Sunday, July 8, 2012

everyday bookselling vexations in search of a lexicon

One of the brainstorms that I will never actually get around to executing is inventing a glossary of terms for common bookselling phenomena which have no shared vocabulary.

I’ve had this idea since my own bookselling days, but a recent piece by New Yorker economics columnist James Surowiecki, about the alleged qualifications gap between workers needed and workers available, brought it to mind again. The skills mismatch so loudly complained about by corporations is actually very limited in scope, he explains. Agreed. But his evidence? “When you look at the list of slots that businesses say are among the toughest to fill, you find jobs like sales rep and office support- hardly specialized occupations.”

Excuse me. I will concede that the excellent carpenter who built a lovely screen porch on our cabin last week would have an easier time stepping into my occupational shoes that I would into his. My porch would look like Lucy and Ethel’s barbecue. (Sorry, you will miss the reference if you are under 75). This reminds me too much of the attitude I sometimes hear from the well-meaning but uninformed, who think anyone could run a bookstore. “Hey, I love to read!” (Or publish a book worth reading without a publisher. But that’s another post.)

When it comes to anything to do with the book industry, from publishing to bookselling, there’s an elaborate, arcane, and essentially non-transferable set of skills and wisdom that many of us have absorbed over the years. I know plenty of very smart book people of a certain age who will readily admit that one reason they will never do anything else is that they couldn’t. What they know doesn’t travel. Mastering 500 publisher isbn prefixes and 500 irrational discount schedules is a vital skill for bookstore efficiency. In the rest of the world, not so much.

But back to the glossary. I was calling on a bookseller last week who made reference to “orphans.” That term probably has all kinds of appropriated meanings. But in a bookselling context, I hadn’t heard it since David Schwartz taught me that it refers to the stray leftover remainders that you never can seem to get rid of. Nine out of ten copies in your stack sell, but that last one might as well be a collection of turkey recipes the day after Thanksgiving.

Attend any national or regional meeting of booksellers, or eavesdrop on their conversation, and you’ll hear a fluid exchange of professional banter. If someone says “the publisher was OS indef so I put it on wholesaler TBO, and it eventually came after cascading three times,” everyone will get it. But in addition to the well-trodden specialized book jargon we have all mastered, there are lots of familiar phenomena- about which only a bookseller would care- that occur frequently enough in the bookstore that it seems to me they have earned descriptors of their own. A few examples:

1. Books that are too wide and fall off the shelf when spined, or too tall so they have to be shelved sideways, meaning the only way to shelve them is to face them out. Yet they don’t really merit faceout treatment. Name that dilemma.

2. Books of which you have one copy and it must be shelved somewhere specific.  Yet the title actually falls into two, three or more subject categories.  Some publishers call this “interdisciplinary,” and think it’s a plus. Perhaps they haven’t worked in a bookstore  (I used to have a buyer who would order one copy for each conceivable category. Those days are long gone.)

3. Books which fall into no recognizable subject category whatever.

4. When a section bulges to bursting in one part of the alphabet- say P through T- but is loose and floppy in another- say H through L- what’s that called?

5. The sex books that migrate all over the store because a customer would rather appear to be browsing, say, foreign languages, than kinky erotica. Name that rover!

6. The stand-alone end cap: I’ve heard it called a widow. Can I get a second? .

7. When you’re looking for a book for a customer and you can’t see it because it’s on display face-out.

8. What shall we call the last straggler books on the “to be shelved” cart that every bookseller leaves, hoping someone else will do it? (I will bet many of them fit into category three above.)

9. A customer asks for a book which hadn’t sold in 18 months and which you returned yesterday. This item eligible in several categories: what to call the book, what to call the customer, what to call your stifled, exasperated reaction?

10. The biggest ill-conceived buy of the holiday season deserves a name of its own, no?

11. And how about the biggest truly under the radar holiday success story?

12. What about the title you just know you will be returning even as you tell the rep you’ll take one? And when you miraculously sell it?

13. A new, publicity-driven title is ordered in one copy and it sells immediately. It is re-ordered and re-ordered for a couple weeks. But at some point the demand dries up. The copy you sold last week was in fact the last you would sell. What to call the superfluous copy you replaced it with? (“Return” is not eligible.)

14. The hardcover book that lands in February, is dead by May, is returned in July, and mysteriously comes back to life in October when an irate customer is appalled that you don’t have it.

15. Thinking an author is a steady seller and ordering accordingly, only to actually check one day and find that you were confusing “shelving” with “selling.” Having a shelf full of Joyce Carol Oates doesn’t necessarily mean her sales are robust.

16. You get a special order and put it together with four other backlist books you probably wouldn’t have needed or wanted; those four come but the special doesn’t. This is called…..? (Watch your language!)

17. To help you sell a fancy art book, the publisher helpfully supplies an extra so that customers can peruse and mangle. This already has a good term: “display copy.” But what to call the copy you gamely ordered for stock that did NOT come with an extra after it has been abused into unsalable and unreturnable condition by browsers?

18. The oblivious group of patrons (if that’s the right term when they don’t buy anything) who use the store as a showroom, whipping out their devices to scan and price check competitor’s right under your nose. The ones who use staff to help track down and identify what they want before shopping elsewhere are especially in need of a name.

19. The bookseller skips a new title. Let’s even say the rep agreed it wasn’t a good match. Later, a customer special orders and buys the book. By accident or design, it lands on a to-be-ordered list and gets restocked. It goes on to become a steady seller. It’s as if the customer directly intervened in the process to seed the store inventory. What to call this specimen of book, and the phenomenon?

20.  Wild card.  Any experienced bookseller could think of more examples. Perhaps, in the spirit of DARE, the Dictionary of American Regional English, there could be local accents and slang in our new lexicon. And remember, we are book people so we are polite. Suggestions welcome!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

the summer joys of bookstores

Last week I was asked to be on a panel at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) in Chicago. This happened once before, twenty years ago, when AAUP was in a masochistic mood and invited opinionated booksellers to scold them about what they are doing wrong. Our bill of indictment then seems pretty innocuous: print ISBN’s on the books; improve your discount schedule; do something about freight costs.

Mission (mainly) accomplished on all three of those fronts. But the stakes at this year’s panel were much bigger, though somewhat masked by a deceptively gauzy title: “The Changing Bookstore Landscape.” No kidding!

It was a treat to share a podium with four of the smartest minds in contemporary bookselling. These were Bruce Miller, who represents a cornucopia of university presses to booksellers across the Midwest (and who is single-handedly leading the charge to save the University of Missouri Press); Cathy Schornstein, veteran Midwest Field Rep for HarperCollins, and someone who knows bookselling and repping inside out; Linda Bubon, of Women & Children First in Chicago, who somehow didn’t get the memo that feminist bookstores are dead and has transformed her wonderful neighborhood shop into a beloved community institution; and Jack Cella, manager of the legendary Seminary Coop Bookstores, who has ignored many such memos about the supposed hopelessness of academic bookselling, and will be moving the store into expanded quarters in Hyde Park this fall.

 I’d scoped out the space during the previous panel presentation. This was on something called “Meta Data.” The room was packed and everyone leaned forward wearing looks that might have been eagerness to learn or might have been desperation. It reminded me of going to ancient ABA panels on the rise of the CD-ROM, the feeling of “this is coming and we’d better know about it.”

The difference now is that “this”- the digital, the E, the Meta- really is coming, indeed its already crashed through the door. As I scanned the titles and affiliations beside the names of conference attendees, there were many incomprehensible job descriptions that all seemed to have to do with transforming books into data. I wondered who would come to a panel about yesterday, i.e. bookstores. Yet the room was packed and attentive. Granted, the first question was “what about E-books?”

 But the unifying theme of the presentations, which were optimistic without being sugar-coated, was that physical bookstores selling physical books are here to stay. Indeed, the great digital turn may even end up being a boon to booksellers. And that bookstores need university presses.

There were many interesting comments and ideas presented. But my favorite, which cropped up in a variety of ways, was the idea of the bookstore as a locus of discovery. Online search is an incredibly useful tool for finding what you think you want. But the bookstore remains the place to find what you didn’t know you wanted.

 I had the luck to follow up all this hard thinking in Chicago with a visit to several excellent bookstores during a round of sales calls in St Louis and Iowa City. I wish there had been a way to simply put a typical buying session between a university press rep and an experienced indie bookseller up on that stage. It might have been a revelation to anyone doubting the continued viability of traditional bookselling. But when my meetings were finished and I got to put on my customer hat for an hour, the idea of the bookstore as a place for random book revelation really hit home.

At Left Bank Books, I stumbled upon a Penguin Classics edition of Ernest Poole’s The Harbor, “the 1915 socialist masterpiece by the first recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.” I’d dimly heard of him. It looks fantastic. Thanks to Kris Kleindienst for stocking it!

Subterranean Books in University City is one of my favorite kinds of stores- small, selective, and every title seems hand-picked. Here I saw and instantly coveted a resurrected classic called High Street. First published in 1938, it’s a quirky, young adultish illustrated survey of the shops on a typical British High Street by architectural historian J. M. Richards. The plates were destroyed in the London blitz and it’s been unavailable for decades. This is right up my friend Daniel Goldin’s alley but it may be a keeper. Thank you Subterranean!

 At Prairie Lights in Iowa City, where it’s nearly impossible to get out of the store without an armload of surprises, Paul Ingram made sure I paid attention to Suddenly, a Knock on the Door, the new story collection by Etgar Keret. He knows his customer’s reading tastes and he knows mine, and though I may have eventually crossed paths with Keret I was glad to do it here.

 On to Iowa Book around the corner, where Matt Lage curates the finest remainder selection west of the Mississippi. Remainders get a bad rap, and for some good reasons. They are inevitably monuments to failure. But the fact is that there are lots of deserving books that get a third lease on life on the bargain table. My haul from Matt: Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin (this is a book I’d almost bought when it came out, and almost bought again in paper, but really couldn’t say no to a third time at 6.98); Jacques Godbout’s Québécois classic Le Couteau sur la table, which I can add to my growing collection of Canadian novels in French that I never actually finish; and The Great Iowa Touring Book: 27 Spectacular Auto Trips. It’s a beautiful state. Who can resist it at 4.98?

Finally, the bricks and mortar general used bookstore is the last to get any love in the book industry ecosystem. Yet when you step into one like Murphy-Brookfield in Iowa City (especially when the thermometer reads 106 outside) it’s impossible to deny that we need them. I struck serendipitous gold there in two ways. First, I found an early novel by one of my new favorite authors, South African Damon Galgut. Second, I found a treasure trove of old Virago Classics. This popular series of mainly unheralded British women novelists was an eighties phenomenon. They’ve been superseded by the wonderful Persephone Press line from the UK, which- scandal! - do not have a US distributor.

The Viragos are as addictive as candy, and to leave Iowa City with Winifred Holtby, Emily Holmes Coleman, Lettice Cooper, Pamela Frankau, E. Arnot Robertson and Laura Talbot was as pleasant a book surprise as I could have ever anticipated.

I’m glad that the university presses are paying attention and doing what they need to do to adapt to the demands of the digital future. And I hope that everyone who works for a university press drops by an actual bookstore regularly to remember why we’re doing it all in the first place.