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Trick or Read!

The Elephant Man was there, chatting with Dorian Gray. Count Dracula met Huckleberry Finn, and the Invisible Man met the Invisible Woman. Marley's Ghost clanked around, and Dmitri Karamazov stood at attention. There were three Anna Kareninas and any number of Nicholas Nicklebys.... It was Brentano's pre-Halloween party Thursday night and the invitation advised guests to dress "as a character in a novel you wished you had written." --New York Times, October 31, 1981

From Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop to Malachi O' Doherty's "ghost" photos shot at Bookfinders Bookshop & Cafe in Belfast, Ireland, bookish spirits just seem to bring out the best in book people this time of year. What better time, then, to highlight some of the haunting events taking place this weekend:

Very Literary Halloween Party: Newtonville Books, Newton, Mass., is inviting grown-ups to "come celebrate Halloween at our Very Literary Halloween Party. Come dressed in your literary-themed best for tricks and treats..."

Zombies!: Tonight, Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore, San Diego, Calif., is hosting "a Mad Zombie Hallowe'en Party--we will have candy & other tasty refreshments, plus a wonderful prize package for the best-costumed attendee... If you are in Los Angeles this weekend, it will be nigh impossible to distinguish Hallowe'en costumes from general cosplay at Stan Lee's Comikaze Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center."

And Zombie ballerinas: "Join us for a special Halloween storytime with the Caldecott Honor-winning picture book author [Molly Idle, Zombelina Dances the Nutcracker] and a troupe of zombie ballerinas from the Arizona Youth Ballet" at Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, Ariz.

Lego Librarians at Truro Public Library, Truro, Mass.: "Our library pumpkin has gone viral with Facebook shares from libraries all over the U.S. and from Canada, U.K. and even Norway!!"

Trick or book: In addition to sweets, David Osborn, owner of Adventures in Bookselling bookstore, Omaha, Nebr., "hands out books to the little ghosts and goblins who come to his door. He estimates he has distributed thousands of gently used books in the last few years."

More book treats: Bob's Bookstore, Pensees Bookshop and the Lincoln Book Shop in Charleston, Ill., will be handing out free books for children on Halloween.

Monster Mash Costume Party: Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., will hold a Monster Mash Costume Party and Parade for kids tonight, followed tomorrow by the Bellingham Storytellers Guild telling spooky stories.

Edgar Allen Poe: The Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, Mass., is hosting a Poe party and a reading by William Giraldi from The Annotated Poe, for which he wrote the foreword. The evening will include a Poe look-alike and costume contest, prizes, a cash bar and a book signing.

Candy buyback: Edgewater Books and Pottery at South River Colony in Edgewater, Md., will buy back Halloween candy. Beginning November 2, unused candy can be exchanged for a $1 store credit per pound, redeemable at either retailer. All collections will be donated to Operation Welcome Home.

Alice at 150: Brazos Bookstore, Houston, Tex., is celebrating the 150th birthday of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland by throwing a Mad Hatter's Tea Party for kids and families Saturday morning. An evening Caterpillar's Costume Ball for adults will feature "EAT ME treats from Dixie's Dessert Delivery Service, DRINK ME treats, as well as a few party games and a costume contest. The best Alice-inspired costume and the best other costume will win gift certificates."

Alice with a twist of gore: Ann-Marie Finn and Kaylene Hobson, owners of the Mad Hatters Bookshop in Brisbane, Australia, decided the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll's classic "was a fitting time to give his beloved characters a gory twist for the Manly Harbour Village Halloween Street Party."

"Franny is still deciding on her Halloween costume": Noting that "some books are scary because of other reasons beyond zombies, ghosts, and mixed metaphors," the staff at Skylight Books, Los Angeles, Calif., "came up with these titles that are sure to be dark--dark like when the sun goes out... forever."

Spend Halloween in a bookstore: Japan's bookstore chain Junkudo is letting a small group of people spend the night inside its "three-story shop in Osaka--and on Halloween, no less.... Let's just hope that a group of 10 strangers spending Halloween night alone in a bookstore doesn't turn out to be quite as horror movie-esque as it sounds."

Halloween Hangover? Rediscovered Books, Boise, Idaho, suggests a Mark Z. Danielewski reading cure: "It's November 1st, the day after Halloween. You still have your costume on from the previous night. Your hair is a wreck. You don't know where that stain came from, and the last few hours you can remember are still a little fuzzy. Let Rediscovered Books ease you out of your Halloween hangover with a reading and signing."

Does all this bookish terror make for sleepless nights? Here's a little retail treat: According to the National Retail Federation's Halloween Consumer Spending Survey, more than 157 million Americans are celebrating Halloween this year, with total spending expected to reach $6.9 billion. And while 20 million humans are expected to spend $350 million on costumes for their pets, there's still some discretionary funds left over to buy Halloween-themed books and greeting cards (33.5% will buy greeting cards, spending a total of $330 million) from indie booksellers. Happy Bookish Halloween! --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2624


Pew Report: 'The Kids Are All Right'

"When it comes to reading books, the kids are all right. But the rest of us have some work to do," Jacket Copy observed in reaction to new survey results released this week by the Pew Research Center.

This is what we're up against: 72% of American adults have read a book within the past year, whether in whole or in part and in any format. That figure is down a bit from 2011 (79%) but is "statistically in line" with survey findings starting in 2012.

As they say in disaster movies just before the proverbial sh$% hits the fan, "There is no cause for alarm at this time." But, yes, the end is near, the sky is falling, it's an "emergency, everybody to get from street." Or is it?

Here's my favorite stat from the Pew survey: A "somewhat surprising generational pattern in book reading" emerged, with 80% of young adults (18 to 29 years old) having read a book, compared with 71% of those ages 30 to 49, 68% of those 50 to 64 and 69% of those 65 and older.

And here are some other Pew highlights:

  • 63% of American adults said they read at least one book in print in the past year, compared with 69% who said the same the year before and 71% in 2011.
  • 27% read an e-book (down from 28% in 2014).
  • 12% listened to an audiobook, a figure that has remained stable.
  • 12 was the mean average and four the median number of books read in the previous year.
  • Women read 14 books on average, compared with nine by men, which Pew deemed "a statistically significant difference."
  • The "typical college graduate or someone with an advanced degree" read an average of 17 books in the previous year, compared with nine for high school grads and three for those who did not graduate from high school.
  • 27% of adults said they hadn't read any books over the past year, while 1% said they did not know or refused to answer.

If I worry about anything after seeing these numbers, it may be the folks among that 1% who didn't know whether they had read a book during the past year. Here's a hint (though they won't be reading this either): If you did not know, you did not read.

Maybe I should be more concerned with statistical declines in reading habits, but they don't scare me. In 2004, National Endowment for the Arts chairman Dana Gioia announced the disheartening results of an NEA survey, including the news that people who said they had read fiction, poetry or plays dipped to 46.7% in 2002, down from 54% in 1992.

At the time, I wrote a blog post (later picked up by Bookselling This Week) in which I said that as a bookseller, "I live in a narrow corner of the universe where perhaps 90% of the people I converse with every day are readers by almost any definition of the term. The simple act of opening a bookshop's front door and walking in separates these people from the herd."

Still, I was actually amazed that 47% of Americans had read novels, plays and/or poetry. It seemed remarkable that we'd somehow managed to cling to a readership that high. "As to the dumbing down of young people that the NEA study seemed to imply, I can't imagine when this was not an issue in societies the world over," I wrote. "One imagines Og complaining to his wife a few thousand years ago that Og, Jr. showed no interest in making proper stone axes or painting accurately detailed woolly mammoths on the cave wall.

"Children have always been going to hell. The majority of my college classmates 30 years ago certainly exhibited no mass interest in reading for pleasure, at least none that was apparent to me at the time.... Statistics show... And yet, and yet, I work with young people at the bookstore all the time who read, who reflect, who think outside the cultural handcuffs of peer pressure and media influence."

What will become of our book readers?

In 1936, the New York Times reported that a nation-wide survey of reading habits conducted by Columbia University, the University of Chicago and the American Library Association found that only 30% of the the adult population "reads books, most of which are 'cheap' fiction, only a third representing the best in research, scholarship and creative ability.... In the country as a whole it was found that each person reads fewer than four books a year."

The distractions of modernity are everywhere. Why, just 162 years ago the Times cautioned: "It would be better, perhaps, if the solid, coherent substance of erudite books were more the vogue; and all subjects were studied profoundly and systematically. But not such is the order of the day.... The call for magazines--quarterly, monthly and daily--will therefore continue with increasing activity, answering to the accelerated progress of the world in civilization and its incidents."

I agree with Jacket Copy. The kids are all right, though it looks like Boomers, my generation, could stand to flip a few more pages each year. Readers, however, are not an endangered species. There's no need for everybody to get from street. Unless, of course, it's to go back inside and read a great book. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2619


#NEIBA15: 'There Don't Seem to Be Trade Secrets.'

As this year's New England Independent Booksellers Association Fall Conference was winding down last week, I asked NEIBA executive director Steve Fischer for his first impressions: "I'm very pleased with the show," he replied. "I think we accomplished what we set out to do, which is deliver great education, amazing authors and that energy that's created when a bunch of booksellers and publishers get together in the same space."

Fischer also mentioned something I think resonates throughout the world of indie bookselling: "We are all so free and open to share what we do and how we do it. There don't seem to be trade secrets."

It's true. There are, of course, any number of trade secrets in the industry as a whole (Amazon's book sales numbers being Exhibit A). But when you spend a few days in the company of indie booksellers, you can't help but be impressed by the range and level of sharing that occur in formal discussions as well as casual conversations, all of which contribute to making everyone better at their chosen profession.

Take the education programming at NEIBA as a prime example. A two-day Human Resources Workshop, featuring John Sherlock and presented by the American Booksellers Association, was held for bookstore owners & managers at the Providence Biltmore Hotel. Meanwhile, at the convention center, sessions ranged from a "Publisher Reps and Book Buyers Panel" to "Everyday Diversity: NECBA Handselling Contest"; from "Frontline Booksellers Meet & Greet" to "One Good Idea!"

Samantha Schoech of IBD with NEIBA's Steve Fischer

At a panel focused upon the second annual Independent Bookstore Day, several booksellers shared ideas that had worked for them (and a few that didn't) this year. IBD director Samantha Schoech noted that 80% of the participating stores reported a sales increase compared to the first Saturday in May 2014, with an average gain of 70%. In terms of successful events, she said, "What seems to work best is a little off-kilter approach." Words to live by for any indie bookseller.

At NEIBA's keynote luncheon, Kristen McLean, director of new business development at Nielsen Book, presented detailed information on shifts in book buying habits, content and format, ranging from current statistical challenges ("Coloring books are really hard for us to track right now because they fall into so many categories.") to developing trends ("I'm starting to see kids' reading habits being inspired by their parents' TV habits," she said, citing HGTV, food, sports and DIY channels as examples.). She also offered good news for indie booksellers: "You represent an important part of the market, especially where discoverability is an issue."

Another well-received presentation was "The Economics of Publishing & How They Impact Booksellers," featuring Bloomsbury USA publishing director George Gibson, who used the Profit and Loss statement for an upcoming trade title to show booksellers the myriad factors that ultimately affect both the bookstore channel and consumers. "We really don't understand each other's business," he suggested, adding: "You can tell the story of publishing through one P&L statement."

Gibson also offered a prediction: "I have absolutely no doubt that 50 years from now print books will still be the dominant form." Citing the number of publishers clamoring to attend ABA's Winter Institute, he stressed that the independent bookstore channel "has become so much more important in the past five years."

All of that education was counterbalanced by bookish celebrations at an author reception, as well as a pair of author breakfasts that featured Jack Gantos, Marie Lu, Sara Pennypacker, Roberta Kaplan, Sonia Manzano, Elizabeth Strout, Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner.

During the annual New England Book Awards dinner, host and Captain Underpants creator Dav Pilkey offered his thanks to "all of you whom I consider my friends and family, really."

Phoenix Books co-owner Mike Desanto, Burlington store manager Tod Gross and co-owner Renee Reiner

This year's BPRNE Independent Spirit Award went to Mike DeSanto and Renee Reiner, co-owners of Phoenix Books, which has employed a "community support" business model to open locations in Essex, Burlingon and, most recently, Rutland, Vt. Accepting the award, Reiner said, "It's really been a terrific experience. Folks crave indie bookstores, and that's why the model works."

Nonfiction book of the year winner Atul Gawande (Being Mortal) expressed his gratitude for "the honor of being introduced by the guy whose books I read to my kids over and over and over again." He also called indie booksellers a "fundamental" part of his book's success, which he described as a "consequence of people like you pressing it into people's hands.... Having your praise and support means a lot. I was very glad to be able to come and tell you that in person."

The conference also saw changes to NEIBA's board of directors. Gillian Kohli of Wellesley Books succeeded Suzanna Hermans of Oblong Books & Music as president, with Hermans becoming treasurer. Courtney Flynn of Trident Booksellers & Café remains v-p. New to the board are Laura Cummings of White Birch Books and Mike Katz of PGW/Perseus Books Group. They join directors Nancy Scheemaker of the Northshire Bookstore and Vicky Titcomb of Titcomb's Bookshop.

While the 700 people in attendance at NEIBA's Fall Conference 2015 was on par with last year's numbers, Fischer said there "certainly was higher energy.... The feedback from everyone has been really positive and actually rather glowing." With this kind of atmosphere, who needs trade secrets? --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2614


'Collaboration Is the New Competition' at IPNE'

"Opportunities for collaboration come along all the time, but as independents, we are sometimes so focused on doing it our way that we fail to see the possibilities right in front of us," wrote Independent Publishers of New England president Charlotte Pierce of Pierce Press in the catalogue for this year's IPNE Publishing Conference, held recently in Portsmouth, N.H.

I was there, having been invited to give a little talk about my life in the world of books. What I took away from the show, however, was a keen sense of how that word "collaboration" resonates when considering the future of book world organizations like IPNE.

There was a moment on the first day when attendees were asked to raise their hands if they were a) publishers of other writer's books, b) publishers of their own books, c) hybrid publishers who did both, or d) authors. A lot of hands went up when that final category was mentioned, but IPNE's leaders stressed the importance of self-identifying as publishers, even if you are publishing your own books.

Tordis Isselhardt, Pamela Fenner & Charlotte Pierce

"You have to think of yourself as a publisher," advised Steve Porter in his seminar on marketing through partnerships, adding: "You cannot do it alone." Porter is an author, publisher (Stillwater River Publications) and the founder of the Association of Rhode Island Authors. Earlier, he'd recommended that all attendees do more than just visit the conference bookstore: "When you purchase a book and take it home, you become an advocate for that author."

In considering the "Collaboration Is the New Competition" theme, Pierce observed that the idea "was to establish a back-and-forth flow of information, resources, and support while pursuing our passions as independent publishers and authors, and without creating an organizational structure requiring huge amounts of capital and staffing. Of course this will always be a work in progress, but at the conference, I saw the wheels starting to turn in people's heads and connections starting to happen."

Noting that IPNE members "are a quirky and wildly varying bunch," Pierce added that during the conference, she "could see people becoming aware of how connecting with each other in this group with shared goals and interests would be helpful to them; and how paying it forward to others in the group also helps themselves."

Pierce also presented the first independent publishing achievement awards to IPNE co-founders Tordis Isselhardt (Images from the Past) and Pamela Fenner (Michaelmas Press), "the two IPNE members who taught me the most about the value of paying it forward and being open and transparent when working in publishing teams."

Isselhardt observed that the conference "showed IPNE's strong educational role in providing both general information and individual skill training. Publishers (and writers in search of a publisher or considering self-publishing) need to understand and be informed about the constantly changing Big Picture of the publishing industry. Publishers also need to understand their place in the industry based on a realistic assessment of their own talents and preferences, so they can prioritize their actions effectively and profitably. No matter how long we're in the business, we all benefit from reviewing the essential steps in the creation of a book, i.e. of the publishing process from ideas to a book that sells to a successful back list title that goes on selling--if we're lucky!"

Publishing a book "has never been more accessible or complicated," Fenner said. "While writers and publishers have many options today for getting into print, many may not grasp the importance of nor know how to find reliable resources for appropriate editing, quality book design and effective marketing tools. For more than 15 years, IPNE has offered education and networking opportunities for independent authors, publishers and service providers through regional trade shows, local meetings, weekly video 'office hours,' workshops and our annual conference." Describing this year's conference as "our best to date," she added: "Attendees left with enthusiasm, practical tools for their enterprises and a strong sense of community."

Pierce cited a recent example of collaboration in action. Board member Crystal Ponti of Blue Lobster Book Co. coordinated this year's book awards and found a new client when IPNE partnered with the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance so they could register for the conference at member rates.

"Realizing that Crystal was looking for new clients, I sent her a list of Maine authors and publishers that IPNE had in its resources file," Pierce recalled. "She promptly created a book awards poster for display at our NEIBA exhibit. We retweet each other's tweets, like our Facebook postings. Our relationship has ratcheted up a couple of notches. Crystal are I are both publishers, but we don't regard each other as competitors. By being mindful of opportunities to build each other up, we create an environment in which we both grow and win."

That's precisely the environment I saw being encouraged, and realized, during IPNE's Publishing Conference.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2610


The Complexity of Reading for Pleasure

I think of myself as being essentially a reader. As you are aware, I have ventured into writing; but I think that what I have read is far more important than what I have written. For one reads what one likes--yet one writes not what one would like to write, but what one is able to write. --Jorge Luis Borges

So... I saw this London Review Bookshop video... about reading... for pleasure.

Later this month, The Pleasure of Reading: 43 Writers on the Discovery of Reading & the Books that Inspired Them will be released by Bloomsbury USA. Edited by Antonia Fraser and Victoria Gray, the book, first published in 1992 to mark the bicentenary of WH Smith, was reissued with additional contributors as a paperback in the U.K. earlier this year.  

In her essay for the anthology, Kamila Shamsie observes: "Now my reading life covers much wider ground than it did in childhood when writers such as C. S. Lewis and J. M. Barrie simultaneously opened up the universe and circumscribed it--from Tolstoy and Toni Morrison to Ali Smith and Juan Gabriel Vásquez the world sits on my bookshelf. But although I recognize the richness and breadth of my adult library, I miss the deep pleasures of childhood reading, the intensity which sent me back to books--and not just the most loved ones--over and over again."

Sometimes a confession is in order. Here's mine: I have a complicated relationship with the concept of reading for pleasure. Because I "read for a living," sometimes I have to remind myself that there was a long period in my life when I read strictly for pleasure, for enlightenment, for amusement, for solace, for the hell of it. Although this does still happen, after all these years I've sacrificed a little something almost indefinable. I do get pleasure from reading, but when I open a new book, a now instinctive set of goals and expectations cloud my idealism, if that's what it is.

Often I read books people ask me to read. Or I read with a nagging corner of my brain whispering, "Will this sell?" Or I read the surface of a book to get through it just to be able to say "been there, read that." I worry sometimes that even though I encounter good books regularly, I may have lost some of the pleasure principle.

"People who read regularly for pleasure have greater levels of self-esteem, are less stressed, and can cope better with difficult situations than lapsed or non-readers," the Bookseller reported earlier this year. So there's that. But reading for pleasure isn't as simple as it sounds.

In a New Yorker essay last year, Rebecca Mead recalled: "It's a common and easy enough distinction, this separation of books into those we read because we want to and those we read because we have to, and it serves as a useful marketing trope for publishers, especially when they are trying to get readers to take this book rather than that one to the beach. But it's a flawed and pernicious division.... [T]here are pleasures to be had from books beyond being lightly entertained. There is the pleasure of being challenged; the pleasure of feeling one's range and capacities expanding; the pleasure of entering into an unfamiliar world, and being led into empathy with a consciousness very different from one's own; the pleasure of knowing what others have already thought it worth knowing, and entering a larger conversation.... There's pleasure in ambition, too."

For the past few years, I've found the best way for me to "read for pleasure" is a meditative, almost ceremonial morning read. With my first cup of coffee, I also sip from a book--sometimes old and sometimes new. I may read a few pages or a chapter or even the same page a half-dozen times.

This morning, I read: "Through writing what I had thought would be a very short prologue in a place and time I didn't know at all, I discovered the pleasure and deeply satisfying challenge of writing yourself from ignorance into familiarity rather than mining the stories you'd lived your whole life. I didn't immediately realize that I was severing the cord which had connected the most essential part of me--the writerly part--to the country of my birth and upbringing."

The passage is from another essay by Kamila Shamsie, published in the slender yet powerful anthology 1914: Goodbye to All That--Writers on the Conflict Between Life & Art. Reading those words was in itself a "deeply satisfying challenge," even if I was simply exercising my right to a quiet morning read, with a mug of coffee... for pleasure. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2605