Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving and Some Holiday Jitters

Thanksgiving Day. A day to rejoice, eat pumpkin pie, spend time with friends and family and give thanks for all the wonderful things in life. Thanksgiving Day. A day to fret about the upcoming retail holiday season, bemoan the lack of blockbuster books, worry about the weather and take stock of the lackluster lists the publishers have provided to bookstores for Christmas.

For the last two weeks, I've been trying to discern just what we are supposed to sell this holiday season. Every publisher has its midlist darlings that they are hoping will break out, but there is hardly a major title in play right now. I spent a week calling my various reps about what their hot titles were. Perhaps I was missing something, I thought. One of them gave me titles that were big last Christmas, hoping for an encore; another needed all day to work up a list (you'd think you would just know your hot titles, if they were really hot); and still another said, "There's not much. You just have to sell what you already have."
The publishers seemed to have mistaken early spring for Christmas this year. In a single week back in April, major new books from Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Chabon, Khaled Hosseini and Al Gore were released. All of those titles shot onto the bestseller lists instantly. For weeks, even months, people were coming in and asking for Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns or Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Right now, however, there is only one hardback title that falls into that got-to-have-it category, Stephen Colbert's I Am America & So Can You. Of course, the writers strike has taken Colbert off the air, just as his book was gaining momentum. I'm still very optimistic, but I'd love to see him go around the country really hyping it, since he's basically on vacation. On the paperback side, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert continues to outsell all other books. It should overtake Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows as our top-selling book of the year. Pretty amazing considering we didn't have to spend about 500 employee hours organizing a party for Elizabeth Gilbert and we didn't have to discount the books either.

What's going on? In the case of Penguin USA it seems clear that they are happy to sit on their laurels for 2007 and come out swinging in 2008. In addition to Eat, Pray, Love and A Thousand Splendid Suns, Penguin has given us the paperbacks of Greg Mortenson's phenomenal bestseller 3 Cups of Tea and Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma while basking in the media frenzy of Alan Greenspan's memoir, Age of Turbulence. It's all Penguin all the time on our bestseller lists for the past eight months.

The amazing run of books might explain their reluctance to publish two sure blockbusters in time for Christmas. Michael Pollan's In Defense of Eating and Geraldine Brooks' new novel People of the Book are slated for release on January 1st. Who came up with that date? A nervous executive worrying about having to match 2007's numbers next year. Those two books are exactly what this Christmas season needs -- newsworthy books to drive customers into the stores. By holding onto these books in their warehouse, is Penguin auditioning for the role of the Grinch this holiday season?

I'd also argue that the January release is particularly unfair to Brooks, whose last book, March, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. She's hot -- maybe as hot as she will ever be -- and a new hardback by her in time for Christmas would surely be a big, big gift item. An easy sell if there every was one. Our sales, along with most other independent book store sales (one of her most important markets) would be far greater if her new novel came out now rather than January 1. Instead we just have remainders of March to peddle to her fans this holiday season.

The other publishers, you'd think, would be desperate by this point. Almost every major publisher rep tells me how our sales are down with them this year. In fact, they tell me that the whole territory is down. They are looking for me to sympathize and tell them that our sales are heading south in general. Well, they aren't. Between the Penguin books and Harry Potter it's been a very good year. When I ask the publishers what their big books for Christmas are, they feed me a line about being an all-seasons publisher and not loading all their good books in the fall. It seems to me that perhaps they are talking about sports seasons, not calendar seasons. There's the season when you play the games and then there is the offseason. Most publishers have decided that Christmas is a good time for the offseason.

The winter months were always thought to be a good time to get publicity for midlist books. Why release a good book by a relatively unknown author in the fall, when the media wouldn't have time to interview the author, and the papers wouldn't have the space to review the book because all of the attention was going to the blockbuster titles? But over the past decade, more and more of the blockbusters have been held back for January or February releases. Why send your big book into the Christmas fray where it might get overlooked, when they can have the pick of the talk shows in February? Now, it seems that almost all of the major books have migrated away from the fall. My guess is that a few midlist books will dominate this season and many publishers will be wondering why they held their best books for the winter chill.

Some titles that were originally billed as sure-fire hits have already flopped. Jimmy Carter's Beyond the White House is a dismal failure. If the bookstore continues to sell his book at the rate we've sold it since it's release almost two months ago, we should be sold out by Christmas 2013. It seems that Al Gore has taken over the mantle as our greatest living ex-President without ever actually being President. Garrison Keillor, another greatly revered figure who we regularly sold in the hundreds, seems to have run out of steam with his latest Lake Wobegon novel Pontoon. Perhaps Keillor, who showed moderate sales (dozens) in September, will make a comeback in December as people look for gifts for their grandparents. But for now, Pontoon sure seems sunk.
I'm not completely pessimistic about the season. The top reason for hope is that the artist Andy Goldsworthy just released his new book, Enclosure, which details his work with sheep enclosures in Northwest England. Normally, an art book, especially one dealing with sheep, wouldn't get me too worked up, but Goldsworthy is an exception. We've sold hundreds of copies of all of his previous books, including A Collaboration with Nature, Time, Stone, and Passage. We have also constantly displayed and sold his DVD Rivers & Tides since its release in 2004. The $60 price point of Enclosure is enough to get any bookseller's heart beating fast.

Here's a look at some other titles that give me hope and help to temporarily quell those Christmas-season jitters:

There seems to be a real interest in the intersection between music and psychology. This hunger is being fed by two books that I believe will be huge Christmas sellers, This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin and Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. We are already having a hard time keeping Levitin's book in stock, and if Sacks can catch the wave of popularity that he rode with his earlier books, Musicophilia could be a huge gift item.

On the political front, I believe that Paul Krugman's Conscience of a Liberal and Naomi Wolfe's End of America will continue to tap into the deep unhappiness with the Bush regime. Krugman's book even has a hopeful message to it. We are through the worst of it, he believes. Wolfe's rallying cry to prevent a fascist America is touching a real chord with Boulderites, and the book is flying off our shelves. It also seems likely that Jeffrey Toobin's book about the United States Supreme Court, The Nine, will make many year-end lists for best book of the year. If that happens, an already great book of reportage (it's amazing who he got to speak to him), could become a break-out bestseller.

HarperCollins has found a true sweet spot in selling books seemingly geared towards kids to adults. It's the first Christmas for The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book For Girls as well as Jessica Seinfeld's current bestseller Deceptively Delicious. These titles all seem like they were made for the holidays. Another burst of publicity for The Dangerous Book for Boys should send it back to the top of the bestseller list.

On the fiction front, it's hard to bet against Hosseini after the success of The Kite Runner. Although A Thousand Splendid Suns has been out for eight months, there are still a lot of his fans who have not read it. Strangely enough, this seems to be the year of Ken Follett. I thought his year was 1982 or so, but just last week, Oprah uncharacteristically picked his Pillars of Earth for her book club and he also has a new hardback, World Without End, that is starting to move. Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke was already getting some buzz before it won the National Book Award, so now it should really fly. I'm also hoping Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao finds its way onto some year-end lists and takes off again. The new translation of War and Peace by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhondky should exceed expectations as the one big-selling classic of the season.

I hope that today is only the first Thanksgiving Day for booksellers. With any luck, we will be saying our thanks in about five weeks, when the Christmas season is over and there were dozens of surprise blockbuster books. I'll be thankful when the end of the year means an end to my seasonal skittishness, that blessed time when I can stop worrying about books and go skiing.

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