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.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Book notes: McDermott & Boyd

Alice McDermott's After This and William Boyd's Restless were two novels that intrigued me at the Book Expo America earlier this year. I thought BEA was rather listless; the publishers seemed more interested in new technologies and new promotional programs than in their own books. When the show was focused on books, it was almost exclusively nonfiction titles that got the attention, with the exception of the hoopla surrounding Charles Frazier's follow up to Cold Mountain, Thirteen Moons.

I came away from the show, held in Washington D.C., with my fill of glad-handing politicians and glib political commentators, but barely a handful of valued advance reader's copies. Usually, I mail a box of books back home. This time I had no trouble carrying the scant collection of titles in my luggage.

McDermott and Boyd are two writers that don't get nearly the attention that they deserve. McDermott won the National Book Award for Charming Billy in 1998, but is rarely mentioned in the ranks of the top American novelists. Boyd, whose Any Human Heart is one of the two or three best works of fiction since 2000 as far as I'm concerned, won the Whitbread award for his first novel, but doesn't seem to even get noticed when it's time to name the Man Booker Prize in England.

Restless, due out on Oct. 10, was not what I expected from the highly literate Boyd, but it was a page-turning thriller that kept me guessing and had me perusing the internet to discover the history behind the story. The plot involves British spies operating in the United States at the beginning of World War II. Boyd goes into some detail about how the operation worked, including the manipulation of both the print and radio media. It was all in an effort to persuade Americans to enter the war as allies of the British. Of course, Pearl Harbor was a much more effective way to make that happen.

Boyd's novel focuses on Eva Delectorskaya who joins the British Secret Service after her brother dies. One narrative follows her actions during the war, while the other joins her in 1976 living as Sally Gilmartin in the English countryside. Sally believes someone is trying to kill her and enlists her incredulous daughter's help. The daughter, a single mother, is learning about her mother's true identity for the first time.

Boyd does a fantastic job of weaving these plots together into a coherent story filled with "a-ha" moments without ever resorting to spy novel conventions and cliches. True, it doesn't compare to his weightier novels, but it's worth checking out.

After This, due out on Sept. 5, was a pure joy to read simply for McDermott's beautiful use of the language and her descriptive scenes. I don't think it really matters what McDermott writes about or what characters populate her stories. The woman could write a how-to manual and the words would swirl around in my head, creating an ethereal experience.

Luckily for most readers, McDermott spins her prose magic in a multi-layered story, set over several decades. We first meet Mary, a lonely office worker during World War II, coming out of a Catholic Church in Manhattan. Within a few pages she meets John Keane, the man she will marry, in a diner.

McDermott doesn't give us the courtship. She sets up the scene of John and Mary's meeting, and then we are thrust forward, first to their love-making and then to a scene with three of their children. Each episode is beautifully rendered and almost a short story by itself. We are asked to slowly connect the dots between the vignettes. This is how McDermott proceeds with the story all the way into the 1970s.

In many ways it works because it allows McDermott to do what she does best, which is to draw intimate moments and give them emotional weight beyond their obvious meaning. We know that we are seeing everything for a reason since so much is left out of the novel. Occasionally, a gap will be filled in by a memory or a snippet of a conversation, but often we are left to figure out the past.

One problem, however, is that the story shifts between John, Mary, their four children, their family friend and even complete strangers. It makes it difficult to really settle into the story in a satisfying way. Not only are we jumping in time from scene to scene, we are moving into someone else's head. I felt the Keane family would have been better served with interconnected short stories that could have stayed with the individual characters a bit longer.

It's really a small quibble, because the story of this Catholic family dealing with the social upheaval that occurred between 1950 and 1975 in suburban America is endlessly enthralling in the hands of one of our greatest stylists. But it's hard not to wish for perfection when it seems like McDermott just might be able to pull it off.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


In my last post, I commented about 9/11 books and concluded that what people wanted was authenticity. Well, I got even more realism than I expected. I just met with my new Phaidon sales rep yesterday -- the first rep I've known to sport pink streaks in her hair -- and she presented her publisher's top book for the fall: Aftermath, by Joel Meyerowitz. It is a huge photography book about ground zero. She brought a finished copy in, and I was greatly impressed by the rich tones of the photos and the thoroughness of the project. Meyerowitz uses a large format camera that produces magnificent landscape images, and he apparently roamed all over the ground zero site for close to a year. As I poured over the pictures, I had to wonder just who was going to pay $75 for this painful history. I was fascinated by it, but it struck me as the kind of book that people would flip through at the bookstore without purchasing. Nevertheless, I decided to bet that my reaction was wrong: I bought a large-quantity display for the store. I'd rather have too many than run out if the book really takes off.

Phaidon's other big project for the fall is a collaboration with Wallpaper* magazine on a series of city travel guides. I was salivating over this series featuring tempting photos, sparse text, and exacting standards. The low price of just $8.95 was also impressive. As my tongue was hanging out of my mouth, my rep dropped the bomb. The only way that a bookstore can bring the books in is to take a display. I figured the display would be 3 to 5 books of each title. No -- Phaidon wants bookstores to load up with 16 copies of each title. We are a strong travel store, but 16 copies of a Stockholm guide is not what we need. It angered me. I don't like being told how to buy. I don't like being told by a publisher that we order from on a regular basis that we aren't allowed to have their product unless we buy it their way. Anyway, I tried not to let the anger get the better of me since my brand new pink-haired rep was trying her hardest to make the sale. I don't think I succeeded.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Fictional Terror Often Terrible

Last night at a party, a friend of mine mentioned that she was reading John Updike's new novel The Terrorist and that she was having a hard time getting through it. I read the book back in the spring and found the first 100 pages or so almost unbearable. We are both Updike fans, and as we discussed this book we tried to identify some of its problems. The biggest offenses were that the characters are stilted, the plot is painfully contrived, and it feels like it's set in 1974 even though the action takes place today. Finally, she said to me, "I feel like I'm reading a Dead White Male author trying to stay relevant."

Is Updike dead? I'd like to think he's still got some life left in him. I believe he picked an almost impossible topic and for some reason muddled through it. Perhaps he was determined to speak to the times. In the end, Updike delivers an engaging thriller that asks some difficult questions, but it has a plodding set-up where every character seems like a gritty suburban stereotype and a coincidence-laden plot. This is too much of a handicap for even a craftsman like Updike to overcome.

I don't think an author or a filmmaker can tackle 9/11 head on and produce something that seems authentic at this point. It's too soon. The images are too fresh and the politics are still being played out every day. Jonathan Saffron Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was an entertaining but highly flawed attempt to look at the human suffering of the family of a World Trade Center victim. I felt it descended into the maudlin, and the flip-pages of the man jumping off the building were gratitutious.

Perhaps the best novel I've read about living in our terror-filled post-9/11 world is Ian McEwan's Saturday. McEwan doesn't tackle the subject directly, but the threat of a dangerous world is in the fabric of the novel. From the opening pages, when the narrator Henry Perowne watches a plane descend in flames in the middle of the night from the window of his London home, until Perowne's explosive confrontation with a thug threatening his family, the tension of unexpected violence looms. McEwan isn't trying to write a novel about terrorists or victims, rather he is looking at how ordinary people are affected by the world that's been created.

Later at the same party, I ran into a University of Colorado film professor that I've known for years. We started to talk about movies, and we both espoused our admiration for the movie V for Vendetta. That was a film that really took on some issues, such as the danger of trading civil liberties for security, but seemed sadly ignored by many and not taken very seriously by most critics. He also he told me he saw The World Trade Center. I was surprised. The film looks like a hackneyed attempt to exploit the tragedy. He didn't disagree, but he was more guarded in his assessment and said he needed to see it for academic reasons. "I've got to stay current." He did tell me he thought it was too early for Hollywood to deal with 9/11 and that he couldn't bring himself to see United 93 earlier this year.

Is it too early? When will it be the right time? It is interesting to note that the most successful book about 9/11, The 9/11 Commission Report was the least artistic. In fact, it was the opposite of art. It was a transcript of government hearings and findings. Now, we have Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission. The real precedent is we might have a bestseller about the making of a government report.

Every day, artists are finding ways to incorporate what happened on 9/11 into their work. They do it by invoking the sense of loss, the sense of fear and the bewilderment we all felt on that day. Bruce Springsteen's The Rising, was perhaps the most notable artistic acheivement to tap into those sentiments. But beware to the artist or writer who tries to come at this issue too directly. We read the government report, we are all experts, and we aren't interested in cliches and stereotypes. We want authenticity.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Who Gives a Hill of Beans?

Does anyone really care that Starbucks is going to sell Mitch Albom's book? That'll be some great book section -- it won't even need to be alphabetized. Our store's coffee selection will be its equal. We carry Zapatista Coffee, and I don't think Starbucks or any of the local independent coffee shops around are too worried about it.

According to an article in Publishers Weekly, independent booksellers are worked up about this. I love the title of the piece: Booksellers See Starbucks as Unneeded Competition. Frankly, I see all competition as unneeded. If no one but the Boulder Book Store sold books, we all would have retired long ago on our riches and gone home. Everywhere you go, books are for sale: from supermarkets to drug stores to boutique furniture shops. It's about time Starbucks joined the party.

What we have to do as independent bookstores is to fight back. If other stores are taking pieces of our pie, we just need to reach across the table and take a bigger piece. We've sold an awful lot of Zapatista coffee over the years. We peddled Zen Alarm Clocks for awhile, their lovely chimes reminding customers it was time to buy. If you need a yoga mat, the Boulder Book Store has black ones, sticky ones, oversize ones and many more. We also have a magnificent chocolate selection. I've never seen a gourmet food store that can match our variety of $7 chocolate bars.

So where is the line? When is it too much? I really don't know. I know that when I go into my favorite seashell store, Whale's Tale, in Cape May, New Jersey, I can't tell you how relieved I am to look at some playing cards, jewelry and -- yes -- books. This seashell store actually has the best selection of childrens books on the Jersey shore. That's why it's a great store. Can a business survive by conch shells alone?

Now, there are a few limits to all this selling. I would scream from here to Colombia if the Starbucks down the street got a book signing with Albom rather than our store. That would seem like a real betrayal. We have a deeper relationship with the publisher, one that includes thousands of failed novels as well as all the successes over the years. I see that Starbucks will get eight signings around the country, it will be interesting to see if any of those are near significant independents. If Starbuck's host an author on Pearl Street, I guess we will just have to fly the world's greatest coffee growers up from South America and have one hell of a tasting.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Movie trailers come to the book business

I was glancing through my countless emails on Monday, wading through the endless barrage of sexual enhancers, investment tips and solicitations for books that the book store definitely does not need, when I came across an interesting missive from my St. Martin's rep. The note was short: just a simple connection to a youtube.com page. Usually, I do my best to avoid clicking through on book promotions, but this one got me. What could St. Martin's possibly be doing on a hot web page like youtube?

It turns out they were advertising Edwin Black's forthcoming book, Internal Combustion, with a three-minute movie trailer. It was a dynamite piece that featured some simple but great visuals (from historic photos dating back to the early 1900s to shots of soldiers in Iraq) that played out over a somewhat threatening percussion soundtrack. You can watch the trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9scQ6078TU. I know it doesn't compare to what Hollywood does everyday, but we are talking about the book business. Publishers usually start their visual publicity with a cardboard shelf talker and end with a poster.

I love the innovation in this piece. The depletion of oil is the story of our time. We are a society held hostage by our oil-consuming ways and one that might be driven to desperate measures to continue our lifestyles. Why not sell a book that examines this history like an exciting documentary? Why not take it off the page and bring it to all the people who love movies, surf the web for interesting videos and are addicted to their iPods? I will up the store's order from a half dozen to 25 copies based on this ad.

We are going to run it in the store's window on a flat screen television, surrounded by copies of the book and probably one of those ubiquitous publicity posters. It's a perfect fit for us. Boulder is on a true global warming kick right now. We had huge events with James Kunstler's The Long Emergency and Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers. If this book lives up to its billing, it will fill in the long, duplicitious back story that has led us to this moment. If it doesn't, well at least it was a great trailer.