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Friday
Jan292016

'Fun at Work' Days

In case you missed it, yesterday was National Fun at Work Day. But don't worry. For some reason, today is International Fun at Work Day, so let's get this party started. Actually, those of you who attended ABA's Winter Institute should probably sit this one out for your own health and well-being... and recovery time. You've probably had enough fun for one week, and we have the photos to prove it.

National Fun at Work Day "couldn't arrive at a more ironic time, what with the grumblings over our national minimum wage and the sluggish progress of workplace equality despite growing protest," Signature noted in showcasing quotes from "8 authors who don't have time for National Fun at Work Day.... You know what sounds like 'Fun' to us? Reading commiserative quotes on the Internet when we're supposed to be working."

"Fun" can be a testy little word when it is asked to dance with a partner like "work." Of all the jobs I've had in my life, bookselling was the one that put the highest premium on having fun at work, or at least seeming to. It was also, quite often, fun. Just not always.

It begins with the hiring process. I've discussed this with many booksellers over the years, and know my experience wasn't unique. When I first applied for a bookselling job in 1992, I was interviewed initially by an extraordinary woman named Josie Rahe, who was near retirement age and had been a gifted handseller (I had no idea what that meant then) for many years. Her job description was a cross between HR and EG (Everybody's Grandmother). She was superb at both. Although the interview process was thorough, the message from Josie was clear: being a bookseller was fun. She radiated that pitch herself.

For the first two weeks of my life as a frontline bookseller, Josie was there every step of the way, introducing me to other staff members and customers, showing me the basics of my job as well as every other job in the store, and generally making me feel like this was anything but a normal retail job. It was a calling.

As you know, she was right. It is a calling. Still, when prospective booksellers are interviewed in many, if not most (if not all) bookstores, owners/managers tend to have a--let's call it, for the sake of argument, slight--tendency to oversell the fun part of bookselling, as in so many books, such bright colleagues and curious (in every sense of the term) customers.

The relatively low wages, long hours on your feet, occasionally demanding (perhaps once curious, then not so much) patrons and more are, for good reason, less emphasized. And prospective frontline booksellers are equally complicit because they (we) want to believe that working in a bookstore is everything we've always imagined it to be.

Great bookselling is theater and performance and even stagecraft, so it makes sense that the entertainment value of the job is stressed. But bookselling is also hard work (see "Bookselling Is Harder than It Looks" and "How Pleasant... to Just Work in a Bookstore"). The days can be fun, enlightening and uplifting, but also frustrating, boring and infuriating. Sometimes all of these and more in a single afternoon.   

How does a bookseller have fun at work every day, and not just on a randomly selected national or international Fun at Work Day? Here's the thing. We're word people. My dictionary says fun is "enjoyment, amusement or lighthearted pleasure." And this is fun's origin story: "late 17th century (denoting a trick or hoax): from the obsolete fun 'to cheat or hoax,' dialect variation of late Middle English fon 'make a fool of, be a fool,' related to fon 'a fool,' of unknown origin."

Is bookselling fun? Or are we fools? Consider Touchstone's counsel in As You Like It: "The more pity that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly.... I do now remember a saying: 'The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.' "

At some point early in my frontline bookselling career, I did find the answer to my question--"How then does a bookseller have fun at work every day?" You don't. It's okay. Really. You'd be a fool if you had fun every day... and not a wise, Shakespearean kind of fool either. Know what sounds like a Fun at Work Day to me? Handselling good books, whenever you can find the time. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2679

Friday
Jan222016

Answer Your Bookstore Cat's Questions Day

Open an Instagram account and follow a bookstore that has a cat. This cat will have its own Instagram account. The booksellers will pose the cat next to books the cat is "reading." --Helen Ellis, author of American Housewife, in a Powell's Books blog post headlined "How to Be a Patron of an Independent Bookstore"

Maybe you didn't know this, but today is Answer Your Cat's Questions Day ("Take some time and attempt to work out what questions your cat is asking, and make a concerted effort to fill in the blanks.").

Maisie has an editing question.

Since we're in a business with a substantial feline workforce, it's appropriate that we enhance the celebration by offering a variation on the theme: Answer Your Bookstore Cat's Questions Day.

Some cats, of course, may have only one question: Why bother? The best answer is one I'd give to my own cats: Why not? While they aren't, strictly speaking, bookstore cats, mine are certainly book trade cats, helping out at the office in their own unique ways. And they always look like they have questions.

Writer Midge Raymond gets it. She recently chronicled her editing cat Oscar's attempts to assist while she's working: "He walks back and forth across the keys until I pick him up and cuddle him. He has an amazing ability to step on the keys in such a way that a computer function that I previously had no knowledge of is suddenly revealed to me. Perhaps his greatest contribution occurred as I was reading through the first-pass edits for my novel, which were in PDF. Not knowing that I could make notes on the PDF, I was writing on a pad of paper when Oscar, rushing to attack the pen, stepped on the keyboard in such a way that a PDF Post-it popped onto the screen, thus cutting my editing time in half." (Warning: cat editing results may vary.) What would Oscar's questions be?

Al at Village Lights Bookstore, Madison, Ind.

To help celebrate Answer Your Bookstore Cat's Questions Day, Mashable handily got the q&a ball rolling last week, advising us to keep our New Year's reading resolutions because "the bookstore-owning felines of Instagram--where the #bookstorecats hashtag has become popular of late--have not forgotten. Your decision to neglect another book club meeting has not gone unnoticed by these fuzzy-bellied, hyper-judgmental bookworms." Among their queries: "Been a while since you picked up a book, eh?" And: "I recharge for 72 hours between every novel for maximum reading comprehension. Don't you?"
 
In that spirit, I wondered what other questions bookstore cats might have, so I conducted an informal poll. Here are a few of their questions. I'll translate, but you have to provide the answers on a case-by-case basis. Your inquiring cats want to know.

Sales floor
Why aren't your books organized by flavor and texture?
Do the "what I can chew" rules have to be so damn complicated and contradictory?
Don't you find it intriguing that new books taste better, yet old books smell better?
Why do you let so many strangers in this place? And why can't your customers control their kids?
Why do you have so many cat titles classified as humor or counter books? It's insulting.

Social media
Is that another photo of me going up on your Facebook page?  
Since you keep posting my pictures all over social media, do you think it's such a good idea to use my name as your password for everything?
Does it ever bother you that posts featuring me get dozens of likes, while all your other posts barely get a nibble?
Can't you come up with a synonym for "cute?" (Thesauruses are in the reference section, aisle 4.)
Aren't "cat selfies" over yet?

Office/service counter
Why are you always tapping your paws on that machine?
Why can't I catch a cursor?
How is it that giftwrap paper is totally off limits, unless you roll some up into a ball and decide it's a toy for me?
Why is that foamboard poster still at the end of the counter, blocking my sun?
Oh, were you reading this? (while standing on the pages of a book)

Personal
Why don't you read to me more often? I don't know what your words mean, but they sound nice.
Where do you go at night? Where does everybody go at night?
Who is the greatest writer about cats ever (and don't say T.S. Eliot)?
Why read when you can shred?
Where are you going now? Can I go to?

For some reason, many of the bookstore cats I contacted felt the need to quote Mark Twain: "If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve man but it would deteriorate the cat." Guess you'll just have to ask your cat for clarification on that one. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2674

Friday
Jan152016

When an ARC Makes a Statement

"I'm Reading as Fast as I Can!" That was the title of a blog post I wrote during the winter of 2005 as I considered the deluge of advance reader's copies that arrived daily at the bookstore where I worked at the time. I am in the book trade because I love it. I read books because, well, I have to, in every sense of the word. The question is: Why do I choose to read this ARC and not that one?

The answer is complicated, but I can tell you precisely why I knew I would read Martin Seay's debut novel The Mirror Thief (Melville House, May) when an ARC showed up at my door in the fall. The book's jacket--front cover, back cover, even spine--was drenched in smart blurbs from independent booksellers. I've been opening ARC packages for decades, but that presentation stopped me in my tracks. "You've got to read this!" a dozen booksellers I know and respect were all saying.

And so I did. The novel is as extraordinary as they promised, but that's another conversation. What I really wanted to know was how Melville House came up with the cover idea. So I asked.

"I was trying to make a statement about the business, as well as trying to find the best way to market a really great book," said Dennis Johnson, Melville House co-publisher with Valerie Merians. "The urge to make a statement was prompted, in part, from the frustration that Valerie and I feel about the way the marketplace has become increasingly dominated by historically giant players. It's always been thus, of course, but it's at an historic extreme nowadays, and it's very hard for smaller indie players to participate in that kind of marketplace. The bitter irony, of course, is that the system needs us both--indie booksellers for showrooms and handselling leadership, and indie publishers because, well, culture does not live by generic bestsellers alone."

Last winter, Johnson was exploring possibilities for a campaign to highlight that dilemma, as well as "do something that would remind indie publishers and retailers that we are the most natural partners in the literary ecosystem. As more than half our staff--myself included--have worked in bookstores, Melville House has always published books that resonate most profoundly with the business of indie booksellers, so I guess I was trying to imagine a roots campaign of some sort."

Dennis Johnson

During ABA's 2015 Winter Institute in Asheville, he had what he described as a "eureka moment" while reading the manuscript of a debut novel "that was making my publisher's antenna vibrate like crazy--a big, fat, page-turner that was part literary thriller and part historical suspense novel, the kind of sweeping saga you stay up all night to finish. It was called The Mirror Thief, and it reminded me of when I discovered another big, fat saga (and the biggest selling book in Melville House's history): Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone."

The Mirror Thief turned out to be the perfect book for the campaign he'd been envisioning "because this was the kind of book that indie booksellers could sell like no one else could," Johnson said, describing his right-place-right-time moment of clarity: "And then of course I just looked around me and the eureka moment turned into a Homer Simpson moment, whereby you slap your forehead and say, 'D'oh!' All these booksellers were walking around the hotel with book bags of ARCs and with manuscripts jammed under their arms and it came to me. If the book represented both what indie booksellers do better than anyone else, and what we do as indie publishers, why not really brand it as such, and build the campaign for it based on what indie booksellers had to say about it?"

The cover Melville House subsequently created for The Mirror Thief's ARC features blurbs from Mary Wolf of Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse, Stan Hynds of the Northshire Bookstore, Sheryl Cotleur of Copperfield's Books, Jeremy Ellis of Brazos Bookstore, Kevin Elliott of 57th Street Books, Steve Salardino of Skylight Books, Anmiryam Budner of Main Point Books, Ed Conklin of Chaucer's Bookstore, Chris Phipps of DIESEL, a Bookstore, Geoffrey Jennings of Rainy Day Books, Peter Matyskiela of the Doylestown Bookshop and Greg Berry of the Elliott Bay Book Co.

"At Winter Institute 10, watching booksellers walk around with the thousand-page manuscript for [Garth Risk Hallberg's] City On Fire and more, I realized again how open indie bookstore buyers are to things other buyers aren't--debuts, long books, literary novels, writers from outside the echo chamber," Johnson recalled. "I knew I could get many of them to hear me out and give it a read. And I knew the book was so good that they'd love it, and that would be the start of a buzz campaign. And I wanted to print the buzz--it came to me that I should make a galley that had nothing on the cover--not even the title--except what indie booksellers said about it.

"So that's what we did. Statement made." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2670

Friday
Jan082016

Reading & Resolutions & Predictions! Oh My!

As we all know, resolutions and predictions are New Year's traditions with a dubious track record. Remember when you resolved that 2015 would be the year you finally read Ulysses or War & Peace or Moby Dick? How'd that work out? Remember the guy who predicted in 2002 that vinyl albums and turntables would one day make a comeback as profitable sidelines for indie bookstores? No, I don't either.

And yet, we're always ready to give hope and forecasting another shot. Can't help ourselves, really. I've been collecting some great recent examples:

Resolutions
Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., hosted "our always popular Resolutions Mini Workshops... with inspirational options good for everyone."

Noting that "now is the time to make a commitment to your 2016 reading life," Sarah Bagby of Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kans., wrote she had "asked a sampling of the bookstore and cafe staff for their goals for reading in 2016. Everyone had one and no two were the same. Mine is to read a set number of pages per day, and have reading glasses in my reach at all times.... Happy New Reading Year!"

Catherine Weller of Weller Book Works, Salt Lake City, Utah, shared the bookstore's goals for the new year: "We'll continue to work on finding wonderful books--be they new, used, or rare--to share with our customers. All of us booksellers will strive to read even more.... For your new year we hope you'll consider reading more, loving more, and laughing more. We also hope you'll continue to support locally-owned businesses like ours, so Salt Lake City will continue to be populated by unique, vibrant shops run by your friends and neighbors."

"I have never been good at achieving my New Year's resolutions," observed Gwenyfar Rohler of Old Books on Front St., Wilmington, N.C. "I work at them, and chip away, but usually I make longer-term commitments than one year can contain.... Somehow it took until now to understand the heart of what this has been about all along. I thought it was about jobs; turns out it was about connections, and putting people, family and community first--ahead of expectations, ahead of big business, ahead of preconceptions."

In the Spectator, Laura Freeman recalled that "last year, I made a New Year's resolution to give up my appalling Amazon habit. What with one-click ordering it had become fantasy shopping, clicking on Penguins as if they were penny sweets. I was spending hundreds of unthinking pounds--and never visiting the bookshops I claimed to cherish. And I have stuck to it. With only one shameful lapse, I have bought my books in bookshops. What a joy it has been."

Several authors shared their reading resolutions with the Guardian, including Ted Dawe: "There is one thing I plan to do differently this year. I am sending galley proofs of my new novel to teen readers (15 of them) to get feed back and critique. I want to get a sense of what they like or don't get before I complete my final publication copy."

The Huffington Post's Jillian Capewell advised how to make non-intimidating reading resolutions, including: "If you live near even a mid-sized city with a library or bookstore, chances are there's an author visiting you soon. While visits from huge names even your mom will recognize (David Sedaris, Elizabeth Gilbert, etc.) are few and far between, there are plenty of authors with more modest followings that hold readings for recently released books. Research one who sounds intriguing and make yourself go--at worst, you got out of the house, and at best, you've found a new book to take home (and an author you can say you saw way back when)."

Predictions
Digital Book World featured "10 predictions for 2016":

  • Continued regrowth of print sales.
  • Increased focus on export sales.
  • Amazon spending some time under the radar.
  • The middle to continue to diminish with more consolidation.
  • Picking up a Penguin; keep an eye on Pearson.
  • Increasing Chinese influence.
  • Publishers taking advantage of licensing opportunities.
  • New English language partnerships.
  • Book fair evolution and the emergence of the micro-fair.
  • Struggle for subscription but steady digital sales.

Carolyn Kellogg considered "6 book trends for 2016" in the Los Angeles Times:

  • Books are back. Print books, that is.
  • The Star Wars effect
  • If you can't read George R.R. Martin, join him.
  • Long-form nonfiction is in peril.
  • Independent presses bring the vanguard.
  • It's a big, diverse world.

We'll be keeping score because predictions sometimes fade to obscurity in retrospect: "It wasn't too long ago that pundits were saying that printed books and bookshops were on the way out," Tim Godfray, CEO of the U.K.'s Booksellers Association, told the Bookseller recently. "This is now absolutely not the case. It has been really heartening to see booksellers showing such entrepreneurship and creativity in extremely challenging trading conditions."

For New Year's perspective, however, Emöke B'Racz of Malaprop's Bookstore, Asheville, N.C., summed it up best: "I may seem like I've already plunged headfirst into next year, but I have not even faced the fact that 2015 will be passing into 2016 imminently. I wish that we all may keep our hearts open, joyful and peaceful to meet the challenges of everyday life as it unfolds for every one of us. As we say in Budapest: B.U.É.K !!!!" --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2665

Friday
Dec182015

#SMSDTX--Refueling in Flight

Only seven more shopping days till Christmas (#SMSDTX). There is no cause for alarm... at this time.

Titcomb's Books dressed up for the holidays

Sure, the holiday retail season tries the patience and feet of the best booksellers. You're facing the usual requests to recommend books for people "who don't read much," and once again you find it amazing, even a little unsettling, to discover how many titles actually fit that category. You've probably adjusted to the holiday music playing incessantly over your shop's speakers, punctuated at regular intervals by semi-desperate calls for retail rescue ("Oh, Holy night, the--'We need help at the front service desk, please!'--of our dear savior's birth."). You've even made your peace with the fact that at least half of the customers who take advantage of your gift-wrapping service can't resist this friendly reminder: "Don't forget to take the price tags off!"

Christmas week: Need I say more? You are about to enter the wackiest stretch of the year for any bookseller. Okay... deep breaths. Inhale. Exhale. You've been through this before. You can do it again.

One of the more intriguing aspects of this time of year is something I'll call "refueling in flight." Every day is a prime refueling day for bookstores during the holiday season, as customers take a hearty bite out of your stock (a good thing) and the staff scrambles to keep the sales floor looking fresh.

A book carton "fort" in the receiving area at Literati Bookstore on Wednesday

The beleaguered shipping and receiving department--which, in smaller bookshops, may well be you--is swamped with stacks and stacks of boxes, incoming as well as outgoing. Deliveries are sorted in a frenzied, triage-like prioritizing exercise. The pressure is intense to get those cartons opened, received and out to the sales floor for shelving immediately.

Imagine two jets connecting for a mid-air refueling. It usually works, but it can still be a little scary.

Given the size of orders this time of year, an outsider might think you're constantly facing empty shelves and displays, but somehow everything runs smoothly (on the good days), so customers generally encounter a well-stocked and organized bookstore when they come in. Most booksellers abhor empty space, a personality quirk that comes in handy right now.

Brewster Book Store's festive decor.

When it all works, your staff moves in seamless choreography throughout the day. There's a lot at stake and refueling in flight is a tricky maneuver. Automatic pilot is not an option. You must rely on a lot of people--buyers, publishers, distributors, delivery companies, receivers and booksellers--doing their individual jobs with focus and coordination. It may seem chaotic at times to you, but damn it sure looks smooth and precise from a distance.

I suspect that most of your customers have only the slightest awareness of the team effort required to refuel in flight at full holiday speed. They see the loaded book carts and are aware of booksellers moving about quickly with armloads of stock. They know books don't shelve themselves. They also know, however, that you will immediately drop everything to help them find the right book, as if you had nothing else to do. They don't need to see the seams. That's part of the magic of bookselling.

Taking a break at Mitchell's Book Corner.

Yesterday's e-newsletter from BookPeople, Austin, Tex., summed it up nicely: "It's the last weekend before the big holiday. Do we look stressed? No way! This is the most fun time of the year. It's like having a non-stop house party. You all come to visit, we give you our favorite books for your favorite people, when the line gets long we hand out candy---everything is merry and bright!... We have books. We have socks. We have more stocking stuffers than we can fit into a single Instagram feed. We're here. We're helpful. We're caffeinated and we're ready to recommend all of the best books we read this year."

Your goal--largely unspoken even if you are acutely aware of it--is to present the bookshop to every customer who comes through the door, regardless of the time of day, as if you'd just finished preparing it for that person alone. And before you leave each night--even after a long, long, long day--you still try with your last reserves of strength (or at least the illusion thereof) to get the sales floor back in shape for tomorrow's opening. It isn't easy, but you'll make the magic happen day after grueling day until Christmas Eve. Refueling in flight may be rife with disastrous possibilities, but it's the only way to fly this time of year. So fasten your holiday bookseller seatbelt and enjoy the bumpy ride. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2657