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'Stop, Look and Listen' to the Past at BEA

When some of us gather in New York next week for BookExpo America, we'll once again discuss the future of reading and its potential effects on books (print and digital), bookstores (chain and indie; online and bricks & mortar), publishers, writers, readers and anyone or anything else connected to our wordy world. We will, for the most part, be anxiously, if politely, asking each other: What's going to happen to us?

It's a natural question, since we live in the future most of the time. Even when we talk about the current nature of things, it's hard not to frame these discussions around what might be coming next and next and next, as we glance warily in all directions like a nervous flock of birds, ready to fly at the least provocation.

And while I enjoy this flight toward the future most of the time, it was the past that caught me by surprise earlier this week as I worked on my BEA schedule and finalized travel arrangements.

Quite by chance, I came across a Boston Globe article about author and naturalist Will Curtis, who "died in his sleep April 18 at his home in Woodstock, Vt., where he had moved with Jane Curtis, his wife and writing partner, in the late 1990s after selling their farm in neighboring Hartland. He was 93, and his health had declined in the past few years."

Who was Will Curtis? If the name seems familiar at all, it's probably because you listened to "The Nature of Things," a daily series about his experiences in and observations of the natural world that aired on Vermont Public Radio and was nationally syndicated during the 1980s and 1990s. Curtis had an on-air voice that informed as well as comforted; he sounded like a man in no particular hurry, attuned to the seasons and his surroundings.

Curtis was also an author. In addition to books co-written with Jane, he collected some of his essays in Will Curtis, and this is the Nature of Things (Countryman Press, 1984) and The Second Nature of Things (Ecco Press, 1992). And he was a bookseller, running Woodstock's Yankee Bookshop during the 1960s. In his preface to The Second Nature of Things, he wrote about the genesis of his radio career:

It was on our dairy farm where my real interest in nature began. Much of my time was spent in the fields plowing, planting, haying, and, in the early spring, in the sugarbush gathering sap buckets. Now and then, I would stop, look, and listen. An amazing series of natural events evolved around me. My evenings were often spent reading magazines and books on nature, trying to learn about what I had seen in the fields and woods during the day.

After our herd of Jersey cattle had been sold, Jane and I found ourselves the owners of a bookstore. The object of a bookstore is, of course, to sell books. To help in this we went on the air with reviews on local radio stations.

I met Will and Jane Curtis in 1992, shortly after The Second Nature of Things was published. That was also my first year as a bookseller at the Northshire Bookstore, and the event marked my shaky debut hosting and introducing an author at a reading.

Will and Jane arrived early and we grabbed a bite to eat at the Quality Restaurant. For some reason, I still remember that he ordered fried chicken. More importantly, I recall how easy it was to work with him; how much less scary the evening turned out to be because of this quiet, intelligent and humble man. I have a copy of the book, which he signed: "To Bob. With deep appreciation. Will"

A writer died last month and I didn't even know it happened. I feel bad about that.

"Persons to whom the woods are unfamiliar suppose that they see a dying year in the autumn woods. But the woods do not share their secrets with just everyone," Curtis once wrote. "They seem particularly to have deceived poets. For autumn in the woods is not a death stage but a change in life-style. It is a change less profound than the sleep which we mammals accept familiarly and therefore without alarm. The emerging naked limbs may be stark to those not in the know. But they are just a yearly exercise in woodland draftsmanship, a sort of black, geometric architecture puncturing the often deep blue sky."

Next week at BEA, we will talk about the future of our industry, but I suspect that occasionally I'll also heed a nature-of-books version of Will Curtis's wise counsel. Surrounded by visions of the future, I will "stop, look and listen" to a valuable past that is represented there as well... if we're paying attention.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1468.


Authors & Readers 'Help a Hurting Community'

"When I was no more than nine years old, a tornado tore right close to my house," wrote Susan Gregg Gilmore--author most recently of The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove--in the opening chapter of her first novel, Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen, which is set in Ringgold, Ga. "I remember yelling at my little sister to run and hide in the basement. 'Martha Ann,' I warned her, 'if that twister hits this town, nobody's even going to notice it's gone.' "

Of course, people do notice and care when tragedy strikes any town. The devastating tornadoes that raked across the South two weeks ago caused major damage in Ringgold, and Gilmore wanted to do something to help. Fortunately, the seeds of an idea had already been sown. She was planning a supper and book talk at her home in Chattanooga, Tenn., to celebrate the paperback release of The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNees, "with one of my favorite indies [FoxTale Book Shoppe, Woodstock, Ga.] coming to sell the books."

Kelly O'Connor McNees (l.) and Susan Gregg Gilmore

Although she had met McNees on Twitter, this would be their first meeting in person. "The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott was one of my favorite reads of 2010," said Gilmore. "I encouraged her to come South and introduce herself to some of the wonderful independent booksellers below the Mason-Dixon Line. I am a big believer in building community to get anything of any importance done--it does seem to take a village to introduce great books to readers." The dinner would be "an evening about building community, about thinking of new ways to introduce readers to great books even while Amazon is building a warehouse in my backyard." In addition, several of her guests were coming from Ringgold, and she hoped that they could brainstorm "about the best way for two authors and a bunch of readers to help a hurting community."

McNees recalled that Gilmore had helped her connect with FoxTale Book Shoppe in February to schedule a mother-daughter tea event for Mother's Day weekend. "My mom and I decided to drive to Georgia from Chicago for the event, passing through Chattanooga. Since Chattanooga does not have an indie, Susan offered to host a book party at her house a few days before the tea. I honestly couldn't believe she was willing to do this for someone she had never met. But I am coming to realize that is just the sort of person Susan is. All the plans seemed to be coming together until about a week before I was supposed to leave, when those devastating tornadoes swept through Tennessee and Georgia. I thought for certain we would cancel the event, but Susan insisted on forging ahead, even though during those first days she had no electricity and couldn't get in touch with some of the guests to make sure they were okay."

Despite all the obstacles, the event last week turned out to be "a wonderful success," Gilmore said. "Kelly and her mother could not have been more gracious. Heck, you'd think they were both from the South." More than 30 people attended, "including most of the members of my beloved Ringgold book club, the Not So Rapid Readers. Amazingly, every member survived the tornadoes with no injury or damage to their property. A few downed trees in the yard, but that was it. I will say that they all seemed to thoroughly enjoy an evening of wine, food and book talk--a bit of normal during a difficult time."

Kelly and Nashville-based blogger Becky Brothers.

What emerged from the discussion was an agreement that "we would band together--members of the Not So Rapid Readers, Chattanooga YA author Allison Foster, Kelly, myself, Rebecca Brothers (a Nashville blogger who started a similar campaign called A Dry Read after last year's devastating floods in Nashville), Ringgold blogger Julie Golden, as well as other members of the Chattanooga and Ringgold communities including Meg Patton and Bonnie Moses--and launch a long-term project to restock the shelves of the Ringgold Middle and High School libraries," Gilmore said. "Both schools were destroyed in the 195-mile-per-hour winds. I personally feel a responsibility to help this community that I love so much. And I am thrilled to report that Crown will be supporting us in this effort."

McNees, who "had seen Ringgold on the national news a few days before and was stunned to see how much damage that town suffered," said the event "gave us a chance to begin a conversation about how we can help Ringgold rebuild its school libraries, and I plan to be part of that effort from afar."

Susan and the Not So Rapid Readers.

She also noted that Gilmore's "community-building approach is an example of one way book lovers are trying to stay connected when they lose a great independent bookstore from their community. Readers and writers want to come together to share the books they love--the gloomy economy doesn't change that fact one bit. It's fantastic when those gatherings can happen in our neighborhood stores, but many book-loving towns have lost their stores. Perhaps we will be seeing more events of this kind in the future. I hope I have the chance to pay the generosity forward down the line back home in Chicago. And the event at FoxTale was a big success, too. The owners even dressed in Victorian costume."

FoxTale Book Shoppe co-owner Ellen Ward agreed, and observed that "one of the joys of being a bookseller is really getting to know authors and their readers, so the Gilmore/McNees event at Susan's lovely home was great fun in all respects. The kind of support between the authors and the enthusiasm for literature evidenced there is what keeps our indie bookstore alive and well in Woodstock. We followed the Chattanooga event with a Louisa May Alcott Tea Party for Kelly at FoxTale, complete with period dress. A lot of work? Of course; but unique events sell books and distinguish us as booksellers with passion, a niche that we embrace wholeheartedly."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1463.


Just an Author Chatting with a Book Club

What do you think is the most complicated part of writing about parents? Was it hard to transition from romance to women's fiction? Do you begin thinking of your next book while still working on your current one? I know two writers--both obsessed with their Amazon numbers--are you? I know publishers are concerned with e-books; as an author, are you worried?

These were some of the questions readers asked Barbara Delinsky, who was the guest on Monday night's live BookMovement Author Chat, talking primarily about her novel Not My Daughter. I liked the range of comments, as well as the genuine curiosity about an author's works and working habits. Host--and BookMovement president--Pauline Hubert had some great questions of her own, and the hour-long discussion covered a lot of ground. Delinsky even shared photos of her office, confessing to fans: "I cleaned it just for you!"

Questions and conversation.

When those of us in the book trade are not reading or writing about books, we're often talking about them. We get spoiled... or jaded, depending on the day and our mood. In a couple of weeks, when we invade Manhattan for BEA, the book noise decibels will spike to measurable levels at the Javits Center. Sometimes I have to remind myself that most readers are not immersed in book talk all day; that one of the primary reasons book groups were born decades ago and have become such an important component of readers' lives--not to mention the publishing industry--is that book people must seek each other out.

At the Books on the Nightstand Readers' Retreat last month, people came from all over the planet to a small Vermont town to meet authors and talk books. On Monday night, a bestselling author spent an hour in live, online conversation with book group members. What they have in common is a love, bordering on obsession, with reading, and we all understand that.

Here's something that occurred to me as I monitored (also known, I realize, as "lurking") the BookMovement chat: What if a small indie bookstore somewhere in the country--a shop that would never have a chance of scheduling a Barbara Delinsky event--had instead taken advantage of BookMovement's webcast and invited all area book groups to an in-store event, with refreshments and, of course, a display of Delinsky's books, creating the opportunity to actively participate in that conversation? I like to think this was happening Monday night, somewhere out there, and will happen again next time. 

BookMovement has also hosted live author chats with Anna Quindlen and Randy Susan Myers, as well as the first one last fall with M.J. Rose, which has been replayed 125,542 times. The next live author chat will be with Ellen Sussman, discussing French Lessons, and is planned for July.

"We've had some wonderful suggestions and responses from book clubs about how they would like to incorporate these chats into their book club plans," said Rose, who also serves as marketing v-p for BookMovement. "Cecilia from the Decatur, Tex., Public Library asked how she could put the chat up on a TV screen so her library could schedule a get-together; Carrie from Berlin, Conn., suggested we set up later chats so readers could participate after work--which we did with Barbara Delinsky; and another e-mail suggested we announce these chats further in advance so book clubs have a chance to make the book their book selection."

BookMovement was started by Pauline Hubert in 2001 and now has more than 29,000 registered book clubs (as of March 2011), representing 290,000 readers. She said she considers herself "an advocate for book clubs and from what they have been telling me, they want to hear from authors they normally don’t get to have a conversation with. It’s one thing to see an interview on television or in print, but it’s quite another thrill to be able to talk about the unspoken challenges of motherhood with Anna Quindlen, as we did when we spoke about her novel Every Last One (and with Barbara Delinsky as well). These chats are a way for clubs to be able to have conversations with these authors, not just sound bites. And so far, the authors have really loved it--as have the clubs. I think we’ve been able to have some insightful conversations that help book clubs get to know the book and the author in a new way."

As indie booksellers find it increasingly difficult to place themselves on author tour itineraries, options like BookMovement's live chats provide an inviting opportunity to play matchmaker between writers and local book group members who would love to ask--as someone did Monday night--questions like: Did you come up with the title for this book before it was written or did it come from its pages? Delinsky's answer turned out to be a revealing glimpse behind the publishing curtain.

"I think as author tours get smaller, these chats are a way for them to be 'virtual,' but still human," Hubert added. "It is a great way to be able to reach out to all corners of the country and talk to this audience."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1458.


A Little Author Love for BOTNS Readers' Retreat

I begin this final column in my series on the Books on the Nightstand Readers' Retreat with a confession. Long, long ago when I was a bookseller (well, about seven years, which is an eternity online), I wrote a blog post that started with a little hyperbole: "Booksellers hate author readings, too." I then explained: "Well, not really--not most of the time, anyway--but so many broad statements continue to be made by writers about the evils of the 'reading thing' that I thought I should weigh in from the host's side. Some of our potential guests seem uneasy about the prospect of facing a room full of people who might be interested in their work. I understand, and I don't."

Such reticence was nowhere in sight at the BOTNS retreat, thanks to the convivial atmosphere Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness fostered. How much fun did the writers have? Maybe I'll just let them tell you:

Chris Bohjalian: "What I found most interesting about Anne and Michael's accomplishment was how thoughtful it was in terms of transcending the traditional book tour model. Instead of expecting authors to be our usual running slime-dogs of literary capitalism--a role that, to be brutally honest, I am plenty comfortable playing--they created an environment in which we were discussing text and tale and what stories can mean to the soul. My two afternoon events were legitimate conversations: They were massive amounts of fun for everybody, and they were revelatory. I know I shared stories I had never offered before."

Susan Gregg Gilmore: "I still smile when I think of that wonderful weekend in Vermont. Friendships were made for sure, and I left more convinced than ever that the future of books must be rooted in community. We really need to model Ann and Michael's example in our own way, in our own neighborhoods. And in the end, hasn't this always been the purpose or the great gift of the reader/writer relationship? Maybe we're just getting back to basics, and that's why that weekend in Vermont just felt so darn good!"

Matthew Dicks: "The BOTNS Retreat was one of those weekends that I will never forget. Expecting to meet a bunch of bookish people from Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, I found myself dining on the first night of the retreat alongside a woman from Australia and a couple from Oregon. What I had always imagined as a podcast with a small, intimate, new England-based audience turns out to be a far-reaching voice for the book-loving world with a diverse and loyal following that might just love books more than me."

Elizabeth Stuckey-French: "I wanted to go to the retreat as a reader as soon as I heard about it, but when invited as an author I was over the moon. It was thrilling to be around so many people who love books, who care deeply about them, and who enjoy talking obsessively about them. As an author, I have never been to a book event that was as uplifting and rewarding as this retreat. I had many moving, personal conversations with readers and writers that I treasure and I made what I hope will be lifetime connections. It was so inspiring to have the privilege of listening to Ann and Michael and the other authors and editors speak. It was like attending a revival meeting and I left feeling uplifted and evangelical. I went back to my fiction writing students at FSU and told them all about it and they said they felt relieved and heartened as well. So much of the news we hear about writing and reading and publishing is negative that it's easy to get all depressed about the literary world. The retreat was the best antidote to the sky-is-falling attitude that I've ever experienced."

Steve Himmer: "To be in the company of both smart, passionate readers and experienced writers I respect (and, in one case, have assigned to my students) was incredible. Humbling and legitimating and deeply, deeply moving at once. In the small press and online literary community where I've worked most, it can be hard sometimes to imagine an audience beyond other writers, or to reach out to that audience. So I appreciated this chance to share my work with readers perhaps unlikely to come across it anywhere else. The diversity of the group, with its broad interests, experiences, and tastes, was a strength of the event, and seems like a rare, wonderful thing in my admittedly limited experience. Though that experience felt much less limited after all I learned from the other attendees."

Jon Clinch: "I've taken part in lots of literary festivals over the years, but this was a different animal. Books on the Nightstand isn't about authors, but about readers. Readers and books. For those of us lucky enough to be invited, it was a chance to be among the folks for whom we struggle to do our best work every day--people who truly and deeply love books. What a treat."

Ellen Meeropol: "As a debut author, my 'authorly' experience is pretty limited, but the BOTNS weekend was unlike any literary event I've ever attended as bookseller, writer or reader. I was astonished and so moved by the level of passion. We were all--Ann and Michael, authors and librarians and booksellers and readers--part of an intense conversation about books and reading and writing and the ways they transform lives. The readers I met, both those who had read my book and those who had not, were simultaneously supportive and thoughtful, generous and incisive. I simply and totally loved it."

John Milliken Thompson: "I loved the crazy buzz of excitement at the cocktail party Saturday night in Northshire Bookstore, and not just because I was no longer nervous about giving my first book talk and people were coming up and asking me to sign bookplates, but because we were all avid book lovers and we were comrades creating something new. Everybody wanted this to be the first of many BOTNS retreats to come. From the panels to the receptions to the Yankee book swaps--everything had a sense of adventure about it, when we were really just book people talking about books. I guess, then, if I had three words to describe the event they would be--spontaneous, convivial, and good."

Wendy Clinch: "The absolute coolest thing you'll ever see with the Internet is when an online community transforms itself into a community of friends in the real world. Michael and Ann have made that happen with Books on the Nightstand, and it's a gift to everyone involved."

Last week I mentioned that during the author celebration Saturday night, Matthew Dicks devoted his time at the podium to encouraging ("inciting" might be a better word) the attendees to write as well as read. I will, as promised, revisit this with him soon because it's an intriguing proposal in a world where we often complain about an excess supply of writers.

And maybe I'll see you at next year's BOTNS Readers' Retreat.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1451.

Photo by Patty Berg


'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.