Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Dawn of the Color Photograph

The color blue is not particularly startling. We see it every day in the sky, in the clothing we wear, in the ink from our pens. It is shocking, however, to see the cobalt blue of the uniforms worn by the French soldiers in the trenches of World War I. It is equally stunning to view the rich crimson garment worn by a 14-year old in 1913 Ireland or the vibrant saffron in a rug being woven in 1909 Algiers.

These color photos featured in The Dawn of the Color Photograph: Albert Kahn's Archives of the Planet present us with vibrant images of a world that we think of as simply being black and white. Our ideas of color from these years comes from staring at the disturbing early paintings of Picasso or the fanciful works of a young Matisse. To see beautiful color photographs of everyday life from almost every corner of the globe completely changes our perspectives of those times and people.

The process used in these pictures was the autochrome (featuring glass plates and potato starch) which was invented by Auguste and Louis Lumiere in 1907. The Lumieres were also instrumental in developing the motion picture. For the first time in history, the autochrome provided a portable method for taking color photographs. It was very expensive, however, and that's where the French banker Albert Kahn came in.

Kahn's grand vision was that as the world's people got to know each other and to understand each other's cultures, the less likely it was that they would destroy each other in war. With that aim, he started a scholarship program that sent young teachers to the far-flung corners of the world. This was four years before the Rhodes scholarship was founded. Kahn saw the autochrome as a way to further his vision. He wanted to document, in color, all life in the world. His immensely ambitious project had an equally far-reaching name - The Archives of the Planet. Kahn sent professional photographers to the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa from 1908 to the early 1930s in order to document life in dozens of societies.

His pacifist ideals were obviously not realized--ironically some of the best photos were taken in Europe during World War I--but his photographers took some of the earliest color pictures, creating a unique historical record. In all, they left behind 72,000 autochromes, of which 370 are reproduced in this magnificent book from Princeton University. The commentary provided by David Okuefuna gives us glimpses into the adventures of some of these intrepid men and women that Kahn employed.

The photos have an eerie quality, and the colors, particularly the reds, are at times more brilliant than what we see in contemporary images. The shots are surreal in the sense that we are viewing scenes that should have been lost to history. It's like a strange dream, or a dazzling Hollywood production, when we see a Vietnamese concubine lounging in a beautiful pink robe in a 1915 opium den, or when we view the 1919 World War I victory parade in London with colorful flags fluttering.

Kahn's photographers focused on the mundane, the everyday, commonplace activities of the early 20th century. We see soldiers peeling apples, girls playing with dolls, men smoking pipes, bakers hawking their loaves of bread. The grand historical moments of that time are largely absent, but what is present are people attempting to live out their routine existences in a world of tremendous turmoil. It's impossible to look into these faces and not see ourselves with our petty concerns and our grand dreams on some level. At the same time, we look at their surroundings (horse-drawn carriages, distinct regional clothing and technology that is more 18th century then 20th) and see a world that has disappeared.

One of Kahn's goals was to document the disappearing cultural practices around the world. As a banker who was financing industrialization, he knew that the world was changing in permanent ways. He understood globalization before anyone ever called it that. One of the most striking aspects of the collection are the pictures taken in France's colonial possessions. The photos seem to rejoice in the indigenous cultures of Indochina and North Africa. A Vietnamese theater company in their garish outfits is portrayed, as well as traditional Algerian dancers in two of the more fascinating photos. At the same time the photographers ignore the heavy-handed French colonial presence in both of those regions.

None of this colonial rule is examined in these photos. The Vietnam photos were taken in one of the most tumultuous years of the French rule--a prison was seized in Saigon by rebels and an attempted coup in Hanoi was put down. But the photographer, Leon Busy, a French officer, was more preoccupied by the enchanting women of Indochina and colorful local clothes. In the notes, Okuefuna speculates on why Busy and others ignored France's brutal colonial rule.

"Was it because, as (film historian Paula) Amad suggests, the Archives of the Planet were 'an unofficial ambassador for French colonial policy'? Did Kahn or (Jean) Brunhes order him to refrain from recording anything that might jeopardize the Archive's cordial relationship with the higher circles of the French military? Was Busy prevented from shooting the activities of the French military by the diktat of a senior officer? Was it simply self-censorship, or a matter of taste?"

The lack of newsreel-type images or journalistic shots makes the work all the more powerful in many ways. Life finds a way to continue to go on in the most savage of conditions. Children will play behind the lines in a war-torn French city, Vietnamese men will continue to fish and plant rice under terrible repression. The photos take on a quality of timelessness that seems removed from a particular political regime or event.

This timeless perspective is enhanced by the softer, almost painterly qualities of the prints themselves. When the autochromes are enlarged they become pixillated and we can be fooled into thinking we are looking at remarkable detailed paintings. The contemporary artist Gerhard Richter's ethereal work springs to mind. There is something quite luminous on that border between photography and painting that these pictures inhabit.

It's rare that a book can change your view of the world. Perusing these images from Kahn's Archives of the Planet and reading Okuefuna's brief but informative captions has given me a much greater insight into how people lived nearly 100 years ago. This book is nothing short of a miracle. It's a time machine to the birth of our modern world.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Tales of Three Book Events

Author events are critical to the image and perhaps the very survival of large independent bookstores. Go to the website of any major store (Powell's in Portland, Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C. or Vroman's in Pasadena) and you will find the upcoming signings prominently displayed. It's one of the main ways that independents are able to distinguish themselves from the chain stores in the area. We are more than a bookstore, we are a literary and cultural hub to our communities.

That is certainly true in Boulder. The Boulder Book Store hosts about 200 events a year. We generate most of our local publicity through these events and almost all of the advertising that we do is directly tied to the author events. It's fair to say that our profile is much higher in town because we've been able to bring our customers face to face with David Sedaris, Garrison Keillor, Jon Krakauer, Thich Nhat Hanh, Joyce Carol Oates and hundreds of other authors over the years.

You would think that with our track record, we would be experts at putting on successful events. Unfortunately, many of these events are fraught with peril and difficult decisions. The line between a great event and a terrible disappointment is often just a matter of a few books, a moody author, a bad sound system, or an unruly customer.

Over the past month, we've had several major ticketed events and I thought I'd look closely at three of them and lift the veil on our decision-making process and the results. One of the events (Neil Gaiman) was wildly successful, another (a video presentation with Philip Roth) started off as a dud but now must be considered a winner and the third (Philippa Gregory) never got off the ground.

Neil Gaiman

I was a big Sandman fan when the comic first appeared in the late 1980s. My old original issues of the first dozen or so books are still sitting in a box in my sister's attic in New Jersey. I hope she doesn't figure out what I'm storing up there and list them on ebay. I haven't really followed Gaiman in his transition to more traditional novels, but still this is the man who made Death a likable character.

We were ecstatic to get an event with him. There is heavy competition between independent bookstores for top-flight authors and Gaiman was only appearing in nine U.S. cities. We put in a detailed proposal to HarperCollins and hoped for the best, but never really expected that he would come to Boulder. Once we were awarded the signing, then the decisions had to be made.

Where would we have the event? How much would we charge for tickets? Would we require customers to buy a book in order to get into the event? Would customers get a discount on the book if they attended the event?

We decided to hold the event at Unity Church of Boulder. It's really the nicest offsite venue we have access to and boasts an excellent sound system. We charged $6.00 for tickets which is our cheapest rate. The ticket fee covers the cost of the venue as well as the extra staff needed to run an offsite event. Since, the tickets were so inexpensive, customers did not get a discount on the book. We reasoned that we didn't have a history with Gaiman and perhaps much of his audience would be young and not so well-heeled.

Ticket sales were brisk from the day they went on sale. People were finding us through Gaiman's site and also from our email blasts to our customers. It soon became apparent that we would probably sell out the 600-seat venue. I ordered 220 copies of his newest title, a young adult novel, The Graveyard Book for the event along with a liberal smattering of his other titles.

Before I could even decide if we had a enough books for the event, my Harper rep was on the phone insisting that we were way short on books. He wanted us to order 250 more books. I was astounded. How would we sell so many books? It's a young adult book which isn't Gaiman's core audience. He also would not be personalizing the book at the signing. Add that to our history of events in this venue where 250 to 300 was our absolute ceiling on sales, I just couldn't wrap my head around bringing in 470 books.

We finally settled on 200 additional copies and stopped hyperventilating for a couple of weeks. The next shock to the system came on the day before the event was scheduled. It was my Harper rep again. "Hey, Bubbe (for some reason I'm a Yiddish grandmother to my rep) you need another 100 books. Everyone has taken at least 500 books." In what reality? I wanted to ask instead I was much more diplomatic, "Are you crazy?"

"We'll overnight them," he said. I told him that I thought we would never sell that many copies. It wasn't mathematically possible. We might have sold 600 tickets, but some of those were families, some were couples, some were people that simply wouldn't buy the new book. Well, what could I do? God forbid I was wrong.

The night of the event was crazy. Gaiman arrived at the store to sign all of the stock before rushing over to the venue. He got to all of the new books but didn't have time to sign much of the back stock. As we arrived at the church there was a line of people snaked halfway around the building waiting to get in.

We frantically set up folding chairs in the aisles and behind the pews in order to accommodate any overflow crowd. We prayed that the Fire Marshall was not a Sandman devotee and flung the doors open. The crowd came pouring in and it seemed that they all lined up to buy books. What did they buy? The Graveyard Book. They bought it in pairs, in threes. I was never so happy in my life that my rep made me bring in more books. We rang and rang in the sales until Gaiman started talking.

I began to fear that 520 books would not be enough. We tallied up our sales as the last of the customers wandered into the hall and saw that we sold 202 copies. Wow. For most of our events that would be a great final number. Usually we sold two to three times as many books after the event as we did before. My God, if that was the case we would run out of books. We only had 318 left. Why didn't he insist I buy 400 more books?

Gaiman read over 40 pages from The Graveyard Book that night. On each night of the tour he read a different chapter of the book. We heard the second half of chapter 7, the penultimate chapter, that contained the climax to the story. His reading went on for over an hour and the audience hung on his every word despite the stuffiness of the hot church. Afterwards, he showed a trailer for the forthcoming movie Coraline and took questions.

By the time the event was let out, over two hours had elapsed. What a deal for $6.00. The crowd started surging towards our table of books and I grew concerned. My fears were short lived as many, many more people headed out into Boulder's cool night air. Perhaps two hours was long enough. Perhaps some of the audience didn't feel the need to buy the book after having the most exciting part of it read to them. We sold another 83 books and our final tally was 285 for the night in addition to dozens of backlist books.

It was a magnificent event. One of the best we ever hosted. The audience was thrilled, the author gracious and we actually did more business at the event then we did all day long in the store.

Philip Roth

Roth is perhaps my favorite novelist. One of the very first novels that my wife and I read aloud together was Portnoy's Complaint. I knew she was a keeper when she thought the salacious story of Alexander Portnoy was brilliant and hilarious as opposed to sexist and frivolous.

Roth simply does not tour. I had the pleasure and agony of meeting Roth last year in New York City at a cocktail party. Most of his readers never get that opportunity. Given that he was never going to come to Boulder, we jumped at the chance to be one of the bookstores that would show a live feed of an interview with Roth provided by his publisher Houghton Mifflin. In addition to the video, Houghton Mifflin gave us the option of purchasing up to 48 signed copies of Roth's new novel Indignation for the event.

Signed first edition Roth books. That's a big deal. I quickly got on line and found that you could not buy a signed first edition Roth novel for less than $60. Of course, the fact that Houghton Mifflin was putting on this event would dilute the market for those signed books, but still it seemed many book collectors might attend the event just to get a signed book.

We set the ticket price, which included a signed book, at $49.95. Before we could even publicize the event, two things happened: Houghton offered us 72 books instead of 48 and we started seeing that other stores were charging $35 or less. We decided to reduce our price to $34.95. Ticket sales were slow but still the enticement of a rare signed volume was definitely creating some interest. Days before the event, the rarity of the item was severely compromised. Houghton Mifflin now said we could purchase up to 300 copies of the book signed.

We kept our order at 72 and hoped for the best. On the night of the event, we had less than 10 people in the audience. It turns out that of the dozen tickets we sold, a few of the people just wanted to get the signed book and bought a ticket to guarantee they wouldn't miss out. I took my seat as the video feed began. It started off interestingly enough with Roth politely answering a few questions, but it soon veered off track. Our feed wasn't perfect and Roth's words raced ahead of the picture. Also, it took on a C-Span quality. It was quite static (two men sitting in chairs talking for an hour) and Roth is frankly not the most forthcoming of interview subjects.

My enthusiasm waned and I began to think that if this is the future of author events, perhaps we should go into a different business. No one would want to see this except the most hardcore Roth fans. It didn't have anything approaching the vibrancy of an actual event and that connection to the author that thrills our customers just wasn't there.

Perhaps we shouldn't have charged for the event. If the interview was on a DVD instead of a live feed, we could have avoided the technical difficulties. However, the real problem was that even if everything went perfectly and we had 50 people attending it still would have been a boring event. It wouldn't have been something that people would venture out to see on a cold winter evening.

I left that night thinking of the event as a failure. During the broadcast, the owner of the bookstore sidled up to me and asked, "this is it?" motioning to the screen and the scant audience. I shrugged and said, "we tried."

A few days later as I was buying our new fiction section, I noticed that the Roth book had sold a few more copies. It kept selling. The autographed copies were actually flying off our shelves in the weeks that followed. We have now sold over 50 books, double what we sold of his previous hardback, and Indignation is high on our bestseller list. Not bad. The buzz from the event and the autograph stickers seem to be working their magic.

Philippa Gregory

Tonight's event with Gregory, the author of The Other Boleyn Girl, was cancelled late last week due to low ticket sales. This was a painful end to what we had hoped would be a signature event during our 35th anniversary celebration. What went wrong? Why were ticket sales stalled when we drew over 250 people to Gregory's last event in the store?

We anticipated that the turn out would be stronger this year then when we hosted her for the paperback release of The Constant Princess two years ago. She was touring behind a new hardback, The Other Queen, the movie version of The Other Boleyn Girl had created added interest in her work, and we were going to have period costumes for the event.

Our last event with Gregory strained our in-store capabilities. More than half the crowd had to stand and our event space gets quite warm when there are that many people. It seemed like a natural to go offsite with Gregory. Also, the publisher, Simon & Schuster, was insisting that Gregory events were held in large venues. We set the ticket price at $10 with customers getting $5 off her new hardcover.

Ticket sales started out slowly which isn't entirely unusual. Our event with James Kunstler for The Long Emergency eventually drew over 250 people even though less than 100 tickets were sold before the day of the event. Our marketing team kept sending out emails about the Gregory event, we displayed the book prominently and waited for the throngs of Gregory fans. It never happened. Finally, when we were four days away from the event with less than 40 tickets sold, we knew going offsite to a venue that held 600 was not going to work.

We had hoped to move the event back into the store, but the publisher was uncomfortable with that and so our only alternative was to cancel the event. It is a tremendous disappointment. Ironically, when I was at the register during Saturday's sale, two different people asked me about the Gregory event. They were upset and surprised it was cancelled even though neither one of them had tickets.

Perhaps we would have had a late rally and sold enough tickets to make it look respectable in the venue and recoup some of the cost associated with renting the space. Somehow, I doubt it. Between the election, the economy, and the weather (which turned miserable over the weekend) it just seemed we couldn't get this event off the ground. The saddest thing for me, was seeing the costumes packed up and sent off to the next tour stop without getting a chance to see anyone dressed as one of the Boleyns.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

I Ban Books for a Living

Banned Books Week is mercifully coming to an end today. The annual event that seeks to educate the public on what titles are being suppressed in the United States is sponsored by the American Library Association. Thousands of stores and libraries across the country, including the Boulder Book Store, feature displays of "banned books" intended to rile up our customers and alert them to the outrage being perpetuated throughout the land.

I am not all that interested in the hysteria. It's not exactly Fahrenheit 451 out there. No one's snatching books out of the hands of adults. Hell, Laura Bush, first lady to the Commander-in-Chief of Intolerance, helped launch the National Book Festival on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Perhaps my unease over making a big deal about banned books in America is because you can get anything you want, anywhere you want on the internet. Banned books are a tough sell as a piece of marketing these days. I heard a number of wise cracks as people looked at our store's display. The truth is that you can get many things that a sane society would actually ban delivered in an innocuous brown package right to your door. In today's world, how can you ban anything at a local level? It just doesn't make sense.

I first started dissenting from the banned book celebration several years ago when the word "challenged" was used instead of "banned" on many of the titles. The bookstore would get a list of "challenged" books that we could use in our displays. Many of these were books that some zealous parent in a small rural hamlet had objected to on a middle school reading list. The locals realized that the complaint wasn't worth taking up and the book remained on the school reading list. Somehow those books qualify for inclusion in Banned Book Week. To me, that's not a banned book.

Many banned or challenged books occur in schools. Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, Barbara Kingsolover and Toni Morrision all make this year's list. But what is really happening? Only McCarthy's book Child of God and Morrison's Beloved were actually removed from any reading list. Kingsolver's Animal Dreams was moved from a ninth-grade reading list to the eleventh grade, while Oates' Sexy and Morrison's Bluest Eye were deemed not offensive. Even Beloved, which was removed in an A.P. English class in Louisville, Kentucky, isn't threatened with an outright ban. Two parents are asking that students get parental permission to read it.

Contrast those mild challenges with what I do everyday as a professional book banner. As the head buyer of the Boulder Book Store, I spend many days meeting with publisher sales reps deciding what books will be placed on our shelves and which ones will not enter our store. There's no committee to review my decisions. There's no oversight at all. Once I decide I don't want a book, in all likelihood that book will never make it onto our shelves.

My reasons for banning books include: the book will probably not sell; the cover is an affront to my aesthetic sensibilities; no Boulderite in their right mind will be interested in the topic; the editor was rude to me at an author dinner; I'm in a terrible, terrible mood because the rep and I haven't stopped for a lunch break.

I admit that the Boulder Book Store is not as important to literacy as a junior high school in Lake Oswego, Oregon where they actually let children read Gail Giles' Shattering Glass, albeit with the disclaimer that it contains "mature content/language." But we do have our place in the community. In fact, in a recent article about our 35th anniversary celebration the local paper called us "the city's literary heart."

I am the black in that heart, gleefully rejecting books that the reps proffer with glib phrases like, "I'll pass on that one," "Are you kidding?" "Why is that even being published?" and "Skip." Sure, I feel guilty about some of these books that I ban from the store. There were two books in particular in last week's Random House appointment that made me hesitate.

The first was David Horowitz's One Party Classroom, a sordid tale about how colleges are turning our young people into dangerous left-wing types. I almost bought it for the sake of not appearing politically biased, until the rep asked me to look up Horowitz's previous book, The Professors. That one was an expose of the 101 most dangerous academics in America. Did they bring weapons into the classroom? Were they convicted sexual predators? No. They just made the mistake of disagreeing with Horowitz's addled political values. They were liberals like Horowitz once was. Well, it turns out I didn't buy The Professors for the store and no one seemed to notice. We didn't get a single special order or complaint. In One Party Classroom, Horowitz names "the worst school in America." Maybe it will be the University of Colorado. That would make me lift the ban.

The second and more guilt-inducing book was Best African American Essays: 2009 edited by Debra J. Dickerson. Bantam paperbacks is launching a new series of African American essays and also short stories. I opted to buy five of the short story collection but skipped the essays. In part because stories outsell essays by a margin of 5 to 1. Also, I wasn't sure how I felt about the series as a whole. Fifteen years ago we used to have sections or displays of African American fiction, Native American fiction and gay fiction. Now, many of those titles seem to succeed in the "fiction" section. Readers seem more willing to accept the diversity of fiction out there without wanting it labeled. In fact, we've had customers get upset when those titles appeared in special sections. I'll be interested to see how Bantam's collection of short stories does this year.

Now, most of my fellow bookstore buyers would not say that they are banning books from their stores. To say that "We are carefully selecting titles for our customers" is one way to spin our disdain for over ninety percent of the books that are published each year. My favorite highfalutin term is that we are curators. Instead of debating about exhibits featuring Mattisse and Picasso, we argue over whether to face out Danielle Steele or Nicholas Sparks.

Banned Books Week takes us away from the real threats facing books. The annual event started in 1982, before the internet existed. If a book wasn't carried by your town's library, it wasn't easy to find. That's not the case anymore thanks to the world wide web. The new threats are more insidious. Truly controversial books are having a hard time finding major publishing houses and also of getting media exposure. While we fret over one parent's unsuccessful attempt to remove copies of Harry Potter from the school libraries in Gwinnett County, Georgia, important books are not being published at all. Does anyone really believe that kids are deprived of their Harry Potter fix?

Naomi Wolfe's End of America and Vincent Bugliosi's The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder both were bypassed by major publishing houses in America and have received scant review attention in the nation's newspapers. Those authors were famous enough to find other avenues for their books. (Wolfe was published by Chelsea Green, and Bugliosi by Vanguard Press.) What about authors that are less fortunate? It's impossible to ban or even challenge a book that can't get published.

I must admit that I don't really have a problem with a parent challenging a book that their child is being asked to read in school. Reading about these school challenges is almost heartwarming because so many of them fail for the right reasons. School boards debate the merits of books, prosecutors read Toni Morrison, and they almost always decide that the books should stay in the library or the curriculum despite the parent's objection. It's called a dialogue. It's what open societies do to establish acceptable mores.

Is that so terrible? Most people would not object to their ninth-grade child being assigned one of the great American novels of the 20th century. But what if that novel was Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint? I don't think I'd be comfortable with a giggling 14-year-old asking me to explain the literary merits of a scene in which the protagonist is masturbating with a refrigerated piece of meat. I'd probably challenge it before I could ever get into that awkward conversation.

I would ban my own favorite novel.