Thursday, December 03, 2009

Some Recent Favorites

My reading has taken some strange twists and turns this year. Instead of ingesting my regular dose of contemporary poetry and new novels, I've been downing Is Your Mama A Lama almost every night before bed. This new medicine is not without its benefits: I recently discovered that "pat" was a verb in Pat the Bunny. I'd always assumed that Pat was just a gender neutral rabbit name. Imagine my surprise when I turned the pages and my baby was playing peek-a-boo, looking in a mirror and trying on a ring.

In the last month, I've managed to read a few adult novels between encore performances of Goodnight Gorilla and Are You My Mother that probably won't appear on any year-end top 10 lists, but that are worth remembering and discussing. All three of these novels feature strong female characters and interesting narrative twists.

The best of the bunch was Katharine Weber's True Confections. Weber's book won't come out until later this month, but it's been on my radar since the summer, when Weber tracked me down with a friendly email and asked that I give it a try. She thought my love of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint might make me a sympathetic reader. She was right. Here's the recommendation tag that I've written up for the store:

I love an unreliable narrator. The reader has to look for clues in the dialogue, in other characters' reactions and in subtle hints to divine the real story. Weber employs this device to create a brilliant satire on the candy industry. Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky of Zip's Candies tells her story in a rambling affidavit that exposes the racist origins of the company and her complicity in the firm's many disasters.

Weber weaved in so many fascinating and arcane facts about the candy business (my favorite was that Hart Crane's father invented lifesavers) that I began to believe that she made them up. She didn't. Her amazing research gives her quirky narration a verisimilitude that few comic novels achieve. The story lives on in Weber's blog Staircase Writing where she has continued to delve into her candy obsession.

Nancy Mauro's debut novel New World Monkeys was another comedy that featured a lot of obsessive behavior. I felt that Mauro's strength and weaknesses were one and the same. The novel is about a lot of different things (a failing marriage, a mangled ad campaign, a pervert, the excavation of long buried bones, crazy townsfolk) that make for intriguing reading. But sometimes it feels that the novel is too jam-packed. A little focus and quiet space could have allowed her two lead characters to be realized in a fuller way. The pervert, a minor side character, was the most human in the eclectic cast and the reader is both thrilled and terribly disgusted when he succeeds. Here's my recommendation tag:

A rollicking novel about two city slickers who inherit a rural house with disastrous consequences (they run over the town mascot - a wild boar on their initial journey to the home) as they cling to their deteriorating marriage. Lily digs up her ancestor's missing maid and wards off the boar's crazy owner while Duncan works on a sexist ad campaign that mocks the Vietnam War back in New York.

Check out this promotional video that Mauro, an advertising professional, made for the book. It closely portrays the novel's opening scene.

Peter Rock's My Abandonment follows the true story of a girl and her father who lived in Portland's Forest Park for several years. He tells the story from the 13-year old girl's perspective. Her tale unfolds beautifully, almost poetic in the rhythm and language. She's at one with nature in the forest, running through the paths in bare feet, strangely attune to any noises or changes in the direction of the wind. It all comes to an end when the camp is discovered by a backcountry jogger and the pair are taken into police custody.

Rock follows the story past its real-life roots. The pair disappeared some years ago and no one seems to know what became of them. Rock imagines a macabre and paranoid future for the father--one that didn't ring quite true to me based on the family's time in the woods and how he handled his brief confinement. Still, it was a wonderful read that reminded me of some of the great young adult books of my youth, like Island of the Blue Dolphins and Julie of the Wolves. Here's an interview with Peter Rock about the true story behind his novel.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Youngest Book Buyer Ever

In a shocking development, Boulder Book Store hired 11-month old Martina Kashkashian to join their book buying department last week. She is the youngest buyer in North America and perhaps the world, although there are unconfirmed reports that a nine-month-old monkey is the head of purchasing at a metaphysical book store in Montevideo, Uruguay.

"We just felt like we needed a new direction," general manager Nesra Naihsakhsak said. "An infusion of new blood, a fresh outlook. It's easy to get frustrated in this business. She won't think about how wonderful things used to be in the 1980s and 90s. Heck, she can't even remember 2008."

Kash's Book Corner was given a rare opportunity to sit down with this gifted and talented buyer at 3:30 this morning for a fascinating interview. Between feedings she spoke about her book buying philosophy, the publishing industry, the current price wars that are raging and her plush pink bear.

Here's the interview:

Kash's Book Corner: How did you get the job at such a young age?

Martina: I've been hanging around the bookstore since my days in the womb. I attended the Mountains & Plains regional show in Colorado Springs a week before I was born and that really gave me a broader perspective on the industry. I've also sat in with my father on several frontlist buys, attended BEA in New York, and even a Simon & Schuster sales conference in Florida. It's hard to beat those formative experiences. At the same time, I'm a virtual "tabula rasa" in terms of book knowledge. I'm open to new experiences.

Kash's Book Corner: What will be your responsibilities?

Martina: It's really baby steps for me. Not that I know what that really means since I haven't taken any steps yet. I'm just going to buy the publishers that have electronic catalogs on Edelweiss. Let me see, that's Random House, Harper, Penguin and Hachette adult and children's books. Also, Chronicle, W.W. Norton, Ingram Publisher Services. That's it. Daddy will still buy Columbia University titles.

Kash's Book Corner: I'm amazed you are willing to tackle an electronic catalog even though you are just starting out. So many booksellers are terrified by it.

Martina: They're just old. Old people don't understand new things. I'm a baby. It's simple. Look, take an 8 or 9-year-old. They started school before iPhones were even invented. It's mind boggling. I had an iPhone in the womb. How can you expect them to adapt? I don't even know how they found their way out of the womb without an iPhone. I was able to calculate the correct time and the proper angle using two simple apps . . . can I have my PinkBeary now?

Kash's Book Corner: Just a few more questions. You are entering the book business at a time of tremendous upheaval. What do you think of the current price wars?

Martina: I'm just upset that Amazon and Target won't sell me the books that cheap. It makes me shriek at the top of my lungs like that time Mommy fed me mashed up asparagus.

Kash's Book Corner: But after telling customers to buy local and independent, how could you look them in the eye if you bought books from Amazon?

Martina: I can't look anyone in the eye. I'm 2-foot-2.

Kash's Book Corner: You are buying the most important publishers in the industry. How will you know what to buy?

Martina: My daddy said I only needed to know two words: "No" and "Co-op." My two-year old friend says "no" all the time, so I figure this is a good chance to practice for me. I'll just say "no, no, no" on the adult books until the rep looks really upset, and then I'll give my cutest smile and ask "co-op?" I'm supposed to squeeze them for every last penny. The children's books will be more about taste. Literally. A good book, even a publisher sample, will have a certain texture and flavor when you put it in your mouth. "Yummy" will mean yes.

Kash's Book Corner: I'm sure that you are aware that there is very little money in bookselling. Why pursue it as a career?

Martina: I want my PinkBeary now!

Kash's Book Corner: Here you go.

Martina: [Squeezes her pink bear really hard.] Money! I don't even get an allowance. I don't get to pick any of my own clothes and they spoon feed me all sorts of mashed up vegetables. Now, I can get a few dresses, and the reps will take me out to sushi. Minimum wage sounds pretty good to me.

Kash's Book Corner: What are your favorite new books?

Martina: I'm a big fan of A.S. Byatt's Children's Book. Does Goodnight Gorilla count? I'm also really curious about Arguing with Idiots by Glenn Beck. Daddy won't let me read it because he says I'm too impressionable. I think it's because he doesn't want me to know how to argue with him.

Kash's Book Corner: Thanks a lot, and good luck on the job.

Martina: Can I go climb up and down the stairs now?

Kash's Book Corner: Go back to sleep, please.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Evolution Revolution

I have an article about the book Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails) by Paul Strode and Matt Young in the October 8 issue of the Boulder Weekly. The pair are coming to speak at the store this Wednesday, October 14.

On the day the article appeared, I had lunch at the bar of the Walnut Brewery just a block from the bookstore. It was a bitterly cold day that threatened snow. I was rooting on my beloved Phillies in the playoffs against the local nine, the Colorado Rockies. A grizzled elderly man, in a blue fishing hat and a heavy white sweatshirt with a beer in hand moved to the seat next to me from the other end of the bar.

After a moment of small talk, I quickly revealed that I worked at the Boulder Book Store. He became quite excited and told me that he collected first editions of American history books that were written between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.

"These books appeal to all three senses," he said, poking his finger into my knee as he slurped down his chili. I tried to tell him that there were five senses, but I couldn't get a word in. "The sense of sight, the sense of touch and the sense of smell all come alive when you read these books. Those old leather covers have quite an aroma."

He was particularly keen on his biographies. "You know, people didn't make a big deal about Jefferson in those years. There are only a couple of biographies of him compared to at least a dozen of Washington. I guess they didn't think much of Jefferson back then. Of course, those biographies are quite valuable because there are only a couple, and they didn't print many."

I nodded and watched as the Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba hit a two-run shot over the left field fence in Philadelphia. It didn't look like it was going to be the Phillies day, and I had to head back to work. I tried to bid adieu, but the man jabbed his forceful finger back into my thigh.

"The greatest biography of Washington was written by John Marshall," he said.

"The Supreme Court Justice," I replied.

He gazed at me for a moment with something that seemed to border on appreciation. "Yes. It's five volumes. He knew Washington. He had access to his papers. There will never be a better biography written of the man. Why do these revisionist historians keep writing new ones? Why don't they teach Marshall in school?"

I posited that they didn't teach five volumes of anything in school and also that 200-year old history books were almost never used. New information has come to light, I told him. Also, Marshall was a Federalist who fought with Washington, so he just may be favorably biased towards him.

He stared up at the television as the Phillies came to bat against the Rockies' Aaron Cook. It was bright and sunny in Philadelphia, a marvelous day for baseball. We both shivered every time the door to the brewery opened and let in some of the freezing Colorado air. Snow flakes were now lazily falling on the other side of the Walnut's floor-to-ceiling windows. He slowly began to shake his head no. I took the bait.

"Why do you think they don't teach Marshall? I asked.

He leaned back and turned fully towards me. "Because he talks about God. Marshall discusses how religious Washington was and how this nation was founded on Christian principles. People don't want that taught anymore."

"What about deism?" I interjected. He swatted at the air as if an annoying gnat had flown by.

"This was a Christian nation. It was based on the bible. The founders believed in the bible. Now their freedom of religion has been twisted to mean freedom from religion."

I rubbed my forehead and stared longingly at the front door of the restaurant. "Well, you can't have freedom of religion if you don't have freedom from religion," I said. "Look, I would have no problem with it being taught in history classes that the founders based their decisions on the bible and that they were guided by their religion, if it's true. If we can document it."

"Oh, it's true," he said. "These revisionist historians want to just delete all of those things out. People have twisted the constitution around so much that we can't even teach the bible in school anymore."

I stood up in an effort to leave, but I felt his heavy hand on my shoulder. The snow was really coming down outside, and the Rockies seemed to be threatening to score once again off the Phillies' ace, Cole Hamels.

"The bible has no place in school except in a religion class, " I told the old man, trying not to look at the chili stains on the corners of his mouth.

"I'll tell you where the bible should be taught," he responded. "In history class. Secular historians have said the the first five books of the bible are the most accurate history of that time period that we have. Archaeologists have not been able to refute anything in those books."

I stared at him with incredulity. Perhaps I'd heard wrong. Maybe he wasn't talking about the Old Testament. "What time period is that exactly?" I asked.

"From creation to ..."
"You don't believe in evolution," I blurted out.

"That's an adult fairy tale. It's all made up."

Despite having more than enough ammunition to argue with him after my close reading of Why Evolution Works, I had no energy or time for the fight. This guy wouldn't even agree with Intelligent Design, let alone evolution. I shook his hand and told him that I really had to go.

"You think a frog becomes a man?" he yelled at my back as I hurried toward the door, pulling my jacket collar up around my ears. "You think that you can just add a few years, and a frog will turn into a man? That's all it takes is a few extra years."

I exited the brewery, and within 20-feet of the doors was a box dispensing the Boulder Weekly. The cover teased of my article inside, "Local science teacher leads the evolution revolution."

Here's a copy of the article:

A Fairview science teacher’s guide for the anti-creationist

When Fairview High’s Paul Strode was a new science teacher in the early 1990s, he wasn’t ready for the challenge that a student brought to him when he taught evolution.

“In my first year, I had a student plop a stack of (creationist) pamphlets on my desk,” Strode says. “At the time I had no answer for him. I couldn’t answer him when he said that the horse was obviously made for humans to ride. I didn’t have the understanding of evolution or the understanding of how science worked.”

Strode and Colorado School of Mines senior lecturer Matt Young’s new book Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails) addresses the common misconceptions regarding evolution and debunks the flawed ideas of modern-day creationists.

Any teacher or person who reads this engaging treatise will be much better prepared than Strode was as a new teacher when confronted by creationists.

Apparently, there are an awful lot of creationists out there. In a recent Gallup poll done on the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth in February, only 39 percent of Americans said they believed in the theory of evolution. A quarter of the population rejects Darwin’s theories outright, while the rest of America doesn’t seem to care.

Young and Strode are alarmed by how many people refuse to accept scientific facts. In the opening pages of Why Evolution Works, they explain how ignorance of the basics of evolution can lead to a health disaster. The overuse of antibiotics, in everything from livestock to fowl to treatment of minor infections has caused many bacteria to evolve into new antibiotic-resistant strains. Most notably, the malaria parasite has grown resistant to quinine and its derivatives.

“Creationism doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” Young said. “Creationism correlates with denying climate change, the Holocaust and that HIV causes AIDS. People don’t believe in a great many things that science has proven to be facts. The result is these people are dangerous. In South Africa, countless people died because the prime minister [Thabo Mbeki] denied the link between HIV and AIDS.”

Why Evolution Works uses a thorough explanation of how science works to help dismantle the arguments against evolution. It seems like something any halfway-educated person should know (how hypotheses, experimentation, observations and theories fit together), yet in Young’s and Strode’s hands, it’s a revelation.

“One of the misunderstandings is the process of science. Our explanations change as we learn more about nature,” Strode says. “People think that it’s a weakness. ‘Oh, you’re wrong again.’ We are just gathering more information. Some information confirms your hypothesis, some adds a layer, and some contradicts it. Evolution is one of the most successful theories in all of science.”

Muddying the scientific waters are contemporary creationists that operate under the ruse of Intelligent Design. Writers such as Michael Behe and William Dembski assert that certain structures, like eyes, are too complex to have evolved from simpler systems. Behe admits, unlike many creationists, that earth is billions of years old and that all life has a common ancestor. However, he argues that the universe was “designed” for life.

Young and Strode take on each one of these points and expose the flaws in reasoning behind them. Dembski’s math is questionable and his view of probability is unnecessarily limited. Behe’s contention that the universe is designed is belied by a close examination of three jury-rigged features of human anatomy. The knee is terribly injury-prone, the scrotum is a strange solution to the problem of keeping sperm cool, and the eye is susceptible to glaucoma and cataracts.

“The human knee, the mammalian scrotum, and the vertebrate eye are far from perfect, but rather are merely the best evolution can do given the constraints of developmental genes and structures and functions already in place,” Young and Strode write. “Perhaps better designs could be envisioned, but evolution has had to work with what it had.”

“Intelligent Design is a deliberate attempt to get around the Supreme Court ruling that you can’t teach religion,” Young says. “They don’t make any claims about the identity of the designer. But it’s obvious what they are getting at.”

Although the history of creationism and the lessons in basic science provide great entertainment, the heart of Why Evolution Works is a brief but thorough look into the theory of evolution. Young and Strode look at the theory from several different angles, including the dating of the earth’s beginning, new genetic research and how embryos of different species can show us their common ancestors.

They describe these normally dense scientific topics in short chapters in a conversational tone. Each chapter has a conclusion that summarizes the information and there are several boxes with quirky evolutionary stories.

“I wanted to write a book for the high school level,” Young says. “Our publisher wanted it to be for the college market. We’d like to see everyone read it. We are also aiming the book at the fence-sitters. People who think some of Intelligent Design makes sense. We want to show them that science trumps dogma.”

Why Evolution Works directly addresses the question of whether science and religion can co-exist. Strode and Young tell the story of two brothers-in-law who traveled the path from young earth creationists (they believed the earth was only 10,000 years old and Noah’s flood literally happened) to evolutionists.

Stephen Godfrey was studying to be a paleontologist when he discovered fossilized footprints of animals in sedimentary rocks. If all the fossils were deposited during Noah’s flood, how could footprints exist? His brother-in-law, Christopher Smith, changed his mind while taking a course on the interpretation of the Old Testament. He began to see the bible’s Genesis chapter as poetry and not as literal history. Godfrey and Smith maintain their Christian beliefs.

However, many fundamentalist Christians would probably find Young’s and Strode’s words chilling as they try to reconcile their beliefs. “Any belief, religious or other, that denies known scientific fact is seriously in need of reconsideration,” they write. “Religion and science are not incompatible, but some religious beliefs are at odds with facts and need to be reevaluated. Unhappily, rather than reevaluate their beliefs, proponents of such religious beliefs have set forward the pseudo-scientific claims that are a major concern of this book.”

Researching and writing Why Evolution Works has helped solidify Strode’s own understanding of the issues that he deals with as a high school teacher.
“I recently had a parent at Boulder High School who said, ‘I heard you teach biology with evolution. Do you teach other theories? Like creationism.’ I said, ‘I teach science. If you are interested I have a book coming out on the subject.”

For More Info:Paul Strode and Matt Young will sign and speak about Why Evolution Works at the Boulder Book Store on Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m. 1107 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-447-2074.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Does Dan Brown Hold Bookselling Key?

This morning, I was expecting 492 copies of Dan Brown’s Lost Symbol to arrive with our UPS order. I greeted the driver at the door with a big smile and eagerly helped catch the boxes. My grin disappeared when only one measly box of the Lost Symbol showed up.

Was it a 492-book carton? Was Dan Brown’s new opus just a slim, stapled pamphlet retailing for $28.95? No. The box contained a single 12-copy floor display. We were missing 480 copies of our order.

I did what any normal book buyer would do in this day and age. I tweeted about the problem. I figured it was the fastest way that I could reach as many Random House people as possible. I also called my rep in a panic. We are not expecting Dan Brown to save our year or even our month, but we sure don’t want to look silly by running out of the most hyped book of the year an hour after its release.

The books arrived a couple of hours later (it only felt like a month as I could hear every one of my racing heartbeats vibrating through my body during those long minutes) on three big pallets that also contained the missing 400 copies of Jon Krakauer’s new book Where Men Win Glory.

The much ballyhooed Fall season is here. It officially starts tomorrow with the release of these two monster titles. It’s a season packed with big, exciting, wonderful books that is supposed to save publishing and by extension bookselling.

Perhaps, if every season were filled with great books rather than an endless supply of schlock, unsupported midlist titles and pathetic trend followers, the industry wouldn’t be so far in the hole that it would need saving.

After writing a blog post about Random House’s bounty of remarkable Fall books a few months ago, it seems that I have become one of the people in the industry that the media likes to contact whenever they need some prognostication work. I’m not Nostradamus, but I’m happy to play him on the phone which is what I did when the Christian Science Monitor and Bookselling This Week called recently.

I don’t think it’s possible for one, two or even 10 great books to change the landscape in publishing and bookselling, even in the short term. The issues plaguing bookselling (fewer people reading, the devaluation of books by making them loss leaders and books competing against exciting new technological gadgets and games) are ingrained in our culture, our economy and our educational system. These are systematic problems that aren’t going to go away.

If we sold every copy of the Dan Brown and Jon Krakauer books in the month of September and we’re able to retain all of last year’s September business, the store wouldn’t even be up 10% for the month. Not exactly a seismic jolt. We certainly wouldn’t complain, but it’s just one month in an otherwise dismal year. It’s more likely that we won’t sell out of the Lost Symbol and Where Men Win Glory, and even more likely that we won’t be able to match our September 2008 business.

No, we are going to have to win this battle (and I believe it is a battle for the intellectual soul of this culture) one book, one customer at a time over a period of years. There aren’t any easy answers, or magic solutions. There won’t be any sighs of relief or rejoicing for a long time.

Our opportunity with the Fall books is that we can win over a few people as more permanent customers when they buy one of these blockbusters. Of course, that is if they aren’t grousing about the fact that we are selling Dan Brown at a $29.95, instead of $16.00 like the giant warehouse stores.
Heck, they might not even buy the blockbusters at our store. Let’s face it, you can’t buy a 32-pack of toilet paper, a gallon of ketchup or a 10-pound block of cheese while you’re here. At least we have gourmet chocolate and lots of copies of the books.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Even on Mars, We Are Who We Are

The following review is republished from the September 3rd issue of the Boulder Weekly. Back in February, I wrote a feature about Robert Dresner and his failed attempts to get his novel The Astral Imperative published for the Boulder Weekly.

When I reprinted that piece on Kash's Book Corner, it became one of my most read entries garnering many comments from people in publishing and also self-published authors. Dresner was also contacted directly by publishers and agents about the book. To date, he still does not have a deal in place. It's not so easy for an unknown author to sell a trilogy one book at a time.
In this article, I chose not to discuss the fact that the novel is self-published. The distinctions between published and self-published and all the permutations in between those two extremes seems to be completely blurred in the public's mind. If it's a good book, no one - outside of the bookselling and publishing industries -seems to care whether some guy is printing his personal manifesto on demand or whether Random House is revving up the presses for a 100,000 print run.


Local Sci-Fi author creates his own Universe
Robert Dresner creates a dark but vividly drawn future universe where life is nearly impossible for his heroes in The Machine, the second volume of his thought-provoking science-fiction trilogy, The Astral Imperative.

The novel opens with three astronauts stranded on Mars after their international mission of hope has led to the deaths of their six crewmates. The survivors live in uncomfortable quarters where the constant drone of the air pumps invades their every conscious moment. They barely speak to each other, only communicating when it is absolutely necessary.

“They gave birth to the future, but now they are marooned,” Dresner said. “It’s about survival. They have to discover who they are. When hope starts to fade, it’s amazing how you revert back to who you are. You can meet a great challenge, but when it’s over, you are all of a sudden back to yourself.”

The rescue of the astronauts is not so simple. They have discovered a new life form, and that form, regardless of how tiny (we’re talking molecular here), could possibly contaminate everything on Earth. In addition, they are in possession of the Dream Machine, a computer that has reached consciousness. Whatever nation controls that technology would obviously have a huge advantage in the world. The ideals of the first international crew give way to the tribal bickering of the rescuers.

“That machine is the most powerful thing that humans have ever created,” Dresner said, clearly relishing his own creation. “The idea of the rescuers is to either control the Dream Machine or make sure that no one else does.”

While the humans wrangle for power on Mars, for many on Earth, survival isn’t even an option. The climate becomes increasingly foreboding until a killer storm, far beyond the power of Hurricane Katrina, strikes New York City, highlighting the necessity of exploring new worlds. One character walks out into the streets of Manhattan after the storm has cleared and is stunned and heartbroken by the destruction.

“He saw one whole block destroyed, every single building collapsed into one another; the mound of wreckage and carnage so high it blocked out the sun… He heard gunshots in the distance, and a short burst of machine gun fire as he neared Central Park. He saw bulldozers shoveling bodies off the sidewalk, piling them on top of one another for removal to mass graves in New Jersey.”

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Dresner’s world is how ordinary people respond to extraordinary situations. On his Earth, life is virtually unchanged despite the fact that the first novel ended with all of the computers being taken over by an alien intelligence of some kind. Wouldn’t that be the most amazing event in human history? Wouldn’t that change how we saw ourselves in this universe?

“If we had an experience with aliens, it wouldn’t be progressive,” Dresner said. “You’d wake up one day and it would happen. You’d be listening to NPR or watching CNN or perhaps a friend would call you and tell you. It would just happen. For a few days, things would be different, but you’d still have to pay the rent, you’d still have to go to work. It wouldn’t change your emotional reality.”

Emotions are at the forefront of Dresner’s writing. His plot may scream science fiction, but there are two powerful romantic love stories seamlessly weaved into the novel. Dresner may be as concerned with matters of the heart as he is about the survival of the human race. The question of whether one of his characters will have an abortion and what the impact of that one act will be is central to the novel’s development. Relationships are treated with a surprising tenderness given the technical, science-based writing that prevails in the series. Perhaps it is his skill in writing about emotions that has helped him build a strong female audience.

“I’m shocked, not that some women like the first book, but by how many really like it,” Dresner said. “They relate to the characters and to the issues that those characters are dealing with, and how they make decisions. But their reactions don’t influence how I write. The intellectual content drives the plot, but feelings and emotions bring the story to fruition. It’s heartbreaking and romantic what the characters go through.”

The most compelling character in the novel is Sara Sietzer, the widow of the Mars mission captain. Sietzer moves from celebrity to politician and eventually into the presidency. Along the way, she must make painful personal decisions. Her rise seems to be one of the few positive developments on Earth. She’s a reason for hope. However, she proves to be totally ineffectual as a politician, in part because she denies her true emotions.

As much as Dresner’s novel is grounded in the politics of Earth and the science of Mars, there is another dimension that he is writing on that gives the novel depth and resonance. His concerns are spiritual, philosophical. In many different ways and through many different characters, he asks: Who are we? What will we do to survive? What makes a meaningful life?

“I’m bringing in intense New Age, Buddhist, Kabbalah, Christian Mystical thoughts to tie in these people who are dealing with their day to day lives,” Dresner said. “I’m trying to create a synergistic effect between having your eyes fixed on the stars and your feet planted on earth.”

It is this quest for the spiritual that drives the astronauts and ultimately their rescuers on Mars. The unifying spirit of discovering another life form, perhaps the secrets of the universe, ultimately proves more important than any national loyalty. In the end, it is the astronauts’ need for something larger than themselves that imbue this novel with hope and courage and make it a fascinating read, a novel to ponder as you gaze up into the night sky.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Let the Great World Spin

My uncle Nick died yesterday. It was sudden and completely unexpected. He was trim and fit and seemed to be in the prime of his life though he was in his mid-sixties. I expected another 20 years of visits with him at least. After all, his father, my grandfather, lived an active life until the age of 97.

The world seems strangely tilted to me today: the sidewalks slanted, the blue sky too low, the bird calls too loud, the grass in this strangely rainy season a too-brilliant green. I spent the night and early morning hours in a daze, pacing the hardwood floors of my apartment and intermittently lying on the couch trying to read Colum McCann's beautiful new novel Let the Great World Spin through the tears in my eyes. It's a novel suffused with death and grief (at least the first 115 pages) and each passage sent my mind reeling back to thoughts of Uncle Nick.

My father had three younger brothers, John, Nick and Ron, and a much younger sister, Ardelle, who is closer in age to me than to my dad. I was the first grandchild in the family, and thus some of my earliest memories are of lively family vacations at my paternal grandparents' house. My three uncles knelt on the floor and would bark at me like three big dogs. I turned with glee from one to the other, stumbling over the large oriental rug that covered the living room floor as I tried to find a safe haven from the doggies. They'd gradually close in on me until there was no escape. There was no getting away from their embraces of playful joy and love.

Throughout my childhood, my father would regale my sisters and I with the exploits of his childhood featuring the four brothers. In the room where I slept at my grandparents' house, there was a picture frame with four individual shots of the boys. My father was respectably buttoned-down forever in his role as the eldest brother, the characteristic wave in his hair already present even though I didn't quite recognize his face. Nick's photo I remember the best. He had a slight sneer. It was a look that he carried into adulthood. I would have recognized him anywhere.

I imagined the brothers as my own version of the Little Rascals. Four boys loose on the neighborhood, causing havoc; four boys getting into trouble down on the boardwalk every summer. It was Nick that played most prominently in these tales. He was the brother that my father was most closely bonded to, despite the fact that John was closer to him in age. At the center of many of these stories was the family's dry cleaning business. It was where they all came of age. In my teenage years, if I acted out at all, I was always threatened with a summer stint at one of the dry cleaning locations. "You don't know how easy you've got it," my dad would laugh. "I'll send you off with my father and you'll never complain again."

The brothers were in the family dry cleaning business, Frankford Associates founded in the early 1930s by my grandfather, at various times in their lives. My father became a lawyer -- he still practices -- and never spent time there after college. John, who was also my godfather, eventually moved out to California when I was in high school and died about 12 years later. Nick and Ron stayed in the business. They were joined at various times over the years by both of Nick's sons and Ardelle's boy. For a short time, I served as the parts manager of the business.

Frankford Associates was not a place I ever expected to find myself. I was off to college at the age of 17 and destined for a professional career. I wasn't going to look back. I wanted to put as much distance between myself and my family as possible. I didn't know what profession I might choose, but it was unimaginable to me that I'd spend it in the dry cleaning business. I must have been insufferable.

I ended up there because it was my only option when I was mired and paralyzed by pain and depression after a traumatic breakup. Somehow, I had lost the thread of my life. I couldn't understand how I had become the person I was. I moved back home after four years in college and a year in Houston. I had no prospects for a professional life, no ambition for one. My father talked to my Uncle Nick and my grandfather, and they installed me as the least-qualified parts manager in the history of the dry cleaning business.

Each day, I would drive down to the Frankford Associates office. I would sit in my office and mope. My grandfather and my uncle Nick would be working on deals on the phone, visiting clients, going back into the warehouse. I just waited for the phone to ring and for someone, usually with a heavy Korean accent, to tell me that their Multimatic cleaning machine was broken and they needed a part. I would consult the instruction manual, examining the diagram of the machine trying to locate the part. Finally, I'd plunge into the parts room. It was filled with hundreds of poorly labeled cardboard bins holding bolts, washers, elbow joints, and switches. I'd try in vain to find the broken piece.

My searches were almost always futile. I'd go back out to the main office and wait for Nick to get off the phone. Often, I was searching for the wrong part. He'd patiently show me the correct part in the manual and walk me into the parts room. The whole time I'd be looking down at the floor and wondering why I had to do anything in this world, tears nearly forming in my eyes as I thought about the life I expected and the pain that had derailed it. Sometimes, when he found the part, I wanted to hug him out of gratitude

It went on like that day after day. My father, who dropped by the office on occassion and my grandfather talked to me at times and told me to hang in there and to buck up. I knew they were right, but somehow it wasn't getting through. Nick rarely broached the topic of my breakup with me. However, every day he was the one who took me out to lunch. He was the one who treated me as if I really was somehow valuable to the business and who showed me how to do my job. Slowly, day by day, hour by hour, he brought me back into the present moment with simple conversations about politics, sports, the state of Philadelphia or anything else that two guys on a lunch break would talk about.

The weekends were a wasteland for me. Without the daily routine of going into the office, I just sank into my morass, my eyes glued to the television, not really comprehending even the most inane sitcoms. Soon, Nick was asking me if I wanted to make the rounds to the coin operated washing and drying machines that he owned at area schools on Saturdays. We drove around together. I must have been the worst company. I remember one drive where I leaned my forehead against the passenger window for miles, just watching the trees go by. Nick talked to me as if nothing was wrong. Slowly, I came to look forward to these drives.

Gradually, I began to learn the job despite myself. I even began to revel in some of the personalities of the office. The two repair guys that we employed were both gruff and alcoholic. One time I went out with Stanley, a man in his early 30s with stringy hair and pockmarked skin who had several girlfriends, if he was to be believed, to fix one of the machines. I didn't have the slightest idea of why I was going on this trip. I couldn't fix anything. Nick pulled me aside, "Just make sure he gets there and gets back. That's all you have to do."

It was 11 a.m. or so when we headed out in Stanley's van. Stanley looked like he hadn't slept in a week. His eyes were bloodshot, his clothes were wrinkled and his movements slow. The parts and tools rattled in the back as we pulled out onto North Philly's Torresdale Avenue. I buckled my seat belt and prayed I was smelling last night's alcohol on Stanley's shirt. Not five minutes into the drive, Stanley turned into a nearly deserted parking lot.

"Why are we stopping?" I asked.

"There's a club I want to visit," he said. "We've got plenty of time. I just have to replace a valve on that machine. It'll take me five minutes. No one has to know."

I looked at him like he was nuts. "Stanley, just fix the machine and get back to the office," I said.

He ran his hand through his hair and banged the steering wheel in an agitated manner. "I thought you were cool, man." He leaned back. "This is the best strip club and there's almost no one in there this early. We'll have all the girls."

I couldn't help but laugh. I think it was the first time I'd laughed in months. We pulled out of the parking lot and headed towards the dry cleaner. Stanley cursed me the whole way. When Stanley started fixing the machine, he was different man. His hands moved in the guts of the machine like a skilled surgeon. Not a single movement was wasted. We were out of there in five minutes. I couldn't wait to tell my Uncle Nick just how right he was to send me along on this mission.

Five months into my tenure at Frankford Associates, I landed a job as a sports reporter in southern Maryland. I thought my uncle would be overjoyed to be released from the burden of bringing me back to life. When I told him, his response was more complicated than I expected.

"Now that we are finally getting some work out of you, you're leaving us," he said. He seemed to mean it. I was surprised. But then he congratulated me and slapped me on the back.

I think, in a way, I have missed those times with my uncle for the last 20 years. The lunches, the drives in the country, the simple, quiet moments in the office when he was teaching me how to read a manual, or write a purchase order, or just find the right elbow joint. To work with him every day knowing how much he cared for me was one of the great blessings of my life.

In the small hours of this morning, I came across this passage in Let the Great World Spin: "Death, the greatest democracy of them all. The world's oldest complaint. Happens to us all. Rich and poor. Fat and thin. Fathers and daughters. Mothers and sons."

I put the book down and thought about uncles and nephews. It didn't seem very democratic to me. It seemed terribly unfair.

So today the world keeps spinning, but without my Uncle Nick it doesn't seem so great.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Random House's Hail Mary Pass

I've had my head buried in the Random House Fall catalogs most of this week. It's a wonderful place where fine literature is abundant, and intelligent history, science, and current affairs books are plentiful. It's a book lover's utopia that for moments at a time can almost counteract the bookseller's dystopia in which we are living.

The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group catalog in particular was truly amazing. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that it is the single best catalog I have perused in my 12 years as a buyer. Now before we break out the champagne, I have a few caveats.

First of all, this shouldn't really be just one catalog. Corporate ownership of publishing has given us these many headed beasts where several formerly vibrant individual publishers or imprints are forced into one unruly tent. This catalog is the result of some layoffs at Doubleday that forced it into Knopf's lap. Now, you have the greatest literary publisher in the land leading off the season with schlock-meister Dan Brown's Lost Symbol. Perhaps if Dan Brown could have delivered his manuscript as scheduled a few years ago, a few more people at Doubleday would still have their jobs and Knopf could focus its attention on Alice Munro, Richard Russo, A.S. Byatt and Kazuo Ishiguro. Oh well.

My second reason for not celebrating is that this list might be too much, too late. The idea is that all of these great books are going to magically produce more customers for the holiday season. I have my doubts. After several extremely fallow Fall seasons, our customers have come to expect little new and exciting at Christmas from the publishers. Also, the recession has taken its toll and to think that an industry which currently accepts 10% down as being, well, acceptable, is suddenly going to rebound and be in the black because of a few great titles strikes me as naive. I am not of the "build it and they will come," mindset.

My final word of caution comes from a little history lesson. A few years ago, when Da Vinci Code was selling like iPhones, we were overjoyed. The Boulder Book Store sold more than 500 copies that December alone and nearly 1800 overall. We not only had the champagne out, we were drenched in it. I sobered up quickly when I ran the numbers on hardback fiction in January. Our sales in that section were only up moderately. In fact we sold only about 150 more units than the previous year. Basically, Dan Brown had wiped out the rest of the books in the section. It's conceivable that 350 of his sales might have gone to other books. They weren't really additional sales. Many titles severely underperformed that season.

Okay, enough caveats. Yesterday was still an amazing day as I paged through the catalog and parried with my rep on the quantities that I'd order in for the store. I also shared my thoughts throughout the day with fellow booksellers, reps and authors on Twitter. Here's a blow by blow account of how the buy proceeded.

As I awaited for Ron, my longtime Random House rep, to arrive at ten, I sent out a message on Twitter. It was a plea for help, a cry in the dark.

"Buying RH today. The Doubleday/Knopf side. Must decide on Dan Brown. What are others doing? We sold 1800 of Da Vinci in hdbk. 500 of new bk?"

I got two responses. One from a new store that was in awe that we could sell 1800 copies of any single book and one from the buyer at Maria's down in Durango. Joe from Maria's said they were looking at buying 150 and 500 sounded about right for my buy. That gave me more confidence with my hunch. Given the difference in our stores' sizes, I figured we should be buying about three to four times what Maria's does.

Ron arrived and the Dan Brown book was first on our list. It wasn't even in the catalog. Just a boring photocopied sheet. "I'll take 500," I boldly exclaimed. I waited for Ron to argue that I should take 1,000, maybe even more. But he surprised me. He told me the carton quantity was 16 and that there was a 12-copy floor display. We ended up buying 30 cartons and the floor display. That's 492. I was talked down on my buy. Ron was playing it cool.

Now we opened the catalog. I expected the pages to glow or at least shimmer. I'd heard so much about this catalog. I had done some homework on the paperbacks in the back of the catalog, but I hadn't even looked at the hardbacks. I wanted the experience of having Ron sell me this list without having developed preconceived prejudices. Instead of a page glowing with heavenly light, I was staring at what looked like a fairly pedestrian current affairs book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe by Christopher Caldwell.

I was speechless. Ron, as usual, rushed in to fill the silence. He started his well-rehearsed spiel about how this book was a look at the demographic revolution in Europe and how the Muslim populations were growing and asserting themselves in the different countries. I yawned. I'm sure Caldwell's book is well researched, but I was ready for some bling, for crying out loud.

"Knopf is leading off what is supposed to be the greatest list in history with this book?" I asked Ron. "It's a European book. It hardly has a market here." Ron patiently withstood my mini-diatribe. "I'll take one copy," I finally said.

A few moments later Ron was enthusiastically describing Thomas Trofimuk's debut novel Waiting for Columbus on page 10, while I was salivating over Jon Krakauer's new book Where Men Win Glory. Here was the bling. We were even getting an event with Krakauer. Ring, ring go the cash registers. It's been a long wait for this book. Last year, back when Doubleday actually existed as an independent entity, this book was cataloged and then cancelled. Still, Ron went on and on about how Trofimuk was an in-house favorite. I should really give him a chance.

"I'll tell you what Ron why don't we use Dan Brown's book as a bank. If I buy three from an unknown author, we will just lower my order on The Lost Symbol by three. So let's take three on Trofimuk and only 489 on Brown."

Ron chuckled, typed in the three and ignored my request to lower the Dan Brown number. I turned to the Krakauer and wrote in 100. We will order many, many more for the event. Sure, I'm a bit worried that the topic, Pat Tillman -- the football player who was killed in Afghanistan -- might not resonate with our core audience, but the enthusiasm for Krakauer overrides that. Here's a writer that you just have to trust. He has delivered every time. If he thinks Tillman is important enough to write about, I've got to believe that he's going to turn his story into a must read.

Johnathan Lethem's Chronic City was next up on the docket. I'm currently reading this strange Bellow-like novel (huge compliment) about a former child t.v. star living in Manhattan. Lethem's world seems like ours except there's a tiger on the loose in the northern reaches of the island and the narrator's girlfriend is an astronaut stuck out in space with no way to return. So far, I love it. I ordered a dozen.

Earlier in the week, I complained about the sheer number of titles that Random House was publishing on Twitter. James Othmer, the author of the forthcoming Doubleday book Adland responded with, "Hah! I was already neurotic over sharing a pub date w/D. Brown then I saw your spot on Tweet. Good luck!"

Confronted with Othmer's book on the catalog page, I tried to see it in the best light possible. It's basically a book about advertising (sounds like a contemporary Mad Men) that is gu
nning for a general audience. Ron showed me two possible covers. One bizarrely featured a fried chicken leg, while the other showed the earth. I ordered five copies and prayed the chicken leg would go away. My guess is that without the personal interaction with Othmer on Twitter, I would have gagged on that chicken leg and moved on without bringing the book into the store.

I moved into the Nan A. Talese section of the catalog. Talese is Random House's venerable editor who seems to have the magic touch every season. I'd actually call it genius and talent. During a bookseller dinner at BEA she stood up and said some very kind words about independent booksellers and the importance of the written word. I was feeling warm and fuzzy to her as I turned the pages.

Pat Conroy, who hasn't had a new novel out since I've been a buyer, has delivered South of Broad. I bought two dozen. That's a low number in some ways, but with the plethora of big books and the slowing economy it's enough to give it a look. Besides it comes out in September which gives me plenty of time to react before Christmas if the book takes off.

Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood was next. It's her first novel since Oryx & Crake. My wife is currently reading it. At night Emily lies in bed dutifully reading Atwood, while I lie next to her reading Lethem and the baby lies between us. Occassionally we reach across Martina and hold hands or even kiss.

This past weekend Emily and I were in a sandwich shop eating lunch after a hike watching the Mets and Yankees play on this gorgeous 40-inch flat screen television when an ad came on that we found quite interesting. The sound was off so we didn't know what the ad was about. The first shot showed a couple in bed. They were both reading. "Looks like us," I joked. The second scene showed the pair involved in separate hobbies. The third shot showed them snuggling and the word Viagra came across the screen.

Emily and I both started laughing. Obviously, the only reason you would read in bed with your spouse is because you couldn't get it on. Well, the television couple didn't have Atwood and Lethem to keep them entertained. If they did, they might read right through the Viagra and that dreaded four-hour erection.

Knopf was next. There aren't really enough good things that can be said about this publisher. Last year, eight of the top ten New York Times Books of the Year were Knopf titles. This list included novels by Kazuo Ishiguro (24 copies), Lorrie Moore (12), James Ellroy (12), A.S. Byatt's most promising since Possession (16), and Richard Russo (21). In a year without Dan Br
own and a recession all of those numbers would have been about 50% higher. Still, that's a lot of books.

But wait there's more. It seems that Nabokov's heirs, first his wife and now his son, have refused to carry out his last wishes. They did not burn his notes for the novel he was
working on at the time of his death. After years of dithering, his son Dmitri has decided to release the book. However, it's more than a book. It will contain facsimiles of the 138 index cards that Nabokov used for his notes. A new Nabokov for crying out loud.

As I finished the astounding buy, Ron looked like the proverbial cat that ate the canary. I was exhilerated, exhausted and just a bit discomfited. Knopf could produce Nabokov out thin air, but could they actually make customers appear? If they really had the magic touch, where is the J.D. Salinger novel?

Where was I going to put all of these books? I know deep down in my heart that there are only so many sales to be had this Fall.
There's a certain desperation to this list. If times were good and cash flow not so tight, it's hard to imagine that Knopf wouldn't have moved some of these titles back into early 2010.

In a panicked Tweet at the end of the buy, I threw my own hail mary pass in an attempt to preserve the store's cash flow position.
"My RH rep is just spoon feeding me now. It's like the Manchurian Candidate. I'm programmed to cancel my Harper & Penguin orders."

Ron grinned. He's been advocating that position for years. We were finally seeing eye to eye.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Impressions of Book Expo

Just What is BEA?

The annual Book Expo America has been many things over the years in addition to being an industry-wide celebration. Politicians including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have used the convention to garner some press for their projects and stroke their authorial ambitions. Celebrities from Prince to Hugh Hefner have thrown lavish parties ostensibly for forgettable books, and it's been a place to air out every half-baked idea in publishing.

The consistent theme throughout the years, whether the convention was in glitzy Las Vegas, pre-Katrina New Orleans, workman-like Chicago, or the center of the publishing universe, New York, has been that BEA is about books. The big houses displayed their fall lists in force, passing out galleys, bringing in authors, hanging giant banners and thrusting endless catalogs on unsuspecting booksellers. If you didn't return home with a dozen buzz books (titles that everyone was talking about), it seemed like you somehow missed the show.

This year's fete was held in New York's remarkably dull Jacob Javits Center. Yes, dull. Lacking luster. Brutish. New York couldn't do any better for a convention center than an ugly squarish black glass building that makes the Port Authority look like a monument to sensible architecture? Worse yet it is set in the most hidden and forsaken part of the city where restaurants and retail establishments won't even venture. Is there any other part of Manhattan that more resembles downtown Flint, Michigan?

Still, despite the sordid location, the transitioning print to digital world that publishers and booksellers occupy, and the horrendous economy (we are two steps ahead of the automakers and one step ahead of the newspapers), I couldn't wait for the show to begin. It was a chance to escape the depressing spreadsheets of the store, an opportunity to convene with creative booksellers and publishers, and perhaps rub shoulders with some authors that I revere.

Here are some thoughts and impressions of the just-completed show:

Where Are The Books?

Most publishers drastically cut back the number of advance reader's copies that they gave out. The booths were sparse, the freebies (despite Wired Magazine's Chris Anderson's assertion that free is the next big price point) were almost non-existent. Where was the swag? All I wanted was a deck of cards advertising a book or a publisher. Used to be, I'd see five of those a show. Nowadays, all I got were brochures to go to netgalley and pick up my reader's copy. No thanks, I'll stay with my 30-year-old hardback John Updike novel that I carried to the show.

Perhaps most surprising about the publishers' reticence to give things away and show off their new titles is that this Fall list just may be the best array of new titles that I have ever seen. New novels from John Irving, E.L. Doctorow, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Richard Russo, and Philip Roth, not to mention Dan Brown and Audrey Niffenegger are on the docket. You would never have guessed that this Fall was an embarrassment of riches based on what we saw on the show floor. Are the publishers trying to hide these books?

You Call That A Booth?

Instead of getting booksellers excited about titles, many publishers seemed to be trying to win an award for best Scandinavian interior design. The booths were small and austere with clean lines, sleek chairs and plush carpet. HarperCollins didn't even have posters of the titles. Only their pesky light boards that flashed a new book jacket every ten seconds stood in the way of the booth winning an award for most monochromatic space in New York City.

A few booths (Hay House, Workman and Andrews McMeel) went all out and stocked their displays with . . . gasp . . . books. The big guys almost uniformly avoided the heavy, messy objects as best that they could. At least Random House, Harper and Penguin were in the hall. Macmillan, home to Henry Holt, St. Martins and Farrar Strauss & Giroux was nowhere to be seen.

Hey, Richard Russo, Pass the Potatoes

Two of three dinners I attended (Random House on Saturday night and FSG on Thursday night) didn't feature any authors. The Random House dinner, usually one of the swankiest affairs at BEA, never features authors. In fact, a few years ago when Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier was there I think most booksellers felt that he was crashing the party.

However, the FSG dinner, which I've only attended for two years, was also devoid of authors. Apparently, the authors are an every-other-year phenomenon at FSG. When the convention is held in New York, the editorial staff comes out in full force. I didn't really mind, because I love the folks at FSG and I am notorious for sticking my foot in my mouth when speaking with writers. The dinner at the Indian restaurant Devi was wonderful, and from my stand point I wouldn't change a thing.

Still, I wonder about the decision to keep the authors and booksellers separate coming from a literary publisher that had no presence on the BEA floor. Wasn't this the golden opportunity to get excited about their titles? At least it was FSG; I'm going to show the love for their books no matter what anyway. Perhaps they knew that all along.

Oh yeah, the dinner that actually did include authors was Friday night's party hosted by Grove/Atlantic and Granta. Sherman Alexie and Paul Auster led an all-star lineup that kept the conversation flowing as smoothly as the free wine in the beautiful loft of Granta's editor John Freeman.

E-readers are Really Sexy

Ebooks were everywhere. You couldn't go more than a few steps without someone talking about the impact of ebooks on the industry. I'm a naysayer. Not about the fact that ebooks will become a major force, but about their impact on the written word. I think they will not lead to an improvement of literary life, rather a diminishment of it.

Enough preaching, because I must admit that my favorite booth in the entire exhibit was for a new e-reader, oddly called C*ol-er. I was darting through one of the aisles, hoping to avoid the L. Ron Hubbard fanatics, when I was stopped dead by a 6-foot-1 blond woman in a small pink bikini. Wow!!

Before I knew what happened I was reeled into this strange tropical booth featuring attractive women in bathing suits and unattractive men in Hawaiian shirts. One of the men took my elbow and tried to lead me away from the barely clad blond to blab about an e-reader that comes in half a dozen different iPod-like colors.

I tried to focus on his spiel, but then I felt that if I didn't ogle the blond, who so obviously wanted to be looked at, that I'd be insulting her. What was she doing in that tiny bikini in the frigid hall?Was she some model hired just to lure people in? I asked a few perfunctory questions to the man about the e-reader, and much to my surprise when he got stumped, she answered.

Now, I was really intrigued. Was this woman someone who worked at the office and just decided to dress for BEA in a provocative manner? Was this a sales rep? If that's an ebook sales rep, the printed book as we know it is dead for sure. The conversation ended when I asked if she would provide private e-reader lessons, if I bought the device.

How Does Lorrie Moore Do It?

Lorrie Moore has the potential for comic genius somewhere in the realm of Woody Allen, Charlie Chaplin, Gilda Radner and Grover. I saw her speak at Saturday's author luncheon and all I can say is this woman should be out on the circuit. She read questions that "readers" had written to her and then answered them.

The first one was, "What the hell took you so long to write your new novel? Are you lazy?" Moore refused to answer that one. The second was more to her liking, "How do you do it? How do you raise a son as a single mom, teach at a university and still have time to write a novel? How do you do it?" The question also mentioned her ex-husband's obnoxious emails and other details of her personal life making it clear that she wrote the question. The answer was simple, "I don't answer personal questions."

Her deadpan delivery, self deprecation and timing were stellar. She told several jokes until she had the audience reeled in, and then she socked us with a touching, emotional story about her grandfather's failure to write a novel. She's picking up where he left off, perhaps. It's the family's curse. If your family can't put a curse on you, who can? She's ready for the Borscht belt. I can't wait to read her novel, A Gate at the Stairs.

Is This Really the End?

Walking around this subdued, fairly moribund show I really wondered if BEA has reached its logical end. The economy perhaps sped up the Expo's deterioration by a few years, but it sure seems like an antiquated but beautiful idea to bring all the publishers under one tent and let the booksellers look around. Maybe it's quaint to think that buzz could start on a show floor. Heck, the major publisher that most needs buzz, Macmillan, didn't even show up. Who will follow suit next year?

We have the Internet nowadays. Twitter creates the buzz. Go to Good Reads if you want a recommendation. The publisher tent is open 24/7. The most vibrant discussions at the show involved the new social media that is all around us. Twitter got the most praise, which if past experience at the show is an indicator, probably means it will be dead in a year. Once the book geeks adopt a technology, you know it's passe. Facebook, which already feels like it has peaked, also earned high praise from booksellers and publishers. YouTube was hardly mentioned, so I'm guessing that it will continue to grow in popularity.

I hope that BEA can morph into something meaningful for publishers, authors and booksellers. There must be a way to communicate with each other, to wow each other that doesn't involve cheap Ikea-looking furniture. I think the dinners are valuable, the chance to meet authors is valuable, the empty booths are not. Something is going to change, because those vacant booths cost a lot of money.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Needing Great Fiction

The Excuse

I've taken a brief respite from Kash's Book Corner. The sheer exhaustion of trying to get a five-month old to sleep every night should be enough of an excuse for neglecting the blog. We spent a great week in Clearwater, Florida with my father and my daughter was a little angel for her grandpa. Now that we are home she's not so cooperative.

In all honesty, I can't blame my slothful ways fully on my child. I'm a baseball fanatic, perhaps even an addict, and it's hard for me to devote my spare time in April to anything besides for listening to the Phillies games, playing fantasy baseball and getting ready for softball season. In fact, we met my father in Clearwater because that is the spring training home of the Phillies.

The Sadness

I was also thrown by the tragedy of Henry Hubert's death last week. Henry was my Oxford rep for about 10 years. We were both honored by our peers with Mountain & Plains Independent Booksellers Association awards in the same year. I was humbled to share the stage with such a great book man. Henry was in the business for several years before I was even born. Books were bought and sold differently in the years that he was coming up. He was around when the imprints were the names of flesh and blood people. I could be in the business for 100 years and there are things that Henry understood that I could never learn.

I saw Henry last summer when he came to sell me the University of Chicago list. He told me it was the end of selling for him. It wasn't bringing in much money, but more importantly to Henry it wasn't fun or human any more. He didn't want to enter the digital age; he wasn't one for communicating by email. It was a business plain and simple and Henry was about books. Where was the love of books and reading he wanted to know?

He insisted that I call my wife Emily and invite her down for lunch. We went to a wonderful French restaurant in town and as usual Henry examined the menu with great care and ordered an appetizer, a glass of wine, desert and a coffee in addition to his entree. He loved good food. The slow lunches used to drive me a little crazy, but over the years Henry taught me to enjoy the small moments that come to us in the middle of our hectic days.

During that lunch, I remember smiling proudly because Henry was so effusive in his praise for Emily and he was quite gallant in telling her how pregnancy truly became her. I'm sorry that my daughter Martina will never get to meet Henry. He sent her a present upon her birth, but he did not come up to Boulder in the last few months.

In addition to my sadness about Henry, I joined the city of Philadelphia in mourning the death of Harry Kalas the Phillies great play-by-play voice. Thanks to the advent of the Internet and satellite radio, I've been listening to the Phillies home broadcasts for the last 8 years or so. It was wonderful to get reacquainted with the baritone voice that helped raise me. I was the kid hiding under the covers with a transistor radio as Kalas called the games. I didn't love Kalas like I loved Henry Hubert, but there is still a feeling of emptiness that needs to be honored.

I tuned into the Phillies game the day that Kalas died. It was an afternoon affair in Washington and I was home for lunch. It was also the day that I learned of Henry Hubert's death. I held the baby on my lap and slowly ate my sandwich as a moment of silence was held for Kalas. The game began immediately following the tribute. The Phil's color man Larry Andersen, one of the heroes of the 1993 pennant winners, was sobbing on the radio. I put my sandwich down, kissed the baby and handed her to Emily.

"I'm going back to work," I said. "I can be depressed all on my own today without having to hear the Phillies lose."

Emily hugged me, Martina clutched between us, and we both thought of Henry and what we'd lost.

The Escape

As usual in times of emotional crisis or sadness, I turn to books. It seems like a wonderful crop of fiction is about to be published. I delved into several advance reader's copies and I'm happy to report that there are three books coming out in the next six weeks that I can heartily endorse. Here are the shelf talkers I wrote up for the store's recommended section:

The Signal by Ron Carlson
No other novelist writes about the western landscape with such care and precision as Ron Carlson. The pristine lakes, glacial valleys and horse ranches of Wyoming's Wind River Mountains are the backdrop to this tenderly rendered story of love torn apart. Hidden in the beautiful wilderness, in the form of poachers and criminals, danger lurks. The threats may destroy Carlson's estranged lovers, but it just may offer them a chance for redemption.

Border Songs by Jim Lynch
The border between Washington State and Canada is crawling with drug smugglers, illegal immigrants and renegade dairy farmers in this slyly humorous satirical novel. Thrust into the spotlight of this nether world of fascinating schemers is Brandon Vanderkool, a 6-foot-9, slightly autistic, remarkably artistic, innocent border patrol agent. Vanderkool only wants to track birds and build Andy Goldsworthy type sculptures but the criminals keep getting in the way.

Woodsburner by John Pipkin
In this remarkable re-creation of the day that Henry David Thoreau burnt down 300 acres of the Concord woods, Pipkin explores Thoreau's mind, life in 1840s Massachusetts and 19th century pornography. Odd characters, including a bookseller who resorts to selling erotic drawings to save his business and a farmhand named Oddmund, populate this historic novel. Pipkin grapples with the meeting between transcendentalism and everyday life and not surprisingly Thoreau seems mighty strange compared to his contemporaries

Friday, March 20, 2009

HarperCollins' Loss is Our Loss

The best sales rep I have ever worked with in my 12 years of buying will be retiring later this year. HarperCollins' John Zeck was not planning to retire so soon, but when the publisher offered early retirement he took them up on their deal. Ouch.

I have had some amazing reps, including this year's Publishers Weekly Rep of the Year Penguin's Tom Benton, my legendary Random House rep Ron Smith, and my always patient and very understanding Hachette rep Randy Hickernell but no one did nearly as much for their publisher as John Zeck.

Zeck is a tireless promoter of Harper's titles. What makes him different than almost every other rep is that he closely monitors his books from the initial sales call, to their release, to their sell through and even onto their life as remainders. He does this for dozens and dozens of titles every single season despite having the largest list of any rep, selling both kids and adult titles and working a huge territory.

If you aren't in the publishing industry, you'd probably assume that following a title through its life cycle is a standard practice for a sales rep. You would be wrong. Most reps follow through on a couple of titles and then they're off to the next season. The sheer volume of new books means that the reps are constantly working six to nine months in the future.

I encountered the awesome power of Zeck during my first year as a buyer. I was under a mandate to reduce the store's inventory and I was in over my head when it came to juggling all the responsibilities of my new job. Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells was beginning to take off in paperback. We had sold 20 copies in a few weeks and I was playing catch up with the inventory. I got a call from Zeck that I will never forget.

"Hey Dude, you need to order 100 copies of Divine Secrets."
"I don't need that many. Maybe another 20."
"No. You need at least 100. This book is going to be huge. You've got to stop chasing it."
"We aren't selling 100 copies a month of anything right now. It's too many."
"Just trust me on this. I'll eat the books if they don't sell."

I bought the 100 books, in part just to get him off the phone, and they sold in just a few weeks. By then I knew to keep about 100 books in stock at all times. We went on to sell 2,964 copies of Divine Secrets. Sure, we would have sold the bulk of those copies without John's help. However the truth is it would have taken me three months to get up to the quantity I really needed to sell the book to its fullest potential. John got me there in one phone call.

John and a few other notable long-time reps really taught me how to be a buyer. On long drives up and down from the mountains to ski, I peppered him with questions about the industry. I must have driven him nuts. "Why aren't there better incentives to buy nonreturnable?" "What kind of sell through on the frontlist are publishers really expecting?" "How come we have to buy by season instead of monthly?" "What percentage of hardbacks is sold in the first month of release?" He answered every question like a hyper big brother. Sometimes the answers were pure bullshit, but he always made me think. He always challenged me to do a better job, which was to sell more books.

His influence and his gregarious personality extended far beyond the booksellers his me. Last week my wife was listening to a Lisa Scottoline audiobook. At the end of the nine discs, Scottoline's acknowledgements were read. My wife was shocked to hear Scottoline mention the "world famous John Zeck." How many times does a Philadelphia author publicly single out and thank the Denver based rep for his help? Never.

Zeck is one of a kind when it comes to dealing with authors. He fully understood that they were the lifeblood of the industry and even if they weren't always the most pleasant people every effort needed to be extended to make them feel welcome and comfortable. At a recent promotional dinner hosted by Zeck, Simon Van Booy the author of the forthcoming Love Begins in Winter, leaned over to me and said pointing to John, "He's incredible. Is he like this for every author?" The answer, of course, was yes.

It's easy to lose sight of just how incredible John Zeck is at his job because of his larger-than-life personality. He takes over the whole office during a sales call. It's hard for anyone to get any work done when his booming voice drowns out their thoughts. He barks commands at our marketing director; he issues directives to our backlist buyers. He's a whirlwind with a new idea every 10 minutes.

The disruption to the office is exacerbated because he seems to be chronically disorganized and have attention deficit disorder. However, he knows his books, he knows our store, and he can work the Above the Treeline inventory system better than anyone in the country. By the time he leaves the office we are seeing a dozen titles in a different light, we have taken up the mantle for the books he is passionate about.

His passion isn't just about hot new books, or sexy titles by up and coming authors. When we run out of the Goodnight Moon board book for even a day, I'm liable to get a call from Zeck. "I'm looking at Above the Treeline, and you're out of Goodnight Moon again?! Just order a dozen and get it over with." Does that sound like a disorganized person who has trouble focusing? No way. Sometimes, I think John's hit upon the perfect salesman act. He creates a huge storm, but he has an idea about how every piece of dust is going to settle.

Harper would be insane to lose him. I predict that without an absolutely top-notch replacement, who would probably cost nearly as much as whatever Zeck is earning, our sales will drop by 10%. When I told our children's buyer, she rolled her eyes and indicated the falloff would be much greater in her department. Zeck has cajoled, bullied, and outsmarted us to the point where Harper dominates our children's recommended titles and overall sales.

Here's my suggestion to Harper. Pay John Zeck the early retirement package (call it a bonus and fire someone at Fox News to cover it), give him a couple months off, let him choose his territory and be thankful that you dodged a bullet. I have no idea if John would even consider this deal, but frankly, if Harper were to cut their sales department to one person, that person needs to be John Zeck.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Hachette: From Boom to Bust

Hachette Gets Cheap, Real Cheap
During the deluge of bad news that has pounded the publishing industry in the last six months, one company, Hachette Book Group, has emerged unscathed. Thanks to the popularity of Stephanie Meyer, Malcolm Gladwell, David Sedaris, and Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, not to mention the dozen or so James Patterson best sellers that come out every year, Hachette is sailing through this recession. While Random House, HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin, and Simon & Schuster were all cutting back, Hachette was handing out bonuses.

I don't begrudge anyone in publishing a bonus and was quite happy to find out that the people I know in Hachette were being rewarded for a magnificent year. Just about everyone connected to the printed word is undervalued and poorly paid, so to see bonuses being doled out during hard times was the feel good story of the Christmas season.

Unfortunately, Hachette has decided to not only withhold their largess from their bookselling partners, but they have instituted severe cutbacks that will cost many independent stores $3,000 in the upcoming year. It turns out they want to improve on their good fortunes, by breaking the backs of the very bookstores that promote and sell their titles.

Yesterday, we were informed that Hachette was eliminating their newsletter co-op program ($2,000), their author events co-op ($200 to $800 per year) and their Emerging Voices program ($200). These were all programs where bookstores acted in concert with Hachette to promote individual titles. We bought display quantities of 40 different titles and advertised them in our email newsletter to earn the $2,000. We hosted events to earn the $200 event co-op fee and, most importantly, we bought 10 copies of books by relatively unknown authors to earn the co-op attached with the Emerging Voices authors.

In most businesses, $3,000 might be a fairly insignificant amount. In the bookselling world where a profit of 2% is considered stellar, it is a critical sum. That's enough money to pay a bookseller for one hour of work every Monday through Saturday all year long. Unfortunately, that's how little booksellers earn. It's enough money that we and other stores have been brainstorming how we can possibly make cuts to save it. Heck, we are even buying cheaper toilet paper and paper towels just to realize a savings of about $1,000.

The worst part of Hachette's moves is that many of these programs are working. We bought 10 copies of Katie Crouch's Girls in Trucks when it appeared on the Emerging Voices last year. It's a book I probably would have brought in only two copies without the Hachette incentive. We have now sold 67 hardbacks and are expecting it to explode in paperback this summer.

"I think the newsletter program really worked," my Hachette rep Randy said. "You would change buys from three to eights. There were titles that you bought tens of that you never would have bought in those quantities without the extra money."

Earlier today I tried to reduce my buy of Giulia Melucci's I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, one of this season's Emerging Voices books, from 10 to 3. It's too late. Hachette has already invoiced us. I can tell you in the future we won't look on Hachette's midlist titles with such a generous eye.

As usual, Hachette made it's decisions with very little input. No bookseller input at all from what I can tell. A little over a year ago, Hachette tried to unilaterally impose a case quantity minimum on hot new titles. That ill conceived idea, which now sounds brilliant compared to eliminating most of their co-op, met with such wrath from booksellers it was quickly rescinded.

One can only hope that this initiative meets the same fate. I doubt it. There is simply too much money on the table. It's a shame to see Hachette take their successes for granted and dump on the booksellers who have worked so hard to sell their titles. Something tells me that they won't get much bookseller support when the next tsunami hits the publishing world.