by Pat Holt
Tuesday, June 5, 2001
THAT BOOK SENSE LUNCH: A NEW TRADITION
I realized walking into BookExpoAmerica that I've attended about 30 of these book conventions (beginning in 1971, so there's no getting around it) and still feel a thrill on opening day.
Who can resist the call of new books, new ideas, new publishers; the bravery and resilience of independent concerns of all kinds; even the legacy of the great, long-standing publishing houses (bash them the rest of the year!); and of course authors of all kinds, whose books promise everything in the world.
But nothing in the last 3 decades has so fired up the proceedings than what many observers hope will be a new tradition - the Book Sense 76 Author and Bookseller Lunch, sponsored this year by The New Yorker.
Here was a palatial room, as impersonal and cold as the strange plumbing-fixture motif that convention centers seem to relish. Yet an hour later, the place felt as cozy and welcoming as your corner bookstore.
About 40 authors whom independents love - not necessarily best-selling authors but certainly admired and respected authors - were there to be celebrated by some 500 booksellers. But lo, irony of ironies, the reverse happened: The authors thanked THEM.
As Anita Diamant told the crowd about her novel, "The Red Tent" (St. Martin's, Picador), "I didn't know what the word hand-selling meant until I met [independent bookseller] Sarah Zacks of Books on the Square 4 years ago in Providence, Rhode Island. My book had disappeared in the big chains but it was displayed in the front area, only in independent bookstores.
"People are always asking me how it became a bestseller. Book groups helped, but I know it was found as a result of independent booksellers saying 'I think you'll really like this, and your book club will, too.' I owe you more than you'll ever know."
One author after another thanked the booksellers for being exactly what they are - independent-minded, decidedly different, passionate about books and privileged to be part of a system that assists the miracle of literature-in-the-making.
Andre Dubus III, whose "House of Sand and Fog" (Norton, Vintage) was selected by Oprah Winfrey as a Book Club Selection in November 2000, made this small but heart-rending confession:"While I'm grateful to Oprah, the truth is the book was a bestseller before she was kind enough to choose it."
In fact, he said, his novel had been "a Book Sense bestseller for 10 months by the time it made the New York Times Bestseller List, thanks to independents. I'm eternally grateful to you for that."
And then Dubus said something that echoed the sentiment of many customers, though they may never find the right moment to say it out loud. "As a reader, in the 4 years it took to write this book, what kept me going was the work of other writers, many in this room, and the books I found in independent bookstores.
"The real meaning of 'inspiration' is something like 'being infused by the breath of the gods,' so when I walk into independent bookstores and get inspired, I mean - and I know this may sound like shameful sucking up, but it's what I feel - that booksellers are book gods and goddesses because they breathe inspiration into my body."
Gad, thought everybody, if that is "sucking up," it sure ain't shameful and keep it coming. This the authors continued to do.
Myla Goldberg, author of "Bee Season" (Doubleday, Anchor), said that "as an author I spend a lot of time alone in a small room where I don't talk to anyone. It feels strange to go outside, especially on an author tour, but whenever I walked into an independent bookstore, I went 'ahhhhh.' It was so familiar not because it looked the same as every other bookstore, but because it was different.
"And I would think this is a place that people go because there are individuals there; this is a place where the workers are passionate about what they do and they care, and they don't mind making 6 dollars an hour - well, maybe they DO mind, but they do it anyway [laughter] - because books are what matter to them."
It seemed so striking in the midst of all this that only last year, the most talked-about event at BEA was Amazon's Jeff Bezos, his speech and his unprecedented (I'll say) success. The year before that (1999), as moderator Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books observed, nobody had heard of Book Sense. The year before that ('98), all you felt at every BEA meeting was a stupefying and paralytic fear.
No wonder, the pseudonymous HarperCollins author, Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler) observed: "One of the benefits of touring the country and visiting bookstores is that you don't get the idea a lot of people have - that independent bookstores are this noble, dying thing, and that the one you use is the last one to go."
Instead, he found these stores to be a vibrant, thriving community that "knows how to connect readers and authors in a most intimate way."
So quite unlike that visceral panic of before, the feeling that lifted the room was one of simple and unerring certainty. Having survived illegal (oh, yes it was!) and unethical (that, too) competition that killed half their number (and that observers said would kill them all), these booksellers now knew with absolute clarity that they would withstand anything the world dishes out from now on.
One felt drunk with the positives billowing out everywhere. Pride, endurance, strength, permanence. Unswerving hope. As Jane Yolen said of "How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?" (Scholastic), "I have [written] over 200 books, and this is my first bestseller [because] it's the kind of book that gets hand-sold in independents."
"I know how hard you work," said "Click, Clack: Moo" (Simon & Schuster) illustrator Betsy Lewin. "This is also my first bestseller. I've got one of your number at my table and I can feel her energy right now."
Thus the collective power of independents - strategic yet invisible for too long to many publishers - could now be seen with new clarity as author after author described facing obscurity and discovering, instead, recognition, support, sales and even fame.
"Who would have thought a book about a man who steals orchids would ever see the light of day?" said Susan Orlean about "The Orchid Thief" (Random, Ballantine).
"Many years ago I took a little road trip with a man who was 84 years old and had Einstein's brain in the trunk of his car," said Michael Paterniti, author of "Driving Mr. Albert" (Dial, Dell), "and as we were going across America I kept thinking that no one's ever going to believe this. When I did tell people later,they took 3 steps away."
It would have been a tragedy, certainly, if independents hadn't found their books, read them, loved them and sold them with conviction. "Thanks to all of you," said Paterniti with emotion to independent booksellers, who smiled back proudly; "I feel indebted to each and every one of you," said Orlean, trying to look them all in the eye - but happily there were too many.
Lennertz would later call this luncheon a "love fest," and no wonder, but it was emcee Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books who said it best. "The energy in this room makes you want to go leave the convention and back to sell a lot of books," he said, his eyes shining.
Then, looking for a long moment at the hundreds of smiling faces in the room, he added: "Authors, publishers and independent booksellers - that's the way it should always be."
PUBLISHING BY FIAT
I guess I don't mind stories about publishing executives and their authors wandering around BEA like a couple of fascists issuing orders and demanding sales of books in the hundreds of thousands. You hear about aspiring bigwigs like that in the publishing world every day.
But I do wonder how far hyperbole should be reported as fact when yesterday the New York Times quoted Laurence Kirshbaum of Warner Books saying that a single book party - given for "Jack: Straight From the Gut" by General Electric chairman Jack Welch - resulted in "orders for more than 100,000 additional copies the next day."
The next day? Gosh, those canapes must have been glorious.
Back at BEA, on marched Kirshbaum and Welch to meet with a delegation from Amazon.com and to wow them with the big numbers and old-boy relationships. "I talk to Jeff somewhat frequently," said Welch about Jeff Bezos, founder and chairman of Amazon. "I'll tell him to buy at least two."
The real order these wild and crazy guys said they were after was 200,000, but infused by the clubby atmosphere of the meeting, Kirshbaum wrapped things up with, "So is that 200,000 or 250,000?"
How about 2 dozen, given Amazon's current situation and the "soft, soggy" book market Kirshbaum himself says is awaiting Jack Welch's memoir, for which Warner paid an obscene $7.1 million?
One might snicker at the pomposity of the story, but the gobbling conglomerates behind it are terrifying. Welch's GE owns NBC and CNBC, which will create extensive exposure on "Today" and other programs for Jack's gut book.
Warner Books in turn is part of AOL Time Warner, within which America Online will run "extensive advertisements online as well as set up chat rooms and online contests" (whoopee), while AOL Time Warner's Fortune and Time will "carry ads in its publications," and there we're back to publishing-by-fiat again.
There's nothing new about moneyed hotshots buying their way to success. It's just that most books are made to grow organically, many of them from the passionate beliefs of independent booksellers who can't be bought because they ARE independent (see above).
So all this money and all this posturing and all this exposure end up reminding us of one thing: The fact that independent booksellers not only exist, but thrive,is even more a miracle than boosters like me ever imagined.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You probably saw or heard of this already, but I was struck by it, thought you might find it interesting.
>From Diana Athill - "Stet: An Editor's Life" (Grove, 2000) [Note: she was born in 1917):
"People who buy books, not counting useful how-to-do-it books, are of two kinds. There are those who buy because they love books and what they can get from them, and those to whom books are one form of entertainment among several. The first group, which is by far the smaller, will go on reading, if not for ever, then for as long as one can foresee.
"The second group has to be courted. It is the second which makes the best-seller, impelled thereto by the buzz that a particular book is really something special; and it also makes publishers' headaches, because it has become more and more resistant to courting.
" . . . Slowly very slowly, so that often the movement was imperceptible group number two has been floating away into another world. Whole generations have grown up to find images ore entertaining than words, and the roaming of space via a computer more exciting than turning a page. Of course a lot of them still read; but progressively a smaller lot, and fewer and fewer can be bothered to dig into a book that offers any resistance.
"Although these people may seem stupid to us, they are no stupider than we are: they just enjoy different things. And although publishers like Andre Deutsch Limited went on having a happy relationship with group number one, and still, throughout the seventies, hit it off quite often with group number two, the distance between what the publisher thought interesting and what the wider public thought interesting was widening all the time." (pp.117-118)
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