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Kash's Book Corner



Musings on books and the book business by an opinionated, somewhat cynical, yet optimistic bookseller.



Updated: 2017-09-21T14:10:25.033-06:00

 



The Absurdity of Twain Fever

2010-11-28T17:33:12.436-07:00

Mark Twain is the hottest author in America right now. The Boulder Book Store along with just about every other bookseller in America can barely keep ahead of the demand for the recently released 738-page Autobiography of Mark Twain. The reason the book is in short supply is that no one in their right mind saw this book taking off like it has. The University of California Press, which published a well-researched, finely edited, fairly academic book is simply not equipped to deal with a bestseller of this magnitude.They shouldn't have to worry about this problem; although I'm sure they are happy to have such a profitable concern. Observing the demand for this book, it seems to be sheer madness and a herd mentality that is driving the Mark Twain frenzy. People are buying this book who haven't glanced at Twain since they were forced to read him in high school or college. My guess is that many copies of the Autobiography now in the hands of gleeful customers will end up, after great disappointment, flooding back into the bookstore in 2011 as forgotten used tomes.I love Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It's a book that I read in high school and college and returned to for a third time about a decade ago. I've never been disappointed with Huck, and each reading has yielded more rewards and a greater admiration for Twain. My 12th grade English teacher introduced the book as the greatest novel in American history. To this day, I wouldn't quibble with that. (By the way, she considered William Faulkner the greatest American fiction writer and James Joyce the greatest writer of fiction in English. I'm not sure I consider Finnegan's Wake English, but that's besides the point.)The Autobiography of Mark Twain is no Huck Finn. Not by a long shot. Nearly 500 pages of the 4-pound book is either unreadable doggerel composed of false starts and academic self-aggrandizement or notes and appendices that only a grad student would ever need to dive into.Esquire did a great break down on how to read the book in one day that serves to highlight the book's shortcomings more than anything else.In Adam Gopnik's insightful piece in The New Yorker's November 29th edition, he shows how the book's main two selling points aren't really that impressive. The first is that the manuscript was suppressed for 100 years on Twain's wishes. Twain wanted to make sure that everyone he mentioned in the book was dead by the time it was publicly disseminated. The problem with this according to Gopnik is that only 5% of the new volume actually contains unpublished Twain material. His autobiography has been published three previous times, and this one doesn't add that much. The other selling point is that readers are getting a truly authentic view of Twain's life. However, Gopnik notes that Twain gave up on candor early into the writing process.Gopnik's conclusion on the Twain volume: "A book that had been a disjointed and largely baffling bore emerges now as a disjointed and largely baffling bore."Of course there will be some true Twain devotees that will relish every fresh word and enjoy rereading some of the other material in here. But enough true admirers to push the book to the top spot on all the bestseller lists? No, no, no. Most of those books are going to people who will put the book on their shelf and perhaps read a page or two from it. They'll have just enough to quote at a New Year's Day party if the topic comes up. It will be gathering dust by Martin Luther King Day.If you want a memoir that will bring a fresh perspective from an entertaining raconteur, I'd humbly suggest a copy of Life by Keith Richards. Oh yeah, there is no problem getting copies of it. Hachette rightfully expected that the Rolling Stone who remembers it all would produce a bestseller that no one would consider a bore.[...]



Christmas Season is a Bear

2010-11-27T10:29:45.039-07:00

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This is my favorite time of year to be a bookseller. The hours are long, the store is crowded and it can be frustrating when everyone wants the same book because they heard about it on NPR. However, those minor complaints are outweighed by the fact that the store is packed with people that want books. Men, women and children that value the experience of reading and that are open to recommendations and book conversations.

My favorite moment of Black Friday came towards the end of the day. A middle age woman from Chicago came into the store with her two college-age daughters. The woman was dressed nicely in an expensive knee-length black coat and silver earrings and she was all business. She approached the counter and asked me where she could find a book featured in the window.

"Which book do you want?" I asked.

"I don't know the title. It's in your window with the Christmas books. It's about an old bear."
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Instantly, I knew she was referring to Olivier Dunrea's Old Bear and His Cub. Dunrea's picture book came out just two weeks ago and already is a classic. His simple but finely drawn pictures and elegant story of a loving old bear keeping his cub safe and secure resonates in a way that brand new books rarely do. It's as if you've known this tale and illustrations since your own childhood.

I led the woman back to the children's room and pulled the book out of the dump and placed it in her hands. "It's a wonderful book," I said.

"We'll see," she said holding the book and gazing at its delightful cover. "If it makes me tear up by the end, I'll know it's worth buying."

I left her and her daughters with the book without much hope that we'd get the sale. She did not look like a woman who would ever cry in public. I returned to the front counter trolling for another customer. A few minutes later I was putting a book on hold when I passed my Chicago customer still standing where I left her.

"Well, did the Old Bear and His Cub do the trick?"

She looked up at me and her steely eyes were filled with water and her face was blushed red. Her daughters stood behind her and rolled their dry eyes. She dabbed a tissue to her eyes and simply said, "I'm going to buy the book."




ReGenesis: God is Movement

2010-11-11T21:32:39.547-07:00

Here's a reprint from the Boulder Weekly of my review of ReGenesis, the concluding volume of Robert Dresner's The Astral Imperative trilogy. I met Dresner when he was painting my house and we began an interesting relationship that was detailed in my review of his first book. It was one of my most commented upon blog entries and now nearly two years later people still ask me about it. The focus of that article was largely on Dresner's decision to self publish and his near misses with New York publishers.In my review of the second book , I did not mention that Dresner was self publishing the book and the same holds true in this review. It seems less relevent now than it did two years ago that Dresner decided to publish the books on his own. We sell self published, or what I like to call quasi-published books every day at the Boulder Book Store. These quasi-published books are ones from presses that are very small and are often just publishing their authors books on demand. Some of our best events come from the ranks of Independently published authors and our customers don't seem to make distinctions between major publishers, small publishers and independent publishers as long as they enjoy the work and get to meet the author.Personally, I still believe strongly in the publishing houses and the work that they do. I'd love to see Dresner get picked up for a few reasons. I'd be interested to see how a great science fiction editor would polish his work. I also think his books have something meaningful to say and that a large press could give them the distribution that they deserve.Here's the review:Yuri Popovich sits silently in the lotus position on Mars, his heart registering just one beat a minute, as Robert Dresner’s thought-provoking novel ReGenesis opens. Popovich, a lone survivor of the original mission to Mars, has completely retreated into himself and has sat in his seemingly unconscious state in a cave for 12 years as new settlers come and gawk at him.In a moment of desperation, another astronaut, Richard, who has been stranded on Mars for over a decade and is feared and ostracized by the other colonists, pleads with the meditating man to help him save the petty, earth-centered colonists from themselves. He doesn’t expect an answer but he gets one. Yuri simply states, “I am here.” Richard is startled. He asks, “What happened to you Yuri? Where did you go? Tell me, please, if you can. I need to know. What did you see?”Yuri’s answer is simple, but sets up the fantastic plot to this concluding book in Dresner’s Astral Imperative trilogy. “God. I saw God.”The questions of the existence of God and the possibility of another level of consciousness permeates this novel set in 2053 simply because our existence on Earth has become so tenuous and our means of escape so limited. Environmental catastrophes combined with rampant nationalism and runaway technology has threatened the viability of the human race. Depending on the characters point of view and to some extent the readers, Yuri is either a savior or a charlatan. “Yuri was the one who had to bear witness on our human existence,” Dresener said. “He inhabits different realms and realities. Is he delusional? Do you believe him or don’t you? What happened to Yuri is not out of the realm of human experience. In my travels to India I met people like that.”The Yuri of the first two books did not seem a likely character for enlightenment. An astrobiologist by training and a world renowned poet, he spent much of his time involved in all too human entanglements on the ship to Mars and on the Red planet’s primitive space station. His conversion to a spiritual state did not occur until a battle between the colonists broke out at the end of the second book. Slowly, Yuri begins to reveal to the other characters just what he has seen during his twelve-year sojourn communing with the divine. “I’ve seen so much; I’ve lived so many lives and still live them. I’ve seen so much violence between be[...]



Hellhound on His Trail

2010-04-26T11:02:45.144-06:00

Last weekend I had the pleasure of seeing Hampton Sides, the author of Hellhound on His Trail, in Sante Fe at a bookseller lunch. Before the meal, I had no intention of reading Sides' account of Martin Luther King's assassination. Most nonfiction books I absorb through reviews, New Yorker pieces, NPR and dinner table conversations.I figured Hellhound would be no different. It was probably just another magazine article extended to a full-length book. Why read 400 pages when a well-written review would give me all the nefarious details of James Earl Ray's horrendous deed? After Sides' talk, I couldn't resist dipping into the book despite my natural aversion to true crime.Eight days and several sleep deprived nights later, I finished the book and sure am thankful that Sides convinced me to pick it up. His tale of James Earl Ray's exploits starting with his 1967 jail break and ending with his abbreviated escape 10 years later is meticulously detailed, unrelentingly suspenseful and magnificently written.Ray emerges as one bizarre, hateful guy. In the months leading up to the assassination, he takes dance lessons, goes to bartending school, enrolls in a locksmithing correspondence course and dabbles with the idea of making pornography. In a goodwill mission, he also drives from Los Angeles to New Orleans to retrieve two children for a girlfriend. He's also a master of aliases. He picks up and drops off a half dozen names throughout his fugitive days.Sides said in his talk that because of these aliases, he didn't refer to Ray by his true name until after page 300 of the book. I thought this was a bit gimmicky when he mentioned it, but was surprised that the sleight of hand works. First Ray is known by his prison number, then by his main pre-assassination alias of Eric Starvo Galt and, finally, as Ramon Sneyd. It isn't until the FBI sifts through these various names and learns the true identity of the killer that Sides uses Ray's name.When Sneyd is caught in London, two months after the assassination, he firmly denies being James Earl Ray. The most humorous moment of the book is when Sneyd asks to call his brother -- Jerry Ray. He didn't see anything contradictory in this. He had operated in more than one reality for so long that it didn't occur to him that he'd basically confessed.The final months of King's life are vividly recreated. Sides uses mostly secondary sources for these details, relying on Ralph Abernathy's 1989 memoir, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, and Andrew Young's book on the Civil Rights movement, An Easy Burden. He gives us a powerful narrative of a leader on the run. King was running from the recriminations of the FBI (they knew he had mistresses and were perhaps goading him to kill himself), the black power movement that wanted him to move aside so the revolution could really start and, finally, the knowledge that somewhere out there a killer probably lurked.Sides also did some primary research - traveling to several of the places Ray hid out, interviewing participants of events and diving deep into the congressional records. However, the true strength of the book is the weaving together of already existing records and facts into a coherent and tight narrative. I appreciate the narrow focus of the book. Sides sticks to Ray and the final months of King's life. He assumes the reader has at least a rudimentary knowledge of the Civil Rights movement.Sides does a great job in answering the question of why King was gunned down in Memphis. His movements were so peripatetic in the spring of 1968 that Ray couldn't even track him down in his hometown of Atlanta. In Memphis, King got stalled for several days trying to organize a peaceful march for the striking garbage workers. He had no choice but to stick it out, because a few weeks earlier a march in Memphis had turned violent mortifying King and putting the moral currency of his whole movement in jeopardy.The role of the FBI is truly fascinating. The agency head J. Edgar Hoover hated[...]



Devastating Secrets

2010-04-22T21:34:31.583-06:00

Secrets and the devastation that they can cause families are at the emotional core of Melissa Newman’s powerful and evocative debut novel Sister Blackberry. Her posse of strong female characters are both entrapped and redeemed through the revelations of long buried truths.“When you grow up around women, you know that they all harbor secrets,” Newman said. “That was one of the inspirations for the story.”The secrets in Sister Blackberry are much more than your garden variety women’s secrets. We aren’t talking about cheating spouses, petty crimes, or even aborted pregnancy. Viola Garland is covering up the identity of a child, a murder and, most fascinating of all, the ambiguous sexuality of her daughter.The story opens in 1936 in Reyes County, Kentucky, when Viola is eighteen and pregnant. The events that unfold around the birth of her child will have far-reaching consequences to the present day. Viola is worried because her husband, Den, a miner, might not be at home when she goes into labor. Her friend and neighbor, Janie, is also pregnant, and the two women comfort each other despite Janie’s violent husband, Bick’s, disapproval of Viola.In this passage right before the babies are born, Viola ruminates on her concern over Janie’s situation:“She suspected that Bick would hit Janie when he found out she and Viola had been together. There weren’t as many bruises and marks since Janie had gotten pregnant, but there were still signs. Viola couldn’t figure out how someone as sweet as Janie could be married to a man who would hit her. And what about the baby? Would Bick hit the baby?”Bick is a truly menacing character and provides a stark contrast to the many women that populate the book.“Bick was well thought out,” Newman said. “I wanted to see how far he would go. What would push him? What was important to him? What would lead him to violence?”Viola and Janie give birth on the same night. Viola, alone because Den is in the mine and there is no time for her to get help. Janie is attended by the narrow-minded charismatic leader of Bick’s evangelical church and his wife. Neither birth goes as planned. In a harrowing and dreamlike passage, the lives of all the characters are altered in unforeseen ways by the two births. The secrets begin.“I dreamt this story like a movie,” Newman said. “This is something that really disturbed me. I dreamed the characters of Viola and (her daughter) Doris. I wrote an outline and then I did a lot of research…. I wrote it before Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex came out. It sat in a drawer for a long time.”As Doris grows up, she has a secret that she doesn’t quite understand herself. Why don’t her genitals look like her sister Nadine’s? Why aren’t her breasts developing?Ultimately, it is the jealousy between the sisters that reveals Doris’ secret in the most humiliating way possible. Stuck in small-town Kentucky in the 1950s, Doris feels that there is no other option but to leave.“Relationships with sisters are very complex and competitive,” Newman said. “Add a boy and it’s like fire and kerosene coming together. I drew on something that happened with me and my sister. We both liked the same boy in high school. I thought about how cruel I was, wanting to humiliate her.”Doris’ story of surviving as a runaway is, in many ways, the strongest part of the book. The scenes of her life in Cleveland don’t have nearly the drama that some of the earlier scenes contain, but Newman is really able to delve into her character. The writing is more assured, and several of the characters that Doris meets are quickly and adeptly developed. Doris emerges in this section as a stable and wise centerpiece to the novel. Against the odds, she finds her way in the world. In a way, Nadine has done her sister a favor by freeing her to live in the wider world.However, Doris, like Newman herself, returns to her Kentucky home. Newman, who worked as a [...]



Escape from Zombieland

2010-04-05T16:45:30.865-06:00

I gave up on the publishing industry for a month or two there. The piles of reader's copies stopped speaking to me. The gleaming jackets of the new novels did not beguile me. The letters from publicists and the imploring stares from the reps that still have jobs did not move me. It all seemed stale, repackaged, and if it wasn't written about Zombies it seemed to be written by Zombies or written for Zombies. I am not a Zombie.Instead I cleansed my mind by reading Madame Bovary and Notes from the Underground. Both were novels I should have read years ago. My favorite Woody Allen short story, The Kugelmass Episode, features a New Yorker going to Yonville in order to carry on an affair with the Emma Bovary. Ah... now I really get it. I enjoyed the novel but wasn't a big fan of Emma. I loved many of the minor characters, most notably Monsieur Homais, the pharmacist.Dostoyevsky's little masterpiece was the first translation by the dynamic duo of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky that I've read. I compared several paragraphs to the Constance Garnett translation and found the new one more lithesome and easier to grasp. The biggest difference comes in the first sentence. Garnett writes, "I am a sick man....I am a spiteful man." Pevear's reads "I am a sick man....I am a wicked man." Wicked is a much broader word than spiteful. It's particularly important because it is how our narrator defines himself throughout the entire book. To be spiteful is to merely hold a grievance. To be wicked is to dissolute to the core.After my brief foray into the classics, I returned to the contemporary novel and read three that I really enjoyed. Actually, enjoyed is not quite the right word for Chang Rae Lee's The Surrendered. It's a harsh novel but if you can get through the first 50 pages about the destruction of a Korean family during the war, you've gotten through the toughest part. That's not quite true, there is a brutal sequence later on set in Manchuria that gave me nightmares.Here are my latest recommendations posted in the store:The Surrendered by Chang Rae Lee This harrowing novel follows the lives of both Korean and American survivors of the Korean War. June and Hector are reunited despite their secret of history of violence and lost love. Lee slowly reveals their parallel tales building the novel's tension and showing us a world permanently marked by wars and atrocity. The Privileges by Jonathan Dee The Morey family has it all -- looks, charms, wits and money, lots of it. What they lack is scruples, ethics and some basic humanity. Dee tells the story from all four of the family members' perspectives. The Morey's pathological inability to think about their past and the corrupting influence of money leads to family even less savory than their eel namesake. All Other Nights by Dara Horn Civil War intrigue, Jewish history and beautiful spies are the foundation for Horn's enthralling novel. Jacob Rappaport, a 19-year old private, is dispatched to New Orleans to kills his plotting uncle on Passover. That's the easiest of his assignments. Marriage to a Virginia spy is the most difficult but delectable mission. Rappaport's cunning and morals are sorely tested during his adventures.[...]



Some Recent Favorites

2009-12-04T20:49:28.561-07:00

My reading has taken some strange twists and turns this year. Instead of ingesting my regular dose of contemporary poetry and new novels, I've been downing Is Your Mama A Lama almost every night before bed. This new medicine is not without its benefits: I recently discovered that "pat" was a verb in Pat the Bunny. I'd always assumed that Pat was just a gender neutral rabbit name. Imagine my surprise when I turned the pages and my baby was playing peek-a-boo, looking in a mirror and trying on a ring.In the last month, I've managed to read a few adult novels between encore performances of Goodnight Gorilla and Are You My Mother that probably won't appear on any year-end top 10 lists, but that are worth remembering and discussing. All three of these novels feature strong female characters and interesting narrative twists.The best of the bunch was Katharine Weber's True Confections. Weber's book won't come out until later this month, but it's been on my radar since the summer, when Weber tracked me down with a friendly email and asked that I give it a try. She thought my love of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint might make me a sympathetic reader. She was right. Here's the recommendation tag that I've written up for the store:I love an unreliable narrator. The reader has to look for clues in the dialogue, in other characters' reactions and in subtle hints to divine the real story. Weber employs this device to create a brilliant satire on the candy industry. Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky of Zip's Candies tells her story in a rambling affidavit that exposes the racist origins of the company and her complicity in the firm's many disasters.Weber weaved in so many fascinating and arcane facts about the candy business (my favorite was that Hart Crane's father invented lifesavers) that I began to believe that she made them up. She didn't. Her amazing research gives her quirky narration a verisimilitude that few comic novels achieve. The story lives on in Weber's blog Staircase Writing where she has continued to delve into her candy obsession.Nancy Mauro's debut novel New World Monkeys was another comedy that featured a lot of obsessive behavior. I felt that Mauro's strength and weaknesses were one and the same. The novel is about a lot of different things (a failing marriage, a mangled ad campaign, a pervert, the excavation of long buried bones, crazy townsfolk) that make for intriguing reading. But sometimes it feels that the novel is too jam-packed. A little focus and quiet space could have allowed her two lead characters to be realized in a fuller way. The pervert, a minor side character, was the most human in the eclectic cast and the reader is both thrilled and terribly disgusted when he succeeds. Here's my recommendation tag:A rollicking novel about two city slickers who inherit a rural house with disastrous consequences (they run over the town mascot - a wild boar on their initial journey to the home) as they cling to their deteriorating marriage. Lily digs up her ancestor's missing maid and wards off the boar's crazy owner while Duncan works on a sexist ad campaign that mocks the Vietnam War back in New York.Check out this promotional video that Mauro, an advertising professional, made for the book. It closely portrays the novel's opening scene.Peter Rock's My Abandonment follows the true story of a girl and her father who lived in Portland's Forest Park for several years. He tells the story from the 13-year old girl's perspective. Her tale unfolds beautifully, almost poetic in the rhythm and language. She's at one with nature in the forest, running through the paths in bare feet, strangely attune to any noises or changes in the direction of the wind. It all comes to an end when the camp is discovered by a backcountry jogger and the pair are taken into police custody.Rock follows the story past its real-life roots. The pair disappeared some years ago and no one seems t[...]



The Youngest Book Buyer Ever

2009-10-30T17:55:54.917-06:00

In a shocking development, Boulder Book Store hired 11-month old Martina Kashkashian to join their book buying department last week. She is the youngest buyer in North America and perhaps the world, although there are unconfirmed reports that a nine-month-old monkey is the head of purchasing at a metaphysical book store in Montevideo, Uruguay."We just felt like we needed a new direction," general manager Nesra Naihsakhsak said. "An infusion of new blood, a fresh outlook. It's easy to get frustrated in this business. She won't think about how wonderful things used to be in the 1980s and 90s. Heck, she can't even remember 2008."Kash's Book Corner was given a rare opportunity to sit down with this gifted and talented buyer at 3:30 this morning for a fascinating interview. Between feedings she spoke about her book buying philosophy, the publishing industry, the current price wars that are raging and her plush pink bear.Here's the interview:Kash's Book Corner: How did you get the job at such a young age?Martina: I've been hanging around the bookstore since my days in the womb. I attended the Mountains & Plains regional show in Colorado Springs a week before I was born and that really gave me a broader perspective on the industry. I've also sat in with my father on several frontlist buys, attended BEA in New York, and even a Simon & Schuster sales conference in Florida. It's hard to beat those formative experiences. At the same time, I'm a virtual "tabula rasa" in terms of book knowledge. I'm open to new experiences.Kash's Book Corner: What will be your responsibilities?Martina: It's really baby steps for me. Not that I know what that really means since I haven't taken any steps yet. I'm just going to buy the publishers that have electronic catalogs on Edelweiss. Let me see, that's Random House, Harper, Penguin and Hachette adult and children's books. Also, Chronicle, W.W. Norton, Ingram Publisher Services. That's it. Daddy will still buy Columbia University titles.Kash's Book Corner: I'm amazed you are willing to tackle an electronic catalog even though you are just starting out. So many booksellers are terrified by it.Martina: They're just old. Old people don't understand new things. I'm a baby. It's simple. Look, take an 8 or 9-year-old. They started school before iPhones were even invented. It's mind boggling. I had an iPhone in the womb. How can you expect them to adapt? I don't even know how they found their way out of the womb without an iPhone. I was able to calculate the correct time and the proper angle using two simple apps . . . can I have my PinkBeary now?Kash's Book Corner: Just a few more questions. You are entering the book business at a time of tremendous upheaval. What do you think of the current price wars?Martina: I'm just upset that Amazon and Target won't sell me the books that cheap. It makes me shriek at the top of my lungs like that time Mommy fed me mashed up asparagus.Kash's Book Corner: But after telling customers to buy local and independent, how could you look them in the eye if you bought books from Amazon?Martina: I can't look anyone in the eye. I'm 2-foot-2.Kash's Book Corner: You are buying the most important publishers in the industry. How will you know what to buy?Martina: My daddy said I only needed to know two words: "No" and "Co-op." My two-year old friend says "no" all the time, so I figure this is a good chance to practice for me. I'll just say "no, no, no" on the adult books until the rep looks really upset, and then I'll give my cutest smile and ask "co-op?" I'm supposed to squeeze them for every last penny. The children's books will be more about taste. Literally. A good book, even a publisher sample, will have a certain texture and flavor when you put it in your mouth. "Yummy" will mean yes.Kash's Book Corner: I'm sure that you are aware that there is very little money in bookselling. W[...]



The Evolution Revolution

2009-10-11T20:33:04.468-06:00

I have an article about the book Why Evolution Works (and Creationism Fails) by Paul Strode and Matt Young in the October 8 issue of the Boulder Weekly. The pair are coming to speak at the store this Wednesday, October 14.On the day the article appeared, I had lunch at the bar of the Walnut Brewery just a block from the bookstore. It was a bitterly cold day that threatened snow. I was rooting on my beloved Phillies in the playoffs against the local nine, the Colorado Rockies. A grizzled elderly man, in a blue fishing hat and a heavy white sweatshirt with a beer in hand moved to the seat next to me from the other end of the bar. After a moment of small talk, I quickly revealed that I worked at the Boulder Book Store. He became quite excited and told me that he collected first editions of American history books that were written between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War."These books appeal to all three senses," he said, poking his finger into my knee as he slurped down his chili. I tried to tell him that there were five senses, but I couldn't get a word in. "The sense of sight, the sense of touch and the sense of smell all come alive when you read these books. Those old leather covers have quite an aroma."He was particularly keen on his biographies. "You know, people didn't make a big deal about Jefferson in those years. There are only a couple of biographies of him compared to at least a dozen of Washington. I guess they didn't think much of Jefferson back then. Of course, those biographies are quite valuable because there are only a couple, and they didn't print many."I nodded and watched as the Rockies catcher Yorvit Torrealba hit a two-run shot over the left field fence in Philadelphia. It didn't look like it was going to be the Phillies day, and I had to head back to work. I tried to bid adieu, but the man jabbed his forceful finger back into my thigh."The greatest biography of Washington was written by John Marshall," he said."The Supreme Court Justice," I replied.He gazed at me for a moment with something that seemed to border on appreciation. "Yes. It's five volumes. He knew Washington. He had access to his papers. There will never be a better biography written of the man. Why do these revisionist historians keep writing new ones? Why don't they teach Marshall in school?"I posited that they didn't teach five volumes of anything in school and also that 200-year old history books were almost never used. New information has come to light, I told him. Also, Marshall was a Federalist who fought with Washington, so he just may be favorably biased towards him.He stared up at the television as the Phillies came to bat against the Rockies' Aaron Cook. It was bright and sunny in Philadelphia, a marvelous day for baseball. We both shivered every time the door to the brewery opened and let in some of the freezing Colorado air. Snow flakes were now lazily falling on the other side of the Walnut's floor-to-ceiling windows. He slowly began to shake his head no. I took the bait."Why do you think they don't teach Marshall? I asked.He leaned back and turned fully towards me. "Because he talks about God. Marshall discusses how religious Washington was and how this nation was founded on Christian principles. People don't want that taught anymore.""What about deism?" I interjected. He swatted at the air as if an annoying gnat had flown by."This was a Christian nation. It was based on the bible. The founders believed in the bible. Now their freedom of religion has been twisted to mean freedom from religion."I rubbed my forehead and stared longingly at the front door of the restaurant. "Well, you can't have freedom of religion if you don't have freedom from religion," I said. "Look, I would have no problem with it being taught in history classes that the founders based their decisions on the bible and that they were [...]



Does Dan Brown Hold Bookselling Key?

2009-09-14T22:09:33.347-06:00

This morning, I was expecting 492 copies of Dan Brown’s Lost Symbol to arrive with our UPS order. I greeted the driver at the door with a big smile and eagerly helped catch the boxes. My grin disappeared when only one measly box of the Lost Symbol showed up. Was it a 492-book carton? Was Dan Brown’s new opus just a slim, stapled pamphlet retailing for $28.95? No. The box contained a single 12-copy floor display. We were missing 480 copies of our order. I did what any normal book buyer would do in this day and age. I tweeted about the problem. I figured it was the fastest way that I could reach as many Random House people as possible. I also called my rep in a panic. We are not expecting Dan Brown to save our year or even our month, but we sure don’t want to look silly by running out of the most hyped book of the year an hour after its release. The books arrived a couple of hours later (it only felt like a month as I could hear every one of my racing heartbeats vibrating through my body during those long minutes) on three big pallets that also contained the missing 400 copies of Jon Krakauer’s new book Where Men Win Glory. The much ballyhooed Fall season is here. It officially starts tomorrow with the release of these two monster titles. It’s a season packed with big, exciting, wonderful books that is supposed to save publishing and by extension bookselling.Perhaps, if every season were filled with great books rather than an endless supply of schlock, unsupported midlist titles and pathetic trend followers, the industry wouldn’t be so far in the hole that it would need saving.After writing a blog post about Random House’s bounty of remarkable Fall books a few months ago, it seems that I have become one of the people in the industry that the media likes to contact whenever they need some prognostication work. I’m not Nostradamus, but I’m happy to play him on the phone which is what I did when the Christian Science Monitor and Bookselling This Week called recently.I don’t think it’s possible for one, two or even 10 great books to change the landscape in publishing and bookselling, even in the short term. The issues plaguing bookselling (fewer people reading, the devaluation of books by making them loss leaders and books competing against exciting new technological gadgets and games) are ingrained in our culture, our economy and our educational system. These are systematic problems that aren’t going to go away. If we sold every copy of the Dan Brown and Jon Krakauer books in the month of September and we’re able to retain all of last year’s September business, the store wouldn’t even be up 10% for the month. Not exactly a seismic jolt. We certainly wouldn’t complain, but it’s just one month in an otherwise dismal year. It’s more likely that we won’t sell out of the Lost Symbol and Where Men Win Glory, and even more likely that we won’t be able to match our September 2008 business. No, we are going to have to win this battle (and I believe it is a battle for the intellectual soul of this culture) one book, one customer at a time over a period of years. There aren’t any easy answers, or magic solutions. There won’t be any sighs of relief or rejoicing for a long time. Our opportunity with the Fall books is that we can win over a few people as more permanent customers when they buy one of these blockbusters. Of course, that is if they aren’t grousing about the fact that we are selling Dan Brown at a $29.95, instead of $16.00 like the giant warehouse stores. Heck, they might not even buy the blockbusters at our store. Let’s face it, you can’t buy a 32-pack of toilet paper, a gallon of ketchup or a 10-pound block of cheese while you’re here. At least we have gourmet chocolate and lots of copies of the books.[...]



Even on Mars, We Are Who We Are

2009-09-07T22:33:56.334-06:00

The following review is republished from the September 3rd issue of the Boulder Weekly. Back in February, I wrote a feature about Robert Dresner and his failed attempts to get his novel The Astral Imperative published for the Boulder Weekly.When I reprinted that piece on Kash's Book Corner, it became one of my most read entries garnering many comments from people in publishing and also self-published authors. Dresner was also contacted directly by publishers and agents about the book. To date, he still does not have a deal in place. It's not so easy for an unknown author to sell a trilogy one book at a time. In this article, I chose not to discuss the fact that the novel is self-published. The distinctions between published and self-published and all the permutations in between those two extremes seems to be completely blurred in the public's mind. If it's a good book, no one - outside of the bookselling and publishing industries -seems to care whether some guy is printing his personal manifesto on demand or whether Random House is revving up the presses for a 100,000 print run.StargazerLocal Sci-Fi author creates his own UniverseRobert Dresner creates a dark but vividly drawn future universe where life is nearly impossible for his heroes in The Machine, the second volume of his thought-provoking science-fiction trilogy, The Astral Imperative.The novel opens with three astronauts stranded on Mars after their international mission of hope has led to the deaths of their six crewmates. The survivors live in uncomfortable quarters where the constant drone of the air pumps invades their every conscious moment. They barely speak to each other, only communicating when it is absolutely necessary.“They gave birth to the future, but now they are marooned,” Dresner said. “It’s about survival. They have to discover who they are. When hope starts to fade, it’s amazing how you revert back to who you are. You can meet a great challenge, but when it’s over, you are all of a sudden back to yourself.”The rescue of the astronauts is not so simple. They have discovered a new life form, and that form, regardless of how tiny (we’re talking molecular here), could possibly contaminate everything on Earth. In addition, they are in possession of the Dream Machine, a computer that has reached consciousness. Whatever nation controls that technology would obviously have a huge advantage in the world. The ideals of the first international crew give way to the tribal bickering of the rescuers.“That machine is the most powerful thing that humans have ever created,” Dresner said, clearly relishing his own creation. “The idea of the rescuers is to either control the Dream Machine or make sure that no one else does.”While the humans wrangle for power on Mars, for many on Earth, survival isn’t even an option. The climate becomes increasingly foreboding until a killer storm, far beyond the power of Hurricane Katrina, strikes New York City, highlighting the necessity of exploring new worlds. One character walks out into the streets of Manhattan after the storm has cleared and is stunned and heartbroken by the destruction.“He saw one whole block destroyed, every single building collapsed into one another; the mound of wreckage and carnage so high it blocked out the sun… He heard gunshots in the distance, and a short burst of machine gun fire as he neared Central Park. He saw bulldozers shoveling bodies off the sidewalk, piling them on top of one another for removal to mass graves in New Jersey.”Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Dresner’s world is how ordinary people respond to extraordinary situations. On his Earth, life is virtually unchanged despite the fact that the first novel ended with all of the computers being taken over by an alien intelligen[...]



Let the Great World Spin

2009-07-09T16:40:16.130-06:00

My uncle Nick died yesterday. It was sudden and completely unexpected. He was trim and fit and seemed to be in the prime of his life though he was in his mid-sixties. I expected another 20 years of visits with him at least. After all, his father, my grandfather, lived an active life until the age of 97.The world seems strangely tilted to me today: the sidewalks slanted, the blue sky too low, the bird calls too loud, the grass in this strangely rainy season a too-brilliant green. I spent the night and early morning hours in a daze, pacing the hardwood floors of my apartment and intermittently lying on the couch trying to read Colum McCann's beautiful new novel Let the Great World Spin through the tears in my eyes. It's a novel suffused with death and grief (at least the first 115 pages) and each passage sent my mind reeling back to thoughts of Uncle Nick.My father had three younger brothers, John, Nick and Ron, and a much younger sister, Ardelle, who is closer in age to me than to my dad. I was the first grandchild in the family, and thus some of my earliest memories are of lively family vacations at my paternal grandparents' house. My three uncles knelt on the floor and would bark at me like three big dogs. I turned with glee from one to the other, stumbling over the large oriental rug that covered the living room floor as I tried to find a safe haven from the doggies. They'd gradually close in on me until there was no escape. There was no getting away from their embraces of playful joy and love.Throughout my childhood, my father would regale my sisters and I with the exploits of his childhood featuring the four brothers. In the room where I slept at my grandparents' house, there was a picture frame with four individual shots of the boys. My father was respectably buttoned-down forever in his role as the eldest brother, the characteristic wave in his hair already present even though I didn't quite recognize his face. Nick's photo I remember the best. He had a slight sneer. It was a look that he carried into adulthood. I would have recognized him anywhere.I imagined the brothers as my own version of the Little Rascals. Four boys loose on the neighborhood, causing havoc; four boys getting into trouble down on the boardwalk every summer. It was Nick that played most prominently in these tales. He was the brother that my father was most closely bonded to, despite the fact that John was closer to him in age. At the center of many of these stories was the family's dry cleaning business. It was where they all came of age. In my teenage years, if I acted out at all, I was always threatened with a summer stint at one of the dry cleaning locations. "You don't know how easy you've got it," my dad would laugh. "I'll send you off with my father and you'll never complain again."The brothers were in the family dry cleaning business, Frankford Associates founded in the early 1930s by my grandfather, at various times in their lives. My father became a lawyer -- he still practices -- and never spent time there after college. John, who was also my godfather, eventually moved out to California when I was in high school and died about 12 years later. Nick and Ron stayed in the business. They were joined at various times over the years by both of Nick's sons and Ardelle's boy. For a short time, I served as the parts manager of the business.Frankford Associates was not a place I ever expected to find myself. I was off to college at the age of 17 and destined for a professional career. I wasn't going to look back. I wanted to put as much distance between myself and my family as possible. I didn't know what profession I might choose, but it was unimaginable to me that I'd spend it in the dry cleaning business. I must have been insufferable.I ended up[...]



Random House's Hail Mary Pass

2009-06-22T09:29:14.462-06:00

I've had my head buried in the Random House Fall catalogs most of this week. It's a wonderful place where fine literature is abundant, and intelligent history, science, and current affairs books are plentiful. It's a book lover's utopia that for moments at a time can almost counteract the bookseller's dystopia in which we are living.The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group catalog in particular was truly amazing. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that it is the single best catalog I have perused in my 12 years as a buyer. Now before we break out the champagne, I have a few caveats.First of all, this shouldn't really be just one catalog. Corporate ownership of publishing has given us these many headed beasts where several formerly vibrant individual publishers or imprints are forced into one unruly tent. This catalog is the result of some layoffs at Doubleday that forced it into Knopf's lap. Now, you have the greatest literary publisher in the land leading off the season with schlock-meister Dan Brown's Lost Symbol. Perhaps if Dan Brown could have delivered his manuscript as scheduled a few years ago, a few more people at Doubleday would still have their jobs and Knopf could focus its attention on Alice Munro, Richard Russo, A.S. Byatt and Kazuo Ishiguro. Oh well.My second reason for not celebrating is that this list might be too much, too late. The idea is that all of these great books are going to magically produce more customers for the holiday season. I have my doubts. After several extremely fallow Fall seasons, our customers have come to expect little new and exciting at Christmas from the publishers. Also, the recession has taken its toll and to think that an industry which currently accepts 10% down as being, well, acceptable, is suddenly going to rebound and be in the black because of a few great titles strikes me as naive. I am not of the "build it and they will come," mindset.My final word of caution comes from a little history lesson. A few years ago, when Da Vinci Code was selling like iPhones, we were overjoyed. The Boulder Book Store sold more than 500 copies that December alone and nearly 1800 overall. We not only had the champagne out, we were drenched in it. I sobered up quickly when I ran the numbers on hardback fiction in January. Our sales in that section were only up moderately. In fact we sold only about 150 more units than the previous year. Basically, Dan Brown had wiped out the rest of the books in the section. It's conceivable that 350 of his sales might have gone to other books. They weren't really additional sales. Many titles severely underperformed that season.Okay, enough caveats. Yesterday was still an amazing day as I paged through the catalog and parried with my rep on the quantities that I'd order in for the store. I also shared my thoughts throughout the day with fellow booksellers, reps and authors on Twitter. Here's a blow by blow account of how the buy proceeded.As I awaited for Ron, my longtime Random House rep, to arrive at ten, I sent out a message on Twitter. It was a plea for help, a cry in the dark."Buying RH today. The Doubleday/Knopf side. Must decide on Dan Brown. What are others doing? We sold 1800 of Da Vinci in hdbk. 500 of new bk?"I got two responses. One from a new store that was in awe that we could sell 1800 copies of any single book and one from the buyer at Maria's down in Durango. Joe from Maria's said they were looking at buying 150 and 500 sounded about right for my buy. That gave me more confidence with my hunch. Given the difference in our stores' sizes, I figured we should be buying about three to four times what Maria's does.Ron arrived and the Dan Brown book was first on our list. It wasn't even in the catalog. Just a boring photoc[...]



Impressions of Book Expo

2009-06-03T15:48:14.382-06:00

Just What is BEA?The annual Book Expo America has been many things over the years in addition to being an industry-wide celebration. Politicians including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have used the convention to garner some press for their projects and stroke their authorial ambitions. Celebrities from Prince to Hugh Hefner have thrown lavish parties ostensibly for forgettable books, and it's been a place to air out every half-baked idea in publishing. The consistent theme throughout the years, whether the convention was in glitzy Las Vegas, pre-Katrina New Orleans, workman-like Chicago, or the center of the publishing universe, New York, has been that BEA is about books. The big houses displayed their fall lists in force, passing out galleys, bringing in authors, hanging giant banners and thrusting endless catalogs on unsuspecting booksellers. If you didn't return home with a dozen buzz books (titles that everyone was talking about), it seemed like you somehow missed the show.This year's fete was held in New York's remarkably dull Jacob Javits Center. Yes, dull. Lacking luster. Brutish. New York couldn't do any better for a convention center than an ugly squarish black glass building that makes the Port Authority look like a monument to sensible architecture? Worse yet it is set in the most hidden and forsaken part of the city where restaurants and retail establishments won't even venture. Is there any other part of Manhattan that more resembles downtown Flint, Michigan?Still, despite the sordid location, the transitioning print to digital world that publishers and booksellers occupy, and the horrendous economy (we are two steps ahead of the automakers and one step ahead of the newspapers), I couldn't wait for the show to begin. It was a chance to escape the depressing spreadsheets of the store, an opportunity to convene with creative booksellers and publishers, and perhaps rub shoulders with some authors that I revere.Here are some thoughts and impressions of the just-completed show:Where Are The Books?Most publishers drastically cut back the number of advance reader's copies that they gave out. The booths were sparse, the freebies (despite Wired Magazine's Chris Anderson's assertion that free is the next big price point) were almost non-existent. Where was the swag? All I wanted was a deck of cards advertising a book or a publisher. Used to be, I'd see five of those a show. Nowadays, all I got were brochures to go to netgalley and pick up my reader's copy. No thanks, I'll stay with my 30-year-old hardback John Updike novel that I carried to the show.Perhaps most surprising about the publishers' reticence to give things away and show off their new titles is that this Fall list just may be the best array of new titles that I have ever seen. New novels from John Irving, E.L. Doctorow, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Richard Russo, and Philip Roth, not to mention Dan Brown and Audrey Niffenegger are on the docket. You would never have guessed that this Fall was an embarrassment of riches based on what we saw on the show floor. Are the publishers trying to hide these books?You Call That A Booth?Instead of getting booksellers excited about titles, many publishers seemed to be trying to win an award for best Scandinavian interior design. The booths were small and austere with clean lines, sleek chairs and plush carpet. HarperCollins didn't even have posters of the titles. Only their pesky light boards that flashed a new book jacket every ten seconds stood in the way of the booth winning an award for most monochromatic space in New York City. A few booths (Hay House, Workman and Andrews McMeel) went all out and stocked their displays with . . . gasp . . . books. The big g[...]



Needing Great Fiction

2009-04-21T22:53:29.961-06:00

The Excuse I've taken a brief respite from Kash's Book Corner. The sheer exhaustion of trying to get a five-month old to sleep every night should be enough of an excuse for neglecting the blog. We spent a great week in Clearwater, Florida with my father and my daughter was a little angel for her grandpa. Now that we are home she's not so cooperative.In all honesty, I can't blame my slothful ways fully on my child. I'm a baseball fanatic, perhaps even an addict, and it's hard for me to devote my spare time in April to anything besides for listening to the Phillies games, playing fantasy baseball and getting ready for softball season. In fact, we met my father in Clearwater because that is the spring training home of the Phillies.The SadnessI was also thrown by the tragedy of Henry Hubert's death last week. Henry was my Oxford rep for about 10 years. We were both honored by our peers with Mountain & Plains Independent Booksellers Association awards in the same year. I was humbled to share the stage with such a great book man. Henry was in the business for several years before I was even born. Books were bought and sold differently in the years that he was coming up. He was around when the imprints were the names of flesh and blood people. I could be in the business for 100 years and there are things that Henry understood that I could never learn.I saw Henry last summer when he came to sell me the University of Chicago list. He told me it was the end of selling for him. It wasn't bringing in much money, but more importantly to Henry it wasn't fun or human any more. He didn't want to enter the digital age; he wasn't one for communicating by email. It was a business plain and simple and Henry was about books. Where was the love of books and reading he wanted to know?He insisted that I call my wife Emily and invite her down for lunch. We went to a wonderful French restaurant in town and as usual Henry examined the menu with great care and ordered an appetizer, a glass of wine, desert and a coffee in addition to his entree. He loved good food. The slow lunches used to drive me a little crazy, but over the years Henry taught me to enjoy the small moments that come to us in the middle of our hectic days.During that lunch, I remember smiling proudly because Henry was so effusive in his praise for Emily and he was quite gallant in telling her how pregnancy truly became her. I'm sorry that my daughter Martina will never get to meet Henry. He sent her a present upon her birth, but he did not come up to Boulder in the last few months.In addition to my sadness about Henry, I joined the city of Philadelphia in mourning the death of Harry Kalas the Phillies great play-by-play voice. Thanks to the advent of the Internet and satellite radio, I've been listening to the Phillies home broadcasts for the last 8 years or so. It was wonderful to get reacquainted with the baritone voice that helped raise me. I was the kid hiding under the covers with a transistor radio as Kalas called the games. I didn't love Kalas like I loved Henry Hubert, but there is still a feeling of emptiness that needs to be honored.I tuned into the Phillies game the day that Kalas died. It was an afternoon affair in Washington and I was home for lunch. It was also the day that I learned of Henry Hubert's death. I held the baby on my lap and slowly ate my sandwich as a moment of silence was held for Kalas. The game began immediately following the tribute. The Phil's color man Larry Andersen, one of the heroes of the 1993 pennant winners, was sobbing on the radio. I put my sandwich down, kissed the baby and handed her to Emily."I'm going back to work," I said. "I can be depressed all on my own[...]



HarperCollins' Loss is Our Loss

2009-03-20T10:10:55.966-06:00

The best sales rep I have ever worked with in my 12 years of buying will be retiring later this year. HarperCollins' John Zeck was not planning to retire so soon, but when the publisher offered early retirement he took them up on their deal. Ouch. I have had some amazing reps, including this year's Publishers Weekly Rep of the Year Penguin's Tom Benton, my legendary Random House rep Ron Smith, and my always patient and very understanding Hachette rep Randy Hickernell but no one did nearly as much for their publisher as John Zeck. Zeck is a tireless promoter of Harper's titles. What makes him different than almost every other rep is that he closely monitors his books from the initial sales call, to their release, to their sell through and even onto their life as remainders. He does this for dozens and dozens of titles every single season despite having the largest list of any rep, selling both kids and adult titles and working a huge territory. If you aren't in the publishing industry, you'd probably assume that following a title through its life cycle is a standard practice for a sales rep. You would be wrong. Most reps follow through on a couple of titles and then they're off to the next season. The sheer volume of new books means that the reps are constantly working six to nine months in the future. I encountered the awesome power of Zeck during my first year as a buyer. I was under a mandate to reduce the store's inventory and I was in over my head when it came to juggling all the responsibilities of my new job. Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells was beginning to take off in paperback. We had sold 20 copies in a few weeks and I was playing catch up with the inventory. I got a call from Zeck that I will never forget. "Hey Dude, you need to order 100 copies of Divine Secrets." "I don't need that many. Maybe another 20." "No. You need at least 100. This book is going to be huge. You've got to stop chasing it." "We aren't selling 100 copies a month of anything right now. It's too many." "Just trust me on this. I'll eat the books if they don't sell." I bought the 100 books, in part just to get him off the phone, and they sold in just a few weeks. By then I knew to keep about 100 books in stock at all times. We went on to sell 2,964 copies of Divine Secrets. Sure, we would have sold the bulk of those copies without John's help. However the truth is it would have taken me three months to get up to the quantity I really needed to sell the book to its fullest potential. John got me there in one phone call. John and a few other notable long-time reps really taught me how to be a buyer. On long drives up and down from the mountains to ski, I peppered him with questions about the industry. I must have driven him nuts. "Why aren't there better incentives to buy nonreturnable?" "What kind of sell through on the frontlist are publishers really expecting?" "How come we have to buy by season instead of monthly?" "What percentage of hardbacks is sold in the first month of release?" He answered every question like a hyper big brother. Sometimes the answers were pure bullshit, but he always made me think. He always challenged me to do a better job, which was to sell more books. His influence and his gregarious personality extended far beyond the booksellers his me. Last week my wife was listening to a Lisa Scottoline audiobook. At the end of the nine discs, Scottoline's acknowledgements were read. My wife was shocked to hear Scottoline mention the "world famous John Zeck." How many times does a Philadelphia author publicly single out and thank the Denver based rep for his help? Never. Zeck is one of a[...]



Hachette: From Boom to Bust

2009-03-19T12:12:32.857-06:00

Hachette Gets Cheap, Real CheapDuring the deluge of bad news that has pounded the publishing industry in the last six months, one company, Hachette Book Group, has emerged unscathed. Thanks to the popularity of Stephanie Meyer, Malcolm Gladwell, David Sedaris, and Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, not to mention the dozen or so James Patterson best sellers that come out every year, Hachette is sailing through this recession. While Random House, HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin, and Simon & Schuster were all cutting back, Hachette was handing out bonuses.I don't begrudge anyone in publishing a bonus and was quite happy to find out that the people I know in Hachette were being rewarded for a magnificent year. Just about everyone connected to the printed word is undervalued and poorly paid, so to see bonuses being doled out during hard times was the feel good story of the Christmas season.Unfortunately, Hachette has decided to not only withhold their largess from their bookselling partners, but they have instituted severe cutbacks that will cost many independent stores $3,000 in the upcoming year. It turns out they want to improve on their good fortunes, by breaking the backs of the very bookstores that promote and sell their titles.Yesterday, we were informed that Hachette was eliminating their newsletter co-op program ($2,000), their author events co-op ($200 to $800 per year) and their Emerging Voices program ($200). These were all programs where bookstores acted in concert with Hachette to promote individual titles. We bought display quantities of 40 different titles and advertised them in our email newsletter to earn the $2,000. We hosted events to earn the $200 event co-op fee and, most importantly, we bought 10 copies of books by relatively unknown authors to earn the co-op attached with the Emerging Voices authors.In most businesses, $3,000 might be a fairly insignificant amount. In the bookselling world where a profit of 2% is considered stellar, it is a critical sum. That's enough money to pay a bookseller for one hour of work every Monday through Saturday all year long. Unfortunately, that's how little booksellers earn. It's enough money that we and other stores have been brainstorming how we can possibly make cuts to save it. Heck, we are even buying cheaper toilet paper and paper towels just to realize a savings of about $1,000.The worst part of Hachette's moves is that many of these programs are working. We bought 10 copies of Katie Crouch's Girls in Trucks when it appeared on the Emerging Voices last year. It's a book I probably would have brought in only two copies without the Hachette incentive. We have now sold 67 hardbacks and are expecting it to explode in paperback this summer."I think the newsletter program really worked," my Hachette rep Randy said. "You would change buys from three to eights. There were titles that you bought tens of that you never would have bought in those quantities without the extra money."Earlier today I tried to reduce my buy of Giulia Melucci's I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti, one of this season's Emerging Voices books, from 10 to 3. It's too late. Hachette has already invoiced us. I can tell you in the future we won't look on Hachette's midlist titles with such a generous eye.As usual, Hachette made it's decisions with very little input. No bookseller input at all from what I can tell. A little over a year ago, Hachette tried to unilaterally impose a case quantity minimum on hot new titles. That ill conceived idea, which now sounds brilliant compared to eliminating most of their co-op, met with such wrath from booksellers it was q[...]



Musings about eBooks.

2009-03-01T21:19:10.769-07:00

The launch of Amazon's Kindle 2 on February 9th has released a torrent of discussion about the future of ebooks on television, in newspapers, in the pages of national magazines, as well as online conversations in blogs and on Twitter. I've refrained from joining the choir of commentators because I feel that I don't have a cogent argument to put forward about my extreme discomfort when it comes to eBooks.I sincerely believe that if Amazon's Kindle or Sony's Reader Digital Book or perhaps an iPhone eReader application were to take off the way the iPod has over the last five years, bookstores as we know them would cease to exist. Sure, there would be some small, niche stores. Perhaps even a few general booksellers that were a tiny fraction of the size of my store could exist in big tourist destinations, but the world of oversized chain booksellers and scrappy full-service, general independents would largely disappear.Instead of trying to put together a rational, logical essay about all of these ideas swirling in my head, I thought I'd just jot down a few thoughts about eBooks, in an effort to join the conversation.The prices of Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader are outrageous. We are talking about a device to enable people to read books. Books, the top source of information for about 500 years, have been relatively affordable, throughout modern history, for people of all walks of life. New books generally range in price from $3 (Dover classics and children's early readers) to $35 (hardcover biographies or histories). The $359 price tag truly prevents eReaders from being something that will be available to all classes of Americans, let alone people in poorer countries. If some books are eventually only published as eBooks, millions of people will not have access to them. That's scary.Every new scientific or technological idea is not necessarily a good one. My wife and I have been debating the merits of cloning Neanderthals for the past few weeks. I've been in favor of bringing our ancient relatives back to life. It would only take about 30 million dollars to meet one. We could clone about 25,000 (a small city) if we spent the entire stimulus bill on the project. My wife is concerned about the ethics and humanity of the enterprise. EBooks seem about as necessary in today's world as Neanderthals. For generations, the book has been an unbelievably efficient means of communicating complex ideas and stories. EBooks don't add anything to the reading experience. IPods, on the other hand, allow us to mix our music and categorize it in ways that weren't possible unless you were a disc jockey. We aren't going to make mixed books. Do you need to carry around 100 books? Should we scrap books simply because we can? What are the real ramifications of digitizing our cultural legacy? Could a virus wipe out a future Thomas Paine's cry for revolution?Reading is a vacation from the computer and television screens. We spend half our waking lives, maybe more, in front of these screens. Reading a book slows us down, forces us to concentrate in a way that neither the television nor the Internet does. If reading a novel is no different than reading a website with multiple links, will our ability to focus on something longer than a blog post begin to erode?Now that I have a baby, I seem to find myself in the library a bit more. It's a restful place in downtown Boulder with excellent diaper-changing facilities. We've started borrowing DVDs and books on CD while we are there. Almost all of the library's numerous patrons are glued to computer screens. Many are watching entertainment videos on You[...]



The Self-Published Man

2009-02-24T22:30:03.391-07:00

The following story is reprinted from an article I wrote for the Boulder Weekly. Robert Dresner is signing at the Boulder Book Store on Wednesday, Feb. 25th at 7:30 p.m.Everyone Agrees Robert Dresner's Sci-fi Novel is Great.Why Can't He Get It Published?Robert Dresner, with his short, tough-guy haircut, Bronx accent and agitated mannerisms seems an unlikely person to write an emotionally resonant and thought-provoking novel. Words flow easily from him in conversation as he anticipates questions and speaks extemporaneously on just about any subject. Words aren’t the problem. It’s just hard to imagine him sitting still long enough to compose much more than a paragraph. Perhaps even more surprising is that Dresner’s self-published Astral Imperative begins as a simple science fiction narrative about the first manned mission to Mars before revealing itself as an insightful meditation on relationships, heroism and human foibles. Writing in a direct, unadorned prose style, Dresner creates a space ship that is large enough to carry not only his diverse group of astronauts but also the reader’s imagination.I first met Dresner a few years ago on his day job as one of Boulder’s best house painters. He showed up at my condominium in dungarees and a crisp button-down shirt to advise my wife and me about paint colors and provide an estimate. He was blunt in his vision of eliminating our clashing colors and shook his graying head a few times, asking us if we were sure we wanted to keep the canary yellow in our living room.He exuded confidence and competence as he paced the four rooms of our home like a caged panther, turning off and on lights, holding up paint swatches to the wall, eyeing the high ceiling of our staircase and explaining just what a pain in the ass it was going to be to get our house painted. He so fully inhabited his role of professional painter that it never occurred to me that he might harbor secret writing ambitions. He was simply “the painter.”I should have known better. Ever since becoming the head book buyer for the Boulder Book Store in 1997, I have been besieged by writers. Manuscripts have miraculously appeared from locked draws, stapled poetry collections have been pulled out of coat pockets at parties, and bizarre plot summaries have ruined football games at local bars. It’s so bad that I’ve told people that I am a ballet dancer (that always silences them when they view my doughy 5-foot-4 frame) or claimed to be a sports reporter in town to cover the big game. I’ll say anything to avoid the awkwardness of hearing about all of those unpublished books from needy authors.I let my guard down with Dresner, however, and in a conversation at the end of the painting job I mentioned my position at the bookstore. His eyes lit up, and he told me that he’d written several novels. I tried to change the subject and had almost forgotten the conversation when he showed up at my office a few days later to pick up his check.“You were the first stranger that I’d asked to read a book of mine in my entire life,” Dresner said to me in a recent interview. “It was very hard for me. I had left the bookstore and was in the alley when I decided to come back in and give the book to you. I knew that I had to do something. People were telling me I had to make it happen.”The novel that Dresner delivered to me was on 287 manuscript pages bound in a hardback clamshell black binder. It weighed nearly four pounds. He nervously extolled the virtues of the binder that he’d picked up in New York City, rather than of his book, and[...]



I'm Tweeting My Life Away

2009-02-22T18:07:11.197-07:00

Tweeting is what you do when you are on the social network website Twitter. I'm not sure why it isn't twittering, I'd prefer twittering. It sure feels like I'm twittering (to speak rapidly and in a tremulous manner) when I'm furiously typing my hopefully pithy comments, responses and questions. Whether it's tweeting or twittering is irrelevant in the end because I'm sure in love with those little 140-character jolts I get each day.What started as a once-a-day habit in the fall (after a tip from a fellow bookseller at the Mountains and Plains conference) has turned into a full-blown addiction. I can hardly imagine life as a book buyer without my Twitter lifeline. I check in when I arrive at the office, I leave a note telling my 197 followers what I'm doing in the middle of the day, and I read and write a few tweets at the end of the long work day. Simply put, it's my blanket, my teddy bear, my hot soup on a cold day.The following pieces in homage to Twitter are all exactly 140 words to pay respect to Twitter's 140-character limit. My Twitter identity, like my blog, is Kashsbookcorner.Love Letter to TwitterOh, Twitter where would I be without you? Each morning you bring me news from dozens near and far. One is stuck in snow, another has a dreadful meeting to go to, a third tells me Harper is laying off its stars. Sure, it takes 10 minutes to decipher some of the messages due to your minimalist language, but who else will provide me with obscure links about Norwegian websites declaring war or perfume companies' diminished profits?Twitter, when I'm down you send me word of a wonderful novel from my publishing friends, when I get too high you give me balance with desperate tweets from frantic booksellers. And sometimes you have just a hint of mystery with your oblique comments starting with @this or @that. What's wonderful? What's incredible? Are you keeping secrets? Please tell me, my beautiful Twitter.Twitter, Thanks for Doing my Job Thanks for bailing me out on Wednesday when I didn't look through the publisher's catalog in advance. In the past, I would have just made guesses and let the rep spoon feed me titles. Instead, you saved the day. I tweeted, "Anybody buy Grove/Atlantic yet? What did you like? Anything that is a must have?" The responses came pouring in. Suddenly, I was an expert, a prepared buyer.Oh yes, we are excited about Wetlands, a couple of booksellers wrote in. Another recommended The Earth Hums in B Flat, echoing my rep's sage advice, and there was even more enthusiasm for The Whole Five Feet. My rep claimed a few books were getting great buzz so I typed the titles into the twitter search to see who was tweeting about them. Wetlands had tons of buzz, Richard Flanagan none.Twitter Understands MeIt's hard to feel lonely with Twitter. Some days, I used to feel that nobody really knew what I was going through -- the endless catalogs, the rep's hyperbole, and tedious photocopied add-ons. My colleagues saw the lunches, the free books and a comfortable day spent sitting in a chair, while they stood behind the register.Now, I have a community that I can tweet with everyday. Some have paged their way through the catalogs, some are stuck selling publishers that I can't stand buying, and some are experimenting with Edelweiss, the electronic catalog. Many respond to my tweets with supportive words. I tweet, "It's hard to see so many reps when I don't want to buy." They respond with, "That's how it is with us. Too many books, tight budget." All day long we talk. I'm not alone anymore.[...]



Cutting the List of Nominees

2009-02-02T21:52:33.449-07:00

A few weeks ago, I got one of the more surprising calls of my bookselling career. The caller wanted to know if I'd be interested in determining the nominees for the Indie Choice Book Awards. At first, I wasn't quite sure what she was talking about, but then quickly realized that the Indie Choice awards given out by the American Booksellers Association at Book Expo America are the new Booksense awards. Wow! I've come to the realization that I'm never going to be able to vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame, but now I would have a chance to influence a book award.Sure, I'd love to nominate a few books. I was about to start rambling off titles when she informed me that the process was a bit more complex than shouting out a few of my favorite books. The ABA would send me a long list of nominees from this year's Indie Next Lists in four categories and I would work with a handful of other booksellers from around the country to whittle the lists down to five books each. ABA booksellers would then vote for the awards from our short list.I started sweating. I have a two-month old baby at home. I can barely get through a Dr. Seuss book right now. The caller was talking about a total of 60 or 70 books on the long lists. The panic was setting in and I was about to get my shrink on speed dial on the other line, when the caller mentioned we'd begin discussions in a week or two. That was too much, "I don't think I can read all the books in time."She chuckled. "That's why we need people like you. No one can read all the books. We need people who know the industry, know about these books and can discuss them so we can get the right finalists."What a relief. They needed a natural bullshitter. No problem. I do that everyday. In fact, I once had a sports talk show in Maryland and one of our features was rating movies that we hadn't seen. It was the most popular part of the show. "Sign me up for the Indie Choice Awards," I exclaimed.This morning I completed my form and have selected my five books in each category. I thought I'd share my picks and my convoluted reasoning with the readership of Kash's Book Corner.FictionNow You See Him by Eli Gottlieb. Gottlieb's book contains echoes of The Great Gatsby, he lives right here in Boulder and I interviewed him for my blog.Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. The best short story writer working today. An absolutely magnificent collection.Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. A quirky novel featuring cricket players in New York and odd energetic characters that reminded me of some of the great Saul Bellow novels including Humboldt's Gift.Gossip of the Starlings by Nina de Gramont. A marvelous look at adolescent friendship, written in a gorgeous style. Nina used to work at the Boulder Book Store and I interviewed her for my blog.Peace by Richard Bausch. My favorite novel of the year. Bausch's intense look at a group of Americans trying to climb an Italian hill on a snowy night in World War II was a gripping tale of survival and morality.I must admit that I really didn't follow the spirit of my task in this category. I actually read all of the books I put on the shortlist. There were two books on the long list that I read, but I decided against nominating for the short list. Garth Stein's Art of Racing in the Rain which I thought was too lightweight for an award. Also, Stein's book zoomed in popularity after Starbuck's featured it. Nothing says independent like a title that Starbucks makes. Dennis Lehane's Given Day, which had the best galley package of any novel this year, [...]



Changes Here, There and Everywhere

2009-01-20T12:47:05.597-07:00

Avin Domnitz to Leave American Booksellers AssociationI was quite surprised by the announcement last week that Avin Domnitz would be leaving his post as Chief Executive Officer of the American Booksellers Association later this year. To me, Domnitz, with his booming voice and large energetic bearing, has come to embody the trade group that has fought so valiantly for independent booksellers during this past decade.Domnitz seemed to be everywhere, from the corridors of the large convention halls in New York, Chicago, Washington D.C. or Los Angeles at Book Expo America and the hotel lobbies that house the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association meetings in Colorado, to our new fiction section browsing for a book to read while on vacation. He was constantly championing the cause of independent bookstores at these gatherings and he was always willing to speak one on one to booksellers with suggestions on how to survive in this almost impossible business climate.Over the years, I've had to endure a lot of complaints about the ABA. Booksellers would grumble that the ABA wasn't doing enough to help member stores, the initiatives were ineffective, ABA should only focus on one particular agenda item (the focus always changed with the person I was talking to), and that it was absurd for poor, beaten down booksellers to have to support the large staff infrastructure and high salaries of ABA. Heck, if someone could make money in bookselling more power to them.I never took much stock in those complaints. The job that Domnitz was trying to accomplish was remarkably complex. The ABA is made up mostly of tiny little almost invisible mom and pop stores while the big glamorous booksellers (like Powell's and Tattered Cover) get all of the press and attention. It's almost two completely different constituencies. Domnitz, through programs like Booksense (now IndieBound), the suing of publishers for unfair trade practices and most recently the litigation in New York to get Amazon to pay sales tax has tried to find the common ground.I don't think it will be easy to find someone to replace Domnitz. He was simply impossible to ignore. Sure, some booksellers thought he was full of bombast and empty rhetoric, but people took notice when he entered the room. He got publishers to pay attention to independent stores during a time when there were many more reasons for them to cast us aside.Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops ClosingThis headline nearly broke my heart until I saw the glimmer of hope in the articles. Harry W. Schwartz, the venerable bookseller that has been serving Milwaukee for 82 years, announced yesterday that it was going to close its four stores at the end of March. My sadness was personal because my dear friend Daniel Goldin has been the buyer for Schwartz for over 20 years.Daniel is the smartest, most passionate bookseller I know. He's an amazing reader, a kind soul and he possesses a remarkable business mind. I owe much of my success as a buyer to the advice he has given me over the years. I almost picked up the phone and called him to commiserate before I finished reading the article. Luckily, I didn't. It turns out that Daniel will be purchasing Schwartz's best store, the Downer Avenue location and renaming it Boswell Book Company. If anyone can make an independent book store thrive in an old Great Lake's city it is Daniel.Still, the news was a major blow to people in the independent bookseller community. After all, Schwartz is one of the great stores [...]



To Go Where No Buyer Has Gone Before

2009-01-11T18:52:02.476-07:00

I got a glimpse into the future this week when I bought the HarperCollins children's and the Penguin adult hardcover lists using the electronic catalog Edelweiss instead of the paper catalogs provided by the publishers. Edelweiss, an offshoot of the popular bookstore data analysis program Above the Treeline, is attempting to position itself as the industry's catalog repository of the future.Why should each publisher have to develop their own ecatalog when Treeline can create a format that will allow them to just plug their title information into it? Overjoyed buyers would only have to learn one program instead of dozens. At least that's the reasoning of Treeline's founder John Rubin. Rubin has been working furiously since last June's Book Expo America in Los Angeles, when HarperCollins announced their ambitious plans to rid themselves of paper catalogs, to get his product off the ground.Rubin was in my office for the HarperCollins children's buy along with my Harper rep John Zeck. Zeck and I have been two of the biggest proponents of Treeline over the last few years. It's a program with an enormous amount of potential to revolutionize how bookstores and publishers relate to each other. Publishers can see nearly real time sales data at stores on a title-by-title level as well as their aggregate sales.Much to my frustration, the industry tends to use Treeline, which has the analytical power of a Maserati, as a child's tricycle. Publisher reps timidly suggest that stores buy a title here and there based on Treeline data. Instead, the publishers could do something truly useful like allot co-op dollars to stores for the year based on the Treeline data. Get one more marginal title into a store or save hundreds of hours of extra labor? Seems like an easy decision, and yet every publisher has opted for the extra title so far. In my experience, only Random House has made some attempts to use the true power of the program.Rubin is smart enough to know that his program is under-utilized by the industry and saw a golden opportunity to position Treeline front and center as publishers looked for ways to save catalog costs. It's a bold step but one that might be necessary for the long-term survival of Treeline. When the cost-cutters at bookstores and publishers start snipping their budgets, it's easy to imagine Treeline, a program filled with potential but short on results, just might go by the wayside.Well, after two full days on Edelweiss, I can honestly say that Rubin is well on his way to changing the industry in a drastic way. Each buy took a little longer than it would have taken using a paper catalog, but I should be able to get that time back when I dump the order directly into our Point of Sale system rather than having to enter each title of the purchase order by hand.Edelweiss is organized by catalog just like the publisher's mailings, and that's how I bought the lists. It is possible to reorganize the catalogs on Edelweiss and look at a publisher's whole list by category or date. That's what I planned to do with the Penguin hardbacks, but I was thwarted. When I brought up all of the fiction titles, the rep's notes, which contained co-op incentives, disappeared. It was frustrating, but an email to Rubin resulted in the glitch being fixed by the end of the day.The more challenging and entertaining appointment was the Harper's children's buy. Zeck and I have a routine (we are both gregarious East Coast guys) that usually distracts everyo[...]



Slicing and Dicing the Orders

2008-12-05T12:01:45.311-07:00

I am not very good at doing things in secret. Usually, like right now, I announce my new projects or new ideas (wonderful or awful) on my blog. Twittering, with it's tiny 140-character entries, has also become a nightly habit that soothes my inner bookseller. Let's face it, I'm fairly obnoxious when I'm on to something new.Last Monday I started canceling books off of our frontlist winter purchase orders. These are the books scheduled to arrive in the frozen months of January, February and March. Sales are already frigid during that time of year, and one can only surmise that 2009 winter sales will approach absolute zero. I feared that I'd get a lot of resistance from my reps and the publishers, so I went about the project quietly.My goal was to pare these already tight orders down another 10% to 20%. That was a modest number. Every year when I analyze my buys, I notice that we sell zero copies of nearly 25% of the titles we bring in. Cut those books out and ultimately reduce returns was my goal.I started with my Harper adult order. My Harper rep is, to employ a euphemism, extremely enthusiastic about his books. Surely, there would be dozens of books to lop off that order. I worried that if I called him and told him of my intention he'd be a tad bit irritated. I printed up our order and began to attack it with a highlighter.The very first book on the order was the paperback of Scott Spencer's Willing. Boy, this was going to be easier then I thought. Willing is hands down the single worst novel that I have managed to finish this decade. Spencer, who made his reputation writing Endless Love, manages to offend everyone with his idiotic plot of a freelance writer going on a high-end traveling sex tour. I drew a quick yellow line through the title despite the fact we sold four copies of the book in hardback.In all, I axed a dozen paperback fiction titles. The hardback titles were more difficult because my initial buys were quite spare, but I managed to trim four titles off of Harper's list. These were books that I only bought in twos. Two is a tepid buy and those titles weren't getting supported by co-op dollars from the publisher or display plans from us. Our chances of selling those titles in a good economy were marginal, now they are nil.Besides cutting out these small books, I went through the orders and began reducing quantities on bigger buys. Instead of 25 copies of Alexander McCall Smith's Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, I figured we could survive with 16 from Random House. Did I really need 10 copies of Anne C. Heller's Ayn Rand & the World She Made? Perhaps six would make a nice face out.Slowly, but surely, the cuts began to add up. We got nearly $2,000 at retail out of both the Random House and Harper orders. During the process, I began to get a better feeling for these lists. I looked up several of the books on Amazon, and I discovered what other stores were ordering of these titles by using Above the Treeline (a computer program that allows us to see other independent stores' sales and ordering information).Unable to do things quietly anymore (it's just not my nature), I mentioned in a twitter post that I was cutting the orders. To my surprise, my Penguin rep called and asked how I was doing the cuts and if I was going to eviscerate his order, could he help. I also spoke to a Random House executive who offered to assist me in reducing our orders to them.I worked with my Penguin rep and[...]



Coherent Thoughts and Russian Literature

2008-11-30T20:28:06.995-07:00

I am finding it difficult to put together a coherent blog post, or even two thoughts, with a newborn in the apartment. She's up at all hours of the night, short-circuiting my brain functions. The problem is compounded because she has also exhausted my muse (her mother). Instead of stepping in and helping me out, the youngster is seemingly unwilling to give me much feedback on my different ideas. The baby apparently has no discernible opinion on the settlement between Google and the publishers, any feelings about the retail holiday season, or a single idea about a book capable of breaking through the economic morass.I'm left with scattered thoughts and bags under my eyes. Here's a few observations from my last week at the store.Can the Vampires Save Christmas?Stephanie Meyer and her vampires have taken over the bookselling world. We don't really have any bestsellers besides for Meyer's Twilight and its sequel New Moon. Since Thanksgiving, I've been asked two questions over and over again: Do we have Stephanie Meyer's books? and What is the combination to our bathroom doors? I'm stupid enough that I approach each customer encounter with eagerness and bated breath (hoping that they will ask me for a suggestion on a great new novel or an idea for what to buy their husband) only to have to point the way to a mass market paperback or curse the owner of the store for putting locks on our customer bathrooms.The problem with Meyer's vampires is that it doesn't matter how many of these books that we sell because we simply cannot move enough of them at $7.99 or $11.99 to make it a profitable holiday season. Don't get me wrong, I love selling dozens of these books about hunky vampires to young excited readers everyday, I just miss the $35 price tag of Harry Potter. I'm hoping that the collectors edition of Twilight priced at $30 takes off.It seems that everyone has caught the Meyer fever. A group of young women from the bookstore accompanied the sixth-grade daughter of our children's buyer to the movie Twilight. Their reviews, besides for the middle-schooler, were either tepid or filled with qualifications, but they seemed to thoroughly enjoy the outing. I did find it interesting that a couple of our staff members developed flu-like symptoms within a week.Customers Concerned About UsOur business was fairly brisk on the day after Thanksgiving. We were down just a point or two from last year's Black Friday's totals. I found that encouraging. It was fueled largely by tourists in town visiting relatives for the holidays. The regular customers who came in expressed a tremendous level of concern for the store's welfare."How are you guys handling the economy?" was the main question I got. When I related to them that we were doing okay until November (one of the worst months in the store's 35-year history), a look of fear interrupted their cheerful countenances. "Surely, people can still afford books," they often respond, patting my hand. I thank them for coming in and then I pitch our January 1st sale.I'm sure most people in Boulder can still afford books. Home prices haven't really fallen here and foreclosures are almost unheard of, but people's stock portfolios and 401ks must be a little lighter. The truth is, right now no one wants to buy anything including books whether they can afford to or not. Perhaps reminding them of our 25% off sale will induce them to spend a little more money with us[...]