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.