Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy (Literary) Halloween!

Soon, very soon, I'll be heading to McNally Jackson to prepare for our Second Annual Literary Halloween Party! It promises to be a blowout this year -- even the New Yorker has taken notice. We've got monsters telling stories for kids at 4:00 (dude, they are gonna LOVE our Frankenstein and Dracula, and guest author Siobhan Vivian's vegetarian vampire from Vunce Upon A Time) and grown-up shenanigans at 6:30, including a Scary Story Slam (three minutes to wow us with your true ghost story or Poe reading or whatever) and Literary Costume Contest. And of course we're welcoming guest authors Doug Dorst, David Wellington, Stuart Moore, Joe Harris, and comic artist fan fave Bill Sienkiewicz. You know you're totally invited -- hope to see you there!

If you need inspiration for the Literary Costume Contest, check out the Flickr group here, or the New Yorker's gathering of ideas. We'll definitely be taking photos tonight to submit, so it's your chance for Flickr-ish fame.

And to get you in the mood, here's a literary witches quiz from the Guardian. I got 8 out of 13 (not enough John Updike in my diet, I suspect) -- how would you do?

See you tonight. Maybe our festivities can finally exorcise this song from my head:

Monday, October 27, 2008

Can't blog. Reading.

You know how some books take over your life, so when you're not reading them you're thinking about them, and looking for spare moments to sneak in a few more sentences, and all kinds of other projects fall by the wayside?

The last book that did that to me was Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which took over three or four days I had set aside for other work and left me stiff in weird places from being immobilized in my bed reading (or actually, lying on my stomach with the book on the floor and my head hanging over the edge of the bed -- I didn't intend to stay that way, but once I started reading I couldn't stop to change positions).

Before that it was Adam Mansbach's The End of the Jews, which didn't make quite the splash in the larger world that Oscar did -- no Pulitzer or anything. But one's own obsessions are not always everyone's, and I wrote here about the effect that book had on my social life.

The book currently ruining me for any other pursuit is Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World. It's making my face hurt from laughing, and my heart ache from the sense of loss and the promise of happiness. I should have known, as such like-minded readers as Jenn Northington of The King's English and other Emerging Leaders types talked about it in somewhat fanatical terms. But it has literally been haunting my dreams, coloring my waking perceptions, and making me long for lengthy subway rides so I can immerse myself guilt-free.

You may know the pitch: super weapon eliminates large parts of the world, leaving big blanks and weird fallout in its wake. Book's attractions include gong fu, British humor a la Wodehouse, post-apocalyptic adventures, pirates, ninjas, mimes, love, friendship, identity. It's also got this brilliant motif of how people choose to set aside their humanity so they won't feel guilty as they become cogs in a machine (company, government) which, while not necessarily evil, pursues its prime directive without regard to cost or consequences. Lots of heroism, lots of surreal creepy dreamstuff, lots of scenes where I'm in agony when I get to my subway stop because what is going to happen next?? It's looking like entering my pantheon of "utterly entertaining books which also make you think and feel compassionately" -- Cloud Atlas being the prime example. Maybe British authors are just good at this sort of thing.

Anyway, no more chat. Must get in five more minutes of reading before leaving for work.

What are your book obsessions, the ones that incapacitate you for the rest of life and leave you changed afterward?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Bookstores in Bad Times

Note: At last weekend's meeting of the board of NAIBA (the regional booksellers's assocation of which I am an executive board member), secretary Eileen Dengler "comissioned" a piece for the upcoming NAIBA newsletter. This is something I've had on my mind lately, so it was a great motivation to write out my thoughts, and Eileen graciously agreed to let me cross-post it here. Your comments are most welcome.

Bookstores in Bad Times

At this particular moment, it’s a challenge to be an idealist and an optimist: two labels I’ve embraced as I’ve found my calling as an independent bookseller. Newspaper headlines, daily sales totals, and our own tightening belts tell us that things are tough, and getting tougher. As we head into the holiday season, where most of us make 40% of our yearly sales, it can seem logical to throw up our hands and wait for the apocalypse.

But booksellers are tough, and relish a challenge. And somehow I keep finding reasons to be optimistic.

For example: if our memories are long enough, we can remember that at least through August, US Census numbers (as reported in Shelf Awareness) showed that bookstore sales continued to rise month by month over last year’s numbers, even as retail sales overall were stagnant. That seems to suggest that bookstores may be more resilient than some other segments of the economy.

And economic hard times can actually be pretty good for purveyors of books. Sara Nelson of Publishers Weekly quoted Random House founder Bennett Cerf in her October 6 column: in his 1977 memoir, he asserted “The publishing business has always been rather stable. It doesn't soar when things are going crazy and people with a lot of money are spending it. . . By the same token, when everything goes to hell, books become one of the cheapest forms of pleasure.”

You’ve probably already heard the formulation “Books and Booze”: the two commodities that continue to sell when folks have little money to spend. The 15 or 25 dollars someone spends on a good book represents an investment in pleasure, entertainment, and escape that lasts a lot longer than a movie, and costs a lot less than an iPhone or a Blu-Ray player. (And if you’re selling wine or beer in your bookstore, you’re doubly insured.)

And we have the advantage of being on Main Street, not Wall Street. We’re not answerable to jittery stockholders who demand impossible quarterly growth; we are the ones we have invested in, and we’re in it for the long haul. I think more consumers are starting to understand the benefits of that. Now is the moment when the message of shopping locally to support your local economy is more resonant than ever. We have the marketing tools of IndieBound, as well as our own local first organizations and publicity efforts and personal relationships, to get that message across, and people are listening.

If we are heading into another depression – well, we’ve been here before. The publisher returns system was implemented during the Great Depression of the 1930s – so in a way, our industry has a safety valve built for just such an economic environment. As CEO Avin Domnitz of the American Booksellers Association reminded us in his open letter, now is the time to take advantage of that system, and make sure our inventory is serving us well.

Avin is a pragmatist, as are most booksellers, and I’m grateful to them for reminding me when it’s time to face hard facts. But to quote Avin himself, “Now is the time to look at your business carefully, to first identify trends, and, then, to find ways to enhance those that are positive and to soften those that are negative.”

To me, looking with all honesty at the reasons to be optimistic is one of the ways to enhance positive trends. While we work on controlling our inventory, payroll, and cash flow, we booksellers would all do well to remember the good stuff. It’s never a bad time to get inspired, to be hopeful, to remember what we have to offer, and what we have to rely on, even in tough times.

One of my fellow NAIBA board members passed along an article describing the economic downturn as an approaching storm. It’s scary, and it could get ugly.

But independent bookstores are a port in the storm. We sell a product that people can feel proud – and smart – to spend their money on. We create spaces that offer a welcome third place (and that doesn’t have a two-drink minimum). We offer human connection, and free conversation. We have “one of the cheapest forms of pleasure”, and one of the richest sources of community. We are what people are looking for.

So I’m still an optimist. And like all of us, I’m an idealist. We can and should be savvy business people (so we can keep doing what we’re doing), but we’re never going to make a massive fortune as independent booksellers, no matter how good or bad the economy gets. That's not why we do it. We do it because being an independent bookseller is one of the great good things one can do in the world. And our stores are islands of hope and perspective in scary times. We’ll be fine, because what we have to give is just what is needed now: Community. Ideas. Stories. Shelter from the storm.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Link-Mad Monday: Verrry eenterrresteeng...

Sorry, I'm already getting in the Halloween mood, so that was my Transylvanian impression. Today is full of interesting links, though.

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After L.A., BEA is gonna change. The Publishers Weekly article here catalogs some of the discontent and/or desire for progress. And show director (and stellar human being) Lance Fensterman talks about being on the inside of those changes here. I love how he describes meeting with disgruntled publishers:

"The conversations have been frank, straightforward conversations - the kind you have with your parents when you are 17, came in an hour after curfew and clearly have vomit on your shoe."

Personally, I'm looking forward to the revamped education roster. It's always interesting to see what happens when a longstanding institution gets re-imagined from top to bottom.

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Other changes: some publishers are giving away books for free. Michael at Books On The Nightstand talks about Concord Free Press's intriguing book giveaway initiative. Not sure how I feel about that -- I'm more a fan of the "give away a digital version, then let them buy the print edition" model -- but I'm curious how this will play out for Concord.

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The always thoughtful bookseller Arsen Kashkashian finishes out Banned Books Week with a discussion of bookstore buyers as "book banners": about the decisions we make to carry/not carry a book. It's also an appreciation of the relative freedom from censorship we do enjoy.

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My aspiration is to be the kind of bookseller who gets songs written about them. The ALP directed me to a track by the band Secret Crush Society called "That Benn Ray", about Benn Ray, the proprietor of Atomic Books in Baltimore: apparently a powerful enough community figure that he figures in popular mythology. According to the song, Benn is quite tall, something of a joker, fights for the indies of Baltimore, and runs the favorite bookstore of SCS. Way to go, Atomic Books -- you are my hero once again!

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In the meantime, I will make do with dressing up as one of the few literary characters to have an irresistible song about them. And I wish to invite you, one and all, to join me at McNally Jackson's Second Annual Literary Halloween Party, which is shaping up to be quite a bash. In addition to the Literary Costume Contest, projections from horror comics, and some awesome holiday-appropriate author readings, we're adding something new: a Scary Story Slam, in which you the partygoer have three minutes to present your best scary story (original or literary). And there are some great prizes from supporting publishers for costumes and slam stories. The party runs 6:30 to 8:30 on Friday the 31st (and there's some great bookish spooky stuff for the younger kids from 4 to 6). So make your plans now for a bookish Halloween. I vant to zee you zhere...

Friday, October 10, 2008

Emerging Leaders: Do you want to go to Winter Institute??

Duh, the answer is yes. Anyone who has been to Winter Institute, the ABA's bookseller education event, in the last three years has come back raving about the intense experience of professional development, camaraderie, new book discoveries, and just plain fun -- it's one of those mountaintop high experiences that brings you back to the bookstore with a huge morale boost and an arsenal of new tools to make the store better and become a better bookseller.

When we Emerging Leaders Council members met with the leaders of Ingram Book Company back in August, we agreed that one of the best things we could do for our constituency -- that is, younger booksellers still working on creating a career in bookstores -- was to get them to that experience. It's one of the ways to empower the next generation to keep bookstores growing and thriving into the future.

And Ingram, which believes in that future, put their money where their mouth is. They have agreed to sponsor six full scholarships for Emerging Leaders to get them to Winter Institute. The American Booksellers' Association is also sponsoring an EL scholarship, so that means there are seven chances for young booksellers to get to WI for free.

We're particularly excited that the upcoming WI (which is Thursday, January 29, through Sunday, February 1) will be held in Salt Lake City. The town is home to not only a groundbreaking "buy local first" initiative spearheaded by stellar bookstore The King's English, but also to King's English events coordinator and EL Council member Jenn Northington! And when it's in her hometown, you know that means the EL party at WI is going to be off the hook...

The deadline for applying for the scholarships is November 1. So what are you waiting for?? Send us an email already! And tell all the young booksellers you know about this great opportunity!

Here are the official details:
Emerging Leaders scholarships will cover all travel and hotel costs; the Winter Institute itself is free. Booksellers can apply directly for the scholarship, or store owners may nominate their employees. Application is via email to the Emerging Leaders Council:

The e-mail should identify the candidate, the region, and the store in which she or he works (with contact information). In addition, information should be provided about the candidate's role in the store, his or her feelings about bookselling, the candidate's potential for a long-term bookselling career, and how she or he might benefit from the Winter Institute. Applicants should put "Scholarship" in the e-mail subject line.

Scholarship winners will be selected by the Emerging Leaders Council. The deadline for entries is November 1, 2008.

Questions about the scholarships may be directed to the Emerging Leaders Council or to any of the seven council members / regional reps; contact information can be found on the Emerging Leaders website.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Link-Mad Wednesday, Guest edition

Today's links are mostly courtesy of the ALP, who has been more on top of breaking news than I have lately. More interesting stuff later this week...

First, an interview with one of my favorite authors, Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket); I couldn't sell the fabulous The Basic 8 to save my life, so I'm glad he's a bestseller now...

One blogger dares to put a number on what constitutes good sales for first-time literary fiction. Agree? Disagree? (I admit my guess about the number was way off...)

The Guardian collects their top ten books about whaling -- because they can.

Bookninja points us to perhaps the coolest private library in the entire world.

And some topical links (because as the publicists keep telling me, it's hard to get people to think about books in an election season):

What better guide in choosing your elected representatives than classic works of science fiction?

The New Yorker speculates on the Republican relationship to words, or "verbage".

More serious, NPR recommends three reads for the current election.

Happy linking!