In honor of the morning after All Hallows Eve, I present to you the list things that scare this indie bookseller as we venture bravely (flashlights in hand) into the holiday season. (Also, I ate waaaay too many fun size Butterfinger bars this Halloween season. Let’s just get that confession out of the way right now, and I’ll leave the results of my next dentist appointment AND the fact that I’m wearing my fat jeans today right off the list.)
October is the biggest month of the year for new releases, which I suspect accounts for the wild uptick in damages we’ve seen in shipments lately. More books = more hands needed in warehouses, which means more temporary or new employees with less training and experience in packing books so they don’t smash each other on the way to bookstores. I have to say, I really feel for packers in warehouses, because they’re spending all day packing zillions of books into boxes at great speed. I don’t think anyone is intentionally careless or sloppy, but I do think that better practices and less time pressure might have better results—which could save big money in the long run.
It seems to me that one of the most cost-effective measures cash-strapped publishers could take is a really simple one: make sure your warehouse staffers are well trained and use effective packing materials and boxes that truly protect your books. I’m sure untold thousands of dollars and hours have been spent researching the best practices for book shipments, so I’m always surprised when we come across poorly packed boxes with expensive books loosely sliding around. A few pieces of fill paper won’t do much to protect that art book with the ivory textured matte cover (note to art departments: please don’t design light-colored matte dust jackets unless you plan to shrink-wrap books or don’t mind absorbing a lot of damages; these get so dirty sitting in warehouses, and not all of the grime erases off).
I meant to post this report on the MPIBA Fall Discovery Show last week, but the unpredictability of the fall season caught up with me. It’s exactly that wall-to-wall eventfulness of the season that makes the timing of our regional trade show so valuable. With so much focus in these fall months on events and promotions and making all the trains run on time, it’s always helpful to hit pause for a few days to re-center on the experience of discovery.
While I’ve locked in most of our store’s holiday picks by the show, and my rep conversations have mostly turned to Winter / Spring (or even Summer), I find the opportunity to refocus and refresh my perspective on Fall titles at this show really helpful. Talking to other booksellers and publishers about what they’re seeing excitement for helps me see things I may have missed and round out my thoughts about what’s coming out right now. Coming out of the show, I shipped home a rather large box of buzzy new books and ARCs to either spread around to staff or to take a closer look at. Some I, of course, already knew and loved; some were new to me, like the Rextooth Studios graphic novels about dinosaurs (that come with an endorsement from the Field Museum in Chicago); and others I returned appreciating in a whole new way, like Robinson by Peter Sis.
In Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the villainous Valmont, who lives for pleasure, discovered something unexpected while attempting to seduce a valorous widow. As part of his scheme he pretended to be a generous philanthropist and delivered alms after church to the poor and needy. He was shocked to discover that doing good deeds was a source of deep enjoyment. “I am astonished at the pleasure one experiences in doing good; and I should be tempted to believe that what we call virtuous people have not so much merit as they lead us to suppose.”
I believe that the same holds true for being wrong. Sure, children’s books are filled with aphorisms, and demonstrations on the great value of learning from mistakes, but making mistakes in the line of business is something we bookstore owners tend to strenuously avoid. Yet the aphorisms still ring true. It must be admitted, however, that there is a peculiar fascination in getting things wrong. I was absolutely convinced that The Magicians by Lev Grossman, was a standalone, I thought a sequel would be antithetical. My spectacular perception made me appreciate the intricate, well-planned sleight of hand involved in the narrative far more than seeing ahead to the finish line clearly would ever have done.
Why am I talking about this, you ask? What brought it to mind was contemplating how very wrong my estimate of the interest level in Phillip Pullman’s return to the world of The Golden Compass has proven, at least locally. I have been absolutely shocked at the lack of interest and excitement the release of La Belle Sauvage, book one of The Book of Dust, has received, at least locally. Particular customers I was completely sure would be bristling with anticipation have proven to be dismissive and uninterested. I’m not talking about a mild discrepancy between my expectation and the event, but rather of a tidal wave of misapprehension.
The “customer with the incredibly gifted kid” narrative is a popular one among booksellers, the source of wry social media posts on our personal pages, and arched eyebrow anecdotes shared with colleagues at conferences and events. We all have our pet stories of the four-year-old whose parent was seeking Proust or something equally challenging for their child, and the list of pat answers (that we might only scream inside our heads) to the well-meaning grandparent looking for a gift for their little genius, who has of course “read all of Harry Potter.” (Usually, he’s 7.) We acknowledge the brilliance of the child, gently suggest some age-appropriate titles, offer to gift wrap and hope for the best, or get ourselves paged to the stock room for an “emergency.”
In some ways, however, I think we might encourage this behavior when we ask adults “what is your child really INTO? What do they DO? Do they play a sport, have an activity, a real passion?” We think we’re helping to narrow down choices, and pride ourselves as book people on the knowledge of just the right title for an accomplished gymnast or aspiring architect, but we may also be contributing to the general expectation that all kids have a “thing” — and that they know what it is, and so does everyone else.
I love listening to a well-told tale, and have racked up a surprising number of books heard over a lifetime. Often, if I love a book on audio, I’ll end up reading it, and sometimes will also listen to a book I’ve already read. It’s surprising how much story packs into a 15-minute driving commute, and how nicely a chunk of novel or nonfiction can bookend a day.
When The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage was released, I was in the middle of reading two other books that I wanted to finish, but I couldn’t wait to get back into Philip Pullman’s world, so I went the audio route. When I saw that Philip Pullman himself wasn’t reading it, I was disappointed; he had been mesmerizing as the narrator of the full-cast His Dark Materials trilogy. I should have known that author and publisher would not allow this new production to fall short. Happily, sonorous British narrator Michael Sheen is well up to the task. This isn’t a full-cast effort, but you don’t even notice that because he is so compelling, the kind of storyteller you’d sit around a fire listening to hours after meaning to head up to bed.
There is a powerful new suitor in the high stakes quest to be chosen by Amazon as the host city of its second headquarters. Major American urban centers such as New York, Atlanta, Denver, Boston, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas, Minneapolis, and Chicago have lined up ravenously to offer Amazon lavish tax breaks and many other substantial inducements. Nonetheless, for all their tumid supplication of Amazon these cities were still surprised to learn that they have been joined in the pursuit of their prize by a very formidable challenger, the planet Saturn.
How has the entrance of an entire planet into the contest changed the stakes and the playing field? Is Saturn, despite its great size and considerable resources, really a serious option for Amazon, given some of the possible logistical burdens? To find out more I spoke with Saturn’s economic ambassador to Amazon, Don Smilk, who was gracious enough to answer our questions.
Kenny: Hi Don, are you a native of Saturn or are you an earth native hired to represent Amazon?
Don: I am a Saturn native.
We are experiencing a baby boomlet in central Indiana, borne out (hah!) by both the sudden length of the birth announcements in the local paper and the increase in sales activity in our board book section. If I were more of a detective, I’d probably investigate the increase in local “activity” about nine months ago… which was during a spell warmer than usual January temps, but full of thunderstorms, heavy rain, and lots of evenings just perfect to stay home. Our NFL Colts franchise quarterback (and great reader: check out andrewluckbookclub.com) underwent shoulder surgery that month, and our NBA Pacers maintained a rather uninspiring 8th place in the Eastern Conference Division, just enough to predict that we’d probably make the playoffs, but we’d probably have to play Cleveland early. All in all, it was a good month to stay home and work on personal relationships.
I love asking customers — especially kids — to guess how many books we have in our store. “One hundred?” the littlest ones ask, looking around at the full shelves. “One thousand?” revises an older sibling. “One million?” asks the wiseacre class clown. They are all amazed when we tell them there are between 25,000 and 30,000 books in our small store. Yesterday, a group of second-graders from the local school came to the Flying Pig for a publishing party with parents and teachers to celebrate the books they had written, illustrated, and hand-bound. As surprised as they were to hear how many books were on the shelves around them, they were just as surprised to hear this fact: that every single book in the store, including theirs, including the ones written by their very favorite authors, began in exactly the same way: as a blank page.
Last weekend Spellbound had a special guest at story time: Jaime Kim, illustrator of one of the hottest (and, as it happens, best) picture books of the year. A nearly wordless picture book with story and concept by Kate DiCamillo, La, La, La: A Story of Hope is brought to life with Jaime’s breathtaking illustrations that draw on her own feelings of loneliness and connection from childhood. Continue reading