You already know about the current book pricing conflict that Amazon, Wal-Mart, Target and Sears are engaged in; a price war that probably won't end all price wars, and their own version of the old state fair Wall of Death motorcycle stunt, where two or three bikes whizzed around a cylinder, "defying gravity and the Grim Reaper!"
Titling this column the "Shame List" might reasonably cause you to think I'll be writing about those 10 inevitably hot--but now literally almost price-less--upcoming titles that have quickly become linked on a new list of their own (call it what you choose), defying retail gravity.
But I'm not writing about them. I bring up the Shame List only because it is an old, venerable independent bookseller creation that I am preemptively saving from potential misuse.
I recently heard the concept mentioned during a seminar at the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association trade show in Cleveland. "The Art & Science of Buying & Selling Backlist" featured Michael Boggs of Carmichael's Bookstore, Louisville, Ky., Sue Boucher of Lake Forest Bookstore, Lake Forest, Ill. and Melissa Weisberg of Macmillan. The moderator was Anne Storan of Paragraphs Bookstore, Mt. Vernon, Ohio.
"Backlist used to be defined by publishers," said Boggs. "Now backlist is much more what you define backlist to be for yourself. Special offers aside, backlist is the books you want to have most of the time."
I was a backlist buyer for many years, so I was intrigued by the insights about a process that I already knew was, as the title suggests, on the thin borderline between the artistic and scientific. The Shame List offers the best of both worlds.
More specifically, the Shame List includes those backlist books every bookstore would be "embarrassed" and even "mortified" not to have in stock when a customer asks for them. Boucher brought up the term while discussing titles that may not turn regularly but are essential to any bookshop's credibility--books, as she put it, that "I'd hate not to have," the ones for which she has to ask herself the question: "How important is this book to me as a bookseller?"
Boucher observed that, when pulling returns, a report was never a sufficient guide for her. "I have to go through the sections myself. I know what the embarrassment factor is."
There are, of course, obvious choices for the Shame List, like Great Expectations or The Age of Innocence. Where it gets tricky is moving down an author's bibliography. Is Dombey and Son on the Shame List? Perhaps not. What about The House of Mirth? Probably. Ethan Frome? Maybe; maybe not. And, depending on where your bookstore is located, regional books can often be Shame Listers, as are books by midlist authors who happen to live in your area, whether or not their titles sell. It's only polite, after all.
What intrigues me beyond these categories, however, is the personal Shame List every bookseller develops over time; those books, for example, that you instinctively handsell in a conversation without even doublechecking the shelf to see if the title is on hand. You assume--sometimes at your peril if you aren't the buyer for that section--that it will be nestled in the stacks, waiting for you to pluck it free and place in the grasp of its next reader.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I had to consider my own Shame List and came up with just a few key titles that I recall having often handsold "sight unseen":
- Ursula, Under by Ingrid Hill
- Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker
- The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram
- The Unknown Masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac
- Train by Pete Dexter
Years ago (I looked it up, in fact, and the year was 2001), Slate ran a piece, "The Literary Critic's Shelf of Shame," in which book critics and literary journalists played "Humiliations," a parlor game from David Lodge's Changing Places "in which participants confess, one by one, titles of books they've never read."
There are no comparable humiliations on a bookseller's Shame List. It's what keeps us in the game.
I would love to hear what titles are on your personal Shame List. In particular, I'd like to hear from frontline booksellers who may not have direct control over backlist ordering, but run herd on their buyers to make sure key titles are always on the shelves.
Factoring in the passion and dedication of indie booksellers for handselling backlist gems, shame can be a good thing indeed. So, what's on your list?--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1037