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.