Monday, February 18, 2008

Going to School with the Publishers

The most complicated publishers to buy, for me, are the numerous university presses. This is publishing stripped to its nearly unsaleable essence. There are no glossy two-page spreads in the Duke University catalog, there's no marketing push behind a Penn State ceramics title and there's no name recognition for a Louisiana State University poet. Instead, there is earnest catalog copy, a photo of the cover that reveals the minimal design budget of the press, and a note that the author is an honorary fellow, distinguished professor or senior lecturer at a university far, far away from Boulder.

Despite this lack of marketability, there are some great titles in these catalogs. It's my job, with the help of my sales reps, to ferret out just what might work in Boulder. It's an almost impossible task, but occasionally we hit upon a bestseller, or at least something approximating one. Last Wednesday I sat down with my Harvard, Yale and M.I.T. rep to look at the summer titles. Over the years, I've come to learn that we have some luck with Harvard and Yale titles but that M.I.T. is extremely difficult. That said, Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness by James Austin, an M.I.T. book from the 1990s, has been a huge seller for us over the years. Austin, a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, wrote about two topics of intense interest to our customers -- Buddhism and neurology.

As I sat down with John, my rep, I could only hope that there would be just such a hidden nugget buried in these catalogs. John is one of the best-read and engaging of my reps; he actually understands many of the books that his academic presses publish. He's from Milwaukee and even though his territory covers the northern United States from Buffalo to Seattle, he has taken the time to get know our store and our market.

The first thing we did was go over our numbers from last year's buy. Unfortunately, they weren't pretty. Over forty percent of the titles we brought in didn't sell a single copy. Ouch! The bestseller was Existentialism is a Humanism by John Paul Sartre. Not exactly a fresh new voice. Every season, I pull the trigger on a a couple of titles from his presses and try to stack them up at the front of our store. We work together to come up with the most likely candidates from his lists, give them some marketing exposure in our email newsletter and see what happens. Last year we bet on Galapagos: The Islands that Changed the World from Yale and 100 Butterflies & Moths from Harvard. Both titles were beautiful nature books, but neither one sold well. Perhaps the summer isn't the right time to gamble on fairly expensive picture books. It's a lesson I need to learn over and over again.

With that fresh in my mind, I began perusing the Yale list. As usual, I was greeted by a plethora of titles that I just didn't quite understand. John patiently explained a few of them, like Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. Nudge is about how choices can be framed to help people make decisions that will improve their lives rather than make them worse. Once I heard John's full explanation of the book, I recognized a comparison to the bestseller Freakonomics. I bought four copies, convinced it had a shot to sell and might garner some prominent review attention. Jonathan Zittrain's title The Future of the Internet & How to Stop It was one I just couldn't get my head around. Zittrain's argument is that the internet is on a path toward closing opportunities and innovation. By the second paragraph of catalog copy, my eyes were glazed over and nothing John could say was able to awake me from my stupor.

As I paged through the eclectic selections, including books on Napoleon, the hamburger, the Comanche empire and joint pain, I kept my eye out for a book or two that might actually sell in Boulder -- a book that we could promote to our customers. After last year's debacle, I took the safe route and gambled on James Speth's The Bridge at the End of the World. Speth, who has had a previous strong seller with Red Sky at Morning, argues in his new book that our current environmental situation is a serious indictment of modern capitalism. Anything on climate change seems to find an audience in Boulder and Speth's willingness to tie our failure into an attack on capitalism, while not wholly original, should resonate with our readers. Best of all, because it is from a respected university press, I could be fairly certain that Speth's arguments would be well-reasoned and erudite.

Next, it was on to Harvard. I must admit that I find buying these Ivy League presses a bit humorous. The fact that I'm expected to make decisions on books published by schools that wouldn't have taken me in as a student 20 years ago seems absurd. Who am I to judge a worthwhile academic title? Anyway, in my judgment I found it hard to give Harvard a passing grade this semester. I didn't find a single title that seemed worthy of stacking up.

I bought a few copies of The Road to Dallas by David Kaiser, which promises to tell the unvarnished truth about the Kennedy assassination. Kennedy conspiracy wing nuts, like my dad, will buy it, but really, hasn't this territory been mined hundreds of times before? Beautiful Minds, a comparison in the evolution of apes and dolphins, seemed good for our nature section, but a bit of a stretch to try and foist on the general public. Mario Vargas Llosa's collection of essays, Wellsprings, was also intriguing, but somehow a sophisticated book of literary criticism didn't seem too likely to make a splash in the summer.

Finally, I was left with M.I.T. The odds of hitting paydirt weren't great, but hey, I've got to have an open mind. Anything is possible, each turn of the catalog page revealing a whole new world of possibilities. I must admit, it didn't look promising, as I passed on Digital Culture, Play, and Identity, a $30 book exploring the cultural implications of the online game World of Warcraft, and New Tech, New Ties, a look at the sociological impact of the mobile phone. Maybe these subjects would work as magazine articles, but entire books?

As I was about to give up hope of finding a book that we could really run with, I found SITELESS: 1001 Building Forms by Francois Blanciak. At first I couldn't grasp the idea behind this little paperback. It's billed as "a new kind of architecture book that seems to have come out of nowhere." It asks the question, "What would happen if architects liberated their minds from the constraints of site, program and budget?" It's filled with strange drawings of kneeling pyramids, seismic columns and many other bizarre forms. Finally, it started to make sense when I read, "The 1001 building forms in SITELESS include structural parasites, chain link towers, ball bearing floors, corrugated corners, exponential balconies, radial facades, crawling frames, forensic housing -- and other architectural ideas that may require construction techniques not yet developed and a relation to gravity not yet achieved."

Wow. It's science fiction for architects. It also seems to have a strange graphic design element going on. After all, many of these drawings are forms that can only exist on paper. I asked John what he thought and he shared my enthusiasm. We had a book to take a risk on. It seemed ideal for Boulder's strong community of architects and architecture enthusiasts, and also for our customers who seem to revel in just the sort of post-modern aesthetic that this book represents.

My God, after an hour mired in academic catalogs, I'm almost sounding like an Ivy League undergrad.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Lying Bookseller, Smooth Politician

Bookselling has afforded me many opportunities to meet great writers and public figures. I've detailed my encounters with Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates and Thich Nhat Hanh during the past year in this blog. However, as I sat in an overheated middle school auditorium waiting to cast my vote for Barack Obama in Colorado's caucus on Tuesday, I realized that if Obama wins, I can add a United States President to my celebrity list.

It's not a pretty story, and if Obama were a hawkish right-wing Republican who might gleefully classify big-mouth booksellers as enemy combatants, I'd already be looking for property in Canada. Our encounter occurred at the 2006 Book Expo America in Washington, D.C. during a Crown Publishing dinner at the Occidental Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue. The restaurant--a very staid eatery with hundreds of portraits of formerly powerful white men on the walls--bills itself as the place "where statesman dine." You can see why that's true. No normal human being would subject themselves to a five-course meal while being stared at by the members of Richard Nixon's cabinet.

The Crown party, featuring not only Obama, but Juan Williams, Ina Garten, Michael Isikoff and Gillian Flynn, was the top event of that year's Book Expo and there was quite a bit of internal discussion about who on our staff would get to go. I was accompanied by our young marketing manager who was new to the book business and fairly naive about politics. We arrived early and headed straight to the bar. Obama, who was promoting Audacity of Hope, had not yet arrived and, in fact, the rumors were that he might not make it to the dinner at all.

At the bar, we fell into an entertaining conversation with Flynn about her debut novel Sharp Objects. It was the type of novel, a mystery, that I probably would never read. I feigned interest as I scanned the room searching for a luminary to pounce upon. Gradually, I was drawn in by the attractive Flynn and her tales of Hollywood's elites. She's the television critic for Entertainment Weekly. I asked her if she was ever intimidated by a star, at which she laughed and said that actually the only actor who ever made her nervous was Dennis Quaid. "Dennis Quaid?" I screamed out. Then Flynn quickly explained that she'd had a crush on him since she was a girl.

Eventually, our tight, fairly drunken circle was broken up when one of Crown's publicists introduced a few other booksellers to Flynn. I wandered off and, in my desire to snag another drink, basically ran over Ina Garten. I was busy apologizing when I suddenly realized who she was. "But you're wearing shoes!" I stammered. She gave me a look of mild reproach. "Is the whole 'barefoot' thing just a marketing ploy?" I asked with genuine shock in my voice. "My God," I thought, "does the Naked Chef wear clothes when he cooks?" Finally, she broke the tension by laughing. She told me about the dessert that she had created for that evening's meal. It involved strawberries and balsamic vinegar and sounded like something that would go horribly wrong if attempted at home.

By this time, the bar was mobbed and still there was no sign of Barack Obama. I was rehearsing what I might say to him if I got the chance when I caught a few words in Juan Williams' familiar voice booming across the room. Everything I imagined saying to Obama suddenly sounded like the slurred ravings of a groupie. My internal monologue was interrupted by Crown's attempt to get us to sit down at our assigned tables. It was then, as I was moving from the bar, that Obama entered the room.

He was taller than I imagined, but more slight--all elbows and shoulders and chin on first impression. A coterie of editors and publicists guided him through the bar. I stood at a safe distance observing how firmly he shook everyone's hand and how easily a smile came to his lips. It was a crazy scene, with dozens of people vying for his attention. I figured at most I'd get a quick handshake as the whisked him over to a more important bookseller or media member.

Ironically, I was missing a book group discussion about his first book, Dreams From My Father, back in Boulder. My wife had spent the previous two weeks reading his autobiography in preparation for the discussion and she had read a few passages out loud to me. The language was surprisingly lyrical and my wife, a tough reader, had been impressed by his writing style. Since I knew I was going to miss the group, I hadn't even cracked open the book. These thoughts were in my mind as I felt someone grasp my elbow. It was my Random House regional sales manager.

"Do you want to meet him?" she asked.

"Of course!" I answered back.

She guided me through the hordes of people and a moment later I was in front of the Illinois senator. He stuck out his hand and gripped mine as I told him who I was. It was like a cheesy movie scene: everyone seemed to fade away, the din of dozens of conversations slipped to a whisper as he focused on me. I had to fill that silence. I needed to hold his attention for a moment more.

"I just finished reading Dreams From My Father," I lied. He paused a beat and once again I rushed in to fill the void. "I expected a fascinating story, but I was surprised by how strong the writing is. It's really well written for a politician."

His face broke into a broad grin. "Well, Arsen, that's setting the bar pretty low."

"I didn't mean it like that. I just meant..." What the hell did I mean? I didn't even read his book and now I had insulted him.

Things took a down turn when he patted me on the shoulder and said, "I'm just honored that you read it." Now the guilt from my lying and insulting was in full force. I could feel the blood rushing to my bald head.

In desperation I changed the conversation to safer ground. "Are you going to tour for this new book?" I asked.

"We are going to try to do a few things, but I have a pretty busy schedule."

"You have to come to Boulder. It's a tailor-made town for you. We'd sell out a theater in a heartbeat if you came."

"I'd love to get to Boulder," he said. "We'll see if we can work something out."

I sensed the crowd pushing in on us. Our fleeting moment together was nearing it's end. I looked at the portraits on the walls of staid white men surrounding us and motioned to them. "It would be amazing, if you ended it up on the wall in here one day," I said.

He laughed again and as the smile left his lips his attention was already being pulled towards another bookseller. My moment was over and I slinked back into the crowd wondering why I spent our brief time together lying and insulting him.

The rest of the evening went by in a fog. I sat at a large round table with Isikoff, who bonded with a few women from a tiny bookstore in West Virginia, and completely ignored me. About midway through the meal, I began to think that perhaps the Hubris in the title of his new book referred to himself rather than the Bush administration.

Meanwhile, the bookstore's young marketing manager sat next to Juan Williams. She had no idea who he was and when he told her that he worked for both Fox News and National Public Radio she quizzed him on how that was possible. "Aren't they complete opposites?" Williams patted her on the forearm and assured her he was capable of being a good reporter for both.

Later, when she learned that his book Enough basically blamed the plight of many African Americans on their own leaders and themselves, she asked him about the huge amount of racism and white privilege in our society. Again, he condescended to her and told her that his was a realistic look at the situation.

The crowning glory of the evening for her came when the main course arrived. She looked at the crayfish with their heads attached and proclaimed that she wasn't interested in eating anything with eyes. Williams let out a laugh and said, "You're such a child."

When I met up with her at the end of the dinner, she recounted the conversations with Williams and said she couldn't leave fast enough. It turned out that, aside from her awkward exchanges with Williams, her dessert plate was significantly more vinegar than fruit. I told her that I wanted one last chance to speak to Obama and make amends for my fibbing. Unfortunately, as we made our way over to his table, it was apparent that he'd left long before dessert was even served. My chance to set the record straight was gone.

The other day as I sat in the caucus casting my vote for Obama, I thought of that dinner of nearly two years ago. My whole life I've been lied to by presidents from Nixon to Reagan to Clinton to both Bushes. If Obama gets elected, I'll have finally turned the tables and lied to a President.