Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Kindle Question

Elizabeth Bluemle - September 30, 2011

With Wednesday’s announcement of Amazon’s reply to the iPad, the new Kindle Fire e-reader, my Facebook feed filled up with people’s excitement about the new device. Many of these folks were authors whose books we adore and support and sell in our store, and I realized that even they—people immersed in the industry, whose livelihoods depend on book sales—aren’t aware that almost all other e-readers, including Barnes & Noble’s Nook, DO allow freedom of vendor choice. Many folks just don’t know that they can get an e-reader that isn’t locked to a single supplier. Booksellers, we’ve got to do a better job of getting the word out.
I posted the following update to my personal Facebook page and the Flying Pig’s:
“Before you succumb to the Kindle Fire or other Kindles, please consider that Amazon cuts all other vendors out of the picture, including the indie booksellers who are trying to support your books. Other e-readers allow books to be purchased from a variety of sources, and with agency pricing across so many publishers, the cost is often the same.”
I was glad I did, because there were some questions right away:

  • Wait, indie bookstores sell ebooks? (Answer: Yes. Many, if not most, of us do.)
  • How do we buy them? (Some websites offer ebook options along with other formats; others have affiliate programs with Google eBooks, and if you link to Google eBooks through the indie store’s website, they’ll get that percentage of the sale.)
  • Can I buy books from an indie and read them on my Nook? (Answer: Yes. You can buy ebooks from other sources than B&N and read them on your Nook. You can also read them on many, many other e-reader devices. I believe only Amazon boxes out all other formats but its own.)

We indies need to do a better job getting the word out about the fact that we DO sell ebooks, and let our friends, family, and customers know how to buy them from us. It is a matter of survival for all bricks-and-mortar stores. Recently, I made a flyer and posted it at the store:

Even if I weren’t an independent bookseller, it would alarm me to be beholden to a single vendor for my book purchases. It just places too much power in the hands of a single corporate entity, one that could conceivably “recall” books from my device, or decide not to carry certain authors or titles. The world of technology is zipping along, and gadget frenzy is a seductive thing. Once in a while, all of us need to take a breath and think, “What am I really buying here?”

Should the Bear Eat the Rabbit?

Josie Leavitt - September 29, 2011

It’s been out for just a few days and already there has been a lot of discussion at my store about Jon Klassen’s book, I Want My Hat Back. I need to go on record as saying I LOVE this book.
The plot is simple: a bear has lost his hat and asks a series of animals if they’ve seen it. Rabbit, who is actually wearing the hat, says that he hasn’t seen the hat.  In the end, the bear realizes the rabbit has his hat. In one spread the rabbit is there, and in the next, there is evidence of a scuffle, but no rabbit. But bear is wearing is hat.
There have been customers who love the book until these last few pages when the Bear seemingly eats the rabbit. Personally, I think it’s funny. One has to take it on faith that the author is not advocating death for taking a hat in the real world. But I think too many people expect all picture books to be necessarily cheery and full of the ubiquitous tidy endings where all is forgiven and the animals hold paws and play checkers.
What this book does is bring to light the feelings a child might have about someone stealing, and then lying about stealing, a treasured hat. It is not an advice manual. Kids have real emotions, and sometimes they’re dark and scary. But this book is tongue in cheek. And the way the Bear dispenses with the Rabbit is dealt with in exactly the same way the Rabbit lies about taking the hat. The cleverness of this book lies in its pure simplicity and dialog.
Admittedly, it’s not every day that the protagonist of a children’s book actually kills another character with no repercussions, at all. There are books where the protagonist does bad things and then learns from his or her actions, but in this book the rabbit is gone and bear gets his hat back and is happy. I think this book can inspire some pretty amazing discussions in classrooms  and homes of kids of varying ages about lying, consequences and what’s right and wrong and also you could have a real debate as to whether or not the bear actually ate the rabbit. Also, it’s never too early to teach kids about black humor.

Face Out or Spine Out: One Customer’s Opinion

Josie Leavitt - September 27, 2011

I was working alone in the store on Sunday, having a really great day, when a customer came in and challenged me on how to shelve books. After I had rung up his $89 of books — Dick Cheney and the new Jackie Kennedy (if only everyone could be so bipartisan) — and he was leaving, he called me over to the front door.
“You want to sell more books?” He asked. “Of course.” I said.
“Well, you ought to face them all out. Then they’d be easier to see.” He suggested this like it would be a revelation to me. He even did a little demonstration of how he found one book, but had to ask for help for the other, even though it was eye level, but spine out. I explained that the face out, while lovely and ultimately, ideal, is not practical for space reasons.
“You just need new shelving.” He kept saying over and over. I told him, nicely, that it wasn’t the bookcase that was causing the problem — it was just a space issue. If I faced out all my books two things would happen: I’d need to be in a store three times as large, or my stock would be cut in half and then people would say I had no depth to my inventory. I even showed him how many more books can fit on shelf spine out (20) versus the seven faceouts on a nearby shelf. If I have 30,000 books now and I faced them all out, without culling the stock I would need to have a 4,000 square foot store, or get rid of two thirds of my inventory. Either way, it just wouldn’t work.
Still, he persisted. “They even have this problem at Barnes and Noble.” I know! It’s a space issue, not a bookcase one. He said he hated looking for books all in a row on the shelf. I told him that’s why employees are there, to help folks find books, just like I had with the new Jackie Kennedy book.
So, how do other stores deal with the face out/spine out issue?

A Wonderful Week of Author Events

Josie Leavitt - September 26, 2011

Lois Lowry, wonderful smile.

This past week saw four great authors come to the Flying Pig. Our 15th anniversary celebration was in full swing. We kicked off with none other than Lois Lowry on Wednesday.
I had the pleasure of introducing Lois and I found myself almost at a loss for words and kind of choked up, which doesn’t happen to me often. Lois is one of my favorite writers, so it’s easy to get star-struck. The event was jam-packed and Lois was a delight.  Our co-worker, JP, made a note for us to share in this blog. It was Lois’s advice for writers of all ages. “Write about what you wonder about.”

Lois Lowry, cornered by happy fans. (P.S. Those rods hold the old building together.)

Lois was touring for her newest book, Bless This Mouse.  The book is charming and Lois read the last few pages with great vigor, humor and a twinkle in her eye. Kids were laughing and parents loved it. I also enjoyed her telling the crowd that Jonas, from The Giver, is very much alive. She even has a shirt that says: Jonas Lives. I want this shirt.
Friday had me escorting Brandon Mull and Matt Myklusch to two schools for three separate presentations and then a store event. These two were troopers and lots of fun to hang out with. I always worry when I escort authors. I want them to be happy, be fed when they’re hungry, have the right beverages, and have enough down time. Sometimes it can be a challenge, but Friday was a breeze.
Brandon and Matt were new to each other, so we all were getting to know each other. One thing that I found endlessly entertaining was each author took turns riding shotgun. Matt called it first and then every time we got in the car, they would switch. This just killed me.

Matt Myklusch (l.) and Brandon Mull, friendly guys. Photo by Allie Lazar.

Brandon was touring in support of Beyonders: A World Without Hero and Fablehaven and Matt was speaking about his first two books, The Jack Blank Adventures, Accidental Heroes and The Secret War.
The kids loved their presentations. Each man spoke about not giving up on dreams. And both really stressed the importance of imagination. The 150 seventh and eighth graders really took this in as they sat intently listening. To have that many middle school students silent meant the message was clearly getting through.
Our last event of the week was Erica Perl on Saturday. Her newest book is When Life Gives You O.J. a charming book about a sixth grader, who has a “practice pet” made out of an orange juice container. The fun of this event was Erica herself. She’s an enthusiastic presenter who brings a lot of swag to give away. We had a practice pet parade (the local coffee shop saved several days of milk containers for us) and all the kids got prizes. Among the contestants were Lily, with her dog Purple Nose, whose skill was playing dead, so they won the prize for most dramatic. A young boy didn’t make a practice dog, but rather a rhino named LeRoy who won an award for best horns.
Perhaps the nicest moment of the whole event was Erica’s with a girl named Eva. This was Eva’s first-ever book signing and she took it very seriously. After I took her picture I asked  if I could use it in my Publishers Weekly blog. She exclaimed, “Oh, my, Publishers Weekly!” And then she turned to her grandmother and whispered, “What’s Publishers Weekly?” A great week of events ended with a laugh.

“Just Do What I Say”

Josie Leavitt - September 23, 2011

Yesterday, I had a very interesting and disturbing encounter with a customer service rep of a large distributor I do business with every day. As can happen, I inadvertently received a box intended for a Vermont library from my brand new Fed Ex driver. My co-worker called the distributor’s customer service number and asked that they send a call tag so the books could find their rightful home at the library.
I did not think this was a tough request. Apparently, I was wrong. Poor JP was so befuddled by the procedure that the distributor was recommending, she handed me the phone. I spoke with the rep, Christine, who was very pleasant, and she told me to either destroy or donate the books. I was confused. Destroy or donate perfectly good books? Why not just send them to the right place? Well, because these were library books, and had been prepared for that particular library, I was told it would be more cost-effective to just reprocess them than pay for the shipping.
So, now I’ve got a box of books intended for a specific library that the distributor will not help me get to them. So I took matters into my own hands. I called the librarian and explained the situation. Dave was really sweet and appreciative when I told him I would send him the books if he would reimburse me for shipping. He agreed, and I got the books ready to ship. I thought I was done.
Well, two hours later I got a call from Christine. She said they were sending a call tag for the books. I told her I’d already taken care of it and was getting the books to the librarian. She sounded mad when she said, “Just do I what I say. You should have waited.”
Waited for what? I was told to dispense with the books. I did. I got them back in the hands of the right person. She was furious. I’m still not sure why she was so mad. I did exactly what I was told to do, I got rid of the books. I have no idea if the library then called to cancel their order, but if the books were going to be free, did she have any right to be that mad?
Since when is a mis-ship something that I have to deal with by donating or destroying it? Especially when an electronic pick-up tag is a few keystrokes away. And, when is being yelled at by a customer service rep, for doing exactly what they said, considered good customer service? I am confused by the blatant destruction of books (see my post about stripped covers) that is occurring in this lean publishing time. I wish everyone who told me to donate books spent time at stores trying to donate them. While I love the idea of donating books, it’s costly to prepare them, both in shipping expense and staff time.
So, I guess it’s true that no good deed goes unpunished. But I’m loathe to see what comes in on Monday for fear of needing to call customer service.

Perfect Planning School Events

Josie Leavitt - September 22, 2011

In this season of amazing author events at the Flying Pig, we’ve had more offers of authors wanting to go into schools. Most schools leap at the chance to have an author come to their schools. But a good school event needs to be planned and all too often I’ll get a rather blasé email from publicists three to four weeks before a scheduled store event, saying, “Oh, so-and-so would love to go to a school.” That’s great, but schools often need more time to plan a good event.
Here is my dream list of planning a great school event:
– Allow me time to plan the event. In a perfect world, planning at least six months ahead gives me the best chance to get the teachers not only excited about the visit, but gives the kids time to read the books, thereby increasing possible book sales. Curriculum in Vermont is determined by individual school districts and while there is some flexibility, it’s hard to justify a visit from a fantasy author if the kids are spending the year studying Early American history.
– Please include what sort of presentation the author would like to do when sending the initial email. This saves me having to write an email asking what sort of presentation the author likes to do. A really handy thing would be a paragraph or two I can send to schools explaining what the author will do. Including educational criteria in the proposal would be extraordinary. The more curricular links I can help teachers out with, the better likelihood the event will get approved and the books read.
– Any promotional material that supports how the author will tie into the curriculum is a great thing for me to send to the school. Some teachers, especially those in public schools, really have to fight for authors to come to their school. I once had a teacher pass on a Newbery winner because her principal said the author visit “was intrusion, not enrichment.” As more and more schools are bound to their test scores, this is more and more likely to happen, unless the visit can fit in the school’s academic vision. Personally, I think any author visit can fit in instruction by working on writing or research skills, but often this just needs to be spelled out.
– Sending a book or two (or 10 as the case was with one publisher recently) to the school is a wonderful way to get the kids excited about the event, especially if there is no money left in the book budget.
– Know that not every school visit is about selling books at the visit. Some kids are reluctant to buy books when they haven’t yet met the authors. Some schools don’t turn in the order forms in a timely way. Often, we’ll do more book sales after the authors have been to the school. There are kids who care deeply about getting a personalized book, and some who don’t. Often what happens here is after the authors visit their school, kids will then come to the store event and buy heaps of books.
– Lastly, keep sending authors to schools. Kids and teachers love them, but give us a little more time to plan them successfully.
What else should be added to this list? Please chime in and I can create a master list incorporating all the comments.

What a Bookseller Dreams About

Josie Leavitt - September 20, 2011

Everyone dreams about their job. I know Elizabeth had a wonderful post about this very subject two years ago. My dream life this week has been entirely event-specific.
This week is the start of a really crazy event schedule with events Wednesday through Saturday, and this is just the beginning. Between now and November 19th we have more than 20 events. Sure, to some stores this is par for the course. But for our store, staffed by five part-timers, this is really quite a schedule. One way I deal with event anxiety is by dreaming about events that go horribly, horribly wrong. I feel like this approach allows me to have the bad events in my sleep, thereby freeing my waking self to enjoy the actual events that may or may not be stellar.
Take last night’s dream. Lois Lowry is coming to the store on Wednesday. I sort of keep telling myself, *the* Lois Lowry is coming. The Giver is one of my all-time favorite books and the author is coming to my store. I feel pressure to make this a really great event. Elizabeth and I are doing everything we can to make this event worthy of its guest.
Most all event dreams begin with the panic that there are absolutely no books. None. And there are lots of people who want them. In this dream there were no books and no attendees at first. I think every bookseller worries about having an event and no one showing up for it. There is nothing you can do about it but make the author comfortable and hang out. But still, it’s a nightmare in real life.
So, in this dream, finally, some stragglers come to the event. We’re all ready for the event except that all the chairs are facing the wrong way. I ask everyone to turn their chairs around, and now, inexplicably, the room is too small for everyone. Poor Lois can barely sit at the author desk. There are only six people and now they’re mad. I’ve disappointed one of my favorite authors, there are no books, and the event space is still shrinking.
I wake up nervous. Then I realize that I do have books, many folks have already RSVP’ed, and to the best of my knowledge the event space has never once changed its size. Elizabeth’s email blast went out this morning and in the span of less than half an hour, more than 30 people called to reserve space for Lois Lowry, and the numbers kept rising all day.
So, tonight I can go to sleep knowing I’ve got enough books (I counted), we already have a great crowd that will only grow for Lois Lowry and the other events this week. But I’m a planner, even in my sleep, so it wouldn’t be out of the question to start dreaming about not having any books for the holiday season.

Why Must We Continue to Strip Covers?

Josie Leavitt - September 19, 2011

I have come to the realization why I try not to carry mass market books–it’s because I can’t bear the idea of stripping the front cover off and destroying a perfectly good book if I need to return it. Why do mass market books get stripped and all other books can be returned whole, to be resold?
It seems to me that destroying a perfectly good book that is not likely to get damaged in the box back to the publisher is wasteful and a travesty. Why are publishers asking bookstores to destroy books? I have never been able to do that, much to my store’s own financial loss. Am I supposed to just throw these books in the recycling dumpster? Or the trash? While I love the idea of making donations to worthy places, sometimes I can’t devote staff time to organizing and boxing them up.
If publishers can handle trade paperback and hardcover returns (these are much more likely to get damaged during the journey back to the publisher) why are mass markets books so vexing? I have never understood why pulping books is an acceptable business practice when there are so many who need books. How about donating the books that are destined to be pulped to any of the myriad of town and school libraries that are desperate for books? What about creating classroom sets of classics that come in a mass market size?  Are mass market books so much harder to deal with? There are plenty of other paperbacks I return, specifically kids’ books, that are less expensive than mass markets, and I’m not told to destroy them and throw them away.
So, as someone whose heart actually hurts on the rare occasions I’ve stripped a cover, I really think there has to be a better way.

Overlooked by the Caldecott?

Elizabeth Bluemle - September 15, 2011

Throughout the year, as I unpack new releases and stock and restock older favorites, I come across fantastic illustrators whose work is wildly accomplished and unique but has not yet garnered Caldecott award recognition. Some of these artists have earned enormous popular success; others haven’t. In either case, my mind is set to wandering, pondering what we value artistically and why, and the social contexts that influence all of us as we assess and award/assign significance to literature and artwork, especially that aimed at an audience other than ourselves.
I understand that the Caldecott Medal cannot conceivably recognize every distinguished artist of children’s books out there, but there are some omissions that truly amaze me. In recent years, Jerry Pinkney topped my “frothing-at-the-mouth outraged” list of under-awarded artists of incredible achievement; happily, he has finally gotten his Caldecott due. However, I remain gobsmacked by the fact that Barbara McClintock has not received a Caldecott Medal. Thirty-seven astounding books (and counting) and never even a Caldecott Honor? Come ON! How is this even possible?! It’s as though she exists in a parallel universe where genius is taken for granted and time and again, is brushed aside. What on earth more could she produce to prove her chops as an artist of unusual ability and timeless quality? It’s actually absurd at this point. (Frothing, people. Nearly rabid.)
Maybe there’s an Aesop’s Fables curse. Both Pinkney and McClintock have taken on the tales, and perhaps there’s some Aesop-y moral about fame and art that reaches out an admonishing, award-stealing hand. But if that’s the case, Pinkney has bested it, and now it’s Barbara McClintock’s turn.

Heartaches of a French Cat, by Barbara McClintock (1989)

12 KINDS OF ICE by Ellen Bryan Obed, art by B. McClintock (Houghton Mifflin 2012)

My mind turns, also, to Eric Carle, whose artwork surely meets every criterion indicated by the Caldecott Award, which bestows its coveted annual medal “to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.”
‘Distinguished’ is defined by the Caldecott folks as:

  1. Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.
  2. Marked by excellence in quality.
  3. Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.
  4. Individually distinct.
The award criteria detail what, specifically, is to be considered by committee members (the numbered items are drawn directly from the ALA’s Caldecott criteria page):
  1. Excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed;
  2. Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept;
  3. Appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept;
  4. Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures;
  5. Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience.

I’m not sure what more the creator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, Mister Seahorse, Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me, Dream Snow, and so many other iconic works has to do to get a little respect from Caldie. Sure, the man has his own museum, and that’s got to be, oh, just a bit of a salve, but I am mystified by the oversight, and really, so must he be. The joy in his work brings joy to children all over the world. (Side note for Carle fans: I wrote a blog post that sang his praises a while back, and talked about the moving studio tour he gave to a group of children’s booksellers some years ago, which remains one of the highlights of my bookselling career.)
Another worthy contender is the wildly original Judy Schachner. When I look at the Skippyjon Jones books and then scan the Caldecott criteria, I see a big check, check, check, check, triple check! The artwork bursts off the page in glories of color and personality, humor and individuality. It is both bold and detailed (not an easy feat to pull off), brilliant and unusual, a vibrant artistic pleasure for adults as well as children. It is, in a word, distinct. It blends fantasy with realism, does some things with perspective and page layout that I haven’t seen done elsewhere (my camera is on the fritz; I’ll try to update the post with an example of what I mean by this), and is recognizably original — from space.

The paintings are both lush and rampant with child appeal. The color palette in these books is phenomenal. So why hasn’t Judy Schachner won even a Caldecott Honor?

Which artists are YOU ready to hop up on street corners to cheer, whose work you think is long overdue for some Caldecott recognition?

It’s Too Early for Christmas and Chanukah (Isn’t It?)

Elizabeth Bluemle - September 14, 2011

For the fifteen years we’ve been in business, the Flying Pig has always erred on the side of being late to decorate for the holidays. I confess to an intense personal dislike of the commercialization of absolutely everything, which is admittedly a challenging attitude to have as a retailer. I’m also old enough that the day after Thanksgiving used to mark the earliest acceptable date to start putting out Christmas and Chanukah decorations, and that still seems plenty early to me. I know that many of my customers appreciate the fact that we aren’t flogging the holidays, but there are just as many (in increasing numbers as time goes by) who start looking for our holiday books in July and August, and get serious about it by September.
With the economy in its current state, we’ve discovered that many of our customers are now spacing out their holiday shopping, doing a little at a time. In other words, they’re starting earlier, and for good reasons. In the past week, we’ve had four requests for Christmas books, and Josie and I can’t decide what to do about this. Sure, we could take an endcap that we’re currently using for something else, and devote it to holiday books. But in a small store (about 1500 sq. ft.), making that choice means losing something else worthy — for four months! We could set up a rolling book cart—we have one with sale books currently living in the front of the store, the only place it really fits easily—but then those books become the first thing customers see when they walk in the door, which we just can’t stomach this early. We could set up two or three little book bins on the floor in the picture book section, but that would instantly cheapen the books in them. Bin-ification just has that effect.
So it’s a conundrum for us here at the Flying Pig. Heck, I feel guilty having Halloween books on display already. (I only put them out because they were taking up too much space in the back room, and people had started asking for them.) How do we bow to the seasonal pressures to accommodate early shoppers and make sales without alienating people who, like us, prefer to defer thinking about Christmas and Chanukah until—at the most—a month out?