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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


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:

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)."

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


#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


'Tis the Season for Holiday Bookselling

Surviving Christmas in bookshops boils down to a few simple factors: books, customers, staff, booze and gift-wrap. If one can find the magical alchemy of those five factors, seasonal balance is achieved and Santa rains gifts of splendor, leaving behind a fine whiff of health and happiness. Which is important, because January is hangover country. --Booksellers NZ in an article headlined "Surviving Santa"

In 1962, the New York Times noted that Scribner's Bookstore in New York City started its holiday season "in early November, by sending out a catalogue to some 40,000 regular customers. By mid-November, the Gift Table is set up--art books, cook books, indeed books from archaeology to zoology.... Igor Kropotkin, the manager of the store and president of the American Booksellers Association, says that Christmas trade accounts for between 35% and 40% of the year's business."

That number might still ring a silver bell or two for many booksellers, who annually seek creative ways to attract customers, boost sales, build community and, well, celebrate this high stakes retail season. I've been doing a little online window shopping recently, exploring local news coverage, social media posts and e-mail newsletters for indie bookseller holiday treats. Here's a sampling of what I've found thus far:

Last night, author Allan Gurganus performed his holiday story, "A Fool for Christmas," at the Regulator Bookshop, Durham, N.C.: "If you, like me, have been having a hard time getting into the holiday spirit this year, given the grim goings on in the world, Allan's heartwarming tale will bring us just the tonic we need."

Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in New York City will present What the Dickens?: Sixth Annual A Christmas Carol Marathon tomorrow. Sponsored by Penguin Classics, the event features "dozens of terrific writers and performers" reading the classic holiday story. "Drop in early and often to catch a few surprise performers or linger through the afternoon for the whole, spirited tale."

Also tomorrow, Battenkill Books in Cambridge, N.Y., is hosting a Christmas Cookie Contest, judged by Ellen Stimson, author of An Old-Fashioned Christmas: Sweet Traditions for Hearth & Home.

Photo Ops

Media Coverage
"For a curious and intelligent person, what could be better than a Literary Concierge?" Nicole Magistro, owner of the Bookworm of Edwards, asked Vail Daily in a piece on holiday gift giving and the success of the bookseller's Literary Concierge services Give 15 for kids and Trust Me, You'll Love It for adults. "These gifts were mostly from grandparents to their far-flung families. But we soon realized there were plenty of other folks who wanted this kind of personal and regular recommendation."

Describing Bethlehem, Pa., as "a perfect place to visit during the holiday season," the Burlington County Times recommended a stop at the Moravian Bookshop, which "just happens to be the oldest bookshop in the country. Established in 1745, the shop has a full-service book department, a large Christmas and home goods section, a gift shop and cafe."

Holiday display at Fact & Fiction (photo: Tom Bauer/Missoulian)

Last weekend, downtown Missoula, Mont., held its annual Parade of Lights and the Missoulian featured a photo of the window display at Fact and Fiction Books, which highlights a brilliantly conceived paper snowman/author hard at work typing the great American winter novel with his tree branch arms.

I opened this brief peek at holiday bookselling with some words of wisdom from Booksellers NZ. As it happens, the same article also concludes with a useful dose of perspective for the season: "There is vast experience and kindness out there in bookshop-land, those who court success in this trade of ours work hard to find that magical alchemy of stock, staff and customers, understanding that it all links together to form a profitable and joyous union that makes the quiet closing of the doors at the end of the day on the twenty-forth of December, and the sigh that follows, deeply satisfying." --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2652


How a Great Book Found Me at #NEIBA2015

"The American landscape is palimpsest. Layers upon layers of names and meanings lie beneath the official surface.... Yes, I am palimpsest, too, a place made over but trying to trace back." --Lauret Savoy, Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American Landscape

Sometimes a book finds me. I know you have your own tales to tell, but occasionally I like to share the path by which a particularly fine work made its way into my hands and, subsequently, my life.

Joan Grenier

This story begins in October during the author reception at the New England Independent Booksellers Association's Fall Conference. Since I've spent a substantial part of my life passionately handselling books, I was prepared for the moment when Joan Grenier, owner of the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Mass., stopped me and said, "I want you to meet someone." That was how I was introduced to Lauret Savoy, author of Trace (Counterpoint), which has become one of my favorite reads of the year.

As we booksellers like to say: You've got to read this book! Grenier recently, and eloquently, summed up why: "The writing is poetic and thoughtful. Lauret interweaves her family history, American history and landscape in a manner I don't think I have ever seen done before. She is a mixed race woman and professor of geology and environmental studies. Her search for her ancestors leads her to many landscapes, including the borderlands of the southwest, the Grand Canyon, Washington D.C., and her birthplace in California. Inevitably the role of race in American history is part of her family's history. She details the inaccuracies, silences and omissions throughout American history, including the Black Codes in Washington D.C. and South Carolina, land grabs from Mexico and Native peoples, and the disappearance of African American towns. This is an important book as we struggle to understand and overcome the wrongs of history and the impact on our current lives."

She also called Trace "a perfect indie book. It was an Indie Next selection and booksellers from Rhode Island to California and Washington have sung its praises. I have certainly been engaging with our customers about this book. We included Trace in our holiday newsletter and have it displayed in several locations throughout our store."

Savoy, who teaches at Mount Holyoke College, told me she wanted her book "to cross boundaries" by exploring "how human experience and the history of the land itself have, in fragmented tellings, artificially pulled apart what cannot be disentangled: nature and 'race.' Above all, my hope is that Trace trespasses and re-members, making connections often unrecognized, such as the siting of the nation's capital and the economic motives of slavery. None of these links is coincidental. Few appear in public history. All touch us."

A bookstore aficionado from an early age, Savoy recalled: "As soon as books replaced toys as my main interests, when I was about nine years old, bookstores became havens. We had moved from California to Washington, D.C., before then and the western lands I considered home needed to be replaced in some way (even though they could never be replaced). What seemed available were eastern lands and their history. Family visits to bookstores like Brentano's felt like treasure hunts. And most times I did find treasure, whether in books on the Civil War, regional natural history or American literature. I remember hoping that the worlds of ideas held on the shelves could somehow offset disturbing media images and troubling school lessons."

She visited the Odyssey Bookshop during her first week at Mount Holyoke College: "It became another type of refuge, and Joan became a friend and supporter. Not only were books a source of ideas and inspiration, but so too were the writers themselves who came to do readings. Terry Tempest Williams, for example, spoke with me long into the night after a reading on her tour for An Unspoken Hunger. That was 1994.  

photo: Emily Crowe

"I felt that, at the Odyssey, I had joined a community of readers and writers, out-of-the box thinkers. And I began to feel a necessary push. I struggled for many years to write Trace, throwing away first, second, third, fourth attempts because I didn't trust my voice or the value of what I was trying to do. Visits to the bookshop began have a painful sharpness. I feared that, unlike every author whose work filled the shelves, I would never 'be a writer.' Yes, my name is on other books, but one is more academic and two others are edited collections. What mattered was that I stop silencing and sabotaging myself. So I finally promised to stop throwing away my words. Joan was a sounding board all along the way."

She added: "And you know firsthand how supportive she was at the recent NEIBA gathering in Providence, a one-woman dynamo!" That I do.

Last month, Savoy's reading at Odyssey "was standing room only with colleagues, students and customers excited to be present," said Grenier. "Lauret gave a powerful reading and during the q&a we learned that Lauret's journey to explore this land and her family will continue with several other possible books. People are still talking about the reading and how wonderful the evening was."

I wish I'd been there, but I'm thankful that Trace found me. Sometimes great reads do that. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2647

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