Monday, October 29, 2007

Texas Bookselling, All Hail the Mighty State?

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 10/29/2007

The only U.S. state that was once its own country, Texas is massive, with a land area of 261,797 sq.-miles, second only in size to Alaska. With some 23 million people and three of the 10 most populous cities in the country—Houston (fourth with two million people), San Antonio (seventh, with 1.25 million), and Dallas (ninth with 1.21 million)—Texas has long made significant contributions to the national bookselling scene.

In the 1980s, the state capitol of Austin gave birth to Gary Hoover's BookStop bookstore chain, one of the pioneers of heavy discounting. BookStop quickly expanded to 22 stores in four states before it was sold to Barnes & Noble for $41 million in 1989 (a handful of B&N storefronts in Texas still retain the BookStop name).

Today, the state is home to two burgeoning bookselling chains: Half Price Books and Hastings Entertainment. The first Half Price was opened in a converted laundromat in Dallas in 1972 by Ken Gjemre and Pat Anderson, who stocked it with 2,000 titles from their personal libraries. The store expanded into a chain by selling remainders in a superstore environment. It remains family-owned and has since expanded to 14 states.

“We've signed leases on a total of 100 stores,” said Half Price executive v-p Kathy Doyle Thomas, with 38 of those stores located in Texas. “Texas is an attractive place to open bookstores because of the growing population and low cost of living, and consequently lower expenses,” she said. Rent in Texas is typically half of that in the Northeast or even the Midwest.

Hastings Entertainment, founded in 1968, offers a mix of books, music and video games in 153 locations. The chain is headquartered in Amarillo (in the Texas panhandle) and has 43 locations in Texas, most in small and medium-sized cities, such as Waxahachie, Sweetwater and Paris.

Matthew Gildea, Hastings's senior director of books, came to the company in 2006 after 13 years with Borders in Ann Arbor. He said Hastings's focus on smaller, often overlooked communities, proves there are indeed book buyers in rural areas. “It's telling what we sell—a mix of literary things and commercial things,” he said. Smaller markets, said Gildea, are “impossible to stereotype” because they are less influenced by book reviews and hype, opening opportunities to handsell. “When you bring an author to a small town, people aren't already jaded by having so many events, and you get a pretty good turn out.”

Of the three major bookselling chains, Books-A-Million has the least number of locations in Texas, with just nine stores. B&N operates 60 stores and Borders has 59.

The state's largest cities typically have just one or two independent stores fighting for market share against the chains. San Antonio for example, has The Twig Book Shop (and its children's offshoot, The Red Balloon). El Paso has the Cactus Café and Bookshop. Galveston boasts one fine independent—Midsummer Books.

The Brazos Bookstore in Houston nearly closed in 2006 and was only saved after a consortium of local book lovers banded together to save it. Manager Jane Moser reported steady sales and said that the store appears out of danger and sales are steady. “Everyday I get encouragement from people who still enjoy shopping at the bookstore,” she said.

Murder by the Book, which is just down the street from Brazos, has developed a strong following among Houstonians, particularly for its author events. Considered among the top two or three mystery specialty stores in the country, Murder by the Book was founded in 1980 and is having one of its best years, said assistant manager David Thompson. The staff is especially adept at converting older titles into bestsellers—this year, they've handsold 200 copies of Cara Black's 2000 novel Murder in the Marais and some 500 copies of Paul Levine's Solomon vs. Lord, published in 2005. Thompson has even started his own publishing company, Busted Flush Press, to do reprints.

In the Houston suburbs, Blue Willow Books and Katy Budget Books have managed to survive despite the competitive crunch. Stacy Morris, public relations officer for Katy Budget Books, said that at 8,000 sq.-ft., her store can compete with the chains and has the advantage of selling used books along with new titles, much like Half Price and Hastings.

Still, Alice Meloy, senior bookseller at Blue Willow, believes that ultimately Texans are not pre-disposed to shopping at independent stores. “It's the bigger is better mentality,” she said.

One place where that mentality has had a significant impact is in the Big D—Dallas. Twenty-five years ago there were 25 independent stores in Dallas. Today, there are none. In January, the last of Dallas's independent bookstores—Shakespeare, Beethoven and Black Images Book Bazaar—shuttered.

In all, the ABA lists 66 member stores in Texas—a deceptive number, since 38 of those are Half Price locations. The CBA is far stronger, with 142 locations; but the largest bookseller by far is Wal-Mart, which has 423 stores in Texas, nearly twice as many as any other state. Niche stores, such as the Marfa Book Company, which specializes in art and architecture titles and is open only four days a week, and BookWoman in Austin (a feminist bookstore) also hang on, though in fewer numbers than in the past.

Austin, the state capitol, continues to have the strongest literary reputation, much of it attributable to BookPeople Bookstore. The store, which was named PW's 2005 Bookseller of the Year, has become a destination store for authors visiting the state. Sales, driven in part by the local population of 40,000 college students from the University of Texas, continue to thrive. “We're having the best year in the history of the store and don't see any reason that our sales won't increase every year as they have for the past decade,” said owner Steve Bercu.

While some people may equate the big-box dominance with a sign of literary dullness, many believe the chains are doing a fine job in Texas. Among them is Valerie Walley, Random House retail field sales divisional director for the South. Walley, who moved to Austin from San Francisco in 2006, said that she's “been favorably impressed with both the national accounts and the independent stores,” but nevertheless still believes there's potential to be mined in Texas. “Texas is a microcosm of the country because it's so big,” said Walley. “There's a long literary heritage and people love to buy the printed word. That also means there's a lot less emphasis on buying books electronically, so bookstores can do well. With the fast-growing population, I would expect to see even more stores open in the future.”

Walley may well be right. In the past two years, a handful of new stores have popped up across the state, including The Bookworm in Frisco, Berkman Books in Fredericksburg, A Thirsty Mind in Lakeway and Intellectual Property—a Follett-branded store—in Austin.

Tennessee Bookselling

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 10/22/2007

Cambridge University Press sales rep Robert Barnett admits that there are only a handful of bookstores he sells to in Tennessee. “I think of it as dominated by chains and Christian bookstores,” he said. According to the numbers, Barnett is correct: overall, Tennessee has 39 chain stores (including 10 Barnes & Nobles, 14 Books-A-Millions and 13 Borders) and 17 ABA stores.

There are also 49 CBA stores, and Nashville is home to the headquarters of the Cokesbury bookstore chain operated by the United Methodist Publishing House. Cokesbury has 71 locations across the U.S., of which four are in Tennessee.

Nashville may have a reputation based on its musical pedigree, but it also has a strong literary life and boasts the headquarters of numerous publishing companies (including Christian publishing juggernaut Thomas Nelson); the Southern Festival of Books (which switches between Nashville and Memphis annually); and BookPage, the book review newsletter produced in Nashville since 1984, cofounded by Roger Bishop—a now-retired former bookseller at both the University of Vanderbilt Bookstore and the Nashville location of Davis-Kidd Booksellers.

A part of the Cincinnati-based Joseph-Beth Group, the Nashville location is one of two Davis-Kidd stores remaining in the state; the other is in Memphis. Founded in 1980 by two social workers, Karen Davis and Thelma Kidd, the chain once had four stores in Tennessee. A Knoxville branch closed in 2000, while the other, in Jackson, closed in 2005. In 2005, a trio of former booksellers from the defunct Davis-Kidd Knoxville store regrouped and opened the highly regarded Carpe Librum book store.

Joel Tomlin opened Landmark Booksellers in 2004 in Franklin, a wealthy suburb of Nashville. Initially, Tomlin stocked his store with some 60,000 antiquarian and rare books purchased from Nashville's now-defunct Dad's Old Book Store. Lately, though, about 30% of his sales are new books, fueled in part by customers learning that he can get special orders to them faster than “One distinct advantage of being in Nashville is being close to Ingram,” said Tomlin. Ingram Book Group, the largest book distributor in the country, is located in nearby LaVergne. “So,” said Tomlin, “if I place a book order before 11 a.m., it's delivered the next morning. Customers love that.”

“One of my favorite accounts in Tennessee is Burke's Books in Memphis,” said Rebecca Roberts, sales rep for Houghton Mifflin. Opened in 1875, Burke's is one of the oldest bookstores in the country. “But,” said owner Corey Mesler, “the Internet, the decline in reading, the economy all combined to nearly sink us.” Mesler, who bought the store in 2000, sent out a plea for help.

Mesler said that the local Memphis newspaper Commercial Appeal added to his troubles when it cut most of its book coverage. “I'd like to say we're big readers, but without any book coverage in the local paper, it makes it difficult for us to get any publicity for our events.” (Mesler has experienced the neglect firsthand: his own novel, We Are Billion Year Old Carbon, published last year by Livingston Press, was never reviewed.)

In the end, well-wishers (including many authors) donated $20,000 to keep the store open. Now, ensconced in a new storefront in a bohemian neighborhood rife with foot traffic, Mesler said he's “feeling reinvigorated and optimistic for the first time in a long while.”

Just two years ago, Michelle Burcky, a former B&N bookseller, opened Cover to Cover Bookstore in the burgeoning Memphis suburb of Arlington. She said her 1,400-sq.-ft. store is “just big enough” and has thrived by catering to schools and to families. “It's important to have a niche,” she said. “We have four B&Ns and a Borders nearby, so it's not as if people don't have another place to shop.”

Texas Book Festivals adds a little pop

BOOKS: Austin event takes on a pop culture tone
12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, October 28, 2007
By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

Now in its 12th year, the annual Texas Book Festival in Austin is evolving from an event for literary swells into something more populist.

In addition to the usual literary lineup of national prominence (Jane Hamilton, Diane Ackerman, Judith Thurman, Joseph Ellis) and notable Texans (Kinky Friedman, Rick Riordan, Dagoberto Gilb, Shelby Hearon), the organizers of next weekend's festival have injected a pop culture element.

The last two years, the opening speakers in the state Capitol's House Chamber (the festival's premier venue) have been politicians, specifically Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but this year it is the best-selling thriller writer Michael Connelly. Later, Tom Perrotta reads in the House from his new novel, The Abstinence Teacher, which depicts suburban turf war between Christian evangelists and liberals.

It marks a change in the otherwise self-serious festival from only a few years ago, when writers of such a, well, democratic (with a lowercase "d") sensibility would have been unlikely candidates to appear in such an august forum.

Noting the changes, Texas Book Festival literary director Clay Smith acknowledged that politics have always been important to the festival – it was originally championed by former first lady of Texas Laura Bush. But, he said, the festival remains "a mutable creature that's based on what's being published each year around the country."

Publishing, like much else in the culture, has been transformed by television, and increasingly publishers are producing books purely for entertainment rather than edification. Pop books such as Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You!) outsell any of the National Book Award finalists by a ratio of approximately 1,000-to-1.

Unsurprisingly, some of the events in Austin are looking more and more like television brought to life. One example is the "Cooking Tent," which this year features Padma Lakshmi, hostess of Bravo reality series Top Chef. A new "Lifestyle Tent" is offering sessions covering diverse topics, from parenting to Texas wineries.

Even children will find themselves faced with printed byproducts of the big and small screens: Longtime Sesame Street regular Roscoe Orman ("Gordon") and Oscar winner Marlee Matlin will present their children's books, as will Rob Kidd, who has written a series of books based on Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

Does this all mean that literature – or, as Roy Blount Jr. (another 2007 festival attendee) calls it in Long Time Leaving, "stories that have no selling point" – is being edged out of the festival?

No. Numerous literary luminaries, such as George Saunders, Vendela Vida and Sherman Alexie will be there, but these are authors best known to fans of inside the book review sections, rather than those who simply glance over the best-seller lists.

Fans of literary fiction can take solace in that, starting next year, the Texas Book Festival is co-hosting a Spring Fiction Festival with the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. The first event is scheduled April 25-28.

And fans of politics will still find the politically connected likes of Jenna Bush, Kristin Gore, Lynne Cheney and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

There's a reason festivalgoers are more likely to get the likes of Ms. Lakshmi, Salman Rushdie's soon-to-be ex-wife, instead of Mr. Rushdie himself, who appeared in 2005: Many top-tier and even some midlist authors are demanding speaking fees to appear at large events. The most prestigious publisher in the land, Alfred A. Knopf, has even opened its own speaker's bureau to arrange such appearances.

The Texas Book Festival (one of the three or four largest in the country) operates as a nonprofit charity and does not pay honorariums, which often limits selections to authors with a new book and those who are still on tour. Increasingly, competition for authors may become even more intense, since booksellers from across the state, many of whom rely on author events to bring in customers, have begun complaining to publishers that the festival is absorbing much of the pool of authors touring Texas.

"We don't make an apology for having a lot of great talent. I do think that in many cases the festival is the engine for spreading authors around the state who would not otherwise make the trip," literary director Smith says.

Cyndi Hughes, who ran the festival from 1995 to 2004 and is now producing the Kansas Book Festival in Wichita, is glad to see the festival evolving.

"The purpose of the festival is to raise money for Texas public libraries," she said. "So the more people who come, more books get sold and more money gets raised. It's a win-win-win for everybody."

Another fan is Dallas novelist Will Clarke, who will be making the drive to Austin, where he'll be introducing Joshua Piven, creator of the best-selling series of The Worst-Case Scenario handbooks and author of Bad vs. Worse: The Ultimate Guide to Making Lose-Lose Decisions. "My favorite thing about the festival is meeting writers whose work I admire and getting them to sign my books," said Mr. Clarke. "I'm a book nerd and I always come back to Dallas with a trunk full of books."

That, ultimately, is the point.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

'The Braindead Megaphone': Humorist offers an antidote to quick-fire journalism

ESSAYS: Humorist's elegant essays are an antidote to quick-fire journalism
12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, September 23, 2007
By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

"Humor," George Saunders explains in his new essay collection, "is what happens when we're told the truth quicker and more directly than we're used to." Anyone who has read Mr. Saunders' hilarious short stories, subtle spoofs of modern consumer culture and workplace ennui, knows he's a keen observer of the human condition.

Over the course of five books, including the short story collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), Pastoralia (2000), and In Persuasion Nation (2006), Mr. Saunders has established a reputation as one of the most unique writers working today. And though you'll rarely hear him acknowledge it, he is a Texan: Born in Amarillo in 1958, he was trained as a petroleum engineer and worked as a knuckle-puller in a West Texas slaughterhouse.

In 2005, Mr. Saunders published a novella-length anti-war fable titled The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, in which he depicted members of the media as "squat little men with detachable megaphones growing out of their clavicles." That image reappears in the title essay of The Braindead Megaphone, an elegant dissection of the modern media.

Perhaps because he is originally a Texan, Mr. Saunders has a finely tuned B.S. detector. "Our venture in Iraq was a literary failure, by which I mean a failure of imagination," he writes. The media, "has become bottom-dwelling, shrill, incurious, and agenda-driven," with its authority predicated on its "volume and omnipresence" rather than intelligence or informed worldview.

The rest of the volume serves as a kind of corrective to the type of quick-fire journalism he derides. Among the most memorable pieces are a trio of thoughtful travelogues covering a junket to Dubai, a trip to the Buddhist temples of Nepal and a drive along the U.S.-Mexico border in the midst of the immigration debate. In Del Rio, he spends a fruitless night with a group of feckless "Minutemen" (some of whom turn out to be, paradoxically, Houston Renaissance Festival devotees) patrolling "a few hundred yards of border, on one small ranch, in the huge state of Texas." They are, he kids, "a tiny patch of Catcher in a thousand miles of Rye."

Mr. Saunders' literary appreciations, covering writers such as Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain, are also noteworthy. And his explication of Houstonian Donald Barthelme's short story "The School" is one of the rare pieces of literary criticism that actually explains how good writing works.

In addition to being a superb fiction writer, Mr. Saunders has proven to be a surprisingly empathetic and able essayist as well.

Edward Nawotka is a Houston freelance writer.

Mixed Reviews for Revamped SIBA

By Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 10/3/2007 6:51:00 AM

Wanda Jewell, executive director of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, gambled with the schedule of this year’s trade show, moving exhibition hours from daytime to 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Saturday evening, with an additional three hours on Sunday morning, from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Thursday was taken up with bus tours to area bookstores; Friday featured bookseller education sessions; and Saturday morning and afternoon were consumed with rep picks and author panels.

Reaction to the revised show hours was mixed. Michael Persons, a bookseller at Alabama Booksmith in Birmingham, Ala., was especially pleased with the free beer and canapés that were proffered by tuxedoed staff. “Who knows, if the booksellers drink enough, it might just open up their pocketbooks,” quipped Persons. Booksellers like Tom Vail, owner of Corner Bookstore in Winder, Ga., said he was perfectly content to wander the aisles at night—that is until about 8 p.m., when the 12-hour day started catching up with Vail and nearly all the other booksellers, propelling them away from the exhibit hall and up to the restaurants or their rooms.

The majority of vendors surveyed by PW remained dubious about the hours change. Don Morrison, owner of the Morrison Sales Group, said that he was so doubtful aboutthe new arrangement that he reduced the number of his exhibition tables from 14 to three. Asked on Sunday whether he made the right decision, he said, “Yes, I believe I did.” Steven Wallace, director of sales for Unbridled Books, said that he admired SIBA’s effort to try new things, but added, “This particular experiment doesn’t need to be repeated. “ A few publishers were won over. One fan was Ginger Tucker, assistant marketing manager at University of Mississippi Press, who said she was “skeptical at first, but happy with the overall traffic.” Overall, SIBA reported nearly 1,300 people attended the show, including some 579 exhibitors, 532 booksellers, 105 authors.

On Friday, SIBA presented its annual book awards. Winners included Charles Frazier for his novel Thirteen Moons and Amy Sedaris for her party guide I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence. Starting next year, the awards will no longer be presented at the conference but at the Decatur Book Festival—held over Labor Day weekend in the Atlanta suburb.

Initially, administrators announced that the winners would henceforth be selected by a jury of book critics and journalists and not SIBA members. After protests from SIBA members, booksellers were also added to the panel picking winners. Daren Wang, executive director of the Decatur Book Festival, said yesterday that the exact composition of the jury was still to be determined. Finalists will continue to be nominated exclusively by SIBA booksellers.