Friday, April 30, 2010

Coming this fall- more questions than answers

The fall 2010 sales conferences have ended. There are hundreds of new titles on the way, about which much more to come.

The range of subjects on offer is dazzling, but these are not mainly books insisting on the right answers. They are books about asking the right questions. (Indeed, six of the new titles on the Harvard list are phrased as questions.) In a season when it seems as if every voice in public life is shrieking with certainty, I don’t remember a better assortment of books on how to acknowledge, honor, and use uncertainty.

Here’s a little quiz to whet your appetite. (answers below)

1) A brilliant legal philosopher warns that the world of values needs saving. What from?

2) Which of Jane Austen’s books was most popular in her lifetime, was her personal favorite, and is most widely read today?

3) A prize-winning historian says it’s not the right-left divide we have to worry about, but the growing chasm between the what and the what?

4) How many Facebook friends do you really need (and probably actually have)?

5) What does a leading political thinker call “one of the most pernicious myths of the modern era?”

6) What did Shelley describe as “profuse strains of unpremeditated art?”

7) “Complexity is not the problem.” So what is the problem?

8) What may finally save newspaper journalism?

9) What do Helen Mirren, Jane Tennison, Zane, Kara Walker and the Toxic Titties have in common?

10) With what country was Sigmund Freud obsessed?

11) What is the only animal that points?

12) Who is the most important (but largely unknown to English speaking audiences) poet writing in Arabic today?

13) What important speech will register an anniversary on Jan 17 1961?

14) What was the most effective civic propaganda spectacle of the thirties?

15) Who was the greatest actress who ever lived?


1) Science! (Ronald Dworkin/Justice for Hedgehogs/Harvard January 2011)

2) Pride and Prejudice (An Annotated Edition, edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks/Harvard October 2010)

3) The private obsession with individual desires vs. tending to our social obligations. (Daniel T. Rodgers/Age of Fracture/Harvard January 2011)

4) Around 150. (Robin Dunbar/How Many Friends Does One Person Need? Harvard/November 2010)

5) The free market as a model for everything. (Bernard E. Harcourt/The Illusion of Free Markets/Harvard/January 2011)

6) Bird song. (John Bevis/AAAAW to ZZZZZD: The Words of Birds/ MIT September 2010)

7) Poor design. (Donald A. Norman/Living with Complexity/ MIT October 2010)

8) Video games! (Ian Bogost et al/Newsgames/MIT October 2010)

9) They are aggressive women, and they are celebrated by contemporary culture. (Maud Lavin/Push Comes to Shove/ MIT September 2010)

10) Mexico. (Ruben Gallo/Freud’s Mexico/MIT September 2010)

11) Humans. (Raymond Tallis/Michelangelo’s Finger/ Yale September 2010)

12) Adonis. (No, not that one!) (Adonis/Selected Poems/ Yale Margellos October 2010)

13) Dwight Eisenhower’s warning about the alarming, creeping power of the “military industrial complex” (James Ledbetter/Unwarranted Influence/ Yale January 2011)

14) The World’s Fairs in Chicago, San Diego, Dallas, Cleveland, New York and San Francisco. (Robert W. Rydell et al/Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the Thirties/ Yale October 2010)

15) Sarah Bernhardt! (Robert Gottlieb/Sarah:The Life of Sarah Bernhardt/Yale September 2010)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Luddite reps get smartphones, love them

My friend Daniel Goldin, proprietor of Boswell Books in Milwaukee, reads while he walks. It’s not something you see many people doing in our city, and I once heard a stranger say to him “Hey I know you, you’re that guy I always see reading and walking.”

I’ve done a fair bit of book-walking myself, and it’s easier than you might think. Peripheral vision is a powerful thing, and you can pretty much count on people to get out of your way when they see you coming. Still, it’s a rare thing to see, at least in my neighborhood.

Judging by the last eight days I spent in Cambridge, New Haven and New York, the world has caught up with Daniel. Except that, alas, instead of being immersed in books, walkers are staring down at their devices. It seems a miracle that the crowds of pedestrians on West 23rd street can avoid constant collisions with other people who are also not paying the slightest attention to where they are going, but they do avoid it! I am taking this as an argument for more reading-while-walking.

We do seem to have reached some sort of tipping point when it comes to smart phones. When people my age and above are obsessively poking away at their little screens in public, the transition to a computer in every pocket seems well underway.

The smart phone wave has even hit the Harvard/MIT/Yale rep force. Three weeks into going from mere phones to devices, every sales meeting break prompted iphones and blackberries being whipped out around the table. In past seasons, a ten minute break announcement sparked a run to the restroom and the coffee urn; as of this week, checking incoming email and texts seems to have supplanted creature comforts on the sales conference break priority list.

There's no denying it's a powerful tool. Minor questions and disputes- "Is this really the first book on this subject? What about that one by whatshisname that so and so published? What was it called?" - can be resolved instantly. There are subtle little contests to see who can wiki faster and come up with useful factoids.

Me, I have mixed feelings about it. So far I’m loving my droid. It's an undeniable rush to be able to triage incoming messages and deal with the important ones (orders!) on the spot.

I like having one hub where people can reach me, instead of a roster of alternative phone numbers and email addresses, all of which needed periodic checking. This has already “easied my life” as Andrey, our ace tech support guy, promised it would.

Some of the other bells and apps look intriguing, and some look ridiculous. I haven’t had much time to explore those possibilities yet, though I downloaded the “hypnotic spiral” for mesmerizing booksellers into taking vast copies of one new fall title, as I promised the author I would do.

Then there are the worrisome aspects: the constant tracking of our whereabouts, the comprehensive mapping of every inch of our geography, and the increasingly narrow-casting of advertising.

Smart phone enthusiasts seem relatively blasé about this dark side of the technology. And the concerns that get expressed seem way more about potential big government surveillance than about the creeping corporate choreography of our economic behavior.

Personally, I’m more alarmed about the little phone in my pocket being the leading edge of our transformation into robotic little uber-consumers than I am about nefarious Orwellian government. It’s a little disturbing to see how much privacy we’re willing to give away for fun and convenience.

When my colleague Adena and I drove from Cambridge to New Haven- a route she knows very well- we let the lady from the google navigation system direct us just for fun. Her crisp instructions were correct in every detail, and she seemed absolutely certain and confident. We felt like daring outlaws when we pulled off the designated GPS route in Vernon, Connecticut to stop at our favorite delicatessen. “Turn around!” the lady warned us.

No doubt future iterations of the device will co-opt the possibility of even this mild rebellion. “I see you’re getting off at Exit 65. How about a nice bowl of matzo ball soup at Rein’s,” she will purr. It will seem perfect, her knowing exactly what we want even before we do. But instead of being our idea it will be hers.

Friday, April 9, 2010

next up: sales conference 25

(Erika Valenti and Laurel Oakes enjoy a moment at MIT sales conference dinner Oct 2009)

I’m about to head to Cambridge and New Haven for my 25th round of sales conferences. How is this possible?

How can it be nearly twelve years since I was lured from bookselling to “the other side?” My status as new kid around the table expired long ago, though let it be said I have colleagues who have been at it far longer. I’m reminded of a remark wise man Rick Simonson made at a Book Expo a couple years ago as a group of once idealistic young book people stood around chatting: “How did the young turks get to be the old farts so fast?”

Still, I look forward to the 25th sales conferences as eagerly as I awaited the first. These rituals are maybe the closest thing the secular publishing world has to a sacrament, the launch of a new season’s offerings upon the world. A twice a year (three times for some presses) gathering of the tribe, it’s a chance to reconnect with colleagues and make friends with the fresh titles on the new lists. (With luck only a few of these young turks will seem like old farts by the time the selling season is over).

As a bookseller, I had an intense curiosity about the sales conferences my reps attended. Even though some of them complained about them as if they were a chore, there was no missing the fact that it was sacrosanct. You had to be there.

And when I pressed a little for details about what went on, it sometimes sounded more like a vacation than work. The major publishers would often gather at nice resorts in sunny places, and the food and entertainment always sounded pretty lavish.

Convinced that these meetings involved some secret, extra special information about the books my rep was trying to sell me on, I pestered them about every detail, trying to crack the code. When longtime Random House rep Jim Masiakowski once mentioned that they had videotaped their meeting (this was in the digital dark ages, i.e. late 80’s), I badgered him about sharing it. “Not for booksellers, it wouldn’t be helpful,” he said. I took this to mean that it probably contained too many devious plans for how to get us to take stacks of his books.

Though my experience with sales conferences is limited to three presses- Harvard, MIT and Yale- the mystique I created around them as a bookseller has long worn off. These are working meetings with barely a moment to take a breath. The scheduling and running of them is a logistical nightmare, as doing justice to both book and clock is a thankless challenge for sales managers.

Fabulous dinners, yes I’ll concede that. Later this summer, when I’m munching the chips, sub sandwich and diet coke I’ve purchased at a KwikTrip on I-80, the memory of sales conference dinners will keep me going.

Our presses hold their meetings in their offices on the university campuses, not in Boca. The gist of the meeting involves each of the editors making a short pitch for each of their books. By this time, we’ve had an early look at the catalog and supplemental title information sheets; we’ve seen jackets and sometimes interior art; we’ve read through massive bound binders of book excerpts, and usually one or two complete manuscripts. So it’s not like we’re completely unfamiliar with the new titles.

But we reps are really always looking for that one additional angle from the editor. For me it’s usually “what made you to want to publish this book in the first place?” If we’re lucky, an editor will let slip an authentic, disarming, clear cut, witty, conversational phrase that we can make use of throughout the season. You can’t force it, but it’s great when it happens.

In some ways, this reminds me of meeting with booksellers. By the time I see them, the buyers have often read the catalog copy, checked their sales on comparable titles, and are looking at the supplemental material and galleys I’m throwing at them. But what they need from a rep is a concise, cogent, perfect synopsis that will make them say “oh, I get it.” And that they can then use with their customers.

This process works the other way as well. Despite the volumes of notes we take from our sales meetings, the really great lines on books often don’t turn up until we begin selling. Sometimes one booksellers’ clever comment will get incorporated into my shtick on a book for the rest of the season.

The other thing I love about the sales meetings is the academic environment. These editors are sometimes actual or potential intellectual superstars in their own right. To sit in a room with them discussing dozens of erudite new books is like atwo-day graduate seminar. On occasion, authors themselves join us for lunch presentations. Imagine sharing pizza with the likes of Harold Bloom, William Mitchell and Stephen J. Gould.

It was a surprise to me to find out how much these meetings revolve around the content of the books, around making sure we understand the ideas, and around how the book’s argument fits in with others on the same topic. There is actually very little (some might say too little) time devoted to marketing strategies. There’s room for input from reps on prices, discounts, print runs, and sometimes bigger issues like book title. We spend lots of time on jackets and it’s probably the area where bookseller feedback has made itself heard most directly.

MIT starts Monday, followed by Harvard and then Yale at the end of the week. Now back to packing. Did I mention that we dress up for sales conferences? I have a whole world of colleagues in Cambridge and New Haven who have almost never seen me out of a jacket and tie. And then there’s everyone else in my world who have never seen me in one.

Friday, April 2, 2010

obama @ prairie lights; and saying yes or no to political books

When President Obama dropped in on Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City last week, he was amused to find the memoirs of Karl Rove and Mitt Romney on the shelves. Co-owner Jan Weismiller, quite properly, told him “we believe in freedom of expression so we have to carry" the books.

That inclusive sentiment about inventory is nearly universal and almost second nature in the bookselling community. It’s a foundational argument for why we need independent bookselling. But assuming the obligation to stock every book, which is to say not censoring for political or other text-based reasons, is a strategy loaded with paradoxical pitfalls.

At one extreme, a bookstore could take the position that it will stock everything, though of course in practice this is impossible. An online retailer can claim to “have” every book in print, but in truth only a tiny fraction of these titles are ever actually in their possession before someone orders them.

At the other extreme, a bookstore may be adamant about bringing in only what it wants to stock and believes in, hoping that there will be enough customers who share its brilliant interests to keep it in business.

But let’s say a bookstore with somehow unlimited shelf space commits to an absolutist position, and swears off denying books a place on its shelves for reasons of ideological incorrectness. Every book welcome here!

This strikes me as not much different than the argument the giant social networking sites are using to deny any responsibility for what’s posted under their name. Wouldn’t the bookseller with infinite space and a total “open access” philosophy also be walking away from responsibility and discrimination (in the good sense of the word)?

Bookselling is an odd form of retailing. When you buy almost any other commodity, the retailer stands behind it in toto. The bookseller stands behind the physical integrity of the product (if it’s misbound, or pages are missing, it’s returnable) but doesn’t vouch for the editorial contents. And it couldn’t be any other way.

A bookseller is actually exercising his or her right to freedom of expression by deciding what books to stock- including, implicitly, what not to stock. A bookstore is not a library supported by public funds. Because attempts to get bookstores to stop carrying this or that title are so common, it’s easy to forget that a decision to not sell a book is not censorship. This is especially true today, when every book is easily available. One outlet deciding a title is not for them doesn’t make it unavailable to an entire community.

Some booksellers handle the dilemma by making a distinction between displaying a book and stocking it. Or they’ll order it only when asked, though that strikes me as a little defensive.

When I meet with bookbuyers and we peruse the new lists, the most important consideration is “do I have the customer for this book?” But I hear dozens of reasons to say no to books. The price is too high, I can’t sell hardcovers over $30, I don’t like the jacket, the last one didn’t work so well, not enough illustrations, I don’t get the argument, that author photo is horrible, and on and on.

But buyers, who are extremely busy people and are skilled at making decisions on gut instinct, are also known to skip books for skimpy reasons, or no reason at all. “I just don’t think so” is a frequent comment, and I usually don’t argue. When I was a buyer I said that constantly.

All of these reasons and many more are perfectly valid. But, curiously, the one reason general booksellers often feel uncomfortable passing on a book is if their objections are political. Something about saying “I just don’t want his (or her) book in my store” seems wrong.

I guess the question is “what kind of bookseller am I?” Nobody would really expect to find some hateful misogynist screed on the shelves of a feminist bookstore (unless put there for “know your enemy” reasons, which opens another whole can of worms: who can really know the uses to which a book will be put?)

But a general bookstore really does have to constantly calibrate, paying close attention to the diverse needs of its community. And these are sometimes in conflict with the ethics of the store owner or staff. The choice is to interpret “free expression” as an obligation to stock books you don’t believe in but some of your customers might want, or to see it as a right that belongs to you.

When it comes to some polarizing titles, it can mean trying to placate one group that’s pissed because you’re stocking a book and another that’s angry because you are not.

This nest of complications is far from clear cut, and I suspect most of us handle it by trying to hold to a consistent overall philosophy, while calling the messy shots on a case by case basis.

David Schwartz, who taught me a lot about bookselling, was the most radical general bookseller I’ve ever met. His idea of the most important book in the store was E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, and his personal critique of some of the books he sold could be scathing.

But he absolutely relished stocking the most odious, right-wing polemics. He thought of them as insurance for the recurring dust-ups over whether he was running a “communist bookstore.”

So in the end, despite my ambiguous feelings, I would probably do exactly as Prairie Lights did with the Romneys and Roves. People expect booksellers to be gatekeepers, but they also expect a bookstore to be one place where the book, just by virtue of its being a book, is honored. And where no book is taboo.