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

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