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What are We Trying to Communicate?

Times are hard. Tell me about it. These days the gory details of this common conversation may be diverse, but its essence is primal. You can find it in Steinbeck, in Dickens, in the ancient Greeks, in negotiations over the value of stone cudgels during the Paleolithic era.

How do we get customers to understand and care about hard times for independent bookstores? How do we get them to care about our survival? How do we inspire both empathy and action?

Communication is a one-word solution that gets batted around constantly in our industry. There may never have been a time in history when bookshops communicated with their customers as much as they do now. The pressure is on to get the word out monthly, weekly, daily, hourly, even instantly (think Twitter).

But what exactly are we trying to communicate?

When I received February's e-mail newsletter from the Galaxy Bookshop, Hardwick, Vt., I was impressed by something owner Linda Ramsdell had written to her customers under the title "A Note from Linda about Inventory Management (doesn't that sound exciting?)":

"You may notice that there aren't quite as many books at Galaxy this winter as you are used to seeing. I am taking a cautious and prudent approach in this time of economic upheaval. As many of you know, inventory management is a critical part of managing cash flow. To keep Galaxy healthy, I am managing the inventory even more closely than usual. In a practical sense, this might mean fewer copies of a title on the shelf. It will be precisely because we don't have big stacks of $27.95 hardcovers that Galaxy will weather this season. You can be assured that you will always find wonderful and new and treasured books to read at Galaxy. We also continue to offer our special order service, at no extra charge, and are able to get most books in within a week. As noted above, there is a lot to be excited about and look forward to. I will order all the new titles as I usually would, but likely fewer copies initially, with more frequent reorders. While the look may be different, the Galaxy Bookshop and the booksellers will continue to bring you a great selection of new book and favorites from over the years."

I asked Linda what compelled her to share inventory strategy publicly. I thought her note struck a perfect chord by simply--or not so simply--being honest. Booksellers often maintain a kind of "dance band on the Titanic" front with their patrons, who can easily mistake excellent, cheerful customer service for financial success. That disconnect from reality can be hazardous.

Linda said she had planned "to do a much deeper return than usual, and I thought it would be evident to customers. I wanted to avoid the sense that we couldn't supply the store, and make it seem instead like we were smart businesspeople responding proactively. I didn't want to get wrapped up in the panic, but to give a sense that we were putting the store in a good position to weather the winter and the economy. I was trying to exude confidence, and to go back to the Titanic analogy, to give the sense that there was a captain strong at the wheel with a good set of navigation tools. I also wanted to communicate that we would have the resources to keep all of the new books and books that were moving coming, and there is a lot to be excited about when it comes to new books.

"I think continuing to make people aware of why it is critical to shop locally is important. I think getting people excited about books and making it impossible for them to leave the store with only what they thought they came in for is important. I think keeping up an upbeat attitude is important. I hope to avoid the 'help, poor us' message and instead to emphasize that if people are buying books at all, we have lots of great reasons to buy them at the Galaxy Bookshop.

"The great thing about a business of this size, i.e. very small, is that we can actually respond quickly. We can also communicate very personally. I think it is incumbent on us to do both things well so that everyone is working toward the same end: keeping a bookstore a vital place in Hardwick."

I'd love to hear how you are bridging the business communication gap with your customers.


A Congregation of Writers at AWP Chicago

All those headlines declaring the book is dead and readers are an endangered species seemed to have little effect on the 8,000 writers, give or take a few hundred, who inundated the Hilton Chicago last week for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs annual conference.

Registration lines were longer than one hotel staff member said he had ever seen for any event there. AWP's Bookfair--showcasing small and university presses as well as an array of lit journals--played host to erudite throngs. From Thursday through Saturday, as many as 20 separate panels and readings were taking place simultaneously in conference rooms all day long; countless off-site events were held; hotel restaurants, lobbies, hallways and even staircases were jammed with the published and the unpublished.

Did I mention the elevators? Not only were they consistently defying maximum legal capacity limits, but the Poetry Foundation's Poetry Everywhere video series had taken over, as if by literary coup, the small elevator TVs, which normally show CNN. How can we quote William Carlos Williams ("It is difficult / to get the news from poems," etc.) when verse supplants headlines?

Was everyone attending the conference carrying a manuscript in their back pocket? Probably. Was the possibility high that few of those books would ever see the light of publication? No doubt. Did it matter? Not so much, at least not last week.

At a panel called "Big House/Small House," author Rilla Askew said her experience with university press publishing had taught her many things, including patience with the longer process and the fact that she has "begun to become grateful for one reader at a time. My work is still long-term in ambition, but I'm grateful for readers who are looking for what I'm doing."

"Any discussion of large and small press publishing needs to be held in the context of our expectations," said Tracy Daugherty. "Every individual publishing adventure is unique. Books may be sold like canned goods, but they are not produced that way."

Daugherty suggested that writers have a realistic view of the process: "When we write books of poetry or literary prose, knowing what the market is, what do we think we're doing?" He cited Kurt Vonnegut's poem, "Joe Heller," in which Vonnegut asks how Heller feels knowing that the billionaire host of a party they're attending makes more money in a day than he has in Catch-22's history. Heller replies that he has something more valuable--"The knowledge that I've got enough."

"I know many writers, and so do you, for whom enough is never enough," Daugherty continued. "So, it's enough to know we've touched our core. In deciding what will be enough, my expectation of a small press is that I have a stimulating engagement with a reader [editor] I trust. You really need to be honest with yourself and judge your expectations candidly."

Molly Giles advised writers to consider small presses a legitimate publishing opportunity and "to support them by buying their books." Daugherty agreed, recommending that writers assume a "literary citizenship . . . Look at this conference. There are 8,000 writers here, and if we don't support each other . . ."

The lone bookseller at the conference was Barbara's Bookstore. Saturday afternoon, I checked in with general manager David Schwartz, who said that in addition to a display table at the Bookfair, he had been selling books at author events in other parts of the hotel and off-site. Although he'd begun with "high expectations," the conference "wasn't quite what I expected, but I'm certainly not disappointed. It's a unique conference in that most people are trying to sell their books rather than buy books."

That may be one reason why Saturday, when the Bookfair opened to the general public, there was a sales spike. "We sold twice as many books as the previous two days," said Schwartz, who expressed approval for the idea of offering a similar option--citing ComicCon as a successful example--at shows like BEA. "I think it's a great idea," he said, noting that AWP "put a relatively high price tag on this," which limited the final day crowd to serious browsers and buyers.

Supply and demand. What struck me initially at AWP was that the Hilton Chicago is also the site of CIROBE in November. As a former remainder buyer who attended for six years, I couldn't help but consider the fact that a place I normally associate with the end of a book's life (yes, I know, bargain book aficionados believe in reincarnation) was for a few days so thoroughly concentrated upon conception and birth. Also, perhaps, on responsibility. "The onus is on us," said LeAnne Howe, "to be good stewards of each other's work."


Where Do You Love to Read?

I received some early Valentine's Day gifts over the weekend. Among the readers who answered my call for thoughts about reading in public was John Maruskin, who offered tough love: "I think you're paying too much attention to yourself; give more attention to the book." Great advice. So I tried, and nearly succeeded, though the experiment was flawed because I happened to be in Manhattan. Brandishing a book in New York is like reading in public with training wheels.

Then, on Saturday, I was riding the 86th Street crosstown bus when I heard a man reading out loud to his voluntary audience--a female companion--as well as an obviously involuntary crowd, in whose faces I read something else entirely. Suddenly I realized that if you really want to become a pariah, reading Emerson silently in a Vermont supermarket checkout line pales in comparison to reading, aloud and at length, from a book on public transit. I wasn't tempted to ask him to stop, though I'll confess I did momentarily consider thanking him for his contribution to this week's column.

But I'm trying to give more attention to the book here, so let's return to our primary question: How do you feel about reading in public?

Lori Kauffman of Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, Mass., considered the advantages of urban settings: "Maybe this is just from living in Cambridge and working in Brookline, where it sometimes seems as if half of the population is in school and the other half is teaching them, but when I'm in public it's odd for me not to see people reading! Especially on the bus or subway. I think one of the best parts of living in a city with public transportation is that it provides a good excuse to read everyday--I actually look forward to my commute! (By the way, I find that an excellent test of how good a book is is how close I come to missing my stop because I'm too engrossed in what I'm reading.)"

It's not always easy, however. Julie Leonard of Troubadour Books, Boulder, Colo., noted that her "teenage daughters wonder why it is that a person sitting in a public place like the cafeteria, reading, is assumed to want someone to come up and start talking to them. Most annoying of all: the person who interrupts their reading to ask, 'What are you reading?' Being polite types, they resist the temptation to answer, 'Nothing any more, since you butted in."

Susan Weis of breathe books, Baltimore, Md., shared something that happened at the Winter Institute in Salt Lake City: "A fellow bookstore person and I took a long walk around the deserted city on Sunday afternoon. One of the few places open was a Carl's Jr. There was a woman in the window reading a paperback. Both my friend and I slowed down and took notice . . . Did we know her? After all she was reading a book and we just came from a book show--we must know her! We didn't, but we felt so close to her and even spoke about the scene later because we know what it's like to sit in a window and read. We felt so close to this anonymous woman, almost as if she was a friend."

The response most in keeping with the spirit of the upcoming holiday (Valentine's, not Friday the 13th) came from Ellen Stimson: "You make it sound almost salacious, which makes it even more appealing. How does one stand being in public without a book? This is the only defense people in small towns have in the school parking lot, at the coffee shop, or in any line anywhere. You need them less in the safe anonymity of the city, so naturally they are more ubiquitous there as a result. No one cares. No one probably cares in the small towns either. After all, my defense is protecting them from the requisite interaction too. I never go out without the armor of a book.

"And how does one make snap judgments about other people at the pool or on the plane unless you can surreptitiously sneak a look at what they are reading? I love thinking about how their book matches, or doesn't, their clothes and other accoutrements. Oh Bob, take the book. Since you seem to think it is forbidden it might be even better for you."

Ya gotta love that theory. Happy Valentine's Day reading everywhere.


The Delicate Art of Reading in Public

The only straight line in Nature that I remember is the spider swinging down from a twig.

Emerson again. Our recent conversation here about e-books seems to prove his point, since responses to last week's column wandered nicely off topic in an intriguing way that proved irresistible. We'll get back to e-books, but this time we'll happily veer from the spider's straight line.

I had confessed that by reading Emerson in a supermarket checkout line on my iPod, I felt much less conspicuous and/or pretentious than I might have with a hardbound copy of the essays perched on the shopping cart handle.

Nicki Leone of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance raised a valid point: "I can't help but think that if more people read in public, it would stop being 'conspicuous.' And why 'pretentious?' What is it about our current culture that reading books in public feels pretentious, even to a book person?"

Great question. I've read a lot of articles about public readings, but fewer about reading in public. Without venturing too deeply into psychoanalysis, why do I feel self-conscious?

Here's my take on the issue: I was raised in an essentially non-reading, working-class home with a sports-obsessed father and four competitive brothers. We were groomed to be athletes, not academics. The fact that I was essentially the only obsessed reader in the family was never an issue, but even as a kid I saw reading as a deliciously private act of rebellion.

Some of this lives on, I'm sure, in my occasional self-consciousness about reading in public ("public" being a tricky word, since airplanes or subways, for example, seem less problematic because other people are reading, too). Part of this may just be vestiges of my hard-won battle for a reading life--nature over nurture.

Linda Barrett Knopp of Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe, Asheville, N.C., rationally suggested that "to be seen reading a book in public is neither pretentious nor conspicuous." Such an act is "a clear signal to this biased bookseller that a mind may be focused on something higher, educational, funny, who knows, but at least on something besides the tabloids near the register."

"I appreciate that within a non-reading family you would feel self-conscious," she added. "My mom read all the time and took me to the bookmobile (I still remember having my hands inspected by the librarian to see if they were clean enough to handle books) to borrow books every week. Reading was a great way to avoid family interaction, too, and tolerated by my parents, but watching too much TV, well that was more rude to them, and I still find it very odd when you go visit people and they keep their TV on while you talk. Like this intruder in the room just yakking at you. I was fortunate to have such encouragement in my early years and books still remain the most significant part of my life besides family."

Knopp also had some thoughts on the e-book/indie booksellers issue, which I'll share with you soon.

Novelist and memoirist Lev Raphael noted that he "always felt naked in public if I didn't have something to read with me--magazine, newspaper or most often, a book. Though we were poor when I grew up, there were always books in our house, and I rarely left home without one. Perhaps because I got used to being stared at in the 1960s for my longish hair, tie-dyed jeans, and peace regalia, I don't blanch today when I'm stared at in a doctor's office or airport lounge for my choice of reading material.

"Back before it became acceptable to openly criticize George Bush, I was on a book tour and my choice that trip was admittedly provocative: The Lies of George W. Bush by David Corn. The book and I got lots of hostile stares, but I kept reading. Surprisingly, nobody said anything. When I was on the way to speak at Yale years before that, I was reading Kitty Kelley's Nancy Reagan biography and people actually said, 'How can you read that trash?' I replied that it was simply an update of Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country."

How do you feel about reading in public?

Emerson again:

The art of writing consists in putting two things together that are unlike and that belong together like a horse & cart.

Me . . . reading Essays: First Series, even in a supermarket, even on an iPod.


Just Thinking Inside & Outside the Book

So I'm at the checkout counter of my local supermarket on Monday, waiting behind two customers who seem to be stocking up for Armageddon. What to do? I consider going with their instincts and buying lots of batteries, but recall making that mistake during the Y2K scare a decade ago.

I resist the panic impulse. Instead, with fluorescent lights glaring and bad, bad music wafting obnoxiously (as if sound could literally stink), I take out my iPod touch, open Stanza and continue reading Emerson's Representative Men.

This moment is a perfect example of "incidental reading," a phrase that Agate Publishing's Doug Seibold used in last week's column. Here's one advantage to reading Emerson on an iPod: If I stood in the same place and read my hardbound copy, I'd feel conspicuous and a little pretentious. But I can read anything in public on an iPod and nobody cares, since it looks like I'm checking my phone or performing any of the other blips and bleeps that keep us going these days.

Just before it's my turn to start "loading the belt" with my items, I incidentally and coincidentally read:

Every book supplies its time with one good word; every municipal law, every trade, every folly of the day, and the generic catholic genius who is not afraid or ashamed to owe his originality to the originality of all, stands with the next age as the recorder and embodiment of his own.

Suddenly, I'm thinking about digital evolution, revolution and devolution; the ongoing debate over copyright and intellectual property issues; and the presumed death of the book as we know it. I also consider, again, my relationship to books and e-books and audiobooks and that magical iPod from my perspective as a reader and writer.

We can cite plenty of statistics about declining book readership and the seemingly endless aftershocks from our economy's quake, which continue to reverberate through the book world. November's AAP sales figures (Shelf Awareness, January 26, 2009) showed an expected, yet nonetheless unnerving, downward spiral. E-book sales were one of only two categories that were exceptions. Even though the numbers are still small and reflect Amazon's Kindle push, the November total--$5.1 million--was up 108.3% over 2007, and the category showed year-to-date sales of $46.7 million, a 63.8% gain.

Does that scare me? Yes, for reasons that have to do with my concerns about indie booksellers. Does it fascinate me? Yes, because it is happening and I'm intrigued. Can I deal with the changes? Already trying to.

"I long to have been a writer in the 1920s. But I'm not. So I need to do what it takes to be a writer in the 2020s," noted Michael Perry in response to last week's column. Perry's books include Population: 485, Truck: A Love Story and Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting, which will be published this spring.

"I spent many years hanging out with and writing about musicians and what I'm seeing now in book publishing holds many parallels to what happened ten years ago in the music industry," he observed. "The musicians who thrived weren't necessarily the early adapters, but the early adjusters. They kept abreast of developments, read the future with a realists eyes and incorporated change as it came along, but never let their primary focus drift from craft and performance. So I try never to forget that the number one key to my survival is that I must write--regardless of the state of the industry and/or its 'delivery systems.' I am certainly concerned about the future of publishing, but thanks to the musicians I try to focus on navigating--rather than flailing against--those changes."

I agree. With change in the air, Emerson has been on my mind a lot recently. His works are always within reach on my shelves (and in my iPod). I'm funny that way. My fascination with the new requires grounding in the old. Call it perspective.

When I return from the supermarket, I open a well-thumbed and copiously underlined copy of Emerson in His Journals for a different kind of incidental reading. Eventually I stumble upon the following cautionary note:

In the progress of Watt and Perkin's philosophy the day may come when the scholar shall be provided with a Reading Steam Engine; when he shall say Presto--& it shall discourse eloquent history--& Stop Sesame & it shall hush to let him think. He shall put in a pin, & hear poetry; & two pins, & hear a song. That age will discover Laputa.

I forgot about Laputa. Time to read Swift again, I guess.