year launched the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize, named for its first director.
Lavoie acknowledged that a relatively small group of poets--Billy Collins and Mary Oliver, for example--have a substantial readership, but "as we know, the 'general' audience for poetry is still small. Why don’t more people read poetry; why isn't the audience for poetry larger? Eternal questions and the same old answers. Poor teaching of poetry in schools really does impact future readership. Also, there are a number of poets whose work is just too difficult for 'general readers.' This is why poets like Collins and Oliver appeal to a wide audience; their work 'invites' any reader into the piece to share that poetic experience. And because of this, they also have the greater opportunities to continue to build upon this audience. Performance helps too. More poets who can 'touch' readers with a strong voice, enthusiasm for the poem, a presentation that engages, and poems that people can grasp, understand, and enjoy can help expand the audience. Where are today’s Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, and Edna St. Vincent Millay? And there is a cultural element. I’ve read about huge audiences for poets in foreign countries; go into almost any Irish pub and there will be a number of patrons who can recite a Yeats poem on the spot."
What can poets do to shift that momentum a bit more in their favor? "The most important things a poet can do to help get sales and publicity for their book are to do readings, contribute to blogs and websites and network," Lavoie suggested. "We can’t do everything, so we really appreciate a poet who is 'out there' connecting. We always see a clear distinction in sales between the poets who do this and those who tend to be reclusive and 'quiet.' The press has a very nice blog and we post all kinds of publicity material we get from our poets. Video trailers can also be a great way to publicize a collection and we’re seeing more authors doing this. Shelf Awareness put up Terese Svoboda’s trailer for her Weapons Grade collection, which we published last year. Publishing a book should be an active partnership between the press and the author, and we welcome their involvement."
Svoboda agreed, citing "a great editor, more input regarding the cover and big enthusiasm" as benefits of working with a small publisher. She also noted that to get the word out about their work, poets must do "everything possible. Big presses, small presses--it's all about publicity. A small press may have a devoted following which can be counted on to spread the word, something that is harder for a big press to cultivate. To some extent, the Internet has leveled the marketing for both sized presses, but there will always be hierarchies of blogs, twitters, reviews. A friend of mine offered to do a reading in the nude for his first book."
When asked about poetry readers, Svoboda replied, "Poetry audiences know to look for releases from small/university presses. It's a small group but passionate. I would say they're like the protectors of endangered species, but poetry will never be endangered. When I was a producer in a TV series about poetry and talking it up, I discovered that passion everywhere. The cabbie who picked me up kept a sheaf of poems in his glove box; the grandmother of the director owned a first edition of Whitman; my therapist revealed a whole bookshelf of poetry beside his textbooks. Poetry is natural to the condition of being human."
Among her audience she numbers "readers against war, pro-female readers, readers who don't mind exploring sex, death, and the stealthily placed pun."
I'm reading Weapons Grade now. I'll read it again this weekend. And I think I'll celebrate the end of National Poetry Month with a pledge to write about poetry later this year in a month that isn't April.--published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1175.