My Visit to Toronto: Book Clubs and Book Discovery

One of the things that Open Letter and Three Percent is premised upon is the idea that a good publisher—especially in this day and age—is one that has a close connection to its audience. All too frequently, publishers remove themselves from their customers . . . Over the past few years we’ve written extensively about all the ways in which this plays out. The reliance on chain stores and major book review sections. The crappy websites. The fact that normal, average readers aren’t allowed to attend BEA. The even crappier websites. The assumptions editors make about what the public wants. The really mind-blowingly bad websites. The book trailers that go nowhere and do nothing. Etc., etc.

This is everything Open Letter doesn’t want to be, so when I was invited to Toronto earlier this week to speak to a book club that was reading five of our books, I jumped at the chance. I could be wrong (or simply unaware), but I think this is the first book club to read multiple Open Letter titles. Over the past few months they’ve read The Golden Calf by Ilf & Petrov and The Guinea Pigs by Ludvik Vaculik. And over the next few months, they’ll be reading The Wall in My Head, Merce Rodoreda’s Selected Stories, and Vertical Motion by Can Xue.

They had invited me up not to talk about these books in particular, but to give a general presentation about translation, the history of Open Letter, etc. (Basically I just told stories . . . It was sort of like my internship class, but with good food and wine!)

It was really interesting to meet all of these woman (some of whom are pictured below), and to learn more about their club. (If I remember right, they’ve been meeting for 17 years now.) Every year they choose a different theme, and there are two presenters for each book. (One who provides the context, the other who focuses on the book itself.)

What really struck me about my visit though was the way in which Judith (the woman who initially contacted me about this) came across our books.

Over the past month or so, I’ve been talking a lot about book discovery with my Intro to Literary Publishing class. We’ve talked about Small Demons and GoodReads and BookLamp and all the ways that today’s readers come to find out about which book they want to read next in our digital world. About the shrinking number of “respected” review outlets, the implosion of Borders, and the economic difficulties dragging down the vast majority of independent bookstores. About the way in which serendipity and personal recommendations are incredibly important in discovering your next life-changing book.

Which is why this Toronto Book Club story is kind of a perfect coda to the class . . . I mean really, how many people expect a 16-person book club in a country other than the U.S. or France, to dedicate 6-months of meetings to discussing Open Letter books. Not to rag on our books (WHICH ARE THE ABSOLUTE BEST AVAILABLE), but we don’t have strong Canadian distribution, and aren’t widely reviewed there . . . So how did they even hear about us?

Well, the person I really need to thank for this is Betsy Burton of The King’s English in Salt Lake City, whose store motto is “matching books to readers since 1977.” This is a store that Judith and her husband frequent on a regular basis, and every time, Judith asks Betsy to “take her on a tour” and recommend a bunch of books. Well, last spring, one of the books that Judith came home with was The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra. As suggested on the book itself, she read it in one sitting, got very excited (it’s a brilliant book) and decided to see about making “translation” this year’s book club theme . . . And there we are. From a physical, small indie store in Salt Lake City (a place I’ve never been) to a long-running book club in Toronto, all thanks to individual recommendations (Betsy knows Judith’s taste) and coincidence. (And the fact that we actually managed to get this book into The King’s English. Given our distribution and sales methods, that’s no a guarantee.)

Anyway, I had a great time talking to all of the members—to our actual readers—and just wanted to share a bit of this with all of you.

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