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Not Just Another Comeback Story

Consider this a twist on the traditional comeback story, in which a protagonist overcomes great odds not merely to survive, but to thrive. It's a classic narrative form--Moses, Odysseus, David Copperfield, George Smiley. Now consider the definition of, and odds against, success as a contemporary novelist. The mere fact that someone wants to publish your book could be viewed as a comeback, given the stops and starts, the revisions and rejections, necessary just to bring a manuscript to the starting gate (aka, appropriately enough, the submission stage).  

Peter Golden's story could be framed as an ongoing comeback that just keeps getting better. His novel Comeback Love, about a couple exploring the possibility of a second chance at love 35 years after their relationship ended during the turbulent 1960s, will be published April 3 by Washington Square Press/Atria, but its comeback really began more than two years ago as the first novel released by Staff Picks Press, a small publishing house started by bookseller Susan Novotny, owner of Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, N.Y., and Market Block Books, Troy.

"I'm happy that my 30-plus years in the book business has taught me something--namely, how to recognize a novel that readers will enjoy and my indie colleagues can sell; and how to find an author like Peter, who I think will be pleasing readers and booksellers well into the future," said Novotny. Staff Picks Press recently published Where's the Watch and Other Tales: A Memoir from Seinfeld's Uncle Leo by Len Lesser and Tama Ryder.

Golden recalled that Novotny "was certainly diligent when it came to spreading the word about Comeback Love. More than anyone she brought the novel to the attention of publishers. And I might not have met my agent, Susan Golomb, and my editor, Greer Hendricks, both of whom have been enormously helpful."
In 2010, when the Staff Picks Press edition was published, Golden observed that while his marketing responsibilities were substantial with a small publisher, they were still essentially the "same as the author who publishes with a major press. The fact is unless you are extremely lucky--I mean winning a $300-million-lottery lucky--writers have to use all of the avenues available for marketing their books."

I wondered if he felt like a lottery winner now. "Absolutely," he agreed. "I suspect the mathematical odds of winning the lottery are greater than selling a first novel, but it doesn’t feel that way."

That said, he is still focused upon doing whatever he can to help market his novel again: "My responsibilities haven't changed--I just have more help. The publicity and marketing departments at Atria have been wonderful and taught me a good deal about the pleasures of social media."

Ariele Fredman, his publicist at Atria, said that having Comeback Love available on NetGalley "has been very useful in getting the word out to bloggers and reaching more people without having to print more galleys." She also noted the benefits of publicizing a novel with a sales track record: "There hasn't been a disadvantage to working on Comeback Love in its second form. Because the book was published by a small press, the groundwork of support for the author was already laid and as the publicist, I've been able to build on that. The subject matter--love, second chances, women's rights--covers a lot of areas of interest and appeal to a wide range of readers and reviewers."

Golden praised his editor, noting that "this version of Comeback Love is much improved, and Greer is responsible for that." And Hendricks returned the compliment: "I'm so excited about Peter and Comeback Love because to me it perfectly captures the passion of young love. I think readers of all generations will fall in love with this book because it explores that lingering question so many people have: What if you had a second chance with the one that got away?"

The comeback story for Comeback Love goes on, but Golden said his basic writing life hasn't changed: "I've been earning a living writing nonfiction for 28 years, so from a financial perspective fiction simply became another market. But I always wanted to write and publish novels, and so personally it was quite satisfying. As for changing my life: I'm happily married to the same woman, and I still get up every morning and write."--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1693.


Singapore Booksellers 'Really Love What We Do'

"No one has cracked the discovery problem. In a world without bookshops, or at any rate with fewer and smaller bookshops, how will people discover the books they didn’t know they wanted to read?.... Maybe a new kind of bookshop is needed, one that allows for book browsing within a stylish setting, and gives the retailer a slice of e-book revenues. After all, it is Singapore’s smaller shops, like BooksActually, with their great design and active event programs, that have bucked the prevailing downward trend in bookshops over the last few years."

That paragraph appeared earlier this week in an e27 article headlined, "A City Without Bookshops," but I first learned about BooksActually last year. I followed up--in the typically 21st-century way of the Web--by joining the shop's Facebook group and began receiving event invitations.

Though the odds are slim that I'll be attending a bookstore event in Singapore any time soon, I do like being invited, and a recent notice for "Babette's Feast chapbooks LAUNCH at Kinokuniya!" prompted me to contact BooksActually bookseller Renée Ting--not with my RSVP, unfortunately, but to learn a little more about their operation.

"BooksActually opened in November, 2005, on the second floor of a shophouse at Telok Ayer Street," she replied on behalf of her colleagues, who include owner Kenny Leck and bookseller Erna Marliny. "It started because of our love for literature, and the need to widen our reading appetite in Singapore. Retailers play a very big part of shaping the society's appetite. There were many readers in Singapore, but the books they were reading were limited to the ones featured at chain bookstores--self-help titles, business books, and for fiction, popular mass-market titles. We were hungry for more literary works, and wanted to bring in and showcase more breadth to the title selection available to the people, because we believed in the importance of literature."

What matters most to any bookseller is sharing great reads with great readers. Staff favorites at BooksActually include Paul Auster, Cyril Wong, Ted Hughes, Rainer Maria Rilke and John Wyndham. Popular with the shop's customers are Christine Chia, Alvin Pang, Haruki Murakami, Jeanette Winterson and Alfian Sa'at. And like all committed indie booksellers, they also champion certain underappreciated writers there--Verena Tay, Georges Perec, A.L. Kennedy, Naguib Mahfouz and Ismail Kadare.

The initial challenges BooksActually faced in the retail market may sound familiar. According to Ting, "We were the first local independent literature bookshop to appear in Singapore when we started. During that time, everyone was only familiar with the concept of a mega-chain bookstore so they found it difficult to comprehend what an independent bookshop was--it took a long time for us to convince people that we were an actual bookshop, and that we started this because of our passion for literature.

"Also, finance was always an issue for us, seeing how we don't come from well-to-do families and being a small and new player in the harsh business world. We knew nothing about running a business, but somehow found our way around by doing things ourselves, finding alternate ways of solving problems, and being self-reliant." Seven years later, the bookstore has "seen a vast increase in the readership in Singapore, but now that we've started actively publishing, we're hoping Singaporeans will be more receptive towards local literature."

Last summer, BooksActually launched its publishing arm, Math Paper Press, which features experimental novellas, poetry and essays; and distributes books by selected publishers.

"As mentioned before, we were hoping for Singaporeans to be more receptive towards local literature, and also we wanted to be a voice for the newer writers in Singapore by publishing works that other publishers dare not publish," Ting said.

About the same time, the store began creating handmade stationery under its Birds & Co. brand, offering items in which "we always try to sneak in a literary element by subconsciously exposing them to good literature (e.g., pencils named after authors; notebooks with passages from books typewritten on their covers, or notebooks dedicated to a particular specie of plants/animals; parties and exhibitions with literary themes, etc.)."

When I asked Ting if there was anything else she would like us to know about BooksActually, her enthusiastic reply struck a familiar chord with this former bookseller: "Yes! We work really, really, really hard and we really love what we do."--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1687.


Where Have All the Signed Books Gone?

You may have heard the tale: George Bernard Shaw finds a copy of one of his works in a used bookshop and quickly notices it is signed: "To ___, with esteem, G.B. Shaw." Buying the volume, he subsequently returns it to the original owner with an additional inscription: "With renewed esteem, G.B. Shaw."
Could be apocryphal, but that doesn't matter. I love the story anyway and think of it every time I cull my book collection and decide to part with a signed or, more reluctantly, a personally inscribed book. It's usually a space decision, prompted by the business I'm in; I've received (acquired is too ambitious a word for the way in which my books accumulate) many signed editions over the years. Some mean a great deal to me; others not so much. I guess that's a confession. Sometimes, forgive me, I abandon signed books.

Not yours, though.

Obviously I'm no collector. There are, however, many books on my shelves that I'd never part with for reasons that can be emotional as well as intellectual--an attachment to the memory of a great author event, for example.

But where have all those exiled signed books gone? This question, along with the Shaw anecdote, occurred to me recently when Janet Geddis, owner of Avid Bookshop, Athens, Ga., shared the story of a visit to her shop by poet and noted Rumi translator Coleman Barks, who lives in the city.   

"He asked me where the local shelf was so that he could sign any copies of his books we had in stock," Janet recalled. "He reached over for a used copy of The Drowned Book and, when he opened it to sign, saw that he had already signed it years ago to a friend named Charlie. I was embarrassed for a minute, hoping he wouldn't be upset that Charlie had passed the book along to Avid. 'Well, you could sign it again,' I said with a laugh. I walked away to ring up another customer and forgot about the book. An hour later when it came time to close up, I remembered the book and opened it to the title page. Coleman had signed it twice after all. Today's autograph reads, 'Charlie Gardner left this book, Coleman Barks.' "

Geddis noted that she is also not "a big collector of signed copies or celebrity autographs. I'd rather have a cool interaction with someone and not have any documentation than simply have their name scrawled on a book for me. Of course I'm also in a rather spoiled position now: I get to go to book events several times a year and, as a bookseller, have a great excuse chat with well-known authors. It's for business, after all."

And the business of signing can be rewarding, in many ways. During the four months that Avid has been open, internationally known chef Hugh Acheson (Top Chef) "has signed hundreds of copies of his book A New Turn in the South for us," said Geddis. "It's been really fun and rewarding to have Hugh personally inscribe books for people all over the country--even the world--before we ship them off. He's pretty game when it comes to signing, too, stopping by every month or so to inscribe big stacks of cookbooks."

Acheson also fields personal requests. Geddis said an Avid customer "called in an order for her husband before Christmas and asked if we could have Hugh personalize it. 'My husband has such a man-crush on Hugh,' she said, and then decided what the perfect inscription would be. Hugh saw the request, laughed, and signed as instructed: 'Dear So&So: I love how much you love me. Eat well! Hugh Acheson.' That story still brings a smile to my face."

In addition to traditional book-signings, Geddis asks visiting authors and illustrators to sign Avid's bathroom Door O' Fame: "It's pretty cool to look over the people who have been in our store in the last few months of business--I'm pretty sure we're going to fill up all the available space and have to start having authors sign the opposite side of the door within a year or so."  

Those are nice autograph stories, but what does fate hold in store for my abandoned inscribed books, now buried on dusty shelves in used bookstores nationwide? Suddenly I remember the terrible floor planks in Edgar Allan Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart." Even if I can invoke plausible deniability for the "To Bob" editions out there, I fear the "To Bob Gray" copies may yet return and haunt me.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1680.


Linsanity, the Book Lindustry & Lindependents

"Storybook saga" is just one of many bookish references I've noticed that attempt to describe the meteoric rise of New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin since February 4, when he quietly entered a National Basketball Association game against the Nets that few people outside (or even within) the New York metropolitan area cared about.

At that moment, he was just days away from possibly being released by the team, but Lin got his opportunity, was prepared to seize it and has since become arguably the most popular athlete in the world, with a mega-list of new fans that includes President Barack Obama and Taiwan's President Ma ying-jeou.

Perhaps this is just his 15 minutes, though even Andy Warhol might grant Lin an extension under the circumstances.

Many of you reading this are not basketball, or even sports, fans. Those who are already know the story. How could you miss it? So I will only mention that, in addition to his remarkable success on the court--which has revitalized a team that was going nowhere at light speed--Lin is the first American-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA and the first Harvard grad since Ed Smith in 1954.

What does this have to do with books and reading? As I follow the Jeremy Lin phenomenon, I'm paying close attention to discussions in the media about racial identity and prejudice, as well as the role of religion in public life (Lin is a devout Christian). But I also enjoy the word play that has been sparked by his sudden rise to global prominence, along with his unanticipated impact upon the book world.

Let's start with the unique handshake Lin developed with his teammate Landry Fields. It is an elaborate mime: put on glasses, open book, flip through pages, close book, return glasses to pocket. Geeky jock chic.

Or consider "Linsanity," a new word that could be in the running for Webster's Word of the Year. Lin is attempting to trademark the term, and the "Lin-" prefix has gotten completely out of control, inspiring an endless stream of pun-based signs, headlines and even a Jeremy Lin word generator. The New Yorker noted that on the Chinese mainland, "Linsanity has been translated to linfengkuang."

Then there are the books. In May, Hachette will publish Jeremy Lin: The Reason for the Linsanity by Timothy Dalrymple.

Richard Abate, Lin's new literary agent, was initially looking to shop a memoir that might net a $500,000-plus advance, but this project has been put on hold so Lin can concentrate on his day--um, night--job. Knopf editor Jonathan Segal expressed a measure of skepticism in Forbes magazine: "Who knows what the world’s going to be like a year from now," he said. "If it were an instant book that would be published in a month, things might even change."

Funny he should say that. There are already at least seven e-books on the market, according to GalleyCat. Alan Goldsher, who wrote the 15,000-word manuscript for Linsanity: The Improbable Rise of Jeremy Lin in 72 hours, told Fast Company that "from conception to availability, we're talking just under a week."

Lin-themed articles have popped up in unexpected publications like Entrepreneur ("Finding the Jeremy Lin on Your Team"), Wired ("What Jeremy Lin Teaches Us About Talent") and Psychology Today ("LINsanity! Observations on the Worship of a New Sports Hero").

Earlier I asked what all this has to do with books and reading. A better question might be: What do we want from this young man? In Robert Harris's new novel The Fear Index, a character observes that "the rise in market volatility, in our opinion, is a function of digitalization, which is exaggerating human mood swings by the unprecedented dissemination of information via the Internet."

Lin was an economics major. He'd get that, and he may even survive it. I hope he does. I like what I've seen of his apparent humility, work ethic, focus and sense of teamwork. My college lacrosse coach was obsessed with the motto: "Success happens when preparation meets opportunity." It made us chuckle then, but I don't laugh so much at it anymore.

In fact, when I saw Ann Patchett going toe-to-toe with Stephen Colbert earlier this week, I recalled that old saying, and thought about all the great indie booksellers--new as well as old--for whom, at this moment, preparation and opportunity are beginning to show some tangible results. Perhaps we're on the cusp of a new age for Lindependent bookstores, too.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1673.


Launching a Bookish Presidents Day Campaign

It all began a few days ago when I saw photos of a 34-foot high tower of books about and by Abraham Lincoln. No, this wasn't some Borgesian vision. The three-story structure occupies the lobby of Ford's Theatre Center for Education and Leadership in Washington, D.C.--which is set to open this weekend--and features approximately 6,800 books.

At first I just marveled at the tower, but quickly I realized there was something else embedded in my first impression of that monument to words and history and leadership. It was a realization that books are, and always have been, central to how we as Americans perceive George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, from the time we were little kids through our school years and well into adulthood. Perhaps the exchanging of books about Washington and Lincoln as gifts could be, and should be, how we celebrate Presidents Day.

Why, I wondered, do we not, as an industry, own this weekend? Let Hallmark and FTD have Valentine's Day, but the book trade has a logical claim, with clear historical precedent, on the third weekend in February. It's long past time, my friends, to launch a bookish Presidents Day campaign.

As children, we all read the story of little George chopping down a cherry tree and, despite his destiny as a politician, not being able to tell a lie. We also read about young Honest Abe reading by candlelight and splitting logs for a living with his axe. (Editor's note: Children may now be confused by that last item, if their primary image of our 16th president's axe-handling skills comes from the recent trailer for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter).

Booksellers have long benefited from the popularity and handselling potential of the hundreds of books about these two legendary presidents, including perennial contemporary favorites like Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Lincoln by David Herbert Donald; Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow and His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph Ellis. I used to work with a great history/biography handseller who could turn almost any customer question (including "Where are your restrooms?") into an enthusiastic conversation, often culminating in the sale of, for example, David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing.

Can't we retrofit that profitable passion for great historical reads onto a holiday weekend that really needs a cultural facelift? Where are the promotions for curing winter cabin fever by reading Lincoln books? Last week my e-mail inbox was absolutely deluged with Valentine's Day advertisements and event notices from booksellers. This week is notable for its dignified, even presidential, silence. I did notice the Presidents Day e-book sale from Sourcebooks on the website for Village Books, Bellingham, Wash., and a 20% off sale at Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, Mass. I'm sure there are others, and no doubt the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop in Chicago will do well.

But the book trade could certainly elevate an otherwise dismal Presidents Day retail celebration, which is now primarily known for its endless stream of bad commercials for stuff like cars (foreign as well as domestic), mattresses and home spas. Two days ago, I drove past a George Washington impersonator hawking discounts for a strip mall furniture store. He appeared to be in a minor territorial dispute with a rotund, male Statue of Liberty recommending an income tax preparer.

We could do better.

In fact, we can do anything we choose because the rules are flexible by definition. Strict constructionists will note that Presidents Day is something of a fable to begin with, since it was cobbled together as one of several holidays changed by the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Bill "to create three-day weekends and increased sell-a-thon opportunities," as the Christian Science Monitor recently described the festivities, adding that Honest Abe's birthday was never part of the federal holiday and the "name of the celebration on the third Monday in February remains 'Washington's Birthday,' as is clearly stated on the cover of the legislation."

So why not start the campaign today? I'm almost serious. Imagine just three bookstores creating an impromptu Presidents Day book gifting promotion for customers on Facebook or Twitter this weekend. To paraphrase Arlo Guthrie, they may think it's an organization. And can you imagine 50 bookstores doing so next year? Friends, they may think it's a movement... and that's just what it is.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1668.