The Busy-Day Post

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On Reviewing, and Reviews

The latest Quill & Quire (probably the best issue in years, and worth a read if you can find one) features an essay from Richard Bachmann, recently retired bookseller, in which he says the following:

The other…concern is the disappearance of avenues to tell people about books.  Superficially, it might seem that the new media have made available more channels of information than ever before.  I don’t believe this is an advantage.  Having a multitude of un-vetted book blogs is not quite the same thing as real discourse.”

He is lamenting, as most of us are, the death of newspaper book sections in particular, but more central, “legitimate” literary reviews in general.  I agree with his sentiment and maybe even his statement.

There are a lot of book blogs out there.  Even in the small sub-category of Canadian Book Blogs By Readers there are seemingly endless choices.  It’s easy and fun to read and review books and most of us do it.  But how does this add to the literary or publishing ecosystem?  I am absolutely guilty of talking more than I listen – I write reviews as if anyone might care, but I actually tend not to read blogs which simply review books.  Maybe this reflects my own interest, but I tend more towards blogs which provide “original content” in the form of essays and analysis rather than reviews or links elsewhere.  Where I do read reviews, shamefully, it tends to be to compare that reader’s thoughts to my own on books I have already read, rather than to evaluate a book for potential future purchase.

It isn’t that I don’t read reviews elsewhere either.  I am a fanatic reader of the TLS and frequently order books I have seen covered there.  Why should a book blog review be any different?

But it is different.  Bachmann is quite right – though a few comments to a blog post might constitute a very limited dialogue, this is nothing compared to the edifying and influential exchanges that occur through the TLS’s (or NYRB‘s) letters pages.  There’s a certain feeling of witnessing cultural formation before your eyes that you get from a “legitimate” source that feels lacking in blogs.  The conversation is too, to use Bachmann’s word, “diffuse”.  While this allows for wider coverage, it also pulls the conversation apart into disparate, self-selecting pieces.  Do writers Google themselves to see which blogs have reviewed them?  Do they care?  Would they respond to criticism?  Will anyone defend or contradict them?

What do we provide here?  I have a sneaking suspicion that the majority of my readers are either book bloggers themselves, or else publicists.  We’re people on the production, rather than purchasing, end.  Are we capable of reaching a wider public?  Do we help?  Publicists are certainly betting that we will – there’s a real upswing in promo copies going out to bloggers I’d reckon.  Whether this is speculation on the publishers’ part or if they have data to confirm that our special form of word-of-mouth actually translates into sales, I don’t know.

A suspect there’s a benefit to our coverage of small releases, based on my own limited data.  Publicists – take note!  My review of Frank Newfeld’s Drawing on Type is one of my most-viewed reviews, and certainly one of the most searched reviews.  That is to say, people search for “Frank Newfeld” or “Drawing on Type” and find my review.  On the other hand, my review of Val Ross’s Robertson Davies: A Portrait in Mosaic has been viewed three times as many times, but almost never because someone was actually searching for “Val Ross”, “Robertson Davies” or anything that might actually suggest this book.  So my review of Drawing on Type was probably more effective, from a publicity standpoint, than was my review of Robertson Davies.  This is probably because very few “big” reviews were out there, and my limited contribution was all that could be found.

This does not, however, suggest that small press publishing benefits from the bloggosphere.  We’re still talking about tiny numbers, and no conversation.  My review, after all, was not especially flattering.  Where’s the rebuttal?  I have been debateably harmful to Porcupine’s Quills’s sales.  This is not a healthy literary ecosystem.

But these are my limited numbers.  Perhaps some of you have had different experiences?  Do you read reviews online?  Do they make a difference to you?  Do we render a valuable service or a poor replacement?

The B-Team

It has just come to my attention that Oxford University Press is going to be outsourcing all of its independent bookstore distribution to H.B. Fenn & Co.  An understandable maneuver, I suppose, but one which saddens me anyway, as I’ll explain below.

First, a little Bookselling 101 for those of you who’ve never been on the supply side of things.  Books are sold, generally, along a publisher -> distributor -> bookstore chain.  While many publishers often have their own distribution division (Random House, Penguin, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, etc.) this is generally a cost-saving measure provided by a big publisher who can afford to diversify like this.  Smaller presses usually opt to have a bigger company do their distribution (Anansi, for example, is distributed by Harper Collins).

In the strictest technical sense distribution and publishing are two different businesses – one side creates and markets a book, while the other physically gets it into bookstores (and back again, if the case may be).  In cases where the publisher is not owned by the distributor, there is generally some arrangement between them to ensure that the distributor gets a cut of the books they distribute.   In some cases, this is an additional discount offered to the distributor and in others, the distributor limits the discount given to the bookseller.  In any case, the distributor is another actor in the “book chain”  who needs to be paid.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that distributors who are also publishers tend to offer bookstores bigger discounts than than distributors who have to get their books from an out-of-house publisher.  For a big publisher-distributor the cost of distribution is just a flat cost spread out over their entire publishing effort (which, in the case of a huge company like Random House, is a lot of books).  Outside distribution on the other hand costs the publishers a bigger discount than if they can sell straight to a bookstore, or costs the bookstore more in the form of a smaller discount.  The extra step is paid for by someone.

Oxford is a big enough publisher that they do generally handle their own distribution.  They own a warehouse in Toronto and have books shipped here from the US or the UK or whatever they’ve been published.  They will continue carrying these costs in the future because they are going to continue distributing to large customers.  H.B. Fenn will, it seems, only be taking over their small accounts, which means all Oxford is saving is the man hours and shipping costs of a portion of their distribution.  This is Disturbing News Part One.  This means that Oxford thinks they will lose more m0ney on a dude packing up boxes, some cardboard and some CanPar shipments than they will lose by discounting all their independent Canadian sales to Fenn.

Oxford isn’t some tiny small press.  Among other things, they sell dictionaries.  Everyone carries dictionaries.  By cutting distribution to small bookstores it looks to me as if they are saying they were making less money in a year selling dictionaries to every independent bookstore in the country than they were paying a guy to pack them up and ship them out.

Now, there’s another, more sinister option which is that Oxford isn’t going to be cutting Fenn an extra discount at all, and instead Fenn will be selling the books at a lesser discount to independents, which is terrifying.  But I don’t think Oxford could get away with this and so I don’t think this is the case.  Their discount isn’t fantastic to begin with, and Fenn generally has a decent discount on both their own and their distributed titles, so the idea that indies will suddenly have to pay another 8-10% on Oxford titles seems improbable.

No, what this means is that independent bookstores aren’t selling books, or, at least, aren’t selling Oxford books.  This is annoying to me; I know many people who split their book shopping in arcane ways to justify a “supporting the little guy” stance while still getting those nice Chapters/Amazon discounts on big purchases.  But if it’s going to encourage moves like this one, this is only a bad thing.  Splitting “big” from “little” distribution won’t benefit bookstores at all.  Because the outside distributor needs their cut the extra cost is more likely to be passed on to the store, a pressure the in-house distribution won’t feel.  Not to mention other annoyances like the extra time it will take to process an order from a third party compared to ordering it from the source.  As if the bookselling world isn’t a hazardous enough place for independents these days – two-tiered distribution like this is just another straw on the camel.

A Quick Aside:

You’re a bookish bunch, and I know at least one of you is Buried In Print – what do you do when you need to purge your library?  Do you sell your books or give them away?  To who do you give them, or sell them?  Does it matter to you if they find good homes?

Canada Reads 2010 Wrap-Up

I’ve put the finishing touches on an order to Random House and with that, we here in bookseller land are prepared to administer Canada’s latest future bestseller (right?  Right??!?) to an anxious public.  It’s already all over Twitter, so I won’t pretend I’d be the one to spoil it for you:  Nikolski has been crowned the winner of CBC’s Canada Reads 2010!

I guess I’d better pry my foot out of my mouth!  I really didn’t see Nikolski pulling through but I am THRILLED about it!  Michel Vezina, to whom this win is entirely owed, managed to turn my mind right around on this book and, apparently, did the same for the other panelists.

I have a theory about Canada Reads and why it will never really be truly disappointing:

By appointing a panel of pseudo-celebrities who are at least desirous of being of the intelligentsia you set up a situation where as much as anything, the panelists don’t want to be seen as populist, mainstream or ignorant.  We saw this in the first two days:  “Oprah” is a dirty word in this world where the panelists feel they are being called upon to provide literary guidance, to educate as much as to entertain.  So a smart panelist who appeals to Greater Literary Values will shame, to some extent, these panelists out of voting against his or her title because they don’t want to be seen as pedestrian.  A smart book defended by a not-especially-literate panelist may not make it, but a smart-enough book by a very literate panelist will.  A smart book defended by a literate panelist is a guarantee.  Knock on wood.

Back in the real world, will this translate into sales? Book of Negroes certainly did, but this was a book that was mounting momentum before it won.  I remember Rockbound by Frank Day flying off the shelves. A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews was selling well before the Canada Reads nod.  King Leary was a bit of a wiff at our store, but then it wasn’t a very good book (and I say this as a die-hard Paul Quarrington acolyte) as was Lullaby for Little Criminals for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on.  My boss, who has been selling books for over 35 years, said the following when I told her who won: (and I quote)

“F. U. C. K.  Who on earth is going to come crawling in looking for that?”

She had been rooting for Jade Peony, a tried and tested novel around these here parts that we thought would translate into reliable sales.  Nikolski‘s an unknown quantity, I’ll be honest.  A somewhat unconventional book, a translation at that, by an unknown first novelist.  Those are qualities I find exciting, but I’m undecided as to what my fairly conservative clients will do.  I’ll certainly let you know!

This has been fun, though.  Thanks to everyone who blogged the debates this year: I read about six blogs a day and still managed to find something fresh and interesting voiced by each one.  Enough discussion sparks my interest in even the dullest of books!  We should do this again some time, maybe next year, same time?

ETA:  Wayson Choy just walked into my store!  I’d kill to know what’s going through his mind today.  Must… be… discreet..

Canada Reads 2010: Day Four

I admit I didn’t see today’s elimination coming.  I’m not thrilled about it – the book was going to go eventually, but now there’s no “easy off” vote for later in the eliminations.

In fact, it seems to me that today’s vote, in any case, is completely clear cut.  Unless something magical happens it will almost certainly be death for Nikolski.  Rolly & Michel will vote for Good to a Fault, while Samantha, Simi and Perdita will take out Nikolski.  I don’t see who would deviate from that pattern right now, unless Perdita was feeling vengeful enough to lob another bomb at Jade Peony.  Alas, Nikolski, you deserved better.

Today’s debates started to get a little more interesting, but I notice the questions tend towards terms like “resonate” and “relate to”.  The name of the game this year seems to be finding the book which is the cuddliest, which does not bode well for a book which is experimental, edgy or technically masterful (or in this year’s case, experimental, quirky or technically competent).  Perdita’s statement that she “doesn’t want to have to think” when she’s reading a novel was possibly the most horrifying thing I’ve ever heard on this show, but may in retrospect serve to explain why a book like Good to a Fault now seems to have a decent chance at winning.

I didn’t find the moralizing in Good to a Fault challenging or insightful at all.  Clara, ultimately, took on three children who had nowhere else to go, something I think most women would do if they had the means.  And Clara has the means – she is not, in any real way, put out by taking on these kids.  She didn’t have to sacrifice anything and she was not made to suffer for her actions; it was, really, easy for her to do.  Ma Pell was perhaps the only thorn in her side but painting her as an anti-social hermit effectively took her out from underfoot.  Clayton, the character I thought was going to be the actual challenge for Clara to overcome, conveniently exits the scene before it begins.  Darwin looks like a promising challenge for the half-page we think he’s a drunk, but once that case of mistaken identity is cleared up he mainly serves to remove the last adult challenge Clara might have had to contend with: Lorraine.

So we are left with a rich woman taking on three gifted and mysteriously well-behaved children at no particular cost to herself.  We have a brief moment where she “loses” the children to Lorraine’s recovery; but no worries, her husband most likely abandons her in the end and this means, clearly, that Clara will be able to step in and support the single mother.  Lorraine lobs some unfounded criticism at Clara about something to do with class or self-righteousness, but ultimately it doesn’t feel true because it’s hard to see anything classist about housing three children who have nowhere else to go.

Alright, so that’s what I think, but then, I am thinking and not just feeling.  Oh – and on that note, Simi’s claim that it isn’t the church that supports Clara when she’s down was mind-boggling.  Of course it was.  It was Paul, mainly.  You know, the preacher, Paul, from the church.

I really wish I’d liked one of this year’s books a little more because I feel that these updates are maybe a little on the negative side.   I’m still putting my money on Jade Peony thought it isn’t out of any great love for the book:  I just disliked it the least.  It feels safe and appropriate, two things I don’t generally advocate rewarding.  So I feel a little dirty there.  Oh well – maybe tomorrow will bring great surprises, hey?  Here’s hoping!

Canada Reads 2010: Day Three

So Generation X gets the boot.  I wish this were more of a surprise, but it isn’t, for anyone.  Moving on.

I have been watching the debates online in video-form for the last two days and I have to comment on this experience.  Last year I listened to every broadcast faithfully at 11:30am sharp and never caught a glimpse of our panelists even once, and this was a WILDLY different experience.  I liked all these people more before I could see them.  Why is that?  The silence on the radio was serene; now watching reactions and exasperated body language is painful.  Poor Rolly, he seems like a very nice boy!  And Simi – what is with those sweaters?  On the other hand, how cool is Michel Vezina?  I want that man’s shirts!  And the wink he gave Jian yesterday when he added Fire-Breather to his resume – those two would make just the cutest dang couple, I sure hope they’re knocking boots on the side.

Another thing – who is the 6th person in their introductory montage of authors – is that Lazer Lederhendler?  I don’t remember anyone making as big a fuss about Sheila Fischman last year.

If it seems like I’m avoiding the debates, it’s for good reason: the questions Jian lobbed today were insipid.  They destroyed MINUTES of perfectly good air time with that awful “How Canadian” question again this year.  Kudos for Simi for trying to wriggle out of it.  It’s a preposterous question, as should have been evident from the minute Michel asked for Francophone content.  As if a staunch French-Canadian and a 2nd Generation Indian from Surry are going to have the slightest agreement about what’s “Canadian”.

The poverty question was an interesting one, though trying to find class divisions in Nikolski seemed like a stretch to me.  But the wording still drove me crazy: which book evoked class issues best?  What if that wasn’t the point of the novel?  It seemed like a raft designed to buoy Good to a Fault, which was the only book which was really about class.

Speaking of which, I didn’t really like Good to a Fault but I find Rolly’s continual arcane criticisms of it baffling.  There’s a lot to critisize in that book, but “too general” or “not enough detail” or “bad grammar” weren’t among my complaints.  Can we talk about preachy morality yet?

After sitting and watching 21 minutes of Canada Reads debate, my 20-month-old feels she deserves a read-through of The Monster at the end of this Book now, and I’m inclined to indulge her.  I look forward to seeing what the rest of you thought!  My predictions?  Good to a Fault or Nikolski are in trouble.  I wish I could say Fall was on its way out, but it seems to be getting too much love.  We’ll see tomorrow!

Canada Reads 2010: Day Two

I tell you what, lasting a whole day without reading anyone else’s thoughts on Canada Reads is hard!  An unexpected toddler nap schedule has allowed me to watch the broadcast online today and so I am able to get this post up sooner than yesterday – all I can say is THANK GOODNESS.  I look forward to being able to actually read your blogs!

I’d forgotten that they won’t announce the eliminated book until tomorrow, so this post might come out a little thin.  Has anything changed from yesterday?  It doesn’t look like it to me.  Some thoughts:

– Perdita Felician is a FIERCE competitor!  I don’t know if she has a literary chop to her name but she’s relentless, passionate and articulate.  I think it’s going to be hard for anyone to vote against her.

– Michel Vezina is my hero.  This man gives the show literary cred and humour to boot, and I think he will no matter what happens to his book.  I wonder if his books are available in English?  Seems like his books might be more interesting than anything on the table.

– The discussion of the books so far has been, frankly, thin.  We’re speaking mostly in rhetoric and adjectives and nobody has managed to single out any incidents or passages yet for detailed scrutiny.  I get it, the books are important or brave or passionate or complex or whatever – can we talk about specifics please?

– Am I the only one who found Good To a Fault full of moral pablum?  How could none (okay, one; under duress) of the panelists have singled out Dickner’s characters as favourites?  They were the best thing about his book!

Anyway, as of today I’m afraid it looks like Generation X is on the chopping block.  Rolly, you brought this upon yourself by coming out the gate so defensively!  Do what Samantha and Michel are doing: pretend your book doesn’t exist and hope the other panelists forget it’s there.  Gen X and Fall are Tall Poppies.  Good luck!

Canada Reads 2010: Day One Thoughts

This will be brief, because I am a poor working mother with very little time between a 7:30pm broadcast of the debates, a toddler’s bedtime and a blog post!  This was easier, let me just say, when I was on Maternity Leave.  Oi!

I read 4 of the 5 books for these debates.  I skipped Fall On Your Knees because I read it already some 5 or 6 years ago.  At the time I put the book down and sighed to myself  “Well at least I’ll never have to read that again.”  Despite some wavering in December, that conviction stuck with me.

Now don’t get me wrong.  It pains me to admit it, but I think Fall On Your Knees is the best book of the batch this time around.  I also think it is unequivocally the least deserving of the Canada Reads 2010 title.  For me, anyway, the prize is about discovering a forgotten or hidden gem, and recommending it to people.   Fall On Your Knees needs discovering the same way I need a third armpit.  If there are five people left in this country who haven’t read it already I suggest that’s entirely intentional and I doubt those people will run out and buy it at the end of this week no matter what happens.

I didn’t love any of the books this year, but I’ll grudgingly stand up for two of the books: Jade Peony, because it was good and I think most people would enjoy and be bettered by an encounter with it even if it was a little boring; and Generation X because it’s clever and different, even if it drove me a little crazy.  I don’t think Good to a Fault or Nikolski were particularly good as novels, though both authors are obviously quite adept with words.  Sometimes – AHEMGilAdamsonAHEM – it takes more than an agile vocabulary to tell a good story.  That’s what I think.

Now the other thing about Jade Peony is I thought it could sneak a win thanks to being pretty unoffensive on all counts and being defended by a passionate and intelligent panelist.  Thought, because after listening to the debates I now wonder where this is going to go.  I thought Fall On Your Knees would be eviscerated for it’s overexposure & Tall Poppy status, and I thought Perdita Felicien’s lack of a literary background would make her a easy target.

But man, this year’s panelists are a bunch of hippies.  What love for everyone’s books!  What soft pitches!  The elephant in the room that is Fall‘s Oprah endorsement was totally unmentioned while Generation X of all things took knocks for popularity.  Everyone loved Nikolski and Jade Peony and Fall and Good to a Fault. The pitches and defenses were downright sentimental, as if none of our panelists had any literary training.  I now fear for both my adopted charges because Jade Peony was greeted with polite but unenthusiastic praise and Rolly Pemberton’s Generation X pitch sounded petulant and defensive right from the get-go.

But maybe I just don’t read poker faces very well.  Perhaps they’re giving Fall an easy ride because they’re all planning to give it the boot anyway and don’t want to be obnoxious about it.  And maybe Jade Peony will slip through to the finals by traveling the middle road!  Suffice to say I think this is still anyone’s game.  Perhaps tomorrow daggers will be drawn!

(And yes, for me, 600 words is “brief”…)

Reading Canada: Generation X vs How Happy to Be

Ding ding, Round 4! Douglas Coupland and Katrina Onstad have occupied my last week and a half with their respective contributions to Canada Reads and Canada Reads Independently. And, I’ll be honest with you, one other book wedged itself in there with them due to its overwhelming relevance:

Presented, for the time being, without comment.

I enjoyed both these books; their cleverness, their laugh-out-loud humour, their irony. These make-believe worlds of painfully intelligent twenty-or-thirty-somethings were alluring, tempting and familiar.  After all, in my daydreams my friends and neighbours are this smart, funny and colourful too.  It’s a great place, these dreams, where being disaffected and quirky is just a magnet for other quirky and eccentric people with no real downside except a lingering sense of disappointment with the rest; of the world who have failed to live up to the standard we imagine ourselves to hold – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Coincidentally, I am of roughly the same age as the characters in both books, as are most of my friends. And we share with these characters a sense that we’re over-educated, too smart, or had expectations too high for where we actually find ourselves. Shouldn’t we be further along by now? Is this really where we thought we’d be? Weren’t we destined for something more?  We’re poor and overworked; the most successful of us employed in IT on the basis of skills we picked up as 14-year-olds  or else, at least, married to and supported by someone bearing that description.  The majority of us are in school again, still, for our third-or-fourth degrees; desperately upgrading skills in the hopes that we can, maybe, someday merit a salary – salary! – or an hourly wage that pushes us up over the mythical $25k mark.

But unlike the characters in these books, our status as marginal is actual and not chosen and therein, I think, lies my ultimate annoyance with both these books.  Their dissatisfaction was so privileged, so bloody twee that I couldn’t buy into their personal demons.  Coupland’s three protagonists all quit good, real-adult jobs because of some vague spiritual dissatisfaction in order to “slum” in Palm Springs, an ascetic “poverty” that doesn’t, apparently, preclude chain smoking, drinking, car ownership, impromptu vacations and roommate-free living.  It’s hard to ignore Andy and Claire’s rich-kid backgrounds, or Dag’s forsaken Marketing money.  Coupland seems quite aware of the rich-white-kid-spiritual-crisis phenomenon, but is in no way critical of it.  On the contrary, I think we’re supposed to see some kind of virtue in how they’ve turned away from The Man to pursue their own pleasures.

Now I’d like to register a difference of opinions with some other reviewers who’ve read the book for Canada Reads – I think part of the problem may in fact be that this book was written fifteen years ago.  Part of Andy/Dag/Claire’s disaffection seems rooted in a sense that history is over, that there’s nothing to fight for or against anymore except banality.  Well, that was 1995.  What, I wonder, would they have thought of the post-9/11 world?  Causes, real crises are a dime a dozen today. The world, if you care to look, is opening itself up in new, unprecedented ways. It would be hard for anyone with a social conscience to look around North America today and see nothing but the decaying remnants of the 1940s-70s. This, I think, is exactly why Coupland wrote Generation A. History has restarted. To drop out isn’t the saint’s path anymore – today our generation is expected to do something about it.

Katrina Onstad’s heroine Max, meanwhile, had at the very least some personal demons. A dead mother, a distant father and a drinking habit we’re supposed to buy as a serious dependency. She seems hyper-aware of the hypocrisies of her industry but completely ignorant of her own motivations – nevertheless, privileged again to hold a very enviable bylined position with a major Canadian newspaper. We can shrug off the ludicrousness of her “poor-me-my-job-sucks” line because she does seem to have some real, actual baggage to deal with as well – perhaps this poor little rich girl really does deserve our sympathy.

And I was with her, I was! Right up until the end. The final crisis (and I will try hard not to spoil the book here) prompts her to wander right back home, find herself a cozy nest in a west coast cottage, vault over her alcohol-and-nicotine addictions as if they were afterthoughts, reconcile with everyone in her life and in the end, tah dah! It All Works Out. She goes from lost to found in about thirty pages.

This completely trivialized the rest of the book for me in one way, but in another way I actually kind of get it. The figure of the girl who is directionless and out of control until motherhood finds her and gives her some purpose is not without precedent (I’m thinking Natasha from War and Peace, or in some ways myself). But by the same token, it made me feel that Max’s issues earlier in the book were not really that “real” after all, and all her whining and confusion was really just self-absorbed adolescence drawn out too long and she just needed to grow up. Maybe this was what Generation X lacked – the characters didn’t grow up.

Both books, however, were paradigms of the phenomenon that Hal Niedzviecki describes in his 2005 non-fictional Hello, I’m Special. Individuality is a remarkable phenomenon that has been fetishized into the must-have accessory of the 21st century. The quest for specialness, for destiny at, it seems, the expense of any satisfaction with simply living a life is at the heart of the characters in Generation X, and to a lesser extent Max as well. The obsession with celebrity culture that all the characters exhibit is certainly an obsession with specialness, with uniqueness. No matter what else they might have going for them, they can’t seen to find satisfaction without feeling as if they’re destined. And that, in my opinion, is simply selfish.

I’m sorry to say I don’t think I’ll be able to post the 5th of these – while Century by Ray Smith is definitely going to be my next read, I really can’t stomach the thought of reading Fall on Your Knees again. Next week I look forward to dual debates, some flip-flops, reflections and changes of opinion, and perhaps a some congratulatory book sales. Good luck all!