by Pat Holt

Tuesday, December 1, 1998



A theory that used to be popular in publishing said that people who read romance novels could never "upgrade" to more literary fiction because they just didn't have the critical tools or interest. These readers were collectively like white bread, the thinking went. Rendered to its basics, white bread could never be made into whole grain bread because the essential ingredients just weren't there - they had been taken out or, worse, "refined."

But since the interview at Stacey's Books in San Francisco (see col. #17), where the staff discovered that sales of romance novels have decreased and sales of mid-range novels have increased - a change that's been initiated almost single-handedly by Oprah Winfrey, they feel - one might conclude that the old white bread theory is getting a little stale (let alone elitist and condescending to begin with).

Revived interest in midlist fiction is sending many a newly adventurous reader to the trade paperback shelves this season. Among the discoveries made there, Alice Mattison's MEN GIVING MONEY, WOMEN YELLING (Quill; 244 pages; $13) offers the sweetest, most appealing "intersecting stories" this side of Ann Tyler about ordinary people in New Haven, Conn., whose lives draw us into their invisible community and won't let us go.

Mattison's writing sneaks up on a person. No wonder all the little girls in dance class have a crush on the teacher, Marta: "The girls crossed the floor diagonally, stretching or leaping badly, and then she did it: faster, more grandly, her huge arms and huge legs taking up all the room they wanted, eating the air around them."

From the beginning story, when an unambitious apprentice carpenter named Tom falls in love with his former grade-school teacher Ida, and later Ida's roommate Kitty finds herself reintroduced to a married professor with whom she once had an affair, an intricate lacework gradually uncovers to Mattison's beautifully constructed fiction.

A similarly affecting sense of place draws us into another discovery, ROUND ROCK by Michelle Huneven (Vintage; 296 pages; $13). This is a touching story about losers and drunks (who of course become heroes and eccentrics) at a halfway house in the rural town of Rito, Calif.

Here we're introduced to residents such as John, the house manager, "whose nose and cheeks bore a permanent, bright webbing of red capillaries," and Chuck, a charming recidivist who wears a "forearm tattoo of a woman sunk ass-first in a martini glass with a banner that said MAN'S RUIN."

Everything in Rito is slightly-to-hugely oddball, including its Fourth of July parade, where "20 little girls in silver tutus [followed the mayor's car,] twirling batons. Some batons were only partially tamed. 'This is the sort of thing I see with a really bad migraine,' " comments one character.

A wry, dry commentary follows the adventures of Lewis, whose drunken misadventures land him in "a villa turned loony bin" north of the San Fernanco Valley. "Sometimes, as he roamed the house at night, he watched fog billow up against the windows, a series of ghostly shoulders. By day he noted citrus groves, clear skies, a thick yellow afternoon light." Lewis becomes the kind of loveable loser whose chance for sobriety and actual courage is so appealing that his quest somehow becomes our own.


So: What's the point of racing around interviewing independent booksellers if the book industry is collapsing at our feet in this here Era of Cataclysm - and taking independents down with it?

Aw, quit whining, say critics (not literary critics, of course). This is a money thang. American readers are attracted to discounts at chain bookstores. They like the convenience of Internet book suppliers. They want a self-service warehouse and all the books on the planet to choose from (and all the attendant fantasies).

Starbuck's, Walmart, Target, Ace Hardware and other chain stores, as well as,,, and other online businesses, have all proven that the big guys are in, and the little guys, those precious independents, their numbers dwindling as we speak, are out.

Gad, that's heartless, but oh well, never mind! A key component missing in this scenario is so huge that it's almost hard to grasp: Where does literature fit in all this? You don't have to be a critic to want to know. Who's looking out for literary books? Not mainstream publishers, whom we used to call the great caretakers of American literature - these guys are too busy gobbling each other up to even WANT to be seen as literary (I know! Individual editors are still out there with very high literary standards, but even they have to disguise literature product!).

Of course, we can't say that chain bookstores or Internet suppliers give a fig about literature either. As they've told us ad nauseum in their full-page "Goliath" ads of late, their purpose is to warehouse all in-print titles under the sun and some in the Fifth Galaxy. You want somethin' literary, Charlie? You figure it out.

So let's clear our heads a bit and take a little jaunt over to the Buyer's Choice bookcase at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, Calif. Buyer's Choice is one of those great ideas that an independent bookstore like Kepler's can implement with amazing efficiency and, yes, with discounts and profits for all. The books displayed here are not potential bestsellers or hot tips or gift books necessarily. They are literary books of tremendous adventure and intelligence and fun, many of them chosen by a Kepler's buyer, Karen Pennington.

Karen talks about these books with passion and knowledge. She fingers the pages she's quoting, hugs a book to her body. She points admiringly to the author's photo so you can see the real person behind all the words. She runs her fingertips lovingly across the cover illustration as if to say, this is a doorway to the world, or a potential doorway, and if the book doesn't immediately grab you, why, take a look at this one and this one and this one over here.

With a gesture, she directs her visitor to the Staff Favorites bookshelves near the front windows, or to hundreds of "shelf talkers" all over the store - handwritten cards praising different books that the workers at Kepler's have fallen in love with and don't mind telling you why.

But the Buyer's Choice section is special. For one thing, Kepler's does not discount books anywhere else in the store, so the 15 percent off Buyer's Choice books encourages customers to experiment a bit more than they might elsewhere. Some Buyer's Choice titles are also on the web. "Forget the New York Times list of bestsellers," Kepler's states boldly on "By the time some really interesting books hit 'the list' they are already months old." So true, and yet the NYT bestseller list is slavishly quoted by chain bookstores and online suppliers - often their whole discount structure is geared to the NYT list. (Well, who else can we quote? they seem to say. Quit whining, we might answer.)

"Our Buyer's Choice is a changing collection," Kepler's website continues, "of vital, new, exciting writers and subject matters our buyers have plucked fresh off the press. This is the bestseller list of our dreams, independent of market forces - books chosen for their merit."

2a. The 'Bestseller List of Our Dreams''

What a concept! Want to leap ahead of the NYT list? (It's so easy.) Take a look at Iain Banks' A SONG OF STONE (Simon & Schuster; $23 discounted to $19.55), a novel about "two disguised aristocrats" fleeing from a country very much like Bosnia in a novel that is "dark and debauched, haunting and viciously wry."

Or how about CHILDREN IN EXILE, a "simply amazing" memoir by Thekkla Clark (Ecco, $23/19.55). After the author and her husband "adopt" an ethnic Chinese family from Vietnam, they also offer their home in Tuscany to a destitute Cambodian family whose presence changes their every idea of language, story and survival.

You want funny/instructive? Try EVERY CREEPING THING: TRUE TALES OF FAINTLY REPULSIVE WILDLIFE by Richard Conniff (Henry Holt; $25/21.25), offbeat stories of "the least huggable members of the animal world." One of the best of the lot is HUNGER by Lan Samantha Chang (W.W. Norton; $22 discounted to $18.70), a novella and stories about immigrant families whose lens of American life is all the sharper and more penetrating for the hopes they bring toward democracy in a "new" world. Chang's writing, by the way, so beautifully captures personal experience that even her offhand references become immediately universal: About a burglary, the narrator of the title story says of her mother: "For weeks afterward, she would reach for something and find it missing, and she would weep the helpless tears of one whose life has slid through aging hands."

Nothing like Buyer's Choice exists in chain bookstores, of course, because just about every square inch on a chain's selling floor is paid for by publishers; and the "reviewers" and customers who comment on books at Internet book sites rarely show the kind of passion that Pennington and clerks demonstrate daily when they talk about the books they love. (Hey wait, the chains and online guys may say: You can't expect passion from us - we're housing millions of titles. Right. Quit whining.)

2b. The Big Question

But now: Posterity wants to know. How do you know when a book is right for display in the Buyer's Choice section? Is it instinct or personal taste or literary standards or prophetic wisdom? "Well," says Karen, "a lot of the time I on the way the publisher's sales representative presents the list each season. I've worked with them for years, and I rely on their judgment."

It turns out that two of the books that are now legendary as independent booksellers' discoveries - Cold Mountain and Angela's Ashes - got their start as Buyer's Choice selections. In fact, Karen's story about how these books were sold to her in the beginning brings the whole conversation back to the way literature finds its audience in the United States today.

"David Hodnett of Publishers Group West [which distributes Grove/Atlantic, publishers of Cold Mountain] always pulls galleys out of his bag and hands them to me as he presents the list of titles for the oncoming season," says Karen. "In the case of Cold Mountain he gave me the reading copy, and I put it on a stack behind my right shoulder.

"Now the thing about sales reps is that they always watch the buyers - they come in and [size up] the office with the same kind of scrutiny they use to figure out the buyer's patterns. If they want the buyer to look at a particular galley, they have to make a special presentation. At the end of that session, David stood up and leaned over my desk, put his right hand on my the top of head and used his left to reach back to the stack behind me, where he pulled out Cold Mountain and held it in front of my eyes.

'Read it,' he said. 'I want you to read it. Where's your purse?' He found my bag, unzipped it and put it in. 'Read it' he said again. I told him I would, and when I started it that night, I went chuckamuck! It was fabulous. So I called David the next day, raised my order, turned it into a Buyer's Choice item and wrote up the listing. That one galley went through 15 pairs of staff hands, so we had energy going before it ever hit the sales floor."

In retrospect, it was a momentous occasion, yet the economies of scale are nowhere a chain store or Internet buyer might speculate. After all, an initial buy by Karen Pennington might be 15 copies of a book. It's no big deal as a starter, but the momentum initiated by David Hodnett's risky and aggressive demand (he had never talked to her like that before, says Karen) would be lead to a sale of many hundreds in Kepler's alone, and for many thousands, and soon hundreds of thousands, in other independents early on.

" Angela's Ashes was a slower start," continues Karen. "I credit [Scribner sales representative] Beverly Langer for holding this book up to all her buyers and saying, 'I want you to look at this. I'm going to sit here while you read the first five pages, because I believe in this book, and once you start it, you will, too.' It was just an unpredented demand. So I read the first five pages with Beverly sitting there, and I felt they were as good as anything Dickens ever wrote. My original buy was 15; I upped it to 20 and put it in Buyer's Choice. This store, like others in the Bay Area, has been credited with starting a sale that led to millions, and Beverly's approach was one reason why."

2c. What Is the Lesson

It's important to remember that the chains either missed or "bought low" on Angela's Ashes and Cold Mountain, which means that a thousand stores were letting these two books slip through the cracks while independents kept them alive. Had the independents not discovered or supported them, the two books would be dead today.

So the lesson we learn over and over again in book publishing is true for bookselling: Democracy is in trouble whenever fewer and fewer people decide what books are available for Americans to buy. As we hear publishers complain every day, the decision of a single buyer at a chain store's headquarters to purchase the same list of books for all 500 stores is rarely reversible ("we have no recourse!" publishers rightly wail). However, with 500 individual buyers purchasing books at 500 independent stores, the chances are 500 times greater that good books will be given their fair shot.

Also, suppose a chain store "gets behind" a title and "buys high?" Let's say a first novel looks so good to the buyer that the chain's initial order is as high as 10,000 copies. This may cause the house to increase the first printing or even go back to press before publication for a second printing. But if the chain is wrong, back go those many copies to the publisher, who not only loses the money from sales never made but is now in debt to the printer for an inflated print run.

If you think that readers do NOT want help with selection, as chain stores and Internet suppliers contend, you're missing the point. Yes, millions of readers love the whole idea of roaming around a warehouse, of football fields full of books, of a Toys 'R' Us feel, of easily tracked sections and subcategories, shopping carts and privacy in the aisles - until, that is, their spouse has Alzheimers and they're desperate for the "right" book to know what to do, how to think.

Or their 10-year-old has stopped reading and in the wall of children's books facing them, they haven't a clue how to get the kid started again. Or their mother has just died, or they haven't read anything really gripping for years, or they miss that Scandavian mystery writer they got hooked on 10 years ago. Then they want advice from somebody who knows how to find the best of the books available, and this advice, this trust, is the way books gain the kind of reputation that keeps them in print for months and years.

It's all part of a process that begins in a buyer's office at an independent store like Kepler's. There the buyer-sales-rep relationship is so classic, it's like the key piece of the mosaic slippling into place. He put his hand on her head and leaned across the desk to pick up the book and hold it in front of her face. "Read this," he said, with the entire weight of a nation's literary legacy resting on his shoulders. "Read the first five pages while I sit here and make sure you get it," she said, refusing to push that burden aside. This is where literature resides in America today, but oh, what a fragile place of residence it has become.

Certainly ANY halt to the threat against independent bookselling - especially Barnes & Noble's intention to buy Ingram, the largest book distributor - is welcome at this crucial time. And so . . . ta da!

Thanks to the pressure built up by thousands of concerned readers, somebody in a position to attract attention has finally stood up to call the Ingram matter to the antitrust table. According to news reports last week, Oregon senator Ron Wyden has publically called upon Assistant Attorney General Joel Klein, head of the Justice Department's antitrust division, to "conduct an extensive review" of the $600 million purchase.

"This proposed merger could reduce consumer choice and make a lot of those small independents part of yesteryear," Wyden told the Associated press. Attaboy, Sen.! And good going, AP! The fact that the media is reporting the Ingram sale (a complicated story for them) means they're getting past the Goliath vs. Goliath approach (Amazon vs. Barnes & Noble, Bertelsmann vs. God) to pursue the issues that truly pertain to law and literature.