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Five Big-Idea Holiday Best-Sellers

My bookstore is an unusual one. We are a trade bookstore, but we have a disproportionate number of academics and intellectuals as customers and this has flavoured our stock. So when I look at other peoples’ round-ups of the biggest books of the season I often feel left out. We don’t sell a lot of fiction, so that pretty much leaves us out of the true bestselling loop, nor do we sell the usual celebrity memoirs, cookbooks, self-help scams or whatever else serves as the mainstay of most big bookstores.

We have our own bestsellers here, books I rarely see on other lists but which clearly resonate with a large percentage of the people who walk through the door. These are often big idea books: trade books still, intended for a general audience, but not quick reads for casual readers. If you have a heavy thinker on your holiday gift list, you could do worse than the following off-the-beaten-path works!

The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan by George Steiner

Steiner is a huge name in literary criticism and has been since the 60s, but my first encounter with him was through Eleanor Wachtel, whom he told in an interview that he felt there wasn’t much interesting going on in novels anymore (I’m paraphrasing). For a big reader of contemporary novels, this was a jarring thing to hear from someone who seemed to know so much. Steiner did admit he felt poetry was going places, however, and now he offers us a book giving full literary credibility to philosophy, to the act of philosophizing. The idea is remarkably new and Steiner has always been a pleasure to read. This is a must-have for the literary critic.

Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism by Judith Butler

Butler is a most un-classifiable academic, writing about gender, race, violence, politics, philosophy and anything else that seems to catch her fancy. At the end of the day, however, she is a literary critic, seeking to give us the tools we need to think critically about all those things we tend not to. Her latest, and by far the most popular new work of hers we have carried in a long time, tackles the Israel/Palestine problem. She mines the public sphere for support for her theories of cohabitation and ethic of social plurality, which is at the heart of her other work as well. You can’t write a word on the topic without being controversial, but Butler seems to be offering a good tool for critique without having to criticize.

The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King

Okay, a little Can-con. The Inconvenient Indian hasn’t been out as long as some of these others, so it hasn’t sold quite as well in terms of sheer numbers. But the way it is flying off the shelf now, I think is deserves a mention. King sells well here as an essayist, if not as a novelist. His Massey Lectures, The Truth About Stories is among the all-time top-selling Canadian books we have in the store, so it’s no surprise that the people who thought so highly of his last collection would come seeking the latest. The collection is funny, smart, insightful and a desperately-needed addition to Aboriginal Canadian history. King deserves to be better recognized as one of this country’s most important public  intellectuals. On top of being a top-notch writer he is an engaged political figure, an academic and now a film-maker. When we speak of Margaret Atwood, we should speak of Thomas King in the same breath.

Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature by Charles Rosen

I picked this list three days ago, and so of course that’s the day Charles Rosen picks to die. I don’t mean to suggest I had anything to do with it, but honestly? Really? Freedom and the Arts is now officially Rosen’s “last and best” work, at least that’s what we’re calling it today. Rosen was one of those incredible people who just happens to be best at everything, and excels everywhere he chooses to allocate his effort. Rosen is best known as a pianist and a music writer, but this collection of essays covers everything from music to literature, philosophy and academia, and does it all with a beautiful word and a deft mind. I hate him for it, but this collection is just masterful.

Memorial : A Version of Homer’s Iliad by Alice Oswald

There are some years when re-worked versions of Homer are a dime a dozen. I feel like Christopher Logue’s offerings weren’t that long ago (All Day Permanent Red was published in 2004) and David Malouf’s Ransom was actually published yesterday (i.e.  2010). And yet Oswald’s kick at the can is an incredible work. She seeks to memorialize in prose all two-hundred-plus people killed over the course of the Iliad, and manages to do so in a smart, sparse, 81-page poem.

University Press Week!

It’s University Press Week! This must be a new designation because in the past I have honoured university press books in a haphazard way, apparently at the wrong time of year. My efforts to get some Canadian university press books on the Canada Reads longlist was a sad failure, but those savvy folk at the Association of American University Presses have brought this one down in time for Christmas shopping. I have more than my share of opinions about what you should gift your loved ones with this year, so with no further ado, I give you three amazing university press offerings sitting on shelves right now!

Harvard University Press’s Jane Austen Annotated Editions

Emma is the third in Harvard University Press’s Annotated Jane Austen series, and every bit as beautiful as the previous publications of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. The whole oeuvre of Austen in these hardcovers would be magnificent on the shelf of any collector, but be warned that no paperbacks are currently forthcoming. These are lavishly illustrated editions beautifully assembled, and would barely hold together in a less sturdy format. But at $35-$40 each, who could complain anyway? Harvard, by the way, seems to be going whole-hog into these amazing annotated editions. An annotated Frankenstein also appeared on our shelves this fall, and is no less recommended.

Northwestern University Press’s World Classics Series

I think one of the greatest services university presses renders is in keeping lesser-known works of great literature in print in good, well-edited and produced editions. Northwestern University Press has a number of these series, but I have a special spot in my heart for the World Classics. They have editions of the poetry of Pushkin and Pasternak, a lovely new Divine Comedy of Dante and Rilke. Lesser known additions include Anne Seymore Damer, Ivan Shcheglov, Luigi Meneghello and Ilya Ilf. These books are paperbacks, but exceed Penguin Classics and Oxford World’s Classics in quality by a mile. If you like NYRB editions, you’d love these.

Yale University Press’s The Woman Reader

Of course, most of what university presses tend to publish are academic books. This doesn’t, however, mean inaccessible, specialist books. Belinda Jack’s The Woman Reader is what Yale considers a “trade” publication, but this is a step beyond “books for anyone”. It is a historical overview of how women read, and have read, over the ages and cultures complete with endnotes and citations. But the book is anything but dry: Jack’s prose is succinct, funny, and totally readable by the non-specialist. Yale has a great backlist of similarly academic-but-enjoyable books on books, including Andrew Pettegree’s The Book in the RenaissanceMargaret Willes’s Reading Matters and Alberto Manguel’s A Reader on Reading.

Book-Lover’s Guilt

In case you weren’t feeling glum enough about the imminent closure of the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, last night we got the news that Canada’s largest independent publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, has filed for bankruptcy.

The news brought a chorus of astonished gasps and moans from Twitter. Nobody likes to see things like this. Good, experienced publishing people could lose their jobs. Writers could lose their publishers. Their books could go out of print. Oh, and something about the cultural contribution too. Canadian culture, supporting our own, something something.

Of course, if everyone who was so sad to see them in straits actually spent money on their books, they might not be so bad off. That was the first thing I thought, in any case. Oh man, when was the last time I bought a Douglas & McIntyre book, anyway? The summer of 2010, Darwin’s Bastards, Zsuzsi Gardner? July 2010. Cigar Box Banjo, Paul Quarrington, for my husband’s birthday. November 2011, Something Fierce, Carmen Aguirre, for Canada Reads. That’s $80 in two years. No wonder they’re going out of business! Why didn’t I pick up Daniel O’Thunder, Lightning, The Book of Marvels when I saw them? And why didn’t I buy them all at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore?!

The fact is I can barely feed myself and my children, let alone every writer, publisher and bookseller in Canada. But that doesn’t prevent the lingering guilty feeling that I somehow should have tried.

My coworkers and I sit here scratching our heads this morning, wondering how this could have happened to D&M. They have a phenomenal list. We bring in – and sell – almost every single book they publish. What more must a publisher provide? Great, well made books that people want to buy. Isn’t that the formula? How can that fail to pay the bills?

Admittedly, I live in a bubble. Our bookstore sells books nobody else can manage to move. My customers are heavy readers who – bless them – never ask about the prices, just pay them. My friends are heavily educated and literate, with a strong sense of social responsibility when it comes to supporting the local. My 276 Twitter followers seem to be 200 authors, 75 publicists and my mom. The millions of people who buy and read 50 Shades of Grey? I don’t know who they are.

So maybe out there in the real world, D&M’s excellent books are going unnoticed. Maybe all the “buzz” the journalists, bloggers, reviewers and publicists claim to be out there is being generated by review copies and good intentions. I’m a bookseller and a blogger, after all.  I have my share of books given to me, and what I buy I often buy at cost. Maybe I am to blame after all. Do we excuse ourselves from buying books because we feel our endorsement, our “word of mouth” is worth more than the $19.95 we’d spend on the book? I wonder sometimes. I don’t know how else to reconcile the contradiction I’m seeing. We all love and “support” these books, and yet the money isn’t there. Are the readers – the ones who don’t work for the publishing houses, who don’t get their copies for free – there? Are they reading our reviews and buying the books? Does buzz equal sales?

We’re troubled, this morning, about what this could all mean. If a Douglas & McIntyre can’t make it, I wonder if anyone can. Does a publisher need to be propped up by a mega-bestseller (and does a Canada Reads winner not suffice)?

An Anniversary of Sorts

The shortlist for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize was announced this morning, which in a bookstore means a rapid once-over of the store and the orders to see what we have and what we need get into stock. We managed 1/5 this year; not our worst year. In doing my research, I happened to notice that it has now been 10 years since I started working in the bookstore. The shortlist of 2002 was the first I ever worked on.

We’ve never been the kind of bookstore to attract bestseller-like traffic, but we do pride ourselves in keeping a long backlist. So while we didn’t sell many copies of that year’s winner – Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe – we do still have it in stock. Looking back to that 2002 shortlist, I’m pleased to see we actually still have 4/5 of THOSE books. Maybe this is a testament to the lasting value of those books, or maybe we’re just slow on the uptake. But if ever you’ve doubted the strength of the books that make a Giller shortlist, look back:

Austin Clarke, The Polished Hoe
Bill Gaston, Mount Appetite
Wayne Johnston, The Navigator of New York
Lisa Moore, Open
Carol Shields, Unless

Ten years on, those choices hold strong.

So I suppose what I’ve learned in ten years of bookselling is that however random and unworthy a list may or may not look at the time, only time can really bear it out. Those jurists are no fools, and what is today unknown to us might be classic tomorrow.

Back From Leave!

I do mix bookselling and parenting. A little.

I’ve been back at the store exactly one month now, launched from the relatively peaceful life of the stay-at-home mom into the bustling world of trade bookselling successfully. We’re at the height of our busy season now, receiving and selling thousands upon thousands of books for the 2012-13 university year.  Even so, I have had more time to read, write and think in the last 30 days than I had in the previous 320.

I am pleased to find that very little has changed here. In fact, books still sit on the shelf exactly where I left them one year ago. The same customers come looking for the same books, the same professors ask us to provide the same books for the same English students. From the news I’d found on the Internet it had seemed as if the book business was changing entirely every week I was away, and I’d wondered if I’d even have a bookstore to come back to. Ebooks continue to find their place in the market, publishers fold and get sold, and Amazon continues to come up with new innovations to destroy us all reinvent bookselling. But no, now that I’d back in the belly of the beast, I see very little has changed after all.

Part of the stasis I’m seeing seems to come of the differing aims and ideas of bookselling’s players. Amazon introduces same day shipping, but ever more titles are shifting to print-on-demand. Ebooks continue to gain market share, but our students are discovering the format’s limitations. People are still buying books in bookstores, and demographically it seems likely to continue for some time. If ebooks or internet sales are ultimately going to put an end to my line of work, they aren’t doing so quickly, at least not until they get their acts together and form a unified plan of attack.

There are two big reasons people continue to come into the shop, and neither one of them is because of the patient and romantic respect for the time-honoured profession of bookselling. As much as individuals wax eloquent about the community services and individual attention neighbourhood bookstores provide, at the end of the day every one of you succumbs to the convenience and savings offered by Amazon or Chapters-Indigo.ca. Very few people really boycott big online sellers. To do so requires some sacrifice on the part of the book-buyer, and we’re not a people who are generally fond of sacrifice. To cite a recent example of the disconnect between professed love of independent booksellers and the reality of the indie’s powers I offer up Salman Rushdie’s new memoir, Joseph Anton. This memoir of Rushdie’s years spent under fatwa has been, in publicist lingo, “hotly anticipated” to the point where it was classified as an embargoed title, meaning there would be no advance reading copies and no shipments of the book in advance of the release date. Logistically this tends to mean that stores who order enough copies of the book to receive sealed boxes (containing perhaps 12 copies) will get their shipments on the release date, but if you have ordered fewer than a box worth, you have to wait until the cases have been cracked and individual copies can safely go out. In our case, because we ordered only five copies, this meant we received our books on September 24th rather than the 18th.

So while on the one hand, Rushdie crafted an open love-letter to independent booksellers for their support of Satanic Verses while he was under fatwa, in reality, most independent bookstores miss whatever mad scramble the publisher thought there would be for this book. Will the buyer wait? I had a few requests for the title on the 18th, but I have not yet sold any of the copies which came in on the 24th. I suspect, no she won’t.

Yet people do show up and we do sell books. The biggest draw is convenience. When we have the books, they are on the shelf right there. You don’t have to wait, or order. You pick it up and start reading that minute. For students this is especially relevant, because often it doesn’t occur to them to buy the book until they are three days from an essay’s deadline. They can’t wait. This is, of course, one of the biggest draws of the ebook as well – there you don’t even necessarily need to leave your home to instantly receive your book. Yet whatever market share we’ve lost to ebooks we’ve made up for by the loss of older competitors. Chapters Indigo don’t seem to carry many books anymore. One desperate student calling to confirm we had his book in stock informed us that the closest copy Chapters had of Lattimore’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey – surely an easy-to-find staple if ever there was one – was in Stoney Creek. The ease of “finding a used copy” has also tanked, as used bookstores around the GTA go belly-up. A few monster used bookstores don’t make a suitable replacement either – while ten small stores might have an Odyssey each, that doesn’t mean one big one will have ten copies. We have books, so people come to buy them.

The second draw remains a fundamental mistrust of ebooks. Consumers may be warming to the idea, but in my experience, many ebook readers have mistaken ideas of what an ebook is, and what rights it gives them. Several people have tried to return ebooks to us because they discovered they “could not print them out”. For a student or academic, having a paper copy – even in fragments – is still key.  You need somewhere to scribble your notes. You need a copy to bring in to the exam. You need to copy a chapter for your students. These consumers also have mistaken ideas about to what extent they own the “book” they’ve bought. They want to lend it out, to sell it when they are done. They need access to it even if they’re having technical difficulties. It is apparently easier to phone me than to reach tech support for many ebook publishers, and I find myself trouble-shooting my customers’ reading experience. This is in no way my job, and while I like to be helpful I am reluctant to be yelled at when a customer is, for whatever reason, locked out of her book. Loathe as I am to ever refuse to help a customer, I begin to wonder if I should even admit I know anything about ebook difficulties. To own up to any knowledge seem to be to invite blame. To avoid headaches, I recommend paper books every time.

So I don’t know if it will last, but as of today the bubble holds strong. People read, and we facilitate reading. The thrill of a new release, a new find, or a new favourite hasn’t gotten old for the customers or for the seller. I count myself lucky that I can still be in the business now, and I hope to still be here in 15 years. And beyond? I’m not willing to forecast, just enjoying the good weather while it lasts.

My Response to David Mason – Huh?

I really do enjoy my subscription to Canadian Notes and Queries. It is probably my only periodical – outside of Chirp – which I happily renew every year without even having to consider it.  I love Seth’s design work. I love the featured cartooning work. I love the often arch and argumentative nature of many of the essays. And I love that they give space to David Mason, really the only space in any Canadian periodical given to an antiquarian book dealer. But,

Dear Mr. Mason,

You lost me with your latest contribution, “Secrets of the Book Trade: Number 1“. I sorrily admit I didn’t understand a word of it. I followed you as far as the admission that antiquarian booksellers are snobs  – agreed, and good for you! – but the following generalizations about trade bookselling sounded outright made up.

Which booksellers, pray tell, were you referring to? I’m not sure if you’ve looked around lately, but there aren’t a lot of trade booksellers left, and those still standing don’t bear any resemblance whatsoever to the characture you’ve drawn. “…what they are lacking is knowledge of about 500 years of the history of their trade.”? “new booksellers share with publishers is a certain distrust – even fear – of antiquarian booksellers”? “You order a bunch of books from a catalogue, provided by a publisher, sell what you can and return what you can’t. No risk, no penalty, if your opinion of what might sell is wrong.”???

The above quotes represent three total untruths about trade bookselling featured in your essay.

Just this week Ben McNally delivered the 2012 Katz Lecture at the Thomas Fisher on the topic of Is There a Future (Or Even a Present) for Bookselling? which included a learned history of the book trade. Yesterday I attended new book creator Andrew Steeves‘ lecture on “The Ecology of the Book” which also consisted, largely, of a history of the book trade. Even I am a new book seller and a book historian, not to mention an antiquarian book lover and collector. The booksellers I know – those who remain – are very knowledgeable people who are in no way the peddlers of pap you seem to be describing. I think you and I can agree that Chapters/Indigo is not staffed by “booksellers” so let’s leave out their lack of participation in the larger world of books – unless it was actually that straw man you meant to burn down, in which case I’d feel better if you’d been a little more clear.

We bear the antiquarian trade no ill-will. In fact we continue to foster relationships with used and rare sellers. Our remainder tables continue to be pillaged by scouts and dealers, and we offer deep discounts to some favoured dealers who will take away our overstock by the box. We know that the antiquarian dealers do us the same service we do them – redirecting customers who erroneously visit one or the other of us in search of “nice copies of…” or “cheap copies of…”. I send my customers to you weekly. I hope you do us the same courtesy.

As to this business of publishers’ returns policies giving us a free pass… well, perhaps it is this which stuck in my craw the worst, as I hear it again and again from everyone, customers, academics, and now you, who should know better. The ability to return a limited quantity of books allows us nothing but the merest bit of breathing space. We have to remainder or toss books too. We have to vet the vast, vast floods of new books which are solicited each year into a good, salable collection of which we can return no more than 15% and, even then, which we often have to return at great cost to ourselves in shipping and brokerage – especially brokerage. Choosing which books will sell requires not just an intimate knowledge of every author, publisher and subject we cover, but of our customers and their interests, price points, and whims. Every book we buy is a gamble. Unlike you, who can pick up certain Modern Firsts at a good price without having to think about it, we have to speculate on the market of every book which comes through the door. And we can only be wrong 10-15% of the time.

Further, if we feel a social responsibility to pick up and flog new, upcoming authors and presses with no existing market whatsoever in the name of encouraging local talent and the potential cultural giants of tomorrow, we do so by the grace of this returns policy. Not that we send books back to small and independent publishers – quite the contrary, we have a policy of keeping these books whether they sell or not, out of respect for the limited resources of their publishers. But we can do it because of the returns to larger publishers who can afford it, which will let us free up some cash for zero-gain experiments.

I cannot imagine what point you will eventually make with Number 2 of this series after making such an artificial distinction between booksellers in Number 1. If your intention was merely to point out how very learned you are, I salute you but suggest that you do not become more learned by painting us as less learned. I’d like to suggest that a more useful project might be to make common cause against the real outsider in our field, the entirely algorithm-based online bookseller who is undermining both our businesses by selling entirely unvetted, undifferentiated texts based on price point alone. But that’s another post.

In conclusion, I think you’ll find those booksellers among us who remain in business in this difficult age are a hardy bunch, creamier than whatever booksellers of yesteryear you’re remembering. We each have our bodies of knowledge about aspects of the objects we dedicate our lives to.  We are aware of how we compliment each other – have we kissed and made up yet?

Thanks for you time,

Charlotte Ashley

P.S. I would love and prefer a job in antiquarian bookselling. If you’re ever looking for a knowledgeable and neurotically dedicated apprentice, you just let me know.