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Friday
May282010

BEA Conversations & Words that Matter

"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.

Tuesday
May252010

'Step Right Up, Folks' for BEA in NYC

BEA isn't a carnival because it doesn't travel the New York to L.A. to Chicago to D.C. circuit anymore. It's not an amusement park because it has a theme. Maybe it could be considered a theme park, but its credentials there are questionable given that the book show spreads its biblio-wings over a city that will barely know it's in town, what with General David Petraeus visiting the USS Intrepid museum just up the street during Fleet Week and the zillion other sideshows that make New York itself the theme park that never sleeps.

BEA does offer some carnival diversions for our bookish crowd, however, though while social media and digital publishing may be speeding up some of the industry's rides, the book world still feels a bit closer in velocity to Carsten Höller's unsettling "Amusement Park," which I saw at MassMoca four years ago.

Describing an art installation in which refurbished classic rides moved at barely discernible speed, museum director Joseph Thompson said the "amusement park--already a site of physiological and psychological confusion, unease, and ineffable strangeness--gets further refracted and warped in Carsten's hands. Although this work is experienced through sight and sound, our staff has been surprised how visceral and physical the effect can be. Your body enters a space of shifting times and places, and your mind follows. Amusement parks have a dark underbelly, which this work embraces. Though foreboding for some, the experience is otherwordly, pleasantly disorienting, and profoundly theatrical."

Sounds like a trade show to me. So welcome in advance to BEA 2010, which will have its own unique brand of attractions and distractions as you move at speeds as fast or as slow as you can handle. What's in store for you?

Don't miss the greatest of all book-themed thrill rides, one that catapults you at unnerving velocity through dark, haunted, rat-infested tunnels. Step onto almost any subway car and you will see more readers than at your average author reading. John Wray even used this ride as a venue for promoting his novel Lowboy. For the less adventurous, official trade show shuttle buses proceed crosstown at the genteel pace of a kiddie ride.

On the midway at the Javits Center, you will see:

Clowns dressed as your favorite children's book characters. They pose for photo ops with adults the way Mickey Mouse stands with kids at Disney World. Well, to be honest, you also see clowns dressed as all manner of unrecognizable book characters, but you'll have to sort them out for yourself.

At BEA, fortune tellers unceasingly predict the future during education panels, in casual conversations on the midway and over drinks late into the evening. Scratch the surface of any of us and you will uncover a literary soothsayer.

Barkers and pitchmen (pitchpersons?) call for your attention as you slalom through the crowded aisles. They want you to meet authors who are signing new books in their booths "right now!" Step right up. Everybody's a winner. You, sir; you look like a man who loves books about (fill in the blank).

Food queues. You wait in long lines for coffee in the morning, vacuum-sealed sandwiches at lunch and more coffee during the long afternoon. But where's the fried bread dough and cotton candy?

In addition to the hundreds of authors at Javits, you never know whom you'll run into on the streets of New York. Even dead writers can have their day, as Improv Everywhere proved with their "Meet Anton Chekov" event a couple of years ago.

Unfortunately, you won't see the Hudson River water slide any longer. It's been closed down for safety reasons since US Airways Captain Sully Sullenberger gave it one hell of a run in 2009. He did get a sweet book deal as a prize, though.

You say you want magic? It's everywhere in New York and you are the magician. You can even make a yellow cab appear out of thin air just by waving your raised hand over empty pavement.

I promised myself that I would not invoke P.T Barnum's "There's a sucker born every minute," which he never said anyway. And I have resisted the temptation to compare the hundreds of thousands of books published every year to a midway sucker's bet on rigged games like balloon darts, break-a-plate or bottleneck ring toss.

Guess a number from one to a million titles and win a stuffed children's book character?
   
Instead, I'm just happy that the show will go on next week once again, and I can't wait to be there. So step right up, folks, safe travels and see you on the BEA midway.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1192.

Sunday
May162010

Read any Good Stories Lately?

May is Short Story Month. As a writer and reader, my love for the short story has been a long-term commitment. I am not the only bookseller, however, who has found that devotion tested on a regular basis by customers on the sales floor.

How long is a short story?

This was one of the first questions I was asked during the late 1990s when I led a six-session discussion group on reading short stories. It was a good question. I wouldn't say we answered it during our time together, but our exploration yielded hints of how great, if not how long, a short story could be. And the group offered me a chance to talk and listen to gifted readers who were also customers of the bookstore where I worked.

We began with resistance to the call of the story. Many group members had taken part at one time or another in a variation of the following conversation on the bookshop's sales floor:

Me: I think you might like Robert Olen Butler's A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. [Stage directions: Show customer book. Mention Pulitzer Prize. Use secret, irresistible handselling techniques.]
Customer: It says stories; I don't read stories. When I read a book, I want to be completely involved with the characters and let them take me away. Stories end too soon.
Me: Not if they're good stories.


They were still willing to show up, however, and our subsequent readings and conversations may even have changed--or tempered--a few of their objections to the form.

Strangely enough, the book I used for the discussion group--You've Got to Read This: Contemporary American Writers Introduce Stories that Held Them in Awe, edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard--became a handselling favorite at the bookstore, selling more than 400 copies before it went out of print.

Butler's collection always sold well, too; as did another Pulitzer winner, Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. A few less publicized collections moved occasionally when a bookseller found the magic words to make a particular title beguiling. It didn't happen enough.

I noticed recently that the current edition of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain no longer includes the word "stories" next to the title on its cover. The original edition did. Here's a confession: When asked, I have often advised authors and publishers to resist the temptation to add "stories" (or worse, "a novel in linked stories") to book jackets because it is such a conversation stopper on the sales floor.

I love good short stories because I love good writing. I'm reading two collections now, and in the car last weekend I listened to Alec Baldwin read Steven Millhauser's "The Dome" (from Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories) on Selected Shorts. It became one of those classic NPR driveway moments.

I even love reading about short story renaissances. I was intrigued by a recent Reuters article (via PC Magazine) about Ether Books, which offers "a catalog of short stories, essays and poetry initially via Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch, by authors including Alexander McCall-Smith and Louis de Bernieres."

"The tech press may be slavering over the iPad, Kindle and Sony eReader as traditional publishers leap over themselves to expand their e-book offerings," Maureen Scott, digital director for the company, told Reuters. "But at Ether Books we've made the decision to go straight to distributing short works via our iPhone app to devices people already own, are familiar with and are happy to use when they have 10-15 minutes to spare."

You often hear the argument that short stories should be more popular now than ever because of the limitations on our reading time. It sounds so logical for something that never seems to come true.

Another Short Story Month is in gear and I keep thinking of questions.

Do writers care more about short stories than non-writing readers do?

And this question from Hansen and Shepard in their anthology's introduction:

Wouldn't it be great, we thought, if there were an anthology based upon the stories that other writers feel passionate about?

It was great. And it was even greater still that talented readers among our customers discovered that passion, too, but I wonder what story collection, if any, they read next.

What is a short story?

"Short stories are fierce, tight, imploding universes where every word matters," said Colum McCann in the National Post.

I like that. So, happy Short Story Month. And one last question: What's your favorite short story collection?

--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1187.

Saturday
May082010

BookExpo 2010: Woooooooo-hooooooo!

In the annals of great opening lines, I reserve a place of honor for Ali Smith's novel Hotel World, which begins with the frenzied description of a chambermaid's fatal plunge down a dumbwaiter shaft:

Woooooooo-hooooooo what a fall what a soar what a plummet what a dash into dark into light what a plunge what a glide thud crash what a drop what a rush what a swoop what a fright what a mad hushed skirl what a smash mush mash-up broke and gashed what a heart in my mouth what an end.


On bad days, the book business can feel that way. Maybe on good days, too. As the countdown to BookExpo America 2010 continues, focus inevitably turns to the future of the book trade. Not that this isn't a daily obsession for most of us, but something about the gathering of the clan engenders heightened awareness, stoked by ABA's Day of Education and the 'Big Ideas at BEA' Conference, as well as serial conversations everywhere we turn during the convention.

I'll be on the lookout for indie booksellers at BEA. I used to be one of them. No, in many ways I'm still one of them. Former booksellers just don't fade away.

In fact, a couple months ago, someone pointed out this customer's post on the Northshire Bookstore's Facebook page: "The first time I ever read a book recommended by a stranger was when I saw 'Bob's' review of The English Patient on one of your blue index cards. This was before the movie came out and before I'd ever heard of the book. To this day I have no idea who Bob is, but I bought the book on the spot, and have read it three times with great affection, admiration, and love. It's almost time for me to read it again. Thank you, Bob, wherever you are!"

Well, here I am, though I like the fact that she didn't know me and associated her experience with the Northshire, which is more valuable long term for her and the bookshop.

At BEA, indie booksellers will face the usual scrutiny about their future viability. It's all too familiar now after years of retail death knells for bricks-and-mortar operations, yet still resistible, we hope. 

The past and the future are always having a conversation of their own at BEA, though it's been going on for a long time. In A History of the Book in America, Vol. 4, James L. West III observed that O.H. Cheney, in his Economic Survey of the Book Industry, 1930–1931, "was particularly acidulous about whimsical, hunch-based publishing, calling it 'I-shot-an-arrow-in-the-air' approach. He described distribution in the United States as haphazard, citing inconsistent discount and return policies as damaging to both booksellers and publishers. Cheney called for more research on consumer tastes and greater efforts to cultivate dependable markets. He also advocated better record keeping and tighter control of cash flow. Publishers, said Cheney, needed to leave their New York offices more frequently to visit distributors and customers, talking with them and learning about their preferences and needs. Released at the beginning of the Great Depression, the study found receptive listeners in the book world, persons willing to experiment with new distribution methods, aim for broader markets, and pay more attention to consumers."

Cheney was neither the first nor last critic of the book trade. As has always been the case, he was particularly disappointed with the industry's "ineffective distribution system." Naturally, booksellers had to take their punches.

Like other analysts of the industry at the time, Cheney believed "independent bookshops alone were not sufficient for the task," West writes. "There were too few of them, and they were often one-horse operations, poorly capitalized, and understocked. These bookshops depended on best-selling novels to attract patrons and were vulnerable to competition from other book outlets, such as remainder bins in large retail stores. Small-scale booksellers had to diversify to survive, often offering magazines, prints, stationery, art supplies, and gift items. Some booksellers built customer loyalty by organizing neighborhood reading clubs and discussion groups, but these efforts were difficult to sustain. Small bookshops were the weak link in the system, ordering too little stock, carrying too many books on credit, and slowing sales and cash flow."

Same as it ever was. And now we're headed back to BookExpo. Handselling and handwringing will continue unabated, and we'll talk it all out once again with our eyes on the digital horizon.

Enjoy the ride anyway. How can we possibly resist the temptation to yell "Woooooooo-hooooooo," whether we're plummeting like Icarus, or just skydiving while waiting for the parachutes to deploy?--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1181.

Sunday
May022010

Poetry Month Ends--What Happens Next?

Today we wave goodbye to another National Poetry Month. To mark its passage, I'll read some poems and remember a few lines that moved me, like these from Terese Svoboda's "Woman with Navel Showing":

Let us be them.
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.