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Saturday
Mar202010

Future Saving Time

"For the foreseeable future, I expect--like most of us--to be running late."--James Greer, Discover magazine.

Changing our clocks last weekend was just a start. Daylight Saving Time is dial-up. We need Future Saving Time. If we're going to keep pace with the light-speed nature of the book business, we have to sync with the future and move the clocks forward every week, every day, every hour, every minute.

Future Saving Time is not so much a proposal as an acceptance of reality. In recent years, many of us have participated in conference and trade show panels that addressed the "future" of the book, of publishing and of bookselling. We will continue to do so, but what we're really discussing isn't the future anymore. It's the present or at least the "immediate" future.
 
Time,--present, past and future--caught up with me last week. Maybe it happened while I was madly following Twitter updates from the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Tex., through hashtags #sxswi and #futurebooks.

Publishing apparently edged a wee bit closer to the future at this year's event. In an L.A. Times Jacket Copy blog post shortly after SWSXi, Peter Miller wrote: "Flying back to New York from Texas, it dawned on me that devotees of SXSWi never hated publishing or wanted us to roll over and die: They just wanted us to repurpose. This past weekend several publishing experts suggested how that repurposing might look. While last year's future of publishing panel met with hostility, this year the response was generally civil--a major improvement."

Or perhaps the time flux hit me while I stared at rain-delayed Metro North train schedules in New York's Grand Central Terminal Saturday morning. Trains are all about the future, except when they're not. I observed the future slow and then stop for a while.

Or maybe it snuck up on me Saturday night when I had to decide which of my household clocks should be physically changed (stove, radio) and which ones would take care of themselves (computers, iPod, BlackBerry).

Probably it was all of the above. I kept thinking how archaic the word future seems to be and wondered if I'll soon be writing about conference panels on "The Present of the Book," "The Future of the Book Now" or "The Future of the Book Next Week."

"We are moving from a society desirous of instant gratification to a society of instant anticipation," wrote James Greer in that prescient (in that it was written two years ago, which now qualifies as the distant past) Discover piece quoted above. "We no longer want things that can be delivered immediately; we want to move the future forward, toward us, so that the future is no longer a frame of reference for measuring time but a kind of extended present.

"The very notion of 'on time' has been replaced by the notion of 'in sync.' Everyone, everywhere, seems to be ceaselessly scanning RSS feeds or TiVoing their favorite programs so as not to be left behind, or iSyncing their iCalendar with everyone in their iCompany so that everyone always knows where iYou are, sometimes before you do."

The future is so yesterday.

Fortunately, I was rescued from my temporary time crisis by an e-newsletter from Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, Ariz. Gayle Shanks wrote that there are "just too many books, too many loads of laundry, too many e-mails to answer, and not enough time in the day. You all experience this every day as well. Our lives have sped up to what sometimes feels like an unlivable pace. That said, I have taken time to notice that the days are lengthening, that my late ripening oranges are perfect for eating now, that the rains in the past few months have greened the deserts and the sunrises and sunsets that I have managed to see have been spectacular. Oh, to be able to slow down and see the sun each day as it sets and the moon as it rises; to feel like I have time for long conversations with friends. But, I am going to have these things in my life. I am. I am...."

Taking time. Sunup, sundown. That's another concept of the future worth considering.

We are in a process. Despite my suggestion at the beginning of this column, I haven't found the secret to Future Saving Time. I suspect that for most of us the answer lies somewhere between SXSWi Twitter feeds and Gayle's orange trees, even if the clock is ticking--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue#1142

Sunday
Mar142010

An Irish Indie St. Patrick's Day

Next Wednesday, I'll not be wearing the green. My heritage is a bit too mongrelized--equal thirds English, Irish and Scottish. Still, I've read the requisite Irish literature and more than a few nonrequisite titles. I've eaten my share of soda bread, and even downed a few pints of green beer against my better judgment.

So what's a not-Irish-enough bookseller-turned-editor do for St. Patrick's Day when he can no longer build Irish-themed book displays? What I found myself doing this week was reading the Irish Times, beginning with an article Monday about the "doomsday book scenario" booksellers there currently face.

"When the news that Hughes & Hughes was going into receivership broke, the sense of dismay among book people was palpable," Conor Pope wrote. "Countless other businesses have gone under during the course of this recession but the closure of a bookshop appeared to elicit an emotional response which was lacking when other retailers shut up shop."

Alan Hayes, president of Publishing Ireland, observed, "Books are in our blood, and this closure will, I fear, have a knock-on effect on our whole industry" and noted that "fewer Irish-owned bookshops will mean less shelf space for locally produced books which may see indigenous publishers driven out of business."

Okay, maybe this is not turning out to be a Happy St. Patrick's Day column, but it will have its moments, I promise. Beginning now:

A little sun broke through the clouds when Pope suggested, "Given this tough environment, only a brave man or a fool would be willing to enter the book trade. Step up to the plate, then, Bob Johnston. A former Hughes & Hughes buyer, Johnston opened his Gutter Bookshop in Dublin's Temple Bar last November and he is the first to admit it was a 'mad and crazy' move."

And author Charlie Connelly added, "It is always sad to see bookshops go and always sad to see them taken over by bigger chains. It is very easy to buy stuff on Amazon--you just push a button and it arrives at your door--but I think that people who hold the independent bookshops dear are going to have to come up with the readies. The reading public are going to have to do more if they want independent bookshops to survive. I wonder how many of these people who expressed sadness about Hughes & Hughes closing have actually spent any money there in recent years?"

He also suggested that writers "are going to have to start supporting our local bookshops by doing more events and holding more readings. Depending on book reviews and promotions to sell books is not going to be enough."

Last Saturday in the Irish Times, Shane Hegarty asked the unsettling question: "Is closing a bookshop akin to knocking down a unicorn?" Acknowledging that times are tough all over, Hegarty wrote, "Why should Ireland be so special that it can afford several book chains when the U.K. now has only one? Is it enough that we still buy a lot of books (15 million last year) and that we consider ourselves to be pretty decent at writing them too?... But the unthinkable is already happening--in how books are bought, published and read. Ten years ago, few would have guessed how much music would soon be bought without there being a physical purchase involved. But people still love music. Ten years from now, the books trade will have changed, perhaps as radically. But it will not be the end of reading. That is the only truly unimaginable thing."

All, however, is never--or seldom--lost. In an Irish Times interview, Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies, talked about the book trade from a writer's perspective: "Jay-Z was talking about music downloading, and is music downloading killing the industry, and he said one effect of the music downloading boom is that only people who are really, really committed to music will actually stay in it. People who aren't in it to make money will be the folks who stick it out and find some way to make it work. So maybe it's not entirely a bad thing that there's so little money in writing because it means that the folks who do it are the folks who are committed to it."

Sounds like a lot of booksellers I know. Happy Indie St. Patrick's Day--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1136.

Saturday
Mar062010

The Hare & the Tortoise vs. the Cyborgs

What if the hare and the tortoise, having resolved Aesop's Relative Speed Conundrum centuries ago, had to join forces to battle an army of evil cyborgs that were consuming our time, literally and figuratively?

Did someone say literary mash-up? Wait, I'd better text my agent!

Here's a question I hope will start a new book trade conversation here: When considering your relationship with electronic devices, social media and other online tools, are you a hare (up to speed but still losing the race), a tortoise (in the race, but taking it one step--and one device--at a time) or a fully armed cyborg (earbuds plugged in, laptop engaged, iPhone/Blackberry at hand)?

In recent months, I've noticed several articles on the Slow Media Movement and thought it worth discussing, especially in an industry like ours where many of us move seamlessly (more or less) from desktops to laptops to smartphones throughout the day and often well into the night. And where the now thoroughly virtual line between personal and professional life appears to have dissolved.

Last November, APR's Marketplace program featured a segment that defined the Slow Media trend this way: "Kinda like slow food, but without the food. Slowies write letters, and, you know, talk to each other, offline. They like to do one thing at a time."

Jenny Rausch, one of the Slowies interviewed, has a blog called "Slow Media: A compendium of artifacts and discourses regarding digital disenchantment and the possibilities for a less-mediated life." This week she wrote in response to a recent New York Times article about the increased time pressures and workloads placed on many contemporary workers.

"Would your life be better if you only worked 40 hours a week?" Rausch asked. "If your work didn't follow you home, and wherever you go? If you enjoyed time spent with friends and family without distraction? If you got extra compensation for extra work, or reclaimed those surplus hours for moonlighting at another (paid) job?"

Slow Media isn't the same as no-media. Slow Media even has a Facebook page.

The tortoise and the hare are still in the race, but now so is the cyborg, and even "the fox yonder," who was recruited to umpire Aesop's classic competition, may not be qualified or sharp-eyed enough to declare the winner of a contest with a digitally altered finish line.

Carl Honore praised Slow Thinking in the Huffington Post last fall, noting that even Google "understands the need to step off the spinning hamster wheel in the workplace. The company famously encourages its staff to devote 20% of their time to personal projects. That does not mean brushing up on World of Warcraft or updating Facebook pages or flirting with that hot new manager in Accounts. It means getting the creative juices flowing by stopping the usual barrage of targets, deadlines and distractions."
   
It seems appropriate in an Aesop's Fables–inspired column that Honore concludes: "The moral of the story is that, even in the high-speed modern world, slowness and creativity go hand in hand."

The New Yorker's George Packer recalled the debut of William F. Buckley's National Review, "whose original mission statement, back in 1955, declared that the magazine 'stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.'"

While dragging his feet a bit in the virtual sand, Packer does concede that he may have get a Blackberry at some point or he "won’t be taken seriously as a Washington journalist and phone calls from my retrograde Samsung cell phone will go unanswered. On Amtrak between New York and Washington I sit in the Quiet Car with my phone off, laptop stowed, completely unreachable, and find out if I’m still capable of reading for two hours."

Near the end of Don DeLillo's Point Omega, a woman and a man study Douglas Gordon's video installation "24 Hour Psycho," which projects the Hitchcock classic film on a translucent screen and slows it down to the duration of a full day.

"She told him she was standing a million miles outside the fact of whatever's happening on the screen," DeLillo writes. "She liked that. She told him she liked the idea of slowness in general. So many things go fast, she said. We need time to lose interest in things."

So here again is your literary mash-up question: In your work and life, are you a hare, a tortoise or a cyborg? Embarrassing personal anecdotes always welcome.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1130.

Sunday
Feb282010

Launching Flyleaf Books, Part 2

In last week's column, Jamie Fiocco shared some of her early impressions as co-owner of three-month-old Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C. This time we'll hear from her partners in business and bookselling, Sarah Carr and Land Arnold.

Describing her experience since the bookshop's November opening, Sarah asked, "Can I say roller coaster? It has certainly had its highs and lows. Opening, the holiday rush, our grand opening event, were all fantastically exciting and invigorating. Temper that with occasional bouts of terror. I've been a small business owner previously, so I am not surprised at the amount of time and energy it takes to tackle the 'business' end of things, i.e., accounting, but thanks to Jamie all of that is going smoothly."

The word community gets a lot of attention in the bookselling world, and all three owners embrace the concept enthusiastically.

"I cannot say enough about the community support we've received," Sarah noted. "Customers have literally grabbed my hand to thank us for opening an independent bookstore. What this really says to me is that independent bookstores can really be considered to be part of a good civic infrastructure, just as libraries are. Local media were also very instrumental in spreading the early word and have continued to do stories on us. Industry support has been strong. Our sales reps were key to our opening on time with the stock we needed."

Land added that "word-of-mouth has been our best advertising--from friends and family, of course, but also from book lovers in the community. Friends tell friends, neighbors tell neighbors--a local hair stylist wanted some bookmarks to let some of her clients know about us. Social networking exists outside of the internet."

Under the category of "best laid plans," I asked whether the size of certain category sections in the bookshop had to be adjusted as they transitioned from the conception stage to the daily reality of customer demands.
 
"After placing our initial orders, I was a little worried that I focused too much on the kind of books I like," Land observed, "too much literary fiction, too many books in translation, too many cool covers. But they’ve been selling, those midlist authors on their fifth book who have never got a sniff at the bestseller list, but deserve to be read. But that’s our niche, giving Padgett Powell as much or more shelf space as Stephen King."

There were "no huge surprises, but still pleasant ones," Jamie added, "big demand for poetry, Spanish-language literature, cooking (this section was already big), eastern philosophy and used books in general."
 
As children's department buyer, Sarah hasn't made any section adjustments yet, since "it's playing out pretty much as I expected, but with a bump in interest in bilingual books and perhaps less of a YA audience than I had hoped for."

Appropriately enough, the books lining Flyleaf's shelves were cited by Sarah as her most pleasant surprise thus far: "From my viewpoint, I am extremely proud of our inventory selection. All three of us literally hand-picked almost everything in the store and we really never were caught short or lacking in too much. I was very pleased to have most of what our customers were looking for and have gotten very positive feedback on what a great selection we have."

Land gave high marks to "our patient and knowledgeable staff, especially our first two hires, Anna and Mike. It’s hard to open a store; it must be excruciating to watch it happen. They aren’t yet seasoned booksellers, but they are eager, intelligent and personable and know about a lot of things I don’t. What more can you ask?"

Having attended ABA's Winter Institute earlier in the month for the first time as an owner, he recalled that the "biggest difference was that this time I looked around at all the veteran bookstore owners and asked myself a few questions: How do I get our store as iconic as theirs? Is it still possible? What innovative ways are they facing the future? What am I bringing to the table?"

In summing up Flyleaf's brief history, Land's personal reaction may be representative of his colleagues' impressions as well: "I’m pretty dense at times, so it takes some time for reality to impress upon me. It happened in stages. When I first saw our cash wrap half-finished in a wood shop nearby, my heart leapt. When our logo was finalized, my heart leapt again. After the carpet and paint and bookshelves were installed, I had another moment. But not until a late night after one of our first days, when I walked through the dark store, with some books finally on the shelves, did all the elements come together to make me realize what I had had a part in creating."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1125.

Sunday
Feb212010

Flyleaf Books at the Beginning of Its Story

I met Jamie Fiocco, Sarah Carr and Land Arnold last September at SIBA's trade show in Greenville, S.C. In a column I wrote after the SIBA show, I said I'd been immediately impressed by their collective knowledge and passion as booksellers, as well as their undeniable courage as business people. Their new bookstore, Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, N.C., had its soft opening in November and a successful grand opening January 9.

Now that the bookshop is three months old--and with so many news stories appearing about bookstores on their last legs--it seemed like a good time to explore an indie that is on its first legs. Every bookstore is a story, and this one just hit the "Once upon a time" stage. For the next couple of weeks, the Flyleaf crew will share some early impressions of their new lives as bookstore owners. Jamie got the conversation started.

When Flyleaf Books hosted its grand opening, they had anticipated a crowd of about 150 people. "I got 125 wine glasses, thinking we’d have extras, and we had 350 show up," Jamie recalled, noting that community support "has been very, very good. I’ve bumped into folks in town talking about the store; folks walk in the door every day and immediately thank us for being brave enough to open an independent bookstore in town. We were overwhelmed with how many folks didn’t hesitate to become Flyleaf members or to buy gift certificates from us for their holiday gifts. Industry support has been equally positive. The reps and publishers made everything from their end move very easily. The other folks in the industry--media, vendors--were very supportive as well. I think with all the shifting going on in the publishing world folks were happy to have a positive project to be excited about."

After years as a frontline bookseller, being an owner has been "exhilarating and exhausting," Jamie observed. "It’s a beautiful thing to be able to talk to customers and to explain to them why the store is a certain way, or why we carry a certain book or type of book (or don’t carry them). It’s a whole new crowd of folks to introduce to all your favorite books and authors. And, on a different note, it’s nice having veto power in my back pocket, meaning I (we) have the ability to say 'no' when dealing with a customer, vendor or a self-published author who is being unreasonable. There have been a few times where someone was pushing an idea that didn’t dovetail with the store’s goals and it was nice to be able to tell them nicely that I just wasn’t interested."

I wondered if there was an aspect of the bookstore that they were uncertain about before opening, but have found exceeded expectations. She cited Flyleaf's events space: "We have a 1600-square-foot dedicated events space that we are using for readings. It’s the old aerobics/yoga room from the gym that used to be in this space, so the acoustics are great and there’s a beautiful wooden floor. We’ve been taken by surprise at how many community groups want to use the space for meetings, musical groups that want to use the space for performance, and all sorts of literary groups--writing classes, open mics, poetry slams--that need a space to meet regularly. We have had to develop rules about who can use the space; first priority to author events, then other events with a book tie-in. We’ve even developed a fee schedule for non-literary groups to rent the space when we don’t need it otherwise. We had a Phase Two in mind for the events room, and we’ve already moved ahead with part of that in installing a really nice AV projector and screen so we can accommodate DVD presentations and films in the room."
 
And what's personal life been like for the new bookstore owners? "I’ve had to almost completely abandon the notion of life outside the bookstore; since Sept 2 it’s been nonstop," Jamie admitted. "We’ve been open for 90 days now and we’re finally at the point where Land and I have discussed having regular days off. We don’t know when those days are yet, but we’ve been able to take a few here and there. We’ve got an employee who is able to close for us on weekends. Sarah’s been the rock; she opens the store 9 a.m. Monday through Friday and works into the early afternoon so Land and I can sleep in a bit. My husband has been very understanding; we talked about it before we started this project and decided two years of chaos was a fair price. Land and I have gotten pretty good at simply telling the other to go home and get some sleep. I absolutely cannot imagine doing this alone."

More from the Flyleaf Books crew next week.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1120.