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Sunday
Jun292014

Discuss: Non-Booksellers 'Reinvent the Bookshop'

Outside perspective can be intriguing, if only to spark further conversation. In his 1888 novel Looking Backward, this is what Edward Bellamy imagined retail stores would look like in the year 2000: "All our stores are sample stores, except as to a few classes of articles. The goods, with these exceptions, are all at the great central warehouse of the city, to which they are shipped directly from the producers. We order from the sample and the printed statement of texture, make, and qualities. The orders are sent to the warehouse, and the goods distributed from there."

Last December, in a piece headlined "Are You Ready for the Store of the Future?" Mark Startup of the Retail Council of Canada's MyStore division told Profit magazine: "It's taking large retailers a long time to figure out all this technology. Independents can change the store environment almost on a dime."

Have you ever wondered how someone completely outside the book trade might envision the shape of bookstores to come? The recent media blitz regarding Foyles' shiny new flagship "Bookshop of the Future" in London inspired Intelligent Life, the Economist's culture magazine, to challenge four leading architecture and design practices to "Reinvent the Bookshop."

Gensler, 20.20, Burdifilek and Coffey Architects were each given the same brief: working with a £100,000 (US$169,836) budget, design "a general-interest bookshop, selling fiction, nonfiction and e-books, in store and online, on a typical European high-street site, with two floors of 1,000 square feet each." Check out the full article for complete details, but here's just a sampling from their designs:

tl;dr (short for "too long; didn't read"): At Gensler's bookshop, "you don't have to enter the store to shop from it: the glass facade is a touchscreen that can be tapped on to download e-books from QR codes," Intelligent Life reported. A vending wall swings onto the pavement, offering a changing selection of paperbacks. To save floorspace, there is no checkout counter; payments can be taken instantly by booksellers with a card reader. Gensler's Owain Roberts said they did not focus on fixtures and fittings, which he called "incidental to the activities taking place," because the retail model is changing so fast that "the days when a fit-out would last five years are long gone."

The Art of Storytelling: Jon Lee, 20.20's creative director, agreed: "People won't go into a shop because the ceiling's beautiful. They'll go in because the experience is relevant to their lifestyle. It's what you do in a space that's really important." This "reinvented bookshop" has a café "with a twist: a Yo! Sushi-style conveyor belt delivering short reads and reviews to consume with your coffee" to act as a draw to the back of the shop, Intelligent Life wrote. Mobile "mid-floor units" carry screens to advertise events, as well as books that fit a frequently changed theme. A staircase and tree lure patrons upstairs. All books are displayed face-out, with just one title on the front of a drawer and the rest of the author's work inside.  

ILB (Intelligent Life Books): "If you just concentrate on books, you're rolling the dice," said Burdifilek's creative director Diego Burdi. ILB "is more of a gallery, showcasing particular books alongside related merchandise.... It's like a concierge service: everything in one place. My frustration [at the moment] is that I buy the book, then I have to go to another store to buy the product. It's a luxury to see and touch the product. That's what the Internet doesn't give you." ILB incorporates a glass roof to highlight the selling space upstairs as well as entice customers to the downstairs. A digital kinetic screen on the back wall spans both levels, lighting up at night like a movie screen.

Craftword: "Can you save the bookshop? Is there any point?" asked Phil Coffey of Coffey Architects "cheerfully" (as Intelligent Life described his tone). Believing that digitization will make print books redundant, Coffey said that what can be saved is the cult of the book as a beautiful object. Intelligent Life noted that Craftword "celebrates the arcane arts of printing and bookbinding" and is the "antithesis of an e-book emporium: niche, retro, social, inky, bibulous, but with only a few books to buy off the shelf. The idea is that you make your own, with the help of floating robots--choosing the paper, ink, font, leather, even gold leaf--on antique presses and binders."

"Design on its own will not save the bookshop," Gensler's Owain Roberts observed. "If you leave the model as it is and redecorate, nothing's going to change. The solution needs to be much more fundamental: informed, strategic and daring."

Agree? Disagree? How would you "reinvent the bookshop"? Maybe you already are. --Published by Shelf Awarenesss, Issue #2285.

Sunday
Jun222014

The Siren Song of a Foreseeable Future 

I recognize the symptoms. My annual bout of late spring future shock is an aftereffect of BookExpo America, attacking an immune system thoroughly weakened by conversations regarding the "foreseeable future" of the book world; ritual harvesting of ARCs (books from the future); and enhanced anxiety about a potential Cyborgian literary dystopia (see McSweeney's "The Future of Books," year 2070).

Scalzi and Preston

This year my future shock began even earlier than usual, during a BEA presentation called "Where Near-future Techno-thrillers and Sci-fi Meet." When the conversation turned to "envisioning" things to come, Douglas Preston said it is "impossible to predict the future," and John Scalzi added: "We expected rocket cars and got the Internet and cell phones."

The symptoms returned this week when Amazon unveiled the Fire Phone. After noting its features in her New York Times piece, Claire Cain Miller deftly played the unforeseeable future card: "Amazon must be thinking: What if, say, a contact lens could do all that? The Fire is Amazon's stepping stone to the future, and for now that just happens to be in the form of a phone." 

Scary though it may be, we love to think about the future, even though rocket cars so often turn out to be cell phones. During BEA, Jacob Weisberg of the Slate Group interviewed Walter Isaacson about his upcoming book The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Oct.), which explores the past to explain where the present came from to those of us living now... in a future. My prediction: I will read this book.

"When you and I were first going on the Internet, we probably did it with training wheels," Isaacson said, citing those ubiquitous AOL startup CDs from a couple of decades ago. Cue the nostalgic, infuriating sound of dial-up, a neo-ancient siren song luring us to the Information Superhighway.

Isaacson and Weisberg

Isaacson said the future has traditionally been made by innovators and "the secret of innovation is putting together the right team." Calling his book "a series of lessons in collaboration," he added that the best innovation requires "a diverse set of people working in proximity," where they can bump into each other, work as teams, even "finish each other's sentences.... You need to have that primordial stew that brings people together."

Who leads this team? "If there were one simple answer, we wouldn't have a 500-page book," Isaacson quipped. "Almost every great innovator in this book was somebody who knew how to collaborate." He also emphasized the importance of merging creative with technological: "Joining the liberal arts with technology; that is the great theme of this book."

How does this affect the future of the book business? Isaacson observed that unlike the music and magazine trades, "the publishing industry is quite healthy," and stressed the continuing importance of the organized "team effort" that traditional publishing still represents in nurturing a writer, bringing out the best book possible and getting it to readers.

He utilized an additional team effort while writing The Innovators: "I realized that the Internet was invented for collaborative creativity," so he posted chapters from early drafts on Medium, where the public commented and added margin notes. "I got 18,000 comments," he said. "The good news is a lot of it you can ignore," but many of the contributions, including substantial input from Stewart Brand, improved the final book.

Even that term "final book" may be considered illusory now. Isaacson said he could imagine a "next phase of the publishing industry" in which "we could take this book and say, 'How do we make an enhanced book from that?'... I would like it to be a wikified book in which I get to play curator." He quickly added he saw no conflict between print and electronic books. "I think we've reached the equilibrium," Isaacson observed, adding that when we consider all the things a print book can still do better than a digital one, "it's amazing what a wonderful technology paper is."  

Regarding the Amazon vs. Hachette controversy, he said Amazon "has done a lot of innovation and that's good," but expressed concern that profit appears to be increasingly the motivation for Bezos's moves: "I think he is in danger of losing that sense of putting the customer first.... It's also about the perception that publishing and selling a book is not the same as selling a button-down oxford shirt."

BEA future shock. Weeks later, I'm still slightly dazed, stumbling along in the muddled present, and still no rocket car in sight. Perhaps I'll cede the final words on the subject to an author both Isaacson and I rank among our favorites. From Walker Percy's Lancelot: "To live in the past and future is easy. To live in the present is like threading a needle."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2279.

Sunday
Jun152014

Books, Writers and the Beautiful Game

"I have come to think that soccer lends itself to great writing because it thrives in the imagination, like so much of life. Great writers put themselves into the possibilities of the sport--pondering." --George Vecsey, Eight World Cups: My Journey Through the Beauty and Dark Side of Soccer

The World Cup began yesterday and I must write about it. I don't mean I've been assigned to; I feel compelled. My connection to the beautiful game dates back nearly half a century to when I played in high school and college, as well as in summer leagues on teams that included Italian and Polish marble mill workers. In 1966, our high school coach took a few of us to Yankee Stadium, where we joined nearly 42,000 fans to watch the incomparable Brazilian legend Pelé and his Santos team beat Inter Milan of Italy 4-1 in an exhibition game.

American fans have taken some heat recently for their dubious "soccer snobbery" and "elaborate affectation," but I think my soccer street cred is still intact. I've loyally rooted for England (my team of choice and of ancestral heritage) since they won in 1966, though I never worry about using the terms soccer, game, field or uniform instead of football, match, pitch or kit; and I don't wear a team scarf.

Thus, from my little corner of the world's most popular sport, I offer a decidedly bookish, American take on the beautiful game. Here's what I've noticed lately:

There's a World Cup window display at the Book Nook, Ludlow, Vt.; and Powell's Books, Portland Ore., is having a 30% off sale on soccer titles.

Three Percent's World Cup of Literature is underway, pitting "representative books from all 32 World Cup qualifying countries against one another in a single-elimination tournament."

You can also back your favorite country's writers in the Penguin Cup. On being named to England's team, Fever Pitch author Nick Hornby commented: "My proudest moment in football and literature. I worry about this team, though. I know for a fact that Zadie has no left foot, and I'm worried that Austen won't give me the protection I need if their left winger has pace. Christie is prolific, though."

"For whom did Arthur Conan Doyle play football in the late 1880s?" This was one of the questions in the Guardian's football in fiction quiz.

"What if writing was like World Cup soccer?" asked Merritt Tierce in an Electric Literature piece headlined "Writers' World Cup."

"The run-up to every World Cup in recent memory has brought a deluge of books," the New York Times noted. "What began as a trickle after the new year has grown to the point where bookcases are groaning under the weight."

BBC offered a "book lover's guide to Brazil," featuring some of the host country's "eloquent and original literary voices."

In writing about Alex Bellos's revised and updated edition of Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life, Jon Michaud in the New Yorker noted that an entire chapter is devoted to Aldyr Garcia Schlee, the designer of Brazil's signature uniform who "went on to become a journalist, university professor and novelist."

Ah, England. British player Frank Lampard, who has written several Frankie's Magic Football children's books, was asked whether he would write another one if England wins. "I have already written Frankie and the World Cup Carnival, but I would be happy to write another one IF we actually won it!"

Reality check: The Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago linked to an Economist article recommending three new books about the host country and pointing out that "holding the World Cup in Brazil, football's spiritual home, sparked many fantasies of samba-infused spectacle. Those illusions were shattered last June when protests swept across the country during a warm-up tournament; a year on the discontent still simmers."  

Writing for ESPN FC, Nick Hornby observed that the "smell of money around this World Cup is more unpleasant and more distracting than it has ever been.... Perhaps we are foolish, naive and self-deluding, those of us for whom the World Cup is an event that results in the glorious suspension of ordinary life for the best part of a month... But in an odd sort of way, everything that is so despicable about the contemporary game is a tribute to its power and continuing appeal."

Why did I feel compelled to add my thoughts to the World Cup frenzy? Maybe it's as simple as the recollection of a precise moment during the Summer of Love in 1967, and the sound of the ball when I caught it just right with my instep on a corner kick and sent it arcing toward the crowded goal area, as if tossing chum into a pool of sharks. One of my teammates executed a perfectly timed leap above the roiling surface to meet the ball, and just a flick of his head sent it to the upper right corner of the goal, beyond the outstretched arms of a desperate keeper. Then the celebration erupted with almost unbridled joy and (for just an instant, in Hornby's "odd sort of way") with love... for the beautiful game. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2274.

Sunday
Jun082014

#BEA14: Translating Great Reads for More Readers

I'm not sure when it first occurred to me that I was hooked. Perhaps on Friday, as I saw a line of people gathering at the Melville House Books booth to meet Mariusz Szczygiel and get a signed copy of Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones). Or maybe it was Wednesday, during the panel "Case Studies: Successful Insight from Translators and Editors," when moderator Esther Allen cited a 2003 New York Times article headlined "America Yawns at Foreign Fiction." She then pointed out that Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle: Book Three (translated by Don Bartlett), was the featured review in that day's edition of the Times.

"There's been a big change in the last 10 years," Allen said. Panelist and Penguin editor John Siciliano added that Entertainment Weekly had recently featured two stories on Swiss author Joël Dicker's The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (translated by Sam Taylor). "That was just astonishing to me."

Probably it was both of these moments, and many more, that drew me again and again to BookExpo America's Global Market Forum: Books in Translation events. What I loved about this year's program was that discussions weren't limited to: "What can we do?" They often focused on: "What do we do next and better?" And while Americans may not be reading enough books in translation (though I only heard the old 3% figure a couple of times, which is a record), they appear to be reading more each year.

"It's definitely a different time. It's kind of eerie," said translator Anthony Shugaar, who noted there is still a resistance to stories that do not fit preconceived notions of a country or culture. "It's definitely a huge change, but it's amazing how much baggage we're still carrying along."

Maria Campbell, owner of an international literary scouting agency, praised foreign publishers for becoming savvier: "How international books are presented to the American market has gotten better.... I think that the actual mechanisms have improved dramatically." She also said "publishers and readers are more adventurous" in seeking out fiction. "I sense even more since 2008... the financial crisis here was the beginning of 'let's look around and see what's out there.' " She added that 9/11 played an early role, as did websites like Words Without Borders.

"We also need a greater recognition of translators," Campbell noted. In fact, translators were at the forefront of many discussions. "It's not about the words; it's about what you get from the words," said Shugaar. Marcos Giralt Torrente, author of The End of Love (translated by Katherine Silver), said authors "need time for writing. We need time to find the right word. Maybe hours, maybe days.... We need translators who have time, too. They need to be paid... You can be poorly translated by a good translator who doesn't have time.... I feel very lucky because I've worked with three stars of translation.... What you ask of a translator is to recognize your own voice. I could recognize my voice. None of them betrayed my voice. None of them betrayed my style."

Editor Sal Robinson, translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones and author Mariusz Szczygiel with publishers Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians at Melville House booth

"Making Translation Work: The Author, the Translator & the Editor" featured panelists representing two publishers--Melville House, with translator Lloyd-Jones, editor Sal Robinson and author Szczygiel; and Europa Editions, with publisher Michael Reynolds and Marco Malvaldi, author of Three Card Monte and Game for Five (translated by Howard Curtis).

Lloyd-Jones offered a step-by-step explanation of how she puts together a presentation folder and said: "I've seen a lot of change in my career." Noting that she began when translators names were often not even included on a book, she spoke of the "professionalization of translators" and efforts to improve the business by translators themselves. "We have some good organizations.... I'm now mentoring younger translators in Britain."

Robinson observed that, "as an editor, you're a reader first. You ask yourself, Is this something I would pick up?" She also noted that translated genre fiction can have certain advantages when reaching out to an English-speaking readership: "Crime novels can sometimes tell you something about a society you can't get in another novel."

"Discoverability is the real challenge for the industry at the moment," said Reynolds, adding that a translated work "is very complex and takes a lot of effort and a lot of energy. So you have to choose the right author.... If there is an obstacle, it may be in the publishing industry itself rather than among readers."
 
Malvaldi noted that "something common in the country where you write can be new and uncommon in the country where it is published," a point Ann Goldstein, translator and member of the New Yorker's editorial staff, explored later in her presentation "How to Edit a Translation." For an editor, one of the key tasks is to consider obscure or unfamiliar references and decide how much help a reader needs, since translators would naturally be more familiar with the nuances of a particular language and culture. "The main thing is that you're dealing with two authors. The translator is also an author," she said.

"It's an immersion into another culture and a reading of signifiers," translator Allison Markin Powell, founder of the website Japanese Literature in English, told BEA's Books in Translation program coordinator Ruediger Wischenbart during the final event of the show. "I do try to gear toward a general reader.... I work within trade publishing. I'm looking for work an American audience might want to read."

And that, as it happens, is what we all had in common at Global Forum: the search for our next great read.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2269.

Sunday
May252014

Walking the Walk at #BEA14

"I'm walkin' here! I'm walkin' here!" --Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) in Midnight Cowboy

Next week, those of us attending BookExpo America will become temporary commuters in a city that recently garnered exceptional marks for public transit and walking. According to 24/7 Wall Street, New York City, "where more than 10% of residents walked to work, had a Walk Score of 87.6, the highest in the nation."

We aren't required to hoof it out to the convention and back each day, thanks to the numerous Big Apple transport choices, including BEA shuttle buses, taxis and mass transit (though the still-truncated 7 train subway line and the often jam-packed, unpredictable 34th St. crosstown bus are barely useful). However we choose to get there, we most definitely will be walking while attending the show. And walking. And walking.

If you've observed BEA attendees before in their unnatural habitat (aka the Javits Center), you may have noticed a wide range of of walking styles negotiating their way through the bookish throngs. Since Sibley hasn't yet published a field guide to identify all of these varieties, I tried to assemble a sampling here to illustrate just a few of the walkers you're likely to encounter--or become--during your #BEA14 pilgrimage:

Stampeders: This can happen any time the herd is spooked by news of a celebrity booth signing or hot galley giveaway, but it is most pronounced during the opening moments of the show when the crowd speedwalks en masse from the first Book & Author Breakfast at the Special Events Hall to the main Exhibit Hall upstairs. Beware the frenzied escalator climber!

Salmon: It is one of nature's miracles, and actually quite inspiring, to witness the instinctive determination with which a person will sometimes attempt to walk against the prevailing current in an overcrowded publisher's aisle.

Broken Field Runners: Like football running backs, they dart left and right, move quickly to any open space, sometimes lower a shoulder and plunge through the onrushing line, always focused on the goal, however imperceptible and unimportant that may seem to those left reeling in their wake. Note: Tackling is now discouraged by show organizers.

Striders: They mean business. They move neither left nor right, but assume anyone in their path will step aside, and always keep their eyes trained upon something or someone really, really important waiting out there on the horizon. They are on a critical mission and you, my friend, are not part of it.

Grazers: In bookstores we call them browsers, but at BEA, grazing is perhaps a more appropriate designation for those who stroll casually from booth to booth, sampling the wares as if plucking leaves from trees.

Statues: If an object in motion tends to stay in motion, BEA walkers at rest tend to stay at rest, especially if they have rooted themselves to a spot directly in the line of traffic flow. They appear to be frozen mid-step, about to walk on, and yet... they don't, completely oblivious to the cresting waves of irritated colleagues breaking around them.

Predators & Prey: If you observe closely, you can often predict when an unwary attendee walking past a booth is about to be captured by the exhibitor. A similar drama develops when an attendee stalks a booth, waiting for just the right moment to corner a particular exhibitor who's been chatting with one person after another.

Hunters & Gatherers: Their walk is distinguished by a steady pace and a kind of sixth sense for where the best stuff--ARCs and pens and posters and bookmarks and more--is being distributed at any given moment. They are also exceptionally patient, willing to wait in seemingly endless lines at booth signings.

Pack Horses: Sooner or later, this is the fate for many of us, as we trudge back to our hotels laden with colorful, even sparkly, ARC-filled tote bags that belie the pain of our aching arms and shoulders.

Cattle: Well, you've seen BEA's Autographing Area. Wait, shuffle, wait, shuffle, wait.

Saunterers: You don't encounter them often, but when you do, they are sight to behold. To stroll at BEA is to go completely against the grain. They seem to be unaffected by the madness around them. You wonder why they are there at all, and sometimes, however briefly, you envy their calm detachment.

The Walking Dead: Best observed on the final afternoon of BEA, waiting for shuttle buses back to their hotels.

Soon we'll all be walkin' the BEA walk, but make sure to reserve a little extra time and shoe leather to explore the not-so-mean streets beyond the Javits Center. "If it's a beautiful day, I love taking walks," said quintessential New Yorker Pete Hamill: "The walks are always aimless." Sound advice. --Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2258.

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