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Thursday
Aug272009

What Ultimately Saved Publishing

In retrospect, it turned out to be easier than anyone could have imagined.

Historians disagree about the timing, though most acknowledge the key moment occurred when Alain de Botton became writer-in-residence at London's Heathrow Airport in August, 2009, after signing a one-book deal with BAA. An article in the Guardian at the time observed that he was "the latest artistic figure to tread the precarious line between creative independence and commerce."

De Botton, however, insisted on creative control: "One of the first things I said when they offered it to me was that I should be allowed to say what I want to say."

As the prescient Mike Brown, chief operating officer at the airport, observed: "Opening Heathrow to literary critique is a bold and adventurous step for us."

And so it was . . . for all of us.

There are theorists who contend that the true precedent is Fay Weldon's 2001 novel, The Bulgari Connection, sponsored by the Italian jewelry firm "with a requirement in her contract for at least a dozen mentions of its products."

At the time, her agent claimed the "door is open and now the sky is the limit. I've suggested that in her next book she includes a whole string of top companies, Disney, Levis, McDonald's, the lot, and we write to all of them and say Ms. Weldon is including a mention of your fine company in her next book, what do you reckon?'"

It didn't quite work that way. Ultimately, the credit for launching a new era in literary sponsorship must rest squarely on the shoulders of one author, a man for whom de Botton's Heathrow adventure provided the spark that soon became a promotional flame, thanks to some notably unbookish sources of inspiration.

I don't have to remind anyone of this former midlist author's name. He now stands as a commercial icon for our brave new book world. We will call him Mr. R here, due to his status as a trademarked entity, his formidable legal team and the fact that mentioning his name in print now, even with permission, can become a very expensive proposition.

Through unnamed sources, I have recently learned the true backstory of Mr. R's professional genesis, which began on a quiet Saturday afternoon in August, 2009. Relaxing in his home, Mr. R first read about the de Botton deal while catching up on a few days worth of accumulated newspapers and listening to a Yankees-Red Sox game on his radio.

After one of the early pitches, he heard John Sterling, the Yankee's play-by-play announcer, say something that was at once in and decidedly out of context: "Road Runner High Speed from Time Warner Cable; the fastest way round the Internet. That pitch came in at 90 miles an hour." Mr. R had heard the promo dozens of times, but on this day he listened and kept listening.

Occasionally, during commercial breaks, former Yankee manager Joe Torre, who had moved on to the Los Angeles Dodgers after being fired, turned up hawking Bigelow Green Tea on the Yankees radio broadcast.

He considered de Botton again, recalled Fay Weldon and was perhaps in a more receptive mood than usual later that day as he watched the Sharpie 500, a NASCAR race from Bristol, Tennessee.

When it was over, winning driver Kyle Busch emerged from a Toyota Camry that was plastered with logos, including a large decal for his primary sponsor, M&Ms, on the hood. His multi-colored firesuit and baseball cap also sported the M&Ms logo.

"I really gotta thank M&Ms," said Busch, appropriately enough, in the post-race interview, then added "Toyota, Interstate Batteries, everybody at Sprint . . . DIRECTV, Gillette, Marquis Jets." Mr. R paid close attention this time, perhaps because the race was sponsored by Sharpie, a writing implement.

You know the rest. His next book found six sponsors outside the industry, and became his breakout novel, Last Southwest Flight to the Bellagio.

Within five years, writers were mega-stars. Even traditional celebrities--once the financial backbone of the publishing world--couldn't get a book deal. When the reality series, American Yaddo, premiered on ABC in 2011, millions of people--readers and nonreaders alike--tuned in to watch unknown authors spend weeks living and feuding together in a possibly haunted mansion in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., vying for major sponsorships and the chance to be the next great American novelist.

Money was on the writing table at last.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #997

Sunday
Aug232009

Playing the Hunch

Hanging from my key ring is a small pewter book. Raymond Chandler's name is printed on the front cover, along with a classic chalk outline of a body. There's a quotation on the back: "Play the hunch."

The line is from Farewell, My Lovely: "Play the hunch. Play the hunch and get stung. In a little while you wake up with a mouthful of hunches. You can't order a cup of coffee without shutting your eyes and stabbing at the menu. Play the hunch." As Philip Marlowe would tell you in a second--assuming he even gave you the time of day--a hunch ain't no guarantee.

It's complicated. Check the dictionary. You'll find that hunch is "a feeling or guess based on intuition rather than known facts." I think it's more than that. Knowledge, experience and observation all play as big a role as intuition. A good hunch is a highly educated guess, a guess that's earned a Master's degree in rolling the dice.

Two great examples of playing the hunch were introduced this week. If you missed them, I'll clue you in here. I'm not saying they represent the future of publishing. Maybe they do; maybe they don't. Probably, in some small way, they do. And I'm not saying they came into being without planning and foresight. Playing the hunch is all about anticipation, reaction and adaptation--the simplicity and effectiveness, the energy and occasional messiness, of an idea in process.

ABA's IndieBound launched a beta version of Ask Indies, using its network of great booksellers to field questions on anything book-related from, well, anywhere: "Ask Indie Booksellers on Twitter anything you want to know! The #AskIndies hashtag and a link to your book will be added for you automatically."

As Paige Poe, IndieBound's outreach liaison, observed, "Ask Indies really came from booksellers who were looking for ways to use social networks to connect with readers, and make those ways new and interesting. So many booksellers are on Twitter, more of them every day, and Twitter's immediacy fit the idea perfectly. It allows indie booksellers to publicly display exactly what makes them such great curators: their knowledge and expertise. And hopefully it's fun for everyone involved." Poe offers details about the program in Bookselling This Week.

This week's other notable debut was tied to the release of Joseph Finder's novel Vanished. He fielded readers' questions Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday during one-hour sessions of a Twitter Book Tour. The Book Studio's Bethanne Patrick (@thebookmaven, though moderating as @bkpchats) skillfully directed the virtual traffic. She also noted that she is already planning more such events. Finder's discussions are archived under the hashtag #josephfinder.

Adjustments were made after the first session to better facilitate the discussion--a new Twitter account, @thrillers, was created for the author so his regular @JoeFinder followers wouldn't be caught in the rapids of a Twitter Tour conversation stream. React and adapt. During the second session, Finder mentioned that "Facebook and Twitter have helped the launch of Vanished significantly."

What did they talk about on the Twitter Book Tour? Even within 140-character limitations, the questions covered a full range of topics. Here's a sampling, edited into traditional Q&A form:

@MLx: Do you prefer the level of engagement through social networking or at a signing?
@thrillers: I prefer signings in one sense because I like meeting people. But signings I usually get less than a minute to connect w/people, whereas social networking--well, you guys know.

@rng888: I read that you spent part of your childhood in the Philippines. Did that influence your writing?
@thrillers: Yes, spent part of childhood in Philippines. I think total immersion in other cultures made me more open to other languages and ways of life and more fascinated by them.

@Sidney_Williams: What is your plan of attack when you're editing?
@thrillers: My editing plan of attack? I first let it get "cold" and then read it as "innocently" as I can but I start macro first--big stuff. And then refine language/characterization, etc.

Bottom line? I really enjoyed watching these social networking seeds find some air and light this week. Books were sold, which is always a good thing. Neither of the ideas will singlehandedly save the industry, yet each in its own way took a chance and put a new spin on the possibilities.

It's August, as good a time of year as any to play a hunch. "The hunch I had was as vague as the heat waves that danced above the sidewalk," Marlowe says. Play it anyway.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #993.

Saturday
Aug152009

Shelf Talkers--Brevity Is the Soul of Lit

Suddenly, incessantly, "an electric flash of intelligence spreads over the country, carrying the thrill of gratification or of grief."

Your reaction to that line could depend upon your attitude toward, and experience of, the alternate verbal universe known as Twitter. This particular sentence, however, is taken from an article in the August 1873 issue of Harper's magazine and refers to the telegraph.

More recently (yesterday, in fact), USA Today began an article with this Shakespearean twist: "To Twitter. Or not to Twitter. That is the question the publishing world is asking these days."

I don't have the answer, but I'm working on a theory. My research is based primarily on personal experience and observation, with a bit of Darwinism and historical precedent thrown in to create the illusion of rationality.

What I'm suggesting, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, is that booksellers have already mastered the key tool that will propel them into the brave new bookselling world of social media in general and Twitter in particular.

This tool is called the shelf talker.

In my bookselling lifetime, I've witnessed a decline in the influence of long form reviews on readers, but I've seen no diminishment in the power of the shelf talker. And since short and sweet--often acronymic--writing rules the day, this strengthens the position of booksellers, who mastered the art of concise prose a long time ago.

Admittedly I haven't worked out all the details, but I suspect that success in selling bundles containing lots of words (in book or e-book format) will go to those who can make the most convincing argument with the fewest words. A little ironic, I know, but aren't we the poster children for irony?

Think outside the book business for a moment. Whether texting or tweeting, WTFing or LOLing, more and more people are opting for condensed, rapid-fire communication. And that's where Darwin comes into the picture. According to the Harper's article mentioned above, "By the principle which Darwin describes as natural selection short words are gaining the advantage of long words, direct forms of expression are gaining the advantage of the ambiguous, and local idioms are everywhere at a disadvantage. The doctrine of Survival of the Fittest thus tends to the constant improvement and points to the ultimate unification of language."

Now add a dash of historical precedent. As was pointed out recently by Ben Schott in the New York Times, "The 140-character limit of Twitter posts was guided by the 160-character limit established by the developers of SMS. However, there is nothing new about new technology imposing restrictions on articulation. During the late 19th-century telegraphy boom, some carriers charged extra for words longer than 15 characters and for messages longer than 10 words. Thus, the cheapest telegram was often limited to 150 characters."

So, booksellers may have an evolutionary and historical edge over other bookish Twitter scribes? Anyone who has worked in a bookstore that focuses on staff recommend tags knows the awesome power of those modest-looking slips of paper.

Shelf talkers come in all shapes and sizes. Some are handwritten, some typed, some encased in plastic, some laminated. But even if they are just shredded scraps left untended, crumpled and grievously wounded, they still sell books until their last drop of faded ink.

Earlier this year, the folks at Green Apple Books & Music, San Francisco, Calif., ran a great series on their Green Apple Core blog about the power and beauty of that bookshop's unique shelf talkers.

And what is the Indie Next List but shelf-talkers for a national audience?

Booksellers are well prepared to take their shelf-talkability into the Age of Verbal Condensation. Many have already answered the "To Twitter or not to Twitter" question affirmatively. Here's just a tiny sampling: @bookavore, @readandbreathe, @joebfoster, @booknerdnyc, @KatherineBoG, @indierob, @corpuslibris @KarenCorvello, @RichRennicks, @WendyHudson, @kashbk.

Books are being discussed and handsold with intelligence, with passion, with brevity--Twitter as shelf-talker platform.

Ralph Waldo Emerson saw this coming, of course. "I think the habit of writing by telegraph will have a happy effect on all writing by teaching condensation," he wrote in 1866.

And Harper's observed in 1873: "When we consider the immense number of people that every day by writing a telegram and counting the words are taking a most efficient lesson in concise composition, we see in another way the influence of this invention on the strength of language."

Are shelf talkers the next great evolutionary step? Maybe that is the question.--Published in Shelf Awareness, Issue #987.

Saturday
Aug082009

Summertime and the Reading Is Easy

I'm waiting for Variety to report on casting choices for Revenge of the Beach Reads, a futuristic summer movie in which downtrodden booksellers and librarians band together in a secret laboratory under the New York Public Library and train to become muscle-bound BookWarriors (with laser beam reading glasses), seeking vengeance upon alien electronic reading devices that can transform themselves into gigantic killer BiblioBots.

What is it about this season that provokes feverish high-budget action films and endless summer variations on the theme reflected in media headlines like Beach Buddies: Authors Pick Literary Partners for Fun, Sun; Audience Picks: 100 Best Beach Books Ever and Text on the beach--the 50 best summer reads ever?

It's viral, and many of us catch it, but I can offer an alternative prescription. Let's all take a deep breath of warm August air, listen to Frank Morgan's version of "Summertime," and check out some indie booksellers who are sharing their own sweet obsession with summer reads through events, blogs, websites and e-newsletters. It ain't just about putting up an endcap display with shells and fishnets anymore. Here's just a sampling of the many indies that have their reading toes planted firmly in the virtual sand.

Joe Foster of Maria's Bookshop, Durango, and Cathy Langer of Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, talked about "Summer Reading with a Colorado Flavor" on public radio station KCFR.

From the "only in New York" department, McNally Jackson Books held its fourth annual "The Shrinks Are Away" reading and reception, with host Susan Shapiro "gathering fellow writers for a joint reading of work to soothe crazy psyches--because when the therapists go on vacation in August, we turn to literature to cure our neuroses."

Rediscovered Bookshop, Boise, Idaho, recommends the power of being open to unanticipated summer reading possibilities: "For some reason, this summer has not really presented itself with as many awesome books as I anticipated it would, so I've been randomly grabbing books off the shelves to see what I can find. Thinking back on it, some of the greatest books I've ever read I have picked up either on accident, or begrudgingly were forced into my hands. It always makes me think at the end of a really good book that I shouldn't judge books so quickly. So, without much discrimination, here are the books that I've found in the last month that I felt iffy about, but in the end LOVED."

The blog for Skylight Books, Los Angeles, Calif., features great coverage of its Hot Summer Nights events, but I'm particularly impressed with the passionate recommendation of titles published by Archipelago Books, as well as the willingness to share customers with this fine indie publisher: "While you could get all of these books at Skylight Books, where we try to cater to all your independent press needs, what we'd really like to encourage you to do today is to go browse and purchase a few books directly from Archipelago, through their website. It is just a small way to try to help them out in these troubled times."

Both realistic and at one with the season, the Lemuria Books, Jackson, Miss., blog concedes that "summer is almost over, but there are plenty of new books to read during the upcoming 'dog days,' whether beating the heat by the pool, on that last trip to the beach, or from you favorite reading spot at home in the AC!!"

On the website for Prairie Lights Books, Iowa City, Iowa, Paul Ingram looks ahead to some favored titles in the offing: "Wonderful books are coming in the fall. If you'd like to reserve copies when they first arrive, give us a call and we'll save you one."

And what about the hot weather book? I suspect many readers have been asked for their "all-time favorite summer read." I certainly heard the question many times as a bookseller, and I'd love to know your answer.

For a long time, mine has been A Month in the Country, a smart, sweet and bittersweet novel by J. L. Carr. "Summertime! And summertime in my early twenties! And in love!" Tom Birkin--who is not an exclaimer by nature--exclaims. "No, better than that--secretly in love, coddling it up in myself. It's an odd feeling, coming rarely more than once in most of our lifetimes. In books, as often as not, they represent it as a sort of anguish but it wasn't so for me. Later, perhaps, but not then."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #982.

Saturday
Aug012009

To Read 'Everything About Everything'

Where do authors go when they die? Like the rest of us, of course, their mortal remains are placed in coffins or urns. Often, a requisite memorial shrine of their works is erected briefly on retail mourning displays in bookshops. The New York Times or the Guardian runs an obituary summing up an entire lifetime in a single, reductive headline like "bestselling mystery writer" or "Booker prize winner" or "beloved children's author." Their books, in the best of circumstances, outlive them. Tragic, indeed, is an author who outlives his or her words.

Recently the death of two authors affected me, both professionally and personally, for vastly different reasons. The loss of Frank McCourt was certainly the more publicized one. So much has been written about him that I did not plan to add anything to the chorus, but then another author's demise jarred my reader's conscience.

I didn't really know Frank. I bought him a beer once. He ordered a Heineken, which shattered all my illusions about Irish writers. But I was one of those lucky booksellers who happened to read an ARC of Angela's Ashes in the spring of 1996 and knew immediately, after a dozen pages, that I had to do whatever I could to get this writer I'd never heard of to the bookstore for a reading.

I don't know if we were among the first bookshops to put in an event request, but we were lucky enough to be successful. By early fall, as word-of-mouth momentum began to build for the memoir and bestsellerdom loomed, everybody wanted Frank.

On the desk beside my laptop as I write this is a first edition of Angela's Ashes, with an inscription:

4 Dec. 96
For Bob
Frank McCourt
With thanks for your warmth.


Maybe Frank signed everybody's book with the same words, but I don't care. On that cold Vermont night, in the Marsh Tavern at the Equinox Hotel, I introduced him to a couple hundred people who were as enthusiastic as any audience I've ever seen at a reading. The pub atmosphere helped a bit, too.

Moments earlier, as I escorted him through the packed crowd to an improvised podium, people had applauded, shaken his hand and patted him on the back. Frank laughed and said: "I'm not even running for office." Introducing him was like introducing a rock star. I could have said, "qua, qua, qua," and they would still have applauded wildly as soon as I ended with, "Please welcome Frank McCourt."

His reading was perfect. Afterward, he signed for a long line of fans and was an absolute pro, engaging each person in a brief conversation while his hands reached toward me for the next book.

Yesterday I opened a glass-enclosed bookcase in my office where I keep the signed copies of books that I've acquired over the years. I took out Angela's Ashes and flipped through until I found my favorite sentence:

There are bars of Pear's soap and a thick book called Pear's Encyclopedia, which keeps me up day and night because it tells you everything about everything and that's all I want to know.

In 1999, at BookExpo in Los Angeles, I saw Frank again at an author breakfast. He was a star by then, but I will always know that I was one of his first readers.

Like writers, however, readers rest on laurels at their peril. Last weekend, British author Stanley Middleton died. Here was a man who wrote 44 novels, won the Booker prize in 1974, and, according to Philip Davis in the Guardian, "went his own way, diffidently tough, formidably serious and unshowily learned."

Davis noted that in a poem, Middleton "recalls the names of all the long-gone families he knew in the gas-lit Bulwell street where he lived as a child":

They had their moment, these folk,
unearned
Centres of verbal interest. Now
they're dead,
I guess. One family I can't put even
vague
Figures to. I am somewhat equivalent.
Somewhat. A circle of light, a centre of
Talk. My name is loosely attached.
Fifty years hence somebody will pull
me
Out of his head. I am not displeased.


Here's my confession. Until I read the Guardian obit, I'd never heard of Middleton. My remedy has been to order two of his books; my remedy is that I will read him now.

Maybe that is eulogy enough.

Where do authors go when they die? They go, if they're lucky, to their readers.--Published in Shelf Awareness, Issue #977.