Sunday, May 29, 2011

book expo 2011

I attended my first ABA (when ABA actually ran the convention) in San Francisco in the mid-eighties. I was a somewhat green bookseller and was a little overwhelmed by the over-stimulation. I remember being surprised at how hard it was to find actual books at the show.

This year, as I have before, I worked the Harvard, MIT and Yale University Press booths, and instead of being a part of the swarming literati, stood witness to it as it flowed past.

An endless, somewhat surreal parade, with every corner of the book industry on display, it reminded me a bit of the old anti-war marches. We were all there for a common purpose, yet every individual sect wanted to walk behind its own banner.

But here, all the niches and interests were intermingled. One minute you’re discussing titles that might work for the St Louis Jewish Book Fair with an extremely organized group of women, and the next you’re fending off eccentric self-published authors of dystopic sci fi novels.

BEA 2011 for me was book-ended by two lovely, humbling and satisfying events in honor of our “PW Rep of the Year” award.

On Monday night, the three presses threw a cocktail party at Hudson Yards CafĂ©, a Hell's Kitchen bar which was scouted out by Yale sales director (and walking music wiki) Jay Cosgrove. I loved it because it felt exactly like the kind of neighborhood place I’d frequent at home in Milwaukee. The mix of booksellers, press folk and rep colleagues from other presses was a treat, and though I fight limelight every step of the way, I’m still basking in the love.

On Thursday morning, the more formal presentation of Rep of the Year and Bookstore of the Year Awards (for the irrepressible Anderson’s outside Chicago) took place at the Book & Author Breakfast.

I shared the Green Room with Anne Enright, Roger Ebert, Erik Larson and Jim Lehrer. (Note to booksellers: as Lehrer and I strolled out to the dais he reminisced about the many bookstore events he’s done, and wondered why some bookstores put out too many chairs. “It’s better to have fewer chairs and then have to put out more than to have empty ones.” So true.)

I have never been in a Green Room, nor spoken before a thousand people, nor received a plaque for anything. I’d prepared a somewhat lengthy list of people to acknowledge- beginning with my rep team, Adena Siegel and Patricia Nelson- but when they told me I’d have “two minutes, tops,” I became flustered and extemporized. I guess it went well but see below for the remarks I’d prepared to give, and sort of did.

Between these two personal highlights, there were three days of the usual book convention business.

When I hear people talk about how the shows have changed, I don’t really know what they mean. I’ve attended a dozen or more over the past twenty-five years, both as bookseller and rep, and the predictable far outweighs the surprising.

Everyone who attends the convention becomes an instant amateur convention planner, and the roster of logistical complaints is long: not enough this, too much that, too hot, too cold. The horrible food is always horrible and too expensive.

When we get done critiquing the mechanics it’s on to calling out our fellow attendees: the greedy hoarders, the wheelies, the clueless.

And don't forget the publishers. There are never enough galleys, or the right galleys. The personnel you really need to speak with are never at the show, or at the booth.

Some of the larger publishers have stands where it’s impossible to find anyone to talk with. (“There’s no there there” I heard a bookseller remark about one huge booth that was filled with suits conferring at little tables but no-one who looked approachable.)

Then there are other stands where the desperation is startling. I learned to cut a wide swath around the American Express booth after a man screamed “John, are you a business owner?!” in my face one too many times.

I think and hope that our booths walked a middle ground- accessible, anxious to answer questions, usually facing outward rather than inward. What I know is that an astounding amount of work got done in three tiny spaces, much of it in meetings set up by my colleague Adena with her customers.

Yes, some surface things have changed over the years. There were no phones and personal devices for people to check at inconvenient moments back then. And the 1986 scientologists were dressed in different silly costumes than the 2011 ones, though the underlying idea- Bridge masquerading as an ordinary publisher- remains the same.

But what really puzzled me this year was the gap between the way the show was reported in book and business media, and the way I experienced it at the floor level. If you read the Times and listened to NPR, you’d think that Ebooks and the digital renaissance were universal preoccupations.

But on the rare occasions that I heard booksellers bring the subject up themselves, it was to make a meta-complaint about how loud the digital conversation has become, and how it was drowning out other conversations.

One of the things I enjoy best about working the booth is facilitating serendipitous meet-ups between booksellers who don’t know each other but should. There were countless impromptu conversations among booksellers at our booths all week, and what they mainly wanted to talk about was what they’ve talked about at conventions for twenty-five years- the books.

Before viral meant something that happens on a screen, and before novels and texts became Content, the main point of the show was talking with publishers about their fall lists. And exchanging individual takes on books and authors with colleagues. Why else make the trip?

As for Ebooks, a bookseller friend told me last week that “the publishers are always asking us about it, but the books themselves are more interesting to talk about than delivery systems.”

That’s a reality that will come back to bite publishers who are overly dazzled by the shift in potential platforms at the expense of paying attention to the quality of their publishing program. No worries on that front with Harvard, MIT and Yale.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Remarks below were prepared and (mainly) delivered at Book & Author Breakfast May 26, 2011:

Thanks Publishers Weekly, and the nominating booksellers. It’s great to see University Presses get this recognition.

Book repping today is not about sales but about repping in the hip-hop sense- as The Anthology of Rap puts it, “to represent is to stand for something you are convinced of and feel related to.” In that sense we are all book reps.

While it’s an honor to be recognized for individual achievement, this is a profoundly collective endeavor, and a shared labor of love.

Above all, I share the work with my colleagues, comrades and friends, Adena Siegel and Patricia Nelson. Between us we have over a century of bookselling and repping experience.

But there are others who deserve to share the credit, beginning with everyone at Harvard, MIT and Yale. I’ve sold thousands of titles in the past decade and they’ve never given me one to be embarrassed about representing. (well, maybe one…)

Authors, editors, book designers, and sales and marketing geniuses collaborate every day to get our beautiful books to readers.

And every rep knows that our reputation depends on how well our fulfillment operation works. Our team at TriLiteral is world class.

Two other key pieces of social scaffolding are crucial to doing a good rep job:

First, there’s the community of field reps, who share information, frustrations, and gossip, and make the road a less lonely place.

And a salute to the often unacknowledged friends and families of book reps. It’s not easy living with a rep. I asked my partner Randy to finish this sentence: “Living with a book rep is like……..” Without missing a beat he said “ living in the UPS warehouse.”

But the key to it all is the bookstore. The booksellers who are practicing this craft today with heart, brains and love are heroes.

I started working at Harry W Schwartz Bookshop in Milwaukee in the seventies. But long before that, as a nerdy, self-conscious, introverted twelve year old, I spent hours hanging out in that store, discovering a way to be myself.

Like libraries, bookstores are safe places for kids who are too smart, too gay, or too different. There are a lot of reasons to hope that the doors of bookstores stay open. But a big one is the quietly life-changing space they give those self-conscious adolescent bookworms every day.

On their behalf- and my own- thank you!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

manhattan bookstore melancholy

With BEA coming up fast next week, I’ve been thinking a lot about New York City, and how my love for Manhattan has always been tangled with my love for books.

Nobody I knew growing up in Milwaukee traveled there, save an aunt and uncle who went to shows and brought back photos of themselves at Sardi’s, and bags of hotel matches.

My first visit happened in 1967 when I was a high school student. No, it wasn’t a class trip to perform with the band or to visit museums. My father had improbably given in to my pleading to fork over parental permission and $30 for a bus ticket to the first big anti Vietnam war march on the United Nations.

Though the trip- including the march, rally and eighteen hour ride- lasted all of three days, I broke off from friends whose priority was finding a “head shop” to go to Eighth Street Bookshop instead. I'd read about it in the Village Voice. It was a revelation.

In subsequent years, I visited the city often for radical political meetings of various sorts, and I always found time for the bookshops.

The New Yorker on West 89th street- a cramped closet with an equally minute mezzanine- was a favorite, as well as the nearby Bookforum at Columbia. I had a mad crush on Laura Nyro at the time and stalked her West End Avenue apartment building, so both stores were handy.

Farther downtown, I loved the radical bookshops, the more sectarian the better. Every Trotskyist and Maoist grouplet seemed to have its own book operation. This was at a time when “China Books & Periodicals” was an insurgent enterprise.

But I mainly patronized the various Communist Party outposts, which exuded a kind of haunting authenticity (even though already a shadow of the glory days): the Jefferson Bookshop off Union Square, which felt like living history; the Universal Bookstore, a strange storefront on West 13th operated by an unpleasant ogre who buzzed you in only after sizing you up; and the spiffy Four Continents on Fifth Avenue, a stagy advertisement for the Soviet government with books in English of all kinds.

These small niche bookshops were intoxicating. And when you factored in all the larger new and used bookshops, a book lover could easily spend a week browsing through Manhattan, even well into the eighties.

In 1986, my sister Barb, who was living in Connecticut at the time, gave me a copy of the NYNEX Manhattan Yellow Pages for my birthday. (Yes, a bit weird. I was thrilled.) As I peruse this piece of faded glory 25 years later, I’m amazed and sad to re-discover the richness of the New York bookstore landscape.

The “Book Dealers-New” section has nearly 400 alphabetical listings, among them a couple dozen art and architecture stores. And the big footprint chains were Doubleday and B. Dalton.

All is not lost. There were several familiar contemporary retailers on that twenty-five year old roster, including Three Lives, Strand, and Saint Mark’s Bookshop, where I bought my first ever full price hardcover in 1980 (Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel Escher Bach).

But the ghosts are more numerous: Brentano’s, Scribner, Coliseum, Endicott, Gotham Book Mart, Hacker Art Books, the Oscar Wilde Bookshop- all fond memories.

I haven’t seen a 2011 Yellow Pages, but Yelp lists 327 Manhattan booksellers, new and used. That’s better than I expected. And there are still lots of wonderful stores in New York (and brave booksellers who keep opening them.)

But though I get to the city more often these days, the bookstore spell that Manhattan once cast over this Milwaukee kid is also just a hazy memory. Kind of like socialism.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

close call in new haven; saved by collaboration

During the last meeting at the end of a week of sales conferences in Cambridge and New Haven last Friday, I was nearly killed by a screen. There’s a not funny digital joke in there somewhere.

The Yale sales department brain trust was having a final walk through the fall list when the big projection screen on which we’d earlier watched skyped presentations by our London editors came down on me from behind on a gust of spring wind. I was saved by my colleague Adena Siegel. This was not the first time.

Once again, the three back to back sales conferences- beginning with The MIT Press, Harvard University Press in the middle, and ending with Yale University Press - were exercises in intellectual stimulation and humility. Each press has such a distinct voice, producing books that are more than the sum of the parts. I leave the meetings feeling both energized and muddled, but trusting that all the incoming information streams will eventually sort themselves into coherent presentations to booksellers, as they have for (yikes) 23 seasons.

As the grateful recipient of some recognition from colleagues for my work recently, the idea of individual achievement has been on my mind. And at the risk of beating a dead horse, I have to reiterate my belief that- in books and publishing anyway, but also in the world- true self-creation is a rare thing. In work as intensely collaborative as the writing and dissemination of books, every individual achievement is also a social one.

You can’t deny that a writer who creates a book that wins acclaim is entitled to the bulk of the glory. But even at the level of authorship, it’s often clear that the final product usually rests on a complicated collaborative infrastructure. Pick up any worthy book and check the lengthy acknowledgements pages, or the roster of interviewees, or even the librarians consulted and thanked for confirmation that great ideas don’t always spring sui generis from great minds. (With some exceptions, many of them on our lists.)

Though individual merit counts, so does family, education, and economic status. Writers who are lucky or connected enough to be dealt winning hands in those three categories have all the more reason to thank a multitude.

And when we celebrate the publication of a deeply researched magnum opus which took decades to produce, I often wonder who was paying the bills and doing the laundry and tending to the minutia of the author’s daily life, allowing him or her to be devoted to writing. Someone, I’d guess.

This collaborative ethic carries on through the process of bringing the finished book to market. Some authors (not ours, of course) seem to be so hypnotized by the promise of internet retailing that they think getting their book listed and ranked on Amazon is itself a marketing plan. Mission accomplished, I see my book on the screen!

But in my experience over the past week and years, the collective thinking brought to bear by the presses to make sure every book finds its customer is profound.

With some titles this week, we spent a lot of time clarifying the intention of the author to make sure we understand exactly what we’re selling; in other cases, the meaning seemed self-evident, but identifying likely audiences was the challenge. Where to find reviews, where to find special niche markets, how to use social media effectively- it’s a never-ending collaborative process. And in general, the more collaboration, the better the chance of success.

The myth of individual achievement and the self-made man is so inescapable that it’s sometimes hard to find ways to recognize collective achievement- in the sense of honoring it, but even in the sense of simply seeing it.

Making the case will get easier this fall when Yale brings out Richard Sennett’s wonderful forthcoming book (January 2012) Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. A follow-up to his earlier work The Craftsman, a bookseller favorite which celebrated the joys of work for the sake of work, he turns his attention now to the need for a more cooperative ethos. Or, as he might put it, collaboration as a form of craftsmanship.

Every achievement worth noting in bookselling and publishing is to some degree a social one. That’s something to celebrate collectively.