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.