Monday, February 02, 2009

Cutting the List of Nominees

A few weeks ago, I got one of the more surprising calls of my bookselling career. The caller wanted to know if I'd be interested in determining the nominees for the Indie Choice Book Awards. At first, I wasn't quite sure what she was talking about, but then quickly realized that the Indie Choice awards given out by the American Booksellers Association at Book Expo America are the new Booksense awards. Wow! I've come to the realization that I'm never going to be able to vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame, but now I would have a chance to influence a book award.

Sure, I'd love to nominate a few books. I was about to start rambling off titles when she informed me that the process was a bit more complex than shouting out a few of my favorite books. The ABA would send me a long list of nominees from this year's Indie Next Lists in four categories and I would work with a handful of other booksellers from around the country to whittle the lists down to five books each. ABA booksellers would then vote for the awards from our short list.

I started sweating. I have a two-month old baby at home. I can barely get through a Dr. Seuss book right now. The caller was talking about a total of 60 or 70 books on the long lists. The panic was setting in and I was about to get my shrink on speed dial on the other line, when the caller mentioned we'd begin discussions in a week or two. That was too much, "I don't think I can read all the books in time."

She chuckled. "That's why we need people like you. No one can read all the books. We need people who know the industry, know about these books and can discuss them so we can get the right finalists."

What a relief. They needed a natural bullshitter. No problem. I do that everyday. In fact, I once had a sports talk show in Maryland and one of our features was rating movies that we hadn't seen. It was the most popular part of the show. "Sign me up for the Indie Choice Awards," I exclaimed.

This morning I completed my form and have selected my five books in each category. I thought I'd share my picks and my convoluted reasoning with the readership of Kash's Book Corner.

  • Now You See Him by Eli Gottlieb. Gottlieb's book contains echoes of The Great Gatsby, he lives right here in Boulder and I interviewed him for my blog.
  • Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. The best short story writer working today. An absolutely magnificent collection.
  • Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. A quirky novel featuring cricket players in New York and odd energetic characters that reminded me of some of the great Saul Bellow novels including Humboldt's Gift.
  • Gossip of the Starlings by Nina de Gramont. A marvelous look at adolescent friendship, written in a gorgeous style. Nina used to work at the Boulder Book Store and I interviewed her for my blog.
  • Peace by Richard Bausch. My favorite novel of the year. Bausch's intense look at a group of Americans trying to climb an Italian hill on a snowy night in World War II was a gripping tale of survival and morality.

I must admit that I really didn't follow the spirit of my task in this category. I actually read all of the books I put on the shortlist. There were two books on the long list that I read, but I decided against nominating for the short list. Garth Stein's Art of Racing in the Rain which I thought was too lightweight for an award. Also, Stein's book zoomed in popularity after Starbuck's featured it. Nothing says independent like a title that Starbucks makes. Dennis Lehane's Given Day, which had the best galley package of any novel this year, was a great lark of a story, but in the end I felt at 720 pages it was a bit unwieldy and somewhat sloppy.

Other favorites in the fiction category that I dismissed included The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. One of my fellow buyers said she liked it but it was too slight for an award. I also have difficulty with co-written fiction although I would have made an exception in this case. Toni Morrison's A Mercy also missed my ballot. It seems to me that you should be disqualified for winning further literary awards after garnishing a Nobel Prize. The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb was simply too long to consider.


Billionaire's Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace.
Waiter Rant by The Waiter.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami.
American Buffalo by Steven Rinella.
Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg.

Unlike the fiction nominees, I didn't read too many books in this category. Hurry Down Sunshine, a title that I'm writing in because it didn't appear on the long list, is the only one I've read of my nominees. Greenberg's book is a personal, beautiful memoir depicting the year his teenage daughter had a psychotic break. Greenberg came to Denver to meet with independent booksellers before the book came out and was quite charming. Hurry Down Sunshine was published by Other Press and I don't think they'd survive without independent booksellers.

The other four books were all books that sold well at our store and seemed to speak to the kinds of readers that independent stores attract. They are smart, thought provoking and none of them were huge hits nationally. Considering their attributes almost makes me wish I'd taken the time to read at least one of them.

One book that I did read on the long list that I didn't nominate was Bonk by Mary Roach. I thought Roach's romp through sex research had it's entertaining moments, but it just seemed a little slap dash, lurching from one topic to another without much flow, and overly reliant on goofy footnotes. I also didn't think Dewey: The Small Town Library Cat Who Touched the World should make the cut. Dewey has already enjoyed more fame and better sales than any feline should expect. Besides, I'm allergic to cats.

New Author

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan.
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.
Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles
The Little Book by Selden Edwards.
In Hovering Flight by Joyce Hinnefeld.

I haven't cracked open any of these books. I've admired their cover art, I've read the descriptions on the galleys, I've been awed by the blurbs, but instead I wiled away my time this year with old authors like P.G. Wodehouse and John Updike. Don't worry, I'll read Mudbound after Jordan proves herself with another 20 or so excellent books. I'll crack open Miles' tome when he's got a bit more... mileage on him.

Why these books? Hinnefeld (Unbridled) and Jordan (Algonquin) were published by small houses that consistently do excellent work. Their novels were favorites of people on the staff and I'll take any opportunity to award these small literary houses for their efforts. White Tiger won the Man Booker Prize, pretty darn impressive for a debut. Selden Edwards came to Denver for a dinner and wowed one of my co-workers (not that she finished the book). Jonathan Miles had the best premise of any novel (a scathing complaint letter that rises to great art, I'm told) this year.

I didn't select the most obvious choices on the long list. David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle was clearly the splashiest debut of the year. Wroblewski lives in the Denver metro area and I feel bad in not nominating a guy from the home team, but not that bad since Oprah gave him her blessing. Oprah's seal of approval is basically the sales equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Wroblewski simply doesn't need an Indie Choice award. I also skipped on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, because with translated fiction I'm never sure if the translator or the author deserves the award.


Savvy by Ingrid Law.
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
Graceling by Kristin Cashore.
Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox, Helen Oxenbury.
Pretty Monsters by Kelly Lind, Shaun Tan.

I'm a guy in an open-air office with five women. These are the books they told me to nominate. What could I do? Ingrid Law, a local author, is a true favorite among the staff and she had a great signing at the store. I believe that short stories are underrepresented in teen lit and Pretty Monsters is a marvelous collection of tales that also takes up residence in our Science Fiction section.

Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book did not make my list simply because he won the Newbery Award. Gaiman gave a wonderful signing at the store that had me flummoxed as to how many books to buy. Still, he doesn't need an Indie Choice award. It's time to spread the wealth. Whatever wealth is still left in the book world.

The next step is conversing with everyone else on the committee as we try to come up with those short lists. Hopefully, someone out there uses more rational logic than I.


Garth Stein said...

Oh, Kash, how it stings! "Too lightweight"??? Oy!

And you begrudge a writer for being on the Starbucks dole? Oy, oy! (For the record, I did 79 readings between May and November last year, and 75 of them were at independent bookstores or libraries.)

Have me to Boulder, Kash, and I'll prove to you what a huge supporter of Indies I am! I would love to read at your store!


Arsen Kashkashian said...


I have no doubt that you are a big supporter of indies. We would love to host you at the store. Your novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, is still prominently displayed and selling well. I also must say that I enjoyed your book and our dinner quite a bit. Perhaps, lightweight was too harsh. It is a blog after all.

However, I feel that the Indie Choice awards should show people what independent bookstores bring to the table that is different from the big media outlets and the chain stores. You had the tremendous fortune of being supported by Starbucks. It would be hard for indies to claim that The Art of Racing in the Rain is a title that they made. There are dozens of great authors and books who didn't get the advantage of a big push and rely on the indies as their main outlet.

Hopefully, an award like the Indie Choice might allow them to enjoy a portion of the success that you've already had.

That said, I am just one of a number of people involved in this process and I'll surely be outvoted or out argued on a number of my picks. If there is a surge of support for Art of Racing in the Rain, I surely won't stand in the way.

Thanks for writing in.


Mary Akers said...

Wow, this was fascinating! Thank you for the insider's look at how such decisions are made. Such transparency is rare, but very much appreciated by this reader/writer.

Garth Stein said...

Oh, I was just giving you a hard time, Arsen.

I guess I like to think that one of the things that made ARR successful was my always approaching it as if it were like my last book, which sold fewer than 5,000 copies. Certainly Starbucks helped, but it wasn't the only thing.

And, despite how proud I am of my relationship with the indies, I believe if i were in your shoes, I would follow the exact same reasoning.

I hope to see you with the paperback tour!