Monday, June 30, 2008

They Write About Books?

When it comes to reading book reviews, I'm a snob. I'm much more highbrow in my reading of critiques then I am in my taste of actual books. If the review does not appear in The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books or a paper from London, then it doesn't really attract my interest. Conversely, I'll read just about any book if it features a great cover, touches upon the subject of baseball, involves super heroes or looks respectably risque.

I'm not sure how I got like this. Frankly, most of the writing in The New York Review of Books bores me, and yet I persist. Perhaps, in my addled head, I connect the dry prose with literary respectability. I admit that occasionally I'll read a review in another publication if it's by a writer that I enjoy. I make a habit of perusing the Denver and Boulder papers to keep abreast of what the local residents might be encouraged to purchase at our store. But for the most part, I'm not really that interested in what Newsweek, Time, or most anyone else has to say about books.

I figure if I look hard enough I'm liable to find a good review of just about any book out there. God knows that the publishers find plenty of positive reviews to quote for the paperback releases of their worst dogs. You can practically hear the book barking as you crack open the front cover and read the stirring praise from U.S.A. Today. No thank you. I'll stick to the tried and true for my reviews.

All of this began to change a few months ago, when a magazine of dubious pedigree appeared in our apartment. After a round of bitter marital recriminations, I finally came to believe that my wife's subscription to Entertainment Weekly was an unfortunate error. It seems that a couple of months previous, we had bought a magazine subscription as part of a school fundraiser from the daughter of a dear friend. We were reluctant to take on another magazine, but the student had been a flower girl at our wedding, and to refuse her anything was beyond my capabilities. The problem is that unread, or barely read, copies of The New Yorker, Harper's and Paste already clutter up our minuscule living room.

"No, no honey, you can't throw out that October, 2003 issue of Harper's yet," I plead, every time we try to clean the apartment. "I'm halfway through a fascinating article that debates whether Nader is going to run for President again, after the 2000 debacle in Florida."

Finally, after much humming and hawing and some nudging from our friend, we agreed upon a subscription to Sports Illustrated. I reasoned that at least I'd thumb my way through it in search of baseball news each week. I also pointed out that everyone knows that sports writers are the most literate and talented of all journalists, so perhaps even my wife might enjoy the feature articles. (Disclaimer: the author of this blog is a former sports writer.)

By the time Entertainment Weekly arrived, I had completely forgotten about our subscription to Sports Illustrated. Once we ascertained that a switch had occurred, we'd already received four issues of the wrong publication. What could we do? I suggested browbeating the absurdly cute flower girl into correcting the error and getting us the right magazine. My wife, who was eschewing all of our highbrow literary magazines in favor of Entertainment Weekly by this point, said that we just had to suffer through the subscription in peace and quiet.

Week after week, a parade of celebrities crossed the threshold of our door. One week it was Johnny Depp, the next it was Will Ferrell gracing the cover of the hideous magazine that had brought the tabloid world into the rarified air of our home. It wasn't until the cover featuring Ellen Page of Juno, that I broke down and cracked open the magazine. I admit that I just love that movie. Unfortunately, my fears were confirmed; the magazine was rife with gossip, inane features on celebrities and fawning palaver aimed at dreadful Hollywood fare.

However, I found a curious three-page section of book reviews towards the back. I was flabbergasted. The reviews were concise, well written and featured not just popular books but independent and intelligent titles. I don't recall the exact books that were discussed in that issue, but ever since I have scanned each issue of Entertainment Weekly for the reviews.

I started mentioning the book news and insights that I'd read in the magazine to reps and fellow booksellers. I'd get a few askance glances, but I'd push forward. Making my exposure as a reader of trashy magazines even worse was my habit of referring to the publication as "EW" It seemed that I was on overly familiar terms with Entertainment Weekly. This delighted a few of the people I worked with who were only too happy to catch me quoting a non-snooty publication.

My conversion to Entertainment Weekly, was completed this past week when they released a special double issue featuring the best movies, tv shows, albums and books of the last 25 years. I skipped past the other categories (although I couldn't help noticing that they named the mediocre Spiderman 2 the 36th best movie) and headed right to books.

It's a surprising, quirky and literate list. Cormac McCarthy's The Road earns the top spot and is joined by Harry Potter, Beloved, The Liar's Club and American Pastoral in the top five. It's not just the books they pick -- I personally don't agree with the selection of Philip Roth's American Pastoral, for instance. I'm not sure it's even his fifth best book of the last 25 years. It's the pithy comments that accompany each entry that really provide the hooks.

Here's the write up for #29, Bel Canto by Anne Patchett: "A South American embassy throws a birthday bash for a Japanese electronics mogul. A famed opera singer is on the guest list. The terrorists who swarm in through the air-conditioning vents are not. The diva's performance works miracles even with the terrorists, but it's Patchett who really sings."

I also like #16, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood: "After 1984 came and went without ado, we needed a new futuristic dystopia to haunt our sleep. Atwood obliged, dreaming up the Republic of Gilead, a grim theocracy where women are valued solely for their ability to bear children."

I'm not arguing that this is a definitive list of great books published over the last 25 years. There are some true hits (The Things they Carried by Tim O'Brien, Blindness by Jose Saramago) as well as some books that were wildly popular (The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and Mystic River by Dennis Lehane) but have no business being on a list of new classics.

What EW does so well is to make books appear to be as entertaining as avid readers know that they really are. EW treats books with the same flippancy and zing that they treat movies and music. Anyone can enjoy a great record, and what they are saying in their book pages is that anyone can enjoy a great book. You don't have to be hyper-educated or part of a book club to pick one up. If you want to be entertained, here's some books that are great options.

In a strange way, I think EW does a better job with books than they do with movies and television shows. In the visual mediums, they are such an establishment force, that they have certain things that they must cover. They write about all of the major Hollywood pictures, no matter how unworthy of space they may be. Their book pages aren't as thorough, but they are free from establishment expectations. EW features first novels next to graphic novels, and the latest Janet Evanovich novel in the same issue that they have a full-page article on Ethan Canin's America America.

I used to think that these mainstream reviews didn't really matter much. Who reads EW or People for their book coverage? Well, People featured Nina de Gramont's The Gossip of Starlings a few weeks ago, and the book sold out at all the national distributors within days. Someone's paying attention out there. Perhaps there's really life beyond The New York Times Book Review for books and authors.

Now where did I put the EW featuring pictures of Angelna Jolie's tattoos? I didn't finish reading all of the book reviews in it. "Honey, what do you mean you threw it out?"

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Welcome to the Digital World

Can Anyone Use a Computer Around Here?

Buying new books for the store, the crux of my job, can be an exercise in absurdity and futility. It's an antiquated, inefficient system that hardly takes into account the invention of the personal computer and completely ignores the existence of the internet. Here's how it works in a nutshell:

1. The publishers send out catalogs several months in advance of the publications of their new titles. I just bought Oxford University titles that aren't due out until next winter. These catalogs, which look and read like poorly edited magazines, usually feature one title per page. For each title there is a short (a few paragraphs) description, an image of the cover, often an author photo and information on the author's previous titles. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you get a humorous tagline that reads something like "a cross between All the Pretty Horses and the Da Vinci Code."

2. I flip through the pages of these catalogs (sometimes 500 or more pages in a single day), going through one at a time to discover the books I want. I dutifully look up old titles by the authors, previous editions of travel books, and books with similar themes or topics. The titles in each catalog are in a seemingly random order that must make some sense to the publisher, but usually befuddles me. For instance, HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin, and Simon and Schuster each may have up to a couple dozen different catalogs. The new hardback fiction titles might be spread throughout as many as ten of these. This makes it nearly impossible to really know how much of any one topic or genre you are ordering during the sales call.

3. The sales rep goes through the catalog with me, highlighting books that the press is particularly excited about, or, more often, books that the publisher isn't really supporting with publicity, helping to guide me to a final number. Since the catalogs are out of date by the time they are printed, a lot of the rep's job during the appointment entails pointing out which terrible covers in the catalog have been changed, mentioning price increases, and informing me about upcoming publicity that was recently booked. They do this at every appointment. Honestly, I don't know how they stay awake.

4. Five or six hours into the appointment, when I've worked through all the titles in the catalog and it's all I can do to keep from dropping off to sleep, the sales rep stealthily whips out a stack of photocopied pages for me to peruse. These are sell sheets for titles that the publisher announced too late for inclusion in the catalogs. Often these books have no descriptions or jacket photos on the sheet. When I ask the reps about them, a shrug of the shoulders is the most common reaction I get. Of course, many of the most important books of the year get released like this, so I have to wade through these pages and pick out the Bob Woodward or Stephen King title lurking among them.

5. Once the rep leaves, my assistants and I enter all of the titles one by one into our computer system from the marked-up catalogs. When the data entry is complete, we recycle the catalogs immediately. It comes to over 100 pounds of wasted paper every few months.

A Better Way to Buy

Several publishers, most notably HarperCollins, are discussing the possibility of moving to an online catalog. I have one word for these publishers -- Hallelujah. It's about time. It was about time five years ago, but this is the book business, and things move at a glacial pace.

The publishers are doing it mostly to cut costs and to get some points for being green. Apparently, the current catalogs cost a fortune to produce and mail out. The bigger houses report that they spend over a million dollars on their catalogs. As far as being green, that's just a bad joke. We are in an industry that doesn't think twice about overprinting and shipping vast quantities of books that will never be sold. Our catalogs might come to 300 pounds a year, but our returns probably run to several tons.

What interests me about an online catalog, if it were done right, is that it could be a much better way to buy from the publishers. As soon as a book has a new cover, I could see it on the site. When new publicity, like an NPR show, is booked, it would be updated online immediately. Never again would my rep and I have to waste time looking at outdated pages. Instead, our appointments could be used to quickly discover the best books for the Boulder Book Store and to determine how best to position those titles. Add-on sheets for late titles would be a thing of the past. Instead, those books would be up and ready to go on the website.

Here's one buyer's vision of how this should work:

1. The catalog would be available online, and each store would access it through a distinct login. All of the information that is currently available on each title in the paper catalogs would be present on the online version. In addition, there could be extended reviews, pages of the text (especially helpful with children's books), author interviews, etc. Buyers would be able to annotate and customize these pages.

2. Each buyer would be able to sort the catalogs however they wanted. Publishers (in my wildest dreams, I see the major houses working together to come up with a standard format) would enable buyers to sort the books in dozens of different ways. How about looking at debut paperback fiction? How about hardback American history under $30? I'd love to sort out fiction with a spiritual theme.

3. The bookstore's computer system would feed into the online catalog to provide sales data on older titles. Why should I look up what John Grisham's last title sold, when the two computers could just talk to each other? We already give the publishers access to our sales information through a program called Above The Treeline; the presses should just feed it back to us on the online catalog. It should come up that I've sold 24 copies of Grisham's latest hardback and 47 of his most recent paperback. Perhaps carpal tunnel syndrome won't have to be the scourge of all middle-age book buyers.

4. An alert system could let buyers know of all the changes or additions that have happened since they last placed an order. Instead of receiving 5 to 10 pesky emails per week from each sales rep, perhaps buyers could just log on to the site once a month or so. I envision three tabs that would keep buyers informed: "New Titles," "New Publicity," and "Price and Title Changes." Bye-bye photocopied sheets.

5. The publisher's online catalog would dump the purchase order directly into our computer system. I know this is problematic due to most stores' (including the Boulder Book Store's) ancient computer systems. But it is still something that we could work towards once we get online catalogs up and running. The amount of staff time this would save is immense.

Words of Caution

HarperCollins held a meeting at the recent Book Expo America in Los Angeles with buyers from many of the top independent bookstores in the country to discuss their plans to implement an online catalog in the next nine months. It was a fascinating study in how people react to change. I was leading the charge into the online world with a handful of other booksellers. Many other buyers were much more hesitant to change a system that has worked for them, despite its inherent flaws. To them, the rush to change seemed reckless.

My biggest concern is that bookstores are some of the most under-capitalized businesses you'll ever find. Most stores do not have state-of-the-art computers and speedy internet connections. If an online catalog features too many bells and whistles, (HarperCollins is planning on having video and audio components to many pages) it could take too long for bookstores to load the individual pages. Staring at a stuck screen for more than an instant is going to bring the whole appointment to a crashing halt. There has to be a quick-loading basic page, with the exciting, colorful features all offered as something booksellers can access only if they want to learn more.

It's true that there are some potential downsides to ordering from an online catalog. It's harder to snuggle up with a laptop than a catalog in bed. Also, there's definitely something alluring about seeing photos on glossy paper as opposed to a computer screen. And a catalog is a lot easier to pass around the office.

However, the potential to revolutionize the buying process, save hours of tedious labor for both reps and buyers, and to make better decisions based on current information is too great to ignore. It's time for publishers to step up and make this happen. I applaud HarperCollins for the strides they've made and challenge Random House (the so-called industry leader), Penguin (publisher to most of last year's mega-sellers) and Simon and Schuster (home of the most useless catalog in the business) to wake up and give buyers a tool they can really use.