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.


JZ said...

Dear Arsen,

A fascinating post -- thanks for a valuable window into the thinking of a conscientious book buyer. This is my first major book, and I'm eager to see how to make it best represent what it has to offer.

FWIW, the press suggested changing the title to "The Future of the Internet -- And How to Save It," I think to avoid exactly the confusion you reported. I don't know how the process works, but I'd be happy to send you a bound galley if you wanted to read the brief introduction and see if it makes it any more compelling than the wrapper materials and elevator pitch!


Anonymous said...

One of the many reasons I shouldn't be/am not a book buyer: The Future of the Internet & How to Stop It, Digital Culture, Play, and Identity, and New Tech, New Ties all sounded like the most interesting titles to me. Then again, these days I'm an academic focusing on those exact issues.

But Siteless sounds pretty sweet, too.

Anonymous said...

"Nudge" was one of the books reviewed in the article "What Was I Thinking?" by Elizabeth Kolbert in the Feb. 25, 2008 issue of "The New Yorker." I don't know if Boulder's readership of that magazine is any higher than Salt Lake City's, so it may not provide any sales "push," but it does give more information than the catalog alone!

David Kaiser said...

Mr. Kashkashian,

Your dad will undoubtedly enjoy The Road to Dallas. Furthermore, the answer to your question--hasn't this territory been mined hundreds of times before?--is yes, but not like this. Thanks to Oliver Stone's (very misleading) movie, Congress in the 1990s ordered the release of all JFK archives. I am the first historian to have gone through them, retracing the original investigation, and much else besides. The conclusion--that organized crime was behind Oswald--is very thoroughly documented, and I predict you will sell quite a few more copies before the year is out. (See also the reviews in Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publisher's Weekly.)

Best, David Kaiser (author)