Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Copout; Question

I know I promised a meaty post today, but I'm still doing a bit of research for the one I want to write, and I also really, really, REALLY have to get some non-blog-related work done today. So in lieu, I'm asking all you smart book people a question.

Q: What is the future of bookselling?

Lots of media and industry types have sounded off on this, but I want to know what you, the folks in the trenches think. We've talked about what ought to happen, but now I want to know how you think it's really going to play out. How will bookselling venues evolve, including chains, superstores like Wal-Mart, independent stores, and the internet? Who will rise and who will fall? Are we headed toward increased corporatization or increased local independence? How are consumers' and readers' tastes changing or remaining constant? How will authors' roles evolve? What will independents need to do to stay viable? What will the next generation of booksellers be like? The next generation of readers? Authors? Publishers?

Tell me what you think in the comments. Be as vague or as specific or as optimistic or as angry as you want. I'll incorporate your thoughts into my next post, which will hopefully happen Friday. I'm sorry to take a day off, but this could be the perfect opportunity to get a broader view of your opinions on where we're all going.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Link-Mad Monday: Indie Booksellers In the News

I've been so impressed with the level of discourse in your comments on my "Blogs, Books, and Anti-Indie Backlash" post -- your passion and the different perspectives you bring (bookseller, publisher, consumer, etc.) are truly illuminating. Please feel free to keep the conversation going, and I'll try to post a recap of your insights at some point.

In the meantime, here's some food for thought, some of which relates directly to the issues under discussion.

Former Brooklyn boy Robert Greene of Book People in Moscow, Idaho (not to be confused with the Book People in Austin, or with any of the other American Moscows) writes that "various
groups in moscow have been fighting big box stores much to the ire of the local newspapers, chamber of commerce, city councils etc." More power to them -- click on their website to give the good folks at Book People some love.

Laura Miller, she of the book RELUCTANT CAPITALISTS which is sparking some of this debate, has a piece on the blog of the University of Chicago Press which encapsulates some of the arguments in her book. How cool that she (or U. Chicago) is using the blog world to extend the conversation; read it for a taste of what the book's about.

The Village Voice has a wonderfully nuanced article titled "Chain Reaction : Do Bookstore Have A Future?" The piece quotes Laura Miller (of course), Mitchell Kaplan (Florida bookstore owner and ABA president whom I got to listen to at BEA), revolutionary bookselling thinker Andrew Laties (author of REBEL BOOKSELLER and one of the commentators on this blog), and my own boss Sarah McNally, who happens to be running a very successful independent bookstore. The article actually gets at the cause and effect and ebb and flow of indie vs. chain competition throughout its history, and comes out surprisingly optimistic.

Apparently the U.S. isn't the only place where the indie bookstore strives to create community and find a place to exist alongside the internet; the International Herald Tribune has this article, "Bookstores offer a personal touch the net can't match," about English language bookstores in Europe. Parisian ex-pat David Sedaris is quoted, but my favorite quote is from his local bookseller, Odile Heiler of Village Voice Bookstore (no relation) in Paris: "My fear is that while the machine society that we live in is very functional, very practical, and allows for a certain communication, it is a linear communication that closes the mind.... People are solicited everywhere except by books, and when they do read it is in relation to their work, or to learn about something that they want to know - facts. But in reading fiction, you enter someone else's world, you open yourself to someone else, to his imagination, and this is extremely precious for the mind." Anyone want to buy me a ticket to Paris? (Thanks to the ALP for the link.)

Talk about your enterprising indie booksellers: The Guide To Atypical Usage And Lack of Style has a link to an article, also from the International Herald Tribune, about a street bookseller in New Delhi named Dhiraj Kumar who sells books to people in cars during the 92 seconds they're stuck at a traffic light. He's definitely mastered the art of quickly matching books with customers -- though not the extra perk of being a booklover, since he can't read. Next time I think about complaining about my bookseller salary, I'm thinking of this guy.

Also check out TGTAUALOS's piece on Sessalee Hensley, perhaps the single most powerful person in American literary publishing: she's the fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble. Interesting to think about the face behind the homogenization.

And it's almost too late to participate, but if you have a litblog you've just barely got time to weigh in on the Book of the Day blog's alternative list to the New York Times' Top American Fiction of the Last 25 Years. I don't know that this list will have any more legitimacy than the Times', but it will certainly be different, and it's fun to get your two cents in. I'm voting right now.

Oh, there's so much more, but it's a holiday and I have some serious lazing around to do. Enjoy reading, and I'll be back with another post on Wednesday.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Comment: Blogs, Books, and Anti-Indie Backlash

Friday morning at BEA I attended a panel discussion titled "Blog 2.0: How Blogs Continue to Re-Define Author, Publisher and Reader Dynamics." Other bloggers (Ed, Max) have commented on the perplexing fact that the panel contained not a single literary blogger (i.e. one who reviews books and book news). The closest thing was the presence of Kyle Crafton of Media Bistro (which hosts blogs, including GalleyCat, runs writing classes and contains advertising but isn't exactly a blog) and Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch / Publishers Marketplace (which is more of a newsletter, and which I admit I've stopped reading because it's more about publishing personnel than books, and because I got tired of the ads for the pay version of the site). The other panelists were Ana Marie Cox (i.e. D.C. gossip blogger/fiction writer Wonkette), Dan Berstein (author of the book BLOG!), and Marcos Zuniga (famed force behind the political blog Daily Kos).

The panel did come up with some interesting insights: Berstein predicted that there will be a convergence, not a war, between print and online media; Crafton outlined options for making money as a publisher through author blogs; Cox admitted that she started her blog because she couldn't get hired to write what she wanted to write; and Zuniga stressed that blogs are not about blogging, but about identifying strong voices in particular niches, without gatekeepers to moderate content. Michael Cader had the most quotable statement of the panel, when he actually defined what a blog is: "a website that showcases an individual voice." He hypothesized that this is significant in the rise of individual over institutional voices, surmising that each of the panelists had begin their blogging ventures because there was no place for what they wanted to say in the available print media outlets.

There was a good mixture of current bloggers and curious potential bloggers in the audience, and I hope this and other panels sponsored by ABA and BookExpo will lead to an increased publisher and bookseller presence in the literary blogosphere. As I mentioned in the link madness, the proprietor of Book Court in Brooklyn bravely stood up and mentioned what his store is doing online, which is very impressive, and Atomic Books in Baltimore is still my standard for what a store website/blog can be. I think a session where we as booksellers share tips on making our individual voices heard on the web would be immensely useful.

The strangest moment in the panel, however, came when I asked that question to the assembled bloggers: how can we as booksellers, individual voices as opposed to the monolithic voices of Barnes & Noble and Amazon, learn from bloggers how to form coalitions and make our voices heard? Wonkette politely suggested a bookstore community chat room, though it seemed obvious none of the bloggers had considered the question before. Then Mr. Daily Kos spoke up (if I remember correctly) with his opinion that independent bookstore are "whiners," telling customers they should patronize them "just because they're not corporate," when there's no reason to do so unless the independents have something to offer the customers to make it worth their while. It seemed like a strange thing to say (or at least strangely expressed) in a room full of ABA members, especially from a markedly leftist figure, but as he had also expressed the opinion that people who read blogs don't read books (a statement which is contradicted every time someone reads this blog or any of the links on the right), I felt somewhat comfortable deciding that Mr. Kos is just speaking from a different experience that may not have any relevance on the actual experience of those in the book world.

The trouble is, he's not the only one. Tyler Cowen recently wrote a story for Slate titled "What Are Independent Bookstores Good For? Not Much," which posits that "Our attachment to independent bookshops is, in part, affectation—a self-conscious desire to belong a particular community (or to seem to). Patronizing indies helps us think we are more literary or more offbeat than is often the case." He argues that internet culture has filled the need for obscure/offbeat books and commentary that indie stores once did, and that those who cry for their preservation are for the most part elitist snobs. And Bookslut, in a Book Standard article entitled "Jessa Crispin Says Quit Griping About Where to Buy Books," argues that it's just not that big of a deal whether we shop at chains or indies, and we should all stop "keep[ing] the debate alive—infinitely and uselessly."

Before those of us who love independents write these commentators off as consumer zombies/tools of the Man/irredeemable Snarks/heartless moneygrubbers who value a discount over their soul/etc…. it's worth stopping to ask where this backlash is coming from, and even whether we can learn anything from it. To me, the fact that such commentary exists is evidence that the independent bookstores' message that it is better to shop indie than chain has reached a certain critical mass that demands commentary. And that can be a good thing. For each one of these critical opinions (who, it can hardly be denied, are cultural elitists themselves as well), there are many book buyers who have realized that they do have a choice when they buy books, and that that choice might matter.

And to be honest, is it possible they might have a point. It's funny that both Cowen and Crispin site Laura Miller's book RELUCTANT CAPITALISTS as one of those unreasonable voices crying out for support of the indies as a political consumer act, when the first few chapters of her book (which I'm working through slowly) challenged me as a bookseller with some of the same issues they bring up. It's true: as ideologues of literature and community, we as independent bookseller can become elitist snobs, disregarding the experience of many who need discounted books for financial reasons or live too far away to frequent an indie bookstore. Some of us snub literature we don’t think is worthy, some of us sniff at people who value discounts or convenience, some of us turn snarly when chains are mentioned. I have been to (and even worked in) independent bookstores where the selection of books was insufficient; the staff was snobby, or sullen, or unresponsive, or undertrained; the physical space was unappealing. Bottom line: just being an independent bookstore doesn't mean you're a good bookstore, and you can't expect people to shop with you out of pure moral virtue.

However, I believe there are, in fact, ethical reasons to shop at an independent as opposed to a chain, if it is possible. As studies posted on the ABA website show, independent retailers circulate a much higher percentage of their income back into the local economy, as opposed to funneling it away to corporate offices. Indies have a more transparent relationship with their community, and are directly accountable for whether their actions please their customers. And then there's the intangible stuff like quality of life, community, the serendipity of a new face and a new book, which, say what you will, doesn't happen on the internet in quite the same way. There's a value in the slowness of real-time interpersonal interactions that is in a way a political act, a counterpoint to increasing corporatization and homogenization.

I don't think chains or the internet are evil. As some have pointed out in commentary on Cowen's article, these sources have made books available to readers in some areas that have no independent bookstores, and we can hardly fault them for that. And some chain stores have awesome employees and serve their community well. And I think that some independent bookstores will not survive if they try to rest on their ideological laurels without, as Kos points out, offering something that customers want to come in for.

Come to think of it, that's what I spent three days at BEA doing: learning ways to make our store a place that people will come to and shop in. We do think independent bookselling is more ethical and fulfilling than chain bookstores, but that's not what we're selling. We're selling good books, and books people want, and a good experience, and a good value. We're offering community and culture and connectedness. It's not a right to experience these things; it's a wonderful, treasured privilege, and all of us who can should count ourselves lucky, and not entitled, to be a part of it. We should be understanding of those who can't experience that privilege, and work to make it more available.

I may be a cock-eyed optimist, but I think the backlash against indies, especially by those on the web side of things, is just the beginning of the growing pains of a new convergence of those individual voices to make independent bookselling more truly appealing and accessible and vibrant than ever before.

What do you think?

Monday, May 22, 2006

Link-Mad Monday, BEA Style

As one of my friends put it, Book Expo America 2006 was truly Book Nerd heaven. I think this was the most productive and educational BEA I've ever been to -- I spent far more time in workshops and panels than on the show floor -- and also the most fun, since I seem to know enough folks in the business to get invited to some of the cool parties. And the best part, as always, was the people. I feel like I need to invest in (horrors) a Rolodex to keep track of the brilliant and interesting people I met.

I plan to spend the next few weeks focusing on those panels and workshops and what they might imply for the book biz, but today, my first day back, I just want to relive the fun stuff. For Link-Mad Monday, I'm giving some shout-outs to some of the great people and institutions I met and learned about this weekend (in approximate order of meeting them), so that you can give them some love. These are all people and places that are going to be added to my links list as soon as I have time! But this is officially The Name-Dropping Post, so feel free to skip if you've an aversion to that sort of thing.

Bookstores and Booksellers

Cindy Dach of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Arizona is one of the masterminds behind the Emerging Leaders project, and a heck of a cool person as well. People kept telling me I had to meet her, and I feel lucky that I finally did!

Steve Colca does double duty at Labyrinth Books New Haven branch and Yale University Press -- he's an awesome colleague to have in the tri-state area, and I'm looking forward to talking progressive indie bookstore stuff the next time he's in Brooklyn.

Aubrey Davis of Arches Book Company in Moab, Utah has a huge and refreshing enthusiasm and creativity, and her stores not only sell new and used books in a breathtaking part of the world, but roast their own coffee as well. Aubrey may be getting into the blogging world soon, so watch for her fresh take on all things bookish on the web!

Daniel Goldin of Harry W. Schwartz Bookstores in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is a personality and a half -- he's a native New Yorker (Queens, actually) and brought some serious energy to the Farrar, Straus, Giroux party.

Roberta Rubin of The Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, Illinois is a bookselling veteran -- I was grateful to talk to a woman bookstore owner who's successfully made a go of it for about twenty years, and still loves what she does!

Susan Weis of Breathe Books in Baltimore, Maryland is another inspiring female entepreneur, and I've now met her so many times at NAIBA and ABA events that I'm happy to count her as a friend. Her spiritual- and inspirational-focused bookstore is doing fantastically well, and she's a great source for bookselling ideas, as well as a total kick to hang out with at a party.

Kari Patch and Megan Sullivan of Harvard Book Store are part of a killer bookselling team at that wonderful indie store (which the ALP had the great pleasure of visiting this weekend while I was meeting its employees!) Megan, of course, is the famous Bookdwarf, and Kari was one of my co-panelists for Frontline Bookseller Buzz -- they both totally rock, and I wish I could have spent more time with both of them.

Laura Grey of Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan was another co-panelist -- we chilled out in the ABA Lounge together while we prepped for our panel, and she's another bookseller I wish I could have hung out with more.

Stu Hecht of The Book Vault in Wallingford, Connecticut runs the shop with his wife and has an amazing amount of insight and handselling skills after only a few years in the business, which is probably why he was also a Frontline Bookseller Buzz panelist. Best of luck to them!

Mark LaFramboise of Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C. is another expert handseller and all-around good guy -- I'm only sorry I couldn't join him and everyone else at the reportedly rockin' Politics and Prose party on Thursday night. Mark's store is a role model for many in the indie bookstore community -- I'm dying to check it out the next time I'm in D.C.

I didn't actually get to meet the proprietor of Book Court in Brooklyn, New York -- I'm so mad I missed talking to my hometown indie bookseller extraordinaire! But he spoke up in the Blog 2.0 panel session about the store's new website, which is really cool -- click on e-notes for the store blog of new and exciting stuff, or StaffPicks for great book recommendations organized by staff member. These guys are my heroes -- I hope to meet them all someday soon!

And last mentioned but first met, I got to hang out with my own brilliant coworkers at McNally Robinson Booksellers in New York, New York: Allison Glasgow, our inventory manager (who gamely wore her ThugLit shirts all weekend to advertise for the cool new publishing project of her partner, mystery writer Todd Robinson); Katie Hine, our children's book buyer (who got to visit the pandas at the National Zoo AND party with Barack Obama, lucky her!); and Tom Roberge, our events coordinator (who was actually there in his capacity as assistant editor of A Public Space, which I think is the best new literary magazine out there, and who knows a lot of people). Along with our wonderful boss, Sarah McNally, her dad, Paul McNally (owner of the McNally Robinson bookstores in Canada), and his colleague Chris Hall, we stormed the educational sessions and author lunches together, and got to spend some good social time together outside the store. How lucky am I to work with such amazing booksellers!


Bloggers, Familiar and New

Max of The Millions was possibly the coolest person at the Litblog Co-Op party. Check out his take on the convention from a non-bookseller, non-publisher perspective -- he's saying some things we need to hear. And he's got links to a lot of other blogs talking about the convention that I don't even know about.

Scott of Slushpile is a blogger that's new to me, although apparently not to everyone else -- he's been going strong for several years, posts four or five times a day, and focuses on publishing and writing.

I met a woman whose name I have sadly forgotten who blogs for both Gawker and Gothamist. She had beautiful earrings, though (and she liked mine, too) and she made me think that I ought to read those New York-centric blogs more to find out about literary events.

Megan of Bookdwarf, of course, must be mentioned in her blogging capacity as well -- I was glad to run into her at the Emerging Leaders meeting as well as the LBC and several other parties, since I know she's one of us young folks who plan to make our lives in this business (and a fellow David Mitchell fanatic). I found out this weekend that Bookdwarf was second choice to Bookgnome as a blogging identity, since being a blogger isn't really that far removed from being a Dungeons and Dragons character.

Richard Crary of The Existence Machine is one of the newer denizens of Blogland -- I met him briefly and hope to read more of his thoughtful posts in the future. He's one of several of these bloggers who comment on the terrible news that author Gilbert Sorrentino has died, a much more serious topic for discussion than anything you'll see here today.

Ed Champion of Edward Champion's Return of the Reluctant , an excellent literary blog, is proof that the problem with having an alter ego is that his behavior tends to reflect on you.

I did NOT get to meet Scott Esposito of Conversational Reading or Gwenda of Shaken and Stirred -- I looked for you, and I'm so sorry I missed you! But I heard so much about these two fantastic blogs from others that they certainly deserve mention anyway.

Publishers and Other Folks

Ohmigosh, I met Kelly Link! Author of fantastic and fantastical short stories, she's also one of the founders of the fiercely independent and unabashedly innovative Small Beer Press, and I adore her (and her husband Gavin) even more after meeting them than I did when I had only heard of their awesome venture. Their fall list looks great, too.

I'm also excited about the fall titles from First Second Books, which published my favorite THE LOST COLONY by Grady Klein, and has a whole new batch of extremely literate graphic novels coming down the pipeline.

Not everything from Diamond Book Distributors is quite so literary, but they're the biggest distributor of mainstream graphic novels, and I happily snagged several of their catalogs in hope of ordering more of that kind of candy for our store.

Mark Batty is another publisher that was new to me -- they've got some great graphic design titles coming out, including a history of the graffiti on the walls of CBGB's -- how cool is that!

Ignacio de Echevarria of Fondo de Cultura Economica, a venerable Spanish language press run by the Mexican government, was very patient with my lack of Spanish beyond high school classes and filled me in on some wonderful Spanish literature titles that we will hopefully soon be carrying.

Lauren (Aargh, I've forgotten your last name!) is a publicist at Coffee House Press -- she introduced herself at the LBC party, and I got to hang out with her and her counterpart from radical AK Press (whose name I've forgotten altogether) at the Independent Press Party as well. Coffee House published FIRMIN, which I pitched hard this weekend, but I didn't know they were actually a non-profit press that makes ends meet primarily with grants. They also published Gilbert Sorrentino, which is another of many reasons to support them.

Larry Portzline is the founder of Bookstore Tourism, a brilliant idea for bringing booklovers from outlying areas to indie bookstore-heavy areas, to the benefit of all involved. He stopped by McNally Robinson just before BEA, and I was lucky to hang out with him at the Shelf Awareness party -- he's truly a literary idealist and a great advocate for independent bookstores, as well as also being a total kick to drink and laugh with. I'm only sorry I missed his panel on Bookstore Tourism because I was in the middle of my own.

And to be honest, I wouldn't know half these people without Robert Gray, formerly Master Bookseller at the Northshire Bookstore and now the founder of Fresh Eyes Now, a brilliant venture aimed at "envisioning new bridges between authors and readers." I got to sit next to Bob at the FSG dinner on Thursday night, and we helped to entertain John McPhee and Alice McDermott with our bookselling enthusiasm. Devastatingly, Bob put so much work into organizing our Frontline Bookseller Buzz panel and his own Luring the Web-Addicted Book Buyer panel, as well as arranging meetings with those in the business, that he suffered a stress-related seizure on Friday afternoon and had to be taken to the hospital. He was released shortly afterward and will certainly recover, but he was forbidden to do any more work over the weekend, and so had to sit out the rest of the convention before returning to Vermont. This is especially difficult as he seeks to gain customers and recognition for Fresh Eyes Now, so I hope all of us in the industry can help to support him now, especially as he's been such a great friend and mentor for frontline booksellers and independent bookstores.

---

I had planned to write up some of the BEA nightlife, but there were more shout-outs than I realized (I've reposted about five times with things I'd forgotten!), and I have to dig back in to the freelance projects I've put on the back burner. Suffice to say, a great time was had by all, though I'm glad to be back home in New York again. My equally invigorated coworkers and I plan to have lunch later this week and hash out some of the practical ways we can implement what we've learned at our store. BEA was definitely a high, but luckily everyday life as a bookseller is also something worth looking forward to.

If I met you and missed mentioning you, forgive me! -- there was a lot of alcohol flowing and a lot of faces flowing past me over the course of the weekend. If you were at BEA and you have more stories, shout-outs, or corrections, PLEASE post them in the comments, or send me a link to where I can find out more!

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Surprise Sneak Post from BEA!

Dude, am I letting my book nerd flag fly at the D.C. Convention center. Max at the Millions and Ed at Return of the Reluctant (find his link through Bookdwarf -- I don't have time to create a new link right now!) have objected to the lack of wireless or other free internet access for press folks, but us lucky American Booksellers Association member get to use the computers in the ABA lounge, so I'm unexpectedly getting a chance to post.

Of course way too much has happened in the last couple of days to fully describe, but highlights include: watching bookseller/actors demonstrate "bad handselling" in a hilarious series of videos (the acting wasn't quite as bad as the sales techniques); hearing John McPhee describe what sounds like a fascinating new book about transportation over Spanish tapas; giving Jonathan Franzen my brilliant opinion on why he doesn't need to worry about offending right wing readers; meeting Bookdwarf, Max from The Millions, and other bloggers and bloggers-to-be in real life; audaciously asking questions in panels of everyone from Wonkette to Kelly Link to Laura Miller; having a rather unpleasant run-in with the notorious Bat Segundo; inventing the famous author "F. Skit Fotzgerald" during a pleasantly drunken chat with two book people who shall remain nameless; meeting brilliant and super-fun bookselling colleagues from places from Moab, Utah to Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and finding giveaway copies of all the comic books I missed at Free Comic Book Day! Of course, there was a lot more really productive learning and discovering as well (I have lots of pages of notes), but this is some of the fun stuff.

The worst part of the weekend was getting a call from Robert Gray, the blogger and Fresh Eyes Now founder who was to moderate our Frontline Bookseller Buzz panel, to tell me that he'd had a minor seizure and was in the hospital. He's been released and will be fine, but he's under strict orders not to do any more work this weekend, as the problem seems to have been brought on by stress. So my fellow handsellers and I will be running our 3:30 panel on our own, though we plan to make sure Robert's great bookselling and mentoring presence is felt.

I'm off to spend a few more minutes on the trade show floor before my show time, but I couldn't wait to gush about some of the good stuff. Hope everyone's having a good weekend; more on Monday!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

BEA: This Year, It's Truly Monumental

That's actually the official slogan of this year's Book Expo America, managed by Reed Exhibitions (related to Reed Elsevier, which owns Publishers Weekly) and sponsored by Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and the American Booksellers Association (ABA). That’s a lot of big corporate and institutional money behind the event, yeah. But what it's all about, for me, (and really, isn't everything?) is the one-on-one stuff . The workshops and panels with authors, booksellers and editors I respect. The meetings with sales reps I've only contacted by email. The random encounters with fellow booksellers and other folks that I only get to see once or twice a year. The conversations. The reading copies (oh yes, the swag). And the parties (oh yes, the parties).

Not everyone is as excited about BEA as I am. For those on the publishing side, I can understand it completely – the expo for them means sitting in their publisher's booth for 9 or 10 hours a day, making cheerful conversation with anyone who seems remotely interested in their product, and rarely leaving the confines of the show floor. But some booksellers think of it as kind of a pain as well. Sure, the workshops can be interesting, and the free dinners are always nice. But if you're the sort of person who got into books because you're not especially social, and ESPECIALLY if you've been going to these conferences for years and years, spending three entire days (that's more than your regular eight-hour work day) doing business stuff isn't something you spend months looking forward to.

But then there are those of us who are relatively new to the business, and totally in love with it; who love talking about books almost as much as reading them; who are ravenous to learn more and more about how to be a better bookseller; and who would never turn down a free drink in the company of smart people. Yep, the Book Nerds. For us, BEA is something to look forward to all year, the big blowout learning/talking/enjoying/reading event that lights up the book industry calendar.

At the suggestion of Bookseller Chick and others, I had considered trying to "live blog" the event this year: posting entries each day about what I had seen and done at BEA. But for practical reasons (I'm switching hotels halfway through and can't carry the computer, and my schedule is so full I don't know that I'd even have time to post) that doesn't look like it's going to happen. But I plan to write up an exhaustive rundown of what I heard, saw, learned, and enjoyed after I return on Sunday.

So here I'll list some of the things I plan to be doing at BEA, just as a teaser. For those of you who are going to be there, you'll know where to find me. For the folks at home, you'll know what I'll be writing about when I get back. How excited am I about this itinerary!

Wednesday (today!):
- Leaving for D.C. around 12:00: my McNally Robinson cohorts and I are driving down together.
- 7:00 pm Emerging Leaders Conversation: a meeting of the passionate members of the next generation of booksellers, with a focus on making bookselling a feasible career option for those of just getting in to the business, and creating a network of folks like us for sharing ideas

Thursday:
- Morning – afternoon: Attending the ABA's Day of Education, with workshops on everything from "Creating Effective E-Newsletters" to "Handselling: Customer Service With Results." My coworkers and I still have figure out who's going to which workshop, but we'll spend the day learning.
- Thursday night: Dinner with Farrar, Straus Giroux: an event sponsored by the venerable publisher, and attended by some of the leading lights of the bookselling world. I can't wait to meet them!

Friday:
- Morning – afternoon: More workshops, including "Blog 2.0: How Blogs Continue to Re-define Author, Publisher and Reader Dynamics," and "Embracing the Short Story Collection," a panel moderated by Bridgid Hughes of A Public Space and including eminent critic John Freeman and one of my favorite authors Kelly Link.
- 6:00 pm Litblog Co-Op Party: a shindig sponsored by the best-known coalition of literary bloggers, where I hope to meet Bookdwarf and others of my blogging cohorts
- 7:00 pm Shelf Awareness Party: looking forward to saying hello to John Mutter and celebrating the great resource that Shelf Awareness has become.

Saturday:
- Morning: more workshops, and hopefully some time to explore the show floor (if I haven't been able to by this point), greeting sales reps I know and meeting ones I don't, and picking up catalogs and those delectable free reading copies. My carrying capacities are limited so I've promised myself to be extremely ascetic in choosing galleys this year, but it's so hard to say no to free books!
- 3:30 pm: Frontline Booksellers' Summer Picks (Room 201): My fellow handsellers and I will talk about four or five of our favorites from the summer lists, how we came across them and how we'll be promoting them. (Here's a sneak preview for you to decode: I'll be pitching the books I reviewed here in Reviews # 2, #14, #17, #21, and #22.) I'm only sad that several of the workshops/panels I was most hoping to attend overlap with my own; I'll just have to quiz others who attended for the skinny on Fiction Under 40, Bookstore Tourism, and Demystifying Comics Distribution.
- 6:30 pm: Independent Press Party, with folks from indie publishers from City Lights to Melville House and everything in between. These are some of my favorite people in the industry, and I can't wait to meet them too!
- 8:30 till ?: The PGW Party: the most notorious recurring party of BEA, sponsored by the huge coalition of small publishers distributed by Publishers Group West. It's always last thing on Saturday night and features a killer band – this year, The Brazilian Girls are playing. My former boss and mentor T (okay, Toby of Three Lives, who won't be at the conference, sadly) advised me "Go to all the other parties you want to go to first. Then show up at the PGW party around 1 or 2. It will just be getting good then." I finagled an extra night in D.C. partly because I didn't want to rush off after my panel, and partly because I couldn't bear to leave without seeing what all the fuss was about.

And that's the risk of looking forward to something like BEA so much: I run the risk of disappointed expectations. But that's true of books, and of life, isn't it? Anticipation is half the joy of it, and even if my dreams of education and glamour fall flat, I know there will be much to be gained from the experience. And who knows – I may end up experiencing great things I haven't yet planned on (there are a lot more parties going on…)

I'll let you know all about it after I make my weary way home on the train on Sunday afternoon. Hope you've all got something to look forward to this week – see you on the other side!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Comment: More Links, Review #23, BEA Anxiety

Between reading and gathering the "cold call" blogger conversation and frantically emailing everyone under the sun with BEA plans, there's been almost no time for the regular stuff of the blog. I'm leaving tomorrow afternoon for Book Expo America in Washington, D.C., and I'm hoping to get in one last post before then about my hopes and excitement about the conference. But today I want to get to the odds and ends that are in danger of falling through the cracks.

The Best American Fiction of the Last 25 Years
The New York Times asked several hundred "prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages" what they believed was the best American novel since 1980, giving them no list to choose from and completely free range to pick their favorite. The winner(s) are here. Definitely click on the always hilarious A.O. Scott's essay for some thoughtful analysis of the results.

Toni Morrison's BELOVED got the most votes in a wide-open contest -- though interestingly, almost every other vote went to a white male (only one other woman, Marilynne Robinson, made the list). This is especially interesting since the last time a similar poll was conducted, in 1965, Ralph Ellison's INVISIBLE MAN won the day in a field also otherwise dominated by white guys. The poll seems to indicate that Americans (or the American literary establishment) like their fiction epic, familial and political/cultural, and they're mistrustful of the greatness of those under 40. Fair enough. It will be food for thought for the next weeks and years, I expect -- there will be a panel discussing the results at BEA, and I'm looking forward to hearing more analysis, and maybe even reading some more of these newer classics.

Handselling: An Amateur's Take
Here's a funny piece in the Times with Henry Alford's take on handselling, from the perspective of a streetside book table. The odd thing is that Alford seems to have the impression that handselling is what you do to the books that no one wants to buy, whereas my experience has always been that handselling is what you do to the books you truly love that might be overlooked. But it's a great little piece on retail and New York street culture nonetheless. I know from the experience of putting out a box labeled "FREE BOOKS" on our stoop (in the interest of clearing off our groaning bookshelves) that New Yorkers will pick up almost any reading material if it looks like a bargain.

Death of a Poetry Icon
Stanley Kunitz, U.S. Poet Laureate, gardener, and mentor, has died. He was 100 years old. Shelf Awareness provided this link to a lovely piece in the Washington Post with memories by poets and others who loved him.

I saw Kunitz several times at readings and poetry events -- one particularly wonderful one where other poets, including Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, and Galway Kinnell read and talked about Kunitz' own poems. He was already very old then, of course -- he started writing in the 1920s. I always thought that his voice sounded a little like Winnie the Pooh, and he looked like a very wise and beautiful turtle. It was kind of appropriate to his gentle, Zen-like persona. He was an endearing personality and a great poet, with a wonderful legacy to those who knew him and read him. Pick up his COLLECTED POEMS if you get a chance -- his work is accessible and endlessly rich.

Review #23

TOLSTOY LIED
by Rachel Kadish
(Houghton Mifflin, September 2006)

What is chicklit, actually? You could define the genre as being primarily concerned with contemporary women, with their romances, friendships, and careers. If that's the case, Rachel Kadish writes chicklit for the intellectual girl. She has both a fierce and searching intelligence and a feel for contemporary romantic mores, and she brings them both to bear on this book -- which I loved more than I would have anticipated.

The title refers to perhaps one of the most famous lines in literature, the opening of ANNA KARENINA: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I remember reading a critic at one point who pointed out that Tolstoy's novel actually complicated that sentence, proving ultimately that all families are unhappy in different ways. The contention of Tracy Farber, the literature professor heroine of TOLSTOY LIED, is that that's the wrong complication. Happiness, she secretly believes, isn't blandly uniform; it's as complex as unhappiness, and just as worth studying, despite the skewing of high literature toward the tragic. In addition to her duties teaching 20th century American literature at a New York university (which I expect is modeled closely on NYU, based on the descriptions of the English department building), she's gathering evidence for a sweeping indictment of literature's prejudice against the reality of happiness.

Her life reflects this as well: she's scratching out truly happy existence as a single person, despite her girlfriends' admonishments and attempts at blind dates. I found Tracy the most convincing woman defined primarily -- and happily -- by her work I'd ever read, even though eventually, of course, a man comes on the scene. He's George, an earnest, un-Ironic Canadian former fundamentalist, and Tracy falls, carefully, and in spite of herself. The narrative of their slow getting to know each other also rings true, as does her complete panic when she finds herself engaged after two months of bliss. In the face of tons of conflicting advice, Tracy has to figure out how to be true to herself and honest with her lover, and the price is high: George can't understand her pulling back, and leaves. But we're only halfway through the book at that point, so you know there's a lot more to come.

In some ways, the plot is a recognizable one: girl gets boy, girl loses boy, girl has horrible boss (played in this case by a bitter and sniping professorial colleague who represents the worst academic departmental politics has to offer). There's even a gay friend, a married woman friend, a childhood best guy friend, and a serially monogamous actress friend -- all types I feel like I've seen before. But somehow Kadish makes all totally real. Maybe it's because of her insistence on writing dialogue the way real people -- okay, real women -- talk to each other: full of half-digested psychology, moments of self-knowledge, and reaching for generalizations, in the process of groping toward an understanding of themselves and their loved ones, taking it as seriously as real women do. Maybe it's because she almost never mentions clothes, except on the flamboyant actress, and in one scene where Tracy is dressing for a party (which is when we all think about clothes). Mostly it's because our heroine's job isn't a means for finding a man, or killing time until she does -- it's her passion, and she spends as much time thinking about it as she does thinking about romance.

However Kadish did it, I'm really impressed. I was consumed with suspense for how Tracy's story would turn out: I expected a happy ending, given Tracy's academic preoccupation, but I suspected it would be a complicated one, given her 21st-century feminism, and I was right. You could read this one on the beach -- and then you could talk about it with your smartest female (or otherwise) friends for weeks afterward. It made me feel a little bit ashamed for certain remarks I've made about chicklit, and grateful that there are smart women out there writing about our real lives with such life and wit. And as a cockeyed optimist myself, I'm all for literature that takes happiness seriously.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Link-Mad Monday Special Edition: Bloggers and Publicists

I noticed a single issue was getting a lot of play in the world of litblogs this week: publicists and authors who solicit bloggers to read/review/promote books, and the right and wrong way to do it. Here's a rundown on who's been talking about this, followed by my own two cents on the issue:

Dan Wickett of Emerging Writers Network opens the can of worms with a post entitled "Please Read The Freaking Blog First". His very reasonable, if frustrated, contention is that if you're going to send a blogger a book or email them asking if they're interested, it makes sense to read the blog first to find out what kind of books they are generally interested in. He even gives a couple of examples of literary bloggers and their interests. In the comments on his post, someone left this hilarious mock solicitation:

Dear Sir:
I have a self-published chapbook that won a special "Certificate of Participation" at a recent Bay Area literary festival. I am convinced that this chapbook will be as seminal as the second coming of Jesus and I urge you, [insert blogger's name], to spend the next six months talking about.
Very truly yours,
Virginia K. LunaticFoot in Mouth Press


All too possible...

M.J. Rose of Buzz, Balls and Hype weighs in with a post called "Don't Do This!" (scroll down to the May 10 post). Her rules are very simple:

Don't write to bloggers without knowing our names. Don't send us blanket emails. Don't treat us like fools. Don't market to us. Don't try to hype us.
But.
Handpick the blog.Get to know the host. Fit your book to the blog. Write a personal letter. I know it takes time. Anything valuable does.


Edward Champion of Return of the Reluctant fires back at publicist form letters with a form letter of his own: "An Open Letter To Demanding Publicists I Don't Know". His is the wittiest and delightfully snarkiest of all the ripostes to publicists I've read, and his demand that publicists seduce him with specific information about the book (since he has about 1,489 others that also need to be read) is also a good one.

Max Magee at The Millions calls his post "Preach It: Tips For Publicists" (scroll down to May 10 again). Like Dan, Ed, and MJ, he expresses gratitude for publicists who have sucessfully tipped him off to books he found interesting, but laments the tendency to send mass emails, "cold call" without reading the blog, or trying to buy the blogger's attention with the promise of a free book. He also links to a bunch of the other posts on the subject.

Scott Esposito of Conversational Reading (which I should totally read more often -- it's great) calls his running feature the Friday column "Friday Column: Publicists". He wisely points out that "it's a sign of the place litblogs are coming to hold in the great literary media ecosystem that we have our first instances of public pushback against pushy publicists." Scott's major problem with publicists or promoting authors is the implication by some of the less experienced that sending a blogger a book is a "reward" for a promise to favorably review it -- a strategy that they certainly wouldn't attempt with any other media outlet. The comment conversation on here is great too.

Bookdwarf sounds off on the issue with "Hot Topic: The Literary Version of the Cold Call" (scroll down to May 11). Her plea, that we bloggers sometimes have to just ignore the irrelevant books that are sent to us in the interest of our own sanity, is one that publicists would do well to consider.

In a slightly different twist, Maud Newton on her well-respected eponymous declares that she is "Not For Sale". Apparently her blog was listed in the Fall 2006 Crown catalog as an "online promotion venue" -- for a book she'd never heard of, much less promised to review or promote. Maud is incensed and feels exploited, and rightly so -- this is the worst form of presumption that a blogger will of course be flattered to be included in the media push for a book. The implication that the blog is promoting a book for a fee is an even more outrageous one to her, since she makes clear she never reviews books on her blog in exchange for money.

Finally (though I'm sure there are some more out there that I've missed), George Murray at Bookninja rounds things off with "Pitching Yourself To Blogs". He starts with Maud Newton's complaint, and goes on to talk about good and bad publicist behavior. His list of do's and don't's for those seeking to promote books through blogs is even more extensive than most. In the comments war that follows, a publicist defends herself for the catalog incident and Maud fires back.

To me the most interesting and all-encompassing statement of the whole discussion is a comment from George:

Need blogs conduct their business like mainstream outlets in order to earn the respect of the reader and (legitimate) advertiser? Or does a medium which purports to value the individual voice/style/design necessarily require a more personalized approach to rules as well? Maybe that’s the new rule: develop individual relationships. No time? Go back to the NYT and pay through the nose for a 1/16th of a page.

--

I suspect there are two kinds of senders of inappropriate, spammy, or unskillful emails to bloggers. One is the inexperienced author, who thinks their book is great and has no sense of the number or kind of books our there, the reading demands placed on those who review books regularly, or the proper manners to use when asking someone to devote ten hours or so to reading one's own work. Some of these may be a little crazy, others just overenthusiastic and ill-informed. The other kind is the professional publicist for whom the blog is just one in a massive list of potential "promotional venues", who treats a guy or girl writing reviews online for free, for more or less their own satisfaction, in the same way they would treat a major for-profit media outlet. Maybe there's not a lot we can do about the amateurish authors, except try to educate them a little about the industry. But the actions of the publicists suggest a misunderstanding within the industry about what blogs are good for.

The major difference between blogs and other media outlets was pointed out in this article in ForeWord about bloggers and independent presses (which also quotes George from BookNinja). If it's not too pretentious to quote myself, "Bloggers like me have no obligation to read anything other than what we like." We're not in the business of writing reviews for money (for the most part) or to boost our circulation, nor of promoting books based on a marketing campaign. The only way we're going to review something positively is if we read it and like it. And the only way we're going to read it is if it's brought to our attention. And the best way to bring a book we're going to like to our attention is to know what kind of book we tend to like.

So it comes down to the personal relationship thing, and this is where I think blogging overlaps with independent bookselling. As booksellers we don't have any obligation to read particular books either, except to tell customers about books we think are worth reading (and buying). If you as a publicist or an author want us to read your book, you have to bring us a book that we want to read, and you have to treat us like human beings, not like retail schlubs or cogs in a corporate machine. The advice I gave to potential authors on MJ's blog applies to publicists too: building relationships is the best way to motivate someone to take a look at what you have to offer. You don't have to become the blogger's (or bookseller's) best pal, but you do have to approach them on a person-to-person basis, and have respect for what they do in their field. This is the stuff that can make bookselling, and blogging, so rewarding for everyone it touches.

I think this widespread conversation about how bloggers can and should fit in to the life of a book is a great one, as it's helping to push the boundaries of how we think about publishing, reviewing, the Internet's place in print media, individual and corporate approaches, and even things like the Long Tail. I'm so excited to be a part of this new world, and I hope the comments of these literary bloggers will increase the understanding of the great potential of blogs for books, for readers, and for literary culture in the 21st century. Blogs are as individual as the people who write them, and getting to know an individual takes time. But is there anything that's more worth the time you spend?

I would love to read comments on my thoughts here, or on any of the perspectives expressed by these bloggers. What do you think about these issues?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Comment: No Me, Just Mitchell

I really have to spend the day knuckling down to some freelance work, so instead of reading the blog today, read this:

A brand-new story from David Mitchell.

It features one of the characters from BLACK SWAN GREEN, all grown up, and is (of course) structurally innovative as well as being a meditation on family, selfishness and happiness, and the state of England's freeways.

Enjoy!

Monday, May 08, 2006

Link-Mad Monday #2; Review #22

It's Link-Mad Monday again! Here are a few of the things I wanted to be sure to mention this week.

  • This one's a little old already, but did you read this infuriating article in the April 28 Sunday Times? Titled "Dizzy or Smart: What's a Girl To Be?", it posits that "dizzy is the new smart" in literature, especially chicklit, and suggests that dizzy "means rejecting a caricatured version of feminism, studiousness or ambition in favor of even more caricatured womanly wiles." No wonder teenage girls are reading the GOSSIP GIRLS and THE A-LIST (see Bookseller Chick's many-sided conversation on this issue) when the adult women are reading THE MEN I DIDN'T MARRY and THE DEBUTANTE DIVORCEE. Call me a snob, but it's not that I'm opposed to chicklit; I'm just not sure when smart, principled, multi-faceted women got labeled humorless and no fun and dumped in favor of boy-obsessed fashion models. Maybe it has something to do with the post-feminism of "Sex and the City"... but don't get me started. Fortunately there are plenty of intelligent, three-dimensional women in literature still, even in chicklit -- I'm reading a very smart and fun book in the genre right now that I'll review soon.
  • Have I mentioned Carl Lennertz' supercool blog Publishing Insider? It's a cornucopia of bite-sized entries on books, music, and publishing world events. Today he mentions the brilliant idea of Ariel Gore, author of THE TRAVELING DEATH AND RESURRECTION SHOW, who is making her book tour accompanied by a live band, a puppeteer, and fire eaters. I read the book and wasn't crazy about it, but man, that's a book tour for the 21st century, and I am all about it.
  • Another great one is the Words Without Borders blog, co-written by a team of book people from around the globe. Currently they're focusing on the "Reading the World" project, in which a number of independent bookstores (including mine) will prominently display and promote selected works in translation to encourage reading international fiction and nonfiction. It's a great project to open our minds to the existence of literature outside our national borders, and there's always something new happening at the site.
  • Saturday was Free Comic Book Day! -- a great tradition in the comic book world (thanks to the scrumptious First Second Books weblog for the link). The ALP and I made Forbidden Planet on Broadway our comic shop of choice, and though we were slighly disappointed at the randomized titles we got in our little baggies (I was hoping for the fabled new Runaways issue), a free comic is a free comic. What if publishers or bookstores instituted Free Book Day? -- it seems to be both a clever way to clear out old stock, and a way to build excitement about new series or titles. You picks your baggie and you takes your chances, and a good time is had by all.
  • This one's not a link, but a clipping from the Countdown to Book Expo newsletter, in the section "BEA Educational Panels to take note of:

The Frontline Booksellers' Summer Picks

Sponsored by Pages Magazine
May-20-2006 3:30PM - 4:30PM
A collection of frontline booksellers (those hardworking folks who actually hand-sell books directly to readers) will highlight 4 or 5 Spring/Summer releases they intend to recommend to their customers. These frontliners will share backstory details of discovery and early publisher/author interaction regarding the titles they are so passionate about, as well as planned in-store/online promotions and other marketing strategies that they intend to employ to entice their customers to buy.

Hosted by
Robert Gray - Founder, Fresh Eyes Now

Yes, your Book Nerd will be part of this illustrious panel, along with respected colleagues from Politics and Prose, Harvard Bookstore, Shaman Drum, and The Book Vault. Any guesses which of my recent reads I'll be recommending?...


And now for a book review.

Book Review #22

SACCO AND VANZETTI MUST DIE!
by Mark Binelli
(Dalkey Archive Press, July 2006)

I picked up this book for totally non-content-related reasons: because I'd been invited to the author's book party; because Chad, our rep from Dalkey Archive, sent me a galley and is a super nice guy; because I'd been told that Mark Binelli lives in the neighborhood and wrote most of the book in the McNally Robinson café / tea house. And the first thing I did was turn to the author interview in the back, figuring I could cheat a little and still look respectably interested in the book.

But Binelli's explanation of what he was trying to do with this book sucked me right in. I turned back to the beginning and started reading, and I didn't pick up another book for a week. I bothered the ALP with endless stories and quotations from S&V, missed subway stops, and found myself thinking about anarchists and stand-up comedians far more often than usual.

Because this turns out to be one of my favorite kinds of books, the genre-bending, pop-culture referencing, intellectually challenging, roller coaster alternate history, with slapstick. (Ah, you're right – this is actually probably the only one of its kind.) The Sacco and Vanzetti of the title are not exactly the Italian anarchists executed after a famously xenophobic trial in the 1920s. They are, rather, an early film comedy team in the style of Abbot and Costello, the Three Stooges, or the Marx Brothers. Sacco is the fat one (of course), given to creating chaos whenever possible, and Vanzetti is the straight man, the serious one, the ideologue.

The story unfolds in slapstick movie scenes, interviews, and historical asides. As Binelli states in the interview, "I took cartoonish movie characters and tried to make them somewhat 'real,' but neglected to remove them from their cartoonish movie scenarios." It's extremely unclear where S&V's real life ends and their movies begin – and increasingly, as the book goes on, where the fictional S&V end and their historical counterparts begin. Because isn't slapstick obviously akin to anarchy? – all that upsetting fancy dinner parties, hassling cops, blowing things up, victory to the underdog. And as Binelli makes clear, there's also a similarity between the entertainer and the ideologue: someone who, in the name of their cause or their art, is willing to live a fairly miserable day-to-day existence because something great is (maybe) going to come out of it.

This book is fun to talk about for its sophisticated themes – art & its sacrifices, racial stereotypes and comedy, the line between being a victim of capitalism and deciding to blow things up – but it's fun to read for its details – pie fights, knife juggling acts, the funeral of Laurence Olivier with the great comedians of the '20s as pallbearers. As you might have guessed, I'm a big fan. Mark Binelli, as it turns out, is also a really nice guy, and a really promising first-time novelist. Check this one out when it's published in July – you'll be as surprised, intrigued, and entertained as I was.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Chronicle: Brooklyn Literary Mingle (and a bit of SSP*)

Last night the ALP and I found ourselves in glittering company under the lights of the paparazzi cameras at the Brooklyn Literary Reception and Mingle in the beautiful old Brooklyn Borough Hall. Air kisses were exchanged, heads were thrown back in tinkling laughter, and wine glasses clinked in bookish toasts as Brooklyn's literary elite celebrated the kickoff of preparations for the Brooklyn Book Festival.

Okay, maybe it wasn't quite that glamorous – the wine glasses were plastic, the dress was casual, and the guest list may have been impressive only to a passionate Brooklynite and book nerd like myself. This is Brooklyn, after all, and our celebrations tend to be a little more down-to-earth and egalitarian than swanky Manhattanite soirees. The guest list was geared toward publishers, editors, and other behind-the-scenes book folk, rather than rock star authors (though those got name-dropped plenty). But it was great fun, and an exciting way to begin to build the buzz for the Brooklyn Book Festival in September.

I received my invite courtesy of Marcela Landres, who serves on the Brooklyn Literary Council in her capacity as creator and founder of Latinidad, serving Latino/a writers. I brought the ALP along as arm candy, and discovered first thing that one of my coworkers was there with his wife as well. Tom Roberge, whom I work with at McNally Robinson, is also an assistant editor at the supercool new literary magazine A Public Space, which has their offices in Brooklyn. Tom's boss, A Public Space editor Brigid Hughes (formerly of The Paris Review), is serving on the festival board, and I got to meet her as well.

As the bookish types filtered in and swirled around the wine and snack tables among the beautiful pillars of the Borough Hall rotunda, Marty Markowitz, our charismatic borough president, made his way through the crowd. He appeared to be expostulating in Italian to a man I recognized as Johnny Temple, the founder of Akashic Press, an awesome Brooklyn indie press. Johnny (who's also a member of the [post-]punk band Girls vs. Boys), as it turned out, was the MC of the evening, and he took the podium to introduce Marty, who delivered one of his inimitable Brooklyn booster speeches: congratulating us on being on the right side of the East River, and asserting that Brooklyn was the literary capital not only of New York, but of the entire country. (I tend to agree with him, but suspect that there's a certain amount of tribal pride and prejudice involved.)

After Marty's speech, the members of the Literary Council joined him behind the podium and were introduced by Johnny; they represented Brooklyn institutions from publishers to literary agencies to the Brooklyn Public Library, and included bigger sponsors like Washington Mutual Bank and Time Out New York.

The Book Festival, which will take place on September 16, will feature tents on the lawn of Borough Hall and events inside the hall, and will include readings by well-known and locally known authors, literary events for kids, panel discussions and other book fair staples. There's a brief article in Publishers Weekly about the announcement of the BBF, but I believe the web site and other informational tools are still in the works. I signed up to volunteer to help out with whatever is needed to get the festival off the ground, so you may be hearing more about it in the months to come!

After the speeches, we found Marcela and made some introductions; the ALP and I ended up having a fabulous conversation with a colleague of hers who is editing a volume of Latina erotica. I was too shy to introduce myself to Johnny Temple, but I did manage to find and reconnect with Richard Nash of Soft Skull, another kick-ass Brooklyn indie press (wearing what seems to be his signature fabulous pin-striped suit). He's about to leave the country to get married in the south of France, but we're putting our heads together to organize a get-together for young book industry New Yorkers in June; more to come on that as well!

After making the rounds and glad-handing a bit more, the ALP and I slipped away to have dinner at Faan, one of our favorite Smith Street restaurants. It was wonderful to walk through the Brooklyn dusk, with the mellow energy of those downtown streets flowing around us. I'm a Brooklyn nerd almost as much as I am a book nerd, and I'm thrilled to be a part of the literary tradition and innovation and community that it embodies. I can't wait for September!

* Shameless Self Promotion: Your Book Nerd is quoted in an article in ForeWord This Week about bloggers and independent presses. It's an insightful piece, with input from a number of my brilliant blogging colleagues. I hope to have time to write more about the issue soon, but check out the article anyway.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Reviews #20 and #21: Kids' Stuff (Like Censorship and Racism)

FLY BY NIGHT
by Francis Hardinge
(HarperCollins, April 2006)

THE LOST COLONY, BOOK 1: THE SNODGRASS CONSPIRACY
by Grady Klein
(First Second, May 2006)

Once again, two books, thematically linked. This time they seem to reveal my penchant for the kids' stuff: one is a fantasy novel geared toward young adults, the other a graphic novel with childlike drawings. It's true, I have a serious weakness for intrepid heroes and heroines, impending peril, swashbuckling, pratfalls, and nonsense. But there's a lot more going on in these two books than adventure and wackiness. Both have managed to effectively engage with several serious themes, while still remaining as entertaining as Saturday morning cartoons.

I picked up a reading copy of Francis Hardinge's book in the store because I liked the cover: a running, scowling girl clutching a goose, her face partially obscured by a banner reading "This Book Has Been BANNED! By the Mandelion Guild of Stationers." * The girl is Mosca Mye, an orphaned, precocious youngster who grew up in a boring backwater and longs for adventure. Sounds familiar, I know, but part of the reason we read these things is for the variations on a beloved theme. The Guild of Stationers hold sway in Mandelion, the big capital city Mosca finds herself adventuring in, and they alone reserve the right to approve or castigate any piece of writing or printing.

Mosca, in fact, is one of the few in her imaginary country who can actually read (taught by her late scholar father), and her love of words draws her to the honey-tongued scoundrel Eponymous Clent, who reluctantly takes her on as a secretary and drags her along to the capital. The plot gets very complicated from here on, and as with most fantasy/adventure stories, trying to summarize it would take too long and spoil the pleasure of the book. Suffice to say that in this beleaguered land, a period of political violence and unrest has settled into an uneasy peace, where the guilds (the Stationers, the Locksmiths, the Watermen) jockey for power on the streets, the insane Duke holds ultimate authority, and religious fanatics as well as free speech advocates are all secretly plotting to change the status quo. Sounds a little familiar again, huh? – but in a very different way.

Mosca's story is in some ways a typical one for this kind of novel: she struggles with her desires for fame and glory and ultimately discovers that some things are more important, and she learns, slowly, who to trust. But the politics of the story are rich and intriguing, and ultimately there are far fewer "bad guys" than one would think. The best part of the book are the floating coffee houses, which float on the river outside of normal law's jurisdiction, and are hothouses of revolutionary dissent. Oh, and the reluctant hero highwayman Captain Blythe, whom you'll just have to read about.

Like her predecessor in intelligent fantasy Philip Pullman, Hardinge ultimately comes down pretty strongly against organized religion, and authority in general, and in favor of individuality, creativity, and especially language. But her delineation of the dangers and contingencies that result in abuse of authority are perhaps more nuanced than Pullman's; even the ultimate villain is allowed a moment of humanity when Mosca reflects on how incredibly attractive power can be. Along with being a super-gripping read (yep, passed my miss-the-subway-stop test) by an author obviously herself in love with original, evocative language, this book might be a perfect way to introduce younger readers to ideas of authority and rebellion, the compromises of politics, and how difficult (but important) it is to be on the right side.

Grady Klein's highly original graphic novel is also about power in an imaginary world. Where Hardinge's was clearly modeled after 18th-century England, Klein's vaguely resembles America (one character is constantly misquoting Jefferson and other founding fathers). But it centers around a secret island, discovered accidentally by a slave trader who wants to expand his business. The island's denizens include Dr. Wong, the (supposedly) Chinese herb doctor and charlatan; Stewart, a giant lobotomized oaf; the money-grubbing, rhetoricizing Governor Snodgrass; the "king," Rex Carter; and Patricia, a possibly paranoid black woman who tries to mobilize her neighbors to kill the fairly innocuous-seeming trader. Through all of this wanders Birdy, the governor's small daughter, who follows the trader off the island after she decides she wants a slave to do her chores. She finds one – a boy named Louis Jones – along with the king's strange plot involving a giant iron robot slave.

It's a weirdly dreamlike story – almost like a child's meandering vision – and treats the heavy issues of racism and corruption with an odd casualness. The chunky, color-saturated drawings and goofy anachronisms (the characters are dressed semi-colonially, but constantly use the word "dude") add to the playful, unsophisticated tone. But this turns out to be a surprisingly effective strategy, as it forces the reader to look at race through a child's eyes, as though seeing it all for the first time. Klein takes his time and lets the art tell the story almost more than the dialogue; the fantastical but immensely satisfactory denouement is communicated entirely through the pictures. It's an example of one of the best things graphic novels can do: using the suggestive power of art to impart ideas that would be heavy-handed in words, and tackling grave topics with the all-encompassing imagination of fantasy.

In fact, both of these books both typify and transcend their genres, proving that the best kids' books aren't just for kids. If you know a kid who reads, I highly suggest giving them one of these, along with HARRY POTTER and GOSSIP GIRLS – and then talking to them about it later. If you're a grownup who appreciates the things fantasy and graphic novels can do, I highly recommend you check them out yourself.

* Two notes on the publishers:
In what I feel is an unwise move, HarperCollins have changed the cover of FLY BY NIGHT so that the banner reads "Imagine a world in which all books were BANNED!" Not only less intriguing, but false in the context of the story, where books vetted by the Stationers do exist.

The publisher of THE LOST COLONY, First Second, is a brand-new graphic novel imprint of Roaring Brook, a division of Holtzbrinck. I can't wait to see what they come out with next.

Monday, May 01, 2006

New Feature: Link-Mad Monday!

I've realized that just as I can't quite get to all the books I want to read, I can't write about all of the topics I think are interesting in the book world. I've got a folder full of interesting tidbits I want to share here on the blog, but since I really only have time to write two or three days a week, there's no way I'm going to get to them all before the links expire or the story's no longer interesting.

As a solution, I propose to institute Link-Mad Monday here on The Written Nerd. Every Monday I'll post links to all of those fascinating stories, for you to click on as you have the time and inclination. I'll feel less guilty about that backlog of tidbits, and you won't miss all of this vital book world news and commentary. I may also end up writing more extensively about some things later in the week.

So here we go:

  • The NEW YORK POST has broken the story that bookstore chain Borders has signed a lease on the retail space in the Williamsburg bank building. The Williamsburg bank is the tallest building in Brooklyn, a beautiful old landmark that has been virtually vacant for years. It's getting a facelift now, and I guess it's in some way inevitable that it would get a big corporate tenant. It's a little heartbreaking for those of us hoping to open an independent bookstore in Brooklyn – but you know, it's a big borough.
  • Here's an April 9 article from the BOSTON GLOBE about Wendy Strothman, a Houghton Mifflin editor who's quit the big time to become a literary agent. I'm inspired by Strothman's intelligent optimism (as opposed to the author of the article, who thinks literature and publishing are going unavoidably to the dogs.)
  • Newpages.com calls itself "the portal of independents!" It's recently been updated, and has links to independent presses, literary magazines, and best of all, indie bookstores. The listings are organized by state and city, and while the site could use a few more links to store websites, it is pretty comprehensive, and a great resource for those who want to support independents. Just click on the "Indie Bookstores" link on the left to find them in your area. Casey Hill also writes a great blog for the site, with capsule reviews and links to more book news.
  • The Guide to Atypical Usage and Lack of Style has a fascinating entry about a man who fought Communism with books. Full disclosure: this is the ALP's blog, and it's not always about books. But if you're interested, also check out the cool post about unusual libraries, the entry on a feminist controversy in comics, and the WPA interviews with New York bookseller Harry Reece, who told tall tales about his Uncle Steve Robertson that are preserved in the Library of Congress.
  • My favorite new litblog discovery also comes courtesy of Atypical Usage -- it's The Millions, which I'm sure everyone else has known about forever. I love that proprietor C. Max Magee and his pals talk about not only books, but lots of internet issues (Google, Amazon), contests, and weird book-related stories, and they're not squeamish about comics either. Original, fascinating, and fresh -- if you haven't yet, I definitely recommend a look.

That's about enough for this week. Hope you enjoy!