Sunday, December 1, 2013

yes, another 2013 best-of list: my harvard/mit/yale picks

This year Harvard, MIT and Yale University Press published 1,028 new titles, give or take.  Every one of them was worthy, and with luck (and with our ace rep presentations)  each found an audience beyond the author’s mother.

At this time of the year I remember that what drew me to these three presses in the first place is that I love their books.  As a bookseller they were my favorite books to order and sell, and as a book fiend I bought more of them than I could afford or could actually read.

And I still love the books we publish, but some more than others.  So I’ve culled a list of ten favorites  from the titles I sold this year.  These are not necessarily the big name, market-driven, high expectation titles from the lists.  And there are plenty more that I could endorse with pleasure.  But these are simply my top ten, in no particular order- the titles I’d most love to receive, feel most compelled to share, and would most heartily recommend. 

And needless to say, if you're moved to check them out, do so at your favorite bookstore!

Edited and compiled by Jeff Brouws, Wendy Burton, and Hermann Zschiegner
MIT Press January $39.95

Tricky title but bear with me.  Inspired by Jack Kerouac in the 1960s and 70s, artist Ed Ruscha created a series of small conceptual photography books documenting mundane subjects: Twenty-six Gas Stations, Various Small Fires, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, and many more.  In so doing he all but invented the photographic taxonomy genre, one of my favorite MIT Press strengths.  I still remember swooning every time a new Bernd & Hilla Becher album of rusting industrial hulks landed in the bookstore.  And everyone got sick of me extolling the Melnicks’ Manhole Covers, still one of the great photo taxonomies of all time.  This sweet, funny, colorful book, in which other artists spoof and build on Ruscha’s work (Thirty-four Parking Lots Forty Years Later, None of the Buildings on Sunset Strip, and Various Unbaked Cookies, among others) is also a gorgeous piece of book-making and graphic design.  I was thrilled to see it make Dwight Garner’s New York Times holiday list- though oddly, in the best bathroom reading category!

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien
Yale November $29.95

Another kind of homage, this time to the wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities.  Think Joseph Cornell’s vitrines, or those old-school museum dioramas we'd be marched past in sixth grade, or really anyone’s treasured display case of a cherished obsession.  The trick here is that these are also deliberate works of art, constructed by a who’s who of international architecture and design stars.  Curators for the 2012 Venice Biennale Architecture exhibition asked participants to share the contents of their lives rather than to create some object, and 35 of them filled empty boxes with meaningful collections.  The results are surprising, funny and sometimes puzzling.  The book documents the exhibition, artist by artist, with lavish illustrations and explanatory text.  It looks a bit like the two other recent charmers that were editorially midwifed by Michelle Komie at the YUP Art Workshop, Unpacking My Library: Architects & Their Books and Unpacking My Library: Writers & Their Books.

Translated and edited by Reuven Snir
Harvard November $29.95

I’m a sucker for city books, and I have a big collection of urban histories, walking tours, photographs and urbanist manifestos.  City poetry?  Not so much.  Milwaukee, where I live, is not the kind of place to which poets dedicate poems, though in our defense we are less than 200 years old.  (And we do have at least one fine poet, John Koethe, who has written lovingly about the city)  But some cities just inspire poetic devotion.  Had I the talent I’d wax poetic over Montreal, New York, Berlin- places I stalk like a jealous lover.  Last year Harvard published a fascinating new way to access a city, Mark Ford’s London: A History in Verse.  This season, I’ve been moved and surprised by this collection of Arabic poems about Baghdad.  Among the many sad consequences of the war is the material destruction of the city and its residents.  But it's also polluted the imagery that comes to mind when a North American hears the word Baghdad.  This heartfelt and sometimes heartbreaking anthology of love/hate letters in verse, spanning 1200 years, is a fresh new vector into a place worth knowing more about.  A sample:

[I Am Your Ransom}

Oh friends of mine in Baghdad are you
Still faithful or has our friendship worn out?

On the day of farewell, did your eyes shed tears
For me?  Mine still weeping, morning and evening.

When you talk of distant friends,
Do you speak well of me?

Oh Baghdad, I wish all cities to be your ransom,
Even my path, even my abode.

I have wandered through lands, East and West;
I led my horses there, the camels as well.

Never have I seen such a homeland as Baghdad;
Never have I seen a river such as the Tigris;

Nor such residents- tender qualities,
Sweet speeches, good thoughts, and ideas

People challenge me: If your love for Baghdad was
Genuine, why did you leave?  I give them my answer:

The rich remain in their land,
While the poor are tossed away by fate.

-Abu Sa’d Muhammad ibn’Ali ibn
Khalaf al-Nayramani (?-1023)

Matthias Messmer and Hsin-Mei Chuang
MIT September $60

One of the most massive relocations in history  is underway in China, a transformation only barely on North American radar.  In the next twenty years, 280 million rural peasants will be installed in booming Chinese cities in an effort to modernize and raise living standards.  This stunning book of color photographs, a seven year labor of love by a Swiss-Chinese couple, may serve as a final visual document of this monumental dislocation: China as it once was, and as it will soon no longer be.  Just about every image is mesmerizing, and it’s impossible not to visually scour every corner of the kitchens and living rooms of these ordinary farm families.  The explanatory text is smart, personal, sometimes surprising.  This book really fits with a longstanding strength of MIT Press, driven by its visionary executive editor, Roger Conover.  He’s interested in chronicling lost worlds, from derelict grain elevators to defunct mental institutions.  Isn’t documenting the disintegration and destruction of human and built landscapes one of the main jobs of contemporary writers and artists? Should be.

Nick Thorpe
Yale November $35

Perhaps it’s because I’ve just finished reading Artemis Cooper’s spectacular biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor, who lived every boy’s fantasy- well this one’s anyway- by tramping along the Danube across Europe as a teenager in the 30s, writing each day up in his Moleskine; or perhaps it’s because I’ve had a cabin on the Mississippi River for the past few years and have become a bit obsessed with river magic.  Whatever the reason, I was primed to love Nick Thorpe’s charming travelogue/history about his journey up the Danube.  (This counter-intuitive east to west direction was my big selling point for the book, as most people who have written about the Danube have traveled the reverse direction.  Booksellers didn’t seem sufficiently impressed with this detail.)  Armchair travel has something of a bad rap sometimes, but this is as good as it gets- literary and stylish in the vein of Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin, packed with extraordinary “characters,” and full of enough interesting history that it will have you planning a trip to Eastern Europe next summer, or at least dreaming of one.  

John Edward Huth
Harvard May $35

Did you know that the most natural human speed of travel is 3 miles per hour?  That would encompass walking, rowing, maybe sailing.  This factoid and hundreds of others make John Huth’s elegy to our short-circuited wayfinding system so compelling.  Now that I think of it, this is another homage to a lost world- in this case, the ancient art of navigation, which humans were once equipped to do by reading clouds, shadows, currents, and the natural world around us.  In the age of Mapquest, GPS and device addiction, this key instinctive cognitive ability has atrophied.  But Huth- one of those passionate physicists who can also write- has a plan for us to get some of it back.  His title, it turns out, isn’t just a wistful metaphor but signals a kind of practical how-to manual.  In a funny way, the path back to finding our way involves losing ourselves.  I really love this kind of science book, and he’s a fascinating guy.  Here’s a little clip that shows you why.

Edited by Leo Rubinfien
Yale April $85

Street photography has had something of a renaissance lately- if you haven’t checked out the amazing, recently unearthed work of Vivian Maier, get thee to a bookstore!  But the daddy of all mid-20th century street photography was surely Garry Winogrand.  He did some of his best-known work in Manhattan in the 60s, iconic images of people in odd but ordinary situations.  He roamed the US and much of his work remains undeveloped on thousands of rolls of film.  This incredibly lucious doorstop, the catalog for an exhibition that’s working its way around the world, is a black and white urban photography buff’s dream.  My only complaint is that every time I pick it up I know I’ve just lost another hour.

Didier Eribon
MIT/semiotext(e) August $17.95

This little memoir speaks to me on so many levels.  Didier Eribon is a smart, highly-regarded Parisian intellectual who came out of one closet- disclosing that he’s gay- only to find he remained stuck in another closet- the confines of his working class roots.  Politically progressive yet from the French version of a “what’s the matter with Kansas” family, (workers who gravitated from supporting the French Communist Party to voting National Front), Eribon uses his personal family history as a way of explaining where the Left more generally has gone wrong, and lost its natural base.  Along the way he cleverly explores how the class closet and the political closet function just as insidiously as the sexual one.  (And boy oh boy when they overlap!)  Of course, there are contemporary North American resonances too numerous to mention.  Is this another sort of  “documenting lost worlds” project?  I think so.

Dorothy Gallagher
Yale January (available Dec 15) $25

This sympathetic but iconoclastic biography of the great American dramatist is long overdue.  I remember from my first bookshop job in the long-ago seventies that Hellman’s memoir trilogy was a literary sensation, and one of the first hardcover books I ever bought.  She was revered for her courageous plays, such as The Children’s Hour, but also for her brave confrontation with red-hunters and McCarthyites.  In the past few decades her reputation has been dragged through the mud, and this is a partial resurrection.  One of the interesting strands of Hellman’s life was her Jewish and Southern background, and this volume- part of the wonderful Jewish Lives series, short, smart, attractive books that consistently find perfect subject-author pairings- gets at that dynamic beautifully.  Literary journalist Dorothy Gallagher writes like a dream, and she herself is a red-diaper baby, about which she wrote a fantastic memoir, How I Came Into my Inheritance.  

Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert
Harvard November $39.95

This revelation is the fruit of a long, complicated project with elaborate back-story, strong sales and reviews for the French edition, and some explosive controversy in the anthropological community, which has studied the Yanomami for decades.  If you want to learn more about all of that- and you will, after reading Davi Kopenawa’s first-person account, which makes up the bulk of the book- you can do so in the helpful front and back matter.  But I would plunge right in to the first-person section.  Essentially, this is a book about “the ways of white people” by a shaman and spokesman for an endangered people, a man who has traveled the world as a sort of ambassador and has strong opinions on western industrial society and what it has wrought for the Brazilian rainforest and his people.  Composed mainly as a coming of age story, he incorporates philosophy, politics, and history in his memoir.  He turns the tables on the European anthropologists studying the Yanomami, calling them the "people of merchandise,"and anthropologizes them.  (“Their cities are full of big houses filled with piles of innumerable goods, but their elders never give them to anyone.”)  Documentation of a lost world?  No kidding.  A big, scholarly, 30 year project, the life's work of a dedicated scientist, ushered along by superb editorial teams working on three continents:  exhibit A for why we need vibrant university presses.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

preparing to rep a new season: in defense of “down time”

When friends note that this is “down time” and that it must be nice, I’m apt to snap their heads off.  I imagine them imagining me relaxing on a beach, or reading fat novels, or re-working self-improvement lists until January, when bookstore appointments for the new season begin in earnest.  Many people seem to think that a book rep’s job consists solely of appointments with booksellers, as if we punch in at the start of the meeting and punch out at the end.

True, road warrior mode is another level of intensity, and it is a relief to have a break from roaming North America.  But here’s what I’m up to in my so-called down time between the last Fall appointment in mid-October and the first winter one in mid-December.

Book rep is an on-call, 24/7 job.  There’s a certain amount of ongoing rep work that never really stops.  Orders have to be taken and processed, email answered, special offers pitched, bookseller newsletters read, galleys sent, “rep night” presentations prepared and executed, regional shows attended, feedback requests replied to, and marketing alerts shared.  (An MIT author booked for Colbert Report, stop the presses!)

Wrangling appointments with 100-ish booksellers who have to be seen in some semblance of order before books start shipping is a time consuming process.  My buyers are amiable and accommodating as to dates and times (yes, especially the Canadians) but all it takes are a few holdouts to monkey wrench the process.

Once appointments are more or less aligned, it’s on to travel logistics.  Making hotel, plane, train, bus and miscellaneous reservations for January through March is much easier in the digital age but still laced with minefields.  “Don’t you have an in-house travel agent who can do that?” someone recently asked me.  Um, yes- me and Kayak.

As for the new upcoming lists, down time is when we get to know the books we’ll be selling.  Reading manuscript pages, excerpts, author questionnaires, readers reports, marketing plans, and whatever else we can get our hands on to warm up to the new, unfamiliar titles is another time-gobbling challenge.  But it’s hard to complain when I can spend a morning at my favorite coffee shop poring over the latest in A-list academic scholarship.  Yes, we get paid for this!

Our presses are inclusive to a fault, and rep opinions are solicited on all manner of subjects.  We proof catalog copy and make suggestions about category designations, positioning, jacket art (oh lord can we opine on jacket art), discount incentives, and how to present our books in the best light to booksellers.

Down time is when we attend sales conferences at each of the three presses, where editors present their books and add to the information payload which, by this point, is beginning to weigh heavily.  Granted, sales conferences in Cambridge and New Haven also typically involve at least one very nice dinner and lots of excellent conversation, and we reps are sometimes treated like visiting royalty.  So no complaints there.

Arriving home from these meetings exhausted and swamped, I’m temporarily immobilized by a feeling of not knowing where to start.  Did I mention the thick binder of title information sheets, with comparable books, author sales track, and additional selling points that one sales manager used to call “gee whiz facts?”  (Examples: John F Kennedy was a committed reader of Churchill’s writings, which helped him navigate the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Mozart went to Pompeii at age 15.  Gee whiz!)  These invaluable “tip sheets” are prepared by our ace sales departments, and add more information to integrate.

Procrastination is not an option, the clock is ticking. I pick a Press and get to work writing up my final notes into my selling catalog.  This is the point where the wheat is culled from the chaff. 
At the beginning of the process of making friends with a new title, there can never be enough information.  But at some point we have to translate this cornucopia into concise sales handles that are useful to booksellers in understanding the book and explaining it to their customers.  One buyer refers to my marked up catalog as “the teacher’s manual with all the answers.”  To me it feels more like the ragged blanket I chewed on and carried everywhere until I was five years old.  Though by the end of the season I can pitch the books in my sleep, at the beginning my catalog is my security.  To mislay it in January would be as unthinkable as was losing track of blankie.  

It’s a little tragic that we are almost over-prepared by the time we go out selling.  With buyers’ busy schedules, I’m lucky to get thirty seconds on a catalog page, and I’m mentally saying “but wait, there’s more!”  throughout many appointments.  I try to remember that this is approximately the time they’ll have to convey the book’s essence to a customer.  Doing triage on all the info we’ve absorbed is the hardest part of the job, but probably the most useful value we bring to booksellers.

Write-ups done, it’s on to Edelweiss.  An interactive catalog and ordering system that is rapidly becoming a routine booksellers’ tool, Edelweiss is also a hungry time hog for reps.  My colleagues and I individually labor over personalizing our digital presentations for each title, adding relevant links to other books and information our customers might find helpful, and- within the limits of the somewhat clunky Edelweiss interface- making sure each title gets the presentation it deserves.  It can take a couple weeks to get it right, and is always a work in progress.

By this point we can begin to assemble a selling kit, which includes show and tell, digital page spreads, recommended backlist ideas, and the answers to every conceivable question a bookseller may ask- although you will never anticipate all the questions a clever bookseller may spring on you.  (“Poiesis and Enchantment in Topological Matter, huh!  Tell me more.”)

Can we talk about mailings during down time?  By November enough cartons of new catalogs have landed on our doorsteps that our offices look like a bookstore receiving room three weeks before Christmas.  After doing our customary seasonal battle with our label-printing program, these are carefully re-batched into individual mailings to dozens of customers, along with reminders about appointment times, notes about titles particular booksellers might like, rights restrictions, and sometimes an early galley or two.   Ideally, the buyer will have perused the three catalogs before our appointment, though I’ve learned to keep a smile plastered on my face even when I find my package unopened on their desks when I arrive.

And after all this “down time” it’s usually early December before I’m well and truly ready to start selling, just in time for my first couple important pre-Holiday appointments.  I don't know how my three-season rep colleagues do it.  Yes I do: fewer time zones.

It’s true that down time affords a bit more scope for novel reading (I may actually finish The Goldfinch), dog walking, and dinner cooking than on the road season.  But in some ways I only start to feel really liberated and relaxed when we finally start moving.  Once I have an itinerary and am armed with what I need, seeing the bookstores and focusing on the books is a kind of freedom.  The end of March feels like the end of a marathon, but there’s usually a sense of satisfaction and anticipation.

Because the whole thing cranks up again.

Friday, October 11, 2013

book notes from the heartland fall forum

 It sounds like a right-wing think tank, but it felt like a Midwest indie bookseller family reunion.  The Heartland Fall Forum convened in Rosemont, Illinois last weekend and brought together the two branches of the family, the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association and the Midwest Independent  Booksellers Association for a couple days of shop talk and schmoozing.  Like other publishers, I had a table on Saturday and showed off my wares.  Herewith a few anecdotes.

When reps talked with each other, the subject was typically jobs (ours), the economy, and the end game; when I talked with booksellers, the topics tended to be books, events, the workshops they’d just come from, and some new ideas they’d picked up.  Interesting.

Trying to psych out the reasons a book catches someone’s eye is hopeless.  I get a bite on an MIT science title, The Outer Limits of Reason, from Twin Cities bookselling icon David Unowsky, so I launch into my spiel about it.  He listens patiently and then says “I was just interested because you know the author’s name (Yanofsky) is another version of mine.”   Later, someone picks up the lovely memoir Raising Henry, with it's irresistible cover, so I launch into that one.  She also listens patiently and then says “it just caught my eye because my son’s name is Henry.”  Not to say either one of these folks is superficial- far from it!- but it's a little deflating.

Chris Conti, longtime Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago buyer, has just signed on as a Phaidon rep.  He describes himself as a “replicant.”

Michael Boggs of Carmichael’s in Louisville loves Susan Sontag: the Complete Rolling Stone Interview from Yale.   In a bit about high and low culture, he zeroes in on a quote about whether to love Dostoevsky or the Doors.  “Why do I have to choose?” she demands.  Michael grinned and said he’s making that his email signature.

Booksellers are such interesting people.  A woman I thought I knew explained that she’s pursuing a PhD in creative writing and her dissertation is on portrayals of lynching.

A floor bookseller from Common Good Books in St Paul lights up when he sees Glyn Maxwell's On Poetry.  “I’m reading that, it’s amazing!” 

A bookseller friend attended a panel titled “How to Handsell Subjects You’re Scared of.”  Good idea!  I’m thinking Sports, Computer Science, or teenage vampire.  But oddly, the examples cited were Mysteries, Science Fiction and Religion!  I guess everyone has their own personal bookstore category fright.

White white white white white.  One person of color spotted all weekend.  When will the book industry take up this elephant in our room?

Exuberant meeting with the owners of the new Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor.  They loved Vaclav Smil’s Made in the USA, saw it as “perfect for Detroit.  There are all sorts of interesting start-ups happening.”  I asked about their biggest surprise since opening the store last year.  “People want academic books.  We started with too much commercial stuff!”

The hotel is hateful.  You can’t breathe, one half of the hall is too hot, the other too cold, there’s no place to sit, and it’s in the middle of nowhere near O’Hare Airport.  Last year the meeting was in downtown Minneapolis, which was great.  I complain about this to a GLIBA staffer and lobby for a downtown location (Milwaukee?)  But the colleague standing next to me- okay it was Stu Abraham- countered that it’s better to have it in a place where people are trapped, and not drawn away from the show by distractions.  Perhaps this is one difference between an experienced commission rep and a house rep.

 After selling a new list for months you think you’ve heard it all.  But then a bookseller picks up the small trim Religion Without God by Ronald Dworkin, and says “this looks and feels like a prayer book.  Very clever!” Nice.

The man at the Melville House Books booth is thrilled that Yale Margellos is doing Pierre Michon’s books in English.  “He’s so underpublished, that’s the book (Rimbaud the Son I think) I brought on the trip to read.”  When someone from a stellar literature in translation shop like Melville reads our books, it makes me kvell.

Two booksellers who don’t know each other scan my booth, picking up this book and that.  One points to Gombrich’s A Little History of the World and says to the other “if you don’t stock that you should, we sell it like crazy.”  Gold.

Many remark that the jacket of David Lewis’ book Impulse: Why We Do What We Do Without Knowing Why We Do It is the best impulse cover they’ve seen.

Halley, former Boswell bookseller and science fanatic, loves William Bynum’s A Little History of Science so much she says she’s getting a tattoo with one of the woodblock images.  I don’t doubt it.

Finally, the show was memorable for a few staples of previous shows that didn’t happen: not a single self-published author pitching a totally inappropriate book!   Maybe Amazon’s aggressive self-publishing program is at least saving us from that.   

Not a single person trying to sell me services like indexing, design, or free-lance editing.  The latter always makes me laugh given that our editors tend to be giants in their academic fields, so we’re covered on that.   

And, thankfully, not a single person asking me to help get their kids into Harvard, MIT or Yale.  This query is usually delivered in jest but with a desperate look that means “but really, you couldn’t, could you….?”