Thursday, March 25, 2010

In praise of the paperback original

If you've ever spent any time in a European bookshop, you’ve probably noticed that the default book format is paperback. And the European paperback original is usually a sleeker, prettier, altogether more satisfying visual and tactile experience than our domestic trade paperbacks.

I’ve been waiting eons for that long promised ascendancy of the paperback original in the US book market. When did Bright Lights Big City first appear? 1984? At the time, we thought those genius Vintage Contemporaries might finally put a nail in the hardcover coffin. But in 2010, the conviction that every new fiction and nonfiction book has to appear sandwiched between clunky, unappealing cardboard slabs is more entrenched than ever.

If we’re lucky, the ebook threat might finally dislodge the dictatorship of the hardcover once and for all.

For years, publishers have resorted to the same collection of reasons why original books must be issued in hardcover.

Reviewers will not touch paperbacks.

Hardcovers are more durable and will last longer.

Americans just prefer hardcovers, it’s a cultural thing.

The economics of original paperback publishing won’t work.

But over the years, book reviewers have been much more willing to feature books in non-hardcover formats. (And in any case, better to worry about the continued existence of book reviewers themselves than about their format preferences.)

The deterioration in physical quality of some hardcover publishing has been depressing, and not unnoticed by bookbuyers. In the eighties, I remember joking about how many Doubleday Books you could stack up and carry (the old Doubleday, which used the same cheap paper as Book Club editions) because they weighed nothing. (One of the great things about working for university presses is that the physical and design standards are rigorous.)

Undistinguished blandness is often the physical book norm today. I groaned when I picked up Robert Darnton’s interesting defense of printed books published last year, The Case for Books. The book itself, which would have made a lovely paperback original, is a cheap, shoddily done hardcover with no aesthetic appeal whatsoever. The irony! Talk about undercutting an argument.

Like so many of the claims thrown around about what Americans “prefer,” the deck is heavily stacked in favor of what they’re being given. Are we American readers really so different from readers the world over, who overwhelmingly get their new books in paperback?

The economic question is the most compelling one, and most resistant to resolution. The simple truth is that a hardcover book carries a steeper price, and will, if successful, earn more money for publisher, author and bookseller. If issued as a paperback original with a necessarily lower price, more units would have to be sold. Projecting profit and loss based on conversion of a year’s worth of new books from mainly cloth to mainly paper is not a trivial exercise.

Yet one of the most constant refrains I hear from booksellers is that “this should have been paperback” when I’m trying to sell them on a new cloth title.

Publishing seems to be an industry inordinately obsessed with the Joneses. We do original books in cloth because the Joneses do them that way. If the Joneses started to do paperback originals, we’d do it too.

I’m hopeful that the challenges posed by digital media and ebooks will lead to some rethinking of the physical book as object. In fact, the ebook threat may not be to printed books per se, but to the dominant trade book model- clothbound, relatively expensive physical books.

If the standard price of a new trade ebook ends up being $12-15, wouldn’t an $18-20 beautiful trade paper edition be more competitive than a $30 cloth edition?

Except for art and heavily illustrated titles, for which hardcover can more often be justified, couldn’t we look to the European model for producing sensual, cleverly designed, durable paperback editions?

If somebody would start doing it, everybody would do it. Short runs of hardcover editions for libraries and collectors would still be possible. And cheap, minimalist editions in the $10 range (see semiotext(e)’s inventive and controversial Intervention series) should also have a future.

It seems logical to me. I’m not holding my breath. But even if we’re destined to live with our current two-step publishing norm- cloth edition, followed by paperback reprint one year later- there are some things we might do to breathe more life into the paperback.

Booksellers often hew a little slavishly (in my humble opinion) to the cloth track record when it comes to deciding on paperback reprints. It’s easy to see why- there is so little solid useful data around that when you see that you sold X number of units of the hardcover edition, you can make an informed bet on the paperback. It’s kind of exciting.

Some people bump the paper number a bit, expecting it to do better because it’s cheaper. Some people have a strict “sold three, buy three” approach, expecting the paper to perform just like the cloth. Some- and I won’t name names but this does happen- will look the book up and say “I didn’t sell any in cloth so I’ll pass” when a year earlier they said “This is too expensive, I’ll wait for paper.”

The point is, all of these approaches share a kind of routine thinking. Sometimes a paperback really does have a second life and might potentially reach a whole new audience, but not if it’s treated with a "cloth edition redux" shrug.

This was nicely argued in one of my friend Daniel Goldin’s recent blog posts about one of his favorite books last year, Chris Cleave’s Little Bee. The paperback is doing significantly better than the cloth did; you can read why here. (Hint: it’s finding its second life!)

With the proliferation of book clubs, it may be easier to imagine a second life for fiction than non-fiction. But the right non-fiction book, with the right package and the right story (see A Little History of the World) can spread exponentially in paperback.

In fairness, booksellers are not really to blame for not imagining reprint potential when publishers aren’t doing a very good job of it either. Too often we have a ho hum approach to paperbacks, and the result is ho hum sales.

I’d rather see, and I think we will see, a migration toward original paperback publishing over the next decade. Physical books as objects will get more beautiful, and riffs on the paperback format will proliferate. Or maybe American exceptionalism will carry the day again?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Books in the News

The vast scope of the product we sell- so many millions of titles- can sometimes seem like a disadvantage when compared to retailers offering a more finite menu of items. But in at least one respect the variety at our disposal is a huge advantage: there’s not a passing trend, piece of gossip or one day news item that can’t be readily addressed with a book.

Lots of people my age got into bookselling to begin with as an extension of their social and political commitments. Books can be weapons in the struggle, and all that. Plus, we couldn’t ever imagine functioning in the tainted corporate world.

No bookseller had more political convictions than my late mentor David Schwartz, but he used to confound the younger booksellers with his rule against wearing political buttons or T-shirts while on duty. “That’s what the books are for, use the books,” he’d always say.

So the concept that books are ideas and ideas change the world is not so original, but what’s sometimes over-looked is the competitive advantage we have over other enterprises when it comes to responding to ephemeral news events.

From a merchandising standpoint, you can think of a store’s book inventory in three ways:

1) There are the permanent, ironclad categories that have stood the test of time, like History, Science, Biography and so on. These may get a tidy-up or some new face-outs as books come in but for the most part they seem eternal;

2) There are some contemporary sections that are more responsive to political and social events. I’m thinking of Gender Studies, Environmental Studies, or the sections on Communities or Sustainability popping up in so many stores. Because you wouldn’t have found these in bookstores fifty years ago, they are more fluid than the old stand-bys. But as they become fixtures they quickly begin to seem like permanent categories;

3) Then there are the rotating displays and promotions around predictable events and occasions, such as Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day, Gardening and Graduation, Poetry Month and Beach Reading.

I’d propose a fourth category that seems underutilized: the instant, short-lived displays assembled on the fly based on news events.

Booksellers have such an advantage in responding to events and trends with their merchandise. The clothing and lifestyle retailers, chronically behind the cutting edge, must feel jealous.

A bookseller can read a celebrity obituary at 7:00am and have a nice display of relevant books up by 9:00. She can see a list of literature in translation awards on a website and throw together a lovely table featuring the winning titles. Some contemporary political tussles (health care anyone?) go on for so long that they will soon belong in category one above. But there are always books on the shelf to back up a display on the headline of the day.

I remember seeing photos of how they used to post issues of each days newspaper in the old Soviet Union. Moscow readers would queue up and crane their necks to study these poster-like bulletins. (Why? They only cost a kopeck.)

Similarly, I sometimes imagine dedicating a part of the front window in my dream bookstore to books drawn from the news of the day- a permanent display that would change every 24 hours based on what the media were exercised about and/or people were thinking about. (Of course I also imagine big crowds coming in to buy them. “Yes, I saw that front page Times story and come to think of it, I should know more about Greece. Or Fess Parker.”)

I guess this is on my mind because when I heard about the suicide epidemic at Cornell the other day, my first thought was “we have the perfect book on suicide!” I know, it sounds a little crass, but it really is the perfect book. And it’s an example of what I have in mind for my daily “in the news” bookstore display.

I immediately reminded the Cornell Store book buyer about Thomas Joiner’s Myths About Suicide, being published by Harvard this month. Of course he’s a pro so he’d already begun to think about how books could be brought to bear on the situation.

Every season there are titles that weren’t anticipated as major books that rise up out of circumstances and strike a chord. Ten years ago when the unpleasantness with the Taliban first commenced, Yale happened to have a small print run book called Taliban by Ahmed Rashid, one of the most knowledgeable journalists on earth. It went to number one on the New York Times list because booksellers said “we have a book on that!” and displayed it. (Shameless plug: a new edition appears this month)

Perhaps the strangest recent out of nowhere, media-driven book happening involves The Coming Insurrection, the short, incendiary tract from a French collective called “The Invisible Committee.”

Published by semiotext(e) last fall and distributed by MIT, the somewhat dense, theoretical, utopian manifesto was initially picked up by a few stores who do well with polemical texts by intellectual agitators. (You know who you are.) But suddenly Glenn Beck discovered it and pronounced it “the most evil book” he’s ever read. Every time the hoopla dies down a bit he brings it back out, waves it around on his show, and his minions pour into bookstores looking for it. It’s a somewhat surreal exercise trying to imagine what a Beck fan would actually make of the book. But hey, a sale is a sale.

Lots of imaginative booksellers are already doing this type of drive-by display thinking, and I smile whenever I see it. But I’d love to see more of it. Bookstores have always been the go-to source for serious readers looking for deep, big picture background. But at the other end of the spectrum, there’s a slice of the public with the attention span of a gnat, and a media cycle measured in hours rather than days.

I would wager that any random daily newspaper would yield a dozen related display-worthy titles that simply have to be plucked from the shelves.

If I had a bookstore you could see them every morning in my window, right next to Pravda.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Books in series: smash Dewey Decimal thinking!

One of the undeniable advantages internet book retailers enjoy over bricks and mortar stores is the ability to sort and categorize their inventories in seemingly infinite ways.

The presses I represent- to their credit- publish many books that can be considered inter-disciplinary. As an aid to booksellers, librarians and catalogers, we assign subject categories to every book, but these are not necessarily obvious and can even be contentious.

The new titles on our spring lists had many straightforward category designations like “art,” “science,” and “literature.” But we also had some combinations like these:

- Design/Urban Studies/Transportation
- Photography/Environment
- History of Science/Women’s Studies
- Education/Computer Science/Race Studies
- Literature/History of Science

That scholarship ranges across disciplines is a great thing, but here’s the problem: whereas an online bookseller can present a book simultaneously to the photography buff and the environmental activist, the storefront retailer has to shelve the book in a physical location. Thus, reps and booksellers spend a great deal of our time hashing out, book by book, the best place to shelve it.

This can be a useful, clarifying discussion. Sometimes a book genuinely has multiple possible audiences. But sometimes the more we talk about it, the more apparent it becomes that the message is muddled, and perhaps the multiple categories is a sign that the author doesn’t exactly have a reader in mind. There’s a big difference between having too many distinct potential customer profiles, and having one vague, jumbled one.

When expectations for a book run high, it’s always possible to place the book in multiple locations in the bookstore. But typically every book still requires a primary section assignment, and the default unit of commitment these days is one copy.

I once saw a buyer at the University of Minnesota Bookstore (now retired) who was so obsessed with subject categories that he would simply take as many copies of a title as it took to keep one on every relevant shelf. (Needless to say, he was chronically over-inventoried.)

One related problem of the multiple categories dilemma is the “books in series on slightly different subjects” conundrum.

Like many publishers, we have a great collection of books in series. These are not like the numbered Young Adult sequels, which are actually pretty easy to get into the hands of the right customers. Ours tend to cross subject categories, yet are united by a uniform editorial approach, or a unique physical design, or some other characteristic that extends one good book idea to another. (See below for some examples)

But bookstores face a conceptual challenge: do we maximize the design impact (and sales) by displaying them together, or do we protect the sanctity of the category by using Dewey decimal thinking and shelving them where they technically belong.

I’m familiar with several series now that have enough critical title mass to see the results of different approaches, and I have to say the boundary-busting, shelve them together approach seems to yield better results. It requires some willingness to look past the apparent subject matter, which is hard to do. But over the past year I’ve heard and seen more booksellers experiment with breaking out of category thinking.

Like so many seemingly new ideas in bookselling, this is actually an old one. I fondly recall the late Great Expectations Bookstore near the Northwestern campus in Evanston. Books there were shelved by publisher (!) Crazy as it sounds, the store looked great, and customers tended to develop a loyalty to certain areas of the store just as they do in places that sort by subject. (Plus, as proprietor Jeff Rice would tell you, it made pulling returns a heck of a lot easier)

I visit a couple stores where the travel section is arranged by publisher and series. I’m a big fan of this approach. We tried it for awhile in the store I once managed, but I think it was defeated by the hassle of explaining to a customer who asked for books on France that they are here, and here, and here. It’s a legitimate issue.

So maybe not the whole travel section. But the point is that books in series often look fantastic together, and they lose that impact when each one is spined, by author, across various store sections. There’s lots of evidence that people who pick up one will pick up another, but they won’t see them, or even realize it’s a series, when they are distributed across the store.

Just to cite a few examples, here are a half dozen of my favorite books in series from Harvard, MIT and Yale. Any brave booksellers willing to experiment with anti-Dewey marketing could start here.

The Loeb Classical Library

The granddaddy of all book series, the familiar little green (Greek) and red (Latin) volumes sell surprisingly well in stores that dedicate a section to them. They range across subjects- epic and lyric poetry; tragedy and comedy; history, travel, philosophy, oratory, religion, medicine and math- but it seems unnatural to split them up. Next year we’ll celebrate the centennial of this noble endeavor, so start thinking about section space now!

Wonders of the World

Classics scholar Mary Beard, who edits this wonderful series about the world’s key cultural and historical monuments, describes it this way:

I suppose there are three intentions. The first is that I want these books to open up culture and history, as well as dissent about culture and history, through the contested life stories of individual monuments and wonders – real or imaginary.

Number two – and these are not meant to be hierarchical – is quite a simple one, and it’s to show that bricks and mortar, or concrete and marble, are always more than that.

And I think the third intention is that you want to help people to enjoy looking at monuments, and at the complexity of monuments – and to see that the complexity and the arguments are what’s fun about this. Sometimes, when people write for what they think of as a popular market, they think that they should make it simple, whereas I think that what you should be doing is helping people to enjoy how complicated it all really is.

This is an excellent little series of small, elegantly designed hardcover books (though they’ll be released in paper beginning this season with The Parthenon) which straddle several potential readerships: history buffs, architects, well-endowed travelers. Where they’ve been treated individually and shelved in isolation, they’ve not done so well; where they’ve been displayed en masse, much better.

Documents of Contemporary Art

This lovely series, done by London’s Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, features stunningly beautiful anthologies by artists and writers addressing key subjects in contemporary visual culture from quirky perspectives. The roster of contributors is top-notch, the pieces are short and punchy, and the very titles in the series ( The Everyday, The Sublime, Chance) demonstrate how refreshing it can be to break out of conceptual categories. These books have lavish jacket art and hip design at an affordable price. They cry out for display treatment.

Boston Review

A couple years ago, MIT began distributing small, chapbook-like contemporary issues books for Boston Review magazine. These appealing little hardcover books- short, accessible, challenging conventional preconceptions- look great together but are completely lost when dispersed and consigned to their technically correct subject areas. More than any other series we publish, this one ranges across vast terrain, but the eighteen titles so far have a distinct approach to public discourse and look fantastic together.

Margellos World Republic of Letters

Literature in translation is on fire these days, and this bold series is dedicated to: works of cultural and artistic significance previously overlooked by translators and publishers, canonical works of literature and philosophy needing new translations, as well as important contemporary authors whose work has not yet been translated into English. It’s designed to bring to the English-speaking world leading poets, novelists, essayists, philosophers, and playwrights from Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, to stimulate international discourse and creative exchange.

This is the sort of publishing for the long haul that I’m really proud to represent and booksellers can be proud to sell. With six titles to date and more in the pipeline (Romain Gary’s zany Hocus Bogus, just published, has never been in English), these elegant volumes have already earned acclaim. The unique design element here is tactile- it’s subtle, but the trim size and heft of the volumes are as appealing as the excellent jacket illustrations.

If you’ve read this far, I’m a broken record by now. But they would look terrific shelved together.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Consciousness Curating in western New York

One of my first surprises after being hired as Midwest rep for Harvard, MIT and Yale was that my territory would include western NY state- Ithaca, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo. I had an apparently obsolete notion of Midwest geography, though NY began to seem a lot closer when the Pacific Northwest and Colorado were added to my domain a year later. No complaints, these are great places. But now I think of my turf as central North America.

Upstate New York is tricky. The better I’ve gotten to know the western NY region, the more I think that it really is better thought of as the eastern edge of the Midwest. Buffalo absolutely has many of the attributes (and problems) of the Great Lakes cities I know well, like Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and my own Milwaukee. People “seem” Midwestern in a way that I rarely sense on the east or west coasts (though I occasionally feel the Midwest vibe in Denver, which maybe has some Midwest attributes as well)

As I move east toward Syracuse and the Finger Lakes however, things feel a little less clear. These places are still far from the east coast, yet they don’t read Midwestern in the way Buffalo does. When I’m in Ithaca I feel pretty firmly out of the Midwest.

My east coast colleague, Adena, and I sometimes puzzle over NY state geography. A new store appears in an unfamiliar town. She sells Albany, I go as far east (theoretically anyway) as Binghamton, so we’ll call each other and say “is this yours or mine?” The line in New York and Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh! also Midwest!) is fuzzy.

I have two rules of thumb to tell me whether I’ve crossed the east-Midwest line: can I get the “real” New York Times, and can I get a proper bagel. Ithaca passes the bagel test (Collegetown Bagels, yum) and used to pass the Times test, though now they get the same generic edition of the paper the country gets. And soon it will all be moot as we “read” the morning paper on our plastic cutting boards.

But I’ve come to love the region. Old-timers in the business will go on about what a bookselling powerhouse western NY (“the southern tier”) used to be, how you needed reps that were based there, and how it took days and days to sell accounts.

That all seems like ancient history but there are still some excellent stores, well-worth visiting:

The Cornell Store is one of the best academic shops in the country, diligently stocking every new worthy title and showing the power of single-copy display on their front tables. (You don’t need stacks if they’re done right) The store is smartly inventoried, thanks to a staff that really works the faculty, and a store administration that appreciates books over sweatshirts;

Down the hill near the Ithaca Commons, adjacent to the legendary (but over-rated in my opinion) Moosewood restaurant, Buffalo Street Books has an old-school charm and idiosyncratic selection of new titles. Booksellers like to talk a good game about being unique, but I get into so many stores where the front tables are displaying exactly the same new books. Here, within five minutes I’d seen five new things I wanted (including Howard Zinn’s wonderful book Marx in Soho);

In Rochester, former rep Franlee Frank operates the new-used bookstore of my dreams, Greenwood Books;

And Lift Bridge Bookshop, in Brockport beside the Erie Canal, is a bustling college town trade shop run by solid book people.

The crown jewel of the region to my mind is Talking Leaves Books in Buffalo. Founded over thirty years ago, the store began as a sort of collective and has operated over the past two decades under the ownership of Jon Welch, a Wisconsin boy who came to Buffalo for university and stayed to be a bookseller, and Lucy Kogler, who runs the Elmwood Avenue location.

A friend of mine who once visited the Talking Leaves said “they shouldn’t even be here!” He meant it as a compliment, but it was based on the same sort of underappreciation of Buffalo we hear all the time about Milwaukee and the unglamorous places. As if working-class cities in distress deserve check-cashing stores and tattoo parlors but not great bookstores?

Buffalo has an amazing history but is by no means dead.

University of Buffalo and SUNY Buffalo have produced some of the most interesting academic work (and stars) of the past few decades. One could argue that the whole concept of New Media, experimental film and daring visual arts got their start here.

Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, in a church owned by Ani DiFranco, has some of the most provocative arts programming in the country.

The music scene is intense and fashion-forward.

The architecture- despite great swaths of depressed neighborhoods mainly on the east side- is phenomenal. It is a physically beautiful city. (see Reyner Banham's Buffalo Architecture: A Guide)

There are loads of great shops along Elmwood and several other neighborhoods.

There’s a vibrant political culture.

The extreme winter weather is kind of exciting.

The Spot is the quintessential local coffee shop.

The Buffalo News is a surprisingly good newspaper, with a great book critic- R.D. Pohl- whose blog is worth reading. And they actually publish poems once a week (and pay the poet!).

ArtVoice, the free weekly, is also excellent.

And you can walk to Canada for dinner and be back in an hour.

But back to Talking Leaves. There’s a sense of missionary zeal about this store, both for the individual books and for the bigger idea of academic trade bookselling. There’s been a tragic attrition in the number of stores carrying deep backlist in serious nonfiction, and a reduction in commitment to books from all but the top five major publishers. Jon and Lucy seem committed to single-handedly showing that it’s still possible to make stocking and selling more offbeat books viable financially, and to reinforcing that quaint old idea that books can change the world.

Jon’s tiny office is a thing of wonder. About ten years ago some publisher promoted its new title on tidying your office by running a contest to see which bookseller was most in need. Jon’s staff nominated him. Thankfully, the re-do didn’t last long. But the piles of books and papers are deceptive, this is an extremely detail oriented bookseller who watches the bottom line like a hawk.

Over dinner, (Merge - highly recommend it!) we chewed over plenty of frustrations. Mention of a customer who had died recently reminded me of stories I’ve heard all over the place- the reliable art book customer, or Churchill customer, or hardcover fiction reader who first retired to Arizona but continued to faithfully order books, but then eventually, inevitably, left the scene. There’s fear that these serious book buyers which every store needs to survive are not being replaced in sufficient numbers.

(A sad ironic twist on a Milwaukee version of this story I’m familiar with: a bookaholic customer with great taste and deep pockets shopped the store daily for years. When she died, her daughter sold back her library, and now her cherished collection is back on the bookstore shelves, disaggregated and marked down, but at least with a shot at a second life.)

As Jon talked about the big event for Azar Nafisi in downtown Buffalo the following night, and the various other Buffalo First activities, and his ideas for how to make Indie Bound selections more diverse and representative; and as Lucy spoke about her devotion to Paul Auster and the thrill of introducing him recently as he received an award, I thought to myself: these people seem so full of energy and fresh ideas, realistic but unjaded, worried about the present but focused on the future. I felt as if I could have been socializing with a couple newbie booksellers, not veterans who have seen it all.

I always leave Buffalo feeling optimistic, and a little more proud of what we do.

As we worked through the spring MIT catalog and I presented a new title called Curating Consciousness, about legendary MoMA director James Johnson Sweeney, Jon said “hey, that’s what we do.” Indeed.