I’ve never known anyone in the book industry who was as loved on both coasts as Bill Chleboun (pronounced clay-bone).
Bill was my former colleague in the book review department of the San Francisco Chronicle. When he died recently of heart failure at 81, a light went out in the book world, and I don’t mean b.c. (before collapse). He was reading books on an iPad two weeks before his death.
Bill was hired by the Chronicle in 1982 to sell advertising space for the floundering Sunday Book Review section that I had been editing for about six months.
His first step was to create an honest regional best seller list, quite a phenomenon at the time. I had long believed that the tastes of Bay Area readers were far more diverse and adventurous than the New York Times best seller list reflected, and here was a way to prove it.
Every Tuesday, Bill called fifteen Bay Area booksellers and asked them what was selling in Fiction, Nonfiction, Hardcover and Paperback categories. Later they would just fax their lists in, but Bill understood the single cohesive factor at the heart of the book trade — gossip — and spent much of the day talking about authors coming through town, surprise up-and-comers, big-budget flops, impulse buys and front-of-store merchandising.
On Wednesday, Bill called the publishers whose books were going to appear on the best seller list that Sunday and told them the good news. No one took his calls at first — marketing directors and ad managers hated talking to newspaper sales reps — so Bill started with secretaries and assistants who were glad to hear gossip from the stores and to make the announcement to their bosses that one or two of the house’s books would be listed that Sunday on some West Coast newspaper’s list.