Thursday, December 09, 2004

A Love Letter to Booksellers

There's a bookseller named Robert Gray (of the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, VT) whose lovely, essayistic "postings" (seems an inelegant word for such thoughtfulness expressed so gracefully) at his blog FRESH EYES: A Bookseller's Journal are must-reading not just for those in the industry but for anyone who cares about books and good writing.

A couple of days ago I did a "call-out" post to booksellers, asking for some opinions about what the publication of a new "blockbuster" (in this case, the new Michael Crichton novel) meant to them/their store ["In Defense of the Blockbuster"]. I've been impressed by the smart and impassioned commentary that's come as result. [Side-bar #1: I especially want to thank Anonymous Poster #1, who despite my own snippy retort came back again to amplify impressively on the original post.]

Bob Gray was the first to reply to my post--and, so far, he's the only bookseller to do so. [Sidebar #2: this reflects what, to me personally, is a saddening pattern--that for the most part the people inside the business aren't responding to the content of this blog; which suggests, at least to some degree, that I still haven't convinced them of my trustworthiness. More on THAT subject very soon, I promise!] He said he had his own piece coming soon on a related subject, and told me to check back with him on Thursday.

Thursday, as in today. So I went to his site, at dawn this morning, and discovered that sometimes the early-bird really does get the worm... It wasn't the worm I was looking for, though--I was so much the early-bird that I got to Bob's site before he'd posted the essay he'd told me to look for. [Afternoon update: his Crichton piece, dated Dec. 9, is now posted.]

...and thus I got the worm (which, in the context of the early-bird metaphor, of course, means the juiciest, fattest, most satisfying morsel), a post from a couple of days earlier (December 6), an essay called "Booksellers Hate Rejection, Too". In which he explains how the process by which a bookseller falls in love, or doesn't, with a galley a publisher sends him mirrors almost exactly the process by which an editor falls in love, or doesn't, with an author's unpublished manuscript.

It's an ironic circumstance--and frankly one that, at first glance, had me quaking in my boots. Because, in addition to being a bookseller, Robert Gray is also a writer; and though he doesn't describe this in gorey detail, he has clearly--as has any, no, every writer--received his own fair share of rejection letters. I myself have written thousands, not all of them compassionate or encouraging... And all of my sins in this regard bubbled up into my chest as I read the beginning of Bob's essay. Oh boy, I thought: it's payback time.

It's easy to see how this would be a satisfying "shoe-on-the-other-foot; how-d0-you-like-it-now-asshole?" topic for a post. You turn down our books, as is your right. But karma has its way of coming full circle; and now it's out turn. And the subject leads, potentially, to a whole lobby of door behind which lie all sorts of legitimate opportunities to bash 21st century publishing.

But like any writer worth his salt, Bob shows you the lobby but then takes you someplace else entirely; goes past the good (and easily-defensible) jabs to arrive at something completely unexpected:

The author encourages the publisher to keep trying. So I don't fall in love with this particular galley, he says. I know you want me to, by I love what I love, and that can't be faked. It's not the end of the world. The fact I don't love this one doesn't mean I won't love the next one.

The bookseller tells the publisher: Don't give up. Keep trying.

I won't try to summarize this any further than I already have--believe me, it's far richer in the original. But I want to convey to Bob Gray, and on his behalf to booksellers the world over, how grateful I am that even one of you might express such a sentiment.

Sometimes I fear that you--booksellers--are so overwhelmed by the volume of books being published, and the numbers of galleys being shipped, and the number of "pitch" letters a you read, etc., that it becomes impossible to see the individual jiffy-bags as containing individual books. Seems a ridiculous thing to say to a bookseller, of course, because you obviously don't go into this business with profit/"product" in mind. You do this, presumably, because you love books. And understand them as individuals; understand that each contains its own world between two covers. The QUALITY of those worlds may differ; or, to use the more generous tone of Bob's essay, the reader's experience--in this case, the bookseller's experience--of those worlds is going to vary, inevitably, because such is the subjective nature of reading. But as an editor who is passionate about the books he publishes, encouragement from a bookseller, despite all the difficulties booksellers face, gives me unspeakable comfort; and reminds me of the extent to which (in principle if not always in execution), you and I--bookseller and editor--are, as ever, partners in this strange marriage of art & industry. Thank you.



Anonymous said...

Re: Robert Gray at Northshire: His blog and newsletter are an oasis rather than just a highway rest stop for a writer rushing along the publishing road. All the heat and pressure of getting a book to market can squeeze the life out of everyone involved -- but then there is a gleam of light from a diamond on the rocky road; Gray's reflections on the industry remind me of why I head down that road every day.

This is not an easy business for any of the players that make it work, from writer to editor to publisher to bookseller. As a writer producing the raw material that forms the foundation of the edifice that is the publishing industry I say thanks for reminding me that what I do and what you do and what he does is worth the effort.

Anonymous said...

[Sidebar #2: this reflects what, to me personally, is a saddening pattern--that for the most part the people inside the business aren't responding to the content of this blog; which suggests, at least to some degree, that I still haven't convinced them of my trustworthiness.I acknowlege this is a mundane digression from the lovely stuff about a real bookseller. Your sidebar #2 caught me.

I think the answer to the puzzle of why the people inside the business aren't responding lies not in your trustworthiness or lack of it. As a writer on the outside, I have my own theory: Look instead to The Trill Deception.

The Trill was a character in a Star Trek series who was of a species that could carry a sentient being inside her body in more-than-satisfying symbiosis much too complicated to go into here. There was an elaborate criteria developed around who was even capable of being the carrier of a symbiont. It was known that if the match were not right, the carrier would die.

The deception was: The qualification thing was a pantload. Any Trill could be a host to any symbiont. But because of the shortage of symbionts, the limiting mythology arose.

My point: The Author Deception, in this day of product, is that anyone can "write" a book. See Pamela Anderson, et al. Yet we do go on about the mystery of it all -- because it makes it not hurt so much if it is a mystery.

But Max Perkins, he dead. The people on the inside reside in concentric circles, each less "inside" than the other. No one in any lesser ring of inside is going to share one piece of useful information that might expose the Deception -- or help someone else get a ring up, perhaps the helpful insider's ring.

Anyone can write a book, and most do. Some get picked up, and most don't. A writer with good connections and a decent book is more likely to be published than one with no connections and a great book. There is no mystery. There is only corporate reality and small valiant human adaptations to it.

But then, what do I know?

Anonymous said...

I am responding to the "other" anonymous and this myth that there's this conspiracy that keeps unpublished authors from getting published.

I am soon-to-be-published. I have no relative, friend or great benefactor who works for a literary agency or publisher. I am, essentially, a nobody who happens to love to read and has been writing, more or less, most of my life. I'm pretty good, but there are far better writers out there. I can only hope to touch the shoes of someone like Dean Koontz.

I'm a mom and wife, I live in the suburbs, I have a full-time day job that has nothing do to with publishing. I don't do "power lunches" and I've never been to a writers conference. I am a member of a writing organization, which did help me understand the basics like how to write a query letter, how to self-edit, etc -- simply by pointing me to resources that already exist. I did read Vogler's THE WRITERS JOURNEY and Campbell's THE POWER OF MYTH which ultimately brought my writing to a higher level (in my opinion).

I landed my agent the old-fashioned way--blind queries. I had no multi-published author introducing me, no friend who was an intern. My first couple books didn't snag so much as a nibble. But I learned from my early mistakes and eventually landed an agent with a top firm on one of my later novels. She sold my book very quickly to a major (one of the big six) publishers in a two-book deal.

I haven't met her. I haven't met my editor. We communicate via phone and email. I've never been to NY and don't know when I'll get out there.

I agree that there are a lot of great books that don't get published. So? Being published isn't a right. There is no conspiracy. If your voice resonates with a particular editor and that editor can sell it to their team, you'll be published. Will you succeed? I have no idea. It's a crapshoot.

But I am tired of the negativity all over the place. Not just here, but on other blogs and articles like that Salon article a few months ago where the literary writer was lamenting that she couldn't sell another book.

Yes, the publishing industry can do better. I read MJ Rose daily because she has some brilliant ideas to push, pull, drag the book marketing into the 21st Century. Yes, we all need to think outside the box (God, I hate that cliche) and find ways to encourage reading (I have my own theory, but it would start a political flame war so I'll keep it to myself.)

Anyway, I'm a nobody who hopes to be a somebody some day. No matter how hard I have to work to get there.

Anonymous said...

"Yes, we all need to think outside the box (God, I hate that cliche)..."

So do I.

"...and find ways to encourage reading (I have my own theory, but it would start a political flame war so I'll keep it to myself.)"

Come on...let's here it. Seriously, I'd like to hear your ideas.


Anonymous said...


Despite my twelve-plus years at the Northshire and, as you suggest, my long list of acceptances and rejections as a writer, I do not feel jaded by the business, nor do I feel alienated from the publishing world, nor do I think that publishers and editors are out of touch with the readers I work with every day. I feel wierdly hopeful in the face of every negative bar chart and snarky column, even though I'm a devoted fatalist at heart.

In the end, what matters to me is the quality of the books. It's all about the books.

--Robert Gray

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A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."

PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]

"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."

PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]

"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."