Sunday, August 11, 2013

Hothouse blindspot

As I met with booksellers over the past few months, I kept hearing people talking about Boris Kachka's just-released history of Farrar Straus & Giroux, Hothouse.  It was an authentic case of a much-coveted phenomenon: bookseller buzz.

So there's a small irony in the fact that in this entertaining portrait of possibly the most consequential North American publisher, one big cog in the success machine is conspicuous by its near total absence: the booksellers.

Granted, the book is as much a Great Man biography as it is a history of a publishing company.  It's a Roger Straus warts and all wet kiss.  And granted, the process by which reps and booksellers decide how books will be represented and sold in stores is definitely not as sexy as the acquisitions soap operas, editorial meltdowns, and the quest for just the right pretty cover.

But it's very weird to see bookstores so willfully written out of a story which, one might argue, wouldn't be a story at all without them.

While the retail book landscape has changed significantly over the past six decades, you could argue that the bookstores were even more important in the forties, fifties and sixties, during which time some of FSG's bell-weather literary coups took place.  A mid-twentieth century reader probably bought books from an independent retail bookstore, (or a department store) who had been alerted to them by a sales force employed by the publisher.

Yet again and again in Hothouse, this happens in passive voice.  A book "sells," as if the act of bringing it into physical being was synonymous with publishing.  After conjuring the book,  customers somehow miraculously, automatically, find it and buy it.  (This is a misconception that is currently driving to despair gullible authors who have been seduced by the self-publishing siren.  It seems you have to figure out how to sell a book after you print it!)

I was a book buyer in a Midwest regional bookstore chain in the late eighties and nineties,  We had several excellent sales reps over the course of those years who sold us FSG books, including many of the success stories Kachka celebrates.  While a very small handful of titles became runaway bestsellers, for which we essentially had to just chase demand, the vast majority of new FSG titles each season were pored over and considered- book by book, catalog page by catalog page.

Each store knows generally what it can sell, sometimes drilling down to the specific customer level.  It knows its inventory situation, when the rent is due, whether the street will be under repair this fall, and hundreds of other factoids that go into the mix on deciding whether and how to get behind a book.

A key consideration was always the informed input of our reps.  They had often read the books, they knew our stores intimately, and, because they met with many other booksellers in that long ago pre-social media world, they could tell us how the book was being received in other stores.

The great FSG reps- I'm thinking here of Mark Gates, who inexplicably eludes Kachka's notice- could quite literally make a book happen by getting galleys into the hands of individual booksellers he knew personally, and checking back to see what they thought.  Much is made in Hothouse of the in-house staff enthusiasm for Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, but In the lead up to that book I heard dozens of booksellers raving about it.  They may not have made the book on their own, but had it not lived up to the hype FSG envisioned for it, they certainly had the power to sink it by withholding enthusiasm.

This rep-bookseller component of successful book-making is not ancient history.  It's the way book buzz is created in 2013, as it was for Hothouse itself.  FSG and every other publisher that wants to be taken seriously sends reps to visit the 6,000 independent booksellers in North America, despite the fact that they represent a diminished percentage of actual book sales.  But buzz bubbles up from them..

Perhaps Boris Kachka was bored by the grunt work done by the peons of the book industry.  Like his references to books which magically "sell," the significant reviews he mentions simply "appear."  Surely an over-worked and underpaid marketing and publicity department gets some credit for patiently working the book media and preparing the ground for that nice front page New York Times Book Review rave.

It's odd that Kachka wouldn't appreciate booksellers as a kind of crucial punctuation mark on the story he has to tell.  Especially since in a recent New York magazine column, Tears for Goliath, he frets about whether a B&N dispute with his publisher will undercut his sales.  "The initial order on my book was bleak- less than 100 books for more than 600 stores- but improved, ironically, after the ABA touted the title."

Hothouse is a good story, if a bit breathlessly told.  It's well-worth reading if you're a book lover and keen on 20th century literary and publishing history.

But as my friend Ben McNally observed when I complained about the bookseller blindspot, "it's not at all uncommon for the Sherpas to be over-looked."


  1. Thank you so much for the thoughtful and polite criticisms, as well as your generous attention. I take your point about the blind spots (though I have to quibble about how a "wet kiss" can be "warts and all"!). On the bookseller question I can only say that I had to stay within the firm to keep from losing focus over a 60-year history. But on the issue of in-house sales, marketing, and publicity, I think I've given their importance some attention. Straus's son, Rog, was a strong proponent of those elements of the business. He started out as a 15-year-old FSG sales rep, riding across the Northeast with the first sales director, John Purtell, taking inventory and learning the business all the way to the local bookshelf. He advocated strongly for marketing, and his work beefing up those departments was crucial to FSG's transformation into a modern company. It was his father's refusal to recognize that fact that led, ultimately, to their split. And yet the elder Straus, in turn, felt the sting of losing his sales reps under Holtzbrinck consolidation (abetted by bookstore consolidation), and fought tooth and nail to save a couple of them from the axe. Maybe this isn't quite enough, or Hothouse not quite the soup-to-nuts industry history it might have been. But I just wanted to acknowledge your point: that FSG respected the sherpas. So do I. Thanks so much, Boris

    1. thanks for this Boris, appreciated. and you're right, the warts and all wet kiss is a disturbing concept, inartfully expressed and over-stated

  2. John, you're right. In terms of WHICH book I placed during many of those years, it was often Mark that made the difference. I'd give give him a number, and he would nod appreciatively, or, if he was moved, give me a "You sure?" (Which was Mark's kind short hand for: "I think you're making a mistake.") We'd then do a quick discussion in which he would usually convince me to take more (usually to the store's benefit)--or I would hold the line--to mixed results, depending on the book. But we know what we experience. It's difficult to explain to anyone who isn't in that relationship what a good rep means to a competent bookseller...and subsequently to the public at large. They can make or break a book, regardless of publisher publicity.