Monday, June 26, 2006
In the meantime, I'd love to have everyeone comment the heck out of the Emerging Leaders Night Out posts -- we're going to have to make some decisions about what the value of this project is, where it's going, who it should involve, and what it has the potential to do, and the more input the better. One specific question: what if a publishing house were to sponsor the next ELNO? Would that compromise the spirit of the thing, or would it be a good way to collaborate? What stipulations would keep this a community-builder and not a promotion for one publisher?
I look forward to hearing from you. Have a great week!
Friday, June 23, 2006
Enjoy, and have a great weekend!
Thursday, June 22, 2006
First, my fetching McNally Robinson coworker Allison, with her partner Todd, mystery writer and mastermind behind Thuglit:
Here's an illustrious crown of book folks: from left to right, sales rep Sean of Parson Weems, editor John of Shelf Awareness, bookseller Amanda of Good Yarns Bookstore, and sales rep Ben from Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
And finally, the ALF gets the chance to mug with the most punk rock man in publishing, Johnny Temple of Brooklyn's own Akashic Books:
I wish I had thought to take more pictures, but I was having too much fun. Next time, perhaps?
In the meantime, make your thoughts on the event heard in the comments section of my previous post. Thanks again to everyone who made it -- it was great to see ya!
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
And so we did.
I'm no Gawker, so forgive my shoddy photography skills and believe me that we had a great turnout and a good time was had by all. Not everyone who sent me an RSVP managed to make it out -- it was Tuesday night, it's New York, and life interferes. The upside was that in the crowd of about 25, everyone got a chance to meet everyone.
The Brazen Head, our chosen location as a Brooklyn landmark and great beer bar, came through with some drink bracelets that gave everyone in our party happy hour prices all evening long. (I got to pass out bracelets, and felt like those posh girls at the entrances of clubs... except having more fun.) The only downside to the cheap drinks was that everyone had to buy multiple rounds to make the minimum on their credit card tabs... which only meant that lots of people were buying each other drinks.
I got there a little before the official 7:30 start time, and Andy Laties of REBEL BOOKSELLER fame had already arrived -- the man made a heroic 3 1/2 hour drive each way just to join us! (and to visit his cohorts at Vox Pop, of course). I had the pleasure of introducing him to Annie Shapiro, bookselling veteran and newly ensconced in my old job at Labyrinth Booksellers. Here they are engrossed in book talk in the Brazen Head window seat.
There were lots of first-time meetings, and lots of old friends as well. Booksellers and publishers mingled freely, as well as some folks who don't fall neatly into either category. Steve Colca, until recently a bookseller, joined us after his first day at Norton, and I shot him chatting with Jessica Fjeld from Atlas Books.
I have a couple of other pictures, but Blogger and I are not seeing eye to eye on picture posting at the moment -- maybe I can get them up later somehow. In the meantime, you'll just have to imagine John Mutter of Shelf Awareness chatting with Sean from Parson Weems, Ben from FSG, and Amanda from Good Yarns bookstore in Hastings, NY; my coworker Allison smiling next to her partner, Todd Robinson of Thuglit; and the ALF himself mugging with Johnny Temple from Akashic Books. I didn't manage to get any photos of my co-mastermind, Richard Nash of Soft Skull, but he's all shellshocked from coming back from his honeymoon to the one gazillion tasks of an indie press, so he'll probably thank me.
The crowd ebbed and flowed and waxed and waned throughout the evening. I heard conversations about the Brooklyn Book Fair in the fall, about the history of Norton's relationship with B&N; about the changes in sales force structure at FSG; about the challenges of putting out a monthly or weekly or daily literary publication; about successes and problems at everyone's workplace, with suggestions and encouragements offered. Of course, there was plenty of regular bar conversation as well, and a great deal of laughing. And Sarah Pocock at Labyrinth taught me a miracle cure for hiccups.
In deference to its being a weeknight, the last of us hit the road a little after midnight. As they left, nearly everyone made a point of expressing enthusiasm for being able to meet their cohorts in this setting, and a hope that we'll do it again.
I spoke this morning to Karen Schechner, a reporter for the ABA; her piece on the event will probably appear on Bookselling This Week on Thursday. The conversation helped me clarify my thoughts about the evening a little bit. Like the national Emerging Leaders Project, our local effort has few concrete goals at the moment in terms of changing the industry. Its primary function is to create community among those who WILL be changing the industry. New York bookstores, despite their close proximity to each other and to the publishers, can cultivate a kind of isolationism. Our regional trade association, NAIBA, is always very short on New York bookstores as members, which I can't help but think is a result of that go-it-alone mindset. I'm hoping this first ELNO will be a step toward redressing that, toward helping us all to take advantage of the combined knowledge and skills of our fellow bookworkers in the trenches. Publishers are a big part of that too; our relationship with them can make our businesses succeed or fail, and they need to know what's happening with us as well. Their insights and enthusiasm about books and bookselling can be both a valuable asset, and a really interesting way to pass an evening.
Yes, this is a kind of business networking. But it's also just about making friends with people who probably have a great deal in common with you. What I (and I imagine most of us) love about bookselling is the quality of life; it's a profession with a great capacity for joy and satisfaction. Enjoying the company of like-minded others is part of that. And thinking of each other as peers and resources, not as competition, is another part.
And yes, Richard and I are already talking about having another ELNO. We're thinking maybe one a quarter would be about enough to build buzz and include those who couldn't make this one, without having it become a burden for us or those who might want to attend. We'll see where the interest is, and start thinking of the future. (After we nurse our hangovers, of course.)
In that vein, I'd love to open it up to this community and see what you think about the future of Emerging Leaders in New York. If you were there last night, what was great about it? What would you have liked to see that you didn't? If you're local and you didn't make it, how come? How can we make it more accessible to everyone? What should we be trying to do as Emerging Leaders, or is it enough for now just to make introductions and compare notes and buy each other drinks? (Thanks for those, by the way...) Feel free to complain or praise anonymously.
I hope last night's event was just the beginning of a new scene (for lack of a better word) in which we can make things happen. I'm looking forward to seeing you all again!
Monday, June 19, 2006
Actually, it's also the name of the first independent bookstore I ever fell in love with: a children's bookstore in San Diego, California where Stephen Kellogg signed my copy of his latest Pinkerton book and drew a little picture. Sadly, I've been told that the White Rabbit Children's Bookstore is no more, but there are a lot more great children's stores out there carrying the banner. Check out the website of the Association of Booksellers for Children for some of the best, and a glimpse at what's happening in children's bookselling.
- Bookstore of the week: Full Circle Books in Oklahoma City, OK -- thanks to "quiche" for the link. (I really am going to add all of these bookstores to my links list -- I just have to find a free hour to do the HTML cutting and pasting...)
-- Paul Constant of Seattle online newspaper The Stranger had a rough time at BEA -- sounds like he partied a lot harder than I did. His take on the conference is a little snarky, but pretty funny, and the description of those last night parties isn't too far off. Sigh -- another alternative paper I'll need to make time to read...
-- I'm excited about Robert Gray (i.e. Fresh Eyes Now) writing for Shelf Awareness, especially since his first article is about bookstore websites, just as we're thinking about improving our website.
So here's the reader question for the day: what's your favorite independent bookstore website, and why? I don't mean the website of your favorite bookstore -- I mean the website you find most useful, that gives you what you want in an attractive and distinctive way. (I admit I stole the idea from Bookseller Chick -- check out her blog for a similar discussion about author websites.)
Back on Wednesday with a report on our Emerging Leaders Night Out -- see you on the other side!
Friday, June 16, 2006
My reading time lately has been taken up with several books I've been assigned for review, as well as some guilty pleasures in between. First, the work reading (which won't be out for several months).
ALL FOR LOVE
by Dan Jacobson
(Metropolitan/Holt, September 2006)
It's a true story: in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a princess fell in love with a lower-class cavalry officer, defied her husband and her family and ran away with him. When the forces of the status quo caught up with them, he was thrown into prison and she into an insane asylum, until he won his release and staged a daring breakout of the asylum. Then they fled to Paris, braved the world war together, and wrote their romantic memoirs while remaining faithful to each other until death.
Dan Jacobson was clearly attracted to this romantic tale, but on examination it turns out to have some twists that weren't brought out in the memoirs. Princess Louise and her officer, Geza Mattachich, got thrown in jail because their lavish lifestyle had racked up so much debt (in hopes that her husband would quietly pay it) that Mattachich illegally forged a promissory note from a royal relative. The mastermind behind his release and Louise's breakout was Maria Stoger, a working class woman who had Mattachich's child while he was in prison and continued to live with the pair for much of their lives. And both of them were probably self-dramatizing, self-absorbed ninnies who didn't care that the money for their jewels and houses and parties and clothes came from the Belgian king's horrific depredations of the Congo.
All of that still makes for a good story, obviously – except that this is supposed to be a novel. I got the feeling that Jacobson didn't have quite enough information to make this officially a biography of the pair, so he included all his research (with footnotes!) and a few scenes of invented dialogue and called it a novel. Despite the explosive subject matter, I have to admit I found the book incredibly dry. It was longlisted for the Booker prize when it came out in Britain, but it's said that British readers love biographies much more than their American counterparts, and this seems like a book that would appeal especially to biography readers. As a fiction reader myself, I wanted more feel-of-real-life stuff, and less descriptions of which train the princess took to Croatia or the rules of dueling. Nevertheless, the story itself is an irresistible one, and fans of historical fiction and biography might find much scandalous and decadent and romantic detail to be enchanted by.
by Andrea de Carlo
(Rizzoli, August 2006)
This is another import, and another book with fascinatingly flawed and self-dramatizing characters – but it's a much more novelistic novel, and one that I found absorbing and thought-provoking. Andrea de Carlo is "one of Italy's most successful contemporary novelists," according to the jacket; this is his first book written in English. (This makes for some interesting linguistic quirks, by the way; my favorite is when one character tells another "You can only go to hell" – meaning, presumably, "You can just go to hell," but missing something in the non-translation.)
The author definitely proves his chops here, with the story of four high-powered Milanese urbanites and their preening real estate agent who jaunt off to rural Umbria for the weekend to look at some charming rustic houses for sale. When they lose their way, the car breaks down in a ditch, and a storm breaks, all civility is lost, and the five find themselves thrown upon the mercy of a group of squatters in the very houses they had hoped to buy – the settlement of Windshift. These purposeful peasants have rejected contemporary society and live without machines or commerce of any kind, making their own food and clothing – but instead of being Frances Mayes romantic, it's cold, dirty, and frightening (at least for the urbanites), as life before electricity or cell phones was wont to be.
I usually have a hard time enjoying novels where the characters are unlikeable, and there are some incredibly unlikeable ones in here: a vain and childish talk show host, a self-righteous architect who's cheating on his wife but sees posturing and hypocrisy in everyone else. But Andrea de Carlo turns it into good drama, putting them up against other, imperfect but more self-aware characters, and showing the depth of self-justification involved in almost any lifestyle choice as well as the essential emptiness of an unexamined life. The utopian Windshifters have their share of anger and self-dramatization too, but they have at least chosen their lives instead of being swept along by commerce and self-image (the scene of driving out of Milan, everyone involved in dozens of different urgent cell phone conversations, is priceless.) Cell phones come in for a lot of abuse in this book, which I enjoy as a denizen of Rude Cell Manners Land (come on, must you walk in and out the door while arguing with your agent or your girlfriend? This isn't your office or your living room…). In the end, the urbanites are affected by their forced displacement in radically different ways which ring very true, and even some of the Windshifters have been forced to reexamine their goals. I'd recommend this one highly, as the work of a clearly talented and insightful author, which is quintessentially Italian but will be very recognizable to any urban American.
And now for the guilty pleasures:
THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD
by Agatha Christie
(Black Dog and Leventhal, September 2006)
THE TUESDAY CLUB MURDERS
by Agatha Christie
The one book I picked up at BEA for my own reading pleasure was a beautiful hardcover reissue edition from Black Dog and Levanthal; I was just gloating over the chance to sink into her satisfying world on the train ride home. I'm pretty sure I'd already read ROGER ACKROYD at some point, but the great thing about Agatha Christie mysteries is you can never remember whodunnit, or even who the suspects were. This is a Hercule Poirot mystery, one of the first written but set after the great eccentric little Belgian has retired to an English country town. It has one of the most astonishing culprits of all Christie's novels, but I'm certainly not going to reveal their identity here.
And that got me on an Agatha Christie kick. I have at least half a dozen of the little mass market editions of her books lying around, picked up for a dollar at book tables or stoop sales, and they're the most irresistible portable treat. THE TUESDAY CLUB MURDERS is a Miss Marple book, this time a series of brief problems posed by younger and supposedly smarter folks, which the grand little old lady of St. Mary Mead composedly solves.
There are two things I love about Agatha Christie. One is her evocation of a world of rules and rituals, the deviations from which are the indicators that something is amiss. I love the idea of "at 10:00 we had just finished dinner, Miss X had retired to her room, while the gentlemen sat around over cigars, and someone began to tell an odd story…" and "if you had a garden you would know that gardeners always take Fridays off." It's a pre-feminist, pre-egalitarian world (though there are quite strong female characters and it never does to leave the servants out of your calculations). I doubt if even in England in the 1940s (and Christie wrote and set her books all the way up to the 1970s) things were this settled and comforting, but in a world where we rarely bother to make plans in advance ("I'll just call your cell when we're leaving") and dinner isn't something one dresses for (even dinner in a fancy restaurant rarely calls for anything nicer than jeans), it's a strongly tempting fantasy.
The other appeal and brilliance of Christie's novels is the way she always manages to turn the characters' class, sex, and age-based expectations on their heads. If I were an academic, I'd write a paper on generational conflict and misunderstanding and resolution in Agatha Christie; it's the one theme I think appears in every single one of her books. It's amazing to read the same language and thinking in books set in the 1920s and in the 1970s, and know that it rings true: younger people thinking of older ones as hopelessly tame and out of touch, older people thinking of young ones as wild and unreliable. In ROGER ACKROYD, it's a May-December romance that upsets these expectations; in TUESDAY CLUB, it's elderly Miss Marple's unfailing insight into the hip young lives of actresses, writers and painters.
Agatha Christie is a little like Rudyard Kipling, I think, representing everything that most appeals and repulses about English culture (hide-bound ritual, class distinctions, the Stiff Upper Lip, the White Man's Burden), while at the same time subtly undermining it with a knowledge of how human beings really work, English or not. Maybe this is just how I justify my periodic addiction to the puzzle-like workings of her (to be honest, interchangeable) novels, but gosh darn it, I think she's really good. As a young whippersnapper, I've got to give old Dame Agatha some serious props.
Speaking of which, one last plug for the Emerging Leaders Night Out happening on Tuesday. I'm sorry if I've given the impression that attendance is restricted only to hipsters under 40; truth is, it's open to hipsters of all ages. Seriously, if you think of yourself as someone who is interested in where the book industry is going, who is interested in developing and changing the future rather than digging in and hoping for a return to the past, and who plans to stick around for the next couple of decades, I'd love to have you come and meet other like-minded folks. We might even challenge each other to reexamine our own prejudices. Send me an email if you're interested and I'll send you the time and place info. In the meantime, enjoy the weekend!
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Monday, June 12, 2006
I've gotten several requests to include additional independent bookstores on my list of links. Keep 'em coming! If you don't see your favorite indie on the links list at right, it's not because I'm not a fan of the store or even because I don't know about it -- I'm just updating the list slowly but surely with my pokey HTML skills. So feel free to jog my memory. Here are the new additions for this week.
- Vroman's Bookstore of Pasadena, California, home of Emerging Leaders co-founder Allison Hill (they have a MySpace page, too)
- Square Books of Oxford, Mississippi, the local favorite of author and blogger Leslia Valentine
- Grolier Poetry Book Shop, "the oldest continuous poetry book shop in the United States" (thanks to Grant for the tip)
- Burke's Books of Memphis, Tennessee, owned by experimental poet and novelist Corey Messler and his wife. The store has been struggling lately, and Messler talked about it in an interview with blogger Marley Youmans. The interview can be found at the great new MySpace blog of writer and editor Susan Henderson, whom I'm definitely adding to my links list. (I'm a little confused by MySpace, but I think if you go to the Blog Archives box on the left and enter May 23 you can see the interview)
- The King's English of Salt Lake City Utah, owned by new author (and my hero) Betsy Burton, who recently wrote a memoir titled THE KING'S ENGLISH about her experiences there. Betsy is a driving force behind the Buy Local First movement in her area (see the links on her homepage), and she's given some galvanizing speeches about starting Local First campaigns at booksellers' meetings. Hooray!
- And if you're interested, BookSense.com can probably link you with an independent bookstore in your region, no matter where you are. Many (though by no means all) independent bookstores have their websites hosted by BookSense (run by the American Booksellers Association), which also offers universal gift cards to indie stores and compiles indie bookstore bestseller lists, among other services. I'd like to write about the workings of BookSense, as well as its advocates and detractors, in a future post.
- Another bookseller enters the blogosphere! I'm greatly looking forward to reading Episode Soldier, the brand-new blog of Aubrey from Arches Book Company in Moab, Utah. She's just barely gotten started, but she's got a ton of enthusiasm and smarts, and is definitely one of our industry's emerging leaders. Check it out!
- And check out a veteran bookseller blogger (if such a thing exists), and one of my own role models: Robert Gray at Fresh Eyes Now has a beautiful essay/post (the June 6 post) about elitism vs. adventurousness for the reader or wine drinker, with a great quote from FIRMIN by Sam Savage to drive the point home.
- The blog Book Of The Day has posted The Alt.list, the results of a blogger-only poll to determine The Best American Novel Of The Last 25 Years. The winner (I'll spoil it for you) is Paul Auster's NEW YORK TRILOGY -- a worthy competitor, I feel, if not my own favorite. There's a similar list at Conversational Reading: Some of the Best Books Since 1990, which I love for the modest ambition of its title as well as the fact that I've read a much higher percentage of them than of the Times list. I've noticed the books and authors in these lists tend to skew a lot younger and more recent than those in the Times' list -- is that because bloggers as a rule are younger than members of the literary establishment polled by the Times, and we tend to read from our own generation?
- Speaking of great young authors, the Guardian has a funny piece on my perennial favorite underappreciated author Daniel Handler, who has an ongoing rivalry with his more successful alter ego, Lemony Snicket.
- Because I've been dying to write about this but I'm not sure when I'll have the time, I'd better just give you the link to this fascinating piece about shelving and organizing bookstore sections by bookstore owner James Sime (aka Comic Pimp). His store sells exclusively comic books, which makes for some unique issues, but the task of creatively organizing and displaying books for high sales and customer (and staff) happiness is one that all us bookstores face. Any thoughts, readers?
And finally, if you'll permit me, a personal announcement. Since my last post, due to his introduction of a small item of jewelry into our midst, the ALP has officially become the ALF (Adorably Literate Fiancé). Life is about to become a bit busier, and even more wonderful.
Wednesday, June 07, 2006
A little group of booksellers -- all "lifers" in independent stores, though not owners -- started thinking about what kind of help could be offered to those who are likely to shape the future of bookselling: the Emerging Leaders of our industry. After lots of brain-wracking, here's the mission statement they came up with:
The Emerging Leaders Project recognizes the need to deliberately retain, develop and support the industry's future innovators and leaders. Emerging Leaders Conversations are set up for peer networking and discussion of topics that relate to the future of bookselling, leadership development and industry education. The Emerging Leaders Project is tailored, but not restricted, to people forty and under, who plan on sticking with the industry for the next twenty years and demonstrate a passion for bookselling.
This project isn't unique to bookselling: do a Google search for "emerging leaders" and you'll come up with a lengthy list of similar programs in all kinds of industries and institutions. The founders of this project took some of their inspiration from the mentoring programs of Americans for the Arts, which faces similar issues in the fine arts (competition from new media, aging audiences, etc.). The Project is partially supported by the American Booksellers Association, but not run by or subject to the ABA board.
The Conversations are the primary form the Emerging Leaders Project has taken so far. The first one was at the ABA Winter Institute in Long Beach, which I missed; from what I hear, there was a lot of excitement, but not a lot of practical discussion after the introductions were completed. Another conversation took place at the BookExpo, and the leaders of the project had clearly learned from the last time. Two of my bookstore coworkers and I were there, and it was probably the most engaging and interesting and potentially revolutionary thing I did all weekend.
To avoid reinventing the wheel, I'll describe what happened with selections from the recap email sent to everyone on the Emerging Leaders email list.
The BEA Emerging Leaders Cocktail Conversation was held on Wed. May 18 at the ABA Doubletree Hotel in Crystal City. The venue, beverages and refreshments were provided by the ABA.
We mingled and introduced ourselves and then the attendees broke into groups to discuss three topics: (Attendees were asked not to sit at a table with someone they already knew.)
1. What can the ABA do to support the next generation?
2. What does a future bookstore look like?
3. How do we making reading cool?
Out of these discussions these ideas were presented.
1. A need for an on-line list serve or forum, a place for problem solving with other emerging leaders.
2. Staff exchange training programs between independent bookstores.
3. Mentoring opportunities – pairing seasoned booksellers with emerging leaders for a day at BEA or at a Regional Conference.
4. Sharing of information of how some bookstores have successfully motivated young staff to stay in the industry.
5. Free workshops for prospective bookstore owners
6. Loan programs for prospective bookstore owners
7. Business Classes – how to read a financial statement, developing relationships with schools, methods of outreach, web saviness. How to prepare a business plan. How to buy an existing store.
8. Can the ABA partner with "hipper" publications rather than just the "big" guys? Can they partner with media outlets?
9. Have Attorneys and Business people serve as resources for emerging leaders.
10. Give incentives for independent bookstores to send their younger employees to regionals and BEA.
11. A training – BEA 101—What do first timers need to know.
For the future: Most every regional is planning an emerging leaders cocktail conversation for their fall conferences. Some are working toward creating a scholarship for emerging leaders. It seems that the regional conferences will best serve the emerging leaders programs, as an emerging leader is more likely to attend a Regional Conference.
Going Forward:The four of us* will continue to communicate with the ABA and Publishers about creating additional scholarships, working on a moderated list-serve, a day of programming specifically geared for Emerging Leaders, and eventually creating an emerging leaders council.
* The four booksellers who founded the project and currently comprise its leadership: Julia Cowlishaw of Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Cindy Dach of Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, Arizona; Neil Strandberg of Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, and Allison Hill of Vroman's in Pasadena, California.
Hopefully a listserve and an Emerging Leaders website will be a reality soon, and the potential of the project will start to take shape. In the meantime, I agree with the conclusion in the final paragraph of that email: the current action for Emerging Leaders is on the local level. Regional bookselling associations are one way; I've already blogged about the great meeting NAIBA sponsored for Emerging Leaders in Phoenixville, PA, and how useful it was for everyone.
And here in New York, we're making it happen too. Although I love the fact that the leadership of EL comes from entirely outside the supposed geographical nexus of literary power, the fact that so many publishing houses are located in New York means that we as NYC booksellers have a unique chance to connect with the Emerging Leaders on the other side of the industry. To that end, Richard Nash, the awesome publisher of Brooklyn independent publisher Soft Skull Press, and I are setting up a meeting for young "lifers" from all branches of the book industry: booksellers, editors (and editorial assistants), publicists, sales reps, writers, entepreneurs, etc.
We're gonna get everyone together in a bar in Brooklyn and see what happens. Most of what happens will probably be just talk. But this is how a community gets built. This is how the future happens.
If you want to know more about the Emerging Leaders Project, you can send an email to emleaders, at gmail.com. You can also check out the articles about them on the ABA website, here and here.
If you're going to be in the New York area on June 20 and you'd like to be a part of this newest incarnation of the Emerging Leaders Conversation, send me an email and I'll send you the information about the event. I'll definitely be writing about it here afterward. I can't wait to see what happens.
Monday, June 05, 2006
Before I get to what you've said, I want to mention what's being said elsewhere. I promise I didn't plan this timing, but today's editions of The New York Times and Shelf Awareness both have pieces that pertain exactly to the subject(s) of today's posts. "Digital Publishing is Scrambling the Industry's Rules," trumpets the Times, but it's less about e-books than about first chapters posted online, reader talkback on author websites, and a couple of convergence projects combining print and digital mediums. There's the requisite acknowledgement that John Updike is horrified by all this (I missed his speech at BEA, and I can't say I'm terribly sorry), along with some other, more equivocal voices from authors and others in publishing about the potential implications. No booksellers or mention of the effect of this stuff on the means of distribution, but the article is relevant nonetheless.
And almost every piece in Shelf Awareness today seems relevant to me: the civic joy over the expansion of the Tattered Cover in Denver; a piece about the rise of indie wine shops despite the availability of wine at Wal-Mart (because "People come to a wine shop for personality and service. They would much rather look someone in the eye and trust somebody--and laugh with somebody"); a link to a newspaper editorial calling for book buyers to "vote with our pocketbooks"; a meeting of a Vermont-wide local independent business alliance; and this comment from a business school professor about Powell's Books founder Michael Powell: "I'm not sure what the next big thing is, but [Powell] has been involved in several very major big things so far and has made out . . . with really striking efficacy."
So what the heck am I talking about – how are all of these things related? As Andy Laties slyly pointed out, my list of think-questions in the last post "looks like a page of notes to yourself in preparation for the writing of a book proposal." He's right, of course – they were leading questions, which I've been thinking about and answering for myself, and I think they all have to do with the question I posed to all of you:
What is the future of bookselling?
You responded, naturally, with a range of predictions and opinions, and I have to admit I was a bit surprised to find you less optimistic than I would have hoped. The sentiment "independent booksellers and independent publishers will increasingly get absorbed by large corporate entities or put out of business by the same entities … Those existing indies (both booksellers and publishers) would survive because they speak to a very niche market, who hears, loves, supports, and respects them" was a representative one, expressing the idea that indies will survive only insofar as they find niche markets.
This was extended to "Independents will continue to lose market share, and… will be able to survive mostly as elite boutiques / niche specialty stores… providing a distinctive service and selection to a dedicated audience, whether it's literati, scholars, activists, etc. etc. I think this only works well in cities, though."
Other dire predictions for bookstores: "publishers will… start to sell more and more books direct to consumers," "the Federal Trade Commission might rule that in the U.S. as in England, B&N and Borders as a combination will not be a monopoly," and "I personally cannot see the need to continue to publish large legal research books that are now available on the computer" (a comment that speaks to the struggles of university stores in particular). Yep, there are certainly a growing number of alternatives to buying a book in a bricks-and-mortar, independent, locally-owned bookstore, and things could just get worse.
But there was also some fierce, if wary, optimism to be found in your comments. Way back on that May 24 post, you said "I personally believe there's room for booksellers big and small in the marketplace…The book industry as a whole needs to step up the pace with the ever changing and growing world of the internet but not neglect the brick 'n' motar shops. It's a tricky balance but it can be done."
You booksellers said: "We lost all those storefronts BEFORE the rise of online bookselling, and with the rise of a new generation of storefront indie booksellers, people will cut back on their internet bookbuying and spend more time out hobnobbing with neighbors in all the swell new indie bookstores." And "indies are finally figuring out that… trying to replicate the Big Corporate Bookselling model on a smaller scale is a waste of time, effort, and money…Don't be afraid to be an INDEPENDENT BRICKS-AND-MORTAR BOOKSTORE. It's a ton of work, but there's no better way to spend a lifetime."
You consumers and readers said "I can only assume and hope that the printed book will continue to grow a devoted readership that will savor the physical pleasure that one can only get from an actual book." And "I feel like where I spend my money these days is just as important, if not more so, as who and what I vote for. And I want to cast my "money vote" for people who are passionate about what they do, who are interested in the world around them, and who consider how they affect change in the world."
You publishers [if this is the Ben I think it is] said "indies can narrowcast to their customers, and if the current conventional wisdom about the coming fragmentation/segmentation of media and cultural taste is right, narrowcasting is the future. Indies can't offer every option under the sun, like a cable system or a superstore, but they can offer you, specifically, what you want -- and better than anyone else. "
So here's what I have to add. I asked about Local First, Slow Food and organic movements because I think all of these trends are symptoms of a widespread dissatisfaction with the mass-produced, executive-board-run, corporate, impersonal, huge scale economy and culture that has been on the rise in the United States maybe since the industrial revolution. It's a big claim to make, but I think the tide is turning, at least in some places and to some degree. That doesn't mean we're all going to go back to farming, but it means that a lot of people are realizing that not every kind of "rationalization" is actually good for business or for humanity, that we can be progressive technologically AND progressive ethically and socially, that we can think big and stay small. I don't think Barnes & Noble, Borders or Amazon are to blame for the ills of society; in fact, I think they can serve a valuable function in getting books to underserved markets. But if I can quote my favorite silly White Stripes song:
"Well you're in your little room
And you're workin' on somethin' good
But if it's really good
You're gonna need a bigger room
And when you're in the bigger room
You might not know what to do
You might have to think of
How you got started
Sittin' in your little room"
We're all in the process of thinking back to how we got started, taking our really good big thing and remembering what makes it good.
This doesn't mean independent bookstores should be an attempt to freeze time, or go back to some idealized past. As the comment about Mr. Powell shows, indies have the potential to be right in the thick of the next big thing. Independent presses like Kelly Link's Small Beer Press are finding that publishing portions of books for free online doesn't hurt their sales, it builds word of mouth. Independent bookstores like Atomic Books in Baltimore are finding that for their market, having a website with a daily blog and all their inventory for sale online is very attractive to their customers, and keeps them coming in to the brick-and-mortar store. McNally Robinson in New York was the first bookstore to stage a remote author event using the LongPen technology (it didn't work very well, but it was interesting). Those in the book industry who treat new technologies and ways of reading not as threats, but as opportunities, will be the ones who will carry literacy into the future, in whatever form it takes.
There's an author quoted at the end of the Times article about the futility of positing ourselves as the defenders of civilization, barring the gates against the barbarians; his contention is that the barbarians will burn us to the ground and "put a parking lot over [our] sacred grounds." I'd agree with his warning, though not with his prediction. I think, as tends to happen in even the bloodiest of cultural clashes, the barbarians will inherit some of the old civilization's values and achievements, and the old guard will pick up some of the barbarians' new insights and skills, until it's hard to tell the difference between defender and barbarian, and some newer, stronger thing will continue to go forward drawing from the contributions of each.
Lastly, I think it's ultimately a silly question that I've asked, because the future of bookselling in New York City is probably not the same as its future in Fargo, or San Diego, or Istanbul, or even upstate New York. Similar issues will play out in different ways depending on local demographics and the personalities who get involved, and we'll win some and we'll lose some.
For me, the future of bookselling looks like a medium-to-large general independent bookstore in a frontier neighborhood in Brooklyn. It looks like a place that serves white, African-American, and Latino communities, kids and adults and families and singles, literary readers and pop readers, rich people and poor people and middle-class people, and that remains super sensitive to what its customers ask for and need, while continuing to carry what its booksellers think is wonderful and worthwhile. It looks like a place that understands that what's valuable about a brick-and-mortar store isn't just the ink-and-paper books, it's the one-on-one human interaction, and trains its employees accordingly, and makes itself a resource for the community accordingly. It looks like a place that creates events that emphasize not only authors of new books by major houses, but self-published authors, not-yet-published authors, even long-dead authors, and offers the wondrous, exuberant, real-time, real-people appeal of a carnival. It looks like a place that mentors the next generation, that is eager to embrace new possibilities while retaining all that is valuable from the tradition which created it. It looks like something that, with luck and flexibility and a lifetime of work, might last forever.
Okay, I'm a starry-eyed, bull-headed optimist. But I think we make the future by predicting it. And all I can really predict about the future of bookselling is that I'll be doing it, whatever it looks like.
Feel free to comment if you feel so moved. I imagine you and I have a lot more to say on this subject, and it will continue to get said in the posts to come. Wednesday I want to move on to another aspect of the future of bookselling: the Emerging Leaders Project.
Friday, June 02, 2006
Q: What is the future of bookselling?
I'll post your thoughts and mine on Monday. Some other aspects of the question to consider: How will developments like Buy Local First, Slow Food, and the organic movement affect bookselling, if at all? Will author tours mean that writing will become more performative, and how will that affect bookstores? What will the bookseller of the future look like, or is there room for both the businessperson and the idealist? Thinking outside the chain vs. indie question, how will all bookstores be changed by new technologies, new demographics, new forms of literature and information? Can we even make viable general predictions about a retail landscape as vast and varied as that of the United States, and if not, what can we predict on a local level? On a larger scale, what did we read/use before the book, and what might come after the book?
Interrogate your bookish friends, or your non-bookish friends. Quote the experts. Speculate wildly.
Looking forward to reading your thoughts. See you Monday!