Friday, April 20, 2007

Friday Comment: In Defense of Author Events And The Conversation

Following the example of my friend and bookselling role model Amanda Lydon of Good Yarns, I recently set up a Google Alert to send me a weekly email with internet mentions of McNally Robinson. Amanda (who is hosting a NAIBAhood Gathering this Wednesday on "Community Value" for bookstores) knows the value of knowing what people are saying about you, and it's been interesting for me to track links to our new website and instances where the store's name pops up in blogs and online periodicals. It's not a perfect tool, and the mentions aren't always relevant, but it has led to some interesting trains of thought.

I was initially pleased at a link Google turned up that contained the phrase "One of the most convivial book events I’ve ever attended occurred last month at the McNally Robinson bookstore in SoHo." But when I followed the link to this article in the New York Inquirer, it turned out to have the suprising title "Against Literary Readings (And Especially Q&As)". The author, Mik Awake, isn't kidding, either; he honestly seems disgusted with the state of American author events, and lauds the poet Rimbaud (whom I think of as the writer with so much hipster cachet he realized he didn't need to write anymore at all) who would attend readings and cough the equivalent of "bullshit" during the speaker's presentation.

Awake's objections to literary readings are myriad (and sometimes contradictory): 1) author readings are populated only with worshipful fans of the author and don't engender real conversations, 2) readings are the province of literary celebrities, 3) readings distract from the book itself and don't really sell books (that's his objection to the McNally Robinson event; more on that later), 4) readings are inevitably attended by pretentious and/or crazy patrons who monopolize the Q&A, 5) readings are a product of consumerist culture of approval, 6) readings produce awkward silences (or does he like the silence?), 7) you might as well watch author interviews on the internet, 8) readings don't reflect the essentially solitary nature of, well, reading, and books that are great on the page often aren't well served by having the author read aloud.

I actually agree with one or two of his points, or at least concur that they can sometimes occur; any statement about what "inevitably" happens inevitably gets my dander up. It's the equivalent of the ad nauseum "indie bookstores are dying" or even "nobody reads anymore" schpiels that present such a limited picture of reality. I've been thinking a lot about this article this week, especially in the context of a previous piece in the Times about Borders' new collaboration with Tom Gerace, the head of, was quoted thusly:

“Increasingly, as book readings are becoming more rare,” he said, “people are turning to social media to make those introductions.”

This is confusing when compared to Awake's opinion that book readings are inescapable, all-pervasive, and must be stopped. Could it be that a more complex scenario prevails?

Okay, enough with the snarking. Here's why I disagree with Mr. Gerace and Mr. Awake: our bookstore has a vibrant, exciting reading series, that not only promotes cultural conversation, but also helps us sell books. We host authors four nights a week, and the range is incredible: graphic novelists, political writers, first-time poets, memoirists, independent publishers, literary magazines, visual artists, and lots more. Occasionally we'll get a big name, but most of the time they're just good writers with a local audience. The format of the event varies, from straight-up reading followed by Q&A to panel discussion to video presentation to book party with nibbles straight out of the book. Sometimes the place is packed; sometimes there are a handful of people having an intimate discussion. Sometimes we sell books; sometimes we don't.

As the events coordinator in a fairly young independent bookstore, I've come to realize that attendance or book sales at an individual event aren't terribly important. The reason we do events is to provide the venue for cultural conversation; to present ourselves as a place where literary things happen; to bring in readers or fans who might never have heard of the store otherwise and create new audiences. Like our store design and our customer service, literary events are something we offer for free, because it makes our bookstore somewhere that people want to go. The book sales come as a result of that -- sometimes direct, sometimes indirect.

And more importantly, we do it because it's part of the point. Yes, reading a book is a silent, solitary experience. But as Gabriel Zaid argues, part of the purpose of books is starting conversations within the culture. Events are one of the places where those conversations happen, and they're part of the reason we're in this business.

The event Awake refers to was a party for Steve Ettlinger's nonfiction book Twinkie, Deconstructed, and it was an extremely "convivial" event. Several local chefs got involved; there was lots of eating and drinking; a video blog and Dateline were there with cameras (largely as a result of the author's efforts, not a corporate publishing publicity juggernaut). Steve read briefly from the book and answered questions that were not especially worshipful, just curious. And as Awake points out, we sold a handful of books.

However, we've since then sold about 40 copies of Twinkie -- not bad for your average pop science tome by a small imprint. Ettlinger's friends knew where to buy the book; others who couldn't make it to the event stopped in later for signed copies; the increased media surrounding the book and the event meant that someone who wandered in later probably picked it up and thought "Oh, I've heard about this. I'll give it a try."

At the risk of repeating myself, that's why we do events. From a retailer's standpoint, they create new audiences and raise the bookstore's public profile. From the standpoint of a cultural institution, they create a public forum for the experience of books, and allow authors to reach readers in real time, in person, in ways that no online experience can reproduce.

To this end, we've found the the most effective and enjoyable events are those in which the amount of time the author actually reads straight from the book is kept to a minimum. Awake is right: you can read the book in silence, on your own time. It's that dreaded Q&A that's really valued, and unreproducible in the privacy of your home. We pepper our event lineup with conversations: authors talking to editors, several authors from the same indie press talking to each other, political writers talking to political commentators. And we emphasize the conversation in typical readings too, encouraging talk between the author and audience to flow around the book itself.

Sure, there's the occasional crazy idealogue or pretentious would-be writer who threatens to throw the Q&A off course, but that's part of the drama of the evening. Sure, there's occasionally the author who's a dull reader or not a great speaker (that may be why they're a great writer), but it's still fascinating to meet the creators of words and start the conversation. Sure, there are sometimes awkward silences or crowds full of yes-men, but that's because it's real life and you can't always script it for the most productive possible hour-long experience.

Perhaps it's because I just like the experience of getting to throw a little party almost every night of the week, but I have to insist that there's something intrinsically valuable in the literary reading. Increasing our reading schedule has been a positive thing for our store's bottom line, and for our local literary culture. As an independent bookstore, I think we're privileged in our ability to create unique, quirky events that reflect our knowledge of our neighborhood and our context, in a way that central corporate offices may not be able to do.

A commenter on Mr. Awake's article directs him to the reading series at 192 Books, which always has an awesome lineup; I'd also recommend HousingWorks, Three Lives, Vox Pop, Book Court, and any number of other New York stores that are creating rich and vibrant literary event experiences, most often fueled less by celebrity than by the joint contributions of staff, authors, and customers. We may also be privileged here in New York by the dense community of local writers, but every town and village has its writers and its hosts; Joe Drabyak of Chester County Books & Music in Pennsylvania runs one of the most outstanding event lineups in the country, and half of them don't even have an author present. It can be a burden on stores to put in the time to create good events, but when it's done right (and it often is), it does lots of good for everyone.

Last week we had four events. One was three poets from out of town who read their work, drank wine and chatted happily with family and friends. One was a literary novelist who talked about her memoir with a rapt and intelligent audience. One was a first-time short story writer with a local following who unexpectedly sold 35 books. One was a reading by as yet unpublished local African-American poets, which turned into a passionate conversation on hip-hop, poetry, performance, and American culture with an audience full of writers and teachers. This last one, obviously, resulted in no direct sales (though I know we gained some new customers and friends). But when I told my boss about the animated and thoughtful conversation I had breathlessly witnessed, she nodded.

"That's why we do this," she said.