Author Archives: Kenny Brechner

The Stocking Stuffer of the Year Awards

Kenny Brechner -- November 20th, 2014

It is that time of the year. The time to announce the Sixth Annual DDG Stocking Stuffer of the Year Awards. Sorting through the many worthy contenders gracing our fun laden shelves was no easy labor, and we are very grateful to the panel of previous winners who served as this year’s judges. To help present the official announcement of this year’s awards I am joined today by the head of the panel of judges,  2013 Award Winner in the Most Shockingly Good Value category, The Mini Wooden Catch Ball.

This Years Chief Judge, 2013 Award Winner, The Mini Wooden Catch Ball

Kenny: First of all many thanks to you and the other panellists for all your hard work.

The Mini Wooden Catch Ball: It certainly was hard to sort through so many outstanding entrants, to have the fate of so many worthy toys in our hands, to be the deliverer of laurels but also the extinguisher of dreams. I had hoped that this weighty responsibility would have induced my fellow panelists, as ex-winners, to realize how important maintaining the integrity of the process was. I hoped in vain.

Kenny: Hmm. Well, we booksellers, working as testers under your direction, were all impressed by your exacting standards. Yours in particular.

The Mini Wooden Catch Ball Yes, well, the whole thing, life I mean, is very straightforward to me. Either the ball lands in the cup or it does not.

Kenny: Gotcha. Now, before we announce the winners, I do have one question for you. Athletes often talk about whether one of their colleagues is a good teammate or not. Is that something you took  into account, how well the nominated toys behave towards the other sidelines during your hours of leisure when the store is closed?

The Mini Wooden Catch Ball: Oh, absolutely. After all there is no better indicator of how a toy will conduct himself with children than how he comports himself with his fellow toys.

Testers Kenny and Karin, under the stern direction of the judges, launch the stick’n chick’ns at The Snowman target. (Snowman Target courtesy of PRH)

Kenny: Great point. Okay on to this year’s winners. I know that there were three categories this year, Most Shockingly Good Value, Best New Science Toy, and Overall Champion.

The Mini Wooden Catch Ball: The most hotly contested prize involved the Most Shockingly Good Value, for which we had two total standouts, The Flick’n Chick’n and The Cyclone Flyer.

Kenny:That must have been tough, they are both only $1.99 and are both sensational fun.

The Mini Wooden Catch Ball: True, but the Cyclone’s flying habits were found to be a bit more stable and dependable, and the cheekiness of the chickens did not commend itself to all the judges. It was a close run thing indeed, but The Cyclone Flyer took home the prize.

Kenny: I see. And what about our next category, the Best New Science Toy?

The Mini Wooden Catch Ball: Well we had three very strong finalists, The Inflatable Political Globe, The Stunt Brothers Parachutists, and The Mirascope. This was one of the most difficult deliberations I’ve ever experienced, because The Stunt Brothers not only taught me a lot about gravity, but also a great deal about friendship and loyalty. Nonetheless, the Mirascope’s ability to cast an illusory doppelganger of small objects proved so amazing that all other considerations were washed away, at least in the eyes of my fellow judges, that is.

Light Up Rail Twirler: Oh stow it already, cup.

Kenny: Umm. I see. Well then, that brings us to the 2014 Stocking Stuffer of the Year Overall Champion.

The 2014 Overall Champion contenders relax together after the competition.

The Mini Wooden Catch Ball: Ah. it grieves me to report that it came down to three finalists, The Jackrabbit Woodland Animals Mini Rollers, the Ogo Bild Bits and the Zmorph windups. We all loved the Ogo Bild Bits, they are a marvelous and personable construction toy, but for the judges it came down in the end to just two. As adorable as the Woodland Rolling Animals are, as warm and generous is their nature, the unmistakable and astonishing wind-up transformation from car to dinosaur seduced the other judges away from their moral compasses. The Zmorphs carried home the top honor.

Kenny: I’m, uh, sorry to hear that sheer awesomeness triumphed over the quieter bonds offered by adorable rolling woodland creatures. Still, the Woodland Creatures, the Ogo Bild Bits, and the Zmorphs still seem to be fast friends! Well, thank you once again for all your time and effort.

The Mini Wooden Catch Ball: It was our pleasure. We’re all looking forward to sharing the holiday season with your customers both in the store and under the tree!

Mission Accomplished!

Kenny Brechner -- November 11th, 2014

The concept of the quest is intrinsic to both epic literature and to life. I speak from experience here. I’ve had a quest these last six years, and that was to get Chris van Dusen to come up to Farmington for Mallett School’s Prime Time Reading Night, also known as Jammie Night.

Jammie Night is my favorite annual local book event. Why? Because it is a flat-out great event. Here’s how it works. The Mallett community comes back to school at 6:00 p.m.: parents, kids, teachers, librarian, principal, all dressed in their pajamas for an evening of read-alouds. I produce a children’s book author. The evening starts with that author reading her book to the assembled throng in the gymnasium, which has been lavishly decorated around the book’s theme. Afterward, families can either go listen to one of five different community readers in five different classrooms, read together in the gym, or purchase a book and have the guest author sign it. The evening ends with the author reading a second book to the whole audience and then concludes with good-nights and more book signings.

Part of 2011′s failed scheme.

It’s a wonderful evening of shared reading as a community and we have had many lovely authors participate. There was only one dark cloud. Circus Ship is the Mallett School’s all-time favorite book, and getting Chris to the event has been a desperate goal since 2009. Once a year I made the attempt to sign him up, trying every ploy I could think of, all unsuccessfully. And yet, like George de Long, commander of the Jeannette Polar Expedition, I can say that I was “not yet daunted.” And thus I am here today to depict success, glorious success, last week.

The amazing ‘Circus Ship’ decorations are revealed. These incredible creations were the work of Mallett librarian Amanda Paradis-Roberts and a team of other helpers.

Chris thrills the crowd with his ‘Circus Ship’ presentation. That’s me running the ladybug, and librarian Amanda Paradis-Roberts doing giant book duty. I’m not sure who let the ostrich in the gym.

One of the highlights of the evening was the Q&A at the end. Mallett is a K-2 school. One of the kids asked if ‘Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit,’ which features a boy who builds a 100-foot robot to save the earth by hitting a giant flaming meteor back into space using a smokestack as a bat, was a true story. Another child followed up by declaring that she was great at building robots, had all the parts she would need, and just needed Chris to give her the robot-building instructions.

Chris was just terrific with the kids!

He brought in poster-sized prints of his original cover art to show kids while they were hanging out with him during the signing time.

The evil Circus Master, Mr. Paine, couldn’t spot any of the animals in the gym. Foiled again!

Several times during the evening Chris said, “Hey Kenny, this is a great event.” Well yeah, I’d been trying to get that across for six years. Mission accomplished.

Holiday Guide Strategies

Kenny Brechner -- November 6th, 2014

When it comes to Holiday Gift Guides there are several different strategies bookstores employ. The most common, and the simplest, is to use the Holiday Gift Guides produced by regional trade organizations. Others of us, whether from being gluttons for punishment, or through what Poe called “the mad pride of intellectuality,” produce our own in one form or another.

One such approach is for a store to produce, print and distribute their own catalog.  By far the best of these that I have ever seen, I say at the risk of imperiling my pal Elizabeth Bluemle with a surfeit of self esteem, is Pig Tales, that she produces for the Flying Pig.  It is sensational. I use a different, more efficient, but less exalted strategy. I make a guide called The Holiday Twenty which I produce for two area newspapers to use in their Holiday inserts. That guide, and those books, then become the focus of our in-store display, advertising and handselling efforts. We also have an online version to go with it.

In any case, for those of us in this guide-producing subculture the end of October marks a busy time of finalizing picks for different categories and blurb writing. Having just gotten my copy done I stand ready to share my picks in the categories that are relevant to children’s books.

The gift book of the season is clearly The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: Deluxe Pocket Boxed Set. If you are not sure why,  it is either because you haven’t seen it yet or you have deeper personal issues than those which can be properly addressed in a Holiday Gift Guide. I can assure you that it does not matter how many other boxed sets of the Lord of the Rings you already own, this hobbit-sized version is completely desirable and must be possessed by any right-thinking person. The imprinted titles on the spine, the well designed box, the agreeable price, the tasteful use of color and Tolkien Runes, all conspire to demand that Tolkien lovers be given this edition as soon as the Holiday Season allows. They cannot wait any longer than that. (Honorable mention to the very fetching Moomin Deluxe Slip-cased Anniversary Edition!)

We have four picture book picks. There were a very high number of exceptional wordless offering this year, but I tried to maintain some balance to meet different handselling scenarios. This year our picks are as follows:

Sparky, by Jenny Offil

Delightful illustrations, subtle humor, charm and unexpected tugs on any but the hardest heart strings make this story about adapting to the nature of a pet one of the finest picture books published this year.

Jim Curious, by Matthias Picard

This wordless three-dimensional picture book provides a truly jaw dropping undersea adventure. It comes with two 3–D glasses because Jim Curious is an experience made for sharing.

The Book with No Pictures,  by, B.J. Novak

Unless you are worried about having too much fun, sharing a picture book sans pictures with the young readers in your life, The Book with No Pictures is a perfect fit. Laughter and imagination are sure to accompany every reading.

Full Speed Speed Ahead! How Fast Things Go, by Cruschiform

The best science-based picture books take one simple concept and develop them to spectacular effect. In Full Speed Ahead, each spread lists a speed on the left and then some animals or machines that go that speed on the right. For example, three things moving 2 MPH are a Tegenaria spider, an Excavator, and a person walking. With every new spread the speed increases. It’s sensational fun, at whatever speed you read it, not to mention educational!

For novels, I went with two YA and two middle grade. Namely…

Death By Toilet Paper,  by Donna Gephardt

Ben Epstein has lost his Dad. He and his mom are living on the financial edge and are about to fall off if the “Grand Plan” cannot be implemented before they are evicted. Full of humor and tenderness, this deftly told story will engage its young audience deeply, and with warmth and support.

Half Bad, by Sally Green

Here we come to a book that grabs readers from the first moment they enter its pages. Half Bad affords the sublime fascinations of an alluring, unsafe narrator set in a deeply grey political landscape whose powers are determined to be black and white at terrible cost. Its readers find themselves carried and then swiftly captured in an irresistible current of intrigue and imagination as visceral as it is elegant.

The Glass Sentence, by Sylvia Grove

The Glass Sentence features a highly imaginative and engaging premise which is clearly related and accessible, while also possessing roots grounded intricately in social and political history and cartography. This tightly knit and compelling world offers deep satisfaction for all readers of interest who will regale themselves with its dire actions, complex villainy, highly absorbing characters, and sublimely engaging interior and outer landscapes.

Dorothy Must Die, by Danielle Paige

All is not well in Oz and Dorothy and her lackeys are the reason. A terrific romp through a classic fantasy world with a narrator that modern teens will relate to, Dorothy Must Die is big fun from start to finish.

I’m always interested to see, make note, and take stock of the books publishers are spending money on for the Holidays. The core of our Holiday handselling, however, lies in the books we stand behind the most ourselves. And in this regard, producing a gift guide clarifies the mind wonderfully, quite as much as the smell of tubs of burning slow-match did for Jack Aubrey before going into action.

Concise Critical Capsule Captures Crown

Kenny Brechner -- November 5th, 2014

It is time to announce both the winner, and to reveal the regal grand prize, of the Compelling Contest which ran here on October 23rd  challenging the alliterative acumen of its amiable antagonists.

There were some terrific entries here, but one of them stood out: Karin Thogerson’s recap for The Fault In Our Stars.

Cancer couple courtship culminates in cryfest.

The two runners up were Kate Braasch’s Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! entry:

Public plug prohibits pigeon piloting public pick-upper. Premeditating and pesky pigeon persists and petitions piloting. Pensive pigeon’s prayer precluded; possible portage post? Parable pleases people and pigeons proportionately.

And Margaret’s Blueberries for Sal entry:

Moms and moppets maneuver Maine mountain, making menu of mazarine morsels. Mischievous mayhem materializes: moppets misplaced! Maternal mistrust materializes — maybe a monster! Mercifully, mutatis mutandis, mistakes are mitigated.

And what of the regal reward? Karin will receive the amazing new giant morphing wind-up dinosaur car, modeled by DDG’s own Karin Schott! Drum roll please…

grandprize

Thanks to everyone who entered!

 

Two Rural Maine Schools With One Author Who Cares

Kenny Brechner -- October 28th, 2014

Few authors make as much of a difference in their communities as does acclaimed Maine children’s author Cynthia Lord. Aside from being a wonderful writer, and the recipient of many notable awards, including the Newbery Honor for her first book, Rules, Cynthia is also one of the hardest working, most professional writers I know. Cynthia does many full-day school visits around the country, and she provides well developed, interactive programming both in the classroom, and in the auditorium. These visits are part of her professional life, and have a business side to them of course, but Cynthia is more than just a total pro. She cares deeply about young readers and, recognizing that there are rural districts in Maine that lack the resources to bring her in for a full day of school visits she has worked with me on special occasions, volunteering her time to bring a dynamic experience to area children who would never be able to experience it otherwise.

Take this last October 16th for example. Cynthia did a whirlwind tour with me of Jay Elementary School and Livermore Falls Elementary School, doing two presentations in each school, one for kindergarten to second grade and one for third to fifth. This is made possible by the broad age range of her work. She has a delightful picture book series featuring Hot Rod Hamster, along with a Hot Rod Hamster I Can Read book, a charming new chapter book series called the Shelter Pet Squad, to go along with her three terrific middle-grade novels, Rules, Touch Blue, and Half a Chance.

Getting the books out for sale. Myself, that is, some of Cindy’s books, and her alter ego, The Lord coffee mug.

Cynthia in the act of demonstrating her surprising and remarkable superpower while I go over the pre-order checklist to make sure everyone got their books..

In short these four presentations were absolutely electrifying with a whole auditorium full of kids with their arms raised to answer questions and give their input from start to finish, from the K-2 set helping Hot Rod Hamster choose his way through race day or having the grade 3-5 students working on developing a story idea and plot structure for a novel whose protagonist is desperate to have a dog but who has the obstacle of an allergic parent standing in the way.

A K-2 presentation gets under way.

Waiting to have a book signed.

Huzzah!

Personalizing a book that came in from home with a special note from the family for Cynthia.

Awww!

District librarian Cheryl Mills wrote to me afterward. “Thank you so much for bringing Cynthia Lord to our school. Her visit generated LOTS of enthusiasm and excitement. The students fell in love with Cynthia and are still talking about her in conversation!!!! Her books are flying off the library shelves. What a great experience for our kids.”

Before we left for the day, special ed teacher Susan Wiles brought in Scholastic paperback copies of Cynthia’s picture books that she sells to raise funds in an in-school bookstore. Susan has been running the bookstore every Friday for the past eight years. All of the books are $1.00 and she collects box tops in order to continue buying books. The students in her classroom help out every Friday by picking up students in the other classrooms, stocking shelves, taking care of sales, and setting up/taking down the books. Cynthia graciously signed all the copies of her book that the bookstore had and then ran out to her car to donate copies of the Hot Rod Hamster picture books Susan didn’t have!

Cynthia with Susan Wiles. Superpowers indeed!

Compelling Contest!

Kenny Brechner -- October 23rd, 2014

Alliterative Analytical Acuity Alert!

Test your alliterative skills by submitting the Best Behaved Blurb.

First choose one of the following six books. Then submit your blurb by posting it in the comments below using the same single letter as the beginning letter for each word (a, an of, and, the, are, are also allowed). The winning entry will receive a regal reward!

Six Sensational Subjects and a Sample Submission

The Fault in Our Stars

The Hobbit

The Hunger Games

Blueberries For Sal

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus

Sample Submission

Otis

This tale of a terrific tractor takes the time to tell of a towering task.  The tiny tractor trundles toward a tempest of  towing trouble. A total triumph of a tractor tale!  

Brandish Blurbs Below!

The Gauntlet of Hyperbole

Kenny Brechner -- October 16th, 2014

A great deal of work goes into bringing a professionally published book to market, which is why  it is painful to see that work needlessly undercut as it nears the finish line. When Edelweiss first became coin of the realm, the markup notes were written by individual reps and the buying experience was a direct extension of the traditional rep and buyer interplay, built as it was on mutual knowledge, respect, candid information, trust, and good faith. While some reps continue to produce their own markup notes, there is a distressing trend to having it outsourced to markup note writers who produce fatuous streams of hyperbole mixing in dubious comparisons to successful books and authors with long strings of adjectives, all of which results in “a light that illuminates nothing,” as Tolkien put it.

Ask yourself whether the following markup note in Edelweiss could possibly tell a professional buyer anything at all that would justify a buy:

“Brace yourself for the most astonishing, challenging, upsetting, and profoundly moving book in many a season. An epic about love and friendship in the 21st century that goes into some of the darkest, most ultra-Dickensian places fiction has ever traveled and yet somehow improbably breaks through into the light. Truly an amazement – and a great gift for its publisher.”

Is it helpful to be told that

“Russell writes with a force that feels nearly explosive; his prose teems with the hyper-connective, barely controlled genius of early David Foster Wallace or Dave Eggers, paired with the gonzo risk-taking and off-the-grid sense of mission of a young Hunter S. Thompson.”

What can we, as buyers take from the information that a given book features

“a wholly original and unforgettable story about our relationship with an animal that has mesmerized us for centuries.”

Or that readers are represented as being in a position to

“Discover the wonder of water in this refreshingly fun and fascinating exploration of rain, raindrops, and the water cycle.”

Or celebrate

the littlest members of the family in this soothing ode to all the wonderful bits and pieces that make up a cuddly, snuggly baby.”

One wants two things from an Edelweiss markup note: candid information and candid opinion. Factual information by itself comes a little short of the mark, as you can see here.

“While the Moonbear stories deal with the many wonders of nature and the outdoors, the Bear in these books is a bit younger, wears clothes, lives with his mother and father and has adventures that are family, school, neighborhood, and friend-based.”

Still, that is a good deal more helpful than pure hyperbole. As here.

“A paradigm-smashing look at the core happiness problem of our era – the feeling that we are too busy, exhausted, or stressed-out to truly enjoy all life has to offer – as well as a surprising and scientifically-proven equation for turning stress into productive energy and busting out of your rut.”

It’s difficult, however,  to bust out of your rut when reading markup notes like that, one after another. When we are continually conjured to…

Imagine The Secret Garden for grownups – a group of misfits who happen to be related to each other, trying to capture the magic, trying to grow strong, trying to grow together, trying to pass down all that is good, all while weeding out that which is not. A search for family, community, and a better life, all inspired by flora.

And that’s the difficulty. How can we go through a catalog with 900 titles and “pass down [to our inventory systems] all that is good, all while weeding out that which is not,” if the markup notes are meaningless drivel whose function is to hype the book to the skies no matter what? This practice is deadening, counterproductive, and, most of all, unfair to everyone who worked so hard on these books.

 

Bookseller Blind Spots

Kenny Brechner -- October 9th, 2014

One of the nice things about buying and handselling is being pushed out of our comfort zones and appreciating the pleasure other readers take in genres to which we are not naturally inclined to give our own custom. Nonetheless, we all have very real blind spots as buyers. Categories we loathe, categories we like too much, categories that decline to offer us any personal interest, all offer the opportunity to incur the ill considered fruits of bad buying decisions.  How to overcome our own biases and pull the best titles across these perilous areas and into our stores?

To explore this idea I have put forward some examples into a spreadsheet, which, as we all know, confers a strict scientific character to any enterprise in which they are employed.

Category

Problem

Solution

Cat Books

They are not dog books

Show them to cat people

Meaningful books

I have the spiritual depth of a goldfish and only the vaguest idea of how deep minds work.

Study the track record of the author. Compare them in your mind to other meaningful books that have sold in the past.

Picture books that demonize electronic media and celebrate reading and physical books

Preaching to the choir, agree with too implicitly

Attain a zen-like calm and be fair-minded and critical

Picture books with goopy rhyme schemes

As Andrew Lang once said, “The urge to parody is really too strong.”

Flippity flappity flunk
Don’t bring in the junk

YA books in which the female protagonist’s stomach does flips when exposed to the love interest

Physical inaptitude for understanding

Iron-willed suspension of disbelief

This is just a tiny sampling of the epic shoals that lurk beneath the surface of unwary buying. If anyone wants to confess their own greatest challenges in this area and share their best solutions, toss them in below!

 

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Kenny Brechner -- October 2nd, 2014

When I sat down to do Usborne’s frontlist with my rep I found that I was unable to auto import the titles through my POS, Booklog, which uses Ingram’s ipage data. Cross referencing, I found that the titles were literally not in ipage. The reason behind this was then revealed to me, namely that Ingram is no longer carrying Usborne titles. Technically the titles should still have been in the extended first-sticker-book-marketdatabase, it is true, but the fact that they were not presumably reflected the unhappy rift between Ingram and Usborne. To discuss this turn of events I will use two whys and a what. Why this is bad for small to mid-sized Independent bookstores, why it happened, and what it would behoove the two parties to do about it.

I have been doing business with Usborne for 24 years. I consider them an important line. As do many stores our size I do two big buys from Usborne a year, including frontlist and backlist titles. The rest of the year I pick up what I need from Ingram, consolidating it with other restock items. Usborne’s terms strongly encourage large buys, as favorable terms begin at 100 units. The inability to pick up needed items at a wholesaler has a number of negative impacts. Making frequent direct orders to Usborne means worse terms and more work. Furthermore, it penalizes us for testing the water with frontlist, in that if we only order one or two copies and a book sells quickly, we are hampered from getting it back in via good terms. On the other hand if we go big on the initial frontlist buy we are in mortal danger of the buyer’s lee shore, being wrong about a book selling. Finally, the absence of these titles from ipage means that we have to manually create these books in our inventory, a needless, laborious time-waster, particularly as the current frontlist is the biggest in Usborne’s history, over 140 titles.

tnm-pirateAs I understand it the rift occurred because Usborne’s direct sales reps for schools and home parties were losing out from their customers buying from Ingram. Thus Usborne felt that it had to choose between their direct sales reps and having their books available at Ingram at wholesale discount. They tightened their discount to Ingram which chose instead to discontinue carrying Usborne books.

Surely there must be a better solution than to penalize a completely different class of customers, small to mid size Independent bookstores, over a dispute involving direct sales customers. I see two possible options, though I am sure others might be found. First, that discount restrictions could be made to direct sales accounts at Ingram, while maintaining regular terms to bookstores. Second, that Usborne could provide better terms for smaller orders from bookstores, thereby recognizing that they are the only wholesale outlet at present. Those of us who spend a good deal of every day working hard to make our customers happy would appreciate something along those lines here. I am sure that we would all like to be able to say again…
bigpirate

Why Lying Is So Hot Now

Kenny Brechner -- September 25th, 2014

sealed-with-a-lie-9781481400527_lg

One clings to the belief that effects have causes, that, for example, Young Adult trends have reasons. That may not be so, of course, perhaps the endless parade of ballroom gowns on YA cover models is just the void getting in a good one. Nonetheless, when I noticed an obvious new trend in YA frontlist I decided to eschew the epistemology of despair and try to come up with a reason.

Lying has always been a popular term for book titles, of course, but between 9/14 and 6/15 the floodgates have opened. Here is a title sampler: Even When You Lie to Me, Liars, Inc., Krakens and Lies, Lies We Tell Ourselves, Secrets and Lies, Little White Lies, Sealed with a Lie, Dead Girls Don’t Lie, Perfect Lies, Lie for Me, An Angel Torched My Homework and Other Lies, Big Fat Liar, and Trust Me I’m Lying.

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