Monthly Archives: July 2013

Your Favorite Dog Book Ever?

Elizabeth Bluemle - July 31, 2013


Theophilus Wibbly Philo Leavitt Bluemle, 1998-2013. Favorite pastimes: chewing sticks, chasing blowing leaves, eating asparagus on the stalk, pouncing on snowballs, munching chunks of fresh watermelon, and leaning his warm, fuzzy, sweet self against the people he loved. Photo by EB.

Josie and I are having to say goodbye to our beloved dog, Theo, and so this post is going to be a celebration of everyone’s favorite dogs in books.
There are so many amazing dog stories in children’s literature that a bookstore could devote an entire separate section to them. But that might anger the cat people, so we sprinkle them liberally throughout all the sections. (Kidding. We love cats, too.)
At a time like this, we would recommend to customers losing their pets books like Cynthia Rylant’s perfectly lovely Dog Heaven, Helen Manos’s timeless and memorable Samsara Dog, or Elisha Cooper’s cozy, gentle paean to older dogs (and it doesn’t mention losing them, which is comforting), Homer.
To get my dog joy on, I might turn to Patricia MacLachlan’s Once I Ate a Pie (worth the cover price for the title poem alone) and Underwater Dogs. Maybe listen to a Hank the Cowdog audiobook for chuckles.
There are so many great dogs in picture books that have been part of the fabric of children’s lives for decades: Carl and Clifford and Biscuit, Martha, and Harry. There are newer excellent additions, too, like Bailey, Rocket, Beau, Fudge-Fudge and Marshmallow, Howie.
There are terrific dog adventures, from the realistic to the sublimely absurd: Cracker, Balto, The Call of the Wild, The Incredible Journey, 101 Dalmatians and The Starlight Barking, Dominic, Swindle, Molly Moon.
There are dogs that become real to you, hold a place in your heart in books like Because of Winn-Dixie, Where the Red Fern Grows, Shiloh, Sounder, The Underneath. There’s the sheer wonderfulness of Love That Dog.
Oh, there are a million more beautiful, wonderful, loyal, lovely, funny, memorable dogs in books. What are your favorites?

The Latest from Amazon

Josie Leavitt - July 29, 2013

Amazon has done it again. As Shelf Awareness pointed out this past Saturday, Amazon has pretty much decided to see if they can crush a little more spirit out of bricks and mortar stores by increasing the discounts offered on bestsellers to be upwards of 70%. But as the owner of an independent bookstore, I cannot help but feel ill will towards this company.
No one can compete with these discounts. This ridiculousness started because Overstock began an anti-Amazon campaign that it says “will last indefinitely… by slashing prices on bestsellers.”  While these savings are a boon to book buyers on a budget, it will have a horrible ripple-down effect for indies.  No indie I know can afford to sell a book at a 20-40% loss. There is just no way that math works. And honestly, how can it really work for them? For that matter, how can a company operate at a loss for so often and stay remain a major player in the industry?
I have no idea. I do know that last week in my Ingram shipment I received an invoice meant for the Amazon distribution center in Lexington, Ky.  This was a fascinating read. There was absolutely no discount information on the paper. None. I’m not sure how they receive books in Lexington, but at most stores the invoice total and what’s in your computer have to match. That’s pretty hard to without any information. The blank discount fields highlighted to me the difference between us and them.
I pay a certain amount for each book, usually getting about a 40-45% discount from the publishers. I sell the book for list price, or 20% off if they’re bestsellers. I can’t give more away. This is something customers don’t always understand. I can hear this week’s conversations at the register. “How much is Inferno?” “With the 20% off it’s $23.96 plus tax. So it comes to $25.39.” The customer will look sheepish. He shops at Amazon and knows it’s cheaper there. He might say, “You know, it’s $11.65 at Amazon and I don’t have to pay sales tax.”
There is nothing you can say in the face of that. Nothing.
Really, why would someone spend almost $14 more for the exact same book? And while savings this steep will not be found on the vast majority of books that Amazon sells, the perception will be that they do. Customers will wonder why my books are so expensive. Again, there is nothing I can do about that.
It will be a hard week at the brick and mortar stores.

Your Worst Event Idea — Contest!

Elizabeth Bluemle - July 25, 2013

A friend of mine once worked for an advertising firm that was brainstorming names for a new breakfast cereal. The committee sat around a big table, throwing out suggestions fast and furious. Every idea, no matter how terrible, was recorded on a list and kept on file. Ten years later, my friend still had this list, and shared it with me: ten pages of possibilities for a new kind of oatmeal. My favorite entry was something called Hot Cooked Goo Crunch. Hot Cooked Goo Crunch! Did the whole room of ad execs just lose it when someone excitedly called that out? Did the person taking notes think twice about including it? (Honestly, I would pay to see a box of Hot Cooked Goo Crunch sitting on a supermarket shelf next to Grape Nuts, GoLean, and Rice Krispies.)
We booksellers are always striving to come up with creative event ideas to draw in customers. We’ve had Phantom Tollbooth “square” meals, Harry Potter Potions and Herbology and Divinations classes, and Hunger Games skills contests. In staff meetings, we’ll often brainstorm possibilities. Not all ideas are winners; some are downright painful, and others are just silly — which made me think of Hot Cooked Goo Crunch and some very bad ideas for events inspired by popular books. For instance, I don’t think any bookstore would want to hold a How to Eat Fried Worms speed-eating contest. Or a Running With Scissors race.
Readers, what terrible events can you dream up, inspired by a favorite and/or popular book?
There will be prizes for the funniest entries — advance reading copies for the two runners-up and an autographed copy of something fabulous (recipient gets to choose from the Flying Pig’s sizeable collection of signed books) for the grand prize winner.
Keep your ideas coming: winners will be announced in Shelftalker on Friday, August 2.

Money for Medals

Josie Leavitt - July 24, 2013

There are lots of strategies parents use to get their kids to read. Some have timers, some promise treats or toys, but yesterday I heard a new one. A mom came in with her two kids — a boy who was 11, and a girl who was about 8. These kids were nice, polite and seemed very well versed medalin books, especially the Newbery Award winners.
It turns out the mom paid the kids $5 for every Newbery medal book they read in the past year. These kids have been reading up a storm and collecting a small fortune at the same time. I asked if the $5 only applied to the medal winners, or did Honor books count as well. “Now, they’ll get $5 for book with a shiny sticker,” the mom said.  So, these kids can read an honor book, a National Book award winner, or finalist and when they’re oler, the Printz award winners.
I’m not really sure how I feel about kids getting money to read. This is a slippery slope that might wind up being counter-productive. I can see a little bribe here or there turning into kids not reading anything unless they get some cold, hard cash. Let’s face it, some people just don’t like to read, and why is that okay for adults, but not kids?  The flip side of this argument is, these two kids have read some pretty amazing books.

Feedback, a Year Later

Josie Leavitt - July 22, 2013

Handselling is something that I take for granted. The physical act of working in a bookstore and actually putting a book in a customer’s hand happens every day in indies across the country. The power of this act reveals itself almost every day in the summer.
We have a fairly large seasonal business, so we see the same families once a year during the summer. Folks come to the bookstore on their vacation and it’s always lovely to see them, as so many things can change in a year. Usually, we just get caught up and I help them load up on books for the whole family. This yearly ritual is often peppered with feedback about the previous year’s books.
Last week I had the good fortune to be working when a family came in that I had helped last year feedand they needed to share that the recommended books had a profound impact. Admittedly, I did not remember immediately what I had sold last summer (folks always expect that booksellers remember every book we’ve sold, we just can’t) but I recalled after we started talking about things. The Cassmans have a teenage son, who last summer was spoken about in terms of not being a reader. I like the challenge of this. I spoke with Thomas, who was 14, to find out from him what he liked. It’s not that he wasn’t a reader, he just didn’t like typical YA literature. This also proves the point that if you want to help a reluctant reader out with a book, separate the reader from their parents.
For him, I went to one of my favorite go-to books for teenage boys who are mature kids, but struggle to find things to read. I love recommending M.T. Anderson’s book Feed, which is just so good and a perfect book for a thoughtful kid who likes a complex read with a futuristic slant. I always start my pitch for Feed by saying that I don’t usually like this kind of book, but I couldn’t put this book down. I remember only recommending this book to him. I pitched it, saw that Thomas was interested and didn’t want to overwhelm him.
Thomas’s younger brother was nine and also a somewhat reluctant reader. Jeff struggled with the same issue as Thomas; it was hard to find a book that held his interest. He liked funny books and mysteries, so I pulled a Brixton Brothers book off the shelf and he seemed okay with it. I thought he brixtonwould love the series, and I had faith that I had made a good choice for him.
The thing with handselling to seasonal folks is you never know how you did. You don’t get the feedback like with regular customers. You just pitch the books and hope somehow they’ve enhanced a vacation and made it a little more memorable. What I loved about last week was Thomas coming up to me and saying how much he loved Feed.  Then his mother came up to me and said that she’d never seen him enjoy a book so much. Then she added that Jeff had read all the books in the Brixton Brothers series.
So, this year I recommended Anansi Boys for Thomas and The Mixed-Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for Jeff. Now I just have to wait until next year to find out if they liked them.

Alternate Epilogue for Harry Potter

Elizabeth Bluemle - July 19, 2013

With this week’s leak of J.K. Rowling’s pen name (one of them, at least), I thought it would be fun to share a lively piece of fan fiction. It’s one blogger’s re-written epilogue to the Harry Potter series. The writer’s name is Ailsa Martin, and her preamble to the alternate epilogue reads:
So, we all know that the epilogue of the unbearably good final Harry Potter book is unbearably disappointing. I find it spectacularly unsatisfying, so this what I like to imagine happened; a satisfying conclusion that ties up loose ends, nods at the emotional aftermath of traumatic events and closes some character arcs, unlike the official ending. I like to believe that Harry played Quidditch for England and became a teacher at Hogwarts. It’s his home. Eventually he will become Headmaster and live happily there for most of his life. He gets married to Ginny, who becomes the business manager of Weasleys’ Wizarding Wheezes and makes it an astonishing success with George’s help as the inventor. Ron becomes a nurse and then a stay-at-home dad. It turns out he has a talent for domestic magic, which he never discovered before because he’d never tried. Hermione will become the first female Minister for Magic and is extremely popular, and never compromises her principles. She succeeds in liberating the house elves. When she retires from politics, she writes the next generation of Hogwarts textbooks. Neville goes to wizard university to get a wizard PhD and becomes a world expert in aquatic magical plants. Luna just carries on with her brilliant self. Teddy Lupin turns out a good hearted guy with a lot of girlfriends and a dragon leather jacket. He rides Sirius’s flying motorbike. Hagrid stays exactly the same. No one is named Albus Severus.”
[Hey, Ailsa, at least no one is named Renesmee.]
The rest of Ms. Martin’s epilogue, written in story form, can be found here at her blog, The Seabird Monastery, and it made me so nostalgic I feel like re-reading the entire Harry Potter series. That’s pretty impressive for a piece of fan fiction! I don’t know Ailsa Martin, but I thoroughly enjoyed her take on the story and it makes me wonder if you ShelfTalker readers have alternate epilogue thoughts of your own, and if so, hope to see them in the comments!

To Dump, Or Not To Dump

Josie Leavitt - July 18, 2013

I’ve been buying books for the store for years, and I’ve noticed some changes in the publishing world. Primarily what I’ve seen in the last two weeks of frontlist ordering is the astonishing number of display dumps that are being offered by the publishers. A dump is a cardboard display for books that is designed to showcase or highlight certain books. This is great in theory, but there can be problems with these.
The first problem is it’s hard to keep track of how many displays I’ve ordered from the various publishers. Honestly, there have been so many dump offers for the fall season, that it’s hard to keep track of how many I’ve ordered just in one publisher meeting. I really need to keep a list of the number of dumps I’ve ordered and when they’re coming in. Space is always at a premium at any bookstore, and too many dumps can make the store look cluttered and ultimately defeat the purpose of the dump: to sell more books faster.
The reason displays are so tempting is often there are better discounts offered if you take them. Of  course a display usually means taking more books, so the publishers are smart to offer greater savings on them. I had a meeting with Scholastic the other day and there were at least five dumps I bought. That seemed like a lot to me, and it is, but 6% more of a discount swayed me.
There is a process I go through when I think about taking a dump and it’s all about knowing my customers. The chief thing I consider is will this display be something my customers want? Will a display of a new dystopian YA hardcover grab the attention of shoppers? Is it a well known author? Is it a book kids will already come in looking for? If the display is a mix of the newest book in a series in hardcover, did the earlier books in the series sell well? Thank goodness for computerized inventory to aid in some of these decisions.
The reason stores like displays is it allows to you to showcase books easily. Having a display set up telegraphs to customers: This book needs your attention, take a second look. The problem is more than one display per section is one display too many and then nothing gets looked at. In fact, too many displays can actually block the books on the shelves, so now, no books are easily seen. So, there is always a delicate balancing act.
Something to consider about dumps is how good does the display look? Not everything ships well. We just got a dump for a new, and heavy Star Wars book, that came sufficiently banged up that it couldn’t really hold up the books. This is obviously counter-productive. While this situation does not happen often, it happens enough that an ordered display cannot be used. This now means a shelf has to be rearranged to accommodate the books that should be in the dump. Hardly tragic, but it can cause a headache to staff and customers alike.
Lastly, I know I overbought displays for the fall because the publisher incentives were greater than they’ve ever been. Penguin had a deal if you bought a certain number of displays, you’d get more co-op, Scholastic gave a better discount. In this day and age, when every savings must be maximized, it’s easy to go for the dump. Every publisher wants us to buy more books and offering deals on displays is a great way to do that.
Here’s hoping that my store is not overrun with dumps in October in my attempts to save money. I’ll keep you all posted on the total number of displays I wind up with by Christmas.

Are You Reading Less?

Elizabeth Bluemle - July 17, 2013

Is it just me, or are even avid readers reading fewer books? Once upon a time, I would read several books each week. My annual reading numbered in the dozens, even hundreds, of titles. Lately, I am lucky to read one or two books a week. For a bookseller, that’s  not enough.
In part, I blame an unusually busy personal year. But I know there’s more to it: more media competition for my time, more technology-driven distraction, more white noise all around.
I don’t spend a whole lot of time on Facebook or Twitter or even YouTube, I haven’t developed a Pinterest, and I don’t Tumblr. I also don’t Instagram. But I know what all those things are, and that knowledge has to have come from time spent encountering and exploring them. Time that comes out of my reading hours.
I don’t have a television at home, but I don’t get to feel virtuous about that because I can and do access Netflix, Hulu, HBO, PBS, and just about any other video source on my phone, iPad, or laptop. I can live-stream Wimbledon matches and watch The Daily Show. It’s a cornucopia of visual seduction.
I have a thing for science and nature news, and it’s amazing how much time can pass browsing National Geographic or NASA’s photo archives, and reading articles about new discoveries.
If I, someone who has always read books about as constantly as drawing air, find myself struggling to read as much as I used to, how much less are people reading who have always been more casual about it? This worries me.
I’m also using audiobooks to catch up on my reading, which is helpful; even on my busiest days, I have my commute open for listening.  (Note to publishers: If only more titles were available as audio advance reading copies, you might get a much bigger pool of booksellers reading them! But I digress.)
I’ve resolved to pay much closer attention to my (admittedly rare) leisure time and adjust my activities accordingly.
Readers, are you also finding yourselves with less time (or simply carving out less time) to read? If so, are you planning to change that, and how?

The Help of a Friend

Josie Leavitt - July 15, 2013

Some of you know that in addition to co-owning the Flying Pig Bookstore, I also am a stand-up comic. I perform alone and with a group of female comics called The Vermont Comedy Divas. We have a charitable component to our group called Divas Do Good, where we put on benefit shows for organizations with a social mission.There are five of us and we usually perform in Vermont, until this past weekend.
The Divas had a meeting in March and we really wanted to create a road trip. So, I thought let me photo-1contact some booksellers I know and see if they can help. Kenny Brechner of DDG Books in Farmington, Maine, totally acted as our booking agent and brokered a deal with an organization called SAVES (Sexual Assault Victims Emergency Services) and we had a benefit show on Friday night. So, Thursday morning we left Vermont in a friend’s friend’s 27-foot RV and headed up to Montreal for the night and then swung over to Maine for the gig.
Without the the help of Kenny, I would not have slept in Walmart parking lot in Montreal in the RV with four of the funniest women I know laughing until two in the morning. It is the closeness of the bookselling world that enabled me to email Kenny and get his help in introducing me to a wonderful organization that allowed us to get out of Vermont and do some good.
And a really fun part was having a drink with Kenny and getting caught up on the Common Core curriculum.

Your Worst Required Summer Reading?

Elizabeth Bluemle - July 11, 2013

As much as I love schools encouraging their students to read over the summer, I’m afraid it’s true that nothing can suck the joy out of a great book faster than being required to read it. I don’t think there’s a child alive who loves reading more than I did, but I did not want to read books in order to do homework on them in the summer. I’m the only kid in my eighth-grade class who loved The Grapes of Wrath, and I still dreaded assigned reading, especially if I had to “journal” about it. (N.B.: I still haven’t gotten used to ‘journal’ as a verb.)
Kids who devour books by the bushel come into the store in June or July, and I can tell which book they’re requesting is assigned reading by the way the light goes out of their eyes. It’s tragic! I try to help them re-frame — or reclaim — the reading experience. “This is a REALLY good book,” I’ll say (if it is). “Just try to pretend while you’re reading it that it hasn’t been assigned, that you chose it. And then see what you think. Form your own opinion.” I don’t think this helps much, if at all, but if I can help even one young teen not dismiss To Kill a Mockingbird before cracking the cover, it will be worth it.
Anyone have good tactics for helping raise a book to “want to” as opposed to “have to” status?
I also want to know what summer reading assignment scarred you as a kid. Were you felled by The Old Man and the Sea? Sister Carrie? Heart of Darkness? Is there a book you might have loved, if only it hadn’t been assigned? Is there a book you were prepared to hate, but fell in love with by surprise?