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Read any Good Stories Lately?

May is Short Story Month. As a writer and reader, my love for the short story has been a long-term commitment. I am not the only bookseller, however, who has found that devotion tested on a regular basis by customers on the sales floor.

How long is a short story?

This was one of the first questions I was asked during the late 1990s when I led a six-session discussion group on reading short stories. It was a good question. I wouldn't say we answered it during our time together, but our exploration yielded hints of how great, if not how long, a short story could be. And the group offered me a chance to talk and listen to gifted readers who were also customers of the bookstore where I worked.

We began with resistance to the call of the story. Many group members had taken part at one time or another in a variation of the following conversation on the bookshop's sales floor:

Me: I think you might like Robert Olen Butler's A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. [Stage directions: Show customer book. Mention Pulitzer Prize. Use secret, irresistible handselling techniques.]
Customer: It says stories; I don't read stories. When I read a book, I want to be completely involved with the characters and let them take me away. Stories end too soon.
Me: Not if they're good stories.

They were still willing to show up, however, and our subsequent readings and conversations may even have changed--or tempered--a few of their objections to the form.

Strangely enough, the book I used for the discussion group--You've Got to Read This: Contemporary American Writers Introduce Stories that Held Them in Awe, edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard--became a handselling favorite at the bookstore, selling more than 400 copies before it went out of print.

Butler's collection always sold well, too; as did another Pulitzer winner, Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. A few less publicized collections moved occasionally when a bookseller found the magic words to make a particular title beguiling. It didn't happen enough.

I noticed recently that the current edition of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain no longer includes the word "stories" next to the title on its cover. The original edition did. Here's a confession: When asked, I have often advised authors and publishers to resist the temptation to add "stories" (or worse, "a novel in linked stories") to book jackets because it is such a conversation stopper on the sales floor.

I love good short stories because I love good writing. I'm reading two collections now, and in the car last weekend I listened to Alec Baldwin read Steven Millhauser's "The Dome" (from Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories) on Selected Shorts. It became one of those classic NPR driveway moments.

I even love reading about short story renaissances. I was intrigued by a recent Reuters article (via PC Magazine) about Ether Books, which offers "a catalog of short stories, essays and poetry initially via Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch, by authors including Alexander McCall-Smith and Louis de Bernieres."

"The tech press may be slavering over the iPad, Kindle and Sony eReader as traditional publishers leap over themselves to expand their e-book offerings," Maureen Scott, digital director for the company, told Reuters. "But at Ether Books we've made the decision to go straight to distributing short works via our iPhone app to devices people already own, are familiar with and are happy to use when they have 10-15 minutes to spare."

You often hear the argument that short stories should be more popular now than ever because of the limitations on our reading time. It sounds so logical for something that never seems to come true.

Another Short Story Month is in gear and I keep thinking of questions.

Do writers care more about short stories than non-writing readers do?

And this question from Hansen and Shepard in their anthology's introduction:

Wouldn't it be great, we thought, if there were an anthology based upon the stories that other writers feel passionate about?

It was great. And it was even greater still that talented readers among our customers discovered that passion, too, but I wonder what story collection, if any, they read next.

What is a short story?

"Short stories are fierce, tight, imploding universes where every word matters," said Colum McCann in the National Post.

I like that. So, happy Short Story Month. And one last question: What's your favorite short story collection?

--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1187.


BookExpo 2010: Woooooooo-hooooooo!

In the annals of great opening lines, I reserve a place of honor for Ali Smith's novel Hotel World, which begins with the frenzied description of a chambermaid's fatal plunge down a dumbwaiter shaft:

Woooooooo-hooooooo what a fall what a soar what a plummet what a dash into dark into light what a plunge what a glide thud crash what a drop what a rush what a swoop what a fright what a mad hushed skirl what a smash mush mash-up broke and gashed what a heart in my mouth what an end.

On bad days, the book business can feel that way. Maybe on good days, too. As the countdown to BookExpo America 2010 continues, focus inevitably turns to the future of the book trade. Not that this isn't a daily obsession for most of us, but something about the gathering of the clan engenders heightened awareness, stoked by ABA's Day of Education and the 'Big Ideas at BEA' Conference, as well as serial conversations everywhere we turn during the convention.

I'll be on the lookout for indie booksellers at BEA. I used to be one of them. No, in many ways I'm still one of them. Former booksellers just don't fade away.

In fact, a couple months ago, someone pointed out this customer's post on the Northshire Bookstore's Facebook page: "The first time I ever read a book recommended by a stranger was when I saw 'Bob's' review of The English Patient on one of your blue index cards. This was before the movie came out and before I'd ever heard of the book. To this day I have no idea who Bob is, but I bought the book on the spot, and have read it three times with great affection, admiration, and love. It's almost time for me to read it again. Thank you, Bob, wherever you are!"

Well, here I am, though I like the fact that she didn't know me and associated her experience with the Northshire, which is more valuable long term for her and the bookshop.

At BEA, indie booksellers will face the usual scrutiny about their future viability. It's all too familiar now after years of retail death knells for bricks-and-mortar operations, yet still resistible, we hope. 

The past and the future are always having a conversation of their own at BEA, though it's been going on for a long time. In A History of the Book in America, Vol. 4, James L. West III observed that O.H. Cheney, in his Economic Survey of the Book Industry, 1930–1931, "was particularly acidulous about whimsical, hunch-based publishing, calling it 'I-shot-an-arrow-in-the-air' approach. He described distribution in the United States as haphazard, citing inconsistent discount and return policies as damaging to both booksellers and publishers. Cheney called for more research on consumer tastes and greater efforts to cultivate dependable markets. He also advocated better record keeping and tighter control of cash flow. Publishers, said Cheney, needed to leave their New York offices more frequently to visit distributors and customers, talking with them and learning about their preferences and needs. Released at the beginning of the Great Depression, the study found receptive listeners in the book world, persons willing to experiment with new distribution methods, aim for broader markets, and pay more attention to consumers."

Cheney was neither the first nor last critic of the book trade. As has always been the case, he was particularly disappointed with the industry's "ineffective distribution system." Naturally, booksellers had to take their punches.

Like other analysts of the industry at the time, Cheney believed "independent bookshops alone were not sufficient for the task," West writes. "There were too few of them, and they were often one-horse operations, poorly capitalized, and understocked. These bookshops depended on best-selling novels to attract patrons and were vulnerable to competition from other book outlets, such as remainder bins in large retail stores. Small-scale booksellers had to diversify to survive, often offering magazines, prints, stationery, art supplies, and gift items. Some booksellers built customer loyalty by organizing neighborhood reading clubs and discussion groups, but these efforts were difficult to sustain. Small bookshops were the weak link in the system, ordering too little stock, carrying too many books on credit, and slowing sales and cash flow."

Same as it ever was. And now we're headed back to BookExpo. Handselling and handwringing will continue unabated, and we'll talk it all out once again with our eyes on the digital horizon.

Enjoy the ride anyway. How can we possibly resist the temptation to yell "Woooooooo-hooooooo," whether we're plummeting like Icarus, or just skydiving while waiting for the parachutes to deploy?--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1181.


Poetry Month Ends--What Happens Next?

Today we wave goodbye to another National Poetry Month. To mark its passage, I'll read some poems and remember a few lines that moved me, like these from Terese Svoboda's "Woman with Navel Showing":

Let us be them.
Let them address you.
The iron in irony rusts if I weep.

It's a matter of words and words matter. As NPM comes to an end, I wondered what poetry publishers and poets were thinking. Since I couldn't ask all of them, I opted for one of each.

"National Poetry Month is a great idea (thank you Academy of American Poets) and many good things are done to support it, but I can’t really say we’ve seen a significant growth in our sales of poetry books during April. We’ll sell more poetry books when more people are reading poetry books," observed Tom Lavoie, director of marketing and sales at the University of Arkansas Press, which was founded in 1980 and this year launched the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize, named for its first director.

Lavoie acknowledged that a relatively small group of poets--Billy Collins and Mary Oliver, for example--have a substantial readership, but "as we know, the 'general' audience for poetry is still small. Why don’t more people read poetry; why isn't the audience for poetry larger? Eternal questions and the same old answers. Poor teaching of poetry in schools really does impact future readership. Also, there are a number of poets whose work is just too difficult for 'general readers.' This is why poets like Collins and Oliver appeal to a wide audience; their work 'invites' any reader into the piece to share that poetic experience. And because of this, they also have the greater opportunities to continue to build upon this audience. Performance helps too. More poets who can 'touch' readers with a strong voice, enthusiasm for the poem, a presentation that engages, and poems that people can grasp, understand, and enjoy can help expand the audience. Where are today’s Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, and Edna St. Vincent Millay? And there is a cultural element. I’ve read about huge audiences for poets in foreign countries; go into almost any Irish pub and there will be a number of patrons who can recite a Yeats poem on the spot."

What can poets do to shift that momentum a bit more in their favor? "The most important things a poet can do to help get sales and publicity for their book are to do readings, contribute to blogs and websites and network," Lavoie suggested. "We can’t do everything, so we really appreciate a poet who is 'out there' connecting. We always see a clear distinction in sales between the poets who do this and those who tend to be reclusive and 'quiet.' The press has a very nice blog and we post all kinds of publicity material we get from our poets. Video trailers can also be a great way to publicize a collection and we’re seeing more authors doing this. Shelf Awareness put up Terese Svoboda’s trailer for her Weapons Grade collection, which we published last year. Publishing a book should be an active partnership between the press and the author, and we welcome their involvement."

Svoboda agreed, citing "a great editor, more input regarding the cover and big enthusiasm" as benefits of working with a small publisher. She also noted that to get the word out about their work, poets must do "everything possible. Big presses, small presses--it's all about publicity. A small press may have a devoted following which can be counted on to spread the word, something that is harder for a big press to cultivate. To some extent, the Internet has leveled the marketing for both sized presses, but there will always be hierarchies of blogs, twitters, reviews. A friend of mine offered to do a reading in the nude for his first book."

When asked about poetry readers, Svoboda replied, "Poetry audiences know to look for releases from small/university presses. It's a small group but passionate. I would say they're like the protectors of endangered species, but poetry will never be endangered. When I was a producer in a TV series about poetry and talking it up, I discovered that passion everywhere. The cabbie who picked me up kept a sheaf of poems in his glove box; the grandmother of the director owned a first edition of Whitman; my therapist revealed a whole bookshelf of poetry beside his textbooks. Poetry is natural to the condition of being human."

Among her audience she numbers "readers against war, pro-female readers, readers who don't mind exploring sex, death, and the stealthily placed pun."

I'm reading Weapons Grade now. I'll read it again this weekend. And I think I'll celebrate the end of National Poetry Month with a pledge to write about poetry later this year in a month that isn't April.--published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1175.

National Poetry Month: Show Me the Money

Clearly money has something to do with life.--Philip Larkin, "Money"

Money is a most useful metaphor, enhancing poems as well as paying the rent. For some reason, money seems to have evolved into my theme for National Poetry Month 2010. I'm not sure how this happened. Perhaps I was influenced by Katy Lederer's The Heaven-Sent Leaf, one of several collections I bought recently to celebrate Poetry Month. Reading selected pages while in the bookstore had sold me on the book, but only later did I learn from her bio that she had "worked for many years for a hedge fund." You don't need that bio, however, to see the weaving of money and verse in poems like "A Nietzschean Revival":

In the morning, when I manufacture lyrics on these listless keys,
When the money and its happy apparatus do call and lure,
Do call and lure...
These poets speak of capital as if they had the least idea.
I ask you: what do poets know of capital?
Across this harp, their fingers play a Nietzschean revival.
I envy them their will to power.

I mentioned recently that I'm not a poet, but I am a reader of poetry (and buyer of poetry collections, which is a truly endangered lit-species). I'm a writer, so I think about words all the time, but I'm also deeply intrigued by and engaged in the book trade, so I think about money, too.

It's complicated.

I know many poets. I consider that a privilege. When our conversations turn to the publishing industry, however, a certain fatalistic refrain inevitably creeps in: "No money in poetry; never was, never will be," they will say, or, "I write poetry, therefore I teach."

I know, I know. It's not just about the money, whether you're a poet, a bookseller, a small press editor or any other toiler in the word fields. It is, however, a little bit about the money. For example, have you ever met anyone in the book world who didn't say, at some point, "I could have made more money doing (fill in the occupation), but I had to do this"?

Poets know more than most of us about that vocational monkey wrench tossed into the earning-a-living machine. David Budbill considered the challenge in "After Reading Meng Chiao's 'Seeing Off Master T'an' ":

There's never any money! All we do is worry and fight.
I wish I could be like Master T'an and go from place to place
begging for someone to pay my

health-insurance premiums, property taxes, and car-repair bills,
but I can't. I have to keep pretending there is nothing wrong.
I know that since ancient times

poets have never gotten fat.

There are small, practical solutions. I heard about one at the AWP Conference and Bookfair in Denver, Colo., recently, where Todd Boss spoke of poetry and money in the same breath and the walls did not crumble around us, nor did the gods rise up in fury and smite him.

I found it refreshing. He said that his website features a call for commissions: "By working for hire, and by putting a price tag on your work, you create a new market for your poems--a market based on emotional necessity, urgency, and deep personal commitment. This is a vital, and artistically rewarding way to give the world the poetry it craves."

Boss also wrote about commission work in a Squad365 blog post this week, observing: "Each commission expands, in profoundly personal ways, my influence as an artist, and results in compelling word-of-mouth among people whom I wouldn’t otherwise reach. And the artistic risk and rivet of it--creating a work of art that speaks to another person’s deepest desires for art’s healing questions--makes for the greatest benefit of all."

Poetry and money.

In Henry's Fate, John Berryman considered the money dilemma:

Glistening, Henry freed himself from money
By making enough.
Not much, enough.
His bills in Hell will be easy to pay,
No laundry there,
No long-distance telephone.

And Charles Bukowski grumbled about it in "so you want to be a writer?":        

if you're doing it for money or
don't do it.

Except for the Bukowski, these selections are all from books that live in my house even when it isn't National Poetry Month. Maybe they know something about poets and money that I don't. Maybe not. I'll just have to keep reading, and buying, poetry books to find out. At least some poets will make a little money.

--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1170.


AWP 2010 & the Book as Sacred Object

Last Friday night in Denver, sometime between 9 and 10 p.m. Mountain time, I watched literary legend--or at least one of my literary legends--Gary Snyder walk slowly to a podium and gaze out at an audience of at least 600 people in the cavernous Four Seasons Ballroom of the Colorado Convention Center.

"This is one big hall," Snyder remarked. "I came by earlier to see the room and couldn't see the end of it."

He might have been scanning California's Great Central Valley, thinking once again, as he wrote in Mountains and Rivers Without End, "us and our stuff just covering the ground."

But he wasn't. Instead, he saw row upon row of writers, writing instructors, writing students and writing program administrators on his first visit to the conference and said, "I can't believe how big this is. Go for it, kids. America needs more good writers."

Snyder's reading was one of the highlights of a three-day literary extravaganza known as the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference and Bookfair. About 8,000 people were in Denver for meetings, panels, readings and socializing (okay, maybe a little networking, too). Writers, writers, everywhere.

Unlike my trips to BEA or regional bookseller shows, I always feel a bit like a fringe player at AWP even though I have my credentials handy--an MFA in writing from Bennington College--just in case someone asks to see my papers.

A lot of my work in Denver was decidedly offsite, including a nice reception Thursday night with the good folks from Unbridled Books and author Masha Hamilton, as well as a great conversation with MPIBA director Lisa Knudsen Saturday.

On Friday, while wandering through the book fair, I stopped by the Tattered Cover's display table, where Marti Stewart told me sales had been brisk. Even as I stood there, people were buying books, especially poetry collections. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, poetry matters at AWP.

At a panel titled "Shameless Book Promotion: Squad 365 Rides Again," which was presented to an overflow crowd at the Hyatt Regency, poet Todd Boss talked about creatively promoting his work, including his self-appointment as poet laureate of Nina's Café in St. Paul, Minn., and his acceptance of commissioned work.

"I want my poetry to reach a popular audience," he observed. "I find it troublesome that I should be forced to admit such a thing as if it were shameful." Boss also rejects the notion that poetry is an elite art form reserved for a certain class of reader: "In other countries around the world, contemporary poets are populist heroes, household names. This is not because those country’s populations are more educated nor because their poetry is less sophisticated. Rather, it is because in those cultures poetry is perceived as belonging to all audiences. It is viewed as a public resource."

Which brings me back to Gary Snyder. In 1970, I bought Riprap, & Cold Mountain Poems for $1.50, and have had that book within reach for nearly four decades. Snyder was 40 years old when I got my copy. Now he's 80.

This book has become an object that transcends its modest packaging. Maybe not a sacred object; I'm not that sentimental. But if I open to page one, I see lines I bracketed when I was 20 years old:

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

In a couple of weeks I'll be 60, and if I picked up this book for the first time now, I'd probably still highlight those lines. And these, on page six:

All the junk that goes with being human
Drops away, hard rock wavers
Even the heavy present sems to fail
This bubble of a heart.
Words and books
Like a small creek off a high ledge
Gone in dry air.

What does it mean? You already know what it means.

"Fortunately, my poetry is not that complicated," Snyder said in Denver as he made a case for demystifying his art. "You don't need to be an architect to walk into a building."

I'm glad I crossed the continent last week to hear him read. I resist the deification of paper for its own sake, have e-books on my iPod and read newspapers on my laptop, but maybe my copy of Riprap is a sacred object after all.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1164.