Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Flotsam & Favorites

What does The 99 Critical Shots in Pool have in common with Flotsam, a wordless children's picture book? What could possibly connect Patrick Hamilton, the long dead thriller writer who penned the play Gaslight, with the ultra-hip contemporary author Nick Hornby? Is there really a great book out there that talks about the Church of the Evolved Lamb?

The answers to all of these questions are in the first annual readers' favorites issue of Kash's Book Corner. I solicited titles from friends and colleagues, with the result being a remarkably eclectic list. I started with the intention of uncovering the great books of 2006, but soon discovered that no one, besides book critics, has any idea of what year a book was released. In the end, what does it even matter? Instead, we have a list of great books that were read in 2006.

Here's the list, in no particular order:

99 Critical Shots in Pool by Ray Martin and Rosser Reeves was the selection of one of my esteemed sales reps who has been playing pool with his wife this past year. "It's not for everyone, but if you know only one or two critical shots and want to learn a lot more, this is the book for you! There is no plot to confuse you, and there are no characters to remember. And when you finish, you can give yourself a name like 'The Viper,' or 'The Meatman,' or 'The Plague from the Hague.'"

Flotsam by David Wiesner was the pick by one of our children's room booksellers. "You fill in your own words in this fabulous picture book that blew my mind."

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton is just one of a great series of titles, according to one of my university press sales reps. "Europa Editions is really growing on me - they are something like the wonderful New York Review of Books series of found classics, and my favorite of the few I read this year was Hangover Square, a World War II era thriller."

It turns out that Nick Hornby recommends books as well as he writes them. His collected book journal, Housekeeping Vs. Dirt was the favorite of one of our booksellers, who said, "I read five other books because of what he wrote, including all of the Marjane Satrapi books."

Where can you go to worship the evolved lamb? Well you will have to read Android's Dream by John Scalzi. It's one of four science fiction books that made the list of the most voracious reader that I know. Despite many books to choose from, he managed to narrow his list down to four books. That's like the rest of us trying to name a favorite chapter of the year. He reads that much. Here are the rest of his Sci Fi titles: Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, Rollback by Robert Sawyer (one of the few science fiction authors that I personally enjoy) and Widdershins by Charles de Lint.

The only other person to pick a science fiction title was a long-time colleague at the store. She reads all of the books that the rest of us pretend we don't enjoy, like romances and horror novels. Her pick, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, doesn't come out until the Spring of 2007. "It's an absorbing epic with realistic storytelling about an orphan with an aptitude for magic who goes to a university to become an alchemist." When I asked her where it took place, she looked at me as though I were an alien and said, "not in our world."

My assistant, an Indian-born Tibetan with a love for movies, gave his highest possible praise to Jimmy Santiago Baca's memoir A Place to Stand. "It's like a Bollywood movie, but it's real. He grows up with the gangs and he goes to prison. It's incredible. Just like Bollywood."

Abundance by Sena Jeter Naslund was the favorite of one of our marketers. "I went to Versailles and I didn't like it because they herded you through the rooms like cattle. Through this book I saw the rooms in a different light. Also, I really liked the writing."

The Children's Hospital by Chris Adrian garnered a rave review from our staff manager. "It's an epic story that's a total redux of the Biblical flood. He brings in theology, his personal experience and his research. It's incredible."

The Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick was "well written and well researched," according to the store's history expert. "He didn't have preconceived notions about what the story would be, and he isn't always politically correct. The first generation got along but the second generation forgot all of the lessons and that led directly to King Phillip's War. There are so many parallels to George W. Bush. They thought God was on their side and that they didn't need diplomacy."

Despite being out of print, Grey is the Color of Hope by Irina Ratushinskaya got a hearty endorsement from an old friend. "Ratushinskaya was a Russian political prisoner sent to Siberia. Grey was the color of the uniforms and pretty much the color of Siberia. She was a poet in her native language, so the writing is also good with a lot of symbolism. It's just a great story about human spirit and resilience."

My Penguin rep profferred two Penguin titles, Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb and The Rug Merchant by Meg Mullins. I don't blame him for cheering on his home team since Penguin puts out a lot of tremendous titles. And what else can he read when he has so many books on his list every few months? Here's what he has to say about these two novels:

"Sweetness in the Belly is a loving and affecting look at Islam from the point of view of an English orphan raised by a Sufi prophet, come of age in Ethiopia at the time of the revolution there, and living as an adult in an immigrant enclave of London. The astoundingly genuine voice makes it difficult to remember that it's fiction. And, it is a viewpoint on Islam that is lacking in most of what we see and hear; that is, that there is solace and peace to be found there, if one knows how to look."

"The Rug Merchant is the story of two very unlikely lovers, an Iranian immigrant rug merchant in New York and a college girl from a conventional and reasonably well-off American family. At once sad and sweet, it is a gentle and touching story of a love that can never truly be. The poignancy of the ending is superb."

My friend, the author Louise Ross, went a step further than my Penguin rep by self-promoting her novel Baking at Midnight. She wrote, "For local readers who enjoy chic lit, Baking at Midnight is great fun, a light read, and it has been a Boulder Bookstore bestseller!" Louise's book was easily the store's most successful self-published book of 2006. That's saying a lot since we get dozens of self-published titles every month.

Other titles that were mentioned:

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld.
Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov.
One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson.
Wolf Brother (Chronicles of Ancient Darkness) by Michelle Paver and Geoff Taylor.
Fallen by David Maine.
Kill Me by Stephen White.
Fever and Spear (Your Face Tomorrow trilogy) by Javier Marias.
Dance and Dream (Your Face Tomorrow trilogy) by Javier Marias.
Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills.
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemerovsky.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.
River Secrets by Shannon Hale.
Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra. (928 pages, by the way).
Anomaly by Anne Fleming.

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin.
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace.
The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls.
Getting Stoned with Savages by J. Maarten Troost.
Postwar by Tony Judt.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Armenian Question

My grandfather, who died earlier this year, was a survivor of the Armenian genocide. As a child, he escaped from Turkey with his family and spent his formative years in Marseilles, France with his mother and two siblings. In France, he organized dances, sold newspapers and became a tailor to earn money. His father finally saved enough to bring the rest of the family to America in the late 1920s.

In Philadelphia, my grandfather began a career as a tailor. He soon opened a dry cleaning location and the rest, as they say, is history. My uncles and cousins still run the operation, which has grown and changed many times over the last 75 years. During his long career, my grandfather helped bring many Armenians over from Turkey. My childhood holidays seemed like a long procession of thickly accented people thanking him, eating with him and always laughing as they pinched my cheeks.

My grandpa (left) with his younger brother Clem in 2004.

When I visited him at his office in Philadelphia every year -- he worked up until the end of his life -- we used to go across the Delaware river into New Jersey for lunch with various uncles and cousins to his favorite diner. One of the highlights for him during the meal would be to speak to a Turkish busboy or waiter in their native language. He took real pleasure in these conversations. He'd turn to us after the conversation and tell us something about the waiter: "His family's from Istanbul," or "He was a lawyer in Ankara."

A few years ago, I asked him how he managed to get along so well with these Turks given the enmity that existed between them and the Armenians over the years. "You were there during the worst time," I said. He turned serious very quickly. The twinkle in his eye became a steely gaze and I worried that perhaps he was finally going to carry out his old threat of pulling my ear. "These kids don't know anything about what happened. They didn't have anything to do with that. They're trying to make a good life for themselves here."

That was his attitude in a nutshell. He was always looking towards the future. He was unwilling to put the sins of the father on the sons. He was looking for common ground, not things that divided people. The rest of my family does their best to emulate this attitude. I can't say that they are as successful as he was, but at least they try. I also do everything I can to take this lesson to heart in my own life. Heck, I even try to extend it to the Republicans I know.

This is perhaps why I read Elif Shafak's The Bastard of Istanbul with a mixture of fascination and alarm. The Armenian-Americans in this new novel don't resemble my family at all. I have always known that many, perhaps most Armenians, didn't take the same attitude as my grandfather towards the Turkish people, but to see them portrayed in such a harsh light was a shock. Shafak's Armenian-Americans have so thoroughly bonded around their hatred of the Turks that it colors their whole perception of the world. It reminded me of the Cubans in Florida, waiting for Castro to die so that they can reclaim their place in a society that doesn't really exist anymore.

Shafak has written a courageous novel that looks at the Armenian-Turkish question from many different angles. She has faced trial in Turkey for using the word genocide when referring to the -- well, genocide -- of the Armenians during World War I. The novel focuses on an Armenian-American family in San Francisco and a Turkish family in Istanbul; the two are connected when a young woman from the American family travels from San Fransisco to Istanbul. Most of the contemporary Turkish people in her novel are ignorant of the events of the past, though some have swallowed the government propaganda and accuse the Armenians of exaggeration. The Armenians who live in Istanbul have moved on from that horrific time, finding a way to survive and even thrive in the multicultural milieu of modern Turkey. It's the haunted Armenian-American characters who can't move on.

I imagine it's a true portrayal of many Armenian-Americans based on the constant stream of literature I receive in the mail from various Armenian groups. They track every utterance from the Turkish government on the genocide, pressure the U.S. Congress to force Turkey to recognize the holocaust, and always object to Turkey's possible entry into the European Union. Don't get me wrong, I'd like to see Turkey acknowledge what happened during World War I, but I have no interest in building my identity around it.

In fact, in terms of making the world aware of what happened, nothing could be better than what is occurring now. Turkey tries to prosecute its top novelists, including the Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pumuk, as well as artists and even cartoonists for mentioning the holocaust, and each time it makes world news. I sometimes wonder if Turkey did an about-face and held a ceremony honoring the slain Armenians, if everyone would just start ignoring the genocide a month later.

All of the politics seem like a theoretical exercise to me. In my everyday life, the one real issue that occasionally comes up is how should I respond to a Turkish immigrant. Do I identify myself as an Armenian and risk an awkward conversation? Do I stay silent and ignore the similarities of our cultures and our shared and painful history? On a recent trip to Chicago, a cab driver with a thick accent was going on about how family is the most important thing in life and you should cherish your wife, when something in how he phrased the words made me think of one of the many good-natured lectures my grandfather had delivered to me over the years. I asked him where he was from. "I'm from Turkey," he responded.

I hesitated for a moment, worried that he might be wary of me, before telling him that I was an Armenian. He turned completely around in the car, his face lit up with joy, despite the fact that our lives were in jeopardy as he careened down Michigan Avenue facing backwards. "Where did your family come from?" he asked. "Near Ankara. A town called Yozgat," I responded.

The rest of the trip flew by. He told me of his children: "Real Americans." I told him that I wanted to visit Turkey and see my grandfather's home. He said that I would love it and that the Turkish people were very friendly. I asked him where I could get the best Turkish or Armenian food in Chicago, and he lamented the lack of good Turkish cuisine in the windy city. "You know, the best food is the Lebanese place, Fattoush, a few miles from here. They have everything."

Sure, I could have kept my mouth shut when he told me that he was Turkish. Perhaps, I could have berated him for what happened in 1915. Instead, I did what I thought my grandfather would have done in the same situation. I greeted him with openess and focused on how much we had in common. We had a great conversation, and later in the week I took some colleagues out for a wonderful meal of shish kebab. My only regret is that I couldn't talk to the waiters in their native language.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Notes from the Christmas Front

The Misunderstood Jew?
Christmas is just three weeks away and Jesus is nowhere to be found on the retail floor. Sure, it's all very friendly and polite at this point. The clerks are still energetic and the customers are in high spirits because they are finding almost everything they want. Still, even though a Christian spirt of brotherhood prevails, I wonder what any of this shopping mania has to do with a religious holiday.

In the past, I would have rolled my eyes at the thought of a retail Jesus, but I just spent four days among theologians, seminary students, and professors at the Academy of American Religion and Society of Biblical Literature Annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Trust me, there is a lot of money to be made in selling Jesus. I don't mean the kitsch Christ or the politically co-opted savior. I'm talking about the serious pursuit of trying to decipher Jesus' teachings and his times.

I worked in the HarperSanFrancisco booth for the event, and there was a fully stocked section of Jesus books. One was Ben Witherington's What Have They Done to Jesus?: Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History -- Why We can Trust the Bible. Of course, Witherington's HarperSanFrancisco stable mate, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (by Bart Ehrman), might prove a useful retort, making the point that putting our faith in the veracity of the bible might not be a great idea.

We also sold Marcus Borg's new biography of Christ, if you can call any book about Jesus a true biography, titled Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary. But the surprise hit of the meeting for us was The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine. It would be an exaggeration to say there was a Harry Potter-like excitment around these books, but The Misunderstood Jew did acheive a level a devotion usually reserved for Lemony Snickett or Kurt Vonnegutt.

When I returned to the store, I can honestly say that with the possible exception of Misquoting Jesus, which came out last year and was helped immensely by Ehrman's humorous but informative appearance on the Daily Show, these books didn't even register a blip on the consciousness of our customers. Yes, it is true that Buddhism seems to be Boulder's dominant religion, at least as far a book buying is concerned, but I know there also is a large Christian community here. My wife has shepherded me into a few different churches, and they are always packed during the holidays. By the way, my advice for people getting dragged to church a couple of times a year is to get the person dragging you to opt for Palm Sunday over Easter Sunday. It's much less crowded and the sermon is less predictable.

The one thing in short supply at the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting seemed to be books on Satan. I had one customer in Washington ask me if there were any HarperSanFrancisco books on Satan's evil. I jokingly replied, "No, but we've got a few on the good Satan." Not getting the joke, he perked up and asked me where they were. Now, a book on the positive qualities of the Devil might be something we can sell at both next year's AAR/SBL show as well as in the store as a fun little Christmas gift.

What are the Big Books?

The other day I was lamenting the fact that it was now December and it was impossible to tell what books were really going to take off during the holiday season. One of my assistants, who has worked on and off with me for 10 years, told me I say the same thing at the same time every year. Maybe so. But in a year that seemed so loaded with big fall titles, it seems distressing that none of them have captured the public's imagination.

I thought we'd be selling Charles Frazier's 13 Moons like crazy by now. Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope is strong, but it's no Marley and Me. In fact, Marley and Me, which has been re-issued in a slow-moving, fancy illustrated edition, is certainly no Marley and Me. Jimmy Carter's new book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, is selling steadily, but it's hard to believe it will come close to equalling his much more universal bestseller from last year, Our Endangered Values.

I'm personally keeping my fingers crossed for Annie Liebovitz's A Photographers Life 1990-2005 because it's an absolutely magnificent book by an orginal artist that deserves widespread distribution and is truly a bargain for $75. I would also like to see Bill Bryson's memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, take off because the more of Bryson's humor that there is out in the world, the better off we will all be.

What's Out

There are a few books that we, and everybody else from what I can tell, are having a difficult time keeping in stock. A few of them, oddly enough, are titles that if not anti-religious are at least irreligious. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins finally came back in after a hiatus of a couple of weeks. Dawkins, a heralded Oxford scientist, takes aim at most religions in a fairly scornful manner that makes Sam Harris' two books Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith seem fairly tolerant of religious views. Surprisingly, all three are selling so well that we are having trouble stocking them. Interesting presents to put under the tree.

This year's Man Booker prizewinner, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, has been out of stock with the publisher, Grove Press, since it won the award. We snagged enough copies for it to make our bestseller list last month, but now we are just waiting for the reprint. While I can forgive Grove Press for coming up short on Desai's surprise hit, I find it hard to feel warm toward McSweeney's for running out of Dave Eggers' What is the What. McSweeney's puts out wonderful books, but they don't seem to have a clue about the business of publishing. How can you run out of Eggers' book in less than four weeks? Isn't this their cash cow? On the children's side, the delightful picture book The Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes is gone until after Christmas. Oh well, there's always Doctor Seuss.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Joys of Cruddy Old Books

Last night when I finished reading my beat-up copy of John Updike's The Centaur, the winner of the 1964 National Book Award, the front cover was torn at both the bottom and the top along the spine, the paper was browning around the edges, turning each page into a sepia-toned document that Ken Burns would love, and the residue from an old price sticker on the back had turned black.

Most of the damage had been inflicted on the mass market paperback long before I came across it a couple of weeks ago in Myopic Books, the magnificent, multi-storied used book store in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. Still, I was thrilled to find a copy of The Centaur in any condition stuck in the labyrinthine stacks. You see, about three years ago I embarked on a bizarre project to read all of John Updike's novels in the order they were written until I caught up to the present day or got sick of them. It was time for my yearly Updike fix.

I do things like this. I get an author in my teeth and I just won't let go. I've read virtually all of the novels by Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Reynolds Price, I.B. Singer and Bernard Malamud over the years. After I graduated from college, I was struggling with the basic question of what to read. I was bouncing around from one hokey title to the next. I'd read a mystery one week, a comedy the next. It wasn't very satisfying. I took a weekend trip back to my school and spoke to one of my old English professors about it and he said, "Find something you like and read everything you can by that author until you've had your fill."

Suddenly, the world of literature opened up to me again. I started going through authors like crazy. Julian Barnes grabbed my attention for awhile, then I switched to E.L. Doctorow before discovering T.C. Boyle. It worked well for many years. Now that I am the buyer for a book store, it's hard to do because of the enormous amount of pressure to constantly read new books. You just can't afford to get sucked into an author's backlist for weeks at a time.

At the Mountain & Plains trade show a couple of months ago, I was talking to a fellow book buyer, and we were both extolling the virtures of William Boyd's new novel Reckless. I mentioned how much I also enjoyed Boyd's novel Blue Afternoon and recommended that she read it. She said, "I never read back. I always read ahead. There's no time to go back and read it once it's out. It's over by then." Her comments made me feel a bit guilty because I'm not as diligent a reader of new books. It also made me sad: reading is such a personal pleasure for me. I can't totally subsume it within my job.

I've learned to parcel out my favorite authors slowly over the course of the year. I read Wodehouse in the summer, Updike in the fall, Bellow (the greatest Jewish-American writer) at Christmas-time and Alice Munro's stories are for the interstices amidst the larger books. Spreading the books out like this has made the search for these titles all the more pleasurable.

I know that I could just go online and buy a copy of Updike's next novel for a buck, or even ask my sales rep for a free copy, but I prefer to haunt the used bookstores in city after city looking for one. My standards are pretty low. I won't accept highlighting or writing, and I want something that will hold together for at least one more reading -- that's it. I'm willing to wait. Last year, I never found The Centaur, and was forced to read his next novel, Of the Farm, instead.

My reading habits make me wonder about the customers I see in our store day after day. So many of them seem driven to find one particular book. It's almost always a brand new book with a slick marketing campaign. Often, they come in holding a clipping from a magazine or from the web. Several times a day we hear the magic words, "I heard it on NPR." Of course, the ultimate example of this in the book business is the Oprah Book Club. I can't tell you how many people raved about Janet Fitch's White Oleander when it was an Oprah selection. Now, we can't give her second book away. The publisher of Fitch's Paint in Black is already offering stores a rebate in the hopes that they will put it on the sale table for Christmas. I wonder what all these customers are missing by drowning out their own reading muse with the endless cacophony of media hype.

Back to The Centaur for a moment. What a magnificent novel. The opening chapter, about 50 pages long, is surreal. The lead character, a teacher named George Caldwell, is struck in the ankle by an arrow shot by an unruly student. He hobbles out on all four legs (he is a mythical creature after all) to the mechanic next door, who takes out the arrow and sends him back to school dripping blood on the ground. Once he's back in class, he teaches the history of life on earth from the Big Bang to the evolution of humans in one quick lesson. During the lesson, he has to discipline a student by cracking him on the back with the shaft of the arrow. The boy-creature's offense was that he was sexually mounting another student. All of this occurs while the lecherous school principal is doing Caldwell's monthly evaluation at the same time as fondling a female student.

After that opening, the novel settles down into an extremely realistic rendering of two days in the life of the teacher and his son in 1947 rural Pennsylvania. Caldwell gets written up for striking the student, everyone goes back to having two legs and the mythical allusions are harder to spot. We see the father and son dealing with small hardships: their car breaks down, they are stranded in a snowstorm and a painful tooth must be extracted -- trivialities that certainly wouldn't interest Zeus, or even a more minor deity.

Updike's language, as always, is impeccable. His descriptions, particularly those of nature and of people, are both quirky and dead on. He can imbue the image of the shadow of a falling snowflake with tension. His characters are sympathetic and often hilarious. The teacher, who has survived the Great Depression only to succumb to every neurosis the modern world has invented, is a wholly original man. He's fighting his own inner demons and constantly gnawing on his own perceived inadquacies while still fulfilling his role as father, teacher and bread-winner.

The New York Times ran a review in 1963 that was lukewarm at best. I think the reviewer might have been just a little old fashioned judging from his last line: "One other aspect of The Centaur must be pointed out. It contains numerous obscenities, no more loathsome than in many recent novels, but entirely unnecessary." You can view the whole review at http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/04/06/lifetimes/updike-r-centaur.html

Now, I'm on the prowl for a beat-up copy of Couples, Updike's novel from 1968. In the meantime, I've got the new collection of Alice Munro stories, The View from Castle Rock, to keep me occupied. I want to read it before my guilt gets the better of me, and I pick up some pristine advance reader's copy of a must-read novel that won't be half as good as a dozen cruddy old books I could discover in the tight aisles of an unkempt used book store.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Have I Got a Deal For You

The book business sometimes forgets that it's a business. It likes to dress itself up in the robes of educated and idealistic sophistication. Publishers host dinners for authors and booksellers at swanky restaurants with private rooms and plenty of excellent wine. Booksellers love to discuss an author's writing style and the importance of weighty ideas when touting their recommendations for the next season. We talk about that book that's going to change the world and the importance of freedom of speech. It's enough to make a guy like me forget that I'm in the business of selling, not worshipping, books.

Then there is CIROBE (Chicago International Remainder & Overstock Book Exposition). CIROBE is a week-long feeding frenzy of buying and selling sale books. It's all about wheeling and dealing; there's no such thing as a set price. Sometimes, sales people take you behind the curtain in the back of the booth to see the secret stash of a title that they can get you because you're such a valued customer. It's enough to make a used car salesman blush. No one cares about the writing or the ideas in a book. How many can you sell? That's all that matters.

I love it. Sure it makes me dizzy, and for at least a week afterwards I am still seeing parades of book covers in my dreams, but it is capitalism in its purist form in the book business. The thrill of finding a key title on sale for just $2.00 is enough to make my hands shake. All those beautiful cookbooks -- the ones we could never sell at $40 -- now available for $12.98. Just the thought of it makes me salivate.

Here are some notes and random thoughts from my week in sale book heaven:

  • CIROBE is held every year at the Chicago Hilton Towers. This is the Hilton's flagship hotel, and it is so ostentatious that it makes Paris (that's Paris Hilton) look demure by comparison. The huge ballroom features a painted ceiling, a ton of molding, gaudy chandeliers and plays host to a black-tie event nearly every Friday and Saturday night. Often, there's live classical music in the second-floor lobby. It's a very strange setting for a group of people (remainder sellers and buyers) that think wearing a corduroy sports jacket is the height of fashion. The promoters of CIROBE must know this because the show is always booked into two relatively dingy basement rooms that wouldn't suit Eloise at all.
  • The exposition opens at Friday noon, but if you don't arrive by Wednesday morning you'll miss most of the books. About two dozen vendors start selling books in breakout rooms, hotel suites and even -- in one case -- the hallway. When I arrived in Chicago on Tuesday, I immediately headed for the Powell's store located a block from the hotel. I made my way into the cave-like basement and was met by a representative from Powell's wholesale operation, as well as by a couple of reps from the remainder company Texas Bookman. It's a good thing I showed up early. I immediately bought every copy of The Places in Between by Rory Stewart. By the time I left, there were buyers from three other stores in the cave.
  • When I left Powell's, I was greeted by a huge fire just three blocks away. The vacant six-story Dexter building, designed by Louis Sullivan, was spitting flames and a plume of dense black smoke. All week long, whenever you entered someone's room, they would show you their view of the fire. It worked out well for me. For the sixth straight year, I didn't have a lakeside view, but I had a great angle on that fire. It took nearly 24 hours with three fire hoses to calm the blaze.
    • When is it acceptable to cross a picket line? That's a tough question, but one that I'm forced to contend with every CIROBE. In addition to the sellers in the Hilton, several vendors set up down the block in the perpetually picketed Congress Hotel. Three years ago, there was a group of 30 people on the line with signs. This year there were two to five people manning the line. I've stayed away from the Congress the last few years, and have given the strikers some money for the cause. This year I was kind of fed up. Obviously, the strike hasn't worked. The hotel is still open, and the picketers don't have jobs. Fellow booksellers told me how to avoid the picketers by going in a side door, but somehow I felt that was worse than just going in. I steeled myself for compromising my values on Wednesday afternoon, but when I got to the Congress, all the strikers were on a break. There was an orphaned sign, but no picketers.
    • For the last few years, CIROBE has been a bit of a struggle because so many vendors are selling on the web. It's been hard to find new and unique titles. This year was a refreshing change. I couldn't believe some of the titles and authors that were available, including Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris and Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. Also, I was able to snag many of Christopher Moore's and Philippa Gregory's titles as well as several beautiful cookbooks. Of course, with CIROBE there's always a chance that a high percentage of your most anticipated titles won't even show up. I won't say it's a bait-and-switch, only because there's no switch. They bait you into placing an order with the amazing titles, and then somehow the titles are all sold out when it comes time to ship the books. You're left with the odds and ends. I'm keeping my fingers crossed this year.

    The books from CIROBE are just now starting to arrive at the store. Each day brings a new delivery and with it the expectation of a great deal for the customers. I rip open those packing lists and the memories of the search are fresh in my mind. I try to explain to the staff how great it is that I was able to get 100 copies of the Stick it to Bush bumper stickers for close to nothing and I usually get a look that says, "Where in the world are we going to put these?"

    The first few years I went to the show, I was filled with paranoia. I was sure that I was always missing the great books. My order was too late, or I didn't go to the right booth. Other booksellers will always tell you about the great books they ordered, and you can't believe you missed the title that they're bragging about. It can be an angst filled week. Now, I realize it's about the books that you got, not the ones that got away. If I could only get the lakefront view, CIROBE would be the perfect week.

    Sunday, October 15, 2006

    Too Many Books

    Free books! Who doesn't love that? This is one of the greatest perks of buying books for a living. If I were a congressman, I'd be up before the ethics committee every day explaining how these gifts from the publishers and their reps don't influence my decison-making process. After 9/11, I casually mentioned to a handful of reps that I was finding solace in contemporary poetry. Within a few months, I received two dozen volumes of new verse. My love of baseball is no secret. I keep autographed baseballs from Joe Torre and the Phillies great Mike Schmidt on my desk, so it's no surprise each month when the latest baseball biographies, histories, and statistical analyses arrive.

    It's a small slice of heaven for me. I used to dream about an endless torrent of books when I wandered through the local library as a kid. I envisioned myself doing the crawl stroke through a lake of books. Inevitably, my intellectual longings far outweigh my ability to actually read all these books. Close to 200 books languish in piles stacked on the floor of my bedroom. I swear I'm going to read them any day now.

    I thought it would be interesting to pluck some of these books out of the piles, dust them off, examine why I wanted to read them in the first place, and maybe figure out why I haven't read them yet. When I told my wife about this idea, she said with unabashed enthusiasm, "Then you'll be able to get rid of them." I looked across the dinner table at her and said, "No, I hadn't thought about that. I figured I'd just put them back over by my side of the bed." That was met with a bemused grin, so I added, "I might rearrange them."

    Here are some of the books gathering dust right now:

    Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier. Random House held a wonderful dinner at the Book Expo in Washington D.C. back in May where I got a chance to meet and talk to Frazier about this book. After my conversation with him, it was the book I was most anticipating. When the meal was over, everyone was given a gift bag with an autographed reader's copy of Thirteen Moons. We were told the books were given out exclusively at the dinner and weren't available anywhere else.

    A few months later, my rep asked me if I'd read it yet. "Are you kidding me? I'm scared to touch it," I responded. "How much is it worth? They only printed a couple hundred copies, and he autographed it, for God's sake." She laughed and told me that it was probably even more valuable than I realized since some changes had been made to the text after the Book Expo.

    I've got a hardback copy now, and I've read the first 15 pages -- twice. Somehow, it's not connecting with me. Perhaps, Cold Mountain was his masterpiece, and Thirteen Moons is his ponderous second novel. Perhaps the moment of peak anticipaton is gone forever. I'll give it another shot when I've got enough time to read at least the first 50 pages at once.

    The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More by Chris Anderson. The main idea in this book both intrigues and scares me: selling small amounts of a vast array of products is the path to future success. I'm the head buyer of a physical store with limited capacity. Unlike Amazon, we just can't have a book sitting on our shelf if its sales ranking is 1,000,000. The store would be as covered in books as my bedroom, and the business office would want my head because of our unpaid bills. Anderson's premise just depresses me. All books aren't created equal. There aren't 1,000,000 books that deserve to be sold, in my humble opinion.

    Like so many other business and political books, this topic probably doesn't deserve to be more than a magazine article. How can you get 250 pages on this? I'm actually wavering on the validity of the entire idea. Selling 100 copies of Bob Woodward's State of Denial made last week a whole lot more profitable than all the one-book special orders of the previous month. It's easier to win this argument with Anderson if I don't read the book.

    Scar Tissue by Charles Wright. I love Wright's poetry. I can't claim to always understand it, but his way with language and the amout of "aha" moments I experience reading his dense verse makes the effort worthwhile. He is unafraid to tackle major topics like life and death, God and time head-on when many other contemporary poets skirt around these issues.

    This book got a somewhat flippant review in the New York Times Book Review last month. That's nothing new, because most critics and readers, including myself, find it so hard to muddle through contemporary poetry, let alone discuss it with any intelligence. What was unexpected, however, was the response from Franz Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet of 2004.

    Here's my favorite line from his letter to the editor: "I cannot bring myself to believe that I am the only serious follower of contemporary poetry who is getting sick of reading reviews by nonentities posing as Randall Jarrell, and with cheap and superficial sarcasm standing in for genuine wit quoting out of context and generally manipulating the work of a master like Wright for the purpose of proving some artistic or prosodic theory of their own, usually one that has little or nothing to do with the book under discussion."

    Wow. That's an 81-word sentence that mentions a largely forgotten -- at least to most readers -- mid-century critic in passing and uses the word "prosodic," which, by the way, means the study of the metrical structure of verse. I'm not sure if Franz Wright proved his point or the reviewer's point, but it sure made great reading.

    Last Notes and other stories by Tamas Dobozy. Dobozy is of Hungarian descent, and this book is compared to Aleksandar Hemon's stories. I thought Hemon's novel Nowhere Man was one of the funniest, most creative books I've read in the last 10 years.

    My wife and I read the first story in Dobozy's collection "Into the Ring," out loud together. It wasn't a romantic experience. It's a bizarre tale about a husband and wife who literally get into the boxing ring together. The wife is a real bruiser, which is a good thing, since they box even when she's pregnant. It was somewhat humorous, but didn't quite work for us as satire. The Eastern European flavor that makes Hemon's books so delightful was played down. I might go back to it, but I think I need more Hungarians and less fighters.

    The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America by Colin G. Calloway. I was all set to read this pithy history about the end of the French and Indian War and the conseqences for the colonialist and the Native Americans when Freedom Just Around the Corner by Walther McDougall caught my eye after sitting in the pile for two years. McDougall's book covers almost 250 years of American history, compared to one year in Calloway's book, and it was only three times as long. Needless to say, after spending two weeks with McDougall's colorful history, I haven't had the heart to read more American history.

    McDougall's premise that we are a nation of scoundrels and schemers proved very entertaining. I particularly enjoyed that American hucksterism was treated as a positive quality. Hey, everyone wants the best deal they can get. Also, my hunch that "freedom just around the corner," was a lyric from a Bob Dylan song turned out to be correct. Who names a serious history book after a line from the song "Jokerman?" Somehow, it's perfect. Dylan himself is like a grizzled piece of Americana. As for Scratch of a Pen, there is always next year. Like one of my sales reps says about classical music, "this year it's 243 years old, next year it will be 244 years old. What's the difference? People will still listen." The year 1763 isn't going anywhere.

    Well, there are still more than 190 books in the piles unaccounted for. I'm not sure that I'm swimming in the sea of literature like I used to dream about; it's more like I'm drowning beneath a swamp of ideas and stories.

    Sunday, October 08, 2006

    List Mania

    I stumbled over Time magazine's list of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present the other day, and I was a little disappointed. I'm a list guy. I eat these things up. Whether it's a list of the 100 best outfielders in baseball history or the 100 best living songwriters doesn't matter. If it is a list, then I'm arguing with it and making up my own alternative grouping. I've been keeping my own favorite novels list ever since the Modern Library came out with their rankings seven years ago.

    The most surprising and disappointing aspect of the Time's list was how it was put together. Two critics, Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo, picked all of the books themselves. They each made an initial list and had about 80 books in common, so those all went on the final list. Then, they just divided up the remaining spots between them. I mean, this sounds like a good method if you're 17, stoned with your best buddy and trying to come up with the greatest rock guitar licks of all time. But to present this list as the "best" novels for a publication as widely read as Time seems a little slack. With only two men makng the choices, there will inevitably be novels left off because neither had read them, and some titles included based just on one opinion. Perhaps this is why I'm just hearing about this list now. It was originally presented in 2005.

    I was also disappointed that Grossman and Lacayo didn't have the gumption to rank the novels. There's a big difference between number one and number 100. It would have been interesting to see a top 10 without James Joyce in it. Joyce nabbed two of the top three spots on the Modern Library list. Time chose 1923 as a start date because that was when the magazine -- and the world as we know it -- began. But hey, is it any less arbitrary than 1900?

    There were a few things, however, (including the fact that I have actually read 40 of their picks) that delighted me. Included on the list were: The Assistant by Bernard Malamud, one of my all-time favorite novels; Atonement by Ian McEwan, the second-best novel of the 21st century that I've read; Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a perfect little gem of southern literature; and the right graphic novel, The Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

    I also like the diversity of the selections. African-American women authors like Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison found their way onto the list, as well as a plethora of Jewish males, including Philip Roth, Henry Roth, Malamud and Saul Bellow. Science fiction masters Philip K. Dick and Neal Stephenson are present, along with the old British stalwarts Robert Graves and Evelyn Waugh.

    Perhaps, Grossman and Lacayo were right to leave out the committee and keep in some esoteric picks. Plus, you can read Time's original reviews of most of the novels. You can view the list and reviews at http://www.time.com/time/2005/100books/the_complete_list.html.

    I thought I'd stick my neck out and list my 20 favorite English-language novels since 1900. I make no claims that they are the best, just my favorites.

    Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
    Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
    Color Purple by Alice Walker.
    Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner.
    Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.
    As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.
    Native Son by Richard Wright.
    Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow.
    You Must Remember This by Joyce Carol Oates.
    The Assistant by Bernard Malamud
    Fixer by Bernard Malamud.
    Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley.
    Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth.
    Surface of the Earth by Reynolds Price.
    1984 by Geogre Orwell.
    I, Claudius by Robert Graves.
    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
    Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
    Any Human Heart by William Boyd
    The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

    No, they aren't ranked either. My list of 100 is segmented into five groups of 20, that I haven't had the heart to rank. Of course, if Time magazine was going to publish my list, I'd come up with some numbers.

    And just for the record, the greatest rock guitar lick for my money is Richard Thompson's live solo on "Can't Win" that appears on his three-disc set Watching the Dark. You don't even need to be stoned to enjoy it.

    Tuesday, October 03, 2006

    Can I Get Fries with That?

    When I'm in the mood for a lunchtime sandwich, I have to decide between two nearby cafes. My decision-making process rarely involves the type of bread or the kinds of sandwiches served. I'm a tuna fish guy, and both restaurants make a tasty, not overly mayonnaise-laden sandwich on wheat bread. I make my decision based on whether I'm in the mood for a chocolate chip cookie or potato chips. One restaurant gives you a cookie with your lunch, the other gives you a bag of chips.

    I like the extras. I want the add-ons. There are probably a dozen more places within a few blocks where I could get my tuna, but they don't have the goodies that I want. So I've narrowed my choice down to these two restaurants. I started thinking about all of this last week, while I was working at the Amy Goodman event promoting her new book, Static.

    Goodman, the host of the daily left-wing news radio show "Democracy Now," usually gets me thinking about the hypocrisy of the Bush administration, the atrocities of the Iraq war and other blood-boiling political issues. But last Tuesday night, she got me thinking about my free chips and cookies. This was because she had such a great add-on of her own. We sold an extra 60 books because of the freebie, and that had me .

    Goodman, along with her brother David, gave an impassioned presentation about the lax job the media has done in monitoring the Bush administration, the story of the mothers of slain Iraq war soldiers and why you should buy their book. They desperately want their book to reach the New York Times' bestseller list.
    They figure it's the only way the book will appear in the Times, since the Times has thus far ignored it. In addition to their great oratorical skills, they had a gimmick to help sell the book: buy two copies of Static and get an exclusive DVD that is not for sale anywhere else.

    Customers had their choice between two DVD interviews by Goodman, either Harry Belafonte or Pete Seeger. The DVDs were in simple paper sleeves and came with no art work or liner notes. About 50 people bought two books to get their free DVD. Another handful couldn't choose between the two, and decided to buy four books so they could get both interviews. Wow. It's rare to have more than a few customers buy multiple copies of a book. The Goodmans created a stampede with the bonus DVDs, and the disc must have cost less than 50 cents to produce and package. I don't know about the New York Times' list, but Static was our top-selling book for September.

    It seems like every other business does some variation on this theme, and yet we rarely do it in the book business. Tonight, the store is hosting Philippa Gregory, the author of The Other Boleyn Girl. We are anticipating strong sales, but how much stronger could they be if we had something exclusive to give away when customers purchased two or more of her books?
    Wouldn't it be great to get a signed copy of a short story that was only available on the tour? What if there was a CD featuring Gregory being interviewed?

    Once I started thinking about this, the possibilities seemed limitless. Of course, they depend on the individual author and book, but I think people would eat up this type of thing. A book is only $25, and that's not much to pay for a chance to get something by your favorite author that no one else will have.

    I'm starting to see this add-on phenomena hitting the publishing world in other ways. I am just finishing up a wonderful forthcoming novel The Dead Father's Club by Matt Haig. It is the first 2007 title that I've read. I had never heard of Haig before the sales rep showed me the book. I decided to read the book, in part, because of the extras that Viking pushed my way. My sales rep handed me a snazzy marketing piece featuring six new Viking novels that included a CD. I played the CD and heard an interesting interview with Haig. But I still wasn't convinced. About a week later, a DVD interview with Haig came. I watched it and thought I'd read at least the first 20 pages. I was hooked.

    Now that I'm tuned into these possibilities, I see missed opportunities everywhere. When I read Zadie Smith's hilarious novel On Beauty in hardback, I immediately looked for interviews with her on the internet. I found a great conversation she had with Terry Gross on NPR. It was funny, illuminating and riveting. Wouldn't it be great if a CD of that interview was bound into the paperback edition of On Beauty?

    It seems to me that if I'm willing to change my buying habits for a bag of malt vinegar potato chips, then the opportunities to convince readers to buy particular books, or more copies of certain books, are out there. After all, publishers and bookstores have a lot more varied options than just chips and cookies to used in an effort to tempt people.

    Wednesday, September 27, 2006

    Trouble with an Interview

    Note: The complete text of an email interview with Patrick Somerville, the author of Trouble, follows this entry.

    I have 186 books by my bedside waiting to be read. The stacks got so absurd and dangerous a few years ago, that I put up four shelves to hold my eclectic combination of fiction, university press poetry, baseball books, literary classics, history tomes and graphic novels. That wasn't good enough for me. Much to my wife's consternation, I now have three stacks of books, mostly advance reader's copies (free, pre-publication paperbacks that the publishers distribute), piled up beneath the shelves.

    Still, I'm not satisfied. Occasionally, I can't find anything that I want to read. When that happens, I hit the slush pile of advance reader's copies (ARCs) at the office. Each month we get shipped about 200 ARCs. It's unwieldy trying to find readers for that many books, and despite the staff''s best efforts, many of the them go unclaimed and unread. These homeless books compose the slush pile.

    The best book I ever plucked out of this neglected stash of titles was Zadie Smith's White Teeth. What a surprise and revelation that novel was, with its riotous humor and outrageous characters. Last week, I dipped back into the slush pile, and I pulled out a great debut story collection, Trouble, by Patrick Somerville.

    Perhaps, I chose it because of the forlorn adolescent painted on the cover, I was that guy for a good five years. Perhaps, it was the challenge issued on the jacket: "We dare you not to be entertained." Whatever the reason, I soon found myself engrossed in Somerville's stories about guys, young and old, getting into trouble.

    Somerville's great sense of humor pervades all of these stories, and this is evident from the very first page of the collection. In the opening story, we get a list of all of the benefits of puberty, including everything from heightened sexual allure due to a deeper voice and a larger penis, to improved basketball dribbling skills and confidence in public speaking. That list sets the tone and gives a framework to all that will follow in the story, from humorous bouts of humilation to misguided bursts of confidence.

    Beneath Somerville's humor there is always a sense of foreboding or violence lurking. Characters run into cars with their bikes, they crash into trees while skiing, they get their noses broken playing basketball and some even get killed by the bizarre shadowy deathblow. The combination of humor and violence creates an exhilerating tension in these concise tales.

    "If I step back and look at the books as a whole, I can see these violent moments sort of sneaking up and overwhelming the characters....Maybe it's because I'm a young writer, but I can never fully resist the urge to give the characters what they deserve -- to punish them, or to dangle their temptations in front of them and allow them to do whatever," Somerville wrote in an email interview.

    The collection's finest story, "Black Earth, Early Winter Morning", breaks the pattern a bit. There is a violent accident (two, actually), but unlike many of the stories, the humor doesn't overwhelm the characters and their tragedies. It is a thoughtful, almost meditative, piece about physical loss and also the loss of expectations. That's not to say there aren't funny moments in the story. On the contrary, the bumbling teenage boy tries to make out with a college girl moments after she's vomited. Sure it's gross, but what a perfect encapsulation of an adolscent boy's sexuality.

    When I asked Somerville about the humor in his stories, he pointed to "Black Earth, Early Winter Morning" as a conscious break from the rest of the collection. "Sometimes the story should just be really sad.... 'Black Earth, Early Winter Morning' was the last story I wrote, and it is by far the most tragic. I told myself beforehand that I would not make it funny, would not get wacky, would not try to achieve any of that balance."

    Trouble is a wonderful book and I also dare anyone to read it and not be entertained. My only regret is that it is Somerville's debut. There isn't any more of his pithy humor and accident-prone characters to amuse me. So, it is back to the slush pile for me, since none of the 186 books in the bedroom is capturing my imagination. Just don't tell my wife, or I'll also be in trouble.


    Kash's Book Corner (KBC): Trouble is certainly an apt title for this collection. Your characters have all kinds of difficulties; one character smashes into a tree while skiing, another crashes his bike into the same car twice, a 57-year old doctor has an affair with a teenager. Do you think of an entertaining accident or disaster first and build a story around it? Or do you start with a seemingly normal character and then they find trouble?

    Somerville: I think the latter is probably more accuarate, at least relative to the stories in the collection. If I step back and look at the book as a whole, I can see these violent moments sort of sneaking up and overwhelming the characters, and what's more, I can see, now, what it meant to me then, what I was trying to do. Usually it's something blatant and not-too-subtle. Maybe it's because I'm a young writer, but I can never fully resist the urge to give the characters what they deserve--to punish them, or to dangle their temptations in front of them and allow them to do whatever. I admit that there are probably a million better, more aesthetically-interesting possibilities, but this is what I'm doing now. I also love slapstick humor. Having a character trip gives me way too much pleasure.

    KBC: Violence, whether in the guise of grisly accidents or shadowy deathblows, haunts these stories. Can you speak about its role in your work?

    Somerville: I wouldn't even say that I'm very interested in violence--it just tends to end up in my stories, usually in the form of accidents. So many of the characters in the book think they can control life by being smart. Accidents are the antidote to that disease.

    KBC: Most of the characters lead emotionally isolated lives, is that just a condition of men in our society or do you have a unique bunch of guys here?

    Somerville: I'm in no position to make claims about men, or most men, in our society. What can I say? Some yes and some no. I'm certainly interested in writing about people who lead emotionally isolated lives, but whether or not it's a widespread problem is something I just don't know. In my own experience, I usually find it much harder to communicate with men than with women. With men, there's often this whole added level of defenses--guarded appraisals, comparisons, macho stuff. All of it is incredibly boring, and usually takes up so much time that you've both already gone home to sleep before you're anywhere near actually knowing one another.

    KBC: I can't tell you how many times I laughed out loud when reading these stories, especially "English Cousin." Does the humor come naturally to you or is it something that needs as much or more revising as the other aspects of the writing?

    Somerville: Quote unquote humor is something that is built into the way I write, definitely, but whether or not it's actually funny when it first comes out is another story. Usually I'll try too hard at first, and it will be totally over-the-top. There used to be this complicated masturbation scene in "Crow Moon" that went on for 4 or 5 pages and involved photo developing. Maybe there was enough to it for some chuckles, but in the long run, it seemed to hurt the story more than help it, especially because that story is pretty heavy compared to some of the others. I have an impulse for balance, as though tragic moments need to be balanced by comic moments, but as time goes on I'm realizing that this formula can get very repetitive, and is also limiting. Sometimes the story should just be really sad. Sometimes the opposite. "Black Earth, Early Winter Morning" was the last story I wrote, and it is by far the most tragic. I told myself beforehand that I would not make it funny, would not get wacky, would not try to achieve any of that balance. In the end, it's turned out to be one of my favorites. Sort of a downer at readings, though.

    KBC: Where did you come up with Dan Oxford swallowing coins in the story "The Future, the Future, the Future"? Seems like a bad idea.

    Somerville: You mean a bad idea for the story or a bad idea in real life? Isn't this supposed to be a nonconfrontational Q&A? No, I'm assuming you mean bad in real life. I definitely didn't eat any coins to do research for this one. I do remember, though, walking home in Ithaca one day and looking at garbage and thinking about how garbage is a completely different thing to the rich, and it can be virtually anything. I imagined a rich guy standing next to a trash can, dropping hundred dollar bills into it, and then I imagined him eating them and laughing. For the last five minutes of the walk, I just tried to think about how I could use money-eating in the story, which I'd just begun. Coins has already been established as an interesting little node, but I didn't know how, exactly, I was going to use them later in the story. I ended up with Dan eating coins whenever he feels as though his life isn't working properly, as a way of venting. He's a character who connects happiness to money over and over again, and who sees both things as down the road, in the future. So his meltdown moments involve him revolting against his big plans. I agree, it's very strange. But I like strange.

    KBC: Your characters have great, culturally relevant names like Gidget, Garfield, Oxford -- how and why do you use these in your stories?

    Somerville: I have no idea. The names just come into my head and I ask myself, "Can I actually use that?" Usually the answer is yes, because why not? It's better than using Tristan.

    KBC: Trouble is out as a paperback original, which is great because it's more affordable, but it is often harder to get review attention in this format, unless you are Jhumpa Lahiri or David Mitchell. Did you have any qualms about going straight to paperback?

    Somerville: None at all. It's an affordable book for young people, and I think young people are its best hope. Also, it's not a long book...who wants to pay $25 for 200 pages?

    KBC: Are you on tour? Where are you going?

    Somerville: I am on tour, and have already been to the west coast. I'll be heading to Boston and New York next week, and after that, a lot of midwest. You can see the details at www.patricksomerville.com/tour.htm

    KBC: What's next? Will you stick with stories or do you have a novel hidden somewhere?

    Somerville: I'm working on a novel.

    Sunday, September 24, 2006

    Worthless Authors

    What do David Baldacci, Elizabeth Berg, Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham, Stephen King and Nora Roberts have in common? You could answer that they all write mega-bestsellers or you could say that their backlist books (their older titles) are absolutely worthless. Both answers are correct.

    For years the Boulder Book Store store has struggled to sell these authors' previous books, but I blamed that on factors unique to the store and to our community. Although we sell their books used, these authors' new books aren't nearly as popular in Boulder as they are nationwide, and we don't do well with mass market paperbacks in general. So, I was surprised to find out that all of these authors, and dozens more, were truly worthless nationwide.

    A few days ago, I received an email detailing "pre-shipment sorting guidelines" for a company that accepts donated books and then sells them on the internet. The proceeds are split evenly between the company and the store or library that has donated the book. Our bookstore sends them sale books we can't sell, rejects left behind in our used book buying office, and some books that we can't return to the publishers. It's a motley assortment of titles, but every month we get a check for a few hundred dollars and a list of books that have managed to sell for two or three dollars apiece on the internet.

    The pre-shipment guidelines are designed to prevent the company from being inundated with unsaleable books. It saves the company time sorting through the titles and it saves money for the different libraries and organizations shipping them these books. The letter starts off innocously enough -- no damaged books, no books without ISBNs, no books written in a language that doesn't use the Latin alphabet -- but suddenly veers off into a list of popular fiction authors that are "uneconomical".

    The list is a who's who of contemporary fiction.
    In addition to those mentioned above, it includes such mystery stalwarts as Mary Higgins Clark, Sue Grafton and John Sandford, horror masters like Robin Cook and Dean Koontz, and sappy romance writers including Danielle Steele and Fern Michaels.

    I love this list. So much of what I can't stand about publishing all compiled under the heading "popular fiction authors to avoid." I couldn't have done a better job myself. These authors' new books are foisted upon us time after time, season after season, no matter how bad they are. Instead of pushing well-written, innovative fiction, the publishers give us a huge marketing budget and a million-copy print run of the latest logorrhea from James Patterson and his team of "co-writers." It's all formula blockbusters all the time, and the publishers want to know why the independent bookstores don't sell their share of it. The answer is simple -- because we value thinking and originality.

    The day before I received the email containing this list of authors, I was offered a deal from my Random House sales rep. She had a list of backlist titles that Random House was offering an extra discount on. I skimmed down the list, which was amazingly unremarkable for the biggest publisher in the business, until I came to a trio of ancient John Grisham titles. I looked up at my rep, and said, "I'm done. Does anybody sell these Grisham books at full price anymore? Who thought up this list?"

    The market is flooded with these books, and the market tells us everyday: they are worthless. My only wish is that consumers would realize this when the books were brand new and pick up something different. After all, if you really need the guilty pleasure of Danielle Steele, you could just wait a few months and buy her new books for less than a buck. Amazon is currently selling her two 2006 releases for 79 and 22 cents.

    Take a chance on something like David Mitchell's brilliant new novel Black, Swan, Green, or read Marisha Pessl's wildly inventive Special Topics in Calamity Physics. By the way, you won't find either Pessl or Mitchell's books listed online for pennies anytime soon. Now, if those two books headed the bestsller list, that just might force the publishers and even some of their blockbuster authors to start thinking.

    Tuesday, September 19, 2006

    Buying for the Kids

    I never thought I'd rave on and on about a book called Tickle the Duck, but from the moment I read the sample copy in my office, I just could not get enough of the silly duck with the big belly and impish grin. It's a work of pure genius. The combination of an outrageously funny, infantile, illustrated duck and a simple plot (if a duck begging the reader not to tickled him can be considered a plot) creates endless hilarity for anyone over the age of one.

    Out of desperation, I took over our store's children's buying two years ago. We'd gone through three buyers in a couple of years, and there was no one passionate about kids' books in the store willing to take on the job. I figured that at least I knew how to buy, even if all I knew about children's literature was Dr. Seuss and The Island of the Blue Dolphins. For years, I recommended Scott O'Dell's classic to anyone buying a book for a child between the ages of three and fourteen. "Oh, you've got a middle school grandson into snow boarding? Well, he will really love this book about a girl stranded on an island."

    Now I finally have two assistants who should be able to do most of the children's buying, but I am having a bit of separation anxiety. Earlier this week, I was buying Penguin's winter children's list and training one of the new buyers. We attacked the box of samples like two kids opening Christmas gifts. As we leafed through the piles of books, the riot of colors, drawing styles and silly stories almost overwhelmed us. We argued, we laughed, and we marvelled at the creativity.

    Berkely Breathed's Mars Needs Moms, a zany and almost dark story from the creator of Bloom County, was the obvious hit. I was also surprised and wowed with Cal Ripken's The Longest Season, a moving tale about the low point of his amazing baseball career, beautifully painted by Ron Mazellan. The sleeper on the list was Helen Ward's melancholy Little Moon Dog, magnificently illustrated in muted tones by Wayne Anderson. Who wouldn't love the two
    Skippyjon Jones board books about the crazy Siamese cat that thinks he's a Chihuahua? By the way, who invented board books? They should get a medal, or at least a gold sticker.

    By the time we sat down to buy the books, my assistant and I had read all the books on Penguin's winter list. We didn't have to wildly guess about which ones were good and which ones were all publisher hype. How long would it take to read even one percent of a major publisher's adult list? Sure, I got a little sick of the nauseatingly sentimental string of books about mommy animals with cute babies, and I wondered why half the books were being published. Okay, more than half. My assistant was flabbergasted by Penguin's outsized publishing hopes for the winter. "Why don't they publish a dozen good books and really get behind them?" she asked. Ah, the answer to that question could save a million trees.

    Even looking at this single list, I was struck once again by how many talented artists are illustrating children's books. It's not easy being an artist in America, but here's a field that values excellent work and even encourages unique artistic styles. My favorite illustrator, David Catrow, had a paperback, Our Tree Named Steve, on the list. Who else in our culture would pay Catrow over and over again for his thin-necked, big-headed, wide-eyed illustrations of people and dogs?

    Speaking of illustrators, I attended a breakfast featuring Jon J. Muth (Zen Shorts) and Jim LaMarche (Rainbabies) this past weekend at the Mountain & Plains tradeshow in Denver. Muth spent most of his speaking time in front of an easel. He painted with a huge chinese brush (about the size of his arm) and watercolors. With just a few strokes he made paintings of a panda, a gorilla and a stalking cat. The cat was so magnificent that LaMarche praised him loud enough for the whole room to hear. Muth's outstretched cat was so simple and yet so fluid, it reminded me of Picasso's one-line drawings of bulls.

    Sometimes I wonder if we would recognize a Picasso among us. Would we value the magnificent draftsmanship? Would we marvel at the brilliant colors and the oddly shaped figures? Or would Picasso be one illustrator among 50 on a children's book list, waiting for the patient, appreciative bookseller to recommend his title? I'd like to think that Picasso would get plucked out of the massive stack of samples, even if he was illustrating a silly duck.

    Wednesday, September 13, 2006

    John Shors: A Gem of an Author

    John Shors, the author of Beneath a Marble Sky, is hustling every day in an effort to break out his debut novel. He quit his day job in July and is now working full time to promote the paperback release of his tale about the building of the Taj Mahal. So far he has spoken to over 200 book clubs, and there is no end in sight. For most writers -- heck, for most marathoners -- this would be exhausting, but for Shors, who went through 56 drafts before pubishing his book, it appears to energize him.

    At Tuesday night's Boulder Book Store discussion, he was eloquent, engaging and informative. He answered the questions with a freshness that belied how many times he has broached these subjects. Whether he was talking about his first-person narrative in the voice of a 17th-century Hindustan woman, the semi-precious stone work embedded in the seemingly white marble walls of the Taj Mahal, or his feelings about the cover art on his book, his comments were genuine and spontaneous.

    It's a good thing that Shors has the energy and the skill to navigate through the messy world of readers. Beneath a Marble Sky, a Penguin paperback, is a fine novel with detailed historical scenes and a great love story. Shors brings us the sights, smells and sounds of an amazing time and place, and he also weaves together a powerful romance. It effortlessly melds into the true-to-life events that form his tension-filled plot. But all of that is not enough to sell the book.

    There are a lot of interesting novels that fall by the wayside every year. Shors' work is one of hundreds of debut novels that made its appearance this summer. As a book buyer, it is bewildering to figure out which ones to buy for the store. I am constantly asking the sales reps, "What's going on with this book? Is there any special marketing?" All too often, the answer is either "not much" or "nothing." I'm looking for any publicity planned that might help the book in my market, or some advertising campaign by the publisher, or perhaps contacts the author has with a media outlet.

    Often, if the author isn't going to make something happen, the book is going to die silently on the shelves of bookstores and in the warehouses of wholesalers. The publicity departments of major publishers seem to be under-staffed and completely overwhelmed as far as I can tell. They push the big titles and a handful of in-house favorites and hope that the rest will either get great reviews or spread by word of mouth. Reviews are tough to come by for Shors because the book was orignally published by a small house (McPherson Company) in hardback in 2004. Reviewers are notoriously reluctant to take on paperbacks. In order for Shors to get Penguin to rev up its marketing plans, he's got to get word-of-mouth interest going on this book.

    Shors is the dream author for a publicity department. He is tireless, likable and willing to do whatever he needs to get some momentum going behind Beneath a Marble Sky. His efforts appear to be working. Sales are growing, and almost everyone left Tuesday night's book group determined to recommend his book to a friend or a husband. Here's hoping he sells enough to get on Penguin's radar. For now, he's just like one of the thousands of jewels embedded in the walls of his beloved Taj Mahal -- you have to get close enough to see his brilliance.

    Friday, September 08, 2006

    Priestess Does it Her Way

    Ten years ago, I cringed when the words self-published were uttered in my office. These stapled or occassionally stitched-together books were often amateurish memoirs, badly constructed novels, treacly poetry or bizarre accounts of the occult. The authors weren't much better. Many were wannabe writers who scorned editing, were embittered against the publishing process that had rejected them and thought they were entitled to the royal treatment at the bookstore.

    My, how times have changed. Opportunity, community and publicity are the first three things that come to mind when I see a self-published book nowadays. Many of the writers are established professionals in the community with something to say and a waiting audience. The quality of the writing has improved. A cottage industry of freelance editors and designers contributes their expertise to these projects. Also, self-published local authors often draw bigger and more passionate crowds to book signings than nationally known writers.

    Thursday night's signing by Cindy Morris, of her new book Priestess Entrepreneur, is a perfect example of this changing dynamic. Morris, who owned a local flower shop for ten years and has an ebullient personality, was basically told she had no chance of getting a publisher for her book. "You are no one," an agent told Morris when she shopped her idea. Boy, was that agent wrong. Morris has a great deal to say about running a business, trusting your intuition, and how to acheive success on your own terms. As an independent business woman, she also has the credentials to back it up .

    I must admit that I went to the event as a bit of a lark. My mother-in-law is in town, and I thought the book signing might provide great entertainment. I knew that music, played on a few bizarre instruments, including a monochord and a crystal ball, would be performed before the reading and that the word "priestess" in the title might bring out some of Boulder's more eccentric characters. Well, the crystal ball turned out to be a sweet-toned crystal bowl and the priestess, Morris, was eloquent, humorous and full of excellent advice.

    My mother-in-law, who runs a fledgling non-profit with her husband, was extremely impressed and bought the book. She has since read half of it and is enjoying Cindy's multitude of stories and reaping the benefits of the business ancedotes already. She even commented on the book's easy-to-read layout.

    To see that a sure winner like this can't find a home at a publisher makes me wonder just what else the major houses and agents are missing. I waded through hundreds of upcoming Simon & Schuster books for seven hours over the last two days and can honestly say that Morris' book was more saleable than 80 percent of them. Simon couldn't have squeezed in a book like this and taken out one of its endless array of cookie-cutter chick lit books?

    Even better than banal chick lit, Simon and Schuster's March, 2007 list included a true winner: the "erotic thriller," Thong on Fire. As wonderful as this book sounds, I have a feeling that ten years ago, it would have been the self-published book and Priestess Entrepreneur would have had the backing of a major press.

    Tuesday, September 05, 2006

    These Comics Aren't for Kids

    Six years ago, on our first day in Paris, my wife and I ducked into a bookshop. We were looking for a map, but I really wanted to check out a French bookstore. Surely, I thought, they must be high-brow and full of fabulous literature that we could never sell in America. I truly expected a whole section on Foucault, Derrida and Sartre. Instead, I was met with an endless array of comic books (graphic novels, as polite grown-ups call them). It was easier to find Tintin than Camus. A dozen adults perused the section, and I stood dumbfounded while my wife finally located a map and guided us to the Opera House, where I feared a musical production of Dumbo might be in full swing.

    For the last few years, I have been told repeatedly by eager publishers that graphic novels are going to be all the rage here in America. A few even ventured that Japanese Manga was going to infest our stacks like Kudzu has taken over the South. I continually try to understand Manga and have come to three conclusions: all the characters' eyes are way too big for their faces, all the girls wear mini skirts that would have been scandalous in the 1960s, and somehow the genre must be related to Hebrew, because you read it backwards.

    The predictions finally seem to be coming true. We are becoming graphic-novel crazy. My store is expanding its graphic novel section for the second time in as many years. Sure, it's still not as big as the mystery or science fiction sections, but it is growing steadily. I'm relieved to say that Manga is not leading the charge. People are interested in Persepolis, Sandman, Sin City and now, after the movie, V for Vendetta.

    I have found some solace in these more traditional graphic novels. Superman and Batman were my heroes as a child. The Watchmen, Sandman and Hellblazer got me through my bachelor 20s. The other day, when I found myself holding a gift card, I thought it was time to update my collection. Like a kid on a limited allowance, I browsed through dozens of books and finally selected the first two volumes of Transmetropolitan and the opening book of Ex Machina. I was looking for characters that I could relate to, interesting art and settings that weren't too outlandish.

    Spider Jerusalem, a chain-smoking, Hunter-Thompson inspired journalist, is the lead character in the dystopian future world of Transmetropolitan. He inhabits a world that no one in their right mind would want to live in. Advertisements attack people in their dreams, and even household machines have addictions in this alien-implanting society. Warren Ellis comes up with the fantastical stories, but a team of illustrators led by Darick Robertson make his wild ideas seem real.

    Transmetropolitan really takes off after Ellis has established the ground rules for his insane universe. Jerusalem's job as a columnist allows him to naturally delve into all the nooks and crannies of his city. We find out about people that download their brains into a super-computer and get rid of their bodies, we visit reservations where people are voluntarily brainwashed into forgetting contemporary society and live as Aztecs, we discover the terrible fate of those cryogenetically frozen back in the 1990s. It's a mad, mad world and I love it. No traditional novel could so readily take you into the future the way Robertson's explosive drawings do.

    Ex Machina won the Eisner Award (the graphic novel equivelent of the Emmy's) for "Best New Series" last year. This book is set in our world, specifically New York City, 2002. Mitchell Hundred has retired as America's first and only super hero to become the mayor of the Big Apple. An electrical accident gave him the ability to hear machines talk and he can also give them commands. He can tell a bus to stop, he can turn off all the lights in New York City, but in the end, he was only able to save one of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11.

    Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days starts out promisingly enough, as we are given the background story, but by the end, we are left scratching our heads as to why anyone would want to be the mayor of New York. Hundred's two main crises involve an artist who has offended everyone in the city and a serial killer who is picking off the city's snow plow drivers. Who turns in their super hero tights for that? Still, Brian Vaughan has created an interesting post-9/11 world that has some real potential, and we can only hope the mayor has an opportunity to be a little more heroic.

    I can't wait to dive back into the stacks and discover what the French have known all along -- graphic novels are great fun. Also, if they are well written, like Transmetropolitan, they can become a vehicle for commenting on religion, television and other sacred cows in our society. All of this has me saying, "ooh-la-la!"

    Friday, September 01, 2006

    The next Marley and Me?

    What do you get when you cross the bestselling Marley and Me, the tear-jerking memoir by John Grogan about his dog's death, with last fall's sleeper hit A Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion's heartbreaking work about the death of her husband and daughter? According to HarperCollins, the answer is Mark Doty's forthcoming memoir Dog Years.

    This crazy comparison game is a favorite that publishers play when they are trying to sell new titles into bookstores. When I read, "part Marley and Me, part A Year of Magical Thinking," in the catalog, I looked at my Harper rep incredulously and said, "what, the dog and his spouse die at the same time?" The rep deadpanned, "it's two dogs and a lover with AIDS." When I showed the catalog to other people in the office, we had to wonder if Harper took out an ad seeking someone who fit this profile. This is all kind of a shame for two reasons: Doty is one of our greatest poets, a truly sensitive writer, and he really went through this incredibly difficult and painful experience.

    Doty's isn't the first book and certainly not the last to get the Marley and Me treatment. Harcourt pitched Thomas Healy's memoir, I Have Heard you Calling in the Night, as Marley and Me with an alcoholic. When I heard this, my colleague and I replied in unison: "The dog drinks?"

    As you might have guessed, this game drives me crazy. I think it is disingenuous as a sales tactic and also a disservice to all of the books involved. I can't recall how many books were supposed to be the next Angela's Ashes. There was never another Angela's Ashes. Frank McCourt's writing style is unique, the setting is originally drawn and the emotions are brutally honest. The book was a hit because it was unlike anything else. To constantly hawk every new memoir as the next Angela's Ashes diminishes McCourt's accomplishment. Also, I can only guess how many worthwhile books got sold as another Angela's Ashes and then were quickly seen as a disappointment because they were never appreciated for what they really were.

    Many books used to get compared to Pam Houston's bestselling short story collections. Pam and I are friends, and each time I saw her I would tell her of the different books being billed as "in the tradition of Cowboys are My Weakness," or "part Pam Houston and part someone else." Pam usually rolled her eyes and said, "Wow, I'm a tradition." The ironic twist to this is that Houston's latest book, the novel Sight Hound, isn't even in the Pam Houston "tradition." Unlike Houston's other books, the lead character isn't always seeking solace with difficult men, but she's in a relationship -- albeit a crazy, humorous one -- and the focus is on the love she has for her ailing dog. If it was being sold now, it would be hailed as a fictional Marley and Me, because the beloved dog dies in the end.

    I realize that publishers need a quick handle to sell books -- after all, Harper was showing over 500 books to me the past two days --but I can't believe they know just how trite all of these silly comparisons sound. It's a running joke in the office. I mean, how does Harper want me to react when I see the quote about Doty's book? "Oh boy, we should buy at least a 1000 copies, if it's going to sell like Didion and Grogan's memoirs."

    We read memoirs because we want a new experience, we want to meet a unique person. What we loved about Marley and Me was much more than the surface story. A great book can be about absolutely anything. Somewhere in the beginning of the book we fall for the author's voice and we trust him to take us somewhere special. When the writer fulfills that expectation, when he tell us of an experience in a voice so personal it almost feels like our own, then we have the real potential for a great book. Perhaps Marley and Me, despite having a completely different storyline and setting, was the next Angela's Ashes. I can't guess what the next Marley and Me will be, but I'm positive it won't involve a dog.

    Tuesday, August 29, 2006

    Do Publishers need Bookstores?

    Penguin is making an end run around bookstores: their website now offers discounts directly to customers. It makes me feel like a dupe for sitting in all those sales meetings, poring over catalogs and creating marketing plans for their titles, only to see them undercut bookstores with their own website. It's one thing to compete with another bookseller, even one as big as Amazon, but to have to fight with one of your main publishers for sales is asinine.

    Does it make sense for Penguin to compete with bookstores for sales? I don't think so. Most bookstores carry a vast array of Penguin books and will special order any book that their customers ask for. Many customers discover new Penguin titles from browsing bookstore shelves or looking at staff recommended sections. In fact, our next store reading group title, Beneath a Marble Sky, by John Shor, is a Penguin title. I have to wonder -- will the customers just sit at home and order directly from Penguin, now that we've brought their attention to this novel?

    It seems that the main thing Penguin can offer on its website is all of its branded material. Look at that cute Penguin logo! Wouldn't you want a mug, a T-shirt, or even a baby onesy with that adorable character on it? I would. Penguin should go crazy selling those items which would help brand the company and let the booksellers do what they do best. Does Penguin really want to sell one book at a time? Do they want to deal with disgruntled customers trying to return books? Why incur the wrath of booksellers around the country for a few sales? It doesn't seem like a winning formula.

    On the other hand, HarperCollins, who often encourages thinking as part of its corporate culture, directs customers from its website to the sites of other booksellers. HarperCollins is an equal opportunity linker. If you hit the buy now button on one of their titles, it will give you the choice of going to the purchasing page of 21 different booksellers. These sellers include giants like Amazon and Barnes and Nobles as well as smaller stores like Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. Since we (The Boulder Book Store) are one of the pages that HarperCollins links to, I can honestly say that any store with a website can pretty easily join this party. That's also why I'll proudly promote http://www.harpercollins.com/.

    Of course, publishing being what it is, this could all change tomorrow. But with a new buying season approaching, it's good to know who you're teammates are and just who has joined the competition.