Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Larry Portzline at the Bookstore Tourism blog has a thoughtful review of the documentary film about independent bookstores that's been causing a lot of buzz (in our little world). Jacob Bricca's "Indies Under Fire: The Battle for the American Bookstore" tells the story of the pitched battle between Borders and independents in the Bay Area. Hopefully we can bring a screening of the documentary to a New York book industry audience sometime soon, perhaps through Emerging Leaders; Larry's review makes it sound like a fascinating conversation starter.
Bookseller Chick (who is SO good with the posts and links; how, how do you find the time?) had a little guest blog series recently, including former bookseller David De Beer on "The (Gradually Changing) Bookstore Environment". His insights into indie bookstore customers' resistance to change (at least shocking, overnight change) were eye-opening and yet extremely familiar -- I guess our patrons are the same the world over (David lives in South Africa).
It's the birthday of Aubrey at Episode Soldier! Read her Billy Collins poem and wish her a happy day.
Simon Owens at Bloggasm has the results of a survey (which I participated in) about diversity in the blogosphere; fascinating stuff. The literary blogs aren't as male and white as some categories, but I'm still surprised by the 65% male majority, since the majority of the ones I read are written by women. Any thoughts?
Dan Wickett of Emerging Writers Network and the Litblog Co-Op, and Steve Gillis of 826Michigan have launched a new venture: Dzanc Books! From what I understand, it's a combination non-profit indie press and literacy/education organization -- sounds exactly like what I know of Dan, and what I know of the awesome 826 projects like 826NYC as well. Congrats, guys -- looking forward to seeing the great new stuff to come from Dzanc!
Speaking of the Litblog Co-Op, this weekend we'll be voting on the Fall Read This! selection -- oh, the suspense! Up for the honors are Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife by Sam Savage from Coffee House Press, Sideshow: Stories by Sidney Thompson from River City Publishing, and Manbug by George Ilsley from Arsenal Pulp Press. (Don't worry -- those book links will take you to Powell's, not Amazon. Thanks for supporting the indies, LBC!) You all know my affection for Firmin, but that's no guarantee of anything -- these are all three awesome titles, and the competition will be fierce. Stay tuned...
Okay, that's it for today -- I'm off to meetings and confabs galore, oh my! Stay tuned in general for further developments -- I've got a backlog of book reviews and commentary and questions to share in the weeks ahead. Happy reading!
Monday, September 25, 2006
On September 17, 2006, at the Breakfast of Champions at the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association trade show in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, author Libba Bray received NAIBA's award for Best Young Adult Book of the publishing year for her novel REBEL ANGELS. Her acceptance speech, titled "Ode to Independent Booksellers," brought waves of applause and dozens of requests for copies. Bray, who worked at an independent bookstore as a teenager in Texas, has given me permission to reprint her speech here. Please forgive me for running two guest posts in a row; I wanted to share this wonderful speech while it is still fresh.
Ode to Independent Booksellers
Independent booksellers rock.
They are a cup of black coffee, straight up no chaser, in a half-caf-vanilla-hazelnut-with-whipped cream kind of world.
When you walk up to independent booksellers and say, with deepest apologies, “I’m looking for this new book about the Victorian era and I can’t remember the author’s name but it has Glass somewhere in the title,” they do not roll their eyes and send you to the purgatory of the information desk—that circle of hell not described by Dante. No, they smile and say, “Why, I think you’re looking for The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist.” Because they know everything.
Independents are the Iggy Pop of the book biz—on the edge, a little dangerous, cooler than you will ever think of being, and still alive despite the odds.
Instead of the t-shirts that trumpet, “I do my own stunts,” they wear the shirts that say, “I do my own thinking.” The badge that says, Hello My Name is Book Lover. The tattoo that reads, I Sell Banned Books—Ask Me How! They rip the gags off intellectual freedom and the silly bras off John Ashcroft’s statue of justice.
(Okay, I made that last part up, but if you can actually do that it would be way cool.)
Independents are the personal recommendation. The word of mouth. The informed opinion. The debate. The discourse. The dissent. The punk rockers. The patriots. The hopeful realists and, occasionally, the pie-eyed dreamers, because sometimes we need to be reminded of that. They are the opposite of apathy. The ones who would raise their hands and say, “But…about those weapons of mass destruction…”
Independent booksellers know not to put People Magazine and industrial-sized tubs of Swedish Fish right next to the counter because that is just lighting the crack pipe and handing it over.
They are the ones who take aside disaffected, snarky seventeen-year-old girls from Texas, and even though that seventeen-year-old girl might be wearing a Devo-inspired, orange jumpsuit and heavy black eyeliner that she thinks makes her look like Chrissie Hynde but really just makes her look like she’s been on the losing end of a bar fight, they say nothing but steer her instead toward Douglas Adams and Thomas Pynchon, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Stranger, Woody Allen and Amiri Baraka.
They are the openers of doors. The carnival barkers to exotic, new worlds. The Book Whisperers. They are charming dinner companions, and they always bring good wine.
Being around independent booksellers makes you feel smarter by association.
They are the good guys. They kick it Old School. They are the truthful friend who will say, “Honey, that book makes you look fat.”
They are the front porch, the off-ramp, the scenic route, the handshake agreement. Independents understand that books have souls. They can put their ears to the bindings the way children put their ears to shells and hear the beating heart inside. And they treat our books accordingly, handing them off lovingly to others with a passionate appeal: “This one…listen…”
They do not want an author’s soul to be remaindered.
It is not easy to be an independent these days. It is an age of twenty-four-hour sound bites, of product and packaging and a thank-you-drive-through-please marketplace, of “truthiness” and cynicism masquerading as patriotism, of lies and betrayals that challenge the ability to stand fast in independence.
As we sit here in Valley Forge, staring across the glittering forever highways of America to the historic land just beyond, it is a stirring reminder that this was a nation founded by independents. And it feels no less a radical, necessary act to me today to be a champion of books—to champion ideas, to explore the myriad complications of the human heart, to examine the individual not out of context but as part of the larger human story. We have never needed the independent spirit more than we do right now. It is necessary work, and I humbly thank you for it.
Friday, September 22, 2006
Confessions of a Former Genre Snob
Before I begin this talk about literary genres and how they're perceived, marketed, etc, I should tell you right up front that yes, I used to look down my nose at certain ones and feel superior to those who openly bought and read such "trashy" books. The Romance section of any bookstore I treated like the part of a magazine rack where Playboys and Penthouses leered up for all to see. Even in my early bookselling days, I made the occasional joke about the Nora Roberts "book-of-the-month" club and insisted on the theory that she had an army of ghost writers at her beck and call.
What changed me? Well, for one thing, I was being hypocritical. In my teens, horror films and books were my genre jones that later on lead me to start reading paranormal romances. Also, several romance fan websites such as "Smart Bitches Love Trashy Novels" and "It's Not Chick Porn, I Swear!" (which later combined with it's sister site, "It's Not Porn, I Swear! ' under one banner, DionneGalace.com) showed me that there was nothing wrong with liking a good or not so good but fun book and still have a laugh about the cliches and bad cover art that never seems to totally fade away. As for Nora Roberts, my apologies to her. After reading a few articles and seeing her speak directly to fans at the Smart Bitches forum (How many top best-selling authors would take the time to do that?), I have some new found respect for the lady.
The genre wars are as old as publishing, it seems. Novels themselves were perceived as being only mere entertainment (For ladies,no less!) for decades and many of the traditionally scorned genres have slowly over time gained some praise and respectability of sorts. Horror, romance, science fiction/fantasy and mystery were the Top Four for the longest time but lately, a new player has been getting quite a bit of the attention from those who seek to protect what they perceive to be an assault upon their boundaries.
Chick Lit is the current whipping boy of the literary set and much of the ire comes from other women writers who insist (literally in one case) that the whole genre is "hurting America". I'm sure that this line is all too familiar to the folks that published comic books during the Communist witch hunting days of the 1950s, but what are the real merits of this debate and are they any different from the flack given to other types of popular writing? Let's look at some of the issues raised here:
1) Chick Lit novels have pink,cartoony cover art.
This has been a major complaint of the anti-Chick Lit crowd and many of those who cattily sneer at this know very well that most authors don't have a say in what gets put on the jacket or winds up on the front of the paperback. Also, lurid cover art has dogged the heels of many genres, from the pulp fiction of detective stories to the Fabio male models that heave over barely dressed ladies looking for love, and my beloved horror titles that were bathed in black backgrounds, with sinister silver lettering that demanded your attention. Not to mention the irony of judging a book by its cover.
2) Chick Lit takes away attention and shelf space from "literary" women writers.
It is true that Chick Lit has gotten a wider share of the market for awhile but on the other hand it hasn't received as much coverage or reviews in many of the prominent critical book media like the New York Times Sunday Book Review or The New Yorker. Also, the prevalence of Chick Lit doesn't seem to have affected the careers of Amy Tan, Zadie Smith, Geraldine Brooks, Tracy Chevalier and most recently Sara Gruen, whose brilliant novel, "Water For Elephants", has become one of the sleeper hits of the summer, gaining praise and climbing best seller lists across the country. Perhaps some folks doth protest too much.
Many other authors have been accused of hogging the spotlight (the NYT had to create a children's best seller list due to protests that the Harry Potter series was keeping adult titles from being featured on the Sunday lists) but why should anyone who has worked just as hard as the next person to write and get their work published be at fault for doing well and/or better, saleswise? The whole idea seems like something out of an Ayn Rand novel.
3) Chick Lit is nothing but bad writing and cliches, plus it promotes negative stereotypes.
Bad writing is like acne, it can pop up whenever and where ever it pleases. No genre is excluded from the obvious plotline, black hat villain or last minute resolution to the hero's dilemma. As to the "shoes and shopping" claim, I think if some of the detractors actually read a bit more widely in the field, they'll find some smart, independent lead characters that may like to look good but face many of the same traumas as their more seriously taken sisters such as date rape, abusive relationships, raising troubled kids and death in the family. Science fiction has taken the lead for years in dealing with social issues such as racism, sexism and oppression in entertaining and metaphorical ways. As Mary Poppins once sang, it sometimes takes a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.
Writing off a whole genre due to your own personal bias is a mistake in the long run. You could be ignoring the next great masterpiece that's coming around the bend. Just look at the rise of the graphic novel and comic strip art. If you had told someone twenty years ago that some of the best fiction and non fiction would come from and be inspired by comics, the response you'd receive would be along the lines of "Yeah,right and we'll all be living on the moon too!" Today, some of the best memoirs are in graphic novel form, from Art Spiegelman's "Maus" to Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" and most recently, "Fun Home" by Alison Bechdel. The works of Alan Moore have become thought provoking and exciting films such as "V for Vendetta" and "From Hell". Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay", which looked at the early world of comic books, not only won the Pulitzer Prize but created a market for a series of comics based on the fictional hero, The Escapist, that was in turn created by the fictional leads in his novel. How meta is that?
I'm not saying that we should all like the same types of books – taste is part of what makes a person who they are – but just because a certain genre is not your cup of tea, it doesn't mean it's not worth drinking in the first place. Art and Entertainment don't have to stand on opposite ends; they can both face the music together and dance .
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Okay, first the omissions. I neglected to mention that as we drifted into the dinner on Friday night, we were greeted warmly by members of the NAIBA board of directors: past president Sheilah Egan (who directs children's literacy programs now), executive director Eileen Dengler (who is not a bookseller but an incredible organizer – one of her previous jobs was putting together BEA practically single-handedly), Rob Stahl of Colgate University Bookstore (whom I apparently usurped as the youngest member of the board, and who is a great conversationalist and reader as well as fierce competitor… but more of that later), incoming past president Lynn Gonsher of Tudor Bookshop & Cafe in Kingston, and incoming president Joe Drabyak of Chester County Books & Music (who took me aside and told me that I'd made a mistake weeks earlier on this blog: I am most definitely NOT the only non-owner on the board, as Joe and Rob are both mere employees as well. Joe said so many other nice things about the blog and our community, though, that I felt only momentarily dumb, and I apologize here for that mistake). I also asked around about alternate means of transportation home on Sunday (since some bus issues meant I was looking at getting home at 1 AM), and got a wonderfully kind offer of a lift from John and Betty Bennett of Bennett Books; Betty's on the board so would be staying late on Sunday as well. (The Bennett family featured largely in the weekend, as I had a long conversation with their daughter Carolyn Bennett in her capacity as Bookstream employee and Emerging Leader, and I met daughter Whitney Bennett at the HarperCollins booth and sat next to her at Saturday dinner. What an amazing book industry family, huh?)
Continental breakfast was offered at 8:30, and Joyce and I groaned our way downstairs shortly after that (we did NOT make it, sadly, to the tour of Valley Forge at 8 AM). After filling up on eggs and danishes and scrounging for coffee, all the booksellers made our way to an adjacent conference room for an amazing keynote presentation with Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade, the two powerful women who founded Politics & Prose, Washington D.C.'s pre-eminent bookstore, in 1982. The conversation was moderated by Parson Weems sales rep Chris Kerr, who did a great job of drawing out the story of their meeting, their struggles and triumphs, and the very different but complimentary personalities that make Politics & Prose the place it is today. Carla was the one with the idea, and the force of her idealism, will and decisiveness is evident in almost everything she says; Barbara was the one with the experience, and her wry practicality is an element just as necessary to a crazy venture like an indie bookstore. Starting with just the two of them, the bookstore has grown to a store with 60 full time employees, 15 store book clubs, class and trips, hundreds of off-site events per year, and one of the most outstanding lineup of (especially nonfiction and political) author events of any store I can think of. Obviously, it was an inspiration to listen to them tell the story of their success despite the naysayers, and from what I hear the question-and-answer session they offered later in the day was even more informative. I hope we can feature other long-standing indies in future trade shows, if only to give the rest of us a sense of the community and traditions that we belong to, and as a way to envision the different recipes for success.
Then it was time for the Pick of the Lists, where publisher sales reps get to tell us the books they're excited about for the current season. This sounds like the same thing they do when they visit our stores, but not every store actually sees these reps, and this time they're not trying to sell us on anything but their favorites, and as one bookseller noted, we ordered these books a season or two ago and it's good to be reminded of what's coming out now. Eric from Random House, apparently recovered from Thursday night, pitched some great ones, as did reps from Simon & Schuster, Hyperion, Harper, and others. I have the full list of books they recommended back at the store, but a few I remember are THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS by John Connolly (young adult fantasy, my weakness), THE BOOK OF LOST WONDERS (strange and wonderful book already on our staff picks), a book (whose title I forget) that's sure to be a hit about smuggling a puppy out of Baghdad (there seemed to be a glut of dog books recommended for this season), and several books combining essays and reminiscence with recipes, a new genre for which I'm sure there will soon be a name and an anthology.
And then it was on to the educational sessions. As I kept my ear to the ground of public opinion, the main complaint I heard about those was that there wasn't enough time to attend them all (click here for an idea of the options). I agonized before finally deciding to go to a tutorial session on Above the Treeline, a brilliant data analysis system that's being used in lots of indie stores to see what's selling section by section and compare stats anonymously with other stores. We use it at my store and I know it's got a lot of potential, but so far I'd only poked around in it; Rob Steele showed us all how to look at bestseller lists from indies, pre-order lists, and lists in different categories to see what you're missing or have too much of, and create order and return lists accordingly. It was very wonky bookseller stuff, but probably one of the most practical things I did over the weekend.
Then, I gotta admit, I returned to my hotel room for a nap (have I mentioned it had been a long week?) and some phone calls before attending a 4:30 session on "New Books for New Audiences." Jack Buckley of 9th Street Books in Wilmington, DE gave an eye-opening tutorial on urban lit/street lit/ghetto lit, which he describes as "escapist fiction" whose audience is mostly African-American women and young people. There are logistical issues in getting these books (which can do wonders to bring in new readers), since many are not distributed through traditional channels, and Jack gave us some tips on where to find the hot sellers (though he left the ethical issues of carrying books often focused on crime, drugs, guns, jail, and sex up to us – as he should). Then the amazing Mark Siegal, publisher of First Second Books, gave a presentation on the history and current state of the graphic novel, pulling together the development of the genre in the U.S., Europe, and Japan, and even handing out a list of the truly great graphic literature currently available for help in stocking our sections. He was preaching to the choir for me, the big ol' comic book geek, but there was plenty of new info in there, and it was good to be reminded of the exploding potential of graphic novels from someone who's actually putting their money where their mouth is and creating beautifully produced volumes from the top artists and writers currently at work.
By 6:00 the sessions were mostly over, and the trade show floor opened up for a brief preview of tomorrow's longer floor time. I grabbed a glass of wine and wandered among the tables, trying to resist the exciting books and giveaways on display, at least until tomorrow. (While I didn't observe it myself, apparently the most persistent problem at book trade shows is unscrupulous folks grabbing books off the publishers' tables on the assumption that they are all to be given away, when sometimes there are only enough copies for display and this, well, theft has ruined the table for the remainder of the show. People can get a little crazy where "free" books are concerned.) I met up briefly with some other booksellers and said hi to some reps before it was time to adjourn to the Moveable Feast.
The Moveable Feast is a brilliant invention. Booksellers sit and eat, while with each new course a new author comes to the table and talks about the book they're currently promoting. (The authors get to eat beforehand; c'mon, we're not sadists.) Then periodically the authors at each table stand up and (supposedly briefly) introduce themselves to the room at large with a microphone. This gives us a chance to "meet" about 50 authors we might otherwise never encounter, and spend some time talking to four or five of them. Some were witty, some dragged on, some were my taste and some not, but it was a great tool for potential handselling to all manner of readers. I got to sit with a couple of romance novelists, a first-time published writer(Asali Solomon with what sounds like a great collection of short stories, GET DOWN, ), and Aviel David Rubin, author of BRAVE NEW BALLOT, who despite his protests of being a computer programmer unaccustomed to public speaking, was mesmerizing on the subject of electronic voting machines and their dangers. I also snuck away to give a hug to Chris Bram, author most recently of EXILES IN AMERICA, and long time regular customer (and friend) at Three Lives; it was great to see him in this context of other writers and booksellers.
As dessert was consumed (the cake was the best part of the meal), the inimitable Joe Drabyak (who hosts scads of wacky events at Chester County) announced he'd be hosting the Quiz Bowl in the adjoining room. Trivial pursuit is taken very seriously in my house, so I was all about the literary trivia challenge. I corralled Amanda Lydon into joining my team (though I think her inner geek was just waiting for the invitation) and we were joined by a bookseller who turned out to be a mystery expert whose name I cannot for the life of me remember (if you're out there, remind me!)
Rob Stahl, however, had the luck to snag for his team Arthur Phillips, author of PRAGUE, THE EGYPTOLOGIST, and a new book, ANGELICA, coming out in the spring, which he described (in one of the wittiest author speeches of the evening) "Turn of the Screw meets The Usual Suspects" – and then begged us to use the phrase for handselling but not let it get back to him, since he would lose all of his pretentious author cred (sorry, Art, but payback hurts). He is also, apparently a trivia buff.
While our team pulled ahead in the early stages (prompting hamming-it-up Joe to tell me I really am a book nerd, and John and Betty on another team to remind me not to upstage my ride home), the later rounds were a close race between our two teams, until Rob & Arthur's team pulled away decisively in the round on author initials. (Anyone know what E.E. Cummings stands for? P.G. Wodehouse? G.K. Chesterton? Neither does anyone else, except apparently Arthur Phillips.) Though Rob had nearly killed himself falling out of his chair trying to answer "Make Way for Ducklings" in an earlier round (fierce competitor, I told you), he survived to see his team win the day. By that time we were so tired from laughing and shouting and trash talking (Joe says we should see it when they hold the quiz in a bar) that we were happy to shake hands, and head up to bed. A seriously good time had been had, I think, by all.
(This one isn't as long, don't worry.)
Sunday morning is the traditional Breakfast of Champions, though certain of us hardly felt champion-y at 7:30 in the morning. Over our coffee and bagels, various booksellers announced the winners of NAIBA's regional book of the year awards. BEASTS OF NO NATION by Uzodinma Iweala won for best adult fiction, TEAM OF RIVALS: THE POLITICAL GENIUS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN by Doris Kearns Goodwin for best adult nonfiction, FANCY NANCY by Jane O'Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser for best children's book, and REBEL ANGELS by Libba Bray for best young adult book. There were numerous charming moments during the proceedings (Jack Buckley's wife and partner Gemma Buckley donned gloves and a tiara to present FANCY NANCY), but my favorite of all was Libba Bray's "Ode to Independent Booksellers", which I hope to publish here soon. She worked in an indie bookstore in Texas as a teenager and has a serious soft spot for the craft.
The rest of the breakfast was taken up with the NAIBA public members meeting, which I won't bore you with at all, except for the part about new board members/positions: Joe Drabyak stepped up as new president, Lucy Kogler of Talking Leaves in Buffalo as Vice President, and Pat Kutz of Lift Bridge Books in Brockport as secretary/treasurer. New board members were yours truly, sales rep Tim Hepp of Simon & Schuster, and Harvey Finkel of Clinton Bookshop – all of us eager to get more involved in our community.
Sunday's big attraction, of course, was the trade show floor. From 9:00 to 3:30 booksellers ran wild among the publisher tables, placing orders, talking about new lines and titles, and just trying to remember that they had to lug every luscious freebie back home with them. I managed to make it home with just one suitcase, one shoulder bag, and a gigantic sombrero given out by Jet Lag Travel Guides, the publishers of Moldovia, Phaic Tan, and now San Sombrero (disclaimer: NOT REAL PLACES).
Around 11:00, Amanda, Tim and I slipped out for a talked-about visit to Chester County Books and Music, which was within driving distance in Tim's car. Tim has called on the store as a rep for years and knew his way around, and Joe had sent instructions to the booksellers left behind to treat us right; they were recovering from a trying event with Dr. Phil and his wife the night before, but were unfailingly kind.
I honestly had no idea how BIG an indie store could get! Chester County is around 50,000 square feet, including music store and restaurant, as well as whole rooms for travel and events. Amanda and I wondered around with our mouths open, commenting on the brilliance of Joe's staff picks displays and themed tables, the amazing abundance of back office storage space, and how neat everything seemed to be despite its size. We had lunch in the New Orleans-themed restaurant (thank you, Simon & Schuster), and I bought a giant paper street map of Brooklyn, which I hadn't been able to find at home. I wish we'd had more time to witness the inner workings of the store, but I quizzed Joe some about it afterwards (80 or so employees, started out in a space about one-tenth the size, owners are amicably divorced, devoted full-timers make up the core of the staff, events can pull crowds into the thousands, etc.). Once again, inspiration for the accomplishments and tenacity of indie bookstore owners overwhelmed me; I'm grateful to Tim for the idea of visiting and for chauffeuring and tour-guiding, Amanda for giving me another bookseller to bounce things off of, and Joe for keeping an eye out for us young folks in general and passing along his knowledge.
We returned to the convention center, and I got a signed copy of my current read, THE SUBWAY CHRONICLES, but I found myself pretty much done with the show around 3, and sat at a table with Sheilah Egan and a couple of other booksellers, including one woman who's about to open up a store in the Ridgewood session of Queens, NY. We decompressed and ate delicious chocolate-toffee cookies from the new cookbook BON APPETIT while we discussed the show, our stores, how to get foreign language books, and other topics only a bookseller could love. It was kind of a lovely ending to the event. And then the exhibitors began to pack up and it was time for the board meeting.
Being a director has its perks: namely, free coffee, fruit, and juice during the meeting. Seriously, I was thrilled to be a part of the debriefing, which I'll spare you the details of, again; the consensus was that while the venue was less than ideal, the show itself went quite well, though there are lots of ideas brewing to make it even better next year, and to supplement our offerings to members with additional events like the Trunk Show and April's Emerging Leaders event. We'll talk more about all these things in our board retreat in October. Tim, Harvey and I were welcomed and our input encouraged; someone even complimented me on "good participation" afterwards.
Then nothing left but the ride home in the Bennett's van, which was kind of like Carla and Barbara's presentation all over again, but even nicer: I got to hear about how the Bennetts started up in the business (he was a lawyer, she worked in education before they started their New Jersey store about 17 years ago, if I remember, and have expanded and thrived since then), and get their invaluable advice for my own startup dreams. And we talked about weddings (mine and others), and the traffic to New York on the weekend (Yankees game means no point in attempting the George Washington Bridge), and Betty's birthday (for which I hope she got a lovely reception when she got home). They dropped me off in lower Manhattan (after I promised I'd treat Betty to a rice pudding at Rice to Riches someday soon), and I took the 3 train home to Park Slope and the ALP, getting some funny looks for that sombrero along the way.
We came, we heard, we ate, we learned, we quizzed, we bought, we stocked up, and most importantly, we talked. The one-on-one interactions of a regional show are really the most valuable thing this kind of meeting has to offer, in my opinion, and I got my fill this weekend. There's no way I could write about everything that happened, but everything that happened made me grateful to be part of this community of booksellers. Thanks so much to Eileen and everyone else who helped to put the NAIBA trade show together; see you next year!
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
Tomorrow, dear readers, I will finish the saga of the NAIBA weekend (and try to correct the mistakes I've already made). Wednesday, as I've mentioned, is my day off from the bookstore, and it may take the whole day to recall and recount the events of Saturday and Sunday. In the meantime, look to Shelf Awareness and Bookselling this Week (links at right) for the lowdown on the show and other events.
This week will see the first in (what I hope will be) a series of Friday guest bloggers! The first installment will be a piece by Lady T of the witty and charming (and super intelligent) blog living read girl. Her topic: "Confessions of a Former Book Snob", about her complicated relationship to chicklit and other "genre" fiction. It's something I think many of us book nerds have struggled with, and I'm eager to read her take on it and talk back.
And if anyone would like to write a guest post about the Brooklyn Book Festival, I'd be most interested. Drop me an email if you were there and would like to write up a report for those of us who couldn't make it, skeptics and boosters alike.
See you tomorrow!
Monday, September 18, 2006
A lot has happened in the last four days or so, so I'm giving ya a day-by-day, play-by-play rundown. Go get some popcorn during the commercial breaks, feel free to skip over the boring parts, and sit back for a Book Nerd weekend.
Thursday night: Emerging Leaders Night Out, Brooklyn Book Festival Style
We had over 115 RSVP's for Thursday night's ELNO, so Steve Colca, my (former bookseller/current W. W. Norton publicity maven) co-conspirator, and I were pretty psyched. We'd done a lot of prep sending invites and contacting publishers and other organizations to help make the event great. And man, those publishers and reps really came through! Huge thank-you's to Karen Rice from Random House, Steve and cohorts at Norton, Ben White at FSG, Sean Concannon at Parson Weems, Johnny Temple at Akashic, Jay Brida and Jeffrey Dinsmore at Contemporary Press, and Richard Nash at Soft Skull for sending/bringing some truly high-quality swag.
The ALP helped us carry boxes of books over to Union Hall, a beautiful Park Slope bar with soaring bookshelves, a great wine and beer list, and even a bocce court. Briggs Hatton from the Brooklyn Literary Council arrived with lots of postcards and bookmarks about the Brooklyn Book Festival (thanks so much)! As folks trickled in and the conversation grew to a roar, I found myself talking with old friends and new ones, and was having so much fun I forgot to take some pictures until just before I was leaving; but fortunately Blogger is totally opposed to letting me post ANY photos today, so maybe I'll get those few up later.
At one point the waitress spilled a glass of wine on my pants, and she was so apologetic she kept bringing me free glasses of wine all evening. Hence I found myself staggering home around 11:30, after good but not enough conversations with Johnny Temple (about the challenges and potential of the BBF, and whether his band's music would be appropriate for a bookstore), Tom from McNally Robinson AND literary magazine A Public Space, and Jay Brida of Contemporary Press (about how to promote our various ventures, and the Brooklyn cultural explosion and its complainers), Eric from Random House (a former bookstore employee with good thoughts about how to recruit booksellers for the next event), Tom from Norton (a supercool friend of Steve's who's sending me some exciting new books), Cecelia from Oscar Wilde Bookstore (about how we wouldn't want to work anywhere else but man, we need some better ways to pay the bills), Briggs from the Literary Council (about life in the Borough President's office), and my good girlfriends Stephanie (a freelance food writer) and Stacy (of the PEN organization), who got all giggly with me when it was that time of night. And there were certainly others that I met, even learned their names, and can't remember now – blame the free drinks and forgive me if I missed you.
My only disappointment about the ELNO, as I've mentioned, is that there just weren't enough booksellers there. The goal of this group is to bring people together from all side of the book industry, and I suspect booksellers are the side most in need of a network. I think next time we're just going to have to get more ambitious about contacting young people in bookstores in person; the email grapevine isn't as effective in retail as in publishing, but I think they are out there, and they will come. I'll probably be bugging sales reps and others about where to find them and how to make this worthwhile for them; please, please shoot me an email if you've got ideas.
Thanks for everyone who made it out on Thursday, and who helped to make it happen! And thanks to everyone who said "thank you" to us. Steve and I are so excited about the future of this group and this project, and we're happy it's gained some fans and is beginning to grow.
Friday: Traveling to NAIBA; The Festivities Begin
After that morning of recovery, I met my former coworker Joyce of Three Lives (whom I hope won't be offended if I describe her as my bookselling mom) at the Port Authority bus terminal for what we hoped would be a straight shot to the Valley Forge Convention Center in King of Prussia, PA. This is where it's nice to be writing about it afterward, because I can skip over the long, boring day and just tell you that it took two buses, two taxis, and about five hours to get there. New York City tends to send few booksellers to the NAIBA events, so I can hardly blame anyone for not having us car-less folks in mind, but we needed a drink by the time we got there.
Joyce and I found ourselves in a hotel bar called Chumley's (no relation to the Greenwich Village speakeasy), which I was told by an employee had just been renovated to the tune of $50K – by putting in about a dozen big-screen plasma TVs. Our exploration of the premises had also revealed that we were sharing the convention floor with a huge gun show (which brought weird shivers of nostalgia, as my dad used to spend a lot of time at those when I was a kid… but that's another story). We quickly surmised that the local tastes in King of Prussia were not necessarily those shared by us indie booksellers, but you know – it's good to see the rest of the world sometimes, right? And it made for lots of good jokes the rest of the weekend – Betty Bennett of Bennett Books reminded us that "the pen is mightier than the sword," and Joe Drabyk of Chester County Books & Music joked that Carla Cohen of Politics & Prose (who had talked about the struggles of running a café) was thinking of changing her store's name to "Bullets and Baristas."
Around 8:00 we gathered for what turned out to be the best meal of the weekend – Philly cheesesteaks, pulled pork sandwiches, and Tasty Cakes in the best Philadelphia style. We were treated to short evening talk by authors Lisa Tucker (who quoted Melville), and Lisa Scottoline (who told us about a book tour gig speaking to a group of literally nursing mothers), both of whom were utterly charming. After some more late night conversation with more old friends and new (okay, here's the name dropping list and shout out: Susan Weis of Breathe Books, Amanda Lydon of Good Yarns, John Mutter of Shelf Awareness, Harvey & Rob of Clinton Books, and Jeff of the American Independent Business Alliance), I finally crashed.
By the way, you all better correct me if I misremember names or details – I got set straight about one or two previous blog errors over the weekend, so I know you all are reading, and you should enlighten the rest of the readers by chiming in. =)
* * *
You know what – I'm going to cut short here, and get to Saturday and Sunday tomorrow and throughout the week. Last week was an insanely busy one, and I've promised myself that this one will be a quieter period to ponder, reflect, and spend some quality time at home. I'm going to spread out my reflections to keep myself from getting exhausted again, and to spare you all the exhaustion of reading too much at once.
If you were at the ELNO or the NAIBA trade show, I'd love to have you jump in with your own stories and impressions – it would be cool to hear about the parts I missed! And if you made it to the Brooklyn Book Festival, I'm dying to hear about that too, though the rumors I've been picking up say it was well attended ... any witnesses?
Friday, September 15, 2006
But now I'm on my way to the bus station to hie myself to the NAIBA trade show. Looking forward to seeing old friends, learning, picking up swag -- all that good stuff.
Have a great weekend -- go to the Brooklyn Book Festival on Saturday -- I'll tell you all the stories as soon as I get back!
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
I live most of the year in the South now. But I come back to Brooklyn often, and when I do, I stay with my parents in Park Slope because I can’t afford to stay elsewhere. I love Mother and Dad, but I would prefer to stay anywhere else. Park Slope is a neighborhood almost exclusively populated by writers; to be specific, writers who are better than I am, are more well known than I am and sell more books than I do.
I sympathize. Her description of being a writer born in Brooklyn reminds me of the church I grew up in. Even though I'd been going there literally since before I was born, I wasn't one of the cool kids in the youth group, and no one ever seemed to notice or remember me. People were always kindly introducing themselves, when I'd been seeing them in the same room for years.
Gran mentions BEA and the ABA's Hotel Brooklyn, as well as the Brooklyn Book Festival, but with a tone of wry resignation to becoming all the more invisible as everyone realizes how many swanky writers make their home in Brooklyn, and the literary cachet the borough carries. My favorite bit is her impression of the thoughts of a young M.F.A. dreaming of moving to Brooklyn:
I’ll play poker with Jennifer Egan, our neophyte imagines. David Grand will drop by for coffee. I can write lyrics for One Ring Zero, the Brooklyn-based band with lyrics written by Brooklyn-based writers. I’ll get a desk at the Brooklyn Writers Space, read my work at the bars on Fifth Avenue, and if I need a job — on that one-in-a-million chance that my writing doesn’t make me rich — hey, there are about 50 bookstores on Seventh Avenue. That’d be a fun job!
Funny, though, I disagree with her representation of bookstore on 7th Avenue. On that street there are about 2 used bookstores, 1 tiny indie, a Barnes & Noble, and a comic book and baseball store -- none of them well known as a literary mecca. There are vast stretches of even affluent Brooklyn neighborhoods without a single bookstore. And I was just talking to a Brooklyn bookseller the other day about how this most literary of boroughs is woefully under-served by bookstores.
But even though I'm eager to jump into that gap, I admit there's an intimidation factor in trying to stake out my literary territory in Brooklyn. Will I be cool enough for the cool kids? And maybe more importantly, will I be unpretentious enough for the folks who have been there all along?
It's a challenge in opening a bookstore, and in trying to make a community: wanting to gather like-minded folks, even notably talented and well-known folks, but not alienating those who aren't as "literary" or "trendy." I think maybe it's a little easier to do this as a bookstore than as a writer or editor, since we depend on our neighborhood regulars, not on our nationwide prestige, to stay afloat. But not by much.
I love McSweeney's (mostly), I read Jonathan Lethem and Paul Auster and Jonathan Safran Foer, I'm crazy about Soft Skull and Akashic Books. I admit I want my store to be a destination spot for big-name author events and a rich literary culture.
But I think it's even more important to become a neighborhood gathering place -- an unintimidating place for people who love books, who recognize each other, no matter whether their name has appeared in the New York Times.
The fact that both can dwell side by side is one of the reason I love my borough, and my line of work.
Monday, September 11, 2006
Robert Gray, one the booksellers I most respect, wrote in Shelf Awareness the other day about visions for bookstore websites. It's another insightful take on the whole issue of selling online as a bricks and mortar indie store, and what makes that work or not. Looks like Robert's got a new gig these days: working part time at The Book House in Albany, as well as continuing in the good offices of Fresh Eyes Now. It's good to count him among our ranks.
Bookseller Chick deserves some love. From her recent post on the difficulties of hiring good booksellers for chain stores:
"And let’s face it, a certain amount of prestige comes from working at an Indie. You work at an Indie and it says that you’re book people. You love books. You’re sacrificing for your medium.
You work at a chain store doing the best job you can and chances are that once a week you’ll be asked a.) why aren’t working at the Indie in town, and b.) what are you really going to do with the rest of your life?"
Hadn't thought about it from that perspective, though I feel I got the same slightly questions when I first discovered my calling as a bookseller, there is a kind of cred that goes with being a devoted Indie bookseller. But BS Chick, based on her anonymous blog alone, is one of the best booksellers I know -- devoted, smart, engaged, and willing to meet any customer's needs, not just the uber-literary ones. (I gotta admit, I'm not sure WHY she doesn't work at an indie.) Perhaps it's time we opened our minds to the possibility that good booksellers can exist within the chains (and conversely, that not every indie employee is a stellar bookseller). Book nerd talent, like truth, is wherever you find it.
I'm reading away right now on the the three nominees for the Litblog Co-Op Autumn READ THIS! selection. I know that sounds like a long title -- it's just the book out of three choices that we LBC'ers think is the under-publicized book most worth reading. You know I'm already a big fan of Sam Savage's FIRMIN, but Sidney Thompson's SIDESHOW is impressing the heck out of me as well, and MANBUG by George Ilsley looks mighty intriguing too. The race is on...
So I didn't make it to Void Magazine's GET LIT extravaganza last night -- exhaustion just kicked in (and is still kicking). I'd love to hear how it went if anyone made it -- it sounded like a literary jamboree worth checking out.
Speaking of literary jamborees -- only 4 days until the ELNO, folks! I'm thrilled at the number of RSVPs -- our chosen venue is going to have a heck of a time accomodating us all, but that's a good thing, and there will be free books enough for all. There's always room for one more, so email me if you're interested.
I do have one wonder I'd like to pose to all and sundry for your opinions. On the RSVP list I've been keeping, I noticed that publishers and literary agents outnumber booksellers nearly 10 to 1. Is that just because booksellers don't RSVP, 'cause they're spontaneous like that? Or is Thursday night too hard to get out of the store? Or is the time or place bad in some other way? Or are folks in publishing houses and agencies just more used to the idea of industry parties (like GalleyCat's "cocktail party exclusively for book publishing professionals" on the 18th)? Or are there just not as many young, committed booksellers in New York as I thought? Or...what?
I'm proud of the bookstores that will be represented, and I can't wait to meet my colleagues on both sides of the sales catalog. But I'm most passionate about getting booksellers talking in community, and I'd be eager to hear any ideas about how we might be able to get more of us together. And if you're an area bookseller -- represent!
The events schedule for the Brooklyn Book Festival has been posted on their website, and it looks totally fabulous. Young authors! Dead authors! Kids authors! Comics authors! Panels about hip hop, history, noir, poetry, beer, even gardening! I'm even more heartsick that I won't be able to be there -- don't miss it if you've got time to spare this Saturday.
That's all for today -- I'm still precariously surfing a wave of obligations, just trying to make it through to the weekend (and the NAIBA trade show). Hope all of you are navigating books and life as well -- happy reading!
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
It makes for some strangely schizophrenic moments, trying to keep all these projects straight. But really, they're all part of the one big project of making a living doing what I love.
I do freelance writing so I can pay the bills (and save for a wedding) while making a bookseller's salary.
I'm compiling RSVPs for the Emerging Leaders Night Out because I think building our literary community is important, because I want to raise the profile of booksellers in the New York literary landscape, and because I know I'm going to rely on these folks throughout my bookselling career. (And because it makes our jobs fun.)
I'm arranging meetings with fellow booksellers to trade notes; industry officials to pick their brains and offer my insights; and financial and neighborhood experts to find out more specialized information, all in the pursuit ofmy dream of opening my own store.
It's easy to feel overwhelmed. It's easy to wonder why I'm doing all this stuff. I imagine everyone who has chosen to make their career in the rarified world of words-on-paper feels the same way sometimes. There are easier and more lucrative ways to make a living, ways that don't demand so much from us on the job and off the job. There are lifestyles that are simpler, less taxing.
But in the end, I think none of us would trade it for the world. We're lucky to be in an industry where most of us are doing what we do out of love (tempered with a human desire for glamour and respectability; what else are book parties for?) We do whatever we have to do to make our chosen career path possible, financially and emotionally. Our projects are part of our choice to work in this field -- and sometimes, far from being sacrifices, they're part of the perks.
What's the strangest or most boring thing you've had to do in order to keep working as a writer, bookseller, editor, etc.?
What side projects make your day job worthwhile?
Why are YOU doing this?
Friday, September 01, 2006
TWO DOLLAR RADIO AND VOID MAGAZINE ANNOUNCE "GET LIT 2006"
Free event to feature music and literature, benefiting local literacy nonprofit Behind the Book
BROOKLYN, NY – August 31, 2006 – Two Dollar Radio and VoidMagazine.com announced today GET LIT 2006, a free concert and literary event to be held on September 10, 2006, at Northsix (66 North 6th St.) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In celebration of International Literacy Weekend, proceeds from the show will benefit Behind the Book, a New York-based, 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to developing a life-long love of reading and writing in young people. The event is co-chaired by Eric Obenauf, Editor in Chief, Two Dollar Radio; and Chris Steib, Editor in Chief, Void Magazine.
The event will be held from 4pm to 9pm at Williamsburg's famous venue Northsix, known for hosting some of music's most popular acts and helping launch the careers of today's indie superstars. Performing at GET LIT 2006 are hip-hoppers louis logic & JJ Brown and Glue; and rock groups The Song Corporation, TK Webb and Good Evening. The event is largely made possible by Brooklyn-based companies Fat Beats Records, The Social Registry and JellyNYC.
Additionally, Scott Snyder will read from his short-story collection, Voodoo Heart (Dial Press, June 2006). A professor at Columbia University, Snyder has received widespread acclaim for his debut collection, including starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly and Booklist, and praise from such celebrated writers as Francine Prose ("like watching a magician pull rabbits out of a hat") and Stephen King (" Voodoo Heart just blew me away").
"As publishers, it is our obligation to not just promote literature but literacy as well," Steib says. "Eric and I believe GET LIT 2006 will raise awareness for our city's literacy concerns, and raise the funds necessary for Behind the Book to continue serving New York's public schools."
Two Dollar Radio and Void Magazine are both based in New York, where the public schools are plagued with students underperforming in literature-related courses (studies show that 60% of students in grades 3 through 8 are below reading level). Chosen as the event's beneficiary for its unique and proven educational methods, Behind the Book increases the opportunity for lifelong success for children through creative reading experiences by introducing contemporary literature – and authors – to the classroom.
"We are thrilled to be a part of this event," says Jo Umans, Executive Director of Behind the Book. "It's wonderful that publishers like Two Dollar Radio and Void are helping to raise a new generation of readers and writers by supporting Behind the Book."
Sponsors for GET LIT 2006 include Gather.com, Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers program, Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, and Dial Press. Additional support is provided by Arthur Magazine, Soft Skull Press, Tin House, and Seven Stories Press.
About Two Dollar Radio
Two Dollar Radio is a company striving to reaffirm the cultural, literary and artistic ambitions of the book publishing industry. Two Dollar Radio publishes between five and eight books annually, ranging in style and substance from a memoir of a New York City window cleaner, to fictional novels that traverse the Old West and '80s Hair Metal
Void Magazine is a free, web-based publication devoted to serving the needs of today's ever-evolving literary community. Available in twelve full issues a year with frequent updates, Void serves the growing digital community of readers and writers by providing high-quality fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, blogs, and book industry news. Void is made possible by our 150+ diverse contributors and 75,000+ unique readers from around the world.
About Behind The Book
Behind the Book's mission is to motivate reluctant readers to become engaged readers by connecting them with books and authors relevant to their lives. Working with low-income youth in New York City's K-12 public schools, we cultivate an interest in book reading, building literacy skills and better preparing the next generation for personal and professional success. Behind the Book works on a simple, but proven, premise: find a subject or author that interests kids, and you will get them reading. To reinforce the magic and power of reading, we give every child copies of the books they read in our program to keep for their own. For many children, these books are the first they have ever owned.
Chris Steib, Editor in Chief, Void Magazine