Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Wednesday Catch-Up: Linkage, Day of ABA

Time gets away from one, doesn't it? Out of respect for your schedules which I'm sure are as busy as mine, let's do fun links first, then some chronicle reading.

Link Madness

- The Lit-Blog Co-Op has announced the winner of the Winter Read This! selection: the highly praised but sadly under-read novel WIZARD OF THE CROW by N'gugi wa Thiong'o! It's a meaty, surreal, hilarious, challenge of a novel, and the conversation promises to be a good one. In the meantime, the next few weeks on the LBC will be devoted to the discussions of the two runners-up: SEVEN LOVES by Valerie Trueblood and DEMON THEORY by Stephen Graham Jones. They're all irresistably interesting, if not universally beloved, so stop by the LBC website and take in the smarty-pants book club conversation, and even add your own two cents.

- My boss sent me a link to this article in the New York Sun. The often-conservative paper has a surprising article covering indie bookstore openings in the city this year, noting my home neighborhood's newest addition Adam's Books, as well as the new Taschen store and others. Encouraging news; check it out! (The Sun also, however, notes that NYC ranks "dead last nationally in 'bookselling stores per resident.'." Room for a few more indies, eh?)

- February seems to be conference season, and I'm totally geekin' out about it. First comes the ABA's Winter Institute in Portland, Oregon, February 1 and 2. (Workshops on lighting, design, magazines, merchandising! Author breakfasts and panels! The hometown of Powell's! More Emerging Leaders than you can shake a stick at!) I am so there -- send me an email if you're going and you want to try to meet up.

Then, at the end of February, New York hosts Comic Con! This year, along with the requisite oddballs-in-costumes vibe, there's a special emphasis on graphic novels. I'm hoping to go this year (last year tickets sold out before I got there) and learn a few things while getting all fangirl-giggly about Green Arrow and Brian K. Vaughn.

Chronicle: Day of ABA

As I mentioned, last Wednesday was a day of meetings with the American Booksellers Association at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott (future Hotel ABA, and a cooler place every time I go there). I was one of the lucky ones who got to walk from my house to the hotel (booksellers were flown in from all over the country), and walked through the first brief snow of the winter in NYC -- hooray!

The first session was the Author Selection Committee for the breakfasts, lunches, and other events at Book Expo America. Our hosts were the Reed Business types in charge of running the show (since ABA sold the show to them a few years ago), who are sensible enough to want to keep booksellers on their advisory board in order to keep booksellers coming to BEA.

Unfortunately, I can't tell you anything about what we decided, who will be speaking/moderating/headlining, or how the decisions were made. Because it's all confidential until the BEA hosts announce it later this year, so as not to freak out authors and publishers or steal the drama of the media announcements. I can only describe the process as something like a combination of serving on a UN advisory council (lots of different interests, shouting good-naturedly and trying to find common ground) and the painful process of "pulling returns" in the bookstore (eliminating some books and authors to leave room for others to shine). It was tough, but exhilarating.

And boy oh boy, are you ever gonna like the way it turned out. =)

The second half of the day was the first-ever ABA DTF: the American Booksellers' Association Digital Task Force. This was made up of booksellers from bookstores all over: Spotty Dog in upstate New York, (the incredible website of the Powell's indie empire), older bookstores like Chapter One Books in Hamilton, MT and Changing Hands in Tempe, AZ, newer bookstores like Nomad Book House in Jackson, MI and my own McNally Robinson, along with Arches Book Company (Moab, UT), Shaman Drum (Ann Arbor, MI), and Tattered Cover (Denver, CO). Booksellers ranged in age from about 25 to over 60 (ABA CEO Avin Domnitz admitted to going to his first BEA the year I was born - impressive!).

What we all had in common was an interest in the direction technological innovations, especially the internet/iPod/digital "revolution", are taking the information industry and ultimately the book industry. We are bloggers, website salespeople, and wi fi cafes. We're interested in Second Life, the Sony Reader, Print On Demand, downloadable audiobooks, and networking in its various forms. Our job was to talk.

After a great overview and briefing (and lots of reading material) from Len Vlahos, Dan Cullen, and Avin Domnitz of the ABA, we did a lot of just that. We talked about how technology has already changed our stores. We talked about what we'd like ABA to do for bookstores as our industry changes. We got excited about some possibilities, and occasionally bleak about others. We talked about ways for us to take the unique community of booksellers, that learns something every time we get around a table together, and make our conversation possible over space and time through internet networking. We talked about how to stay at the table as the possibility of a viable e-reader looks imminent. We talked about how to keep talking. My only regret about the day was that I had to leave afterward to pack for my trip home, and didn't get to hang out at the hotel bar and continue the conversation.

While I was listening to the talk, a poem started running through my head, and I scribbled it down and handed it to Avin afterward. It was the epigraph of a book called CHEAT AND CHARMER by Elizabeth Frank (that I loved and handsold though it got mediocre reviews and not a ton of publisher support). It's by that old crank of a poet A.E. Housman, and it reads, in part:

The dreams of mortals
Are false and fleeting
Of lovers meeting
Or wealth or fame.

Mine were of trouble
And mine were steady
So I was ready
When trouble came.

It's an addictively catchy little poem, but a philosophy almost the opposite of mine -- if you spend all your time dreaming of trouble what will you do when joy comes? But I think Housman's implication is that you are ready for what you dream about, and the more you dream it the more likely that it will be part of your life.

So for me, the DTF was a chance to start dreaming in digital, so indie booksellers will be ready when digital comes. Personally, I'm excited about the dream.

What do you think? Any ideas about the implications of the digital future for bookselling? What do you think the DTF should be talking about (and we will be talking)?


Anonymous said...

It's about time for full-scale for-credit online courses in all areas of bookselling, in collaboration with one or more leading universities. You can take online courses about everything in the world -- except bookselling.

Anonymous said...

There is something inexplicably badass about transcribing a poem from memory and handing it to someone after a meeting.

Anonymous said...


...your gushing over being an ABA insider is so "un-indie"...

Dave in NJ

Anonymous said...

Hey Dave, come on -- I loved all ten years I did that stuff -- it's incredibly time-consuming, hard work -- everyone's a volunteer -- a form of social activism. A lot of people in those committees thought I was a jerk, but I kept being asked back anyway. There's MUCH less cliquishness than you'd think. They make a real effort to represent the entire array of booksellers. It's pretty impressive that Jessica has been invited to do this don't you think, considering that she's under 30 and also not an owner, but an employee. You'd think that only owners would be represented in a trade association of small business people, right? So I say congratulations to ABA for recognizing that they should pass her the ball.

Anonymous said...

"So I say congratulations to ABA for recognizing that they should pass her the ball."

Actually, Andy, I'd rather congratulate Jessica for taking the ball...but I want to see her tear it to shreds with her young teeth...

Dave in NJ

Book Nerd said...

Dave, I'm afraid you and I just have different ideas about what "indie" means. To me, it's not at all related to "isolated" or even necessarily "iconoclastic". I've found the ABA leadership to be incredibly responsive to those (often too few) booksellers who speak up about their ideas, desires and needs, and I'm proud to be associated with an organization that I feel taps into our collective power with such effectiveness. I'm sure you'll never agree, and that's okay. But I'm more interested in creating and building than tearing up. Hope you're not disappointed. If you want to tell the ABA what you think they should be doing, well -- you know their email addresses.

And Andy, thanks for the support. =) I like your idea of online courses a lot, and I'm gonna be mentioning it. The downloadable education sessions on could be way more extensive -- and sometimes you have to charge people money in order for them to realize they're getting something valuable.

Anonymous said...

Two years ago I posted a rant on the subject of the poor bookseller education opportunities in this country, and former ABA director wrote in with this response. The business case her refers to is an example of the kind of thing that could easily be converted to an online course:

"Hi Andy. Its Bernie, but I'm not a registered user so here I am an anonymous. We (ABA) did a graduate level MBA course at one of the top ten leading business schools in the country - Darden - at the University of Virginia. I clearly remember writing a check for $10,000 to get them interested by funding a case study of the demise of an independent bookseller of long standing (Bernie and Adele Schweid's store in Nashville). I believe Ron Watson was their manager and a member of some ABA committee's (education or publications?) at the time and provided access to all the files. We then paid tuition for five or six leading members of the BofD to attend the course (Chuck Robinson, Ed Morrow and Joyce Meskis were among them as I recall) as I kind of experiment to audit the course. When the initial enthusiasm waned and push came to shove with booksellers having to pay their own tuition fees (MBA courses are expensive by definition so I can't blame them for not ponying up - but they should have known this before having us go in and set this all up). The whole deal subsequently collapsed and as far as I know Darden still has the case study if at some point you find an interested party to pick up the pieces. Best wishes! Bernie"

Also, bookstore consultant Kate Whouley wrote/edited Bookselling For Dummies ( which could be essentially posted online or at the very least offered for normal retail sale to all and sundry without limiting its availability to ABA members.