Friday, December 28, 2007

Holiday Bookselling


I work retail, so the holiday season is massively important to our bottom line. Things were tough this year, with high gas prices, high temperatures (nobody wants to buy Christmas presents when it's 80 degrees outside), and no breakout bestseller, but we held our own.

Years with no breakout books really should be a boon to indy bookstores: instead of everyone coming in knowing exactly what they want (and not being able to get it because the publisher ran out and won't be reprinting until frickin' January. Not that I'm bitter.), people come in knowing they want something, but not necessarily what that something is. This opens the door for all of those handselling fools you've got running around on the floor to suggest their own favorites to the befuddled masses (this works best just before Christmas Eve--people will buy anything just before Christmas Eve). This cadre of book proselytizers is the biggest thing that sets us apart from the big chain stores; we're all readers, and part of being a reader is the desire to tell others about this great book you just read.

And it doesn't stop with customers. I do some of my hardest handselling to my friends and co-workers. Heck, I handsell to the reps who come in to sell books to me!

Being a buyer as well as a bookseller lends an odd perspective to the holidays. When great big stacks of something you took a chance on fly out the door, there's nothing sweeter. And when other stacks just sit there, it can drive you crazy. Why isn't that selling? We sold tons of that other book last year, and this one seems tailor made to appeal to the same audience, but it just sits there. Staring at you. Mocking you with its enormous stacks. Bastard!

Ah, well, at least I have something to get me through the post-holiday doldrums: P.Craig Russell's Coraline graphic novel, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer's anthology The New Weird, which joins the line-up of amazing books coming out in February 2008: The Somnambulist, The Resurrectionist, Charlatan, The Monsters of Templeton, and The Outlaw Demon Wails. What is it with February, anyway? There weren't this many good books for Christmas!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Gobsmacked


God, sometimes I love my job! I commute two hours to and from work every day, and given current traffic conditions in the Austin area, you can go ahead and add at least another half hour to my drive home. I'll sometimes stop and grab a burger for dinner, going through the drive-through and then sitting in the parking lot to eat. I always have a book in the car, so this gives me a little uninterrupted reading time while I finish my burger.

Most times, this takes 20-30 minutes. But every once in a while I hit a book that grabs hold and won't let go. Currently, that's Lauren Groff's debut novel The Monsters of Templeton.

I loved the cover as soon as I saw it, and when I read the catalog copy, I knew I had to read it. A couple of chapters in and I was gone, completely caught up in Templeton and its denizens, past and present. I was as eager as Willie to unravel her tangled family history, and logic lost all hold on me:

[Logic] You should get going.

[Me] (muttered while reading) Um hmm.

[Logic] You've still got 75 miles to go.

[Me] Um hmm.

[Logic] You can read the book when you get home.

[Me] Um hmm.

[Logic] You're not even listening to me, are you. You're just going to keep reading until you finish the book, and we won't get home until eleven o'clock. The cats are gonna be pissed, you know.

[Me] Um hmm.

[Logic] *sigh*

I came to myself an hour later, with tears in my eyes and a big, goofy grin on my face, thinking that I couldn't wait to tell someone about this amazing book.

It's part domestic novel, part historical fiction, and part mystery, with a dash of the supernatural for flavor. It's sad and funny and sweet and somehow realistic and dreamy at the same time. Stephen King compares the book to Ray Bradbury's work, and I have to agree. There's something in this story that just slips past my logic and connects with me, and Bradbury has that same effect.

As if this wasn't enough, it's also closely tied in to the works of James Fenimore Cooper (Templeton was a pseudonym that Cooper himself used for Cooperstown). I'm not familiar enough with Cooper's work to judge the accuracy with which this material is tied in, but I can say that for someone unfamiliar with Cooper, it worked just fine.

This is the fourth book I've read recently that's knocked me for a loop, and oddly, they're all coming out next February: The Somnambulist, The Resurrectionist, Charlatan, and now The Monsters of Templeton. I have no idea why February 2008 holds such an embarrassment of riches, but I'm grateful.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Re-reading Books


A bookselling friend of mine recently asked me for a recommendation for something new to read. As we were talking about various books we'd read recently, he mentioned that he'd just re-read Robert R. McCammon's Boy's Life. Man, that took me back. I love that book, and recommend it whenever I can. There was a time a few years back when I would re-read Boy's Life at least once a year.

Now I realize that this is unusual. Most of my friends re-read books rarely if at all. Heck, given the sheer number of books I manage to acquire, I could read a new book every day and never run out. But sometimes something about a book just speaks to me, and instead of picking up something new and exciting, I return to the comfort of old friends: Boy's Life, Dune, The Sparrow, City of Saints and Madmen.

I'm not sure what draws me back time and time again; plot? characters? style? Probably a combination of each. But maybe the more important question isn't why I re-read these books, but how I re-read them: avidly, openly, feeling every high point and despairing in every low. For whatever reason, I can re-experience these books and retain some of whatever magic in them made me love them in the first place.

This made my suggestion for my bookselling friend pretty easy: Have you ever read The Sparrow? No? Well let me tell you about it....

Friday, December 7, 2007

Putting the "Selling" Back in Bookselling


In yesterday's Shelf Awareness, Robert Gray offered up some tips on the art of handselling a book that you don't personally like.

His suggestions are all workable (my personal favorite is "I'm so behind on my too-be-read stack that I haven't gotten to this one."), but I think the key to his essay is the idea of not making someone feel bad or uncomfortable about their reading choices, however different from yours they might be.

So many people come to bookselling because of their own love of books and reading. Knowledgeable, passionate employees are any bookstore's greatest strength. But there is a tendency among booksellers to see their job as kind of a sacred calling: rescuing obscure titles and authors and leading readers to the True Light of Literature. Now I'm not saying that this isn't a fabulous goal, and I'm certainly not claiming that I'm not guilty of the same thing. But as a business model, it's quite a challenge.

We booksellers need to always remember that this is, in fact, a business, and if we want to have the freedom to stock those obscure titles and authors that we desperately want to sell, then we have to have the popular selections that people want to buy. You may personally despise Deepak Chopra, or think that Patricia Cornwell is an over-rated hack, or even rail against the teeming hoards who rush out to buy whatever book Oprah talked about today, but the fact that you can sell multiple copies of these books allows you to bring in some titles from Dalkey Archive or Monkeybrain Books and keep them around long enough for your fervent prosyletizing to convince your customers to give them a shot.

The customer may not always be right, but he or she is trying to give you money, so try not to make him or her regret that decision.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Ballsy


In February, 2008, Crown will publish a book called Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, The Man Who Pursued Him, And the Age of Flimflam. I wanted to read it from the moment I saw the cover, which I swear they must have cooked up just for me, because my picking up the book was a foregone conclusion once I saw the goat.

The huckster in question, John Romulus Brinkley, pioneered the implantation of goat naughty bits into both men and women to reinvigorate them (both generally and sexually). Morris Fishbein, head of the nascent AMA, waged a 25-year war against Brinkley to try to stop him. Brinkley was unrepentant and all but unstoppable because he was always at least a step ahead.

When there was no mass media, being denounced by one newspaper was no big deal. Brinkley bought himself a radio station and was the first person to use the airwaves as advertising and promotion, creating in the process the first radio variety show. The show featured singers and musicians and storytellers and preachers and Brinkley himself and everything was a not-so-subtle plug for Brinkley, his clinic, and his elixirs. He had a knack for convincing the common folk that he was one of them.

When Fishbein had him before an AMA board and very publically revoked both of Brinkley's medical licenses, Brinkley's response was a late entry into the Kansas governor's race. He proved so popular with the people that it took a last minute finagling of election laws to keep him out of office.

While waiting to run again, he became disenchanted with the restrictions on broadcasting power for his radio station, so he convinced the Mexican government to give him free land and build him the most powerful radio station on the planet across the border from Del Rio, Texas. He used the same format, so people like Gene Autrey and The Carter Family went from regional acts to national treasures. (Long after Brinkley was no longer involved, XERA hired a DJ named Wolfman Jack.)

The book's got a little bit of everything, including world travel, H.L. Mencken, a courtroom showdown, and Nazis. Yeah, that's right, I said Nazis.

The tone of the book is wildly uneven, with Fishbein mostly absent and Brinkley so larger-than-life that you have to admire the chutzpah, if not the man. This makes the epilogue, where Brinkley is suddenly America's worst mass murderer a bit jarring.

But the book is worth the read, and a great jumping off point for further reading like Border Radio by Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Novels About Books


You’ve been very patient (or maybe you’re just ignoring me). But I did promise a supplemental list of my favorite novels focused on books, so here ya go. It's not comprehensive, but it's mine:

Last year a book came out of Spain that blew my socks off: Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind. Although the plot does revolve around a particular book, I lost my heart in the prologue, with the introduction of the Cemetary of Forgotten Books.

Another favorite of mine was Thomas Wharton’s Salamander, which is a fantastical story involving a quest for a never-ending book.

I’m putting Cold Comfort Farm on the list for a couple of reasons: 1. The main character is planning to use her experiences with the Starkadders as fodder for her novel, 2. It’s a dead on parody of a particular style of book that any English major would be familiar with, and 3. It’s one of my very favorite books, and it’s my list, so nyah!

The Thursday Next novels of Jasper Fforde (The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten, and Thursday Next: First Among Sequels) Combine a bookish childhood with an antic sense of the absurd and a serious sense of humor and you get Jasper Fforde. He has created a booklover’s paradise in his little alternate corner of the world, and it’s a treat to spend time there. How can you resist a device that allows the villain to kidnap Jane Eyre (yes, the Jane Eyre)? Or a vast library of book plots overseen by the Cheshire Cat? Or a villain named Jack Schitt? Puns, wordplay, gentle mockery of beloved literary characters; it’s a bookish delight.