Saturday, October 11, 2014

Ten Fall 2014 Favorites from Harvard/MIT/Yale

There were 526 new titles on the Fall 2014 Harvard University Press, MIT Press and Yale University Press lists.  I pitched them all, and there was a lot to love here.  But inevitably, I end up with favorites.

With apologies to editors who may wonder “what about my books,” and to sales managers who may wonder “what about the big important books we pay you to be excited about,” I offer here my personal best culled from our Fall offerings.

My standard is simple: these are the titles I’d be most likely to buy if I stumbled across them in a bookshop, and would be most likely to give and recommend to friends.  It’s a completely impulsive roster, with an arbitrary cut-off of ten titles.  Dozens more were bubbling under, so I’d recommend checking out the complete Harvard, MIT and Yale catalogs.


John Summers, Chris Lehmann, Thomas Frank
MIT Press 27.95

The Baffler is without question one of the most interesting journals of social, cultural and political criticism going today.  This anthology of recent gems includes salvos- the perfect word- from Barbara Ehrenreich, Tom Frank, and other accomplished sacred cow smashers.   Susan Faludi’s takedown of Sheryl Sandberg’s  “lean in feminism” and Ann Friedman’s demolition of LinkedIn are alone worth the price of admission.   Crucially, The Baffler- so rare in Left journalism- has a keen sense of humor.

Henri Lefebvre
MIT/Semiotext(e) 13.95 paper

A strangely compelling genre-bending book that might be called “list literature.”  It’s a compendium of “what has been lost or never existed,” encompassing books, films, sculptures, paintings and other cultural artifacts across time.   Sentences flow in a relentless but oddly suggestive way, even though there is no narrative.  For example: “Murder, the Hope of Women, a twenty-five minute opera composed in 1919 by Paul Hindemuth; The novel Theodor by Robert Walser; The letters of Milena Jesenska to Franz Kafka; The contents of a telephone conversation between Stalin and Pasternak after the arrest of Osip Mandelstam; The final seven meters of Kerouac’s On the Road (eaten by a dog.)”  And so on for 80 more pages .  I’m not sure why but it really gets under your skin after awhile, and becomes haunting when recited.  Read alternating sentences aloud with a friend!

William Kentridge
Harvard 24.95

The beloved South African artist, at the peak of his career, takes a surprisingly small and intimate look at how meaning is made in the studio.  It’s not really a “how to draw” book as much as a meditation on the different ways of thinking involved in creative production.  He’s clearly a complete bibliophile, and was involved in every aspect of the book’s production.  Hence, it looks and feels like an artist’s book.


Jane L. Aspinwall, Keith F. Davis
Yale 60.00

Three of my favorite Yale books this season are photography books.  I don’t know what that means except that Yale does superb photography books.  And none more superb than everything that comes from the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City.  I’m tempted to buy just about any book they do for the book arts quality alone.  In this case, they’re exploring the transformation of the American West through Gardner’s photographs.  I’d seen some of his Civil War work, but this focuses on the railroads, with lots of attention to the (often Native American) communities that were impacted by the laying of track.  Gorgeous.


Roxanne Warren
MIT 35.00

Talking of railroads, this is one of those deep, back of the catalog books that deserves to have a brighter spotlight shone on it.  Perhaps because I spent  time on some amazing German trains this summer, and perhaps because I live in a state where the current regime has demonized rail, I’m drawn to an argument that auto dependency and suburban sprawl can be addressed by light rail, moving people efficiently within and between cities.   She’s very light on academic jargon, and the writing is fluid and engaging.  Perhaps I should send one to our governor?


Marius Hentea
MIT 34.95

As an Old Left leftist, I’ve always been a little skeptical about Dada, surrealism, and other 20th century avant-garde movements.  There's a dilletante-ish, unserious flavor.  But the personalities are so much more interesting than the Stalinists!  Tzara has never had a full biography in any language, and it’s hard to see why.  There should be feature films about him.  This zany man roves across Europe, stepping foot and sometimes tripping on some of the key art and political hotspots of the day.  I won’t say reading this is like being there, or knowing him, but it’s a fantastic introduction to a fascinating movement and one of its key players.

David Albahari
Yale/Margellos 15.00 paper

An existential post-modern noir thriller that asks the question “what does it mean to be a Serb in Canada?”  If that doesn’t grab you, how about this: it’s written in a single long paragraph, a la Thomas Bernhard.  Don’t be deterred.  Fantastic stylist, vivid imagination, compelling theme (identity.)  You can almost never go wrong with one of the Margellos World Republic of Letters literature in translation titles.  They are predictably interesting, surprising and collectible in the same way New York Review, Europa Books, or- my worst weakness, Persephone Press are.  (Next up: Nobel Fiction winner Patrick Modiano’s three novella omnibus, Suspended Sentences.)


Zephyr Teachout
Harvard 29.95

This is possibly the most important book on any of the three lists this fall, IMHO.  The whole definition of corruption in politics has been so narrowly etched by contemporary courts as to be almost impossible to prove.  Teachout here shows how far this “quid pro quo only” definition has strayed from what the Framers had in mind.  The constitution itself was designed to fight corruption and the appearance of corruption- hence the subtitle, referring to a small gift from the French government to Franklin, which he had to refuse lest it even hint at compromised integrity.  How far we’ve come.  Yes, you might recognize Teachout- she ran for Governor of New York against Cuomo is the September primary, and did amazingly well. 

Nancy Marie Mithlo
Yale 49.95
Horace Poolaw, a Kiowa, was a 20th century Native American photographer who documented the transition of his people from their traditional life to immersion in mainstream Oklahoma society.  The 150 rare images were assembled for a National Museum of the American Indian exhibition, but they are so surprising and beautiful they stand up well as a book.  That period of the twenties through the fifties saw so much vivid documentary photography (think Dorothea Lange), but this is a really unique perspective.  Lovely book.


Emily Bronte
Harvard 35.00

I love the book, but why another edition?  The annotations are superb, and really help to give context; like the others in this series, the production values, with such lavish illustrations and creamy paper, make the book itself a physical work of art (take that e-books!); and the story, well, it bears re-reading every now and again.  And give Kate Bush a listen while you’re at it.




Friday, July 25, 2014

A note on bookselling, publishing, and the libertarian mindset



Once we’ve finished poring over the new lists and talking shop, my meetings with booksellers often veer onto other conversational tangents.  This season, Amazon is an unavoidable elephant.

The usually unflappable Lisa Baudoin at Books & Company pointed me to the latest salvo in the Amazon-Hachette PR war: an online petition, purportedly concocted by Amazon-friendly writers and authors, defending in great detail every aspect of Amazon’s recent behavior.  The initiator is anonymous, so there’s no way to know whether the company itself or its public relations arm had a hand in it. 

Headlined “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” it’s a laundry list of legalistic talking points, and is so filled with howlers Lisa didn’t know where to start.

She’s right, there are so many slippery, questionable, and downright false assertions that the head spins.   I’ve commented about this subject at length, and am frankly too bored with it to do a line by line rebuttal.  But one paragraph especially caught my eye:

“New York publishing once controlled the book industry.  They decided which stories you were allowed to read.    They decided which authors were allowed to publish.”  And then along came Amazon to liberate writers from this tyranny.

Where have I heard this sort of thing before?  Oh that’s right, in Tea Party and Libertarian rhetoric.  It has the flavor of the anti-government crusade which has crippled our capacity to act for the common good, and functions here in a similar way to substitute the rights and feelings of the individual author for the communal book ecosystem as a whole.

Can it possibly be true that the evil publishers are…. deciding what to publish?  That they are exercising critical judgment, making informed editorial decisions about literary merit and potential market appeal?  Shocking.

Since a good part of the petition is an attack on the Hachette Book Group, I invite you to peruse the lengthy author list on the Hachette website.   I will happily take the editorial judgment of this single gatekeeper any day over the ragtag collection of self-published, self-printed, self-marketed works that Amazon will post for anyone who pays.  

I'm sure it’s a frustrating thing to write a book and have “New York publishers” tell you it’s not good enough.  I suppose it’s a good thing these rejected writers have an outlet now.  But their platform is not a sustainable model for a quality book culture.  We need a diversity of taste-makers and gatekeepers: the publishers and booksellers who have honed their craft over decades. 

Can the signers of this petition really believe that it’s better to have one corporation control the book market, rather than an archipelago of book institutions?  Can they really be so na├»ve as to think that their interests won’t be tossed overboard as soon as this wonderland of choice decides they’re expendable?  Every positive they cite about their Amazon relationship- prices, availability, royalties- can and may well be yanked at a moment’s notice when investors eventually run out of patience.

Prioritizing the common good is not a popular argument these days.  The new technologies are so easy and seductive, and they feed the idea that anyone can do anything, that merit is just a matter of opinion and one opinion is as good as another.  What's next- amateur online brain surgery?  Why go to a doctor when the free market is so handy?

Later in the day, I called on Sandi Torkildson, another smart, veteran bookseller at Room of One’s Own in Madison, and I found myself in another conversation about rampant libertarianism.    

Uber and Lyft have become wildly popular alternatives to Taxi companies, in Madison and elsewhere.  Like Airbnb's challenge to those costly behemoths-the hotels- legacy companies are under siege from amateurs. 

But taxis and hotels are heavily regulated to protect the public, allow for handicapped accessibility, to prevent fraud, to ban discrimination, and for a host of other good reasons.   Will the free market nirvana- where everyone can get into the act, where expertise counts for nothing, where “government regulation” means socialism- really be in the interests of the many,  or ultimately only advance the interests of the few who wind up on top?

Governments- like publishers- evaluate and regulate.  Madison is loaded with bars.  Every landlord can make a quick buck by renting to new ones, and the mark-up on liquor can be 400%.  The city has decided that a mix of neighborhood retail is better for the greater good, so there’s a cap on how many bars can open on a given street.  This helps keep rents down for businesses with one tenth the mark-up (e.g. bookstores), and helps keep a diverse retail environment that serves everyone.   Predictably, some see this as the heavy hand of government interfering with the free market, and frame their argument in terms that echo the pro-Amazon rhetoric. 

In this lazy libertarian thinking, everything is about me, very little about us.  It's an incredibly naive misunderstanding of the way our economic system actually operates.  But it's simple and seductive.  It’s not encouraging to hear that the selfish siren call of Ayn Rand continues to resonate with another generation of young readers.  We badly need a comparable imaginitive literary manifesto that does for the common good what Rand did for individual greed.





Sunday, July 6, 2014

summer 2014 appointments: 15 snapshots



“Philosophers are still buying books,” I was happy to learn at Different Drummer Books in Burlington, Ontario.

“The world needs a solid biography of Marcel Duchamp- people have been asking for this,” reports Tracey at Bryan Prince Bookseller in Hamilton, Ontario.

In addition to a very fine collection of old and new books, one can purchase at D&E Lake  in downtown Toronto: carved wooden canes, kilt pins, nested Russian Bill Clinton dolls, Soviet Army belt buckles, and some lovely framed art.

To rev up interest in Mark Winston’s Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive (Harvard October), I’ve been mentioning Myra Goldberg’s Bee Season among the many titles showing that, as one buyer said, “there’s a bee thing happening.”  Alas, the same buyer pointed out that the Goldberg book is actually about spelling bees.   Oops.

I pitch Henri Lefebvre’s The Missing Pieces, one of my favorite titles on the fall MIT/semiotext(e) list, with extra, rep fave enthusiasm.  Turns out to be one of the most polarizing books on the list.  It’s a compendium of what has been lost or never existed, a kind of “list literature.”  Example:  “Murder, the Hope of Women, a twenty-five minute opera composed in 1919 by Paul Hindemuth; The novel Theodor by Robert Walser; The letters of Milena Jesenska to Franz Kafka; The contents of a telephone conversation between Stalin and Pasternak after the arrest of Osip Mandelstam; The final seven meters of Kerouac’s On the Road (eaten by a dog.)”  And so on and so on.  Buyers who love this idea really love it, and imagine all sorts of display and even performance potential.  Other buyers, not so much.  In one of the Twin Cities, excitement.  In the other, “Are you kidding?  B.O.R.I.N.G.”

Speaking of Pasternak, I was meeting with Iowa City book ace Matt Lage at Iowa Book when a customer overheard him refer to Pasternak.  (He’s full of smart literary references, delivered in the nicest way.)  She approached us, and in a thick but charming Slavic accent, told us that she adores Pasternak, that her grandfather went to jail in the Soviet Union for reading him and later committed suicide, and that “you can’t understand life if you don’t understand Pasternak!”  This was a refreshing vindication of Iowa students, who until then had mainly shuffled up to the desk to grudgingly inquire about textbooks only to leave without buying them (from the bookseller who helped them anyway.)

Reactions to Michael MacDonald’s Overreach: Delusions of Regime Change in Iraq (Harvard October) have quickly gone from an “old news” shrug to “very timely” thanks to Cheney and company’s recent helpful reminders.

“Why is MIT not doing books on 3-D printing?!?”

“Greil Marcus, say no more!”

After perusing digital images and page layouts from the book, Kris Kleindienst at Left Bank Books in St Louis says of Paul Strand: Photography & Film for theTwentieth Century (Yale November) “This is the way art books are supposed to look!”  This makes my day.

How social media is supposed to work: the buyer at Common Good Books in St Paul is excited to see the long-awaited English translation of Alexander Kluge’s History & Obstinacy on the MIT/Zone list (October) and notes that he’d just seen a tweet from a San Francisco bookseller who is also anxiously waiting to read it, which adds to the appeal.

In describing Jeremy Bernstein’s Nuclear Iran (Harvard October), I refer to the “small, cute trim size” in my mark-up notes.  A buyer raises an eyebrow and finds this an amusing phrase about such a grim subject.  Maybe I should take it out.

The logo of the new Murty Classical Library of India series from Harvard brings a smile to the face of every bookseller who sees it.

I’m used to meeting booksellers in cramped offices or behind public information desks where I sometimes get to answer customer inquiries during appointments.  (I helped a woman find a book on the birds of Iowa and felt ludicrously giddy over this.)  But Kim Stephenson, McGill University Bookstore buyer, saw me in the Hospitality Suite of the Montreal Book Fair, which happened to coincide with my visit.  We were surrounded by fancy snacks, a well-stocked bar, comfy chairs and a stunning penthouse view.  I could get used to this. 

In reference to book prices, Prairie Lights’ Paul Ingram notes that “$40 will get you a very nice dinner in Iowa City!”




Saturday, May 10, 2014

a sales rep's two cents on Thomas Piketty


I’m reluctant to add one more word to the infosphere about Thomas Piketty.  But for all the coverage and meta-coverage Capital in theTwenty-first Century has garnered, we haven’t heard from the sales force that had a small role to play in chaperoning the book into the world.

I have to say that I’ve reacted a little defensively to some of the coverage about how well Harvard University Press has kept up with demand.  “Clearly caught off-guard” quickly became the reigning meme.    Let’s look at that. 
 
Contemporary book publishing, despite all the big data tools, is about as wildly unpredictable as it was the day I cashiered my first book in the 1970s.  But publishers can and do position books to market, and are often pretty good at it.  Authors who have succumbed to the self-publishing racket quickly learn that printing a book has little to do with visibility or sales.

Thomas Piketty was brought to HUP by a whip-smart editor, who convinced his rigorous colleagues that it was a book worth publishing, and a board of Syndics that it was a book worthy of Harvard’s name.  He solicited and got peer review reports that lauded the book.  From early on, there was a sense that this would be a hugely important book with significant sales.

By the time the spring 2014 list was shared with reps in a launch meeting at the press last September, enthusiasm was high and unanimous.  It was made the lead title in our catalog.   The ace marketing team was mobilized, an ad campaign designed, and an author tour planned.
Then it was our turn.   

Field reps hit the road to bookstores brimming with commitment.  During sales meetings, I talked about the timeliness of the issue, about Piketty’s star economist stature, about the outstanding scholarship.  I reminded people that Harvard’s big, serious lead titles often outsell expectations.  I noted that the French edition hovered in the top five of the French bestseller list among various editions of Cinquante nuances de grey.

The book advanced well but there were some headwinds.  “It sounds important, I’m sympathetic with the argument, but I can’t sell a $40 economics book” was a typical example.  There were a few stores who immediately got it, but for the most part I needed to apply a little arm-twisting.  (This is where the relationship- knowing the store and the buyer- pays off.  I don’t use the “trust me” card often so people tend to listen when I do.) 
 
My most serious scholarly store changed its advance number from 20 to 30; more typically, good general booksellers and college stores changed a two to a five; and a few of the doubters who wanted to skip it entirely were convinced to try a couple.  (At one store I did promise to buy one back personally if I was wrong.  Boy I should have structured that bet differently!)

I will stipulate that this is a university press brand of upselling, which is to say it's polite.  And, for those who know me, the idea of Eklund arm-twisting must seem hilarious.  If we had been a trade house I suppose we’d have gone into accounts with massive (and bogus) announced print runs, pie in the sky media plans, and Thomas Piketty social inequality espresso cups.  

So yes, the phenomenon has surpassed even our most optimistic forecasts, but it’s only the velocity that’s taken us by surprise.  I suppose in retrospect one could say that our initial print run could have been more aggressive.  But booksellers have to share a little blame on that one too.   

HUP makes very careful print run decisions by paying attention to advance orders from booksellers and to comments on titles we pass along from them.  Advances were solid but not extraordinary, and the notes I forwarded all season had plenty of caveats about the price, the subject, the risk.

While it’s little consolation to booksellers who have fielded hundreds of phone calls while holding only sketchy information about when they might have the book again, it’s my totally unbiased opinion that HUP has done a stellar job keeping reprints rolling.  These books are coming from several printers on two continents, and being dispersed globally.  Our warehouse folks have pulled 24 hour shifts getting them out, while still attending to all the other books from three big presses.  And, though I’ve heard uninformed assumptions to the contrary, our decision-makers have been scrupulous about making sure stock is distributed fairly.

Once the phenomenon was clearly underway- which I trace to Paul Krugman’s first call out, in which he christened Capital the “book of the decade”- the booksellers responded with equal aplomb.  They have a lot more experience chasing bestsellers than we do publishing them, and I saw some very savvy order wrangling.  Booksellers are great at selling what’s selling.  Occasionally I wondered why they weren’t ordering more aggressively- can’t you get a couple cases and be done with it?  But it’s for the same reason publishers have to be judicious with reprints- fear of having too many when the wave subsides.  The wave isn’t subsiding. 
 
We are deep into the era of the just-in-time inventory.  Sometimes it works well, but sometimes it seems a bit like a ponzi scheme.  At the end of the day, somebody has to have possession of  the pile of books.  But that’s another subject.

A few other takeaways from the past month:

In the digital age, customers expect that detailed information will be instantly available.  UPS can track a package with mind-blowing specificity, and online retailers are really selling their ability to forecast availability.  So it’s maddening when a bookseller can’t have a simple answer when the customer asks “when will you have it,” and it’s maddening to me when we sometimes can’t provide that info.  In this case, the backlog of orders ballooned so dramatically last month that it caused temporary info havoc.  Now we have a much better handle on when reprints will arrive, who is in the queue for them, and when your customer can expect them.  Transparency and information are powerful.

One of the reservations booksellers often have about our books is a doubt about our marketing muscle.  “If Knopf were doing that book I know we’d see reviews and media, but Harvard?”  Can we put that one to rest now?  Piketty didn’t happen spontaneously.  The very talented HUP marketing and publicity team worked night and day, before during and after publication, to spark and then extend the media blitz.  This was a marketing campaign for the record books.  Buyers, be prepared to have Thomas Piketty thrown at you if you want to doubt our marketing finesse in future.

Has anyone noticed that the sale of thousands of copies of the e-book edition- which, after all, was available instantly and never out of stock- does not seem to have hurt demand for print copies?  I read this as a good sign for my friends selling print.

Finally, I wonder whether we- publishers, booksellers, reviewers, and writers- are underestimating the appetite for serious nonfiction.  Time will tell whether Piketty is a freakish one-off.  But it seems striking to me that indie booksellers, who rightfully boast about their close to the ground knowledge of their customer’s tastes, often missed this one.

If I were still a buyer and one of my rock solid truisms- say, “I can’t sell a $40 book on economic inequality”- were challenged so dramatically by my own customers, I’d wonder whether I know them as well as I think I do.  Granted, when a serious book becomes a celebrity sensation, it brings out the whole “must have” bandwagon, many of whom you won’t see in the store until the next one comes along.  But some of them are potential regular new customers.

I used to think that great academic bookstores like Seminary Coop, Harvard Book Store, and Book Culture were lucky anomalies.  Sure, you can sell serious academic books in Hyde Park or Princeton.  But Piketty shows us that there’s a hunger for big idea nonfiction, even in general bookstores.  People like a reading challenge, it makes them feel smarter. 
 
Aside from sharing the financial success that Capital in the Twenty-first Century has brought us this season, let’s also savor the chance to spread its message.  My old boss and mentor David Schwartz was a big believer in books as change agents, and spoke about the “social profit” in bookselling as a kind of fringe benefit.  Influencing public discourse by getting out a couple hundred thousand copies of a book like Capital is what he meant.

As Thomas Piketty himself said, “I wrote this book not for policymakers, but for people who read books.  In the end, they are the people who’ll decide what politicians do, and it’s more important to convince them.”


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

when great colleagues retire: 50 plus reasons I will miss Adena Siegel




Because she’s the smartest rep in the book business, period.
Because she understands both the craft and the art.
Because she really loves university presses, especially Harvard/MIT/Yale.
Because she embraces the contradiction that good books come into the world as works of imagination, culture and beauty, but have to live there as commodities.
Because she sees that selling them can be both pain and privilege.
Because she’s never forgotten her retail roots, and sees our mission through the eyes of a bookseller.
Because, nevertheless, she knows that our main obligation is to our Presses, which sometimes require a different lens.
Because she’s also never forgotten that, ultimately, we are representing an author and a book.
Because, better than any rep I know, she balances these three sometimes competing imperatives with aplomb.
Because she works to really get the book as step one; the rest follows.
Because she brings her real self into the job, the room, the appointment.
Because when buyers check their calendars to see which reps they’re seeing tomorrow, Adena’s name makes them smile. not groan.
Because she pays attention to an uncelebrated but crucial rep necessity: the right shoes.
Because of the post sales conference hours we spend processing the deluge of information and making sense of it.
Because I’ve never had better laughs than I’ve had with Adena.
Because of her scrupulous attention to detail.
Because of her standards and work ethic- though she makes it not seem like work.
Because our midseason check in- what’s working, what’s not- is one of my favorite rituals.
Because of her tireless behind the scenes advocacy for booksellers, and to booksellers.
Because she understands in her bones how publicity works.
Because she always knows the right people to call to solve a problem, or will track them down.
Because she believes in telephones, and talking to people.
Because she asserts herself, and assumes her place at sometimes intimidating tables.
Because this confidence leaks out and bolsters her colleagues, and we feel more able to speak because of her.
Because she won’t be bullied, neither by self-important authors nor surly hotel staff.
Because she knows what she wants, and can order a coffee drink or a nice meal with exquisite precision.
Because she thinks on her feet.
Because she has informed reactions- to jackets, marketing plans, expectations.
Because she also has moral and political reactions to the contents of books.
Because she’s a human being.
Because she loves Chicago.
Because she’s not a luddite but she has a healthy skepticism about the digital turn.
Because she’s willing to take chances and expects others to be.
Because she’s had the kind of career- an honorable living in books- that seems to be melting into air.
Because I wouldn’t have considered leaving bookselling and taking this job without her.
Because she made me see that I could do it.
Because blunt is in her toolbox: “Five copies?  Twenty-five!
Because her booksellers can’t say they weren’t warned about the hottest book of 2014.
Because of her passion for and taste in art
Because of her same for blues, jazz, R&B
Because, ditto, her cats.
Because, Steve.
Because she loves the road and she loves coming home from it.
Because she has had some life experiences that might surprise people.
Because she talks and listens.
Because on our road trips from Cambridge to New Haven between sales conferences we’d always stop at Rein’s delicatessen.
Because she’s old school, but conversant with new.
Because we share frustration, sadness and anger about certain aspects of book world.
Because she’s a friend, mentor and colleague, and the lines are all tangled.
Because of her loyalty and collegiality.
Because she has an excellent and long memory.
Because she’s queen of the perfect gift, and the thoughtful gesture.
Because if the book business is to survive it will need more Adena's.
Because she will be embarrassed by this list.
Because
Because
Because