Remembering Bill Chleboun

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.

Best-Seller-List-fixedOn 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.

 

As the Chronicle grew editorially, so did the power of its Best Seller List. Bay Area readers were more adventurous, Bill discovered, when it came to taking a chance on first novelists and unknown nonfiction writers. Word of mouth spread more quickly in the Bay Area than in other regions, so new titles stayed on the list longer. And with better-known authors, there was a prophetic nature to the list. When a new novel by, say, A. S. Byatt or Margaret Atwood hit the Chronicle, you could often predict that in two or three weeks it would hit the New York Times’ list.

Very soon, Bill’s calls to New York were put through to marketing and sales directors immediately. Everybody loved hearing Bill’s news but more important, his gift for schmoozing kept them on the line. He was fascinated by everything about the book trade, especially the crap shoot factor (why readers buy some books, not others) that kept everybody guessing. Plus he had the gossip.

I got to witness Bill’s relationship with publishers every spring when I accompanied Bill on his annual selling trips to NY. Usually the reason the book editor went to New York with the ad sales rep was to ensure that a meeting would take place at all. With previous ad reps I had found that marketing people would take the meeting only to interest me in reviewing their books, while the ad manager pretended to listen the rep’s pitch for ads.

On the trips with Bill, however, we’d be ushered into the national sales director’s or marketing director’s office with me leading the way because I was the female and of course the big cheese book editor. Instead of gushing at me, as publishing people were trained to do, our hosts would say, “Oh, hi, Pat,” and brush right by to greet the man they wanted to see.

“Bill!” they’d exclaim. “You old sonofagun! How was your flight? Want some coffee? Sit over here in our one good chair, ha ha, we reserve the best comforts for our Wednesday morning caller, right Bill? Hey, how about those 49ers?”

At this point, everyone was filing into the office, from the assistant whom Bill always schmoozed first to the sales director whom Bill knew from way back to assorted marketing people and maybe even the head-of-house who just happened to drop by (“Hey, is it Wednesday?”) and sometimes a shy but erudite editor, because the other secret about Bill aside from being a great schmoozer was that he read voraciously and loved talking about the content of books, which you just didn’t hear in New York all that much.

Then there was this other funny thing that happened because publishing is so gossipy. Everybody knew that Bill and I had five weekdays to see about 60 people so we hit the ground running on Monday morning and were probably traveling faster than they could call each other on the phone (today it would be texting) with the latest gossip.

By mid-week, the meetings would change in tone after everyone got done smiling and gushing, and someone would turn to Bill and say, “So what have you heard?” This meant what hot new rumor, what secret merger, what hint of a scandal, what news of somebody getting fired, what inklings of an author bolting (leaving one house for another) had we picked up in our dash from one office to the next?

And Bill the old sonofagun would always have that delicious tidbit at the ready to set their ears aflame, such as (this goes back a long, long way but you’ll get the idea), “Well, we keep hearing that Sonny’s spending too much,” which referred to Sonny Mehta, the wunderkind editor who had just been imported to NY by Random House to shake up Knopf but was rumored to be in over his head. To news like this from Bill, our publishing friends would always say something like, “Well, that confirms it, then,” and everyone would nod sagely at Bill.

This is not to say getting ads for the Book Section was ever easy. As corporations bought more and more publishing houses, ad budgets dried up fast, putting The Chronicle Book Review in jeopardy again and again. One year Bill sat down with the Book Review staff and created a new kind of Holiday Book Review. This was an old-fashioned rotogravure insert with full color capability. It was printed out-of-house with controlled production costs that allowed Bill to offer catalog discounts for ads and “added value” extras that other newspapers could not provide.

One of these was our hot-off-the press distribution to bookstores throughout the Bay Area. Internally, however, Bill found the Chronicle distribution system slow to deliver something this out of the ordinary. So he decided to bring in his own pickup truck and handle San Francisco stores on his own.

This meant that early one December morning the Chronicle’s book review staff would meet Bill at a loading dock off the premises where we counted out and tied up stacks of the Holiday Book Review in bundles of 100, 200, 300 and upward for various city bookstores to give away at the counter. Then we’d load the bundles into the back and leap in the truck as Bill took off so we could drop off the right number of copies to the right stores as soon as they opened at 10 a.m.

I wouldn’t say the first time was a complete disaster except that I had perhaps fantasized how wonderful this hands-on experience would be. While it was true that the Book Review had become a boon for independent bookstores, I thought the Holiday Book Review itself was going to be such a terrific selling tool that when the sales clerks looked up to see my colleague Alix Madrigal and I rushing into the store calling out, “Here it is! The Chronicle’s Holiday Book issue is here!” everyone at the front desk would — well, not break out in applause exactly but at least recognize the masthead, let’s say, and quickly place a stack on the counter to get the magic working right away.

So I was surprised when booksellers at the front counter started saying as soon as we came in, “Don’t put that there,” or “What is it?” or “Go talk to Receiving,” or even “Take it right back outside.” Oh well, such misunderstandings are the foundation of the book trade, as Bill used to say, and indeed it turned out that the buyers had forgotten to alert the clerks up front. Once we learned how to talk our way into the stores, booksellers everywhere discovered that the Holiday Book Review did help customers choose books.

But what I remember about those trips most of all is sitting on the top of Holiday Book Review bundles in the back of Bill’s truck early in the a.m. and smiling at my colleagues Alix, Bob and Sarah, who were gazing up at skyscrapers and hotels rushing by and thinking what a joy it was to have someone like Bill Chleboun on the staff.

Bill was one of the nicest guys in the book trade. He saved the Chronicle’s Sunday Book Review every day for a dozen years and made it such an institution that it’s still published every week, decades after he retired.

No matter how much things have changed, the book industry is all the better for Bill’s kind of innovative thinking, his curiosity about how things work and his respect for the people who devote their hearts and souls to the process of getting books into the world.

BILL CHLEBOUN: CELEBRATION OF LIFE

A memorial for Bill will be held on Sunday, April 22, at 519 Golden Gate Avenue in Point Richmond CA 94801. For information and RSVPs, email Bill’s wife, Jan, at jbsroost1@mac.com .

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