Monday, December 20, 2010

Ten Harvard/MIT/Yale 2010 favorites

As I rode the train back from Chicago the other day, I began to notice how very many of the cell conversations around me had to do with helping someone on the other end fix technology. Go to this screen, push that button, okay just try turning it on and off. Palpable frustration on both ends.

I realized with smug satisfaction that nobody has ever had such a conversation about a printed book- how do I turn it on, how do I turn it off, how do I make it do what I want it to do. This will be my last comment on e-books for 2010.

Harvard, Yale, and MIT together published just over one thousand titles in 2010. Among this bounty were so many wonderful books, and though I'm paid to promote them all, personal favorites are unavoidable. I’d recommend every one of these with confidence, and would be thrilled to receive them as gifts myself.

The Naïve & the Sentimental Novelist
Orhan Pamuk (Harvard)

Short and sweet, this homage to the craft is both a defense of novel writing and a celebration of novel reading. A bonus: one of the best jackets of the season (says Huffington Post).

Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition
Jane Austen (Harvard)

I’ve about run out of superlatives to describe the production values on this one. Just pick it up and see for yourself. The scholarship is also top notch. Every Austen reader will covet this, and it will make those who haven’t read her dedicated fans.

Age of Fracture

Daniel T. Rodgers (Harvard)

Though maybe not a “gift book” strictly speaking, I was so impressed with this big picture idea book I want to give it to all my political friends. An argument against the obsession with individual desire, and for a more robust sense of social obligation, I can’t think of a more timely book with which to start the new year.

How Many Friends Does One Person Need?

Robin Dunbar (Harvard)

For the Malcolm Gladwell fans, an eclectic collection of essays by a quirky, smart but funny British writer. You should be suspicious of anyone who has more than 150 Facebook friends, and the reason is rooted in our evolutionary psychology!

Designing Media

Bill Moggridge (MIT)

On the surface, the subject of this collection seems specialized: how has mass media morphed into personal media right under our noses? But as I browsed through these interviews with some of the smartest brains in contemporary design, I found something of interest to print lovers on nearly every page. The book design is beyond lavish, and it includes a DVD, making it one of the bargains of the season.

FASHIONEAST: The Spectre that Haunted Socialism

Djurdja Bartlett (MIT)

Did you realize that clothing was one of the first revolutionary media? This colorful and often hilarious tour through “communist chic” is informative and an eye-opener. And prompts the question: could we erase our class differences by adopting an egalitarian fashion aesthetic?

A Little Book of Language

David Crystal (Yale)

A light history of language written for a young audience, the book and package definitely takes its lead from Ernst Gombrich’s wonderful Little History of the World. Other things they have in common: a charming voice that speaks to readers of any age, gorgeous illustrations and book design, and a compelling, universally interesting subject. Oh, and a great price.

The American Department Store Transformed, 1920-1960

Richard Longstreth (Yale)

Though this was a somewhat “back of the catalog” book last spring, it’s one of my favorites of the year. Fifteen years in the works, the author brings a clear passion for these old lost monuments to the work. It’s a sad story, but the mesmerizing graphics and ephemera will appeal to anyone who longs for the days of Gimbels, Marshall Field’s and Frederick & Nelson.

Houdini: Art and Magic

Brooke Kamin Rapaport (Yale)

This was one of those books I sold for a season and thought I knew well, only to gasp in awe when I saw the final product. Wow. Produced by the Jewish Museum (everything they do looks great, I should have known), this visually rich trip through Houdini-land is the best biography yet. One of my bookseller friends who is selling it like crazy pointed out that there’s a quiet but passionate Houdini cult who “have to have everything.”

Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage

Isabel Schulz (Yale)

This under-published German artist, one of the most important figures in the international avant-garde, is a personal favorite. Every art student I know seems to be obsessed with pastiche and found objects, but Schwitters was the original. Train tickets, pieces of wire, newspaper fragments- quotidian detritus of every sort got smooshed into his gorgeous abstract creations. Produced by the Menil Collection, the book is a stunner.

Adonis: Selected Poems

Translated by Khaled Mattawa (Yale)
This recent installment in Yale’s remarkable Margellos World Republic of Letters translation series is a must have for every poetry lover. It’s hard to believe this collection by one of the most celebrated poets in the Arab-speaking world has not been widely available in English. He’s short-listed for the Nobel nearly every year. See why here.

Monday, November 29, 2010

the book of the year

A university press publishes a memoir that was written over one hundred years ago, containing material that has already been published in many other incarnations over the past century. The book is a heavy slab in a diabolically uncomfortable trim size. The prose is fragmentary, confusing, and is composed in a tiny, dense typeface. Though there is a small and mainly uninteresting black and white photo gallery, the vast bulk of the book has no graphic interest whatsoever. And over a third of it is scholarly apparatus.

In short, it would seem that everything has been done to make this book unappealing to the so-called general reader.

And yet, in many places, the Autobiography of Mark Twain is out-selling George W. Bush and most other nonfiction practitioners this year, and is the improbable must-have literary sensation of the season.

What gives? I’ll leave the deconstruction of the book, the man, and the zeitgeist to the cultural theorists. But two things about Twain mania make me very happy:

1) There is apparently a vastly underestimated population of sophisticated readers capable of dethroning the latest trendy, empty-headed zombie celebrities from the best seller lists.

2) If there is any remaining doubt about why this country desperately needs its university presses, with their commitment to big thinking, long-term publishing and scholarly excellence without regard to instant profitability, the University of California Press has proven it beyond a doubt. Every book-lover owes them hearty thanks.

The Autobiography itself is wonderful, and this can’t hurt. Twain’s obsessive interest in the commercial aspects of the writing life has a particular contemporary resonance, and there is indeed a laugh on every page. But many smart, wonderful, worthy books flow from serious presses every year and head straight to the remainder bin.

And it doesn’t hurt that the book has a to-die- for back-story: it’s like unearthing a time capsule.

And it hurts even less that the New York Times and all the major media who take their cue from it elevated the book to front page status. But the reporting was after the fact, so appearing on the bestseller list can’t just be put down to Times buzz.

Speaking of buzz, and in the spirit of the book, which is nothing if not a 400-page collection of digressions, I will digress.

I remember from bookselling days the “second wave” customers who clamored for particular titles once the buzz had achieved a certain threshold. These customers were often odd ducks, since the intensity of their need for the book (“What do you mean you’re out of it? How is that possible?”) seemed disproportionate to their apparent interest in the actual content.

We can assume that once the natural Twain audience has been satisfied, this secondary market will kick in. They are perhaps not so interested in Mark Twain per se, as in the chance to give or own a big important book that has been anointed by leading cultural gatekeepers.

One key element of this secondary buzz economy is scarcity. While sales are certainly lost when a book like this is out of stock, it’s important to also factor in the elusive but potentially added sales generated by the die-hards who will not rest until they find a copy. The more bookstores they go to, the more determined they are to get it. Every bookseller who has ever worked a holiday season is familiar with this phenomenon. It’s nice to see such a deserving title be the beneficiary of it this year.

Having seen the presses I work for chase demand and struggle with print run decisions on successful titles, I have great sympathy for California’s dilemma. It’s no consolation to the frontline booksellers, who have to deal with disappointed customers who may end up buying online. But risk and guesswork are involved in every stock decision a bookstore makes. When we actually have a bona fide, authentic, grassroots success, it pains me to hear people lambasting the damn publisher for not keeping up with demand. Then again, come to think of it, how Mark Twain of them!

Anyway, there’s an obvious solution to this scarcity problem but it’s one I don’t think my bookseller friends would like too much: e-books. One of the many unremarked upon implications of an increasingly digital book world is that “out of stock” would essentially be a quaint, antique, bad old days memory. On the one hand, hooray! On the other hand, careful what you wish for. What would a book world without scarcity-fueled secondary buzz be like?

As I wrestled my copy of the autobiography into some tolerable physical position the other evening- don’t even try holding it open with one hand- I finally surrendered to the idea that reading Twain’s memoir was not going to be physically easy. From time to time- horrors!- I even wondered if it might be easier to read on a gadget.

But there were so many passages of transcendent beauty, so many chapters during which I lost track of time and stopped paying attention to the brick on my chest, I began to not notice my reading platform. I was too lost in the prose.

This seems like an argument for the printed book in spite of it all. But it also seems like the sort of experience the reader of the digital edition of the book might be having. I can imagine her saying “Twain is so good I stopped noticing that I’m staring at a screen.”

Friday, November 12, 2010

know your grapes

During a recent visit to New York, I found myself craving a classic diner breakfast one Saturday morning. I ducked into the Chelsea Square Restaurant on 23rd and 9th avenue, but there were dozens of other choices as I walked from Grand Central to the West Village.

I thought to myself, how is it that while food options in the city have exploded since I first visited NYC thirty years ago, I can still have essentially the same delicious, greasy urban family-owned Manhattan breakfast experience I enjoyed back then? Indeed, except for a few unconvincing menu nods to vegetarians and a couple non-Greek ethnic offerings, it could have been 1974 at the Chelsea Square Restaurant. (It’s been there since 1965, according to a newspaper clipping on the wall.)

As usual, I immediately translated this puzzlement to my ongoing worry over the state of bookselling. How is it that this sector of independent food retailing survives? Like booksellers, they are selling a product that is widely available in cheaper incarnations, has a short shelf life, and is subject to the fickle whims of popular taste. What is the secret of their resilience?

Also as usual, I’m not afraid to generalize even though I may not know what I’m talking about. (What really is the state of the NYC diner business? Maybe it’s on the verge of collapse.) But I noticed a few things the diners do that can’t hurt:

- Food quality is consistent and good, portions are big, prices are reasonable. People know what to expect and they get it;
- It’s a space that’s welcoming to all comers and classes;
- There’s always a very hands-on management;
- There’s no apparent skimping on staff and service;
- Regulars are greeted by name;
- There are gestures toward change but nothing dramatic. The fried potatoes will always have that distinctly orange NYC diner glow.

Of course, real estate and myriad other issues make running a small business in Manhattan a nightmare. But I’m always struck by how much neighborhood retail and services seem to thrive there, benefiting from high population density and low car use. Those conditions aren’t necessarily extant where most indie booksellers ply their trade. (I think of my own charming neighborhood shopping street and its bookstore, cleaners, drug and grocery- and relative dearth of pedestrian traffic.) But I do think there are some universal survival lessons to be found in the resilient greasy spoons of Manhattan.

About a week later, I returned to Milwaukee and took my mother out to breakfast. Though she is a woman who thinks that if you’ve paid more than five dollars for a meal you’ve probably been robbed, I wanted to try out a new breakfast place that’s gotten rave reviews.

Blue's Egg is the anti-Chelsea Square. The menu is elaborate, trendy, and chef-driven. There is a mission statement. Some of your bill goes to worthy causes. It is a comfortable space that turns into a sophisticated bar/bistro at night.

Mom was not that impressed with the fancy menu and wordy descriptions. “Eggs are eggs,” she observed. But Blue’s Egg improbably won her over with the smallest gesture, something that I hadn’t even noticed but which she couldn’t stop talking about: they served a small bowl of grapes before they’d even taken our order.

And, once again, I couldn’t help thinking about bookselling applications.

I wonder if building a competitive edge on a foundation of big abstractions is enough anymore. Concepts like “we have a big inventory” or “we have a knowledgeable staff” sound good, but as a customer I’m more apt to get the itch to visit my favorite bookstore because of particulars: I want to see what's on that one really smart display table that changes every week, not because the store stocks a lot of books in general. Or because it’s Saturday and I know Bev will be working, not because of the smart staff in general.

And, to get back to the grapes, as much as I’m drawn to stores that will predictably satisfy my specific book urges, I also like places that will find ways to surprise me with small gestures. You can’t really say in advance what the gesture should be – that’s the point- but anything that makes a customer leave the store smiling probably counts. (A water bowl for dogs outside the door, corny as it sounds, always makes me feel better about a business.)

Many of my retail choices are based on convenience. But beyond that, where more discretionary retail loyalties come into play, my affection tends to go to places that satisfy some small, idiosyncratic preferences. And to those who have mastered the art of the gesture.

For years before it was swallowed and stripped of any hint of personality, Midwest Airlines baked and served chocolate chip cookies on board their planes. Incredible. Milwaukee people still talk about that, wistfully.

Than Brothers Vietnamese restaurant on University Way in Seattle follows up your pho with a complimentary plate of delicious little cream puffs. The place is always packed.

Almost before you sit down at Ann Sather’s Swedish restaurants in Chicago you’re presented with a delicious basket of cinnamon rolls and limpa bread. New customers are dazzled and old ones keep coming back for it.

And my local food co-op, Outpost Natural Foods, which I support for many reasons, wouldn’t get a fraction of my business were it not for Little Oaties, the most delicious cookies on the planet. It’s one item among thousands, but addicting enough to get me there regularly.

The challenges of running a viable business are so immense, and it must be annoying to hear kibitzing from the sidelines. But speaking as one book-lover and former bookseller, I’d advise my colleagues to step back and ask themselves- keeping in mind Mrs. Eklund’s breakfast reaction- “What are my grapes?”

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

another round of sales conferences finished: 25 tips for reps

1. You always think everything will fit into one bag this time. You will always have to resort to two at the last minute.

2. There will always be a loud talker on the phone in the gate area. At the Milwaukee airport, a woman was complaining about Lucifer and the bad things he’d done lately. Yes, it turned out to be that Lucifer.

3. Travelling on Sunday means the pleasure of two hours with the Times. But not so pleasurable when it’s the week before a triumph of the lunatics election and the news is all depressing.

4. Scudding over the clouds and descending into Logan airport, always stunning.

5. The Silver Line bus will always be pulling away from the curb just as you get outside.

6. You’ve never quite arrived in Cambridge until you’ve spent an hour at Harvard Book Store.

7. The chance to pick up international newspapers in Harvard Square used to be exciting; now I don’t even bother to buy the Boston Globe.

8. With some editorial presentations, you can’t write fast enough to keep up; after others, I barely have a coherent phrase in my notes.

9. Some old books are as exciting to publish and sell as new ones. New editions of Oscar Wilde and Rainer Maria Rilke, for instance.

10. Covers, covers, covers. We never get tired of critiquing and over-thinking them but in the end it’s my taste against yours, right? Anyway, our jackets are generally magnifico.

11. After calling en editor you’ve known for ten years by the wrong name and realizing it ten minutes later, is it better to revisit the situation, or to just let it go?

12. The worst place to be seated at sales conference dinners is in the center of a long narrow table. You end up being on the margins of two conversations, and you run out of things to say to the person directly across from you.

13. When twenty people are dining at one very long table, texting is apparently now the preferred way to communicate.

14. Sales conference dinners are NOT all about the books. Conversational topics this week included marriages and divorces (number of), what it's like to hike the trail of the Lewis & Clark expedition, and the puzzling aggressiveness of Minneapolis drivers.

15. You will always hear at least one good unfamiliar quip from a British colleague. Up this week: “Well, she already has one cheek on the throne…” Anxious to find a context in which to use this.

16. A press that allows a dog to hang out in a basement office all day is a press I’m proud to work for. Hi Tabasco!

17. When we reps are asked constantly for honest feedback from the field, how honest can you be? Can I really say that some of my buyers fall asleep when they hear the word “digital?”

18. You dress for sales conferences in a more formal way than in real life. Sales conference colleagues have rarely seen me without a jacket and tie; most booksellers have never seen me in one.

19. Sureness, confidence, thinking on one’s feet: I have such smart colleagues! How to finally attain these things?

20. When driving from Cambridge to New Haven, dinner at Rein’s in Vernon, Connecticut is a must. Bliss.

21. US Postal service flat rate boxes: one of the most wonderful government inventions ever. My stuff gets home before I do.

22. Never leave sales conference thinking you have anticipated everything a bookseller might conceivably ask about a book. Within the first week out someone will stump you.

23. Befriend the sales assistants. They are interesting people, you will need them and they have great taste in music.

24. The secret of a successful meeting is a tray of cookies at 3:00.

25. If you can avoid flying home from LaGuardia on a plane full of Green Bay Packer fans after they’ve just beaten the NY Jets, by all means do so.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

David Stimpson, book traveler

Our three sales conferences for the spring 2011 books begin next week. I always look forward to these meetings, but this time my anticipation is muted by the knowledge that it will be the last time I sit across the table from my colleague David Stimpson, who is retiring next year after a lifetime in the book business.

David began his career at the excellent University of Toronto Bookstore in 1964, where he worked for twenty years. Then as now, he was impatient with business practices that didn’t make sense, and under his direction the store was one of the first in North America that dared to blend paperback and cloth titles on the same shelves. Under David, U of T was one of the first bookstores to institute a marketing department, now a mainstay of every good bookshop.

Thirty years ago, he started University Press Group, which quickly assembled a marquis roster of university presses and a solid reputation for quality. David and his colleague Laurel Oakes, who retired last year, (above left) represented these lines to booksellers, museums, wholesalers and libraries across Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

David is the consummate book rep, always conscious of our sometimes conflicting obligations to publisher, bookseller, author, reader, and the book itself. Like most good book reps, he got into the profession for love of the product and respect for the people in it. It’s hard to imagine David selling anything else. (Maybe jazz to record stores. When there were record stores.)

Booksellers have finely honed bullshit detectors, and one thing they’ve always loved about David is his authenticity and intolerance for BS of any kind. He’s a stickler for details and abhors time-wasting and grand-standing. Should he ever publish a memoir (please David!), “Let’s Get on With It” would make a good chapter heading.

Book repping involves a special kind of tolerance for enjoying one’s own company, while still being able to turn on the charm when there’s an appointment or social engagement at hand. There are hours and sometimes days spent alone in travel, punctuated by intensely communal reunions with buyers- friends, really- last seen six months earlier. The duality puts me in mind of Hugh McLennan’s Two Solitudes, the classic novel about the dance of approach and avoidance between Quebec and the rest of Canada.

What makes solitary book traveling tolerable is having personal passions, and David has some good ones.

Books, of course. He reads widely, is a collector and connoisseur in subjects of interest. He handles a beautiful book with the same tactile appreciation my old boss and mentor David Schwartz used to exhibit- turning it over in his hand, inspecting the spine, noticing details that escape the rest of us.

Jazz, without doubt. His vast knowledge of it, enthusiasm for it, and generous support of it marks him as a genuine aficionado. I remember many sales conference nights when David would try to recruit exhausted reps to take in some late night performance in Harvard Square. When John Norris, Toronto jazz enthusiast and manager of the Jazz section of Sam the Record Man died last year, the Globe and Mail ran a touching remembrance by David.

He loves Toronto, and its wonderful art. When the newly remodeled Art Gallery of Ontario opened, David showed me through the exhibitions one Saturday morning with such enthusiastic pride he said he might become a docent. He’d be an excellent one.

And never underestimate love and family. The pleasures and challenges of the domestic life are never far from David’s mind- even on the road, maybe especially on the road.

Perhaps I should wrap this up lest it start to sound like a eulogy. It is definitely not that. After two successful careers, in bookselling and running a world class rep group, David’s friends and fans anxiously await his third act.

On a personal note, I have to admit that David scared me a bit at first. When I joined the team as rookie rep and started attending sales conferences in 1998, his inimitable reactions to what he was hearing (or not hearing) seemed a little harsh. Now I know he’s a puppy dog underneath the occasional bluster, and we’ve shared many hearty laughs.

Having come to sales repping from bookselling, I spent the first couple years nearly paralyzed by feelings of inadequacy. I felt like a fraud for not being a genius, I was humbled to learn how much money it took to actually keep a rep on the road, and I felt guilty every time I checked into a hotel that cost over $100. I was afraid to speak up at meetings and to fully commit to being the rep I now was.

More than anyone, David taught me to have respect for the job itself by insisting that we leave sales conferences armed with the tools we need to do our jobs properly. I came to realize that being a good rep meant adding “self-respect” to that list of obligations due. Every time he demands a detail or puts someone on the spot at a meeting, it's an expression of how seriously he takes being a rep and the responsibilities it entails.

Though the book traveling profession as we know it seems to be fading into the sunset, David inspires those of us still doing it to treat our work life with dignity. It’s not always an easy job, but there’s nothing we'd rather be doing.

When I look across the table during next week’s meetings, surreptitiously monitoring David’s raised eyebrow, or suppressed chuckle, or poised pencil as he awaits a useful sales handle that may or may not come, I will be more than a little sad. Because I know there will be an awfully empty gap in that space at the next round of meetings.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Ten Fall 2010 Biography Gems

This has been an exceptionally rich season for biographies. It’s one of my mainstays as I make my way through a bookstore, though stocking a biography section is not without its challenges.

- Do you include all biographies in one big section, or do you subdivide? As a bookseller I couldn’t stand to see some tacky pop biography touch spines with some accomplished, bigger than life personality (think Barry Manilow beside Nelson Mandela), so we broke out celebrity bios, literary bios, political memoirs and so on. The problem with this approach is that there are always a scattering of leftovers that really go nowhere.

- Do you alphabetize by subject? That seems obvious, but I’ve seen all kinds of alternative shelving strategies.

- Or do you bypass having a Biography section at all? Most people worthy of a biography have achieved something in some field or another- arts, sciences, literature, sports. So why not shelve these books in their appropriate area? With historical figures it’s often tricky separating the life from the times, so why not history? And with literary lives, isn’t the fan most likely to find the book when shelved with the author’s fiction?

Sticking to the “shelve books where the most interested customer is most apt to find them” rule is not always easy.

Over the years I’ve gotten past my snobby disdain for unworthy Biography section climbers, and now I actually enjoy the chaotic mishmash. So many other sections of the bookstore are carved up into specific niche areas. Just as I stroll past the country western section of the CD store (when there used to be CD stores), I walk right by whole sections of the bookstore because I've made some snap decisions about which subjects I'm supposedly interested in, and which not.

The Biography section is one of the few areas where a customer can be exposed to something unintended, and can genuinely be taken by surprise. When my friend Daniel opened Boswell Book Company last year, his mother's one piece of advice was to be sure to have a good Biography section. Lillian Goldin was right.

Yale University Press has a stellar line-up of biographies this year. The highlights:

Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt
by Robert Gottlieb (Yale $25 September 9780300141276)
The greatest actress who ever lived, a woman who nearly invented celebrity culture more than a century before Lady Gaga, is brought to life in this short, sweet, lovely little book. It was clearly a labor of love for Gottlieb. Inaugurates Yale’s clever new Jewish Lives series.

A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him
by Michael Takiff (Yale $32.50 October 9780300121308)
This absorbing portrait of the president is composed of taped recollections and observations by people who surround the Clintons, woven with artful skill into a kind of chronological tapestry. If you think there’s nothing new to learn, or worth learning about the man, just start reading.

Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life by Nick Phillipson (Yale $32.50 October 9780300169270)
Twenty years in the making, the publication of this comprehensive, accessible “life and times” of the revered Scottish scholar is a real event. I know I'll never get the Ayn Rand fanatics to read Marx, but they should at least familiarize themselves with Adam Smith.

Joe Louis: Hard Times Man
by Randy Roberts (Yale $30 October 9780300122220)
Surprisingly, Joe Louis has never been the subject of a serious biography. Here, a top notch historian explains how he was not just an American icon, but a hero to African-Americans. Excellent jacket.

Houdini: Art & Magic
by Brooke Kamin Rapaport (Yale $39.95 October 9780300146844)
The life and career of the prototypical immigrant achiever and celebrated conjurer, with exquisite and quirky design elements.

Galileo: Watcher of the Skies
by David Wootton (Yale October $35 9780300125368)
There have been surprisingly few full-blown scholarly biographies of the original Renaissance Man. At the center of Wootton’s highly original rendition is the telescope.

Moses Mendelssoh
n by Shmuel Feiner (Yale $25 November 9780300161755)
The most influential Jewish thinker of the eighteenth century, and a pioneer of religious tolerance, Mendelssohn is often referred to as “the German Socrates.”

Antony & Cleopatra
by Adrian Goldsworthy (Yale $35 September 9780300165340)
Goldsworthy’s stature as the preeminent popular historian of the ancient world just keeps growing, and this portrait of the iconic lovers (one bookseller called them “the original power couple”) is richly laced with military and political context.

The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb
by Allen M. Hornblum (Yale $32.50 September 9780300156768)
On the 60th anniversary of what came to be called “the Red Scare,” a gripping account of an accomplished industrial and military espionage agent who was said to have given the USSR the plans for the atom bomb. I’ve never read anything better about how and why ordinary people become spies.

Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life
by Lev Loseff (Yale $35 January 9780300141191)
When this biography of Brodsky, one of the greatest modern poets, was first published in Russian, it was so acclaimed that it even got reviews in the US media. Literary, philosophical, and deeply personal, Loseff was a personal friend of the poet, and is the perfect biographer.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

rep nite in milwaukee

I don’t know whether David Schwartz was the first bookstore owner to come up with the idea of having publisher reps come in to pitch their books to frontline booksellers, but it seemed like a fresh and brilliant concept in the mid-eighties. Since then, many stores have adopted variations of them, and they’ve become a fixture of the regional book shows.

One of the tenuous links in the sales chain that moves a book from publisher warehouse to bookstore customer comes at the very last step. Authors get their editors excited, editors get the house excited, the house gets the reps excited, and the reps get the book buyer excited. But sometimes transferring all this excitement to the front-end bookseller who actually exchanges real money with a customer is lacking. As overworked and overbooked as buyers are, it’s the rare store that is able to make sure his or her every enthusiasm is transferred to the booksellers. As every rep knows, a buyer’s excitement about a title doesn’t necessarily trickle down by itself.

Enter rep nights. In the Schwartz version, David and Carol invited booksellers to their home for an evening to hear a couple willing sales reps pitch their favorite new titles. Occasionally, editors like Elizabeth Sifton attended these events, opening an even richer channel of interaction. David could sometimes grandstand a bit, asking pointed Socratic questions about the content of some political book, or challenging a rep about some finer point of book production. But the goal was always tooling up the booksellers for the fall, and while the Schwartz stores were ultimately unsuccessful, rep night is one of the many legacies that live on.

The rep night I attended Sunday at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee- the first of four this season that ecumenically include booksellers from Next Chapter Bookstore and Books & Company- was not challenging in that sense. But it’s still a humbling experience to stand before forty smart booksellers who can make or break a title, trying to convince them the unique merits of your particular list.

There’s a built-in time constraint- twenty minutes per rep, though Daniel Goldin was kind about not giving us the hook if we ran over. Representing three publishers with hundreds of worthy new fall books, I drove myself a little batty deciding which dozen to present. (My colleague John Mesjak of Abraham Associates had thousands to cull through). One criterion I imposed was to only talk about books that were finished, though this meant skipping over some big worthy titles due out in the next couple months.

It’s frustrating, but there’s a logic to keeping it short. For one thing, booksellers attend these meetings on their own time. And even with the lovely Beans & Barley dinner and a raft of reading copies as an enticement, they had worked a very long week. Brevity is a virtue.

I could probably talk for twenty minutes about one book if I love it, so I struggled with how to abbreviate my comments into meaningful two minute bites. But then I had an insight: for most bookseller-customer interactions, even two minutes would be a luxury. An on the spot bookseller has a couple moments to retrieve a title from memory and to pitch its merits to a potential book buyer.

My job, as I saw it, was to give them the gist of a title, how it fits into the range of other literature on the subject, who the most likely customer would be with as much specificity as possible, and to leave them with a short, sweet, memorable handle. I’ll leave it to the Milwaukee booksellers to decide how we did.

The books I selected?

Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds, by John Bevis- a playful, charming curiosity about why bird songs are so compelling, and the maddening challenge of transcribing them. For birders, nature people, writers and poets, and appreciators of fine, impulsey, paper over board book production.

Dominic Couzens’ Atlas of Rare Birds, a smart, colorful, eco-friendly survey of the rarest birds in existence and where to find them. What seems most impressive about this is the value for the price.

Atlas of Science: Visualizing what we know by Katy Borner is a lushly illustrated guide to one of the hottest fields in science, a lavish collection of maps and charts that’s perfect for the science geeks, map geeks, and graphic design aficionados. Dave Mallman, the Next Chapter buyer, is jazzed enough about this to give it a coveted slot in their holiday catalog!

The Fifty Most Extreme Places in Our Solar System
by David Baker and Todd Ratcliff is the rare, truly self-explanatory title. This is another finely illustrated book for people who think they are science phobic. And maybe for Ripley’s Believe it or Not types. And maybe even YA level budding astronomers. The stinkiest place in the solar system? Jupiter’s moon Ios- it reeks of rotten eggs.

In Pride & Prejudice: An Annotated Edition, Patricia Meyer Spacks has produced a stunning edition of Austen’s most popular (and favorite) work. She wittily explains unfamiliar terms (so many different types of horse drawn carriages!) as well as sneaky words that we think we know but which had a different connotation in Austen’s time (like “liberal”). Next Chapter bookseller and serious friend of Jane, Jane Glaser, called it “perfect,” and she's trying to recruit me to the Jane Austen Society.

In Dickinson, another elegant, literary gift book, acclaimed close reader of poetry Helen Vendler selects and dissects 150 of Dickinson’s poems. Dickinson is so widely read yet little understood. The perfect match.

Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire & Germany’s Bid for World Power
by British historian and ace story teller Sean McMeekin is one of those quirky micro-histories about a heretofore unexplored corner of World War I conniving by Germany. You’ve got the train line itself, a technological marvel; you’ve got eccentric characters like Baron von Oppenheim; and you’ve got the first recorded call to global jihad. A Boswell Books favorite.

In Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt, the greatest actress who ever lived is celebrated by one of our greatest writers, editors and critics, Robert Gottlieb. She invented celebrity culture, image management and self-promotion, and had an amazing thirty year career. This fascinating, compact bio is the first in Yale’s new Jewish Lives series, which promises clever match-ups of interesting subjects with equally interesting writers.

A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those who Know Him
by Michael Takiff assembles over 150 interviews with people who know the man (from all political persuasions) and stitches them back together in a compulsively readable tapestry. A timely reminder of a recent successful presidency.

Adrian Goldsworthy’s latest opus, Antony & Cleopatra, (“the original power couple” noted Jason Kennedy, Boswell buyer), combines love, power and ambition with a grand tour of the ancient world. A real story-teller, and probably the best popular historian working that patch today.

The Best Technology Writing 2010, edited by Julian Dibbell, assembles some of the finest and most surprising creative nonfiction to appear in print this year. From the Wired magazine editor who deliberately (and unsuccessfully) tried to lose his identity and get off the grid, to Javier Marias on his fear of flying, to the first tweet from outer space (oddly, about Sting), this is a superb and stylish collection. Reminds me of a great mix CD.

The Anthology of Rap, by Adam Bradley, will finally confer academic cred on the most widely disseminated poetry genre in the history of the world. From Grandmaster Flash to M.I.A., this combination fan guide, music reference and poetics handbook hits every audience from adolescent hip-hoppers to hip academics to aging suburban dads

Friday, September 17, 2010

juggling the books

Our new, Spring 2011 Readers are landing, giving reps our first taste of the forthcoming offerings we’ll be pitching all winter. “Have you read the Umberto Eco excerpt yet?” my colleague Adena asked the other day. (from his forthcoming Confessions of a Young Novelist) “You have to, it’s great!” I did, and it is.

When friends peruse our seasonal catalogs, I’m often asked “Do you read all this stuff?” Actually, no. No one could possibly read it all, and as every good bookseller knows, the point is to understand the book and who its surest customer is, not necessarily to wrestle intellectually with the author.

Every season there are back of the catalog books that make me sigh, “Someday I really must tackle one of these important linguistics monographs.” Then I realize that, while I know the meaning of each individual word in it, I don’t really even understand the title. But I know how it fits into the current professional literature (thank you editors), and who it's for, and how to help the bookseller figure out whether they have that customer.

The truth is, reps read a lot of the books we sell. Every good rep I know is constantly hyping books they’ve read and genuinely believe in. I try to read at least a couple full manuscripts or galleys from each of the three presses every season- some because we have high expectations and I want to know what I’m talking about when I’m asking booksellers to commit, and some because there are always books that genuinely interest me. Every season there are more than a handful that I’d buy myself if I weren’t already selling them. Loving the product really does make the job easier.

Aside from reading the whole book, the Readers are another way we break the ice with the new titles. With fifty page excerpts thoughtfully culled from each of the new trade titles, the phone book size readers are an efficient way to get a sense of the writing style, the author’s approach to the subject, and to identify the ones that might have legs, to use an overworked cliché.

If the selling season is a process of making friends with these new books, the Reader is a sort of Meet and Greet. By sales conference in six weeks we’ve moved on to dating. In a few lucky cases, we'll move on to heavy petting. And after selling a seasonal list for a couple months, getting familiar with each title's virtues and tics, we come to know each other very well. Though there are some books with which I’d like a long-term domestic partnership, there are a few others which I’m happy to leave at “See ya.”

Publishers perform a permanent, complicated juggling act. At this moment, there are authors considering writing topics and acquisition editors considering signing them. There are other writers under contract, busily working on their manuscripts, and copy editors shadowing them. Some of these titles might marinate for decades before seeing print (or e-ink.)

While most of the energy is directed at the most immediate, newly minted titles, there’s an immense amount of internal pre- and post- activity that supports the whole publishing mission.

A press inventory ranges from deep backlist titles that sell a couple copies a year but are important, so must be kept alive, to active backlist titles that sell well and predictably.

It encompasses recent titles that may just be getting press attention, and newly released ones that are streaming out to stores. Stock levels on all these books have to be modulated with a lot of skill and smart guesswork. Sales directors who make these reprint calls daily rarely get enough credit for the good ones.

Simultaneously, planning for production on forthcoming titles that won’t exist for two or more years chugs along, entailing hundreds of individual decisions and negotiations.

All of which is to say that while booksellers and reps will be poring over the new spring catalogs over the coming months, the publishers who brought these books to life will be keeping lots of other balls in the air.

Maybe that’s not so unusual. I suppose that while Widget International reps are out hawking the latest gadgets, the home office is making sure that the really cool one from twenty years ago that the old-timers want is still available. And that someone is thinking ahead to future widget trends (digital, most likely) and signing up designers to produce them.

Me, all I know are books. And the juggling act that is contemporary publishing and bookselling is a thing of beauty.

Monday, September 6, 2010

your book is here. oh joy!

They seemed downright giddy at my neighborhood bookstore this week. Book people crave a steady stream of new books, and in that sense summer in the bookshop seems endless. There hasn’t been a big new title in months. The spring books have been re-displayed in every conceivable way to make them seem fresh. And the Recent Releases section is a ghost town. But with the end of August comes the trickle of new titles that will become a flood by October. Yee Ha!

Though I’m bored to death with the subject of e-books, I keep stumbling on unpleasant little reminders of what our digital book future might be like. So many of the implications of a book world where e-books are the norm and printed editions a quaint artifact are strangely unexamined, though I guess new technologies are only ever really evaluated in retrospect.

I had stopped by Boswell Book Company to pick up my copy of the Jonathan Franzen novel Freedom, which, according to bookseller Jason Kennedy, case quantities of other customers had also put on advance hold. Call me old school, but being notified by the bookstore that something I’d ordered has arrived makes me want to drop everything and run. It is not a chore. I do not think to myself, “too bad I couldn’t just have the book itself on my phone rather than a message from Bev.”

In particular, I love the sense of occasion that surrounds release of a book people care about. The enthusiasm is a little contagious, starting in the receiving room where the books are unpacked and matched with holds, to the front desk where they’re stacked for pick-up, to the individual customers, who might be pleased to see their great taste confirmed by the many reserves. (Or not. If you pride yourself on your supposedly distinctive reading choices it may be a little depressing.)

At any rate, a new literary novel or smart biography with excellent advance buzz is cause for a party atmosphere. And it happens fairly frequently in bookstores. I’m not referring to the Harry Potter level spectacle, with midnight openings and cameras and children in pajamas. I'm talking about the modest, everyday excitement that comes with new books. The displaying of which and the picking up of which are something like social events.

And to return to the dreaded topic, this is yet another aspect of e-books that just sounds so joyless to me. Forget the argument about paper vs. e-ink. I’m just wondering how and whether the satisfying little social ritual of collecting a book you’ve been anxiously awaiting at your bookstore can ever be replaced by sitting alone at home on the sofa, downloading text onto a slab of plastic.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

market mania and collective purpose: three great fall books

One reason I love university presses is that, at their best, they serve as a kind of coal mine canary for big ideas. They combine extraordinary reserves of editorial patience with an exceptional level of academic brainpower. This makes the university press publishing process an incubation period for ideas that can later make their way into public discourse in a splashier way.

Hundreds of popular books on evolution over the past couple decades owe their existence to the transformational research of E.O. Wilson and his book Sociobiology.

Steven Pinker’s crisp, cogent arguments about cognition rely mightily on dozens of books nurtured over many years by the cognitive science masters at The MIT Press and other academic publishers.

And the John Gray “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” industry rests on a foundation of academic scholarship, much of which originated with university press publishing. Interestingly, this fall Harvard will publish Rebecca Jordan-Young’s book Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences (September 2010), which calls into question twenty years of received wisdom on the alleged mars/venus gender divide.

My point is that books published by university presses often signal trends. And this season I’m thrilled to see a cluster of fascinating titles examining our collective hallucination about the so-called free market system coming from Harvard University Press. If history is repeated, these books should presage a broader popular discussion about the system we live under and take for granted.

In a most straight-forward way, eminent Chicago scholar Bernard E. Harcourt takes on what he calls one of the most pernicious myths of the modern era- the idea that the market is self-regulating if left alone. In his sweeping new book The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment & the Myth of Natural Order (January 2011), Harcourt brilliantly links our irrational notions about punishment with our fantasies about the supposedly natural system of market organization. It’s a deeply subversive book in the best sense of the word.

Ten years ago, Harcourt launched a critique of the “broken windows” philosophy of urban law enforcement (the idea that if you harshly punish small property crimes, it will stop the big crimes) with his book Illusion of Order. That strategy had hypnotized policy-makers, and Harcourt’s thoughtful challenge opened a discussion. I’m hopeful that his new book will inspire a similar rethinking of our faith in the market metaphor.

In Maynard’s Revenge: The Collapse of Free Market Macroeconomics (January 2011) Lance Taylor shows how little relevance mainstream macroeconomic theories have for the everyday real world. This is a very technical book aimed at economists, thus way above my pay or brain grade, but the gist of the argument is clear. The emperor has no clothes! This is the sort of big, important book that will hopefully percolate through to the pop economists and the general educated public.

Finally, in another big idea book with a more philosophical bent, historian Daniel T. Rodgers, in Age of Fracture (January 2011) writes about the ways in which the decade of the eighties really transformed us in ways we still don’t completely understand or acknowledge. Longstanding shared commitments to social obligation and collective social institutions were replaced by an obsession with the private self and its individual desires. Our politics turn so much on a supposed left/right divide, but Rodgers posits that the more important split is the private/collective one.

As I read this book I was struck by how much the market obsession Taylor and Harcourt write about relies on this devaluing of what we owe to each other. It’s the sort of wonderful, beautifully written book that feels powerful, as if it could actually prompt a mass attitude shift if enough people read it.

It’s hard to imagine reading this cluster of books without shedding a few illusions about the capitalist system. That’s a long overdue national discussion that will need both university presses and trade publishers to move it along.

The critique is getting sharper and sharper, aided by the daily headlines and real life unemployment lines. Unfortunately, there’s often a yawning gap between the comprehensiveness of the indictment and the scope of the proposed remedies. Tweaks won’t do. What we desperately need now are big idea alternative social and economic arrangements, and some daring 21st century socialist thinkers to dream them up. That’s a publishing trend I’m anxious to see.

Friday, August 13, 2010

In defense of expertise; Nelson Atkins Museum of Art shop

I’ve racked up about 5,000 miles this summer in my Mazda and have been listening to lots of great new music (thank you Everyday Music in Seattle, Twist & Shout in Denver, and B-Side in Madison). Laurie Anderson has always been a favorite so I was keen to hear her new opus, Homeland.

At first, my favorite tune was “Only an Expert.” Catchy beat, interesting narrative. Not surprisingly, it’s a sarcastic takedown of the experts.

But after a dozen listens it started to grate on me. For one thing, “experts” are sitting ducks; we don’t have many politically charged performers of Laurie Anderson’s stature and it seems a waste to squander eight minutes on such an obvious target.

Then her argument began to annoy me. I realized that I actually like the idea of experts! I think training people in specialties that interest them so the rest of us can benefit from their accumulated wisdom is actually a smart idea. The problem isn’t expertise per se; it’s the ends to which it’s put. To rail against mastery seems, well, stupid coming from a woman who is a certified expert in musical performance.

I’ve been a bit cranky on this whole subject lately since so much of new media seems predicated on the idea that we’re all experts, or that the experts aren’t really experts, or that expertise doesn’t really matter anyway. One opinion is as good as another, one fact is as good as another, and everything is “just a theory” anyway.

If Laurie Anderson wants to see the positive fruits of expertise she should visit the Nelson Atkins Museum shop in Kansas City. I’ve been calling on this store for ten years now, and it’s still a great surprise every season to see what book people who know what they are doing can accomplish. (There are other excellent museum shops of course- she should also pay a visit to the Boston MFA shop to see experience and taste in full flower.)

Over the past decade, so many fantastic art museum shops have become hollow shells when it comes to book inventory. Many seem more like high end jewelry and scarf emporia than bookshops. Where maintaining a solid selection of art books was once simply part of the mission of an art museum, the shops have now become centers for chasing cash. If books aren’t pulling their weight and the margin on play-doh and ugly knickknacks is better, books have to go. The market has spoken!

This downward spiral, where “watching” the book inventory level quickly becomes a purge, and the book section of every shop begins to look like a Taschen kiosk, is a depressing spectacle. But then there are the inexplicable exceptions, like the fantastic Nelson Atkins shop.

What makes this store so special?

It’s a bookshop with related merchandise, not a gadget shop with a few books.

The book inventory is attractively arranged and fresh.

Subject areas are wide and deep. All of art history is represented, not just a scattering of tie-in’s to current exhibitions.

There’s a sense of mission that reminds me of some of the excellent bookshops in European museums. The goal of exposing visitors to a great selection of art books seems like an extension of exposure to a selection of great art. And- surprise! - once committed to a significant book selection, the books sell quite well.

Kansas City is the quintessential Middle American city, and the museum is supported in a robust way by the corporate community. Indeed, admission is free, which is no small factor when trying to figure out why they do so well with books. A family that has paid $100 just to get in might not be so willing to part with $65 for a monograph.

But there’s a more important factor: the staff expertise. Many of the booksellers have been there for years. John Hamann, who has been the brains behind the store and inventory as long as I’ve called on them, has both a vast institutional knowledge of art books, and an intuitive sense of what his visitors might find interesting or quirky. He’s a walking argument for the idea that knowing something well is related to doing it well.

I don’t want to see any more museum shops turned over to consultants and number crunchers and window dressers. If art book sales have a future in our great art museums, it will be because administrators invested in staff expertise.

Sometimes, “only an expert CAN deal with the problem.”

Saturday, July 31, 2010

the middleman

There have been some incredibly uninformed, provocative, and rude comments coming from the self-styled digital book visionaries lately.

Two pieces of Amazon news- a cheap new kindle, and agent Andrew Wylie’s announcement that he will sell some of his clients’ digital books exclusively through Amazon- were popular topics of conversation around the bookselling water-cooler this week.

Wylie describes his plan as a way to “eliminate the middleman,” meaning the booksellers and publishers who have patiently and often unprofitably nurtured audiences for his previously unknown authors for years. As if the complicated task of bringing a book to market successfully is just a matter of shuffling it along an assembly line, where greedy and unnecessary booksellers wait to grab the money as it passes by. Why don’t these authors follow their own logic and dump the agent, the ultimate middleman?

Another longtime insider big mouth remarked this week that “What publishers do is get books on the bookstore shelves,” and if bookstores cease to be the main places where texts are sold, publishers will necessarily become superfluous.

Granted, there seem to be a lot of otherwise smart people around the book industry these days who are desperate to sound like forward-thinking futurists. But the arrogant, ignorant dismissal of the value added by booksellers and publishers is insulting and wrong.

Unfortunately, we have done an awful job explaining the publishing process to the public at large. A misconception has been allowed to fester and take root- the idea that the main cost of publishing a book is the printing and delivery of it. Reputable journalists will blithely talk about how cheap e-books are to produce, ignoring two giant aspects of the investment: the editors who coax a good book into existence, sometimes over the course of decades; and the marketing specialists, who work like hell to make sure the author’s works get noticed.

And let’s not forget the role of those other pesky middlemen, the booksellers. I’m anxious to see how authors so enamored of digital books will fare without the heroic efforts of the bookstores and their events staff to promote them. My neighborhood bookstore hosts author events almost every day, and works like crazy to build audiences. I hope authors are thinking clearly about all the implications of the rush to digital. Goodbye bookstore events. Royalties may be the least of it.

The curatorial, gate-keeping function will become even more decisive in the days ahead, and smart marketing will become even more crucial. When any old file can be deemed a “book,” I will cherish my favorite stores and publishers even more for culling through the dross and offering me a discriminating inventory.

It’s easy to get a little unhinged as we transition to the new book reality, but like a lot of aspects of our lovely capitalist system, much is out of our hands. We can fret all we want, and we can and should make noise about principles that seem most worth defending (fairness, access to books for everyone). But ultimately, market, technological and cultural forces bigger than little us will be making the decisions.

Back in the 80’s, I chaired an ABA committee called the “Industry Standardization Committee.” This was a working group charged with getting publishers to do things like print ISBN’s on the backs of books, sort their invoices in some comprehensible order, and use non-lethal packing materials.

We issued manifestos, spoke at meetings, lobbied publishers and in general made a loud fuss for a couple years. But it wasn’t until a mega-chain and a mega-wholesaler decided they needed some of this consistency for their rapidly expanding systems that anything really changed. And then it changed with amazing speed. We got to enjoy the fruits, and can even claim a little credit for getting the issues on the table, but the big boys made the decisions.

In some ways it’s easier to talk about the bigger problems than the little, more immediate ones. It can be harder to figure out how to sell a particular book to a particular customer tomorrow than it is to speculate about a future where half or more of all book sales are digitized.

But I think our best strategy is to keep the focus on that small, daily battle for book sales, and let the future take care of itself.

One thing is certain: the coolest people in the book industry are all of us middlemen, and there won’t be many books worth having in any format without us.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

where do I shelve this?

When reps and booksellers sit down to hash over forthcoming books, there are lots of angles to consider. While I see a few buyers who make snap judgments based on instinct and experience, most carefully pore over the metrics about each title that appear in the catalog: price, format, book dimensions, page count, and number of illustrations. I have been asked about paper weight. I have been asked about font and typography. But no topic comes close to eating up the appointment time consumed by discussions over category. That is, where do I shelve this book?

It’s a great annoyance to storefront booksellers that internet retailers don’t have this problem. Or, more accurately, can get around it by slicing and dicing subject lists so that a book comes up in infinite possible subject searches. Even when a title is floridly interdisciplinary, few stores can afford to take a physical copy for every section in which a customer might look for it.

I’ve presented dozens of titles from our new Fall 2010 lists that required some hard thinking about placement.

Yale’s fascinating new biography of Joe Louis (Joe Louis: Hard Times Man by Randy Roberts) could be shelved in biography, or sports, or even African-American Studies, since the focus is on meaning of Louis’ success to the Black community.

MIT’s excavation of Freud’s obsession with Mexico (Ruben Gallo’s Freud’s Mexico: Into the Wilds of Psychoanalysis) has prompted the logical shelving question “Freud, or Mexico?” Our catalog heading suggests “psychoanalysis/Latin America,” a combination I don’t see too often. (For what it’s worth, my advice has been that this is of greater interest to the Freud customer than the Mexican history and culture customer, but what do I know?)

And Harvard’s new book from innovation guru David Edwards (The Lab: Creativity and Culture), investigates what art has to learn from science, and vice-versa. “Art, or science?” (Just to make it even more interesting, I try to remind buyers that the book has business applications.)

These discussions can be either enlightening or frustrating. Sometimes they start out enlightening and get frustrating. The “where to shelve it” conversation is really a stand in for the “who is this book for and do I have that customer” conversation. After a lengthy chat on this subject about a title last week, the bookseller sighed and said “the longer these talks go on, the smaller the order, right?’ And then she decided to skip.

Stores that are still organized on some variation of a Dewey decimal model- which is to say, nearly all- will inevitably have to ask and answer this question about every complex title. It’s not necessarily unreasonable. Some buyers interpret many possible categories as “publisher doesn’t really know what the book is,” though I think that’s rarely the case. And as long as the average bookstore customer expects to see these familiar categories in their neighborhood stores, figuring out the best home for a book is time well spent.

But last week I dropped in on a charming bookstore following a different model in the St Louis suburb of Webster Groves- Pudd'n Head Books. This shop seems to have subverted the whole category premise, and is reinventing mainstay bookstore sections in really interesting ways.

For instance, the Biography section, while not particularly large, is subdivided into more than a dozen sub-headings, some with only a few books in each. These include:

- Rising Above
- War Torn Children
- General bons vivants
- Remarkable Friendships
- Culture Clash
- Revolutionaries
- Eccentric Scientists
- Explorers
- Politicians
- Ordinary Citizens
- Dysfunctional Families
- Exceptionally Cool People

I can hear the immediate objections from traditionalists:

- How do you find anything? (Yes, booksellers are really forced to know their inventory and it helps to be small and selective ;)
- How do you decide if a book fits in more than one sub-category? What if it doesn’t fit any quirky sub-category? (This is marketing, not shelving books in a library, so there’s lots of leeway for creative license ;)
- Won’t a lot of small shelves make the sections seem incomplete? (On the contrary, my impression of that biography section was that it was huge, and I was shocked to realize how few actual books it contained.)

I’ve seen a few other stores take this approach, and as a bookstore browser I find it really appealing. A more selective and playful presentation begins to seem more like curating than traditional bookselling.

Every book on display at the Wexner Center Bookstore in Columbus Ohio looks as if it’s been hand-chosen.

Looking Glass Books in Portland Oregon has an appealingly offbeat inventory sensibility.

And though it’s mainly a used store, no bookstore is more compulsively eccentric than Monkey's Paw in Toronto. You are guaranteed to leave that store with books on subjects you never knew you cared about, in part because the bizarre organization exposes you to them.

As usual when I’m giving advice like this, the caveat is “easy for me to say.” But I’m an addicted bookshop patron as well as a rep, and increasingly, the stores I feel drawn to spend time in are the stores that surprise me.

And isn’t this the message we’ve been hearing from the experts? If physical bookstores are to survive they need to truly be destination spots, great good places where book people love to hang out, offering something the internet giants can’t. I’m not sure the same old tired, library style category headings and inventory organization fit that vision.

Monday, July 12, 2010

wearing bookstore love

I’ve always been a sucker for a good bookstore T-shirt, and a couple times this season I’ve worn my “Betty’s Bookshop” shirt to my appointment with Betty at her bookshop.

In the past I’ve avoided this because it felt a little tacky. Not tacky, desperate. Even though Michael Boggs at Carmichael’s in Louisville assured me that “we LOVE shameless pandering” when I apologized for practicing same by wearing the store’s shirt the day of our appointment, I worried that my enthusiasm might be interpreted as fishing for better orders. (As if booksellers could be bought so cheaply!)

But Carmichael’s quickly put me at ease on that score. And as a bonus I was offered the Carmichael’s staff discount at Heine Brothers coffee next door when they noticed my attire!

But after getting reassurance on wearing store shirts in-store, I began to fret about the trickier issue of wearing one store’s T-shirt while visiting another store. (You’re thinking the book business can’t be in such dire straits if this is what sales reps have time to worry about.)

One day in the Twin Cities last month, I wore my Common Good Books shirt (a nice, black, long-sleeve number) to my meeting with Sue Zumberge at the St. Paul store in the morning. Without thinking, I still had it on when I visited Magers & Quinn, a fine Minneapolis bookseller and a competitor, in the afternoon.

I was momentarily mortified, but I should have remembered what a collegial bunch independent booksellers are. I wouldn’t recommend wearing an shirt (if such exist) to a neighborhood bookshop, but at M&Q the Common Good shirt just got generous compliments.

Mary Magers said she was thinking about shirts for the store and we chatted about what makes for a good bookshop T-shirt. What are the design elements that would make me actually buy a shirt?

- Good, strong graphics that emphasize the store as a place.

- Good, strong colors. Black always works.

- The store location, a crucial detail! In the past it seems as if people have downplayed that aspect, but with localmania in full swing I’m happy to see names of actual towns on bookstore shirts and logos.

A short slogan or tagline is fine if it's part of the store brand. But please no goofy sayings. I’m sure I’m not the only potential buyer to get excited about the front of a T-shirt only to notice- just in time- some absurd slogan or saying across the back of it. I would not be caught dead in a “Reading is sexy” shirt no matter how much I loved the store.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

back to the bookstore future in seattle

I have a suggestion for all my friends and colleagues who are losing sleep over the future of the book: get out here to Seattle and pay a visit to Elliott Bay Book Company’s new store in Capitol Hill.

Reluctantly forced to move by real estate issues from the literary outpost it staked out in Pioneer Square decades ago, there was plenty of consternation over whether such an idiosyncratic shrine to independent bookselling could re-invent itself in a new location.

The funky, historic old downtown quarter, with its interesting mix of international tourists, baseball fans, and homegrown winos, seemed an organic part of the bookstore’s identity. How would it fare in an actual neighborhood- a lively mix of students, professionals, and young families, with a thriving gay and lesbian vibe?

The physical character of Elliott Bay seemed unique, essential, and irreproducible. How on earth could the antique wood floors, which sounded like creeping through your grandmother’s attic, ever be replicated? Or the signature weathered bookshelves, which had literally supported thirty-five years of changing Pioneer Square reading tastes? And even if recreating these essential features two miles away were possible, was it desirable? Wouldn’t the small business consultant gurus advise seizing the opportunity to change and modernize?

But friends of the store can put the nail-biting on pause and move on to other things to worry about.

“Jaw-dropping” is one of those overused phrases- really, how often does your jaw actually drop even when seeing something great? But mine did when I walked through the doors of the Tenth Avenue store for the first time last week. I felt as if I were seeing the perfect bookstore. And after a few hours and a few visits, I believe by so rigorously honoring its own history it may be creating a prototype for the bookstore of the future.

I jotted down ten things that really worked for me. You may find others.

1. The book inventory is top drawer. It will tweak and evolve (it always does in good bookstores!) but the essential core strengths we always loved about the Pioneer Square location are still here. And showcased in a way that wasn’t possible there.

2. The staff are still great. I overheard one somewhat dotty customer being led with infinite patience through the labyrinth of what to read after Stieg Larsson. There’s a tag team approach- if one bookseller can’t answer, someone else can. And everyone who works there seems, I don’t know, interesting- like they probably spent their day off performing, creating, writing or working for social justice.

3. The layout, which sprawls across the floor of an old Ford Motor repair facility, is wonderfully airy and spacious. No more constantly having people brush past your butt when you’re trying to read the Staff Recommends cards.

4. Wood is everywhere, and yes, the floors creak in a really satisfying way.

5. The gorgeous high ceilings, wood beams and skylights are lovely.

6. Those front windows, a wall of them- amazing, and what a surprise. They look great from the outside but from inside, flush with gray Seattle morning light, they are dazzling. They give the whole space a sort of Bauhaus feel that seems perfect. Bookstore as 21st century creative workshop!

7. The immediate neighbors couldn’t be better and are definitely worth a visit (or two) - the northwest music chain Everyday Music is adjacent to the store, and one door down is my favorite restaurant/bar in all of Seattle, Oddfellows. I’m not sure who or what the Oddfellows were, but I guess it was something like the Masons. They left these gorgeous old buildings, and this one has been restored with great charm. And the food is tasty from breakfast through late at night.

8. The broader neighborhood, as mentioned above, is a fascinating mix, and only minutes from downtown.

9. And the even broader community- Seattle- is of course a bewitching place. It’s especially satisfying to find a store like Elliott Bay situated in the belly of the online beast which has wreaked so much havoc in the book community.

10. Rick Simonson, book buyer, events originator, passionate lover of international fiction, and overall sage, is the glue that holds it all together. He’s a walking testament to the power of an institutional memory in bookselling, though he’s never a slave to track. (selecting new titles based on sales history of similar old ones.) He’s a taste-maker in the best sense, trusting his own instincts and reading interests while knowing how to interpret the notoriously cryptic tea leaves left by customers. Nobody I can think of in bookselling has a stronger commitment to all of the working parts that make up a successful book- the publisher, the author, the store, the reader- and is more adept at stitching them together.

Understandably, general booksellers across the country are in a panic about what the future holds for our business. (So are publishers!). I can’t really fault a bookseller for rushing to embrace new technologies before they understand them, or for demanding a slice of the e-book pie, or for giving up valuable floor space in their stores for Rube Goldberg-like printing contraptions. We have to try everything.

But when I see a successful re-invention like the new Elliott Bay, I feel more confident that the great bookstore of the next 20 or 30 years may look a lot like the great bookstore of today and yesterday. Sticking to publishing and selling printed books in “great good places” as a business plan is not necessarily a form of denial.

End of love letter.

But check it out.

Friday, June 18, 2010

business books & the last laugh part 2

To David Schwartz, the success with Winning Through Intimidation suggested that a big, untapped book retail niche was germinating under our noses. Though there were a handful of business and technical specialist booksellers in the country, very few general trade stores showed much interest in the business book market in the late seventies.

Enter Jack Covert. Jack and his wife Ann were proprietors of “Jack’s Record Rack,” the legendary music store on the east side of Milwaukee. Anticipating the demise of vinyl, Jack closed up shop and brought his savvy and enthusiasm to the book business by signing on with Schwartz to find and develop a clientele for business books.

The focus on professional books was not entirely new at the store. For years, David’s father Harry had built and maintained a significant medical book specialty, and we sourced textbooks for the Medical College, Marquette University and other schools and hospitals. But this was a very small operation and not terribly proactive compared with the business book program envisioned by Jack and David.

My memory of the details may be a bit hazy, but I recall three things pretty clearly:

First, though they had a reasonably firm idea of where they wanted to end up, the road map to get there was pretty sketchy. I don’t think Jack or David really knew for sure that the idea of selling big quantities of books to corporations would ever really bear fruit, nor how long the experiment to find out would have to last. But there was a willingness to commit resources and tweak the program until it got traction. I suspect there were many moments when both of them were tempted to pack it in.

Secondly, I remember Jack’s enthusiasm. He brought an old school sales evangelism to his outreach attempts that we hadn’t seen much in the staid world of the bookshop. Even by 1980, when the threats of chain competition were alarming (we were worried about Walden and B. Dalton! Can you imagine?), the genteel bookshop philosophy was to do your best and keep a tidy store with the right books and hope that the customers would come to you. Meanwhile Jack loaded up his trunk with business books and drove to remote parts of the state to make cold calls on small and medium businesses.

Which leads to my third recollection: the rest of the staff thought the whole thing deeply weird. The rest of the booksellers were not unlike current bookseller demographics- youngish fiction readers, sometimes with specific interests in history or the arts. We had been drawn to working in the store by the Schwartz sensibility, a somewhat nebulous vibe but one that definitely did not include hawking capitalist apologetics to The Man.

We watched the growing business section in the store and the huge claims on David’s attention as a kind of internal threat, despite the fact that Jack was the only dedicated staffer working on it. In the same way that I sometimes feel guilty now about how contemptuous I could be toward my younger sister decades ago, I sometimes feel a pang of remorse when I think about how unpleasant we booksellers behaved toward our new, entrepreneurial colleague. But Jack seemed to let it all slide by, and kept his focus on the mission.

And in some ways, Jack has had the last laugh. In 2010, the Harry W Schwartz Bookshop is no more. But its direct descendent, 800CEOREAD, is the most impressive and profitable business book retailer in the country.

More on them and how they do what they do to come.