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Was Black Friday a Bookselling Myth?

Maybe I imagined all of it, like Dorothy waking up in Kansas again and telling her hick relatives they had all just been with her in Oz--And you, and you, and you and you were there! Still, the memories are strong. In the 1990s, when I first started working as a bookseller, Black Friday seemed a very big deal indeed. Even as late as 2004, I opened a blog post with: "Is anybody ever ready for Black Friday. Ready is not the word. It's more a kind of constructive paranoia--generously mixed with terror--that propels us to take every precaution we can think of to insure success."

Was Black Friday just a bookselling myth I perpetuated in my imagination? It's a bit irrelevant now, of course, since the Thanksgiving retail weekend stretches out to Cyber Monday, with Small Business Saturday tucked neatly within (not to mention Barnes & Noble's recently hatched Discovery Friday).

Even the Thursday holiday itself is now an endangered, shopping-free species. "Every year, [Black Friday] infringes more and more on the holiday," retail analyst Walter F. Loeb told the New York Times this week. Referring to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, he added, "Next year, I could visualize Santa Claus, instead of riding past Macy's into oblivion on 34th Street, he'll actually go into the store, and lead customers in."

I checked with several veteran booksellers this week about their ancient Black Friday memories, which prompted doubts regarding mine. I'll be sharing some of their observations over the next couple of weeks, and welcome yours as well.

"Black Friday was never our busiest day," said Steve Bercu of BookPeople, Austin, Tex. "Our busiest day has been the Saturday before Christmas for many years though it changes a little when Christmas comes on a Friday. Basically the week before Christmas is our busiest however it is configured. I have been pleased to see how much Small Business Saturday has taken off. It has become the focus of the conversation around here instead of Black Friday."

Catherine Weller of Weller Book Works in Salt Lake City noted that "Black Friday's significance has diminished. That said, according to my mother-in-law, it never was our biggest day, nor was it a make or break day for us. It was, however, a more impressive day than it is now. I can't say exactly when that changed but it was prior to the millennium."

Weller added that this was "probably due to the decline of the downtown area in which we were located, which started far earlier. By the 2000s, Main Street Salt Lake City wasn't really a shopping destination. Black Friday was also the day by which all holiday displays needed to be in place and most of the stock needed to be in and received, except for those late releasing titles. Because of that the stress leading up to Black Friday was often as great or greater than Black Friday itself. Currently it's a nicely busy day, nothing to shout about. Small Business Saturday is growing for us. CyberMonday does bring a notable uptick in e-commerce orders, though we typically have bigger e-commerce days the second week of December."

At Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, Ariz., Gayle Shanks recalled that "in the 40 holiday seasons I've lived through, Black Friday has never been a huge shopping day for book buyers. What we find is that the die-hard shoppers who want to wake up in the middle of the night or stand in line for TV sets are not our customers for the most part. Friday morning is historically slow for us, but by noon the store starts filling up with people.

"Anecdotally, some customers say they have no idea why they thought of shopping anyplace else; or why they even thought they wanted to go to the mall; or 'Thank God, I've found a haven outside of the mall,' etc. As far as our busiest day, no, far from it. We put gift cards on sale for 10% off and sell lots of those on Black Friday. It's a good day, just not anything like Small Business Saturday or the two weeks before Christmas."

John Evans of DIESEL, A Bookstore in Oakland, Calif., agreed: "Black Friday has never been a significant day in terms of sales. It has always been a significant day in another respect however: people showing off the store to their families over Thanksgiving weekend. Customers bring by their family and say: 'This is a great bookstore.' 'This is our local bookstore--I love it!' 'Check this great bookstore--we shop here all the time.' And so we meet the extended families of our customers.

"But, in general, this is a post-Thanksgiving stroll day, not a bust-down-the-doors consumer frenzy. People have often commented about how relieved they are to not be at the malls on Black Friday, and to just be enjoying the usually warm weather and holiday ease of strolling up the street and stopping in their favorite stores with their families."

More from indie booksellers on the (or my) Black Friday myth next week. As always, your recollections and observations are welcome, too. Maybe, just maybe, someone can confirm that I wasn't imagining everything. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2129.


How Books Find Me: Small Press Edition

Books find me. Every season offers new adventures for any reader, but perhaps even more so for those of us who are lucky enough to ply the book trade. I know you have your own tales to tell, but here are three stories illustrating how small press books sometimes find me.

The Reader
In August, publicist and marketing consultant Mary Bisbee-Beek let me know that one of her clients, Lindsay Hill, would be visiting Saratoga Springs, where I live. She also offered to send me an ARC of his upcoming novel, Sea of Hooks (McPherson & Co.). The book arrived and I devoured it. Sea of Hooks immediately became one of my favorite reads of the year.

When I met Hill for coffee a few weeks later, we had a long conversation about writing and books and publishing and life. I was intrigued by his novel's structure, which builds subtly and brilliantly in brief sections. Like this one:

The puzzle is the game where something shattered comes back together through your hands, and isn't it really the puzzle itself that decides? Isn't it the puzzle that gets to say which piece fits with which?

"This is really the story of the book; the essence of what the editing process was for me," Hill recalled. "The 5,000-plus titled 'sections' had, within them, a finished 'picture puzzle.' The job was to find the ones (ultimately 1,000-plus) that fit together and that made a coherent whole. This took many years, even before I submitted the manuscript to Bruce McPherson. Bruce was of tremendous help in further refining and adjusting the narrative frame to include what was needed and discard what was not. We also had important conversations about the book's ending. Throughout, the demands of 'the puzzle' guided me. It was a joyful creative process, and Bruce's involvement made it even more so."

The Writer
I met Robert Sullivan, an executive editor at Life Books, in 2006 at an author event for his book Our Red Sox: A Story of Family, Friends, and Fenway. Seven years later, our paths crossed again when he wrote to tell me about a new and very personal project he was working on with illustrator Glenn Wolff, titled A Child's Christmas in New England (Bunker Hill Publishing). Sullivan has blogged about the genesis of this book.

We also discussed it recently over lunch in Providence, R.I., during NEIBA's fall conference. I was particularly intrigued by the unusual, almost unintentional, path this book took to print. After initially sharing the story with family members "because only they could tell me if I had got it right," he sent it to other New England friends. Gradually the question came back to him: "Is this a book?" Sullivan's initial response: "I said I didn't think of it that way." But after several more conversations and publisher recommendations, a copy was sent to Bunker Hill Press, where managing director Carole Kitchel Bellew responded enthusiastically and "almost immediately we made plans to publish."

While considering illustrations, Sullivan wondered if he could reunite with Wolff. They had previously teamed for Flight of the Reindeer and Atlantis Rising. "I knew he could elevate the book," Sullivan recalled. "I also knew we were dealing with a small publisher--not the case with the earlier collaborations--and it would be foolhardy for him to take it on for upfront money. But he read it and wanted to do it, and did it splendidly. We both have had fun already.... It is, finally, the thing I had in mind for the kids. That others might now read it seems a little funny, but I do hope they enjoy it."

The Publisher
Sometimes it's just an unexpected conversation that helps books find me. A couple of years ago at the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association trade show in St. Paul, Minn., I had a long conversation about the challenges and rewards of small press publishing with Steve Semken of Ice Cube Press, based in North Liberty, Iowa.

In an era when anyone can hang a shingle declaring themselves an independent publisher, it's important to recognize and congratulate Ice Cube Press, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

Semken recalled that in the beginning the role of publisher "latched on, I think, because deep down, I cared about writing." Two decades later, despite the dizzying array of changes the book trade has experienced, he still has faith in the traditional approach: "In this day and age of the doom and gloom of the book industry, I feel pretty lucky to be around and still doing well.... To me, publishing is a storytelling business, and the human race will always be addicted to stories."

And where are those stories to be found? Often, in the world of indie bookstores and publishers. "I consider my press a natural partner with independent booksellers," Semken noted. "We're both in pursuit of sharing unique writing with passionate readers."

It's nice to work in a world where books find me.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2124.


You Oughta Be in Pictures... & Books

As the unofficial movie/TV news correspondent at Shelf Awareness, I spend an unhealthy amount of time scanning "the trades" (Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly, Deadline.com, etc.) for bookish showbiz tidbits. This may explain why I'm particularly aware of new books by writers with screen credentials. For example, this week saw the release of S. by J.J. Abrams (Lost) and Doug Dorst; as well as Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections and Other Obsessions by del Toro and Marc Zicree.

I noticed the screen/page connection often during my fall regional bookseller trade show pilgrimage, beginning at SIBA in New Orleans with an appearance by George Pelecanos (The Double)--whose impressive TV credits include The Wire, The Pacific and Treme--during the Southern Life Lunch. 

Walter Jury, Julie Schoerke of JKS Communications and S.E. Fine

There was also a screen-related mystery afoot at SIBA. The book signing for Scan, an upcoming YA novel, featured co-authors Walter Jury and S.E. Fine. At the time, the pseudonymous Jury was not revealing his true identity, but last Thursday the Hollywood Reporter wrote that he is Pouya Shahbazian, "the rep behind New Leaf Literary and Media and a producer on the upcoming YA adaptation Divergent.... He focuses on book-to-film adaptations and has set up numerous projects around town," among them Shadow & Bone and Runner.

Shahbazian told THR he used a pen name because he "wanted to take a stab at it without anyone knowing it was me.... I'm going to be focused on my day job. I love my day job, but I do like the idea of creating something that can be translatable to film and television."

Jeffrey Stepakoff reading at SIBA's Parapalooza event

Translatability is a key factor when writers shift from screen to book. At the SIBA show, I also met Jeffrey Stepakoff, whose latest novel, The Melody of Secrets, has just been published. Stepakoff's screenwriting credits include The Wonder Years, Sisters and Dawson's Creek, for which he was co-executive producer. I asked him about working in the different forms.

"In some ways, for me at least, developing a novel is very similar to the process of developing an original screenplay or television pilot," Stepakoff said. "In both fiction and screen/scriptwriting, you begin by fleshing out the characters while simultaneously designing the structure. I use the exact same three-act structure for a novel that I use for a screenplay. (TV shows today are five acts.) For fiction I also use the same story construction that I use on a dry erase board in an episodic television story room--opening with an inciting incident (or hook), a series of rising complications, all driving to an inevitable but unexpected climax."

He noted that the difference between the two "lies in the rendering. That is, a television script or a screenplay is really a story map, one which is of course later realized by actors, directors, lighting designers, etc. Whereas a novel is rendered only with language. In many ways, storytelling with fiction is much more challenging. But, there is one thing that fiction does remarkably better than television and cinema. A character in a novel can bring a reader into his or her head, into thoughts and feelings, in a way that actors cannot. Film and television writers must, at the end of the day, rely on actors to impart the fine points of story. As a novelist, I am the actor, and the director, and the lighting designer, as well as the writer."

D.J. MacHale

So how, you may wonder, does a writer for the screen become a writer of books? At the NEIBA fall conference, D.J. MacHale, author of the 10-volume Pendragon series and most recently of SYLO, helpfully shared his own eight-step strategy. MacHale has created numerous successful movies and TV series, including Nickelodeon's Are You Afraid of the Dark and HBO's Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective. In his amusing presentation, he advised:

  1. Avoid writing like the plague. (In school, he would spend weeks making a short film rather than a couple of hours writing a paper.)
  2. Prepare for the real world. (aka unemployment)
  3. Find your "waiter's job." (MacHale made industrial/corporate films, learning "how to take a vast volume of boring information and narrow it down.")
  4. Have an epiphany. (An epiphany is "you're doing something wrong," he said, adding his came when a friend advised him to write screenplays for children's programs.)
  5. Win awards... or at least get nominated.
  6. Be sure one of your shows has book spinoffs. (His Are You Afraid of the Dark series paralleled the success of the Goosebumps books)
  7. Write a book. (or at least a half-baked proposal)

"I hesitate to give you the eighth step," MacHale warned before revealing his ultimate strategy: "Find an author you like, or even one that you don't like. Hunt them down and hound them until they give up the named of their agent and/or editor."

While admitting that his advice was meant to be used for recreational purposes only, he concluded: "One thing that is not tongue-in-cheek is I love to tell stories." And that, it would appear, is the common thread between writing for screen or printed page.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2119.


Striking a Fun & Profitable Bargain with Remainders

I caught the bargain book fever during the late 1990s and loved the challenge of snap decisions based upon experience and instinct, as well as the biblio-highwire act of purchasing, in large quantities, nonreturnable books. I was a remainder/bargain book buyer for about six years and regularly bought from sales reps at the store or CIROBE and BEA (often in hotel suites before both shows); on wholesaler warehouse road trips; and, eventually, online. I merchandised my little heart out on the sales floor, monkeyed with pricing and watched monthly sales numbers like a bookie toting up wagers and calculating odds.  

All of this was spinning through my mind when I attended the "Remainders and Bargain Books for Fun & Profit" education session at the NEIBA fall conference recently. The panel, which was moderated by Vicky Titcomb of Titcomb's Bookshop, East Sandwich, Mass., featured independent sales rep Ben Archer, whose blog--Ben Archer Books--covers the bargain world; Alie Hess of Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, Mass.; and Henry Zook of BookCourt, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Vicky Titcomb, Alie Hess, Henry Zook, Ben Archer

"There's money to be made in remainders," said Titcomb, who admitted she took on the category reluctantly in 2012: "Our used books had slowed down and I gave the space to remainders. I'm the one who's here to say you can do this and it's huge fun." As with any store inventory, however, curating well is the key. "We only sell books because we're proud of them," she said. "If they're good books, they're going to sell."

Zook concurred, noting that while BookCourt did not originally sell remainders, the store began featuring them a few years ago and now he considers bargain books "a wonderful, fun part of the business." He still does the remainder buying himself. "One of the things that's enjoyable is that you don't know what you're going to see."

On the sales floor, BookCourt integrates remainders with new stock. "We find this works really well," Zook said. He also offered specific pointers: "It's a lot easier to sell remainders under $10 than over $10.... Any bookstore would do well with regional titles." When pricing books, "we assume that we're paying at least $1 freight per unit" and work that into the total retail cost, which can be easily manipulated: "There's a lot of freedom out there.... Don't sweat the shipping. Order what you need in the quantities you need."

How remainder stock is acquired was on everyone's mind and opinions varied. "I don't buy a lot of my remainders on the Web. I like to see what I'm buying," Zook said, recommending wholesaler warehouse visits in particular. "Each indie store is different. It's a great opportunity to find things there specifically for your store."

At Brookline Booksmith, the online option rules. "I spent a year or two buying without the Internet," said Hess. "I don't think I buy anything anymore that's not on a website." Bargain books account for about 10% the bookstore's annual sales, and are a regularly featured section in their weekly b-mail e-newsletter. "We have, at any given time of the year, four to eight remainder tables in different parts of the store," noted Hess, who is a frontlist and backlist buyer. "Remainder buying comes third, but it's awesome; so much fun.... Children's remainders are huge, if you can get the right stuff. I have to be very careful." She cited picture and activity books as particularly good performers.

Hess noted that location can be critical with bargain books. "A few years ago, it was decided to move them downstairs with used books," she recalled. The result was "devastating" and the stock was returned to its original location. "When they were gone, I think remainder customers stopped coming," she said. "It took a couple of years to get it back."

Archer, who started buying remainders more than 30 years ago for the Strand bookstore in New York City ("I was the first independent buyer that Fred Bass allowed to buy remainders."), now reps for several wholesalers. At the NEIBA panel, he began by saying he wanted to address in particular the "people who haven't got into bargain yet" and encourage them to do so.

He also offered some recommendations based upon his experience as a buyer and observations of other stores as a sales rep. Like Zook, Archer believes it is a "good idea to integrate spine-out," but to complement this with face-outs and stacks as well for "more impulse, more visual" sales. Where in the store should you feature remainders? Logic prevails. "If you have different areas that people never go to, don't set up there," he said. "You want to be well-positioned." On the other hand, "if you have a relatively under-performing section, think of making that mostly remainders and bargain to boost sales... then start adding frontlist gradually." As far as the buying itself is concerned, he cautioned against delegating that responsibility too soon: "If you're just starting out, buy yourself. And be sure to track inventory; some stuff runs out quickly, but other books can be reordered."  

Titcomb agreed, noting that her "biggest mistakes are not ordering enough, but I love that mistake." And even though it can be "kind of a scary and overwhelming thing to get into remainders," she compared the buying process to a treasure hunt and advised indie booksellers: "If you're wondering about it, do it."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2114.


Highlighted Passages from a Trip to BookWorld 

Like highlighted passages in our favorite books, there are moments during the annual fall indie bookseller trade show season that we can recall (or, when memory is hazy, find scribbled in our notebooks) to remember the good vibes atmosphere these gatherings naturally engender. Business is business, but for a few heady days each autumn, we're truly living in BookWorld, a magical land (with room service) where every citizen reads and cares deeply about the printed word.

This year, I attended the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance trade show in New Orleans and the New England Independent Booksellers Association fall conference in Providence, R.I. Here are just a few highlighted passages from my journey to BookWorld:

"This is a great group. I just love you guys," said Nathaniel Philbrick in his acceptance speech at the Author Awards dinner, where Bunker Hill was honored with the New England Book Award for Nonfiction. "You don't know how much you mean to me.... Going to your stores; it's like an extended family."

Wendy Hudson (owner of Nantucket Bookworks), Melissa Philbrick, Nathaniel Philbrick and Annie Philbrick (photo: Karl Krueger)

After Annie Philbrick, co-owner of Bank Square Books, Mystic, Conn., and outgoing NEIBA president, presented Wendell and Florence Minor with the President's Award for lifetime achievement, Wendell praised indie booksellers as "the heart and soul of the printed word; and it's coming back like I'd never imagined."

I noted last week that NEIBA director Steve Fischer said he kept running into new bookstore owners at the show. Among them was Katherine Osborne, a longtime Maine bookseller who is now co-owner and buyer at Letterpress Books in Portland, which will open this Monday. I had several conversations with Katherine and her parents, John Paul and Karen Bakshoian, who have teamed up to establish the family-owned indie. Those discussions became a highlighted passage of their own.

Here's another: "Please listen to your staff," advised Jamie Tan, events director at Brookline Booksmith during the "Trends and Best Practices for Successful Events" panel. Sound advice.

And David Wiesner (Mr. Wuffles!) said, "It is always great to speak to booksellers, the keepers of the flame" at the Author Breakfast on the final day of the NEIBA show.

Meanwhile, in New Orleans: "I am in my heart a bookseller," author Nick Bruel (Bad Kitty School Daze) told his audience during SIBA's Kick Off Lunch. "Up until doing what I do now, I was a bookseller." Recalling the eight years he'd spent at Shakespeare and Co. and seven at Books of Wonder in New York City, Bruel shared what he described as a well-kept industry secret: "There comes this moment in every day when you look at your inventory, all those incredible titles, and you look around just after closing and think, 'Wow, this place would be awesome if not for all those filthy customers who come in every day.' "

Parapalooza at SIBA.

This year's SIBA show marked the debut of Parapalooza, during which the audience could "enjoy a cocktail while authors read, with meaning, feeling, and enthusiasm, a single favorite hand-picked paragraph from their book." I think it's a great concept, putting writers in the position of essentially highlighting passages from their own new works.

Emceed with humor and requisite enthusiasm by Tim Federle (Tequila Mockingbird:  Cocktails with a Literary Twist), the program featured a wide-ranging baker's dozen of alternately serious or funny--but always fascinating--literary voices, including Jesmyn Ward (Men We Reaped), Lisa Patton (Southern as a Second Language), Jeffrey Stepakoff (The Melody of Secrets) and Amalie Howard (Waterfell).

Danny Ellis

Somewhere in the middle of this event, we heard a different kind of voice. When Danny Ellis (The Boy at the Gate) was introduced, the singer-songwriter chose to perform, a cappella, "Tommy Bonner" (here's a 2009 instrumental version). While his memoir recounts a tough Dublin childhood and years he spent at the notorious Artane Industrial School orphanage for boys, his voice--on the page as well as in song--transcends those circumstances with a mischievous tone even as he faces them squarely:

Early Mass that first black Sunday, I'm not praying very hard
Then he sings the most beautiful solo Kyrie and rips my soul apart
And tears that I'd held back for days came pouring down like rain
It wasn't hard to let it all go
When Tommy Bonner sang

In BookWorld, and beyond, words can heal as well as sting, as we know so well. Ellis writes of a lesson from his mother, when he was a kid, on the proper use of a certain F-word: "I learnt a great lesson from Ma that evening. The right words, said properly, in the right place, make all the difference." And, yes, I highlighted that passage as well. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2109.

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