Sunday, December 23, 2007

Eli Gottlieb: Now You See Him

Eli Gottlieb, the author of the forthcoming novel Now You See Him, is making the transition from unknown writer to literary star in one giant leap. His novel, a tautly written suspense tale, has garnered superb bookseller reaction, received a starred Publishers Weekly review and has been optioned for a movie by Jeff Sharp, the producer of "Boys Don't Cry."

The attention might be a little overwhelming if Gottlieb were fresh from an MFA program or if he were a twenty-something wunderkind, but Gottlieb isn't a neophyte at the writing game. He has waited a long time for this moment, and experience has taught him to take nothing for granted. In 1997, his first novel, The Boy Who Went Away, was published to strong reviews and even won two prizes. Now, it's out of print and sells for a penny on Amazon. In between his two works of fiction, Gottlieb made his living in the decidedly unglamorous world of ghostwriting and editing for magazines. He is currently a contributing editor for 5280, a Denver magazine.

I caught up with Gottlieb, a Boulder resident, at my favorite sushi restaurant, to ask him about his new novel, the expectations for him and about writing and literature in general. Above all, I had one really pressing question: just how does a writer find himself anointed the "next big thing" in publishing? Why him? Why not one of the many other novelists with new books on the way?

He admitted that it seemed truly unbelievable how responsive booksellers had been to his book. He also credited the marketing department of William Morrow, his publisher. "I'm thrilled with what they are doing. I've never had anything like that before. My publicist seems to be everywhere. I don't see how he has time to do anything else. It's incredible." That may be true, but plenty of books get that type of attention and never even cause a blip on the literary landscape.

One interesting marketing tactic, however, was that Morrow sent out a whopping 7,500 reader's copies of the novel to booksellers. That's an incredible number of promotional copies. Some books don't get print runs that big. It reminded me of something that I'd heard many years ago from Morgan Entrekin, the publisher of Grove/Atlantic. It was at a party for Leif Enger's debut novel, Peace Like a River. Entrekin mused that the most effective way to promote a book would be simply to give out 10,000 copies. Perhaps he was right. It seems that there are booksellers at every independent store in the country that have already read Gottlieb's novel.

Even so, a smart, intellectual novel that also sells amazingly well is a rarity. We've often been inundated with reader's copies for the supposed "next big thing" that end up unread and donated to the Salvation Army before the hardback has even been released. Every now and then one breaks out, like Zadie Smith's White Teeth, and becomes both a literary and commercial sensation. Did Gottlieb really think that was possible for him?

He laughed in response and told me that he knew Smith when he lived in Rome and was very impressed with her. "When that happens, the author seem to be coming from a different place, saying something original." I thought I saw him shrug just a little bit. "I'm a Jewish guy. I'm about 40 years too late."

When I pressed him on the qualities that Now You See Him might possess to cause such a groundswell of enthusiasm, he finally took a stab at the answer. "I think it gives sincere literary pleasure, while igniting suspense."

Suspense is the key word when discussing his novel. Gottlieb talks about writing the book in a "glide" -- although it did take two years of hard work. The first person narration of Nick Framingham is pitch perfect, and once that voice enfolds the reader, it's as if the story is told in a near breathless white heat. Gottlieb thoroughly inhabits his narrator, and the story naturally unfolds based on the fascinating cast of characters that Gottlieb puts in Nick's world. The reader is held in a position of suspense because Nick is not all that reliable of a narrator when it comes to his perceptions of people, and he also seems to be hiding something. The gradual discovery of what he may be hiding is one of the joys of the novel.

"Very early on in my life, I understood the importance of keeping a secret," Gottlieb said. "That aspect of hiding evolved as the story went on."

Gottlieb is not a writer who maps out his plots before writing. He lets the characters take his stories where they need to go. This is in contrast to many novelists. Last year, when I visited William Faulkner's home, Rowan Oak, in Oxford, Mississippi, I was transfixed by the writing on the walls of his study. In Faulkner's hand, the entire outline for his novel A Fable, which follows soldiers for a week, was mapped out day by day. Needless to say, Gottlieb's walls are clean.

"A lot of writers create their novels by reading a printed circuit diagram of the whole plot," Gottlieb said. "I can't do that. I started as a poet, and poets make local connections. They aren't concerned with the big picture. Poets are addicted to local intensity. That's what's important. Obviously, in a novel I had to pull back and make sure that the larger elements cohere."

That intensity is felt acutely throughout Now You See Him. The suspense hums through Gottlieb's prose and helps create tension in scenes that otherwise might lay flat on the page. One of my favorite scenes is when Nick, a married man, is meeting an old girlfriend, and Gottlieb uses language that is both poetic and blunt to give the scene real visceral energy:

"She displaced any doubts I had about the purpose of our encounter by ignoring my inclined, politely pursed lips and pulling me toward her into a three-point stance of breasts, lips and cocked pelvis. Lucy was delicately made, but Belinda was built like a beautiful nose tackle, with all her physical features outsized, as if for the anatomically hard of hearing."

The language is punchy, packed with descriptive details and has a rhythm. But Gottlieb is not just using poetic language for its own sake. The description of Belinda throws Nick's reliability, and perhaps even his sanity, into question. It's hard to imagine anything less feminine than a football nose tackle. It's the most brutal position on the field, whose job is simply to run other players over. Nose tackles are destroyers, not mistresses.

Even though Nick is the heart of the novel, he is ostensibly telling the story of his childhood best friend, Rob Castor. Castor, who was a literary sensation about ten years earlier, has murdered his girlfriend and committed suicide before the novel begins. His actions have brought a media frenzy to the small upstate New York town where Nick lives (not unlike the media circus that Jon Benet Ramsey's murder brought to Boulder). Nick's life is falling apart as he tries to understand the crime. It's a thrilling story of deception and betrayal that gets told in bits and pieces between Nick's own tale of woe. Gottlieb related that the original idea behind the novel was a romantic scene between Rob and his girlfriend.

"It's sort of a bait and switch," Gottlieb said. "As I started telling Rob's story, I needed to show where he and Nick came from. I needed to go deeper into that past. After all, you can't expect a nebbish to lead. You have to present the charismatic guy first, and then let the nebbish guy step forward."

As I read the book and thought about Nick's yearnings to be like his friend Rob and his admiration for his childhood buddy, despite the horrible crime he committed, I couldn't help but think a bit about F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic The Great Gatsby. It's another narrating Nick telling us the story of a charismatic leading man, Jay Gatsby. Was this deliberate?

"I didn't set out to do that," Gottlieb demurred. "I haven't thought about it. But, Gatsby does ring true. I've read Fitzgerald, and all those characters are within me. When I think of the book, I think of Graham Greene and his novels. Graham Greene is my man."

Does all of this add up to a literary sensation? It's impossible to tell. Gottlieb had several questions for me. How important was it to be a No. 1 Booksense pick? Would it really help his sales to go up into the Colorado mountains and sign books? Would anyone want to see him? How many sales would constitute success? I told him I didn't know any of these answers for sure, and that each book is different, but I knew a successful book when I saw one. I assured him that everything was lining up just right for Now You See Him.

"I consider myself a good soldier. I'll do whatever it takes and go wherever they ask me to go," he said. "I've lived the bohemian lifestyle, going from hand to mouth, for a long time. I'm ready for success. I welcome it."

After reading his elegantly told story, which keeps the suspense flowing while delivering one beautiful sentence after another, I'd say that he deserves all the success that comes his way.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Call for Elizabeth Hardwick Information

Elizabeth Hardwick, the doyen of the New York Review of Books, died earlier this month at the age of 91. Her literary legacy was vast, but she was best known as a critic and essayist. She descried the failings of book reviews in the late 1950s, and as a reaction to it and a newspaper strike that had knocked The New York Times Book Review out of circulation, co-founded The New York Review of Books with her husband, the poet Robert Lowell, and others.

Her marriage to Lowell was famously troubled. He was beset by manic depression, in an age when there weren't great treatment options, and he frequently took off with other women during his manic bouts. The relationship reached its low point when Lowell published The Dolphin, a collection that set many of Hardwick's anguished letters and phone calls in sonnet form.

In addition to four volumes of essays, Hardwick also published several novels, including the autobiographical Sleepless Nights in 1979. She was a common participant in literary prize juries for decades. Most notably, she championed Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow as a member of the 1974 Pulitzer fiction committee; the choice was rejected by the Pulitzer board, and no prize was given that year.

What most impresses me about Hardwick is the variety of topics that she was able to write about with great intelligence, originality and wit. She was from Kentucky, and that aspect of her personality never seems to have gotten lost, despite her time in New York. In researching this entry, I came across a wonderful article she wrote for The New York Review of Books late in her life about horse racing in Kentucky, titled Celebrities. It was the last thing I expected to find, but it all made sense given her background as a Kentucky belle.

My former college professor, advisor and mentor, Sonya Jones, who is now at the University of Kentucky, is beginning the arduous and hopefully exhilarating task of writing a biography of Hardwick. I believe that Sonya, a poet herself, is the perfect person for this task. Sonya's literary sensibilities and her shared Kentucky background with Hardwick bode well. I can hardly wait for the publication.

Alas, there is much to be done. Sonya is gathering information, and asked for my help in spreading the word. She would like to hear from writers, editors and publishers who knew Hardwick or had contact with her or Robert Lowell. Sonya Jones can be contacted at

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Boulder's Reading DNA

I love the frantic final weekend before Christmas when shoppers are desperate to buy the right presents and are hungry for recommendations. To be honest, I also relish the fact that it is too late for Amazon to come to the rescue of a picky shopper. If we don't have the obscure World War II title a customer was planning to buy for Uncle Fred, they ask you for a suggestion on a military book, rather than haughtily utter the words, "I'll just get it online." Also, without the internet to fall back on, we see more of a cross-section of our community than at any other time of year. It's a time to learn about Boulderites who don't often frequent the store.

The most satisfying titles a bookseller can move are the ones that they've personally picked out as being outstanding books. For the Boulder Book Store, those books live on our recommended cases and they help distinguish the store from all other booksellers. The section is an eclectic assortment of old and new titles that are selected by the booksellers, the buyers and the marketing department. It's also a place where we experiment with some obscure new titles from unknown authors. There are four recommended cases and they start right at the front door. It's impossible to miss the array of titles and the colorful tags beneath them in plastic sleeves which extol their virtues. Many of our customers never get any further into the store than those shelves.

During the Christmas season just about any book we throw on those cases flies out of the store. In fact, when we sell out of a book during this time of year, we will run around the store in a mad attempt to find something else worthy to place on the case. In an effort to understand just what's happening on the selling floor this month, I've decided to look at our bestselling recommended titles so far this December.

Here's the list.

1. Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn Iggulden
2. Daring Book for Girls by Andrea Buchanon
3. This I Believe edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman
4. Off the Grid Homes by Lori Ryker
5. World Without Us by Alan Weisman
6. Thirst by Mary Oliver
7. If You Lived Here I'd Know Your Name by Heather Lende
8. Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
9. Modoc by Ralph Helfer
10. Porn For Women by Cambridge Women's Pornography Cooperative

The top two spots are nostalgia books from HarperCollins designed to teach boys and girls to be kids again. Really, though, they seem to be aimed at adults craving the joys of their "rugged" childhoods before those evil video games took over. Try teaching a kid today how to make a slingshot and he'll show you how much better the shooting is on his Gameboy. They're beautifully packaged, if a bit soporific when you really try to read them, but they've been a publishing sensation for much of the year.

This I Believe is a collection of personal essays by ordinary people that aired on NPR. In addition to regular Joes, there are also pieces by John Updike, Isabel Allende and Gloria Steinem. It's a series that NPR started in 2005 and if you've heard them, you know how moving they can be. Interestingly, in the 1950s, Edwin R. Murrow hosted a radio program with the same name and basically the same mission.

Off the Grid Homes is a unique Boulder phenomenon. There doesn't appear to be another store in America where this book is a bestseller. The photographs are fantastic and the topic, how to make your home self-sufficient, is perfect for our energy frazzled times. What makes Ryker's book so intriguing is that she uses case studies and shows the architectural designs for these houses. It's truly remarkable what savings are possible with current technology. I also think it speaks to Boulder's ethos and values in an important way that distinguishes our community from many other places in America.

My wife and I visited the Earthship community in Taos, New Mexico over Thanksgiving break and it was an eye-opening experience. All the homes in the development are off the grid, not only for power, but for water. The houses have huge (6,000 gallon) cisterns in them and even in Taos' arid climate, the families have enough water to meet their needs and grow an impressive indoor garden. The building materials in Taos were old tires filled with dirt for the two-foot-thick exterior walls and hundreds of soda cans fused together with mud for the non-weight-bearing indoor walls. The homes were bizarre looking from the outside, but inside the were spacious and the rooms flowed naturally into each other and featured floor to ceiling windows. The residents have no need for heating or cooling because the thick walls provide natural insulation. In the winter, the sun soaks into those walls, releasing enough heat to keep the house at 60 even on the coldest days. The constant sound of water cycling into the cistern created a pleasing background noise as we took our tour. Ryker's examples in Off the Grid Homes aren't all as radical as that, but she does discuss some of the same technology that makes the Taos community possible.

Alan Weisman's book, World Without Us, is simply the coolest book of the year. Weisman, a journalist, investigated what would happen to the world if humans were to suddenly disappear. It's a frightening look at the havoc that we have wrought on our planet. Within the first few days, the New York City subways would completely flood. The bridges of New York wouldn't last more than a couple hundred years, at the most. That's the good news. The bad news is what will last. Little bits of plastic that we've created will stay around for millions of years choking land and sea animals until microbes evolve to break them down. The radioactivity from the nuclear waste and power plants that seeps into the environment once we are no longer present to maintain those sites, will plague and destroy life for eons.

When my St. Martins rep presented this book to me, he had a poster that showed a timeline of the earth going forward without humans. I was transfixed by it and read many of the items out loud to my colleagues. As soon as I saw that poster, I knew that this was a book that would appeal to our environmentally-concerned and scientific-minded customers. I couldn't wait to get that poster into everyone's hands. Unfortunately, that piece of marketing genius was not reproduced in the hardback. More importantly, however, Weisman proves himself to be an entertaining writer, who fuses all the information he gleaned from hundreds of people in countless fields into a thrilling narrative. We can always hope that the poster will be in the paperback. To get a true idea of the book visit Weisman's website World Without Us.

Porn for Women is the goofiest title on our recommended bestseller list. It's a humor book aimed at women who are 35-years-old and older. Now that's refreshing. Almost all humor books are published for young men. Most of the genre appeals to either the prurient interest of boys (comic books, gross joke books) or to a sort of masculine humor that is characterized by late night talk shows, Steven Colbert and The Onion. Yes, there are a few women comics and many women, especially younger women, laugh along with the boys. But it seems that there is precious little in the humor category aimed at our core demographic of readers.

Despite its title, Porn for Women is not prurient. It plays on the expectation and delivers the opposite. What really turns women on, according to the book, is for a handsome man to vacuum the floor, take her shoe shopping and do the laundry. The perfect man would gladly go
to a crafts fair rather than have to suffer through a football game. It's hysterically and tastefully done and when you get to the sex, it's impossible not to appreciate the cleverness behind the whole book. A hint for the guys--women want hours and hours, more than you thought possible, of foreplay.

When I look at this overall list of books, I see the genetics of our store and its customers. It's like looking at a snippet of our town's DNA. The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls reveal how many families live here and their need to give their children an authentic experience. Off The Grid shows our environmental ethic. Mary Oliver's inclusion is remarkable because, after all, how many poets make any kind of bestseller list? In Boulder, it is possible even for a poet. I'm a little surprised to see so many paperbacks (7) in the top ten. I would have thought that with the holiday gift-giving, a few more hardbacks would have crept in. Perhaps that is indicative of a season without any truly hot books. I just know that giving extravagantly at the holidays is in Boulder's genes, so here's hoping these books lead us through a banner weekend.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Visit From Public Affairs

Susan Weinberg, the publisher of Public Affairs, dropped by last Thursday with two colleagues to check out the store, meet some staff members and kill some time before a Christmas party here in Boulder. It was the first time I had met Susan, and I was instantly taken in by her fast-talking, friendly manner. I was eager to meet her because Public Affairs publishes several great books a year that appeal to our progressive market, and I wanted to ensure that Boulder Book Store was firmly on their publicity radar. Public Affairs is the type of publisher that I really admire. They have a strong focus (politics, media and history) and they are really good at publishing important, thought-provoking titles. Mercifully, they aren't trying to be everything for everyone like so many other presses.

We were huddled in the new nonfiction section, when I asked Susan about What Happened, Scott McClellan's tell-all about the Bush administration that Public Affairs is publishing in April. She lit up and became incredibly animated, and despite being a petite woman, it seemed that she was looming over me as she began excitedly talking about the book and opening the catalog to its description. I broke in long enough to ask her about the quote in the catalog where McClellan, Bush's former press secretary, discusses defending Karl Rove and Scooter Libby to the media. McClellan writes, "I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the vice President, the President's chief of staff, and the President himself."

She told me that they were extremely eager to get the finished book, but she added a caveat -- McClellan is not specifically saying that he was knowingly lied to by Bush. Maybe McClellan, who goes back to the Texas days with Bush, believes that, but his own words seem to belie it. Susan was so thrilled to be talking about the new catalog (hot off the press) that she began selling the list to me one book at a time as we stood in the congested section with shoppers milling all about us. I stopped her after the third book -- and several curious glances from customers trying to select Christmas gifts -- and asked the group if they wanted a store tour.

We started by the front door in our recommended section. All three were gushing with praise at the eclectic selection on the shelves, and I stood there like a proud papa talking about how strongly the titles sell and how it's a real team effort to create the section. Susan was particularly elated to see Modoc on our shelves. She worked on the book when she was with Harper and couldn't believe it when I told her that the tear-jerker about the elephant was the bestselling title in the section.

In the basement, we ran into the owner of the store, who was changing a light ballast, and I left Susan and her managing editor to speak with him. I accompanied her other colleague, Greg, who is actually with Public Affairs' parent company Perseus, into shipping and receiving. This was a bold move on his part, since we've spent the better part of 2007 cursing out Perseus and its shipping. Earlier this year, I sent off a few angry emails to Greg and we had a heated phone exchange (he was actually very calm) about how their shipping and discounts simply weren't adequate for a major publishing house.

The news was all good in the basement. It seems that companies can change and our receiving folks gave Perseus a big thumbs-up and said that they were in the top third of all companies. I also admitted to Greg that the discount structure was greatly improved. Perhaps this shouldn't be a big surprise since Perseus was just named publisher of the year by the trade magazine Publishers Weekly. Ironically, HarperCollins, which used to distribute Perseus before they struck out on their own, was now getting the full brunt of our receivers' wrath.

To conclude Susan's visit, we went up to the store's historic second floor ballroom. Upon entering the room, Susan immediately commented upon the beautiful stained glass windows. It reminded me of the time about a dozen years ago when the novelist Kaye Gibbons came to sign at the store. She sat down, took a look around and said, "This is the most beautiful room I've ever spoken in. Look at those windows."

As Susan and her colleagues continued to admire the space, I put in my pitch for a spring signing with Robert Bryce, the author of Gusher of Lies. Bryce questions the whole idea of energy independence and if it is really achievable. He claims that renewable energy such as wind and solar power (sacred cows in Boulder) cannot meet America's growing energy demands. According to Bryce, the true answer to our energy problems comes from interdependence with other countries. It would be a great contrarian view to bring to Boulder and could spur some wonderful conversations.

Susan noted that Bryce was going to Denver on his tour and that Public Affairs could easily add another day for Boulder on the tour. By this time we were all grinning. I had gotten a potentially important event for the store, met an interesting publisher and was able to show off the store. The three New Yorkers escaped the city for a day and got to see what they said was a "great" independent bookstore. Susan paid us a high compliment when she said that bookselling would be a different business if there were more stores like Boulder Book Store in the country. Perhaps there would be if there were more publishers like Public Affairs.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Finally, The Shopping Begins

The shoppers were as scarce as the snow flakes were abundant during the first dozen days of December, sending me and the other employees of The Boulder Book Store into a near panic. On Saturday, the skies finally cleared, and the customers descended upon the store with book review newspaper clippings in hand. Will it be enough to make up for a slow December that was barely on pace to match our August sales? Only time will tell. If the sun keeps shining (like it did in August) there is always hope.

The customers' book requests were eclectic, to say the least, but two books rose above the muck and were in heavy demand yesterday. The Financial Wisdom of Ebenezer Scrooge and The Brain that Changes Itself were both on many people's lists. The bookstore was unable to satisfy their desires on either count. The Scrooge book is published by Health Communications, a small outfit in Florida, more known for their weightlifting series than their financial acumen. We had a few special orders for the book right after Thanksgiving, and in desperation of finding a hot title, we ordered in fifteen copies. By the time this order arrived, however, more special orders had come in, and there was only one copy left to put out on the shelf.

The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge has been a hot title for months. Brain science is always a strong seller in Boulder, and any new information on brain trauma is bound to appeal to our large market of therapists. In fact, based on the number of therapists working with brain trauma patients, I'd guess the ratio in Boulder would be five therapists for every one brain injury victim. We have stocked Doidge's book aggressively since its release, and we have several copies of the hardback in. The problem is that Penguin has released it in paperback, but despite a large order, we haven't gotten our books in yet. The official release date is December 18, but that hasn't stopped Penguin from getting it to our local Borders.

After the third customer requested the title and wouldn't take a discounted hardback, I ran down to shipping & receiving. I searched, but couldn't find any unopened Penguin boxes -- they just haven't managed to get it to us yet. The joys of being an independent store away from the power center of the east coast. We are the second-best-selling store in the country on this title, according to a national website we subscribe to, but that's not enough for Penguin to make sure we get our books on time and spare me the embarrassment of being compared negatively to Borders. Thanks Penguin.

There you have two of the hottest Christmas titles of 2007: one on brain trauma recovery and the other on how to overcome a dysfunctional relationship with money according to A Christmas Carol. Why, oh why, didn't I foresee this?
When the Christmas shopping begins in earnest, we get hundreds of confused customers who have never been to our store, or haven't ventured in since the last holiday. They are being forced through our doors, often against their better judgment, to shop for friends or relatives that might actually want a book. People are disoriented and completely out of their element. They are searching for sections that don't exist, getting lost in the store's labyrinthine basement, asking about books when they don't know the title, the author or even what show they might have heard it mentioned on. (NPR? Good Morning America? Oprah?)

Here are my favorite requests from yesterday:
"Where is your napkin folding section?"
"I can't find any books on Asheville, North Carolina. Don't you have any? It's very beautiful there."
"Where are books on Christianity?" (After I point them to the two cases of our Christianity section, they look at me in disbelief.) "You have a whole section? Who would have thought that in Boulder?"

A Tale of Two Parties

I attended my first two parties of the holiday season over the weekend and was shocked by the literary conversations at each of them for completely different reasons. At the first party, my wife and I were in a hideous martini bar celebrating the birthday of a friend. It wasn't really the place to expect an intellectual conversation. Once my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I realized it was a total pick-up joint, blasting bad 1980s music. The waitresses, who apparently are also featured on a company calendar that's advertised as you enter the men's room, seemed to be in a cleavage competition.
As the night wore on, we got into an amiable conversation with an intelligent, well-travelled and seemingly cultured woman. When I told her what I do for a living, she responded, "Oh, I don't read." When I looked at her in shock, she added, "On vacation I might read a book or two." I asked her, "How do you fall asleep? Don't you have a book beside the bed?" She laughed and said, "As soon as my head hits the pillow, I'm out." She and my wife and continued conversing, and I tried to join in, but the whole time I was thinking about how this bright, articulate woman -- a liberal arts graduate, I might add -- didn't have a need for books in her life.

At the second party, a white elephant affair, I had the completely opposite experience. I was frankly out of my depths with the literary conversation. After the presents were divvied up -- I ended up with a small foam figurine of the Geico lizard, and my wife snagged some candy cane pajamas -- the party broke into a few different groups. I was surrounded by poets, and the talk turned to the state of poetry in our region. I was amazed as names were dropped that I had never heard of, despite buying books professionally for 11 years, and car-pool arrangements were proposed to see poetry readings in Fort Collins, about 40 miles away, in the dead of winter. It was an impressive dedication to the craft of poetry. It reminded me of how much I worship baseball and a good lefthanded pitcher.

As we were driving away, my wife observed, "That was the closest thing to a hipster crowd that I've seen since leaving D.C." I was surprised -- it hadn't occurred to me that they were hip. I mean, is there anything more nerdy than liking poetry to the point of an obsession? After all, I only read it casually compared to these party-goers, and it's one of the things that makes me profoundly unhip. A few dozen more people like them and there might still be hope for poetry yet.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Luck is Luck

Poetry receives pretty shabby treatment nowadays. Only a handful of people seem to read contemporary writers, and even fewer try to discuss it. Try bringing up Sharon Olds or Donald Hall at a party and see how far you get. You'd think there would be a renaissance in full swing by now in our attention-deficit society. A great poem is often a perfect gem of language, story-telling and rhythm all tied together in a two-minute package. You can read one just about anywhere and at anytime.

The efforts to fight the demise of poetry in this country are almost laughable. The biggest push is National Poetry Month in April. It's a great way to ghettoize an entire genre of literature into the cruelest month, by giving people an excuse not to read it during the rest of the year. The U.S. Poet Laureate, who receives a stipend of $35,000 (whoppee!), does his or her best to spread poetry throughout the land by organizing readings and lectures. Funny, the Poet Laureate is not expected or invited to compose and read at most official government functions or events. We wouldn't want a poet actually operating in the real world. Charles Simic, a wonderful poet who most Americans haven't even heard of, currently occupies the position.

It was with this in mind that I was a bit dubious when a co-worker wanted to start a poetry book club at the store called The Living Poets Society. Sure, I'd join, but who else would show up? Was there anyone else hungry to discuss poetry? What would happen after we read Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, David Whyte and Ted Kooser, the only four living poets that sell with any regularity? Well, it turns out that there are a number of very dedicated poetry readers out there. Perhaps there's life yet in the form that gave us Shakespeare's sonnets and Keats' odes.

Our first book was Kooser's Delights & Shadows. A rather bland affair for my taste, it didn't feature much wordplay. Kooser's tendency to sum up his poems with a cloying closing line almost made me hurl the book across the room a couple of times. However, the former Poet Laureate was the focus of an excellent discussion between eight poetry-reading die-hards. The level of the conversation was far better than what I've grown used to when discussing novels in book clubs. Kooser's strengths (his brevity and economy of language), and faults (his pandering to non-poetry readers) were detailed. It also seemed that each reader brought a different perspective to bear on his work.

Lucia Perillo, a poet that I did not know, was up next. We discussed her magnificent book, Luck is Luck, on Tuesday night. Surprisingly, all but one person returned from the previous month and three new members joined us despite an all-day snowstorm. True, it might have been the promise of fresh cheese (the head of a local goat cheese company is in the group) and all the wine you could drink that got people to venture out among the swirling snowflakes.

Unlike Kooser, Perillo doesn't serve out pablum for the masses, and I was curious what the others would think of her wild language and her complex ideas. She turned out to be a huge hit and virtually everyone appreciated her more than Kooser, which gave me great hope for the future. We delved a great deal into Perillo's way of encapsulating several interrelated ideas into one poem. After mulling over the description of "stream-of-consciousness" for a few minutes, we eventually settled on "associative" because it better represented the controlled excesses of her writing.

One of the pure joys of reading her is to follow the ideas in a poem like "Le Deuxieme Sexe." Over the course of the piece, she goes from Simone de Beauvoir to a college girl camping trip to drying out a water-logged book in an oven to getting stuck doing the laundry while your man hits on all your friends, and then back to de Beauvoir. Perillo sums it all up with her trademark humor: "Still,/ she gave me one lesson that sticks, which is:/ do not take a paperback camping in the rain/ or it may swell to many times its original size,/ and if you start with a big book you'll end up/ with a cinder block."

As we discussed the book, I noticed our members' criticisms fell into patterns that we started with the Kooser book. One man values economy and conciseness. He previously stated he didn't like to read poems longer than one page. However, despite telling us he stopped reading Perillo's two-page poems at the end of the first page, it turned out that he was quite familiar with the second pages. His suggestions for certain cuts that would have allowed her to fit the poem on one page was met by the sly recommendation by another reader that a change in type-size might do the trick.

One woman loves rhythm, and she was the harshest critic of the book, insisting that Perillo just didn't swing for her. After a particularly passionate plea for rhythm, the man next to her simply stated, "Who could ask for anything more?" We also have a guy who can put every poem into its place in literary history--whether it's a confessional piece harking back to Anne Sexton or a description of landscape evoking Robert Frost.

I'm the language guy. If the words entertain me, I don't really care too much about what they mean or even the ideas. I revel in lines like these from Perillo's poem "Nathan's":

"By day, its neon resembled barbed wire:
this mutant hybrid of hot dog and man.
Inside, the hairnet battalions rafted
potato knishes through white water grease
and tongued the wieners into buns' white seams,
where each sprawled like a lurid odalisque."

It's more than Perillo's language or ideas that thrilled me as a reader. She's an original. I've never read poems that did quite what hers do. She finds humor in the most morose of topics (breast cancer, death, the Catholic religion) and she finds meaning in the most trivial moments (wearing a new hat in church, going to Nathan's hot dog stand). I felt like I was plunged, through her images, into the bones and marrow of life in a way that non-poetry literature just can't quite achieve.

The title Luck is Luck comes from the poem "Shrike Tree." In that piece, Perillo details how shrikes pluck smaller birds out of the air and pin them to the thorns of a dead hawthorn. It's a frightening image in and of itself, but then she relates it to her own condition--she has multiple sclerosis. Here are the final stanzas of the poem:

"They hang there, desiccating
by the trail where I walked, back when I could walk,
before life pinned me on its thorn.
It is ferocious, life, but it must eat,
then leaves us with the artifact.

Which is: these black silhouettes in the midday sun,
strict and jagged, like an Asian script.
A tragedy that is not without its glamour.
Not without the runes of the wizened meat.

Because imagine the luck! --to be plucked from the air,
to be drenched and dried in the sun's bright voltage--
well, hard luck is luck, nonetheless.
With a chunk of sky in each eye socket.
And the pierced heart strung up like a pearl."

Next up is Robert Hass' new book, Time and Materials, on January 15th. I can't wait. We didn't finish the wine and we've got more goat cheese coming. Our host always bakes something scrumptious, which helps warm up those cold nights. Besides, if the food isn't enough, I'm sure I'll have some interesting language to chew on.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Anatomy of a Buy

"How do you decide what to buy?" is one of the most frequently asked questions I get from people I meet outside of the book business. Depending on my mood, I tell them that I guess wildly, use assorted sales data to make a professional judgment, or just slavishly order what my reps suggest, while I drink lattes and eat bonbons all day. No matter what I answer, their reaction is always the same. "That just sounds like the greatest job. You must love your work."

The truth is a combination of all of those answers, except I don't drink coffee during my appointments and instead of bonbons, the process brings to mind the fried-meat -- scrapple. I don't drink coffee because long ago, my co-workers forbid me from imbibing caffeine while on the job. They claim it hypes me up too much and I get strange new marketing ideas that have everyone running in circles. I once drove our publicity manager to tears as I barked ideas at her faster than she could write.

Last Friday, my HarperCollins rep sold me the summer list. This is one of the more important buys of the year because Harper usually vies with Penguin as the second biggest publisher in the land behind Random House. Also, the summer is traditionally when Harpers releases its strongest titles. That was certainly the case in 2007. I also feared that the weak Christmas performance of HarperCollins' titles might put some added pressure, or at least a whiff of desperation into the selling of this list.

The buy really began about three days before the appointment when the sales rep called me up to tell me that he had at least five "make" fiction titles on the list. By that, he meant he had either debut novels or novels from relatively unknown authors that Harper was hoping to sell in large quantities. His assertion put me on guard immediately. It seems to me, that debut novels almost never sell well in the summer. It's the season for comfortable beach reads by established favorites. If a summer novel is going to break out, I would sooner expect Hachette (that's Little Brown in English), or Penguin to publish it than Harper. Hachette and Penguin both put a lot of cooperative advertising funds behind specific new fiction titles they believe in. Harper does not. Harper just doesn't offer the same sort of co-op. Their plan basically directs buyers towards more established titles.

I've learned over the years that trusting my intuition can get me in trouble, so I decided to do a little research. I found only 13 mildly successful hardback fiction titles from last summer that I'd classify as "make" fiction. I defined a successful title as one selling five copies or more, hardly a blockbuster. The top title in this group was Hooked by Matt Richtel which sold over 50 copies. Richtel used to live in Boulder and he did a signing for his book attended by family and friends along with some customers. Hooked was published by Twelve, a new imprint of Hachette's, that is dedicated to publishing about one book a month and really giving them a lot of publicity. It seems to be working. Hooked was one of several titles that Twelve has sold well.

The other dozen titles that met with modest success included Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee, another Hachette author. Lee did not have a signing at our store, but Hachette did host a lavish author dinner with area booksellers last winter that created a great deal of excitement behind the title. I wrote up the evening in a January post, Free Food For Booksellers. Penguin had four titles on the list, most notably The Tea House Fire by Ellis Avery. Avery's title was accompanied by lots of co-op funds and spent three months at the front of the store on sale at 25% off. Who knows how successful it was nationwide? My guess is the fire didn't spread too far from the teahouse. Avery's title is already available as a remainder. Even the all-mighty publishing juggernaut Random House only "made" three hardback fiction titles last summer.

Harper's lone entry on the list was The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer, a powerful novel about a Jewish family in peril in newly fundamentalist Iran in 1981. I concluded even before the rep made it to the store, that our sales would have to come from books other than his "make" fiction. You might guess from this analysis that perhaps the Boulder Book Store just can't sell hardback fiction. You would be wrong. According to a website that compiles sales data for independent stores, we are ranked 11th in sales out of about 200 stores in hardback fiction sales. To misquote Sinatra, "If you can't make it here, you can't make it anywhere."

Fortunately, Harper has a really strong list with several surefire fiction and nonfiction titles that we will sell like crazy. Still, I doubt the list can beat last summer's, when Harper hardback titles (led by works from Michael Chabon, Deepak Chopra and Thich Nhat Hanh) dominated our bestseller charts. All three of those authors signed here to large, adoring crowds. This year, I am particularly excited about The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester, What Now by Ann Patchett, She Was by local author Janis Hallowell and an untitled political book by Ron Suskind.

All four of these authors have had bestsellers in the past. Winchester's The Professor and the Madman is still a book group favorite, even though I must admit I think he took a fascinating story and did his best to make it dry as dust. Patchett's book is geared towards people making transitions in their lives, whether they are graduating from high school, changing careers or becoming a parent. That covers just about everyone in Boulder. Suskind has scooped journalists and authors alike, and gotten a ton of publicity, with his two previous works on the Bush administration The Price of Loyalty and One Percent Doctrine. I loved Hallowell's first novel The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn. It was a quirky, well-written story about faith that took place in Boulder. A signing with her will definitely produce one of the better-selling novels of the year.

Wedged between all of these great books -- and others by Louise Erdrich, Joanne Harris and Edward Dolnick -- were pages and pages of what could kindly be described as filler. It's the gristle and bones between the pork in the sausage. To give the reader an idea of just how much chaff there is in the publishers' wheat, last summer, I bought 264 new titles from Harper and only ten of those books sold 50 or more copies. Those bestsellers accounted for 75% of all of the sales from the list. Sadly, over 30% of the titles (mostly books I brought in in ones and twos) didn't sell a single copy. Thank God, we don't buy Harper nonreturnable. That doesn't even factor in all of the books (probably 25% to 40%) that I don't buy at all.

At one point, I turned to the rep who was trying to convince me to buy one copy of a rather academic-looking history book that Harper had no discernible publicity plans for whatsoever and said, "Why does Harper even bother with a book like this? Why don't they leave it to a smaller publisher that might do it justice, like W.W. Norton or Oxford University Press, and focus on what they do well?" He didn't really have an answer. When Harper publishes a small history book, it's about their 200th priority. If Harvard published the same book, it might be one of their top three books of the season. Publishers often use print runs to tell you how important a book is to them. A print run of 10,000 from Harper is insignificant. The same print run from the University of Chicago is cause to break out the champagne.

Back to those "make" fiction books. I took most of them, although they are probably doomed to failure. A relationship between a publisher and an independent bookstore is a complicated affair. We are desperate to host signings by top-flight authors and they really need independent stores to take chances on their small novels to have any chance for them to work. Last year, Harper got us more great authors then any other publisher. Even though the odds of success are slim on their "make" novels, the least I can do is try to bust out a few of these authors.

The two most promising are Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain and The Outlander by Gil Adamson. Harper is having a bookseller dinner for Stein in January, which will hopefully produce some enthusiasm, while the Adamson novel is set in the mountains of the west and has blurbs from Jim Harrison and Michael Ondaatje. Maybe one will break out and be the Cold Mountain or The Lovely Bones of 2008.

The buying of books here at the store is not a pretty sight and it's not without its give-and-take between the sales reps and the buyers. Perhaps at the next Christmas party when I'm asked how I buy books, I'll just launch into a dissertation on how the old Philadelphia favorite of my youth, scrapple, is made from all the parts of the pig that are still lying around after you've made sausage. It will be graphic and a bit disgusting, but I think it will convey the spirit of the buy.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Holiday Doldrums

Sunday was a glorious day away from the book business. My wife and I spent the afternoon baking batches of oatmeal raisin and sugar cookies for a book group we attended in the evening. It was an idyllic scene -- until my wife tried to rope me into decorating the Christmas cookies. Isn't it enough that we baked sugar cookies shaped as angels and gingerbread men? Do I have to meticulously coat them with red and green powdered sugar frosting? In protest, I lay on the couch reading the Sunday New York Times, while my wife put the finishing touches on the gingerbread men. By the way, what in the world do gingerbread men have to do with Jesus or Santa Claus?

Baking was a great respite from the doom and gloom of the holiday season at the bookstore. The momentum that the store had built up at the end of November with its strong post-Thanksgiving sales quickly dissipated last weekend under a blanket of snow and sub-freezing temperatures. I spent most of Saturday on the selling floor searching for customers to help. There were some shoppers, and they were very grateful for the assistance and guidance I was able to provide, but I really shouldn't have to look for the customers. We should be so busy on the afternoon of December 8th that people should be accosting me at every turn. On a really rocking day, they trail behind me like a line of baby ducks, with shopping lists clutched in their mitten-covered hands and looks of desperation on their faces.

I couldn't help but think, as I watched all those flakes fall outside of the store's front door and accumulate on the bricks of the walking mall, that I should be up in the mountains cross-country skiing. It must be beautiful up there in the stately pine trees, I fantasized, as yet another version of "The Little Drummer Boy" played over the store's sound system. It must be peaceful among the silent drifts of snow.

Even more disheartening than missing a fine day of skiing was doing the ordering this morning. We aren't out of any important books. We aren't even close to sold out of anything. This makes my job easier, and I don't have the anxiety about missing potential sales because of sold-out titles, but the truth is that I crave the excitement of having to restock the store after a busy Christmas weekend. I get in by 7:30 a.m. and start calling the various warehouses and publishers seeking books. I'll second-day air titles, perhaps I'll even over-night a particularly hot title. Shipping fees be damned, our customers need their books. Not this morning. Instead, I looked across the desk to our recommended buyer and asked her if anything was really taking off in her sections. She mentioned all the overstock we had.

It's now December 10th, and there still isn't a hot hardback title this season. We have a few paperbacks moving, but no new book has captured the imagination of our independent and literary-minded readers. Sometimes, I wonder if we are at the beginning of a sea change in this industry. In Christopher Anderson's book The Long Tail, he discusses how selling a few copies of many different items will be the way of the future. I'm a believer in the long tail, I just didn't think the head and neck would get chopped off in the process.

Are books going the way of music and television? I don't mean the digitization (even though it's hard to make it through a party these days without being asked about Amazon's wireless book reader, The Kindle), but the market fragmentation. Music is just a series of niche genres, with hardly any acts drawing a mass audience. Television is divided into so many channels that no single show can achieve the ratings that the networks used to rack up on a regular basis up until the 1980s. In 1964, the Ed Sullivan show drew an audience of 73 million for the Beatles first appearance. Is there any music group or television show that could even come close to that number now? No way -- even though there are 100 million more people in America now.

Is it possible that the same market forces are tearing at books? Harry Potter and Eat, Pray, Love would seem to argue against it, but everything else seems to point towards a more fragmented market. Is this just the natural result of cultural diversity? Or maybe there simply isn't a general reading public for literary books anymore. Perhaps individual authors and books, like musicians, are appealing to an ever narrower and narrower subset of people.

I don't have the answers to these questions, but it sure makes me uncomfortable that so few literary books seem to strike a chord with a mass audience. It may be that the only titles that work on that level nowadays are James Patterson novels and celebrity biographies. The chains, along with the discounters, have those markets cornered. If mindless formulaic titles are the only books that can really break through the cacophony of sights and sounds in our culture, it could be that mega-bestselling hardbacks will be few and far between for independent book stores. All we will have left is a few popular paperbacks -- and "the tail." You know, it's never a good idea to let the tail wag the beast.

Maybe this weekend I'll bake a pineapple upside down cake. It seems only fitting given the mood that the holidays have put me in.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


We interrupt this blog for a neurotic rant:

Oh my God, what was I thinking buying all these books?! We're never going to sell so many books. No one even reads anymore. Yesterday, as shipping & receiving was finishing up for the week, and the last titles were making their way to the floor, I tried to organize the overstock. Organization simply isn't possible. We have books crammed into every available nook and cranny of the store. I was carrying around stacks of books with nowhere to put them down. We had baskets loaded up all around the cash wrap. Who needs all these books? Certainly not the weatherman. Snow, snow and more snow. We're located on an outdoor walking mall. Stop snowing, already! We get 300 days of sunshine a year, but it's cold and gray two weekends before Christmas.

In a year where there are no great selling books, besides for Eat, Pray, Love, I panicked and bought multiple copies of dozens of different titles, hoping that lightning will strike at least a few of them. Well, as of yesterday, it wasn't striking. Am I insane? The only ones striking are the screen writers, throwing Stephen Colbert off the air and sinking his new book, I Am America and So Can You. Don't even tell me about the economy going down the tubes and how no one can afford their mortgages. Who has any spare cash to spend on books? What a great time to pile them up to the ceiling. Every time I walk into the store, the spines of unsold books loaded on top of the cases stare down at me like caged animals, scheming to devour their unjust captor -- me.

People try to console me. The crowds will come, the other employees say. You've done this for over 10 years, and it always works out, my wife tells me. I shrug them off. This is the year that it will all change. Perhaps my hubris as a buyer is my undoing. Who was I to buy 50 copies of Steve Martin's book? Why was I so confident that we'd sell Andrew Goldsworthy's Enclosure? Couldn't a monkey picking titles at random have done a better job with our selection? Let's face it, I couldn't type one of Shakespeare's plays in a zillion years and yet the mathematicians tell us a monkey could.

I know what will happen today when I go into the store: the only thing that the customers will want are the books that we don't have. Books that I forgot to buy, or decided not to buy, or already returned will be the titles that our customers want. It's already happened. Last weekend we had several people request Life is Meals by James Salter. We only had one. One copy, but everyone wants it. "He lives in Colorado," one of the booksellers harangued me. "I know, I know," I wailed, with my head in my hands. Of course, last Christmas, when Life is Meals was a beautiful new title, I stacked it up high. I was positive it was going to sell -- the author is practically local, I thought. Hardly anyone bought it, and no one seemed to care about the Colorado connection. Has it gotten to the point that I can't even figure out anymore what year a book will sell?

Well, it's back to the front lines in a few minutes. Perhaps I can load up a few customers with truckloads of books. I can tell them that it's the only human thing to do: I can't keep worrying about all these books. I need some sleep. Please, help me sleep.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Sushi and Art

Yesterday was a sushi day. You wouldn't think of Boulder as a great sushi town, if you looked at a map. We are more than a mile above the sea and at least 1,000 miles from the nearest ocean. Boulder is also a relatively small town, and our limited population doesn't feature much ethnic diversity. Sure, we have a decent Latino population like the rest of Colorado, but Asians, Eastern Europeans and African Americans are not in abundance. Despite all of this (or maybe it is in fact because of our white, affluent population) we are awash in sushi restaurants. There are five within two blocks of the store.

Days become sushi days when certain sales reps who enjoy sushi are scheduled. These reps, most notably from Harcourt, Taschen, Random House and HarperCollins, hold a hallowed place when I am scheduling appointments. They get first dibs on the dates they want, and I will bend over backwards to accommodate their schedules in any way possible. Once, our Penguin rep, knowing how important a sushi meal was to our previous marketing director and I, made a bold attempt to curry our favor by taking us to our favorite sushi restaurant. He was doing great until they seated him in front of a fish bowl with live crabs swimming around in it. Despite eating what was basically fried chicken, he left feeling sea sick.

Yesterday, the Taschen rep, a sushi veteran, came to town. She and I have a bit of a sushi history together. When I first started working with her, we went to lunch during the Mountains & Plains book show in Denver. We discovered Bara Sushi and Grill within walking distance of the convention hotel and gorged ourselves on so many speciality rolls that we barely got back to the show in time. Ever since, all of our appointments have culminated in a feast.

In fact, when I saw that I had an appointment scheduled with her earlier this week, I wasn't sure why I'd scheduled the meeting. I had just reordered Taschen books to prepare for Christmas and as far as I could tell there wasn't a new catalog out yet for next year's books. As the hour of her appointment approached yesterday, I grew giddy at the prospect that perhaps she was flying up from Houston just to take me out to sushi. Now, that's service.

Unfortunately, it was not that simple. I did actually have to work for my fish. Taschen (a high-end art, photography and architecture book publisher, specializing in low-end prices) didn't have a catalog ready for the spring season, but they had plenty of new books. Without a catalog, I had to rely on my own imagination to picture their beautiful, glossy art books on Van Gogh and Escher, as well as the near-pornographic photos by Roy Stuart, as I stared at a black-and-white Excel spread sheet of book titles.

Frankly, I wouldn't have the patience to do this for most publishers. If a publisher can't get it together to put out a catalog, then why should I order? The books will probably be published late, if at all, and the shipping is liable to be screwed up. Not being organized tends to infect a whole company, not just the design team that creates the catalog. But Taschen is different. It would be unfathomable to pass up an opportunity to buy their new titles. Their books hold a unique place in the publishing pantheon. Taschen simply doesn't follow the normal rules of publishing in this country.

Taschen only sells their books on a non-returnable basis. They frequently run out of stock and often don't reprint their books, meaning that if you don't order enough up front, you'll never see them again. Their pricing structure is completely out of whack with every other publisher. Books that would sell for $29.99 or more from Harry Abrams or Phaidon (Taschen's two main rivals in the United States), are only $12.99 in the Taschen 25 line. Some of these books, like the gorgeous 200-page treatment of the artist Hundertwasser, we sell by the dozens rather than one at time like most art titles.

Taschen's pricing structure is unexpected in other ways as well -- not only on the discount end. We carry more Taschen titles priced over $100 than all of the other publishers combined. These titles are usually slip-case editions that are impeccably made. They are so high-quality that they are still a great value at $150 or more. On the really high end, they also sell signed limited editions of books that go for $400 or more. One of these, Goat: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali, retails for a cool $12,500. If anyone wants to get on my good side, I'd love Ballet in the Dirt by Neil Leifer, a special edition baseball book that currently retails for only $400. The price will rise to $700 on January 1st. To sell books at these prices, Taschen makes sure that they are extravagant affairs, usually boxed with all sorts of extras.

We've never brought in any of these limited editions. Where would we shelve them? Who comes in looking for a $14.00 paperback and leaves with a $1,000 signed and numbered art book by Jeff Koons? No one. What I learned while dipping my cajun crawfish roll into soy sauce and wasabi was that the prices of most of these books never go down. My rep regaled me with stories of $1,000 limited edition books selling for double, triple, or even quadruple their original prices on the web a year or two after their releases. The Koons book is scheduled to go up in price on January 1st even though it won't be released until February.

That made me think. It's not easy surviving as a bookstore selling books for $12.99 a pop. It takes an awful lot of transactions to support 40 to 50 employees and 20,000 square feet of selling space. Our best holiday season ever wasn't the year that The Da Vinci Code was so hot or that Lovely Bones was flying out in bunches, it was the year that John Fielder's Colorado 1870-2000 photography book came out. We might not have sold as many of it as The Da Vinci Code, but the $95 price tag completely altered the economics of the store. Imagine what selling a few books for $2,000 or $3,000 apiece would do. Wow.

As tears welled up in my eyes at the thought of a score more fitting to an Apple store than an independent book store, my rep couldn't be faulted for assuming that I'd eaten too much wasabi. But sometimes even on a sushi day what you remember isn't the amazing fish, but what you learned while eating it.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Reps Come Calling

My sales reps are eager and even a little excited to talk about their books right now. This may not seem particularly noteworthy. After all, we are hitting the three biggest weeks of the selling year. It's the time to make annual budget numbers, create unexpected bestsellers and see high expectations finally come to fruition. What's interesting is that the reps don't want to talk about what's happening now; they want to discuss the books that are coming out next June, July and August. That's right: the focus is on the big summer novels and the hot presidential race, not what can work for Christmas.

Yesterday, one of my Random House reps dropped by for a friendly visit. We sat down, and he asked me to quickly scan through his summer catalogs as he prepared for sales conference. I must admit that I enjoyed the change of pace -- an escape from the endless receiving of remainders -- and was only to happy to oblige. I'm not sure that my comments helped him out for his sales conference, but the discussion helped me gain some insight into what the second half of 2008 might hold.

Two of his most promising summer titles are political books. Jim Webb, the Virginia Senator who defeated George Allen in 2006, has written A Time to Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America, while Arianna Huffington gets right to the point with the aptly titled, Right is Wrong: How the Lunatic Fringe Hijacked America, Shredded the Constitution, and Made Us All Less Safe. If 2008 is anything like 2004, political books will dominate the summer. We cleared off an entire case of our recommended section, easily our highest turning category, and filled it with political tomes as the presidential election neared. Yes, even the Swift Boat book had its day. I was hoping to avoid displacing my recommended section again next year, but it is starting to seem inevitable.

A few years ago, I wouldn't have thought either Webb or Huffington had a potential bestseller in them. Webb capitalized on Allen's uttering the word macaca and having it shown over and over again on, to pull off a stunning upset. If Allen would have kept his mouth shut, there's a good chance he'd be the front-runner in the Republican primaries right now, and Webb would be a nobody. Huffington was just another kook running for California governor, along with Arnold Schwarzenegger, after Gray Davis imploded. Huffington doesn't look so kooky now that her Huffington Post website has become so respected for its hard-hitting reporting and well-written opinions, in liberal circles. Speaking of California, it hasn't worked out so bad for The Terminator: he has already been reelected. You've got to love America, where every kook has a blog, or at least a four-year term.

Later this week, my HarperCollins rep is actually selling me his summer list. I've never bought a major list in December before, but I thought I'd give it a try. Usually, I'm too concerned about helping customers in the store. But during the last couple of years, the weekday crowds haven't materialized until the second week of December. It's still surprising that the Harper reps are ready to sell the list this early. Most publishers are just heading into sales conferences now. But I've discovered that HarperCollins is in its own time zone. I refer to it as H.T.Z.T. or Harper Twilight Zone Time.

Harper holds its sales conference in mid-November, making the reps inaccessible when you are desperately trying to build up inventory for Christmas and figuring out what to sell. It's the time when I most want to reach the reps all year long. When you finally get in touch with your rep, he's so mired in the summer titles it takes him awhile to come up for air and actually talk about the Christmas releases. Mid-November is also the time that stores like to have the reps come in and prep the booksellers on the hot books for the Christmas season. This year, we held off on our rep night until the week of Thanksgiving so that our Harper rep, a favorite of the booksellers, could participate. That went extremely well, and he was the hit of the party, so I figured I'd just give in to Harper's timetable and do the sales call in December.

I've got to run. The weatherman is calling for snow, but I know better. Here in the land of H.T.Z.T., the surf's up. Hang Ten, Dude!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Do You Want Chocolate with That DVD

In the retail business, you make your initial judgments on how your store is performing based on month-long chunks of time. Even though we, at the Boulder Book Store, know that being slightly up or down in a particular month doesn't really mean much in the overall scheme of things, it can give you a morale boost to finish a month up and it's a real downer to, well, finish down.

On Monday, I was greeted with our November numbers. It's a month that gets a lot of attention because these sales are seen as being early indicators of how the Christmas season will go. It's also the one time of year, that our regular customers commonly ask with some degree of concern, "how's business?" I was a bit nervous. I knew that going into the last few days of the month our sales could swing either way. Again, it's just a few bucks but the psychological impact could be great, especially after we had a less than stellar September and October after a really strong Harry Potter summer. Who wants to enter December after three consecutive disappointing months? The news turned out to be wonderful. We rallied, partially on the strength of a huge signing by the poet David Whyte on the 29th, and posted a much bigger than expected gain.

All is right with the world. At least for a few days. I'll get the preliminary December sales by Thursday and that could quickly burst my bubble. As I looked at the numbers, my intuition told me something didn't quite add up. We don't really have many hot books. My section sales aren't up. The other new book buyers aren't enthused about their sales. Just what are we selling?

It turns out, as I suspected, the answer doesn't lie in new books. Our sales of new books were actually down a bit for the month. I've been doing this long enough to know a weak season when I see one. The store is being carried by just about everything else. Our DVD, used book and remainder book sales are up tremendously. Christmas cards, calendars, magazines and gift items posted substantial gains. The only section, besides new books, that is losing ground is our tiny music section. There is even some good news there, our music sales -- in a year when the bottom has completely fallen out of the record business -- were pretty close to even.

For years, we have been trying to diversify our selection and push more business into other categories. Now that it is happening so dramatically, I have mixed feelings about it. We have all these people in the store buying chocolate, cards, the DVD of Planet Earth and old editions of the Artist's Way, surely there must be some way to get more new books in their hands. There must be a way to grow both the book and the non book items in the store at the same time.

We are only one independent store in a nation of stores, an island of bookselling at the foothills of the Rockies, but from our point of view, it is painful to have all these shoppers in the store and not have many exciting new books to sell. My plea to the publishers is that they don't let this happen again next November and December. The customers are just getting trained to go straight to the remainder and used book tables and perhaps to the chocolate case. They will continue to be our customers, but I'm not sure if the publishers will get them back.

The beginning of a new month is also interesting because we post a new bestseller list based on the previous month's sales. It's always fascinating to look at the list because it is an eclectic collection of national hits, author event books and quirky Boulder titles.

November's list is headed up by three Penguin paperbacks, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, 3 Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson, and Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Gilbert is about to go back on Oprah for a full hour, so I think it is safe to say she will have yet another month at number one when we do the list in January.

Also in the top ten are three books by authors that recently signed here. River Flow by David Whyte garnered most of its sales on the 29th. Whyte might have been able to break the Penguin stranglehold on our top three, if we hadn't sold out of his title. It's pretty impressive for a poet to sell that many copies of a $29 hardback. The crowd was over 350 and spilled into our upper north room where 40 people watched the event on closed circuit television. His audience was composed mostly of very devoted women. Whyte charmed them with an excellent reading and talk and we scrambled to find every last book of his that we had in the store. Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman and The End of America by Naomi Wolf (which I featured my October 22nd posting Brownshirts in Boulder) also were in the top 10.

Of course, we weed out the non book items from our bestseller list that we post and display in the store. Here's the Boulder Book Store's real top 5, available only on Kash's Book Corner.

1. Colorado postcards.
2. Chocolove bars.
3. Vosges chocolate.
4. Quotable magnets.
5. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Perhaps we could put those items all in one special holiday gift wrapped package for our customers. Sounds delicious.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

Bookselling is a nickel-and-dime profession. If whole industries could have a day at the casinos, the technology start-ups would be putting thousands of dollars on red at the roulette wheel, the insurance companies counting cards at the blackjack tables, and the movie moguls in the closed-circuit television room betting everything on their favorite horse. Then, there would be the publishers, stuck in the back corner by the bathrooms, muttering that there aren't any nickel slot machines as they reluctantly put quarters into the one-armed bandits.

Two events last week reminded me once again of why it is so hard for independent bookstores to survive in this industry. These reminders weren't major fiascoes or influential business decisions; in fact, neither one was actually an event at all. One was a memo from Simon & Schuster offering credit if bookstores sold Jimmy Carter's new book, the other was a poorly headlined article in the Christian Science Monitor declaring the demise of author book tours. But somehow the two together pointed me to an underlying truth: the chintzy mind-set of publishers.

Thanks for Small Favors

Jimmy Carter's latest book is what would commonly be referred to as "a real dog." Almost every Christmas, Carter manages to release a bestselling book. His titles alternate between the political, the homey and the inoffensively religious. This year's book, Beyond the White House: Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, Building Hope, seemed to offer a little bit of everything or perhaps a lot of nothing. No one is buying this book. I ordered 40 copies for the store and after eight weeks we have sold just one. It's not just us. In a nationwide database of independent stores that the bookstore subscribes to, I can see that less than 150 of nearly 2,000 have sold. And I can't believe that the chains are doing much better.

You'd think with all of these books out there, growing dusty, Simon & Schuster would do whatever it could to avoid the avalanche of January returns that they are surely facing. Well, to their credit, they are offering bookstores a "shared markdown" on the Jimmy Carter book. Every year, booksellers are greeted with a slew of these after the holidays. The publisher will offer book stores a credit for every book they sell. Usually, it is half of the amount that the bookstore paid for the book. The publishers typically recommend that bookstores sell the book at 50% off, but they make a point to say that stores can charge whatever they want.

Over the last few years, we have sold many of these books at 25% off. In essence, we are giving the customer the entire credit from the publisher. We end up making the same profit as if we sold the book at full price, so it's worth our time and effort to move these books. Our customers get a discounted book from the deal, and the publisher gets fewer returns. Everyone wins (except for the shipping companies who would handle all those returns).

That wasn't good enough for Simon & Schuster. Bookstores will only get credited for books that they sell at the "Maximum Promotional Retail" price, which is 50% off. Simon is requiring bookstores to cut their profits in half. It is a true shared markdown, according to Simon. Let me get this straight. They release the dog of the year, they want bookstores to go to the extra trouble of marking the book down and documenting their sales -- and then they want the bookstores to give up half of their profits.

I returned almost all of the Carter books as soon as I was finished reading the email. If the discount had been optional, as usual, I would have put the books at the front of the store in our 25% off section and tried to sell the books as a great Christmas deal. Simon was too chintzy to give me that option. Now, UPS wins when I return the books and perhaps again if I buy a few copies for $3.00 each from a remainder company in the spring.

Who Can Afford Book Tours?

A November 30 Christian Science Monitor article, Why book tours are passé, details how the publishers are sending fewer authors on tour and how the tours are shorter. The article touts the new technology that allows readers to have a virtual experience with an author through websites, blogs, podcasts and book videos. The beauty of all this, for the publishers, is that it is so much less expensive than sending an author out on tour.

Now, I'm a big fan of all these new media. I'm blogging right now, as a matter of fact. But the thought that a virtual anything can replace the experience of seeing, hearing and conversing with an author is absurd. The publishers have a golden opportunity to enhance their author tours with new technology, but on its own, it is a poor substitute. The virtual world is not a world where books can win and hold people's attention over the myriad of other offerings available. Author readings, on the other hand, are real and tangible, and they provide people with a much sought-after authentic experience.

In the last few months, we held two different "author" events in which we showed a short book film that was produced by Powell's Books, one on Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach and one on David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter. The films -- the first two ventures in the "Out of the Book" series -- are well-made and offer something that is really different from the standard C-Span book fare. They are lively and engaging pieces of film making while also remaining literate. They are the best that the new media has to offer. It was great to be able to show them since McEwan wasn't touring and Halberstam tragically died before the release of his book. But even they don't come close to the experience of having the author in the store.

The McEwan film brought in about 40 people, and we sold a handful of books. Halberstam's netted us just 20 customers and we only sold one book at the film's showing. If McEwan had appeared at the store, read from On Chesil Beach, answered questions and signed books, we would have easily drawn at least 200 people and sold close to 100 books. The autographed books, especially first editions, would have continued selling well after his appearance.

I really believe that none of the publishers do author tours correctly because they simply don't know the local media. That's the real problem. The most crucial thing on an author tour is getting that local publicity. It's left up to the chronically understaffed bookstores to generate the local buzz on the event. Even more entertaining, the stores are expected to make this happen with their minuscule co-op budgets.

What I don't understand is why the publishers don't have regional publicists. There are regional sales reps who know all the stores in their states. The reps in our region even know every little dinky shop the tiny mountain towns. Those reps know who should read a particular title in each store. And yet, the publisher has no personal connection with the book reviewers and feature writers of the local papers. There is no rapport between the publishers and the local radio hosts. If HarperCollins, Random House or Hachette had a full-time publicist in Denver, that person would know every television, radio and newspaper reporter in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, Colorado Springs, Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, Salt Lake City and a dozen other towns. The benefits would be immense. Press coverage for an event would be one well-placed phone call, or email away.

The other problem is that the publishers, mostly public companies, only think about the next quarter. They need to show an increasing profit year after year. Sending authors out is an investment in the uncertain future. It might not show dividends immediately and make the stock holders happy.

In the summer, the author Howard Frank Mosher came into the store during his nationwide tour. Mosher, a literary novelist from New England, doesn't really warrant a big tour in today's publishing world, but he thinks it is critical to get out and meet his readers. He was scheduled to sign in Denver at the Tattered Cover in the evening, but came to Boulder during the day to do some interviews that he had set up himself. It was also important to him to meet me and any other booksellers he could find.

I asked him if touring was really worth it for him. He answered quickly, like he was used to getting the question. "I don't know how the money works out," he said. "But when I first started going to stores, I'd get three, five, maybe ten people. I'd do a reading and answer all their questions. Gradually, more and more people started coming to the readings. Now, I'm getting thirty, forty people. Every tour I do I get more readers, more people coming up to me to tell me how much they appreciate my coming to their town."

I thought of his answer as I read the article in the Christian Science Monitor. The article talks about the humiliation of authors who draw no one to their events. "What's the point of the book tour?" these small-time authors ask. Well, if you're Howard Frank Mosher, there is bound to be at least one person you can make a connection with, even if it's just the book clerk who is setting up and taking down the chairs for your reading.

It's probably easier to sit in New York and whine about how expensive it is to send authors on tour, than it is to try being creative and make those tours work. It's easier to create a My Space page for your author, than it is to line up meaningful interviews in towns throughout America. It's easier, but it won't sell more books. Maybe I was wrong about the slot machines, perhaps the publishers are addicted to the crap shoot.