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Stalking the Elusive Small Press Pick

Shelf Awareness: Wednesday, August 1, 2007

It has been a while since I fired up the old bookstore websiteseeing tour bus, so I took it out for a spin recently. As with most weekend drives, there are certain things you notice right away and others that dawn on you only as the miles roll by. I was surprised, for example, to see how many websites still had notices for Harry Potter parties and pre-orders on their home pages. Time for an update, folks.

I noticed something else, something I suppose I knew already about the power of advance readers copies. On site after site, the "Staff Picks" pages were full of recommendations for books from larger publishing houses, reflecting the impact of at least some of the hundreds of ARCs that stack up in staff break rooms nationwide.

Where were the small, university and independent press staff picks? Harder to find for many reasons, including fewer ARCs, smaller (or no) marketing budgets and insufficient personal relationships with sales floor handsellers. And yet some booksellers do find and recommend these titles, which inspired me to conduct a brief search for the unexpected staff pick.

Since most bookstores, for various reasons, showcase their booksellers on a first-name basis only, we'll stick with that form here even in cases where we know their secret (real) identities.

At Malaprop's Bookstore, Asheville, N.C., Rich suggests Dangerous Space (Aqueduct Press, $18, 9781933500133/1933500131), "a collection of seven seductive stories by Kelley Eskridge, whose novel Solitaire was a New York Times Notable Book . . . in the title novella, 'Dangerous Space,' we see the full power of music unleashed to sexually enthralling as well as risky effect." 

Brook is just one of several booksellers at McNally Robinson bookstore, New York, N.Y., who are recommending small press titles. She loves The Girl with the Golden Shoes by Colin Channer (Akashic Books, $13.95, 9781933354262/1933354267), which she describes as a "coming-of-age novella set in the Caribbean during the 1940's . . . Beautifully written, this novella will wrap you up with Channer's use of language as well as the story itself."

In St. Louis, Mo., Kris at Left Bank Books suggests Bento Box in the Heartland: My Japanese Girlhood in Whitebread America by Linda Furiya (Seal Press, $15.95, 9781580051910/158005191X), noting that the author "beautifully conveys the conflicting feelings she has over her sense of otherness and her parents' strong Japanese identity . . . this book would make an excellent reading group book and could easily be recommended to teens as well."

Looking Glass Bookstore
, Portland, Ore., features a wide-ranging "Recommendation Shelf" that currently highlights world literature releases like Zigzag Through the Bitter Orange Trees by Ersi Sotiropoulos, translated by Peter Green (Interlink Books, $24.95, 9781566566612/1566566614), in which "four unforgettable voices mingle in a poignant black comedy of isolation and yearning, illusion and vengeance and the hunger for connection."

Land of Stone: Breaking Silence Through Poetry
by Karen Chase (Wayne State University Press, $15.95, 9780814333150/081433315X) is one of Lisa's recommendations at Oblong Books and Music, Millerton, N.Y. She calls the book a "miraculous story of the two years poet Karen Chase spent working with a mute psychiatric patient. Like the best poetry, the story is deceptively simple and deeply resonant."

Aaron at Books and Books, Coral Gables, Fla., endorses The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall (Canongate, $24, 97818419591152007/1841959111): "Moving with the pace and momentum of a superb thriller, exploring ideas about language and information as well as identity, The Raw Shark Texts is a brilliant novel about the magnitude of love and the devastating effect of losing that love."

"What an absolute gem! I'll be rereading this one for years to come." That is how Cissie at Quail Ridge Books & Music, Raleigh, N.C., describes 1973 National Book Award winner Stoner by John Williams (NYRB, $14.95, 9781590171998/1590171993). This book is one of those quiet giants in the indie bookselling world, acquiring many passionate handsellers nationwide during the past year.   

City Lights bookstore, San Francisco, Calif., is the necessary last stop on this week's brief tour. If independent publishing has ceremonial icons, surely the City Lights logo is somewhere on that altar. At the bookstore, which reflects this irresistible mix of tradition and innovation, Paul recommends A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes by Witold Gombrowicz (Yale, $15, 9780300123685/030012368X), in which "the eminent Polish author Witold Gombrowicz reflects on seven great philosophers. He discusses Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and Heidegger in six 'one-hour' essays, then allows Marx a short 'fifteen-minute' piece."

Stalking the wild small press staff pick can be great fun. I highly recommend the exercise.



Neil Strandberg on Spanish Language Books

Shelf Awareness: Thursday, July 26, 2007

The question I asked booksellers was a deceptively simple one: How does your bookstore currently serve--actively as well as reactively--the Spanish language book market in your community; and how has this market changed for you in recent years?

Neil Strandberg, manager of operations for the Tattered Cover Book Store, Denver, Colo., offered a frank response, which is worth considering with minimal intrusion from my editorial pencil:

"In answering your question," Neil wrote, "I have focused my attention less on those who can freely choose to read Spanish or English and more on those who are unlikely to read English or prefer to read Spanish. I believe this distinction carries through to the Tattered Cover's historical consideration of the Spanish-reading market: we've thought in terms of getting Spanish-only readers to the store, not increasing Spanish language sales to the bilingual, a whole other strategic proposition.

"The Tattered Cover carries Spanish language literature: fiction, nonfiction and children's books. You'll forgive me if I don't share specific data on sales or trends. The Tattered Cover never shares such information. That said, I can certainly report on our experience and I'll try to relate it to other things going on.

"First, it is the case that most of our sales are to libraries and schools (mostly the children's books) and to individual students of Spanish at the high school and college levels.

"The Tattered Cover stores do not experience what I would call a sizable population of Spanish as a first--or only--language customers, certainly not at all in proportion to the number of Spanish-speaking (first, second, only) people living in Denver.

"In the early-to-mid-1990s we attempted outreach into the Spanish language community, at one time hosting a breakfast of Denver's Hispanic community leadership and activists with the aim of learning how to reach this audience. At that time, I was on the periphery of these discussions and so can't report all the terms of conversation, resolutions, projects or programs. I can report, however, that these attempts did not result in the change we were hoping for.

"This all is what it is, I guess, but it also requires some level of consideration and analysis, though we have not elected to study the question and/or renew the steps we took more than a decade ago.

"As it has rolled around in my head over the years, the following pieces (and others, no doubt) have all played, and continue to play, a role:

"1. The Tattered Cover does not (and has not) had consistent, reliable Spanish speakers on staff available to help Spanish-only (or Spanish preferred) speakers and readers. It probably takes about two minutes for word to get out that it is difficult to get Spanish language help.

"2. I have no data to support this, but I will nonetheless argue that not only is there de facto ethnic segregation in Denver, but also our core customer demographic--by income, education and self-evident ethnicity--does not include Denver's Spanish-speaking population and our work of late has been to retain this core. It follows that our stores have not only been remote from immigrant neighborhoods (where Spanish-only and preferred readers are likely to live) but also in locales where Spanish-only readers are not likely to shop.

"3. A couple of years ago controversy erupted at the Denver Public Library when it was discovered by some conservative immigration reform and cultural conservative activists that DPL was stocking adult-themed (in their view) fotonovelas. The media coverage helped reveal that these fotonovelas are extremely popular with Spanish-speaking immigrants (Mexican, to be more precise). Google 'Denver Public Library' and 'fotonovela' for more info.

"Well, one might argue we should carry the fotonovelas instead of Garcia-Marquez or Clancy or Atkins, but we have carried the fotonovelas without success. Is this because nobody knew? Or knew but for any combination of the reasons I'm enumerating chose not to come?

"4. The NEA's Reading at Risk report (page 24 of my .pdf) makes two points: The population of Hispanic (and presumably the population of Spanish readers) has grown considerably at the same time as 'literary reading' (presumably some proportion in Spanish) within that population has declined. Does this mean there's more opportunity or that the work is increasingly steep?

"5. In-store foot traffic for ESL has declined, reducing exposure to the literature. Has ESL migrated to the Web? Kinko's? Organizations ordering through other channels? Immigrant retailers about which I'm ignorant?"

As Neil Strandberg's response indicates, the issue is complex, the surface only scratched in this brief series, as questions lead to questions.


Booksellers on Spanish Language Books

Shelf Awareness: Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Miraida Morales, IPG's Spanish language sales representative, shared her thoughts about the growing U.S. market for Spanish books in my last column. For the next two weeks, we'll hear from booksellers, and we welcome you to join the conversation.

"A few years ago, we decided to actively solicit a Spanish-speaking customer base," said Catherine Weller, retail operations manager for Sam Weller's Bookstore, Salt Lake City, Utah. "In order to do so, we created the Rincon de Libros. The concept was a store within our store that would serve the various needs of Utah's large and diverse Spanish-speaking population. We have had mixed results. The most important element in our success, or lack thereof, has been the employment of a Spanish-speaking manager with roots and connections to one or more of the groups that make up the Hispanic population here. The keyword for success, as far as I can tell, is 'community.' The managers we've had that reach out to the community with specific proposals or ideas have sold far more books than the more passive manager we employed."

To forge community bonds, the bookstore has worked with non-profit organizations and libraries. "We are just beginning to connect with the Spanish language coordinator for the Utah State Library System," said Weller. "This is very exciting for us because it could help us reach the populations of the entire state."

A volunteer group meets weekly in the Rincon de Libros and teaches English-language skills to Spanish speakers. "I can't say the classes have resulted in a huge number of sales," Weller said. "But sales have been made and it gets our name out in the Spanish-speaking community. The icing on the cake is that we're providing space for a much needed service."

A different sort of outreach is offered by Politics & Prose Bookstore, Washington, D.C. Head buyer Mark LaFramboise said the store created a "Books in Spanish" section about three years ago. "It's mostly the usual suspects: Garcia Marquez, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa and a few books on topics which seem relevant to the Latino community, like books by Jorge Ramos and Clemente by David Maraniss. The section does so-so. We've brought in books from foreign publishers like Alfaguara, but mostly the section is comprised of books from Vintage Espanol, Rayo and Atria."

During that same period, Politics and Prose separated books in Spanish from the rest of its inventory and started a Spanish book reading club. "This month they're reading Carlos Fuentes's Todas las Familias Felices," said LaFramboise. "That group has been going strong for a few years now. It's also a helpful resource concerning books to stock for the section. All in all, the group is great, but sales on Spanish books generally have room for improvement."

Dave Weich, director of marketing and development for Powell's Books, Portland, Ore., also felt there was untapped potential for Spanish book sales: "Honestly, we could better serve the market. Several targeted marketing initiatives have been discussed, but we have yet to implement them. As is typically the case, our challenge boils down to resources. In lieu of a hero on staff who's determined to lead the effort, responsibilities generally fall to others (myself included), for whom the priority is secondary to more urgent projects. That said, your query was useful if for no other reason than it made us look at the big picture and recognize the lack of progress we've made since the push in '05."

In 2005, Weich said Powell's significantly expanded its Spanish language inventory. "The experiment was successful: sales increased more than enough to justify a continued presence for more titles. Our bestselling sections within the category are Spanish grammar, audio, and literature. The fact that grammar is our top seller suggests that a significant number of those consumers are not native Spanish speakers."

Catherine Weller said she would like to address certain inconsistencies as well. "I guess that would include our stint with the passive manager. We always had someone in the store who spoke Spanish for those customers who wanted or needed to converse in Spanish. The service was there, but we weren't out selling ourselves. Our stocking is more reactive than I'd like, but our aggressive, active efforts at selecting stock were not as successful. We attempted to create a full store within our store, and so stocked books from art to sex and self-help. Now we stock much more selectively and let our community partners, special orders, and sales be our guides."

Next week, more from booksellers.


Miraida Morales on Spanish Language Books

Shelf Awareness: Wednesday, July 11, 2007

"How can a bookseller recommend works in translation if they are not available? How many publishing houses have editors who are fluent in another language other than English? How many are world-conscious, read a foreign newspaper a week, read works in translation, read foreign media? How many spend considerable time scouting bestseller lists abroad, or spend time making contacts with foreign literary agents, or their own editorial counterparts abroad?"

Miraida Morales, Spanish Language sales representative for Independent Publishers Group, asks great questions. She posed the previous batch to me a couple of years ago, in response to a piece I wrote for Words Without Borders. She continues to ask questions, but this week I get to turn the tables on her.

Could you could give us an overall picture of the U.S. market for Spanish books?

"In a word, growing. It's a great market to watch right now. As the Hispanic and Latino demographic in the U.S. grows, so does the spending power that this community can yield. With increasing spending power, we see increasing demand across all book categories. We also see increasing demand for books in Spanish in bookstores that have not traditionally focused primarily on Spanish books. That's perhaps the strongest indication I see of how large the boom is--the fact that Spanish speakers aren't just going to Spanish language stores to buy their media. They're starting to go to chains, local independents, online stores, and public libraries more and more."

Are there regions of the U.S. where the strength of the market might surprise a casual observer?

"It is far too simplistic to assume that the strongest market for Spanish language books would be simply in L.A. or Miami, for instance. There is a demand for Spanish books everywhere in the nation. I read recently that more and more Hispanic families and individuals move from urban centers into the suburbs every year. This is causing a more even spread of demand for Spanish language across the U.S. than previously. Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Ohio are states I wouldn't have thought were obvious before I started to work with Spanish books in the U.S., although now I consider them completely logical."

What surprises you about the Spanish book sales in the U.S.?

"What keeps surprising me is that even though Spanish continues to be a highly contested and controversial topic in many areas of the U.S., the demand for books in Spanish keeps growing. Every month I see more and more independent bookstores take a gander at selling some Spanish-language titles, and it seems to be working for most of them."

What pleases you?

"I am also pleased to see how savvy the market is getting. Not just the Spanish books market, but the general book-buying market as well. The language barrier was quite a hurdle for many book buyers, but with increased data, communication, and awareness, Spanish language books are available in virtually every bookstore in the U.S. Whether consumers are aware of this availability is another matter entirely. Some stores do a great job of letting their customers know they have Spanish titles available, and others are still working on how to best do that."

What do you see in the future?

"The market and demand for Spanish books in the U.S. will continue to grow. In the near future, I see original works in Spanish more prominently carried in bookstores across the U.S. I think we will also see more translations of Spanish works into English. Take the recent 'discovery' of Roberto Bolaño's work in the U.S., for example. I already see the U.S. English-language readership becoming much more aware of the rich cultural and literary traditions that exist not just in Spain, but in Latin America and the Caribbean as well.

"Also, as more and more bookstores feel the crunch and pressure to differentiate themselves from the competition, I believe some of them will look to expand into other categories, not least of which will be Spanish and Latino books. Before long, more and more stores will feel the need to carry a certain selection of books in Spanish (whether literature, reference, children's books, language acquisition, or self-help) in order to stay competitive in this marketplace. The growth of the Hispanic market in the U.S. is undeniable. Already marketers in the automobile, fast food, apparel, sports, and liquor industries are getting hip to this shift. Bookstores and publishers won't be far behind in catching on to the growing trend and population change."

Next time, a few booksellers will join our conversation


Declaration of 'Bookseller' Independence

Shelf Awareness: Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Oxford English Dictionary informs us the term bookseller was used as early as 1527 ("Higden's Polycron. (title), Imprented..at ye expences of John Reynes bokeseller."); and showed up again, unnervingly, in 1615 ("CROOKE Body of Man 420 He dissected a Bookseller, and found his heart more then halfe rotted away.").

But during a week in which "independence" is a national theme, I'll move forward in time to consider the bookselling life of Henry Knox. According to David McCullough's 1776, Knox was Boston-born (1750) and self-educated. He "became a bookseller, eventually opening his own London Book Store on Cornhill Street, offering 'a large and very elegant assortment' of the latest books and magazines from London. In the notices he placed in the Boston Gazette, the name Henry Knox always appeared in larger type than the name of the store."

In addition to England's finest (McCullough: "Though not especially prosperous, the store became 'a great resort for British officers and Tory ladies.'"), the London Book Store's clientele included troublemakers like John Adams and Nathanael Greene.

A bookseller's life is inevitably compromised by his patrons, and though Knox joined the Boston Grenadier Corps, he also fell in love with one of his customers, Lucy Flucker. He married her in spite of the objections of her Loyalist father, a royal secretary of the province.

Knox became a Revolutionary War hero, playing an instrumental role when he conceived and executed the daring relocation of more than 50 mortars and cannons overland from Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain to Boston, an arduous journey of nearly 300 miles.

What a bookseller.

In honoring Knox's memory this week, we can also consider how easy it is to become defined by our definitions.

What is a bookseller?

A "vendor of books" says the OED. Webster's Third Unabridged suggests "one whose business is dealing in books; esp. the proprietor of a bookstore." The American Heritage Dictionary opts for "one that sells books, especially the owner of a bookstore."

But "proprietor" and "vendor" limit the definition immeasurably. For a book to find its way to readers, it often must be handsold again and again; from author to agent to editor/publisher to marketing/sales to wholesale/retail buyers to wholesale/retail sales reps and, finally, to all those mysterious readers. In the broadest definition of the term, who isn't a bookseller among this group?

On the other hand, is the proprietor of a pharmacy that features a 30-foot aisle of hardcover and paperback books a bookseller? Is a bookstore proprietor who doesn't actively handsell a bookseller? Is a frontline bookseller who doesn't own the bookshop not a bookseller? Is a great book buyer a bookseller? An events coordinator?

A bookseller by any other name . . .

During the busy holiday weekend, I worked four days straight on a bookstore sales floor. There were times when I felt like a bookseller and times when I felt like anything but. There were times when I engaged in intense and productive conversations about books, and times when I directed traffic (history books over here, poetry books there, children's books here, travel there, bathroom back there, etc.).

Through it all, however, I knew I was a bookseller.

In my working life as an editor, a writer, a teacher, a consultant, I am also always, somehow, a bookseller.

A colleague and I were debating recently whether frontline booksellers were in a sales or a service job. We compromised by deciding that it was both, to varying degrees, but one point upon which we agreed is summed up nicely in Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop:

"I am not a dealer in merchandise but a specialist in adjusting the book to the human need. Between ourselves, there is no such thing, abstractly, as a 'good' book. A book is 'good' only when it meets some human hunger or refutes some human error. A book that is good for me would very likely be punk for you. My pleasure is to prescribe books for such patients as drop in here and are willing to tell me their symptoms. Some people have let their reading faculties decay so that all I can do is hold a post mortem on them. But most are still open to treatment. There is no one so grateful as the man to whom you have given just the book his soul needed and he never knew it."

A position to which we all aspire, definitions be damned.

Happy Independence Day, booksellers, whoever you are.