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.