The model of exclusive proprietary content, which has become the centerpiece of competition in the video streaming arena, would be the death of that fraught and wonderful sphere which is home to us all: traditional publishing. Cloverfield Paradox only on Netflix. Transparent only on Amazon. Handmaid’s Tale only on Hulu. Translate that to books. The new Barbara Kingsolver, only on Amazon. The new Sarah J. Maas only on Amazon. The death knell of traditional publishing and independent bookselling, available everywhere.
Amazon’s publishing ventures have stood in contrast to those of professional publishing houses whose wares are open to all retailers. These Amazon proprietary publishing efforts feed their own exclusionary retail channel, building up a vertical monopoly with the potential to lure increasingly strong proprietary content into its enclosed production and distribution system. Other related efforts include leveraging the power of its own bestseller lists and that of vertical acquisitions such as Audible, ABE, and Goodreads, along with their near monopoly on ebooks. These efforts, like those of the Swedish army sappers during the siege of Jasna Gora, have had the effect of weakening and undermining the integrity and foundations of proprietary publishing’s open access to all retail channels.
Patricia and her two sons, Sean and Michael, stopped by this morning right after a visit to the dentist next door. It had been Sean’s first time in the dental chair, and he was very proud of his white plastic bag imprinted with the clinic name, containing a new toothbrush, some stickers, and a foam tooth. His older brother Michael, age 4, was less impressed with his new toothbrush, but very interested on our new train table layout and the recent Floof delivery. Patricia is a bit fatigued. She and her husband learned right after Christmas that they are expecting a third child, but they haven’t shared this good news with the boys, after struggling with a miscarriage last year. She quietly slid a copy of Big Brother Daniel over the counter, and we quickly slipped it into her tote before dashing around the cash wrap to give hugs.
The children know.
They have always known.
But we choose to think otherwise: it hurts to know the children know.
If we obfuscate, they will not see.
Thus we conspire to keep them from knowing and seeing.
And if we insist, then the children, to please us, will make believe they do not know, they do not see.
They are remarkable – patient, loving, and all-forgiving.
It is a sad comedy: the children knowing and pretending they don’t know to protect us from knowing they know.
— Maurice Sendak, preface to ‘I Dream of Peace’ (UNICEF, HarperCollins, l994)
Mr. Sendak was talking about the hard truths of our world, from which—if we are from a relatively peaceful time, region, or culture—we may be privileged enough to attempt to shelter our children. He was speaking about death and loss, grief and war, and the other major subjects of life we don’t want to visit upon our children before they’ve had a chance to have a few years free from worry. Except.
I have a heartwarming tale to share with you this week. One that should reassure you of the generous nature of people and also reaffirm how much representation in media matters for people of all ages.
What do you see when you look at this sculpture? The piece by Louise Nevelson is titled Dawn’s Presence, but what is the sun rising on? Seen in the context of Timeless: Diego and the Rangers of the Vastlantic, Armand Baltazar’s epic mash-up of timelines, technologies and cultures, perhaps it starts looking like a city—but a city for whom and with what purpose? With skyscrapers outfitted with slides instead of elevator shafts and jagged dragon’s teeth on the edges, this city of the imagination begins to take shape, rippling with strangeness and pulsing with energy. Makes you want to grab your hoverboard and soar, right?
I’ve written twice here to have a little fun with the prolonged non-appearance of The Doors of Stone, the third and concluding volume of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller trilogy. There is no question, however, looking at the comments for those posts, that for many readers said non-appearance is a very serious topic. The strong senses of frustration, attachment, and resolve being expressed revolve around an age-old issue: the nature of the relationship between author and reader. It is not only an inherently interesting issue but, given that social media has transformed access to authors, an evolving one as well.
The author has himself added another log to this fire recently at the Emerald City Comic Con. When asked by a fan, “Are you like a DM [Dungeon Master] taking us on a journey where the bard is the hero of the story?” Rothfuss responded, “It’s way worse than that. I am an author who has tricked you into reading a trilogy that is a million-word prologue.” Sure, it would be wonderful to have many millions of words set in the world of Kingkiller, but given the vast length of time that has gone into the “prologue,” frustrated readers might be forgiven for wondering if Rothfuss has been spending his time overcoming the temporal limitations of mortality.
There’s a rhythm to the weeks in a bookstore, one that repeats underneath the counterpoint melodies of author events, school visits, and the rising and falling bass accompaniment of holiday seasons. Some of that arrangement is due to the musicians themselves… errrr.. I mean staffers, who know the weekly task lists and choose their own ‘solos’ to work on during their shifts. We arrange our staff schedule based on regular events — I almost always conduct Monday’s Paint-a-Story event, and so usually work the sales floor that day, giving me also the joy of deciding where Tuesday’s new releases will be placed face-out, and the evening staff gets the added entertainment of watching me assemble the standing cardboard displays for featured titles. (Duct tape, the secret weapon of the liberal arts major.)
Monday staff are also tasked with running inventory reports for my review, as weekend sales have (hopefully) depleted some sections, allowing us to move things around to feature less obvious items, and perhaps free up some space for the next day’s arrivals. It was a revelation to me to learn, some years ago, about the Top 25 sellers in my store, and to focus on restocking those items every 7 days. Avoiding the discordant “I’m sorry, we’re out of that” conversation made everyone whistle a happier tune.
‘My Pet Wants a Pet’ by Elise Broach, illus. by Eric Barclay (Henry Holt)
There are times when we wonder if the universe lends a hand in connecting books with just the right readers. Last week, I was looking at some new arrivals when I came upon a charming picture book I’d ordered months ago that just released on March 6. “Oh, this book is adorable!” I said, remembering it from my sales meeting. I flipped through the pages near a customer who was checking out at Laura’s register. I turned the book toward them and continued, “My Pet Wants a Pet—such a great premise!”
The customer whipped her head up from signing her credit card receipt and repeated, “‘My Pet Wants a Pet?!’ My granddaughter said that exact same sentence to me on the phone not two days ago. I have to have that book.” It hadn’t even hit the shelf before selling!
It is hardly possible, for bookstore buyers, to overstate the importance of comping, the provision of comparable titles in Edelweiss by publishers to enhance the buying process for us frontlist buyers. High quality comping takes into account a myriad of factors: whether to use titles from other publishers, whether to show both hardcover and paperback titles, recognizing series books and comping accordingly, avoiding low-hanging fruit such as using Gone Girl and Girl on a Train for every thriller written by a woman, putting in just the right number of comps, showing genuine insight in using cross-genre titles, just to name a few elements involved. We should also also recognize at the outset that comping is generally not done by reps but by specialists in-house at the publishers.
Let’s look at a sample I chose more or less at random. It is also a little shout out to Olga Nolan, my longtime and beloved Harper rep who just retired. (Sigh and best wishes, Olga!)
Once upon a time there were four little Readers, and their names were Flaubert, Montesquieu, Cocteau, and Peter. They shopped with their Mother in an indie bookstore, located underneath the locally owned coffee shop and bakery on the town square.
“Now, my dears,” said Mother one morning, “you may go into town and look for new books to read over Spring Break, but DON’T go online into that giant-website-named-after-a-river: your Father had an accident when he was run over by a same day delivery driver, who was muttering something about pie and got distracted.”
“Now run along, and don’t get into mischief. I am going out.”