So, our author Mikhail Shishkin (whose Maidenhair is the most important book I’ve ever published) cause a bit of a stir over the weekend, when he decided against participating in the Read Russia delegation to BookExpo America this summer.
Here’s the complete text of his letter declining the invitation, as translated from the Russia by Marian Schwartz:
To the Federal Agency for the Press and Mass Communications and the International Office of the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center
February 27, 2013
Thank you for your invitation to take part in the activities of the official Russian delegation at BookExpo America 2013, the international book fair in New York being held from May 30 to June 1 of this year.
I understand how important participation in this kind of book fair is for a writer and for promoting his books in America and other countries. This is a unique opportunity to make contact with American publishers and readers, since the English-language book market remains virtually closed to writers from countries like Russia. Especially since all expenses for traveling to and staying in the United States (and this is no small sum) are taken on by the official Russian side.
Nonetheless, I am declining. Not because “my schedule doesn’t permit it,” but out of ethical considerations.
I have accepted similar proposals from you many times in the past and have participated in international book fairs as part of the Russian writers delegation, but in the last year the situation has changed.
In any self-respecting country, the state, through various foundations and organizations, supports the advancement of its writers abroad, pays for translations, invites writers to participate in international book fairs, and so on. For example, in Norway this is done by Norla; in Switzerland, Pro Helvetia. Naturally, by taking part in an official delegation, the writers represents not only himself personally and his books but also his country, his state.
Russia’s political development, and the events of last year in particular, have created a situation in the country that is absolutely unacceptable and demeaning for its people and its great culture. What is happening in my country makes me, as a Russian and a citizen of Russia, ashamed. By taking part in the book fair as part of the official delegation and taking advantage of the opportunities presented to me as a writer, I am simultaneously taking on the obligations of being a representative of a state whose policy I consider ruinous for the country and of an official system I reject.
A country where power has been seized by a corrupt, criminal regime, where the state is a pyramid of thieves, where elections have become farce, where courts serve the authorities, not the law, where there are political prisoners, where state television has become a prostitute, where packs of impostors pass insane laws that are returning everyone to the Middle Ages—such a country cannot be my Russia. I cannot and do not want to participate in an official Russian delegation representing that Russia.
I want to and will represent another Russia, my Russia, a country free of impostors, a country with a state structure that defends the right of the individual, not the right to corruption, a country with a free media, free elections, and free people.
Naturally, this is my personal decision and has not been made in consultation with other writers invited to New York; each is free to act in accordance with his or her own notions of ethics and reasonability.
Of course, Russia’s deputy minister of the press, Vladimir Grigoryev (who gives the most boring of all boring speeches) came out against Shishkin, using some really Sovietesque language:
We regret this. This sort of thing happens when a Russian writer spends many years away from the motherland. There are many examples of this in history.”
Yeah, gee, I wonder why . . .
And also of course, a bunch of other Russian writers are piling on Shishkin, talking about how he’s able to criticize the government from the “safety of Switzerland,” which is where Shishkin now lives.
All of this—along with the gripes that he’s doing this to get publicity for The Letter-Book, which is coming out in the UK sometime soon, or that he’s angling for the Nobel Prize—is fucking irritating. Since when is it not OK to criticize Russia and Putin’s never-ending reign? Any half-informed hipster in Brooklyn can get politico cred and free skinny jeans for yelling “Free Pussy Riot!,” but a writer being asked to represent Russia’s tyrannical, fairly insane government can only decline if he’s living in the country where Pussy Riot is jailed and Putin Youth flush away books they don’t agree with? What the fuck sense does that even make?
I’m so glad that Masha Gessen takes a lot of this to task in her NY Times piece today:
Prominent opposition writers also condemned Shishkin. Dmitry Bykov, a liberal writer and poet, suggested that Shishkin may be angling for a Nobel Prize in Literature. Eduard Limonov, a nationalist writer and poet, was more blunt: “So he is barking from Switzerland. Yes, my dear, Russia is a shameful paternalistic medieval state. But you have no right to say anything from the safety of Switzerland.”
All of this sounds painfully familiar. As a Russian journalist who speaks out against the regime, I am often told to get out of the country if I don’t like it — and just as often that, as someone who has lived in the United States and could live there again, I have no right to talk or write about Russia. By this logic, only those who have no choice but to live in Russia are entitled to criticize its regime. These arguments are old anti-dissident demagogic standbys, hardly unique to Russia, and they barely deserve attention.
But there is something else that the debate over Shishkin’s statement has exposed. The Russian state thinks it owns its citizens, including its writers, and many of its citizens, including its writers, appear instinctively to agree. To them, the very act of asserting one’s autonomy is suspect, which is why when someone does they look for ulterior motives. Shishkin must have fallen out of touch, or into bad company, or have a bigger plan, they reason — as though just claiming the right to choose one’s allegiances was not both the most basic and the most ambitious goal of all.
What really pleases me about all this is that Shishkin will be spending the month of April in the U.S., teaching at Columbia, doing events in Austin, San Francisco, Buffalo, Rochester, Boston, and as part of the PEN World Voices Festival. This tour is brought to you by Open Letter Books, the Center for the Art of Translation, the University of Buffalo, the University of Rochester, Columbia University, Holy Cross, the University of Texas, and other organizations not part of the Russian government. (More details coming soon.)
And to end on a high note, here’s a good review of the book at Slightly Bookist:
The first reading of Maidenhair is like tipping the pieces of a 1000-piece jigsaw out of the box and turning them all picture-side up. It’s quite the endeavour, requiring dedication to a fiddly and time-consuming task. Once the pieces are all out, there’s a vague sense of what the finished puzzle might look like: some sky, some grass, a white poodle with a red ribbon, a Bavarian castle standing grimly above a river. In no way, though, is your task complete. The same is true of a single reading of Maidenhair: once through is simply not enough to really appreciate it. The most you can hope for is to catch sight of some particularly attractive individual pieces, a fuzzy idea of the bigger picture, some parts that look really interesting, and the occasional group of pieces that could be anything. [. . .]
Maidenhair has stayed with me in the two months since I’ve read it. It’s a book that confirms Open Letter’s excellence in curation (except, of course, for a slight gender imbalance).1 If I say it’s worth persevering with, it sounds as though reading it is unenjoyable, which is far from true. But Maidenhair is a book that demands and then rewards attention, so it’s not one to read if you’ve turned into a gadget and can’t even concentrate long enough to read a single tweet without checking your email halfway through.
Also, World Literature Today also has a positive review that reinforces the difficultly/payoff of disentangling Maidenhair:
This array of connections forms a complex puzzle that can at times be dizzyingly intricate and even baffling. But disentangling Shishkin’s structure is one of the principal pleasures of reading Maidenhair. It is not only aesthetically satisfying but also reveals Shishkin’s unique worldview, which manages to engage Russia’s literary heritage while at the same time creating something new and altogether original.
Controversy and counter-controversy aside, you should just buy and read this book. Your life will be better for it.
1 We’re always trying to change this. And although still representing only 40% of our list, over the next 15 titles, we’re bringing out 6 books written by women and two anthologies including both male and female writers. It’s never perfect, but at least that’s a bit better . . .
I’ve known about this for a while (and may have even mentioned it on here at some point), but Russia is going to the be market focus at next year’s BookExpo America. This is part of the “Read Russia 2012” program, which is explained in the official press release:
Russia will be the country of focus and attention at BEA’s Global Market Forum 2012, June 5 – 7 and BEA will figure prominently into Read Russia 2012, the largest Russian initiative ever to promote Russian literature and Russian book culture in the United States. The Read Russia 2012 program, sponsored by the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communication and Media under the direction of Vladimir Grigoriev, will feature translation grants for the publication of contemporary and classical Russian literature in English, author tours for leading Russian writers and their publishers, a major exhibition on children’s book art, and a traveling film series and a new documentary television project about Russian literature. Over 40 Russian authors and translators are expected to travel to New York for various activities associated with Read Russia 2012 and BEA’s Global Market Forum.
The creation of a Russian institute of translation as well as awards to popularize and foster translations for both Russian contemporary and classic prose and poetry will be among the highlights of the cultural and professional programming for the Global Market Forum 2012 [. . .] Grigoriev noted that while in the past Russian literature has had a prominent role internationally, “today very few Russian writers find the reading audience they deserve, which is what we want to start changing through our efforts at and around BookExpo America in 2012.”
While making this announcement, Vladimir Grigoriev was accompanied by Mikhail Shishkin, one of the most gifted new Russian authors, who has recently been awarded the prestigious Haus der Kulturen der Welt international award, for the best of the younger generation. Shishkin added how excited he was at the prospect of being part of the upcoming program at BEA.
This is particularly awesome since Open Letter is going to be bringing out Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair next year . . . Lots more info on that to come.
So the last time I went to BookExpo America, I ended up writing a five-part series that was basically about how everything sucked, the publishing industry was imploding, BEA’s focus was fuzzy at best, etc., etc.
Well, last week BEA took place in the
fairly dysfunctional Jacob Javits Center in NY and the mood was . . . optimistic. That’s the word that Publishers Weekly used in one of their first pieces—an interview with stylish show director, Steve Rosato—and came up a few times in discussions with other publishers and booksellers.
Which seems pretty weird. It’s not like the publishing world is in much better shape than it was in 2009. Sure, as Tina Jordan, VP at the Association of American Publishers, will scream at you, “the industry is growing,” but $.99 ebooks are jacking the revenue streams for traditional “Big Five” publishers, bookstores are still in a fight for their lives, and the show itself is still loaded with walking infomercials like this guy.
That said, there was a very different vibe to BEA 2011 than there was just two short years ago. “Optimistic” might be overstating it, but publishers and booksellers alike seem to have come to terms with things. With ebooks and even smaller profit margins. With the fragmentation of audiences and the ways of reaching them. All of that.
Sure bookstores are still fighting for their lives, and things aren’t 100% copacetic, but at least it didn’t seem like BEA was about to end with an industry-wide suicide pact.
And not that I don’t have complaints (seriously, what would Three Percent be without a few jabs?), my main one being the lack of books in the exhibition area. Sure, all the indie and university and small press stands were rife with actual books, but the Big Five (Random, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, HarperCollins, MacMillan), looked like showrooms brought to you by Apple. Instead of actual books, there were huge posters and touch screens and other advertising devices that involved blown up covers, pretty author photos, and as few words as possible. Granted, the whole galley and giveaway scene got way out of hand a few years back, with every bookseller, publisher, and blogger ravenously snatching whatever bound object they passed by (and then selling them on eBay), so I understand the hesitation to make too many free copies available. But for christ’s sake, we’re in the publishing industry. We, as a group, tend to process information via the handling of actual books. For all the apps in our lives, it sure would’ve been nice to spend a few days touching real objects.
That point aside, I thought this was the best BEA in years. So instead of my usual posts of harsh criticism and bad jokes, here’s a list of things I liked about BEA (in no clear order):
1) Ramy Habeeb’s Graphic Novel on the Egyptian Revolution: Ramy’s one of my favorite book conference friends. I met him a few years ago in Abu Dhabi, and run into him at any and all e-future related book conferences. He’s hysterical. He also has created (with his illustrator friend) a graphic novel about the Egyptian Revolution that’s going to be huge. I only had a chance to glance at a few pages, but damn, I’m willing to bet that this is all over NPR in a few months. (BTW, I’m listing Ramy as #1 because he told me that I looked really buff compared to when I saw him in January. Flattery will never die.)
2) The Panels: In the past, I would leave my schedule wide open to allow time to wander the floor, bounce around from conversation to conversation, and to have those random meetings that make BEA (or any networking event) worthwhile. This year I decided to attend (and speak on) a number of panels and was pretty impressed with all the programming. Italy was the “Market Focus” for this year and their day of events was well-organized and very interesting. As was the National Book Critics Circle panel on online book reviewing. (With the exception that when asked about which online review sources they paid attention to, the four panelists named things like The New Yorker and Bookforum and NPR and other publications that everyone already knows about.) I do have a minor panel complaint though: by the very nature of these, if you’re familiar with the topic, the panels are redundant; if you don’t already know the basics, they can be a bit technical. Maybe in the future BEA could have two tracks on certain things—a beginner piece on ebooks and whatnot, and an advanced event where those in the know can really get into a more elevated discussion. Just a suggestion.
3) Focus on Discovery: We’ve mentioned this before in relation to DiscoverReads and Bookish, but publishers (and industry professionals) are starting to focus (and spend money on) on recommending the right book to the right reader at the right time. This is a big sea change for the industry (one that I’ll write more about later), and one that starts to get into the fundamental issue of the 21st-century: now that distribution isn’t an issue (anyone can get anything anywhere at anytime), it’s all about sorting demand. Furthermore, sites like Cursor and BookCountry are interesting in the way that they enable writers to work with other writers and to discover new works. Again, more on this in a much longer post.
4) Partying like It’s the 90s: I heard three people use this phrase at BEA. After the third, I asked what exactly he meant by this. “You know, lavish spreads, free drinks, and everyone pretending that the publishing industry wasn’t screwed.” Yes.
5) Russia: Next year Russia will be the Market Focus country, and they’ve already started planning . . . Not only do they want to bring 50+ authors to the States for BEA, they want to tour them to universities beforehand and have them participate in the PEN World Voices Festival. And they want to bring a lot of publishing people to Moscow for the Book Fair. I approve.
6) Book Jokes: In reference to the forthcoming Robopocalypse, the latest in the zombies/vampires/werewolves are going to kill us all genre: “Remember when books were just about people killing people?”
7) Bookseller Data: I’m not sure this is good exactly, but I was able to attend the ABACUS Data discussion featuring financial data from a wide range of bookstores. I could go on and on about this (again, longer post later), but basically, this study broke down how much bookstores spend on Cost of Good Sold, Advertising, Salaries, etc., as a way of providing benchmarks and trying to puzzle out what things made some bookstores more successful than others. Bottom line: the profit margin for the top 30% of bookstores was 4.7%, the “profit” margin for the middle 40% was
1.6%, and it was -15.3% for the bottom 30%. This is all terrible, but it’s nice to see real numbers-in part so I can use these in my “Intro to Literary Publishing” class, and in part because we need to be as realistic as possible.
8) Indie Booksellers Choice Awards Party: I only caught the end of this, but David Rees was a very funny host (as expected), and I was able to see Johnny Temple of Akashic accept the award for Nina Revoyr’s Wingshooters. (Here’s the complete list of winners.) Great award, great party, and great turnout. Only disappointment is that I think Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House is still pissed at me for the Amazon kerfuffle of last fall. That sucks, since I respect what he’s done and love MHP books. But, well, not everyone is going to like you for everything. This was a sort of recurring motto at a place I used to work at, so I should be used to it by now.
9) Meeting Patti Smith at the New Directions party. That’s overall just pretty damn cool.
From Publishers Weekly:
Adding a public component to BookExpo America has been one of the most hotly debated topics regarding possible changes to the annual event. BEA officials have discussed it internally and with their customers, and the concept has now received a major boost from Penguin, whose CEO, David Shanks, and president, Susan Petersen Kennedy, have outlined what they see as a viable way to bring book lovers into the event without having them at the Javits Center. The executives made the proposal in response to queries from PW to publishers and booksellers about how BEA can be improved.
I’ve argued in the past that book lovers should just be allowed into Javits, but whatever, at least this is a push in the right direction . . . maybe. Nothing too specific in the article, but here’s the core of the idea:
As envisioned by Shanks and Kennedy, the new component could be modeled after the annual PEN World Voices Festival and New Yorker Book Festival, which hold a series of author events and panels at different locations all over the city. Ideally, the cost of the tickets would cover the overhead for the venues, and events would be scheduled in the evening and not conflict with BEA programming and exhibits. All BEA badge holders could attend these events for free.
Creating off-site public events, Shanks and Kennedy said, “would further expand the opportunities and exposure for the BEA, authors and their books.” The addition of these events, the two said, “would ultimately help generate advance buzz for the overall convention as well as for the authors and their books—not only in the media and among booksellers but among consumers, who would get a sneak peek at a few select major fall authors.” At the off-site events, publishers could do consumer giveaways, as they do at other book fairs across the country.
OK, so that sounds decent. Although coming exactly one month after the PEN World Voices Festival, it might be a tough sell. My real concern though is that this will be totally corporate and, similar to the extremely popular Winter Institute, a pay-to-play situation in which only the biggest of the biggest can actually participate.
That would be extremely disappointing. Hell, we already can see Malcolm Gladwell nine thousand times a year, and trying to rope the general public into paying to see the “Big Names” is an idea that operates under the deteriorating blockbuster model, trying to prop up some new hits instead of offering readers an opportunity to explore all the diverse voices being published today. For that, they’d have to visit the Javitz Center . . . Oh, wait.
It really is a positive development that people are thinking in this way, and I applaud Penguin for making this proposal. I guess it’s the cynic in me that envisions this as a potentially good compromise that turns into something that I would never want to attend if I wasn’t part of the industry. But for now, I’ll hope for the best . . . The best being that some smaller publishers can also have their authors participate in this without having to fork over thousands . . . Maybe Lance can chime in in the comments and reassure me . . .
Today’s Publishing Perspectives (which everyone in the universe should subscribe to), has a great piece by Lance Fensterman, the man behind BookExpo America, the New York Comic Con, the New York Anime Fest, and the soon-to-be-launched Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo. The interaction (or lack thereof) between publishers and readers is a long-running hobbyhorse of mine, so this bit is of particular interest to me:
But for all this nuance, what is the real distinction between all these shows? Since I work so closely with both the business to business model and the con (or consumer/public) model, my observation is that the cons (I use this term generically to define SDCC, NYCC, C2E2) drive media coverage, are epicenters of energy, and allow an incredibly porous connection between creator and consumer. Trade events (exclusively business to business environments) lack this porous connection between creator and consumer. The con model is based on an outside-in style of connection and promotion; the creators are there to hear from the consumers, to influence the consumers, and to interact with the consumers. The model at trade events such as BEA is much more inside-out. Publishers are there to influence emissaries or tastemakers who are then expected to take the message to the book buying public based on what they saw and who they met.
The notable increase of bloggers at BEA and the quality and quantity of information that is conveyed through the Internet is certainly changing the paradigm at BEA as the “public” is becoming increasingly involved through a Web based universe. But this introduction of a public component is a long way from what we see at SDCC or NYCC. I am not suggesting that there is a perfect model for any single event. Different shows serve different purposes. But just as NYCC needs to think about building a better business to business environment to set it apart, so too does BEA need to think about creating more direct communication with the public. We live in a world where everyone feels empowered to have a “say” and to wield some influence. Since this is the case, I think it is appropriate for both NYCC and BEA to ask the question: just who is an industry insider anymore?
If you’ve read the first four parts of this post (or this piece I wrote a few months ago), you pretty much know where this is headed. After X years of keeping BEA confined to the “trade,” I think things have to open up to the public—whatever that might mean. It’s at times like this, when things are in flux and not necessarily going all that well, that we really need to experiment, to try something new . . .
In talking with Lance Fensterman (who runs BEA), I think we have somewhat similar ideas of what sorts of people should be allowed into the Expo, although we use somewhat different terminology. I love to say that we should open the show up to the public—that it should come to resemble a “Con” in which anyone with enough cash for the entrance fee can come in and mill around. Of course, since we are talking about books and not wildly popular TV shows, I think the group that would come would be pretty self-selecting. The collectors, the voracious readers, the book club members, the people who love literature would come—people who fit a lot of the categories of Lance’s redefined notion of “the trade.”
I think it’s pretty obvious what’s going on behind Lance’s rhetoric . . . the big commercial presses—who tend to spend the most money on the show and make BEA a bigger draw for everyone—ain’t very supportive of the idea of having the public be able to come to BEA. If it’s been written once on this blog, it’s been written a million times—publishers hate readers.
And what a muddy situation! This “public” made up of the same people who blog/tweet/recommend wandering around the halls . . . Where are their credentials?
That’s not to say that this idea doesn’t have it’s problems. One of the big issues is whether or not books would be available for sale. I mean, BEA is the American Booksellers Association’s big show, and I can’t imagine many indie bookstores would like to see the public buying books directly from publishers . . . And if the show did have some “professional” times in addition to “public” times, there would be some sort of switchover costs associated with removing galleys and whatnot and replacing them with books that could be sold. (Which is why redefining the word “trade” is a cleaner approach.)
But maybe there’s a still a way. . . . Hell, it’s been demonstrated (in certain studies) that giving away books actually increases sales. Maybe we don’t have to worry about sales at all—just create buzz with the public the same way we do with booksellers and reviewers.
Besides, it’s not like publishers were all that friendly with their galleys this year. I heard a couple of horror stories from NYC booksellers in which they tried to get a galley and were denied. Or couldn’t even get anyone from a publisher to talk to them. I can’t tell you how many complaints I heard (here we go again . . .) of publishers being extremely insular and only talking to one another.
Before getting more into the potential problems of opening up the show, there are other benefits than simply trying to generate excitement. For one, BEA would become a much better platform for discussing important issues. Booths and panels on the importance of independent bookstores would be really interesting and a great way to raise awareness among individual readers.
Or even better, why couldn’t BEA have a panel about e-books that includes a cultural critic, a publisher, an author, a reader? Create a space for real debate and discussion?
I know I’m repeating myself, but publishing is really, really shitty at doing market research. But what if you had a few thousand (ten thousand?) “regular readers” hanging out in one place where you could potentially interact, ask them questions, engage in some sort of feedback loop that would improve your business practices? This could be revolutionary . . .
Even getting back to the problem of selling (christ, what a phrase), there could be some sort of “bookseller tax” in which 10% of all sales go to the ABA or are redistributed to bookstores, or go to purchasing ads to support book review sections, or whatever. This seems like a problem that can be overcome . . . It’s been solved in Frankfurt. And in Buenos Aires. And Guadalajara. And almost every other country with a large book fair . . . And for everyone looking for ways of quantifying success, cash from sales and foot traffic from the public would definitely suffice.
Speaking of other international book fairs, these frequently seem to be a point of pride, a major event that everyone’s aware of, not just the handful of people in the industry. I mean, how many articles in the major papers were there about BEA this year? I’m willing to bet that there were five times as many in the Buenos Aires papers and magazines back in April during their book fair . . . a fair that’s open till 4am (seriously—4am) on a few nights to accommodate all the people who come and cultivate a true festival experience.
A BookExpo that’s about books, that’s connecting readers to books would seem so much more fulfilling. And I really don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way.
But what will really happen? Well, rumor has it that the university presses are pulling out fast and furious, which is absolutely terrible. Where else do you have the chance to see so many university press books on display? In a local box store? Not a chance . . . And I doubt big publishers would be willing to go for changes like the ones mentioned above. They’re still clinging to the old models and ignoring both common sense and solid theory. So we end with Lance fighting the good fight, trying to improve the space in which publishers can promote their wares, but settling for a much smaller fair that takes place mid-week so that publishing folks can bond with other publishing folks and wonder just what the fuck went wrong.
Over the past few years the debate between print and online reviewers has been one of the more contentious in all of the book business. Similar to publishing, this is an area where technology has outstripped the prevailing model, where with a couple bucks, a smart website name, some literary talent, and a bit of ambition, basically anyone can become a reputable commentator on books, participating in—and altering—the ongoing larger conversation about literary culture. (And you can even get Press access to BookExpo!)
Pair this quick, cheap, and easy growth with the precipitous decline in newpaper book reviews (not to mention magazines) and it’s easy to see why so many online vs. print barbs are exchanges on panels across the country every year. Personally, I think this all gets a bit stupid, but there are valid points on both sides. (No one likes losing their job to technological advances—hell, if e-books knell the death toll for print publishers, I’ll be the first to call for Luddites to unite.)
And the argument just won’t go away . . . See this year’s book reviewing panel (thanks again to Gwen at Literary License for a great write-up) that circled around separating “book reviewers” (generally print, representing authority) from “book recommenders” (internet dwellers, representing the pure democratic ideal). Even without having been there, I’m sure I could repeat most of the arguments from both sides (well, more from the one particular site that was more aptly represented), which are actually kind of interesting within the context of BookExpo, where desperate—and I do mean desperate—publishers were trying how to figure out how to mobilize the tweeting universe to promote their titles . . .
That’s really why I find this debate so silly . . . If the industry wasn’t fucked, there would presumably be enough space in the culture for long-form, independently edited print reviews, book news magazines, online literary mags, bloggers, social networking recommenders, etc., all of which would connect readers with books in different ways, with different levels of authority.
What’s really funny is that the most vital section of BEA was the Firebrand/NetGalley “blogger signing” area. No matter when I passed by there was always a small crowd of well read bloggers/readers chatting. And no surprise to anyone paying attention, HarperCollins and other big publishers came over asking bloggers how they could work together . . .
No offense to HC—er, rather, pox on everyone—but haven’t we been talking about figuring out how to work with bloggers to promote literature for the past five-plus years? But that’s the point—publishers and authors are still trying to figure out this landscape where the bastions of book reviewing are only capable of doing so much (even the NY Times is shedding pages), but where people still want to talk about books and are finding new ways of spreading the word.
So, going back to an earlier point, if the overall point of BEA is to “create buzz,” why would we want to keep any of these “book influencers” out? I mean, granted, at some point in time BEA was the perfect meeting ground for the best of the book review editors to wander the floor and find out what they should be reviewing in the floor. No offense to anyone (maybe “no offense” should be the title of Part V . . .), but that’s just not really the case anymore. Most reviewers who do come (unfortunately there’s not many that do—only one or two from the biggest publications) are there only on Friday morning, or come for the panel they’re on and jet. Saturday and Sunday aren’t the best days for getting your hot new galley in the hands of a traditional book reviewer . . . yet, the money for the galleys, booth, trip, etc., has already been spent.
Lance Fensterman (who, if I haven’t said it already, did a kick-ass job with the show, as did the rest of his team . . . none of this is meant to reflect on them . . . they do all that they can to put on the best show they can for the rest of us—it’s the rest of us that sort of screw up their intentions) always uses the example that technically the number one reviewer on Amazon.com isn’t considered part of the “trade” and therefore isn’t allowed into BookExpo. I’d bet my last free PGW drink that dozens upon dozens of presses would love to get their books into the hands of these top Amazon/LibraryThing/GoodReads reviewers . . . But this sort of exclusion is exactly what notions of “authority” tend to lead to—there’s no “authority” without an “in” and an “out.”
OK, so publishers have ceded some control to iUniverse, self-publishers and the like, and reviewers have done the same with bloggers, online magazines, etc. So who really makes up the book “trade”?
Some people will always reject this notion, but the traditional ideas of what constitutes “trade” are totally demolished. . . . But this—I think—is a good thing. Say what you will about book blogs or the like, but there’s a reason HC is trying to figure out how to get books into these people’s hands. In contrast to the often grumpy, Eyeore-like traditional publishing folks (shit, isn’t this series simply four days of complaining?), the blogging, twittering, book loving, word-of-mouth spreading general readers actually get excited about books. About meeting authors and receiving a galley. It’s refreshing to talk to readers who aren’t totally jaded . . .
Tomorrow I’ll get more into what I think BEA could really look like, but my core belief is that BookExpo could—no, should—be an event that generates excitement about all facets of the book industry. That fans of New Directions storm the floor to find out what books are coming out in the next few months. That college kids who are intrigued by the publishing world can start to see what it is, who the players are, how a book gets launched. That readers, regular book buying readers, can get a glimpse behind the curtain and see where the book magic happens.
That’s all a bit over the top, I know, but seriously, book culture (of this sort) in this country needs a real injection of life, and if there was a vibrancy about BEA in the way there is about ComicCon or other fan shows like that, we all might be in a better place. And increased buzz, increased excitement, necessarily leads to increased awareness—of books, publishers, authors, goings on. Even, perhaps, of bookstores and the issues surrounding book culture . . . but more on that tomorrow.
Over the past few years, the book industry has become much flatter, allowing many, many more people to enter into the business. For instance, the advent of self-publishing allows almost anyone to become an author and make their book available for sale. Blogs turn your voracious reader into a book reviewer almost overnight. And thanks to print on demand and e-technologies, the bar to entering the publishing market is much lower than it was back a couple decades ago.
Bookstores are one of the few areas of the industry that are still cost-prohibitive. You can’t compete with Amazon by creating an online store, and a physical location and all those physical books requires a huge cash outlay.
This fundamental change has upwrenched the industry in several ways though. The distribution chain for books still heavily favors the corporate publishers with solid nationwide distribution and long-term beneficial arrangements with major review sources and the chain bookstores.
One reason I think the “editors buzz panel” is silly is because it’s simply a chance for a few corporations to present the titles they’re going to be pimping hard over the next few months anyway. It’s not like you’re not already going to be hearing about these books—that decision was made way ahead of time by the marketing staff, or even by the editor who shelled out a million bucks for a particular book. The buzz panel gives the illusion of choice and participation. Booksellers can feel like they were in on the ground floor, but really? A book coming out from one of the big presses with a mammoth marketing budget (including tens of thousands being spent at B&N, the direct physical competitor to the indie booksellers attending this buzz panel) will be given all the necessary backing to take off. Sure, an indie store could decide to not carry it (but again, really? they want to stay in business by stocking books that are selling, and books getting a lot of attention and publishing push, tend to sell) or at least not recommend it, but the forces of publishing buzz are much bigger than a two-hour panel in which a hundred bookstores find out about the fall’s big titles.
That digression aside, BEA is one potentially great opportunity for smaller presses to reach readers they normally wouldn’t reach. This point hearkens back to the attendance criteria, but in a slightly different way. The corporate presses still have the best, biggest, and most noticeable places on the floor (unless HMH and Macmillan, which took out meeting rooms instead), but nevertheless, there is the opportunity at BEA for the indie presses (like those with PGW or Consortium), the micropresses, and the self-published to meet potential readers and promoters. It’s not often that the buyer at a store in Montana will take a call from a tiny press that they’ve never heard of, but at BEA, there is the chance that this same bookseller will wander by the tiny press booth, notice an interesting looking book, strike up a conversation, stock that title, and handsell a few dozen copies.
One of the problems (and oh god, are there a lot of problems) with the current structure of the book industry is the fact that a traditional press can not survive making connections like this that will help sell a few hundred extra copies of a book. It’s one of the reasons that during the Arab-U.S. Editors Panel Erroll McDonald from Pantheon was so adamant about translations failing in the U.S.
As you can see from Gwen’s recap (the above link), during this panel about the obstacles and opportunities in exchanging works between Arab and U.S. publishers, McDonald took the very old corporate view that translations can’t be successful in the U.S. because America is “breathtakingly provincial” and that international lit is ghettoized in the stores, in the media, etc. Therefore, no one buys it, Pantheon doesn’t make enough money to keep the overlords happy, and we ignore the rest of the world to produce and promote our own crappy books.
This is one of those topics that gets me all hyped up and jittery, so I’ll try and save most of my rant for a longer, more complete post, but basically, I think McDonald’s presentation was predicated on two questionable tenets that are worth examining.
First of all, the definition of “success” is, and probably will be for the foreseeable future, based on the mega-sales level that can be achieved by Dan Brown or Stephen King, or whomever. A book isn’t successful unless it’s selling tens of thousands of copies. Sales = success. Or more specifically, sales large enough to sustain an outdated and dying business model = success. Fuck. That. Thanks to changes in the industry, new presses are starting up with sustainable business models premised on sales in the 2,000 – 5,000 range. Of course, these presses aren’t going to make anyone a millionaire, but they are presses that will be successful in creating a diverse, vibrant book culture. You could shun this as “spiritual success,” but going back to the mediocrity point, only a few people are going to get rich in the book world, so you have to do something that will make you feel good about your life.
And besides, coming from a major press like Pantheon, this “translations cost too much to publish” argument is total bullshit. I can’t say for certain, but I suspect that Pantheon offers $100,000 advances on a routine basis. And yet, don’t want to do a translation because they’d have to pay a translator $10,000. . . . Which, yes, it’s an “additional cost,” unless you acknowledge that the rights to the best works of international literature are available for much, much less than $100,000. In any given year, 80% of all translations are published by small presses—none of which offer anywhere near $100,000 for the rights. So Pantheon could do these books and be “successful”—they just don’t want to.
(The moment of the panel that really pissed me off was McDonald’s claim that an editor won’t just read an Arab book and decide to publish it. He/she will only do it once it’s been successfully published in Germany, in France, in Spain, etc., etc. Once it’s a known quantity then you can do it. Of course, he hedged in answering whether an editor does the same thing when evaluating the work of a debut American novelist . . . Dude also insisted there are no presses in America doing only literature in translation, so whatever.)
Secondly, and maybe more importantly, I think he’s conflating the words “isolated” and “provincial” to create a self-fulfilling situation. Americans may or may not be provincial when it comes to reading foreign fiction (recent successes of 2666 and The Elegance of the Hedgehog would argue that they’re not), but they’re definitely isolated from the rest of the world’s book culture. As anyone who’s read this blog more than once knows, there are very few books in translation published in America on a yearly basis. We live in a culturally isolated world. I’m just not willing to believe that this is due to our inherent fear of international literature . . . If I was subjected to as many invasive ads, reviews, interviews, etc., etc., for Munif’s Cities of Salt as I am for Angels and Demons, I might well have read this book. The business model that dominates publishing (although there are things on the edges that successfully run counter to this) is the blockbuster idea that pours immense resources into promoting the most accessible works, shaping public consciousness to make money and then claiming that the books people never even heard about (because the press never spent a second figuring out how to let people know about them) didn’t sell because people don’t like those sorts of books.
This flattening is even more evident when it comes to reviewers and the old print vs. online kerfuffle. But more on that issue—and its relation to voracious readers and readers in general—in part IV.
Part I of this BEA-roundup can be found here.
Attendance (and foot traffic on the floor) tends to become the primary evaluative criteria. And the show was crowded on Friday. (Although Saturday afternoon was a bit bleak, and on Sunday, it was damn near post-apocalyptic.) But one interesting thing—and I’m sure Lance will correct me if I’m wrong—in past years, when you went into the show, your badge was scanned, providing some sort of count of people at the fair. This year? No badge scanning at all . . . as long as your badge was visible, you could walk in. Even if it was an outdated one from BEA 2007 . . .
But yes, OK, the fair was crowded on Friday. But to play the cynic, it seemed to me like the majority of people on the floor on Friday were other publishing people. Assistant publicists, editors, marketing folks, etc. People who a) never come back over the weekend, because that’s their “free time” and b) people who tend not to actually buy books. (It’s absolutely true that in this industry—which is totally filled with examples of financial mediocrity and failure—that one of the great benefits is the free books. This is an industry of passion, with the drug of choice available for free at almost all times . . . ) So next year, when the show is on Wednesday through Friday, the floor will be super-crowded with people who are probably not the best target market.
(There was a rumor—denied by BEA staff—that the aisles were closer together this year, which created the impression that the show was more crowded than it was. Not kidding that several conversations revolved around trying to remember just how far apart the booths used to be . . .)
Historically, the show was good for connecting smaller publishers to booksellers they typically didn’t meet with during the year. But thanks to the success of the Winter Institute and the fact that anyone can reach anyone these days (via phone, fax, e-mail, or tweet), it doesn’t seem like booksellers feel that this is a “necessary” show to attend. And in the future, this number will likely decrease, since it’s hard for most booksellers and librarians to take off three days (or more) during the work week . . .
Big Book(s) are often the one and only aspect of BEA that the mainstream media writes about. What are the big books for the fall? Why aren’t there any big books this year? Why can’t we figure out which books are going to be big? More than any other, this topic emphasizes the “buzz” factor of BEA. The logic goes: if you take out the right size stand, come up with the coolest gimmick, and deliver a great product to the appropriate tastemakers, you can do enough marketing at BEA to ensure a book “takes off” when it “launches” in the fall. (Why are all industry metaphors based on rockets?)
Regardless if whether there’s a clear cut “big book” or not (last year, I claimed that 2666 was the book of BEA), there’s at least a lot of chatter about upcoming titles from established authors. This year I didn’t hear much of that at all. Everyone was too busy talking about foot traffic and the fact that neither the New Yorker nor the New York Review of Books threw parties this year. . .
Complaints really might be the backbone of BEA. I mentioned this in passing earlier, but if you stop to think about it, the book world—from publishers to booksellers to authors to journalists to distributors—is filled with mediocrity and failure. Not in terms of the people or product (although in terms of the 400,000 books published last year, there really is a lot of that), but in terms of financial success. If I told the kids at business school that they could get into an industry where everyone is underpaid and more than 80% of all the businesses are two fuck-ups away from bankruptcy, and that the average profit margin is under 5%, their heads would explode. But that’s what it is. Most people get into this business out of their love for books—definitely not because they think books are the quickest way to living large with lots of bling. Which is actually cool. One could argue that book people are the best people to work/talk/drink with, and that the strength of the book community outweighs all financial opportunities passed up by entering this field.
That said, the fact that the book business is a neverending struggle leads to immense amounts of bitching. And BEA is the ultimate cathartic release that escalate quickly into realms of self-reflexive, meta-bitching. Here’s a typical conversation:
A: So how are you doing?
B: Good. Well, you know, we’re hanging in there.
A: Not out of business yet.
B: Yeah, well, not yet. You know, zero growth is the new OK.
A: Same for us. Just trying to make it by. Times are tough. This industry is totally broken. Just look around . . .
B: And what do you think of the show?
A: Kind of sucks, no? I mean, where are the booksellers and reviewers? This place is a ghost town.
B: Yeah, and our booth placement sucks too. We’re behind f’ing Harlequin.
A: F-that. They need to make this show better. Get more people here.
B: And where are the galleys this year? If there’s no free books, there’s no point to this show.
A: You coming back next year?
B: Of course, of course. Haven’t missed a show in fifteen years . . .
Trust me, we need this. . . . OK, two sections left . . .
If there’s one thing publishing people like more than complaining about how bad business is, it’s analyzing whether or not BookExpo America was successful. Which isn’t easy to determine . . . Lance Fensterman (who runs the show for Reed Exhibitions) has pointed out before how difficult it is to quantify the show’s success, since the goal of the show is to “create buzz.” (If a press hands out 3,000 galleys to booksellers and librarians, and only find 1,200 in the trash bins afterward, was the show a success?)
So how does one evaluate this show? I think this is a pretty important topic, since the show is in flux—next year it’s moving to mid-week (an idea I loathe, but more on that later), you should see the bleak picture I took of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s “meeting room,” which took the place of their normal booth on the floor—and needs to evolve to a) avoid a spectacular collapse similar to BookExpo Canada, and b) provide an experience that obviously impacts future book sales.
But back to evaluating the show. For anyone who hasn’t been there, BEA is a clusterfuck of reasons for attending and things being offered. For the booksellers, there are educational panels, there are author breakfasts and lunches, there are presses out on the floor that your store might not have heard of. There are also other panels for the industry as a whole, like “Twitter for Dummies,” or the Editor’s Buzz Panel. This year there was a “Global Market Focus” on the Arab World, with panels and off-site cultural events.
Then there is the exhibition floor itself, which is really the focal point of the Expo. This is where publishers big and small take out booths of varying sizes, from the mammoth Abu Dhabi International Book Fair palace to Random House’s postage-stamp sized embarrassment. Self-published authors are pushing their titles into the hands of anyone with a press badge (thanks again for that copy of From Veils to Thongs ), gimmicks abound, and everyone gets trained into staring at everyone else’s chests and waists, searching out namebadges instead of making eyecontact with the person you’re speaking to. (It takes days to break oneself of this weird, ADD-inducing habit.)
And at the end of the day, the booksellers go to dinners and bookseller parties, the publishers go to publisher parties, and we all get home much too late, much too drunk.
(Just want to insert here, that this book wonderland is only accessible to “members of the trade.” Reviewers, booksellers, librarians, book manufacturers, authors, etc. Granted this is pretty wide—I’m a reviewer! and who isn’t an author—but still, there are hoops to jump through to prove that you belong.)
This isn’t to say that BEA isn’t fun or useful. Before breaking this down any further, it’s worth pointing out that the show is essentially a platform for book business people to interact with one another in a myriad of ways. And that is always accomplished. There are so many people I see only at BEA, people that I love talking with, catching up with, exchanging ideas with, and if for nothing else, the fair is extremely useful for that. (Thanks to the implosion of BEC, I was able to meet a lot more cool Canadian publishing people, like Daniel from Biblioasis, Alana from Coach House, and Tara from Key Porter. )
But this all costs money. Lots and lots of money. Money to take out a booth, and to pay for each chair in the booth. To pay for a badge (well, for most people—I actually had three waiting for me, including one for Chad Post of Rochester University, Cleveland), and to pay for overpriced bottles of water. And flying, staying, and eating in New York isn’t cheap—especially when you consider that the bulk of publishers and booksellers and librarians populating this show are surviving on 0-1% annual profit margins. (Not exaggerating. The new tagline for the book industry: “Zero growth is the new, ‘We’re doing great!’”) So to justify all this expense, they need to get something out of the show . . . and what that something is, and whether or not BEA is supplying it in the best possible way is at the heart of all the “was the show good for you?” discussions.
Since this is getting Biblically long, I’ll stop here and pick up some of the evaluative measures in part two.
Over the next few days, we’re going to highlight a few of the goings on at this year’s BookExpo America, the parties, the panels, etc. I thought I’d start out by highlighting the two events taking place next Friday and Saturday featuring the Arab world, this year’s Global Market Forum focus. Both of these events are open to the public, and are definitely worth checking out.
The Thousand and One Nights
7:00PM, Friday, May 29
Goethe Institute New York Wyoming Building, 5 East 3rd Street
Muhsin Al-Musawi presents his new book, Amal Al-Jubouri reads Arabic and European remixes of “The Thousand and One Nights” (English/German/Arabic) organized by the Berlin-based cultural association west-östlicher diwanh.
New Eyes on the Arab World—Breaking Down Barriers of Fear and Prejudice
7:00PM, Saturday, May 30
The New York Public Library, 42nd Street
Peter Theroux, Raja Alem, Tom McDonough, Muhammed Al Mur & Joe Sacco with Sulaiman Al Hattlan, moderator
Five writers, Arab and American, who have taken innovative approaches to portraying the Arab World to an American audience discuss the challenges they have faced and the successes they have achieved in breaking down the barriers of fear and prejudice through their work. Whether through travelogue, memoir, graphic novel, children’s literature or translation, these writers have widened the lens and sharpened the focus of American readers’ view, setting a new precedent for sensitivity, creativity and insight in literature about the Arab World.
As the focus of this year’s Global Market Forum at BookExpo, the Arab publishing world will be highlighted through a series of panels and cultural event kicking off the morning of Friday, May 29th with a ribbon cutting by Lance Fensterman and His Excellency M. Amr Moussa, General Secretary of the Arab League.
All of the events sound interesting—and I’m not just saying that because I’m participating in one. Here’s the schedule for all of Friday’s events:
9:30am: Arab-US Editors Talk About the Exchange of Literature and its Impact on Their Cultures
11:00am: Up Close: Childrens’ Books in the Arab Market
2:00pm: Logistical Considerations for Arab Book Markets: Distribution, Imports and Exports
3:30pm: Copyright in the Arab World—Legal Status, Concerns, and Best Practices
4:30pm: Arab Match-Making Session
Copyright and distribution are huge issues in the Arab World, and the opening discussion about the exchange of literature (which is the panel I’m participating on) and the closing “match-making” session should give interested U.S. publishers a chance to find out how to do business with publishers from this region.
In addition to these educational/business panels, there will be two cultural events taking place on Friday and Saturday night:
On Friday at 7pm at the Goethe Institute Wyoming Building (5 E. 3rd St.): “New York Meets Baghdad” with Amal Al-Jubouri and Muhsin Al-Musawi on “Scheherazades’s Sisters”
On Satuday at 7pm at the New York Public Library: “New Eyes on the Arab World—Breaking Down Barriers of Fear and Prejudice” featuring Peter Theroux, Raja Alem, Tom McDonough, Muhammed Al Mur & Joe Sacco with Sulaiman Al Hattlan, moderator
I’m sure all the participants in the regular Editors’ Buzz panel and YA version have interesting things to say, but how many of these books really need the buzz?
I don’t know, maybe it’s one of those days, but I feel like this is probably a pay-to-play set-up and that it would be cool if BEA also had a buzz panel connecting indie presses with indie booksellers. Just saying . . .
Over at MediumAtLarge, Lance Fensterman has started a short series of posts entitled “Who Is BEA?” on what BookExpo America is and how it should evolve.
Ultimately I believe the event’s success is measured by the demand and buzz publishers create for their book(s) and how meaningfully they impact the people that impact book sales in our market. Did the publisher put themselves in a position to create more buzz for it’s books by participating in BEA than if they’d stayed home watched 30 Rock and ate potato chips?
If that is indeed the ultimate test of BEA’s value to publishers – “making” books – then how will the show continue to hone it’s offerings and identity to foster that? I offer a few broad themes that BEA needs to continue to evolve to, embrace and execute:
- Touch the books and meet the authors
- All the shows a stage
- Think outside the light box
- Create new media buzz (but where?)
- Influence the influencers (From Part I)
In the second post, he looks more specifically at the first three points, which all focus (more or less) on the presence of authors at the fair and the interaction between these authors and booksellers, librarians, members of the media, etc. For example:
Think Outside The Light Box – Stages built by BEA to highlight authors is more a stop along the way than a final destination towards a more engaging and media friendly event. Ultimately, the big booths themselves need to be questioned and reexamined. BEA is working with a few key exhibitors to fundamentally alter the way they approach exhibiting at BEA. I give the example of the Marvel booth at New York Comic Con or San Diego Comic-Con. The booth is a wide open space surrounded by large hanging banners (for promotion and a clear delineation of where the “booth” is), signing stations along the edge for creators to interact with fans, a PA system, some flat screens running promos and the days schedule and a stage where interviews and creator talks take place. The booth is jammed. Always. Marvel understands that they, their sales catalog or the staffers are not what people are there to see. They are there to meet the writers, the artists and to see what is new and hot – how better to do that in real life instead of in a flyer or a catalog. They put there most important assets forward – the creators and there products. We need to work with BEA exhibitors to think out side the light box (the author book jacket blown up and put inside a lighted box hanging from the booth) and put the authors up front whenever relevant.
Overall, it seems like Lance is pushing for BEA to be more “interactive” (for lack of a better term). Less passive (“Hi, would you like a catalog?”) and more active in terms of creating buzz via actual interactions between actual people.
Part III should be available online on Wednesday. And if you’re interested, here’s my take on BEA and its evolution.
One of the big events at BEA was the announcement of the new IndieBound program of the American Booksellers Associaton. This will take the place of BookSense, a special marketing program that started ten years ago as a way of helping brand independent bookstores across the country.
As mentioned in the Publishers Weekly article a lot of the same BookSense features will persevere in the new program.
IndieBound will retain many of Book Sense’s most popular features, such as bestseller lists and monthly selections, although both will receive new names. The bestseller list is being rebranded as simply the “Indie Bestseller List,” while Book Sense Picks will be known as “The Indie Next List.” Teicher acknowledged that “some parts of Book Sense worked and some didn’t,” and the weakest link was the one to the consumer. “You ask 10 customers about Book Sense and nine will have never heard of it,” observed one publisher. By branding IndieBound, the ABA hopes to overcome that problem by emphasizing to consumers the value of independent businesses.
One of the points of emphasis with this program is the sort of “Read Global, Buy Local” mentality. The idea that buying from a locally-owned bookstore is better for the community than from a chain. (I totally agree with this.)
Anyway, that idea, in combination with the glum news about Borders, and a few conversations with booksellers, got me thinking about the state of independent bookselling and what might happen over the next decade.
There are a lot of people out there that know a lot more about this than I do, which is why I’d like to start running a series of interviews with booksellers about this very topic. To kick things off, I thought I’d lay out a few of my initial thoughts that came out of BEA and hopefully hit on some of the key issues that booksellers face.
For more than a decade we’ve heard about how Amazon and the chains have been forcing indies out of business, but over the next few years I have a feeling that there’s going to be a window of opportunity for booksellers to reestablish themselves. (Last year the number of independent booksellers in America grew, which I guess means that there is some empirical proof that I’m not completely out of my mind.) This is half-premised on the belief that Borders is on its way out. There are a few options for how the Borders situation can be resolved—continue muddling along by cutting costs, get bought by someone, get bought by B&N, go bankrupt—all of which will have a significant impact on the bookselling landscape.
Unless there’s a sudden windfall, one way or another, things are going to change at Borders. And based on the current economic climate and competitive strategy, these changes will be echoed, to a much lesser degree, by Barnes & Noble. There are a lot of B&N stores out there that exist solely to compete with the nearby Borders store. If Borders reduces its presence—either willingly or due to bankruptcy—I wouldn’t be surprised if B&N scales back a bit as well.
This immediately creates opportunities for local independent booksellers . . . assuming that people still want to buy books. (See endless reports and polls on the decline of reading in America.) But seriously, I don’t think the problem is the amount of people reading, but where they want to go to get their books.
When I was doing the B&N sales call (which went really, really well), I overheard a bunch of sales reps talking about how this fiscal year Amazon finally took over as their largest single customer. This is not surprising. Amazon has everything, it’s easy to use, it’s convenient, you can shop while working, right after you hear about some book during your drive home, etc. Amazon has advantages, that’s for sure.
But so do independent bookstores. There’s immediacy of purchasing (vs. waiting for what seems like forever to get your shipment), the ability to browse the physical object, intelligent readers to give recommendations, etc., etc. And since the “buy local” idea has gotten a lot of traction in our culture, there’s a viable, appealing way for booksellers to market their stores as stores. As anti-big box stores sentiments continue to grow, independent booksellers could grow as well.
Of course the advent (maybe?) of eBooks could screw up the whole system. If people don’t need physical books, they don’t need bookstores. But that’s decades down the line. (I hope?)
One big issue that jumps out at me is the next generation of booksellers. As Mitchell Kaplan casually mentioned in a conversation over the weekend, in many ways, bookselling is a young person’s business. In my experience, there are a ton of twenty- or thirty-somethings who populate indie bookstores across the country, passionately selling books because they believe in the higher ideals and can live on a very small salary. And as much as it sickens me to say it, that small salary is one of the huge problems facing bookselling.
It’s no secret that only a small percentage of people in the book business make a lot of money. Editors, mid-list authors, booksellers, translators, marketing assistants, literary agents, etc., etc., are all generally underpaid. Especially when you see what your friends are making as investment bankers or lawyers or whatever. (Sure these fields aren’t exactly interchangeable, but I’m sure you get the picture.) And frequently, as booksellers get older, start families, etc., either they get to the managerial level and earn just enough to survive, or they leave and start up a new career path.
The Emerging Leaders group was started specifically to address this situation and try and keep really talented people in the bookselling biz. Nevertheless, this is an industry based on dedication and staying motivated through frequently intangible benefits, such as great conversations with cool people, free books, time for creative thought and creation, etc.
I’m very hopeful about the Emerging Leaders program, and about the fact that people of my generation are really psyched about books, but from a cold, detached economic standpoint, there are potential “growing pains” in the near future.
Right now, what it seems like to me—as a partial outsider—is that most stores are owned/managed by people who started in bookselling in their twenties, but are now approaching spitting distance of retirement. (Not that there’s going to be a huge number of booksellers retiring over the next few years, but I get the sense that a lot of people are starting to think about what’s going to happen when they’re no longer there.) With real estate having exploded (bubbling and bursting), the crazy ass credit crunch we’re never going to get out off, and the weakening economy, I’m concerned (possibly unjustly) about what will happen when owners go to sell their stores. (They could always do what Karl Pohrt is doing and convert the store into a nonprofit literary center—something I’m definitely going to write more about in the future.)
Will there be a group of properly motivated and trained individuals ready to buy and take over these stores? People in a position to take advantage of the possible window of opportunity that may be coming over the next few years? I hope and believe so, but this seems to me to be a valid question. My generation is resourceful, but in a business that gets more expensive by the lease renewal, with ever-shrinking profit margins, I’m at least a bit concerned.
Anyway, all this is to say that I’d like to run a series of interviews with booksellers over the next few months to see what they think and to get a better sense of what the future may hold . . .
Everyone loves themselves a little BEA party. Outside of New York—and really, maybe even in NY—there’s rarely a chance for so many diverse book people from across the country to get together to mingle and drink and exchange business cards and all that stuff. Hanging out with so many intelligent, well-read people is one of the real perks of being in the book business. (No offense, but there are few industries that can have parties as culturally stimulating—and fun—as book people.)
L.A. is a bitch for the BEA party scene though. Everything’s so far apart and almost no one knows how to get around. In fact, I’ve never heard so many people relying on Garmin GPS systems in my life. Personally, I loved trying to fuck with the system and find some unadvised shortcut that forced the quasi-seductive voice to keep “recalculating” our route. After “recalculating” five times in a handful of minutes, I think our Garmin simply gave up one night . . .
There’s always a great range of late-night BEA events ranging from the Weinstein party at the Chateau Marmont to the Independent Press get-together to the PGW dance extravaganza to the ever-elegant New York Review of Books event. As I mentioned in my first post, we also had a Reading the World party that was very well attended and a great deal of fun. (Both Dan Wickett of Emerging Writers and Dzanc Books, and Bethanne Patrick, PW‘s Book Maven were two of the cool people there who wrote a bit about RTW and/or the party.)
It’s easy to scoff at these events as a waste of time, or as a bunch of people getting drunk, but to be honest, this is where a lot of interesting stuff happens. Where you meet people you wouldn’t ordinarily visit at their stands. Where you hear about cool ideas that might not come up in a more formal setting.
If it wasn’t for these receptions, I never would’ve had a chance to talk with ForeWord magazine, or with Martin Riker of Dalkey Archive Press (now that I have the new catalog, I’ll write more about their books in the near future), or to get into a car with Jim Pascoe, who, at the time, was a complete stranger, but turned out to be a very cool writer and former publisher.
The most interesting development for me was the brief meeting I had with the lovely Jill Owens from Powell’s Books. I hadn’t heard of this, but recently Powell’s launched Indispensable, a subscription club that ships new books from indie presses every six weeks. For instance, the most recent package was 500 copies signed first edition hardcovers of The Outlander by Gil Adamson and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel by David Wroblewski.
I think the idea of a bookseller initiated subscription program is fantastic. It’s a perfect example of how indie booksellers can sell cool, unique books and something that could probably be replicated. It also got me thinking about the future of indie bookselling a bit, but I’ll save that for a later post.
To supplement the series of posts we’re writing, here are some other round-ups from people much smarter and funnier:
During set-up, I was excited that we were right next to the Kindle booth. This has turned out to be a disappointment. They don’t have any Kindles at the Kindle booth. A couple guys will demonstrate one for you if you ask. Lame. I was expecting an Apple Store set-up of rows and rows of Kindles. There was also a rumor that Jeff Bezos was going to make a surprise announcement yesterday afternoon. That rumor was false. He gave a presentation that, according to attendees, was boring. Kindle and Amazon are not impressing anyone right now.;
It may even be a little more useless than most. If you want to compare the new Zogby results with older polls by Gallup and Ipsos to see whether the percentage of American readers has changed, or whether the number of books read per year has changed, you’re out of luck. The Zogby pollsters didn’t ask. They danced around the question, instead asking how many books people bought for themselves and then, separately, how many books people bought a year that they didn’t read. So if fifty per cent of Americans bought fewer than ten books for themselves, and sixty-one per cent bought between one and eleven books that they didn’t read. . . . The math problem is impossible to solve, apparently by design.
I participated in two translation panels on Saturday at BEA—one on funding for translations and the other on marketing.
The morning session on funding was organized and moderated by Caro Llewellyn from PEN America (and director of the PEN World Voices Festival) and included star translator Michael Henry Heim, Michael Reynolds from Europa Editions, Morgan Entrekin from Grove/Atlantic, Riky Stock from the German Book Office, and myself. This was a very useful and productive panel that will be available on the PEN website sometime in the near future. (When it is, I’ll definitely link to it, just as I plan on linking to the mini-videos the GBO/Frankfurt Book Fair shot about the fair.)
There was some talk about how books get selected and published, how translators struggle to get publishers to pay attention, and what the GBO does to help make this process easier. One of the things that everyone seemed to agree on was that the next logical step in cultural funding was to help market these titles rather than simply paying for the translation. It’s important to get money to offset translation costs—that’s a huge additional cost and without subsidies I suspect a lot of translators would be paid an embarrassingly tiny amount for their work—but helping cultivate an audience for these works will pay off big in the long run.
(One can idealistically imagine finding more readers for a particular title, then books from a particular country, then international literature as a whole, resulting in publishers viewing translations as less of a risk, thereby publishing more of them to a hungry crowd of readers. I know that’s idealistic and unlikely, yet if we ignore the cultivation of an audience if favor of simply offsetting core costs, I think we’re missing the entire point of publishing.)
The afternoon panel was less focused—my fault entirely as moderator—but was a great discussion featuring Megan Sullivan from Book Dwarf and Harvard Bookshop, Jeff Seroy from FSG, and Dedi Felman from Words Without Borders. (Gregg Nations from ABC’s Lost was going to be there, but is under a media blackout following the season finale. Which makes sense cause damn, I wouldn’t be able to refrain from badgering him about moving the island, Jeremy Bentham, and everything else that went down last Thursday.) The level of engagement among audience members (and the fact that we were all able to drink beer during the panel) really helped liven up this late-in-the-day event.
Jeff’s comments about how they marketed The Savage Detectives and what they’re doing for 2666 was fascinating to me. (As I told him afterwards, I think Jeff’s one of the most brilliant publicists out there and I could spend a whole panel simply interviewing him.) In a very real way, 2666 may be the “Big Book” of BEA 2008 that I claimed didn’t exist in my last post. Jeff said the response has been overwhelming and that they gave out 400 copies (!) of the galley at the book fair. I know print runs smaller than that . . .
He was incredibly honest about facts and figures related to The Savage Detectives, revealing that in the catalog they put the initial print run at 35,000-40,000 and that based on advances in the mid-teens (16-17,000) the first printing was in the low-20s. All of which is remarkable. The Natasha Wimmer essay was a huge help in creating a context for reviewers to approach the book, as was the website they specially created for this book. Jeff gave both New Directions and FSG editor Lorin Stein a lot of credit for helping make Bolano take off, even saying that three-in-one paperback set was an idea of Lorin’s.
I’m never sure how to judge if panels are successful or not. Frequently, panelists are repeating things they’ve said several times before, whereas audience members are new to all these ideas. As a result there are two different perceptions of how things went . . . One of these days, as a sort of pragmatic experiment, I’d love to have a real roundtable in which 5-6 publishing people get together to discuss a particular issue or subject without ever addressing the audience. This would allow for the conversation to move beyond what’s been said before, and could be really interesting for both the panelists and anyone who comes to watch. Things could really grow out of such a discussion, sort of like when Michael Henry Heim suggested we get Reading the World stickers to put on all the RTW books . . . BEA’s not the place for such a roundtable, but maybe at a university . . . (I know this isn’t a particularly new idea, but in publishing, it doesn’t seem to happen very often, and I think it could be incredibly useful and interesting.)
I would title this post “Day Two,” but many, many days have passed since my last entry (who would’ve though Three Percent could be so quiet for so long?) and I’m not sure I can separate what I want to write about into specific days . . . Now that I’m back in Rochester, and my voice is slowly but surely returning (to be honest, I was starting to get a bit scared. I’ve lost my voice for a day before, but this was a full-on 48-hour affair of muted incomprehensibility—yikes) there are a number of things about BEA worth recapping. I’ll try and keep this as organized as possible although my thoughts are kind of all over the place so I’ll probably just end this post when it gets to be too long . . .
First off, the main point of BEA—aside from networking and the “spiritual rejuvenation” (for lack of a better term)—is the books. And as has been the case with most recent BEAs, there didn’t seem to be any single “Big Book” garnering all the attention. (Apparently, this used to always be the case, since every year someone is quoted as saying that “there’s no Big Book this year” and how this lack creates “more book diversity” and is “great for readers.” Last year the Junot Diaz and Denis Johnson books were all the rage.)
There were some really interesting titles that I picked up though that I’m excited about. Two of them— Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya and Close to Jedenew by Kevin Vennemann (and translated by Ross Benjamin, whose name I reversed in an earlier post—sorry—because, well, I’m an idiot)—were titles we were already planning on reviewing.
It’s strange—physically, these two books have a lot in common: both about 140 pages, very few paragraph breaks, and great beginnings.
I am not complete in the mind, said the sentence I highlighted with the yellow marker and even copied into my personal notebook, because this wasn’t just any old sentence, much less some wisecrack, not by any means, but rather the sentence that astonished me more than any other sentence I read that first day on the job, the sentence that most dumbfounded me during my first incursion into those one thousand one hundred almost single-spaced printed pages placed on what would be my desk by my friend Erick so I could get some idea of the task that awaited me.
From Close to Jedenew:
We do not breathe. The place is close to Jedenew, we hear the Jedenew farmers singing, bawling, playing clarinet, accordion, we hear their songs for hours already, old partisan songs, they play and sing and bawl in a strangely melodious fashion.
Kevin Vennemann is currently at the Villa Aurora, so he was able to be at BEA to sign copies of his book. (I believe he ended up signing 80—a pretty healthy number for a work in translation . . . ) He’s a really cool guy who made all the girls swoon, and gave me some promising recommendations of German writers. Very funny and very interesting guy, and I’m really looking forward to reading his book.
I also ran into David Kipen from NEA’s Big Read at the Fondo de Cultura Economica stand and he gave me a copy of Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories, which is part of the international component of the Big Read. (More on this in a later post.) This is an impressive anthology that includes some familiar names, such as Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz, a number of classic writers that aren’t household names, like Salvador Elizondo, Juan Rulfo, Jorge Ibarguengoitia, and Sergio Pitol, and a lot of authors I’m not familiar with. With the Dalkey Archive Mexican Anthology (also a NEA project) coming out this fall, this is a great year for Mexican literature.
Finally, I’d also like to wholeheartedly recommend Ed Park’s Personal Days. This came out a couple weeks ago and has been getting a fair amount of attention. It’s a really funny, engaging book that I’m almost finished with. (I read more than half of it stumbling in a daze through LAX.) The style reminds me of DeLillo and maybe some of those early Douglas Coupland books (like Generation X, Microserfs and Life After God). The novel is written in three distinct parts (I’m just into the third, which is a brilliant, periodless, meandering letter), starting out very funny and light and perceptive, and becoming increasingly dark and satirical. Ed’s one of the founding editors of The Believer and former editor of the Voice Literary Supplement (the buyout of which may be the basis for some of this book). He also does the New-York Ghost.
OK, next post—more about the parties and dinners and all that fun, glitzy stuff. And then a bit more about cool ideas, the future of bookselling, and IndieBound.
BEA—at least the exhibition hall part of it—hasn’t even started yet and I’m already dehydrated and losing my voice. And I realize that when I drink, I spend way too much time talking about the recent New Yorker on hang overs. But anyway.
Thursday is BEA’s educational day. So throughout the day there were various sessions for booksellers and publishers. Of course the publisher panels were at the Convention Center in Downtown L.A. (which ain’t all that) and had titles like, “How to Succeed in Publishing Using LinkedIn.” (Well, yes, OK. Actually most sounded much more interesting and focussed on eBook issues. I just like the idea of people in a room taking LinkedIn seriously as a publishing tool. “It’s all about the network.”)
The bookseller sessions were at the ABA Hotel out at Hollywood and Vine, which is a bit more touristic and glitzy than Downtown L.A. (Although there’s no Standard rooftop bar over there . . .) There is a big difference between the vibe over at the ABA Hotel and the life-sucking sense of desperation that pervades the Ritz-Milner where am. (One funny thing about this hotel is that on their big sign outside, the word “Ritz” is tiny and the word “Milner,” huge. Which is a marketing mistake.) I attended the bookseller lunch yesterday where Amy Goodman spoke about her new book Standing Up To the Madness, which sounded pretty good. (The bit about the Connecticut librarians challenging the U.S. government was really interesting.) She’s got a particular storytelling style that’s hard to describe, but relatively fun to listen to.
I was over there with Karl Pohrt of Shaman Drum, who’s writing a very comprehensive and interesting report on BEA at his blog. The first post is about Why I Love BookExpo and the second features a Prayer for Britney and a great pic of Karl . . .
Last night was the RTW/Bookforum party, which went really well. Very cool people there, such as Scott Esposito, Ron Hogan, Peter Mayer, Martin Riker, Christie Hall, Lynn Andriani, Alane Mason, Morgan Entrekin, Emily Cook, Michael Reynolds, and many, many more. Tim O’Sullivan from Bookforum then took over as chauffeur and brought a slew of us to the Chateau Marmont for the D.A.P./Artforum party featuring Matt Groening and Paul Reubens. I saw Pee Wee right when I got there, and wanted to say something, but wasn’t sure how to break the ice . . . “Hey man, I used to watch Pee Wee’s Big Adventure every Saturday”? We also passed Mike Myers on the way in, and believe that one of the New Kids on the Block (er, NKOTB, excuse me) was at the event as well. . . .
The best things about the Chateau party—in order—were 1) the view of L.A. from the balcony, 2) the fact that Steve Erickson though that Jim Morrison probably danced naked on that same balcony, and 3) that they had to call an ambulance for some woman sprawled out on the floor as we all left to get tacos. That sort of debauchery is generally not a part of BEA . . .
Off to the hall . . .
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .