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

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.