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.

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