Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Fall book shopping list

Publishing seasons remind me a little of school semesters.  

I’ve just spent five months selling the Fall 2012 Harvard, MIT and Yale lists, and though it's been fun, I’m anxious for some fresh faces.  

I was talking with a teacher friend of mine over the summer who said she was looking forward to a new group of students in the fall.  She talked about how thirty (make that forty, thanks Gov. Walker!) anonymous little faces on day one would be transformed into established personalities by December. 
Experienced teachers can make pretty good initial predictions on how students will perform.  But there are always wrong hunches:  the difficult child who ends up being a star; the striver who comes with great reviews but ultimately disappoints; and the come from nowhere surprise who quietly sits in the back of the class and never raises a hand but turns in a stellar final project.
By the end of the semester, my teacher friend misses a few of her charges, is glad to be rid of others, and in general is ready to get on with the new batch. 

This is how I feel about selling seasonal lists of books.  After our sales conferences in April, where books are presented to the reps, I try to make friends with the new titles we’ve heard about.  I read excerpts, study marketing notes, review editor’s presentations, and trade impressions with my colleagues.  

But as perhaps with students, you never really know what the books will be like until you’ve spent a few months in the world with them.  Many titles perform as expected, but every season includes sure winners that fail to ignite, and duds that somehow catch fire.  You never really know how a book will do until the booksellers have a chance to weigh in.

Book reps are paid to represent.  That means doing our best to give a fair shot to each of the books on the lists, and finding the sometimes elusive potential sales channels that best match each title.  

But we’re also humans who love the product we sell.  Before I worked for Harvard, MIT and Yale I bought lots of their books for my personal library.  Playing favorites in the classroom is probably not a good idea, but selling our lists is not a zero-sum game.  To love one book is not to undercut another.

Do sales reps in other professions play favorites among their wares?   Maybe the drug reps.   Each season, there are lots of books I enjoyed selling, or relished talking about with booksellers.  But beyond that, there are particular titles that I really felt passionate about.  These are the books that I’d buy if I didn’t already have access to them.   (Yes, another perk.  But after flogging a title all season, getting a finished copy seems like a just reward.)

So for what it’s worth, a recap of some personal picks from the fall Yale, MIT and Harvard lists.

Of Africa/ Wole Soyinka (Yale)
How could you not want to know what this incredible writer has to say about post-colonial Africa and the unintended consequences of western do-gooderism?  
I’m a sucker for biographies of old lefties, and the re-discovery- discovery, really-  of this fierce woman is a revelation.  Barbara Ransby is an accomplished scholar and a wonderful writer.

Blindly/ Claudio Magris (Yale/Margellos)
Almost a travel diary in the vein of Sebald, this European masterpiece finally gets an English translation.  As a bonus, the production values and design of the Margellos World Republic of Letters series is so sumptuous I’d definitely be collecting them all as a civilian.

The Zelmenyaners: A Family Saga/ Moyshe Kulbak (Yale)
First English translation of a zany classic of Yiddish fiction.  The fact that Stalin had him shot makes it poignant.  Set in Minsk, where I once spent a night!  Long story.
An artist who was obsessed with the everyday, an intriguing man and a beautiful book.

 Carrie Mae Weems:Three Decades of Photography (Yale)
Mesmerizing images of African-American life by an accomplished, under-appreciated artist.

House photography from middle class magazines like Sunset and Better Homes and Gardens with a mid-century modern, southern California vibe.  This stuff is like candy.

How could you resist the subtitle alone?  A potter, an anti-colonial crusader, a dissenter.  A fascinating biography, three lives in one.
Clever contemporary Canadian artists presented in a sort of travel guide format, with smart literary introductions.  So much to like here.
A confounding but oddly appealing contemporary French artist.  One of his works- “A Journey That Wasn’t”- documents an attempt to find a rare albino penguin in Antarctica, and re-stages it as a musical on the Central Park ice rink. 

Memory/ed. Ian Farr (MIT)
These Documents of Contemporary Art books would be my downfall if I had to buy them all.  The series is irresistible in every way.

The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance/ Franco “Bifo” Berardi (MIT/semiotext(e))
Even aside from the allure of a handle like “Bifo,” I am drawn to any and all critiques of the insane austerity hallucination to which we’re being subjected.  These minimalist Interventions books are swell.  But I might be their target audience and I wonder if there are enough of me.
One of the great Zone titles of recent vintage, this clever, McSweenysesque writer asks and answers the question “Why is there no Norton Anthology of Paperwork?”

10 PrintCHR$(205.5+RND(1));: GOTO 10/ Nick Montfort et al (MIT)
Yes, that’s the title, but it’s OK to call it Ten Print.  It’s a microhistory and deep reading of one iconic line of computer code.  And it asks what it meant for a computer to create a maze in 1982.  Believe it or not, I think that sounds pretty compelling.

How to be Gay/ David M. Halperin (Harvard)
Though I’m afraid I don’t live up to the author’s criteria, I love his passionate argument that there’s more to gay rights than marriage and military.
Two incredible lives from a time when anarchism was synonymous with social justice.
A chronicle of Wilde’s 15,000 mile speaking tour across the continent, as told by an excellent British writer.

On Glasgow andEdinburgh/ Robert Crawford (Harvard)
Alright, I’d be on the fence about actually buying it.  I’d pick it up and put it down in several bookstores before finally succumbing.  City biographies are one of my weaknesses and Harvard hasn’t done a bad one.

Emma: An Annotated edition/ Jane Austen, ed. Bharat Tandon (Harvard)
Some of the most beautiful book-making I’ve seen, and such a treat to be associated with these.  I’d absolutely collect them all.
I wouldn’t normally be drawn to a book like this but given the mess we’re in, it wouldn’t hurt to know something about where hedge funds came from.  It’s surprising to learn that protecting trans-Atlantic shipments in 1800 from the risk of loss somehow grew into the contemporary financial service industry.  It’s a juicy, big idea book.
I’ve been haunted by the idea of Cold War ballistic missles scattered on farms throughout the Plains since seeing “The Day After.”  Remember when all the missiles in farmyards started launching?  This is the complicated and surprising back story.  Which isn’t over.

Alone in America: The Stories That Matter/ Robert A. Ferguson (Harvard)
True, I might wait for paperback.  But the more I dip into this survey of loneliness in American fiction, the more it calls out.  And the cover image is gorgeous.  And I do still buy books (and CD’s!) for the cover.
It’s mainly based on archival research but this is a superb study of how the waves of immigration have shaped the 20th century urban working class.  Bald is a great writer and an interesting documentary filmmaker.