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.