Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 best of's

Lists help tidy up the year.  I read, saw and heard a lot but these will be memorable and made me happy.

I'm giving paperoverboard a bit of a rest as I work on some other writing projects in 2012.  But it will rise from the ashes as looming outrages merit.

Favorite books read 2011*
1.            Open City/ Teju Cole
3.            Light Lifting/ Alexander MacLeod
4.            Greenbanks/Dorothy Whipple
5.            Zoo Station/ David Downing
6.            The British Book Trade/ Sue Bradley
7.            One Fine Day/ Mollie Panter-Downes
10.          Believing is Seeing/ Errol Morris
12.          The Variations/ John Donatich
13.          Cat’sTable/ Michael Ondaatje
14.          Palladian/Elizabeth Taylor
15.          At Last/Edward St. Aubyn

* non Harvard, MIT, Yale- see here for those.

Favorite films (seen) in 2011
1.            Le Havre
2.            Wah Dem Do
3.            Weekend
4.            Another Year
5.            Certified Copies
6.            Melancholia
7.            Bridesmaids
8.            The Arbor
9.            Necessities of Life
10.          Incendies

Favorite drama 2011
I saw one play.  But it would have been best of the year had I seen 100: Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalismand Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.

Favorite Tunes (heard and loved) in 2011
1.            The Color of Rain/ William Brittelle
2.            Dignified Man/ Songbird Sing
3.            I Never Learnt to Share/ James Blake
4.            Powa/ Tune-Yards
5.            Scandal at the Parkade/ Owen Pallett
6.            Stony & Cory/ Kid Creole & the Coconuts
7.            José Larralde-Quimey Neuquén/ Chancha via Circuito
8.            Excuse me baby/ Dizzy K. Falola
9.            Voice/ Ani DiFranco
10.          One Day we will Pay/ Coati Mundi

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

unpack your library!

Is the “books on books” genre experiencing its golden age?    It seems as if there are more of them every year.  Or is this just another sign of the printed book’s continued descent into artifact status? 

Like foodies collecting cookbooks, bibliophiles have always enjoyed books that salute and validate their passion.  As a bookseller I loved stocking these books, and as a rep I love selling them.
This month a stunning little gem slipped into the world, conceived by Michelle Komie at the Yale University Press Art Workshop: Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books.  Modeled on last year’s Unpacking My Library:Architects and Their Books, this close-up peek inside the libraries of thirteen contemporary writers is completely addictive.  It’s without question the affordable gift book of the year for the book crazed.

What makes UML so appealing?

-        --The subjects are an imaginative roster of some of the more interesting writers working today- Alison Bechdel, Stephen Carter, Junot Diaz, Rebecca Goldstein, Stephen Pinker, Lev Grossman, Sophie Gee, Jonathan Lethem, Claire Messud, James Wood, Philip Pullman, Gary Shteyngart and Edmund White.  (Three sets of these people are couples!  Who knew?)

-        --The structure of the book is perfect- short chapters, smart q&a, a top ten books list from each author a, with jacket illustrations of their personal copies, many with gorgeous vintage covers.  (Alison Bechdel's is hand drawn.  Look twice!)   These are followed by four or five pages of luscious detailed photographs of the actual bookshelves.

-       -- The sensation in flipping through the book and reading the comments is a bit like having an intimate conversation with these writers in their libraries.  And they come across (on the whole) as people you’d like to know.

-       -- The bookshelf shots are crisp and clean.  No fuzzy middle distance images that make you guess what the books are.  These are unmistakably legible spines, and you are compelled to prowl them one by one.  You may gasp or hoot when you come across a beloved title of your own on someone’s shelf.

-       -- The book design (thanks to Pentagram) makes this an object to covet.  A horizontal, landscape trim does perfect justice to bookshelves.  The paper over board format is always classy.   The layout is gorgeous, the photographs eye-popping.  Some of the top ten lists are captured with such loving attention that it’s like gazing at a fine still life.  Or food porn.

-       -- Leah Price introduces the whole thing with a super smart essay, and her short author interviews hit just the right notes.  “Gazing at the bookshelves of a novelist whose writings lie dog-eared on my own bookcase, I feel as lucky as a restaurant-goer granted a peek at the chef’s refrigerator,” she writes.

-      --  Because this is an interesting collection of writers and a skilled interrogator, they land on a surprising number of thought-provoking tangents: 

                To what extent should and can a personal book collection be private?

                How to organize the shelves?  Alpha author?  Alpha subject?  “By pub date” (Bechdel tried that one but gave up) Miscellaneous heaps?  (see Edmund White)

                The pros and cons of marginalia are addressed.  The consensus is pro.

                Deciding what to keep and what to shed- how?

                What are your rules for lending books?

                What are the shelves made of and where did you get them?

                Do you have a stash of other books you don’t keep on your public bookshelves?

                What will your library look like in ten years?

Perhaps these are not the most urgent social questions for the end of 2011, but as a reader and a book hoarder I loved hearing how these esteemed writers handle their collecting obsession.

Still, the primary pleasures here are visual and voyeuristic.  If you are someone who can’t resist decoding a bookshelf- any bookshelf- UML is for you.  I can’t even walk through the fake living rooms at IKEA without studying the spines of the book props on the shelves.  Interestingly, they use real books!  Alas, they are in Swedish.

I’d love to see every bookshop in North America invite their customers to “unpack your library.”  Show us your shelves!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

stacie vs. the algorithm: a hand-selling success

 A couple weeks ago my friend Anne Bunn mentioned that her two year old, Hayes, had broken his leg- an event seemingly more concerning for his parents than for Hayes. This made me a little sad, and my response was basically the same one I have to news of any life event: there must be a book for that.

My father died when I was 25, and I remember spending an entire day driving my eight-year old sister to every bookstore in Milwaukee, in search of a kids’ book about how to grieve the loss of a parent. We never found it, and for once I was probably overestimating the healing power of the written word anyway.

Sadly, the Milwaukee bookstore population has dramatically shrunk, and there was no driving around for hours to find a book for Hayes. But what we’ve lost in quantity we’ve made up for in quality- my local shop, Boswell Book Company, came through with flying colors.

“I need a book for a two year old with a  broken leg,” I announced to the booksellers at the front desk. Within seconds, Stacie Williams, who was working on something else but overheard the request, looked over her shoulder and said “Oh, Mo Willems has the perfect book!”

I will stipulate that I am an ignoramus when it comes to children’s books. I have my personal favorites, but that section of the store just seems like a colorful but confounding phantasmagoria to me. (In truth, it even did when I was a bookseller when I should have known it better. What can I say?  I don’t have kids.)

Despite the fact that Mr. Willems is a multiple Caldecott winner and a beloved favorite, I’d never heard of the man. So perhaps I seem overly awed by Stacie’s suggestion. But to all the knowledgeable booksellers and readers who will shrug and say “of course Mo Willems- duh,” I would only say I bet there are more of us- ignorant grown-up literary do-gooders- than there are of them. And we appreciate not being made to feel bad for our juvenile illiteracy.

Stacie walked me to the section and placed in my hands a copy of I Broke My Trunk. A very cute glasses-wearing elephant with a bandaged-up trunk adorned the cover. This was beyond perfect.

Within five minutes the book was gift-wrapped and on its way to Cambridge Massachusetts. It’s a small thing but it really made my day.

This “positive customer experience,” as biz lingo might have it, prompted two other thoughts.

One: independent booksellers get lots of credit for their quirky, personalized reading recommendations. They read a lot, and part of the added value they provide is sharing all this reading with customers. Turning somebody on to some author they haven’t read is a joy for both bookseller and customer.

But there’s another kind of recommending that doesn’t get as much glory: being able to access an encyclopedic knowledge of the store’s inventory on a dime when a customer requests a book, especially in an unfamiliar subject area. This happens so routinely in bookstores it’s almost a nonevent, but it’s really the daily bread and butter of most stores. Booksellers who have handled and shelved books on all sorts of topics are expert at retrieving them at the exact moment they’re needed. Or that’s the goal anyway.  And accomplished more often than not.

Two: the internet retailers have a distinct competitive edge when it comes to sorting and displaying book data, as long as your request can be digested by their programs. I’ll confess that I actually began my quest for Hayes’ book online.  But after entering every relevant search phrase I could think of (“kids broken leg,” “injured child funny” etc. etc.) nothing remotely appropriate came up. And certainly not I Broke My Trunk.

So my takeaway is that sometimes an actual human being, especially a bookseller who already knows you and has engaged you in conversation about topics other than just books, is a better book suggester than a smart algorithm. Put another way, being in a good bookstore reminds me that I’m more than the sum of the books I’ve bought in the past.

As if this story could get any happier, Hayes is on the mend, and Mom reported that “the book was a hit!” Coincidentally, she added that his grandfather has been sending him Mo Willems' Elephant & Piggie titles for awhile now. (Thankfully, not this one.)  Which he learned about at his favorite neighborhood bookshop, Lake Forest Bookstore in Lake Forest IL.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

my personal best from fall 2011

Fall 2011 selling season is history! Long live Spring 2012!

After trying to give every one of the hundreds of new titles on the fall lists my best shot, I like to give one final nudge to my personal favorites.

Professionally, reps are agnostic. We see the value in every book the presses take on, and if we didn’t love the challenge of matching quirky books with idiosyncratic booksellers and readers we would have found other employment long ago. My colleagues and I move mountains- or try to- to make sure we do justice to our authors and to our booksellers, which means spending lots of time talking up lots of books in as many ways as we can think of.

But in the end, when there’s time to actually catch a breath and reflect on all the literary seeds we’ve been sowing, there's always a little collection of books that spoke to me personally at a slightly higher pitch. The kind of books that first made working for these three presses so attractive twelve years ago. Books I’d walk into a bookstore and buy if I weren’t lucky enough to represent them.

The usual caveat applies: loving ten titles doesn’t diminish my regard for the 300 others. And there was lots of competition. But I think I’ve worked hard enough this season to be entitled to play favorites, and to hope for a little extra viral enthusiasm. So herewith my personal top ten from the stellar fall offerings from Harvard, MIT and Yale University Press.

1) Alfred Jarry: A Pataphysical Life by Alastair Brotchie (MIT) If Jarry is not on your radar he should be. This is a sly, sympathetic portrait of the French novelist, playwright, essayist, surrealist, and all-around unclassifiable iconoclast. This man influenced everyone from Calvino to Eco to Paul McCartney, and the book is a visual feast. His obsessions were guns, bicycles and alcohol. He died in 1907 at 35, but his philosophical invention, Pataphysics- “the science of imaginary solutions”- lives on in more ways than one.

 2) The Zong: A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery by James Walvin (Yale) There have been so many books about slavery as a phenomenon but I’ve never read such a chilling story about a particular crossing. In 1781, the captain of the ship had 132 slaves thrown overboard because he feared there would not be enough drinking water and his “cargo” would thus be worthless. The news of this atrocity set fire to British abolitionist sentiment when it became widely known. Turner’s devastating small painting Slave Ship, which graces the cover of the book, hangs in the Boston MFA. On the day I made a pilgrimage to see it, the gallery was swarmed by school children with notebooks, studying it in great detail. There is hope!

3) Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture 1931-1941, by Katerina Clark (Harvard) Do not be dissuaded by the wordy title- this is a stylish piece of weird cultural nostalgia and is full of surprises. Hard to believe today, but there was a time (the thirties) when the international Left, intellectuals, and much of the world avant garde looked to the city of Moscow as a potential cultural and artistic headquarters. And for a time, Moscow really was one of the great European capitals, not just an imaginary one. But between the external threat of Hitler and the internal psychosis of Stalin the prospects for this dreamy cosmopolitanism came crashing down. A touch academic, but for Soviet culture buffs, it makes for absorbing reading.

4) Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History by Stephen J. Gould (Harvard). I’m going to cheat here and use one slot to plug seven books. Some of the best writing Gould did during his brief life were these short essays on all sorts of problems of nature, science, sports and society. They’ve been unavailable for awhile and now Harvard has re-issued them in a gorgeous, uniform paperback set. A scientist who could and did speak to Everyman, no one has taken Gould’s place since he died in 2002. I’d give anything to read his take on the contemporary political circus in the New York Review of Books.

5) Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond, by Hillel Schwartz (Zone/MIT) Let me fess up right off and say that I will probably never actually read this 900 page magnum opus on the history of unwanted sound. But I did read The Culture of the Copy, Schwartz’s 1996 book, which was a nimble, dazzlingly smart (and prescient) cultural history of likenesses and facsimiles. He’s an amazing writer, the kind who makes the reader feel smarter, and I’m really happy that this book exists.

6) Elizabeth & Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, by David Margolick (Yale) This doesn’t really qualify as an obscure, back of the catalog gem, since, happily, it’s a widely praised front of the catalog gem. I’ve been beating the drum for this wonderful book all season and it’s gratifying to hear from so many booksellers who were also moved by it. An incredible story of two women whose lives intersected and re-intersected on a public stage in a shocking way, it’s also a cautionary tale about declaring premature victory in the fight against racism.

7) The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League 1936-1951 by Mason Klein and Catherine Evans (Jewish Museum/Yale) The Photo League was a school, a salon, a workshop, and a movement. It flourished during the heyday of the Communist Party, and was snuffed out in the anti-communist hysteria of late forties. But the photographers associated with it- Lewis Hine, Berenice Abbott, Paul Strand- went on to define modern social documentary art. Many of these black and white plates are familiar, but to see them all assembled in one place is fantastic.

8) Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology & Politics in Allende’s Chile, by Eden Medina (MIT) Everyone knows (well, okay, fewer and fewer people seem to know) about one of Salvador Allende’s utopian socialist projects in the early seventies: bringing political democracy and economic justice to Chilean workers. But few know (I sure didn’t) that he had another utopian vision- Project Cybersyn. Thirty years before the internet, Allende imagined a computer system that ordinary, illiterate workers could operate. Sadly, this and everything else was interrupted by the Pinochet coup. But the jacket photo, which is real but resembles the deck of the Starship Enterprise, conveys something about that mad and wonderful dream better than the actual words. When Derek at Type Books in Toronto saw this he said “Oh. My. God. I don’t know who will want this but someone really will.” My reaction exactly, and one of my definitions of favorite book.

9) No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems by Liu Xiaobo (Harvard) This year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner is serving an eleven year jail term in China for “incitement to subvert state power.” For the first time in English, these are the incitements. In fact, many of them are actually thoughtful essays, beautiful poems, and quiet, somewhat melancholy ruminations on how the country he loves has been changed beyond recognition by an uncritical rush to free market money-grubbing.

10) Body Sweats: The Uncensored Writings of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, edited by Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo (MIT) This might be the best opening phrase in any publisher’s catalog this season: “As a neurasthenic, kleptomaniac, and man-chasing proto-punk poet and artist…” How could you not think “tell me more!” The early 2oth century performance artist- the “mama of dada” -counted among her fans Hemingway, Pound, Man Ray, Djuna Barnes, and William Carlos Williams. She is cited by both Patti Smith and Lady Gaga as inspiration. But she’s oddly obscure. Only 31 poems ever appeared in her lifetime, so this collection is something of an event with a long and devilishly complicated publishing history. Bonus: the book is crazy beautiful.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

who needs editors? writers.

What is it about the word “digital” that causes otherwise smart people to giddily disable their critical thinking ability?  

Case in point: the October 17 New York Times front page celebration of Amazon’s decision to become a book publisher  ("Amazon Signs Up Authors Writing Publishers out of Deal.”)   Not content to hog an ever-growing slice of the sales and distribution pie, the company has brought in a couple publishing veterans to acquire a branded line of fiction and nonfiction, and to, as the Times put it, “gnaw away at the services that publishers, critics and agents used to provide.”

Whether the book industry is in desperate need of more concentration in the hands of one corporate giant is worth considering, but not today.  What caught my eye and dropped my jaw today was this quote, cited in the Times story, from “a top Amazon executive:”

“The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and the reader.”

This stunningly ignorant observation does not bode well.  As they surely know, many more hands and brains go into the creation of most books, and all those cumbersome editing, marketing and agenting people actually result in added value- i.e. a better book.  (And by "value" I mean intrinsic worth, not a cheap price.)

Perhaps because I’ve been able to observe the process that connects the writer and the reader at close hand for a decade at three stellar academic presses, my standards are a bit high.  But in my experience, a text which travels through the time-consuming labyrinth of editors, copy editors, readers, syndics, designers, production people, lawyers, marketing experts, social media experts, sales departments and booksellers is in every case a better text than the one it was the day the author delivered the manuscript. 

“Gatekeeper” is not a dirty word, or shouldn’t be.  True, the publishing process with its many checks along the way keep many books from ever getting published.  Too bad.  The chronically rejected author now has unprecedented options to print and promote his or her work directly and to call it a book.  But these creations are not “published” books in the way we’ve understood the term for a couple centuries.   

There’s nothing so depressing, and sometimes unintentionally hilarious, as reading the pages of ads for vanity presses in reputable book media like The New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books.  Even with just a couple sentences of boilerplate about each title- small samples, presumably, of the author's style- the contrast between these blasts of self-expression and real books, vetted by a real publisher, couldn’t be plainer. 

I fear that centralizing the editorial process in the name of streamlining and abolishing gatekeepers will simply drag the book industry toward a more sophisticated form of vanity publishing. 
It’s sad and frustrating that some good books don’t find publishers willing to take them on.  But as a reader, I’m more interested in rooting for a literary culture built around producing the best books, not around a writer’s right to be published.

That dismissive comment from the executive about the reader and writer being the only necessary people in the process nagged at me, and reminded me of something, and I finally realized what: Elizabeth Warren’s recent  cri de coeur  against market fundamentalism and the myth of the individual achiever:

"There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own…You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that maurauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did." 

To this I would add:  nobody- or precious few anyway- has written a book worth reading on their own.  Someone taught you to write, someone took care of the kids and the bills while you wrote, perhaps someone even gave you ideas.  And once an editor recognized quality and meaning in your work, and persuaded her house to take a chance on you, a complicated publishing apparatus improved on your creation.

That’s not always how it works.  And one solution might be more publishers, not fewer.  But as a reader, I’ll continue to buy books that have been brought to market by experienced professionals with a publishing legacy, and will be wary of books that make a virtue out of scorning them.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Canadian v. US bookselling: ten generalizations

As of July 1, I’ve added Canada east of British Columbia to my Midwest US territory. Logistically this sounds ridiculous, I know, but the sad truth is that all reps are travelling more miles these days to see the last North American bookstores standing. The good news is that these survivors- on both sides of the border- are really great stores.

I’ve been a Canada fan since childhood and have visited bookstores all across the country on my own for years. But the prospect of representing our books to them gave me pause. I study Quill & Quire diligently every issue, and I keep up with new Canadian books and retail news; I subscribe to and read Canadian media, from Brick to Spacing to L’Actualité; I follow Canadian politics- not just national but provincial! (True, the bar is set pretty low when it comes to US citizens knowing anything about Canadian politics. If you asked passersby on State & Wacker in Chicago to name the Canadian Prime Minister you’d be standing there a long time to find ten who do.)

The point is- no matter how well-versed I may fancy myself about the Canadian book business, I’m an outsider looking in. To put it in Rumsfeldian terms, I know what I know and what I don’t know, but it’s the things I don’t know I don’t know that I feared might trip me up. Still, after spending the bulk of the summer calling on booksellers in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City, Halifax, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, and a few other places, I’m ready to offer a few tentative generalizations.

One thing I learned pretty promptly is that “Canadian bookselling” is itself a tricky concept. Having repped for ten years from Seattle to Syracuse, I’m acutely conscious of the power of regional and local differences. True, there are common business practices and challenges that could collectively be called “US bookselling,” but it makes no sense to stay stuck at that conceptual level.

The same is is true of “Canadian bookselling.” As in the US book market, I encountered an enormous variety of bookselling styles, genres, and local quirks in Canada. Kingston does well with military books, Calgary with energy, Toronto with urban studies. Which leads to my first generalization about the biggest regional difference of all.

1) The Canadian book industry is really two parallel industries, one English, one French. The logistics and sometimes politics of stocking both English and French editions of many titles is a bilingual challenge that very few US stores- even in areas with huge Spanish-speaking populations- have taken on. It was fascinating to visit shops like Librairie Olivieri in Montreal, where the gorgeous design aesthetic of French language publishing (largely paperback) is so striking, and efforts are made to represent the most important titles in English too. Booksellers there gave me a mini-seminar on the origin of Quebec retail practices, which are more closely modeled on the French book business than on US or English Canadian.

2) Provincial governments can and do mandate that public libraries buy their stock from independent booksellers, not from chains, wholesalers, or publishers. This simple rule, which in effect directs tax dollars to support the existence of a domestic retail book trade, has been an incredibly powerful financial cushion for many independent stores. Needless to say, under the current reign of market-worship ideology, such a requirement is inconceivable in the US.

3) “American” in a title or subtitle can be the kiss of death at some Canadian stores. This is not to say there isn’t a huge interest in US history and politics. The University of Saskatchewan bookstore has a more robust US history section than many US college stores- a pathetic state of affairs. And try finding serious Canadian history and politics in a US bookstore. I’ve been made aware of how often and how superfluously the adjective “American” is dropped into a title as if it means “world.” We are not the world! We are not even Canada! An important new book on the US health care debate was skipped by most Canadian buyers, for whom this is a happily irrelevant subject. One bookseller asked me to explain what “pre-existing condition” meant exactly. Sigh.

4) The fact that Canada is a part of the British Commonwealth is reflected on its bookstore shelves. Yale has a stellar British history list, acquired by a team of whip-smart editors in London. These titles sell well in US stores, but they sell extremely well at Canadian shops. Since one of my visits to Ontario coincided with the visit of Prince and Mrs. William, I thought perhaps I was just reaping some Royals afterglow. But the strong advances continued throughout the summer, and more than made up for the tepid reception for the “American this, American that” books.

5) Canadian book media, and book coverage in mainstream media, is distinct. There’s a parallel universe of interesting Canadian books which get no attention in the US market, while the coverage of US books in Canada is surprisingly generous. I was stunned to hear Michael Enright devote an entire hour to a leisurely interview with Nicholas Frankel, the editor of Harvard’s annotated edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray one Sunday morning.

6) E-books? Digital? Not so much. This is a topic that is absolutely pre-occupying many US booksellers, but I was surprised to find a kind of sanguine, “out of our hands” attitude among many Canadian stores. This is not to say people aren’t worried, but the focus seems to be on doing what they know how to do (sell physical books) without madly throwing resources at e-book schemes in the hope that consumers will buy from their sites rather than Amazon. Then again, perhaps Canadians are just better at maintaining a state of denial. One bookseller told me to "give it time, everything that hits you hits us later.”

7) Used books? Not so much. Over the past decade I’ve seen loads of US new book retailers get into the used book game, with varying degrees of success. Some maintain separate used book sections, and others interlace second-hand books with new. I may be mistaken, but the wall between new and used doesn’t seem to have been breached as widely in Canada. Very few new stores do second-hand, nor do the excellent and quirky used dealers (like Monkey’s Paw) show any interest in new titles.

8) "The Canadian nice" stereotype? It’s true! There’s a herding cats quality to working out an itinerary each selling season, and the idea of scheduling 12 weeks of Canadian appointments with people I’d never met, who adored my (real Canadian) predecessor, was daunting. But with possibly one exception, my new buyers have been a collective dream. I’m reminded of a remark the late, great Texas iconoclast Molly Ivins once made during a CBC interview: “You Canadians are the nicest people, and it must be like living next door to the Simpsons!”

9) Obstacles to selling our books in Canada? Many. Freight is a nightmare. Rights restrictions and competing editions are a frustration. Customs is a hassle. And your inventory investment and accounts payable is hostage to an increasingly fickle exchange rate. I take the fact that booksellers across Canada eagerly stock our books despite all that as a real vote of confidence in the ideas they contain.

10) The classic, serendipitous bookselling career path is very similar on both sides of the border. When I had “getting to know you” conversations with Canadian booksellers, I often heard an instantly familiar autobiography with two variations: “I had a plan, but 25 years ago I started working in the bookstore and somehow I never left”; alternatively, “I had no plan whatsoever, but 25 years ago I started working in the bookstore and somehow I never left.” Our profession is loaded with smart, over-qualified book-lovers who rejected a life of chasing dollars for something more honorable. That’s one big and gratifying similarity.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Rep Night 2011

One of my favorite fall events is Rep Night at Boswell Books, and this year’s version was especially sweet.

The New York Times can’t seem to let a week go by without another breathless article extolling our digital book future. Every new device is an excuse to rehash the supposedly inevitable: e-books up, print books down, professional booksellers, editors and publishers- who needs them, really?

But then you talk to a big group of smart, motivated retailers who have gathered to hear about new titles on a rainy Sunday night, some of them from forty miles away, and it’s hard to imagine these cultural gatekeepers disappearing just because there’s a new delivery system for books. Oops, I mean content.

The independent booksellers of southeastern Wisconsin are an ecumenical lot, and the forty who turned out to share dinner (Beans & Barley, yum) and to hear four reps pitch their wares Sunday night came from three stores: Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, Next Chapter Bookshop in Mequon, and Books & Company in Oconomowoc.

I’ve attended dozens of rep nights, first as a bookseller at Harry W Schwartz Bookshops, then, for the past decade or so, as a rep. The Schwartz version, which initially convened in David & Carol's living room, was somewhat more confrontational than the current model. David loved to put reps on the hot seat, and if he thought they hadn’t properly explained or defended a book, they’d be subject to a socratic inquisition- sometimes while the rest of the booksellers squirmed in their seats.

Luckily (for the reps), we had no challenges from Daniel, Lanora and Lisa about conglomerate takeovers or other publishing issues beyond our humble control the other night. But the old Schwartz events were lovely, comradely, wine-soaked evenings where younger booksellers got a glimpse of what devoting a life to books might look like. The presentations ran the gamut, from an evening where we gathered (literally) at the feet of the legendary editor Elizabeth Sifton, to an upbeat screening of something called Max Headroom (for which Random House was doing a book) projected on something called “video.” We’re talking mid-eighties. Does that make rep night a tradition?

By this point in the season I could present the fall list in my sleep. I’ve mostly overcome an incapacitating shyness before groups, and I know many of these booksellers personally (these are my neighborhood stores!), so no need for angst. Still, prepping for rep night is always nerve-wracking.

There’s the challenge of picking the right books to pitch. One Schwartzian rule that is still in force: don’t talk about the obvious, the best-sellers, the big commercial books. Though this is sadly not a huge problem for my presses, the point is to highlight the quirky gems, the giftworthy, and the quietly compelling titles that might otherwise get lost.

Added to that challenge this time is the mix of stores represented. Though best-seller lists are depressingly uniform from region to region, there really are different demographics for each unique bookshop. I wanted to make sure I included something for everyone.

My rep colleagues for the evening, pros all, are from HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Fuji, a commission group with loads of smart books. I’m sometimes a little jealous that they have such a range of fiction, kids’ books, cookbooks and other popular genres to choose from. But I have the evening’s market cornered on brainy history, biography, and politics.

The other constraint which ratchets up the pressure a bit: though there’s time for socializing, we each have just 20 minutes to speak. Our presses and editors are so good at preparing us that I could rattle on for 20 minutes about one title. But the limit is a useful reminder that floor booksellers don’t have that luxury with customers, so if a book can’t be captured in a few sentences, a handsell is unlikely. I try to be brief. Less is more, less is more.

Ultimately I winnow my list to about ten titles. These are a combination of my personal cream of the crop mixed with solid books I think they can sell. I have a personal rule that I won’t pitch a book that I can’t hold and show, so I reluctantly skip over some late season goodies.

I lead with the new illustrated edition of Ernst Gombrich’s incredibly successful (and charming) A Little History of the World. Everyone knows this book. But I immediately feel as if I’ve used too much time on it. But a perfect segue into Nigel Warburton’s A Little History of Philosophy (violating my own rule- my copies arrived the next day.)

I can't say enough about David Margolick’s profound Elizabeth & Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock. I loved this and notice heads nodding. I’m connecting! I meld into Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen, even though this will likely be a book mainly for the urban store. But wait a minute- I sold this in Saskatoon! And a white male bookseller friend of mine read it while on jury duty and loved it. So this is for you too Oconomowoc and Mequon!

The Snowy Day & the Art of Ezra Jack Keats was a quiet, back of catalog sort of book but so sweet that I couldn’t pass up the chance to talk about something both arty and kid-themed.

Harvard outdoes itself with each new edition in its Annotated series and people sold Pride & Prejudice well, so Persuasion took very little, um, persuasion. But there are so many Dickens books, the trick in presenting Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s Becoming Dickens was distinguishing it from the pack. This is where being able to vouch for smooth writing counts.

I wasn’t going to mention Denise Gigante’s The Keats Brothers except that when I saw the finished product it was too beautiful to let it pass without comment. I edge out on the limb a bit further and say I think this will be the intellectual, big idea, literary biography of the season.

Two wonderful, playful, impulsey titles from MIT get smiles in the front row: 101 Things to Learn in Art School, and Urban Code: 100 Lessons for Understanding the City. I noted the latter’s many book arts virtues- printed in Germany, cloth ribbon, irresistible heft. This is an audience that appreciates production values.

It’s getting late. I notice one bookseller who is usually a Harvard/MIT/Yale fan yawning, so I need to pick up the pace. Perhaps channeling David Schwartz, I throw in one last mention- Eric Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World. True, it’s not exactly a stocking stuffer. But that very morning the Times ran a review of a new biography of Marx and his wife Jenny, and the reviewer lamented that what we really need is a good book on the history of his ideas. People, this is that book! Will it sell at Next Chapter and Books & Co, which are located in the two most conservative counties in the state? Won’t it be fun to try?

There are three more rep nights ahead, but since I'm no longer a bookseller I don't get to go. I get a little dewy-eyed about our profession when I see all these young and old booksellers coming out on their own time just to get some good handselling ideas from my colleagues and me.

I don’t know what we’ll be holding and showing at these events when and if books become electronic blips on a screen; but I’m pretty sure these passionate booksellers will still be turning out to hear us.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

elizabeth, hazel, and the help

I guess it’s time to see The Help. It was and is such a buzz book in the stores. People I know who normally disdain pop culture have told me, in a kind of confidential whisper, “You really should see it.” And now my 84 year old mother, who never goes to movies, saw it with my sisters and exited the theater in tears.

I was intrigued by my friend Sue Zumberge’s description of conversations she’d had about the book with African-American and white customers in her St Paul store, Common Good Books. While some black readers and viewers have loved the book, others have been bothered by the idea of a white woman writing and owning this story. This seems to me a dead end argument that, carried to its logical conclusion, would make our literary landscape even more ghettoized than it already is.

But the more interesting critique is the suspicion that, as one black viewer put it, “this is a feel good movie for white people.” Reading this, I could almost hear defensive hackles bristling across the land, as well-meaning white New York Times readers encountered and dismissed the idea. But I think it's a profound idea, and it gets to the heart of our stubborn contemporary perceptual divide when it comes to race.

For many whites, slavery and Jim Crow are long lost historical artifacts, and no need to dwell on them. Nasty and embarrassing, sure, but we can't feel personally responsible for social atrocities committed by our great-grandparents generation. (And of course, our particular relatives are never implicated anyway.)

The self-evident truth that racism continues to operate in every area of our lives is met with indignant skepticism. Indeed, there’s a ludicrous but increasingly confident movement asserting that white people are the new oppressed minority.

Meanwhile, for African-Americans, racism and oppression are not just a piece of unpleasant history, swept aside in 2008 by an enlightened electorate. The most repugnant, institutionalized practices were routine until not that long ago. The legacy of racism has never been honestly confronted in the manner of, say, the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission. And by any of hundreds of statistical measurements, not to mention one’s own eyes and ears, racial bias continues to undermine aspirations in Black communities across the land, the Obamas in the White House notwithstanding.

The premature rush to pronounce racism dead, the declarations that we don’t need affirmative action programs anymore, the puzzled frustration on the part of some whites with blacks who won’t just forgive, forget and move on- these attitudes understandably elicit skepticism among black people about the sincerity and degree of true acceptance behind them.

One great way to help understand the debate can be found in David Margolick’s excellent new book Elizabeth & Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, just released from Yale.

If you don’t recognize the names Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan Massery, you’re forgiven. But if you don’t know their story, you should.

When Little Rock Central High School was desegregated in 1957, with the help of court orders and the National Guard, the nine brave fifteen-year old black students who attempted to attend were surrounded each day by screaming, hateful mobs of whites. In one shocking photo that quickly became iconic, a stoic young black woman calmly carries a notebook as she walks to the building; directly behind her, wearing a face contorted by rage and hate, a young white woman spits epithets.

Elizabeth and Hazel.

As I’ve sold this book for the past three months, I’ve been surprised at how fuzzy memories have become about this episode. Booksellers of a certain age recognized it immediately, but younger booksellers often listened to this story as if hearing it for the first time. (This alone speaks volumes about how well we’re teaching this history.)

Margolick is a master journalist, and the book works as a refresher course on the early days of the civil rights movement through the lens of the Little Rock events. But what makes it keenly relevant to the discussion sparked by The Help is the evolving, unlikely personal relationship between the two women.

Incredibly, both grew up and continued to live in Little Rock, unknown to each other. But after 30 years, Hazel Bryant picked up the phone and called Elizabeth Eckford, and asked for her forgiveness. A twenty-plus year adult relationship ensues, a friendship that veers from kumbaya to fracture and back again. One of the main fault lines in their personal story, as in our current national conversation, has to do with trust and sincerity.

Despite Hazel’s heartfelt and seemingly genuine atonement, Elizabeth begins to suspect that she doesn’t grasp the enormity of the injustice of which she’s been a part. Initially, Hazel clings to the notion that she really didn’t know why she was part of the mob, she was just following along, she was only fifteen and, indeed, racism may not have even been her motive. Elizabeth doubts this conveniently naïve narrative, and begins to withhold the easy forgiveness she’s being asked to confer.

When I first approached this manuscript, I expected and wanted a story that would build to an Oprah-like finale. If these two women could find peace and friendship, why can’t we all? That is, a feel good moment for white people.

Instead, Margolick has given us much more- a richly textured, profoundly personal historical snapshot, complete with all the ambiguities and loose ends that inform our continuing racial divide. The photo may be from 1957, but, as the skewed reactions to stories like Kathryn Stockett’s book and film make clear, the image still resonates in 2011.