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.
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