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.


JMW said...

I know the feeling. I recently started an online book review that I think you might enjoy (link below), and I was taken aback by the potential quality of Knopf's fall list. Especially looking forward to Russo and Moore, two of my favorites.

Rebecca Knight said...

This is fascinating!

I'm a writer, and have always wondered how the book-buying process worked on your end.

Thank you for giving us some insight into how books get onto your shelves! :)

Marlene said...

Heard about your post via Twitter. Thanks for a really interesting perspective.

Heather Boyd said...

If I lived in the US (and withing an hours of boulder) I would definately be planning to visit your bookstore. The flight from Australia might cost a bit much to justfy the trip.

What an interesting post.

Sanoe SC said...

Enjoyable and informative, but my favorite part was this:

'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.'

Say it with me now, awwwwww!

Rebecca Knight said...

Okay, that was my favorite part, too! ^_^

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Came here via Kristin Nelson's blog. I have to say that with my big book coming out this fall season, I'm staring aghast at all the other huge books coming out this season and . . . well, I'm hoping TV sucks this fall.

This was a fascinating post for someone on a different side of the desk, and I . . . don't think I'm ever going to look at the shelves of my favorite indies the same way again. Thanks for this!

Anonymous said...

I came here via Kristin Nelson's blog too. I love buying books for myself, so I think buying for a store would be intoxicating (as long as the customers came in and spent too!).

I'm curious, did you stick with the magic 492 for Dan Brown? (I loved your book bank idea, LOL!). I know it's been a while since his last novel, but when I see Lost Symbol in store - I'll immediately buy it.

loveskidlit said...

As an avid book buyer, I can (re)assure you: if you build it, we WILL come!

Good luck with the seasonal sales, and thanks for the informative and entertaining post.

Kat Meyer said...

incredibly good post, Arsen. What a crazy season. Very intrigued to see how this plays out.

thelittlefluffycat said...

Do you ship? 'cause you just got a customer for one of the Nabokovs, if you do. :)

Patrice said...

Found you via Pub Rants. Great post! I'm a writer, and of course an avid reader.

Remember, we are all in this together. Good books are good for all of us (though of course they won't be published if no one makes money on them).

I loved the silent Viagra ad! So reading (in bed, at least) is only for those who can't get it up? That's funny, because books make me and my hubby more inclined....

P.S. word verification is "presser" -- something I hope to be doing soon with my comic memoir about online dating

Doreen Orion said...

As a Boulder writer who has seen many copies of my book in your store, this was fascinating to get a glimpse into how that happened.

I'll be down tonight to sign stock...

Arsen Kashkashian said...

Here are the answers to a few questions posted:

I did stick with 492 copies for the Dan Brown book.

We do ship so place your orders for the Nabokov books now.

Thanks to Kristin Nelson for sending so many writers my way.

Barrie said...

I recently saw my local RH rep in action at our local indie children's book store. Very interesting. And, btw, I'm a fall RH release. :)

kennedysmyth said...

Great post! I used to buy for an independent, and now work for the Corporate Entity that Shall Remain Nameless. I miss your world! And love your store.
But I'd have gone heavier on the Conroy and the Russo...

Julie Korzenko said...

Came via Pub Rants - glad I did. Very insightful post! Thanks.

Connie Bennett said...

As an author, it was really eye-opening to get your perspective as a book buyer. What challenges you face!

Helen DeWitt said...


I buy the Financial Times Weekend every Saturday for a pricey 3.30 euros (about 5 bucks), as my weekly treat, and one of the things that makes it a treat is Christopher Caldwell's column. So when you said Caldwell's book was the lead title, my immediate reaction was: WOW, Christopher Caldwell!!!!!!! I don't really care what he's writing about, he's a terrific writer. I'd buy his book (in hb) on anything.

Now, I realize Berlin is not Boulder. I'm guessing the average Boulderite is not picking up the FT as a weekend treat, the thing to curl up with on a Saturday over brunch. But it really shouldn't be hard to pick out a few columns and print them out and put them on display along with the book. He had a terrific post a while back on the GI Bill, has some interesting things to say about America from a British perspective. Really smart guy. The rep, possibly, was himself not an addict of the FT, so did not know what a star he had on his hands.

Becca Fitzpatrick said...

Wow. So interesting! I'm up in Ft. Collins - I'll have to stop by next time I'm in Boulder.

Becca Fitzpatrick said...

Wow. So interesting! I'm up in Ft. Collins - I'll have to stop by next time I'm in Boulder.

Amy said...

This post was absolutely fascinating. Well I don't live in Boulder but I also won't be buying any Dan Brown. I'll have to give some of these other books a look. :)

Jordan said...

I recently came across your blog and thought you and your readers might also be interested in another favorite of mine, an online lit mag called Narrative Magazine (at It offers its contents for free and also accepts all types of submissions (fiction, poetry, art, photography, non-fiction, etc.) Narrative also has a few contests going on now that I think your readers might enjoy. Hope you have a chance to check it out and maybe mention it in your blog or links section!

Henry Baum said...

This post is pretty bleak and everyone's giddy about it. A very interesting window into how you can't trust the lens of bookstore buyers any more than you can trust agents and editors. This paragraph is depressing:

"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."

Yep, a book is reduced to its catch-phrase - NOT the writing - just like in a query letter. You even judge a book by its cover. All that matters are the previous sales numbers. This is no different than how publishing runs its business. I know you're running a business that has a lot of competition online, but you're working from the exact same perspective as publishers, so I'm missing why I should be sympathetic.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Yes, Henry, booksellers might be missing flawless prose and research by buying according to numbers and catch phrases and cover art . . . but that's how the majority of customers shop for books as well. It's sad but true -- and I don't see how there is a way around it.

If anything, I would ask why publishers are not more paranoid and careful about the covers and marketing of their midlists.

Avatar said...

So the new Dan Brown's book will be out in September. Great.. another Robert Langdon adventure.

Rob or Robbie said...

Hi Arsen! I've been lurking around your blog for a while now, not wanting to out myself do so would be indicative of a major personality shift that hasn't actually manifested, but this entry was like a wonderful walk down memory lane. I do so miss rep meetings (and rep lunches!) and sitting around yammering about books. Sigh...well, more fool I, right? Youth is a bitch. Keep writing these great entries!!! Robbie