Monday, November 26, 2007

BookWoman fights to keep site

By Edward Nawotka
Monday, November 26, 2007

In early November, on the same weekend Austin was celebrating two book festivals — the Texas Book Festival and the Austin Jewish Book Festival — Susan Post, the owner of Austin's BookWoman book store, quietly announced that she needed to raise $25,000 by last week if she hoped to pay off debt and keep the store open. The store would need another $25,000 by Christmas to pay for the down payment on a new lease and the installation of new store fixtures. The store, which has been located at West 12th Street and North Lamar Boulevard for the past 13 years, loses its lease Feb. 1.

Post's plea wasn't ignored. Well-wishers from across the country have donated money via the store's fundraising Web site,, and bought books via the store's Web site. Post says she's already raised some $20,000, $5,000 of which came from a small group of anonymous supporters.

"I'm optimistic that we'll make our goal," she says. "Little angels have always fallen out of the sky to help me along the way."

BookWoman is one of about 15 remaining feminist bookstores in the U.S. and the only one in Texas. Opened in 1975 by a dozen women who pooled $500 in seed money, the store was first opened in an abandoned storefront at 21st and Guadalupe streets, opposite the University of Texas, that had been firebombed in a drug feud. Originally called the Common Woman Bookstore Collective, the store's name derived from a famous feminist poem by Judy Grahan that reads, in part, "a common woman is as common as a common loaf of bread/and will rise."

Post, who was then working as a clerk at the Perry-Castañeda Library at UT, was recruited to work in the store because of her knowledge of books. She would rush from her job at UT at noon and open the doors at 12:15 and sell books until 6 p.m.

"After the first year, the separatist half of the collective left," recalls Post. Shortly thereafter, Post was virtually running the store single-handedly on a salary of $50 a week, donated by the remaining members of the collective; when money got tighter, she moved the store into her home at 1510 San Antonio St.

A native of New Jersey who spent her teen years in San Francisco, Post moved to Texas in 1964 and enrolled at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches to study painting. It was East Texas that radicalized her:

"I wanted to be a beatnik, but the people I met in college wore white bobby socks, black suede loafers, teased their hair and wanted to be Kilgore Rangerettes," she says. "At the time, Nacogdoches was still a segregated town, and it was easy to see all the prejudice that existed in the world."

Post still considers the late U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland a hero for his work to integrate Nacogdoches. A visit to Austin during her sophomore year of college convinced her that the capital better suited her disposition and politics.

The store made the transition from a nonprofit into a for-profit business in 1980, when Post moved the store from her home into a new location at 324 E. Sixth St. (now the Iron Cactus). The landlord rented the space on one condition: that Post and her new partner in the store, Karen Umminger, change the name.

"He said he didn't want to walk out of his own storefront across the street and see the original name, which offended him," Post says.

The first name they settled on was BookWomen: everywoman's book shop, but a linguist suggested that the use of the plural "women" was threatening, and it was later changed to "BookWoman."

Austin author Spike Gillespie discovered BookWoman in 1988, while on a cross-country trip.

"A feminist bookstore? I had no idea such a thing could exist," says Gillespie, "I have always said that having BookWoman here really factored into my decision to move to Austin permanently."

The first feminist bookstore in the U.S. was the Amazon Bookstore Collective in Minneapolis, Minn., which opened in 1970, and while the phenomenon might be considered primarily something of the 1970s and '80s, the number of stores peaked in 1993 with 124 women's bookstores across the country. The dissolution started soon thereafter.

"It didn't take long for women's books to get picked up by the mainstream," says Kristin Hogan, a professor at Louisiana State University who was inspired by a stint working at BookWoman in the late 1990s to write her doctoral thesis at UT on the history of the feminist bookstore movement. "Stores started closing as the titles were incorporated into bookstore superstore inventories; today, every Barnes & Noble and Borders has a big women's section."

Hogan, who later went on to manage the Toronto Women's Bookstore, says that as a graduate student lecturer at UT, she made it a point to bring her students to BookWoman to see writers in person. These ranged from Sharon Bridgforth to Alice Walker.

"Many of my students had never been to a literary reading, and it was really exciting for them to see how an author engages with an audience," says Hogan.

Writer Marion Winik praises BookWoman for supporting her from the beginning of her career and, in particular, for hosting some of her favorite events.

"When my book 'Telling' came out in 1994, we had a book party at the Acropolis nightclub downtown," recalls Winik. "They had a fabulous bathroom — all red velvet and couches — so Susan Post decided to sell books in the bathroom."

BookWoman moved to its present location in 1993, occupying a space previously held by Hill Country Weavers.

"This little mall held a lot of iconic Austin businesses, including Vulcan Video and Eclectic," says Post, "But the times are a-changin' and now we have high-end boutique clothing stores moving in."

The past few years haven't been easy on the store. Construction on North Lamar Boulevard reduced foot and driving traffic, while competition from the Internet proved fierce. As a consequence, BookWoman has struggled to attract a new generation of customers. Some potential customers still mistakenly believe the store is exclusively for feminists or lesbians, but a more common reaction is similar to that of Lindsay Franklin, a mother of two young children, who says "I'm reassured to know BookWoman is still there, but I'm also genuinely embarrassed to admit that I haven't shopped there in years. When I was a student it was important to me, but I don't live near downtown anymore, and with the demands on my time, I don't buy many books, and the few I do, I am ashamed to admit, I pick up while running errands at Target."

Franklin needn't be embarrassed: A majority of women spoken to for this article expressed much the same sentiment.

Ultimately BookWoman's greatest service to Austin is not as a bookstore, but as a lodestone for likeminded people. When Carol Petrucci moved to Austin three years ago from Madison, Wis. — a town that has its own women's bookstore, A Room of One's Own — she sensed that BookWoman would offer her kinship. Petrucci has since made the store a part of her life as a regular at its monthly book club.

"The women in the book group are really intelligent, diverse in age, sexual orientation, and read books that wouldn't insult me," says Petrucci. "I used to buy more books online, but after joining the group and making friends with Susan and realizing that's how she made her living, I changed my shopping habits. The store is the centerpiece of an important community of women here, and I would hate to see it go away."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

As Speakers' Bureaus Grow, Booksellers Cast Wary Eye

Publishers' in-house units are a boon to authors, but booksellers worry about impact on tours

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 11/12/2007

One of the most surprising revelations to emerge from Dead Certain, Robert Draper's new bio of President George W. Bush, was that the president plans to make his post–White House fortune on the speaking circuit. Perhaps he can join his daughter Jenna, whose children's book, Ana's Story, has become a bestseller and who has just signed up to be a client with the in-house speakers' bureau at her publisher, HarperCollins. “It's a vote of confidence for us that she didn't go with an outside firm,” said HarperCollins speakers' bureau director Jamie Brickhouse.

When it started its speakers' bureau in 2005, HarperCollins was at the vanguard of a trend. In the past two years, Knopf has opened an in-house bureau, as has Penguin. Currently, the number of authors each bureau represents ranges from 50 or so at Knopf to 100 each at Penguin and HarperCollins. In addition to the three in-house bureaus, Random House has an exclusive relationship with American Program Bureau, and Hachette Book Group USA is currently in discussions with an outside agency, according to spokesperson April Hattori. “We think it's a great idea and an opportunity to expand the exposure for our authors,” she said. “We've been working on it for a while and hope to finalize something soon.”

Publishers are moving into representing their authors as professional speakers at a time when traditional outlets to present authors to a wider public—in particular, book review sections—are eroding. “If there's a pruning at the top, there's growth at the bottom,” said Paul Bogaards, executive v-p of publicity at Knopf, who started the Knopf speakers' bureau in January 2006. “We're trying to extend the life of books beyond the six-month window that a publicist typically works on a book,” he said.

While publishing sales are generally flat, speakers' bureaus represent a growth area. “We're growing at a rate of about 30% per year,” said Brickhouse of his division at HarperCollins. This ultimately leads to more money added to the bottom line: Knopf and HarperCollins take 20% of a speaker's fee, which typically ranges from $5,000 to $7,500, but can balloon to six figures for a celebrity author.

The reasons an author might stay in-house with a publisher for arranging speaking engagements, rather than going with a well-established speaker's bureau, are varied. For many, it is about the money: where typical speaker's agents might charge a commission of anywhere from 25%–33%, the in-house agencies represent a discount. Some authors, like Douglas Brinkley, view staying in-house as a convenience. “The HarperCollins speakers' bureau has been truly amazing,” he said. “Because I'm considered an in-house historian—one who has written my last five books for them—the bureau seems hyper-committed to booking me around the country at festivals and lecture halls.” Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked, said he finds it useful to be represented by the HarperCollins speakers bureau because it serves as a filter for offers. And for others, it's about taking advantage of exotic opportunities: Gay Talese recently traveled to Bogota, Colombia, to participate in a book festival—an appearance organized by the Knopf speakers' bureau. Penguin has arranged for John Perkins, author of The Secret History of the American Empire, to go to Panama.

Those who are benefiting most of all are the midlist writers. Julie Otsuka, author of the 2002 novel When the Emperor Was Divine, credits the Knopf speakers' bureau with bolstering her career a full five years after her novel was published. “They've enabled me to do nothing else but write—when I'm not speaking, that is—and have helped me build an audience for my next book,” she said. Knopf keeps her busy: earlier this month, Otsuka had four events scheduled at various California colleges and libraries in a four-day span.

Still, the in-house bureaus are not beloved by all. Some booksellers, in particular, feel threatened and expressed concern that this may be a harbinger of the eventual demise of the free book tour, on which so many depend to draw in customers. Bogaards bristled at the idea: “This augments, and does not replace, the traditional author tour, which is not going away.”

Despite such assurances, bookstores remain suspicious that publishers may be siphoning off their best authors to event managers willing to pay generous honoraria. “To be honest,” said Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, “we don't know all the events in our area that publishers set up. If it turns out they are arranging events and using their special sales department to sell books, thus excluding booksellers—all booksellers, indies and chains—from having an opportunity [to] participat[e] in that, it's a distressing trend. One instance where that happens isn't bothersome, but when you add it all up, it is definitely a problem.”

At the University of Washington Bookstore, event coordinator Stesha Brandon said she isn't threatened by the events she knows the in-house bureaus are arranging in the Seattle area. “Often, the events they set up are different from our own, or else we'll partner with them to sell books.”

Jane Moser, manager of the Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Tex., said, “Sometimes, the publishers will come to me with a big-name author, but since we have a small store, I will set them up with an outside organization, like the World Affairs Council, who can accommodate a bigger audience.” Booksellers receive a cut of the overall fee—5% from HarperCollins; 10% from Knopf—as a commission when they help set up an event. One of Brazos's outside partners is Houston's popular Inprint Brown Reading Series. Director of the series Rich Levy books nearly two dozen speakers per year, some of whom come for free and as part of their tour, while others receive an honorarium.

“The fact that we're willing to pay ensures our audience gets to see authors the publishers would not otherwise be willing to send to Texas,” Levy explained. “At the same time, my main concern is that publishers will move away from touring authors to a model where organizations like my own will exclusively be asked to pay.” Though he's had longstanding relationships with several outside speakers' bureaus, he's yet to work with an in-house agency. “I just hope that if publishers are doing this themselves, they keep the fees reasonable,” said Levy. “In the 12 years I've been in this position, I've seen the fees quadruple. The reason we get good audiences is that we still charge the same as we did in 1995—often just $5 a person—and if the prices go up further, I may be forced to pass along that expense.”

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Austin’s BookWoman in Jeopardy, Texas Book Fest a Success

By Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 11/6/2007 1:02:00 PM

On the same weekend Austin, Tex., played host to a pair of annual book festivals—the Texas Book Festival and the Austin Jewish Book Festival—the city’s venerable BookWoman bookstore announced it will close unless it is able to raise $50,000 before mid-December. The store, which opened in December 1974, is one of the last dozen remaining feminist bookstores in the country.

“We need the money to cover existing debt and to pay for the down payment and build-out for a new store,” said Susan Post. “Our lease is up in January, and though we only need 1,100 to 1,200 square feet, Austin’s booming economy has put most retail locations in the city center out of reach.”

The store launched a fund-raising campaign at and was selling T-shirts with the site address on the back at the Texas Book Festival. “We had so many friends and well-wishers stop by our booth at the Book Festival that I was encouraged,” said Post. “Sales of shirts and books at the festival were great—these are often the best days of book sales we have each year.”

“Little angels have fallen out of the sky to help me along the way,” she said, adding that the store has already raised a “quarter” of its goal.

Elsewhere at the Texas Book Festival, a roster of more than 209 authors, scholars and musicians entertained the crowds.

Festival literary director Clay Smith told PW that this year the festival, which is known for having heavy-hitting political panels and speakers, had this year opted to emphasize fun and humor. Stars appearing included first daughter Jenna Bush—a graduate of the local University of Texas—who read from her new children’s book, Ana’s Story; homegrown hero Marcus Luttrell, whose Lone Survivor topped this summer’s nonfiction bestseller list, who appeared on a panel; and NPR personality and writer Roy Blount Jr., who gave numerous talks.

“We were initially concerned that since we didn’t have a Barack Obama or a Bill Clinton, fewer people might come,” said Smith. “But the numbers look to be about the same as last year—which was more than 40,000 people—and book sales appear to be about the same.”

In previous years, Barnes & Noble had shared responsibility for book sales with Borders, but this year was the sole official bookseller. Sales at the festival routinely top $100,000, with a portion returned to the festival and subsequently donated to Texas public libraries. Other retailers on hand included Amarillo-based Hastings (which has no store in Austin, but four in surrounding towns), and Intellectual Property bookstore, which is owned by Follett.

The Austin Jewish Book Festival, which lasts through November 11, kicked off with a presentation by a freshly shaved A.J. Jacobs, who discussed his latest experiment as a human guinea pig, The Year of Living Biblically.

Authors Lose Air Time as Writers Strike

By Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 11/8/2007 10:23:00 AM

The Hollywood writer’s strike has reverberated in the halls of New York publishing, in particular with the suspension of production of the late night talk shows that have become integral to launching a book to a national audience.

This week Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart had interviews scheduled with Karen Greenberg, author of The Torture Debate in America (Cambridge Univ. Press), Robert Reich, author of Supercapitalism (Knopf), CNN talking head Lou Dobbs, author of Independents Day (Viking), and former UN Ambassador John Bolton, author of Surrender Is Not an Option (Threshold). No interviews have made it on air. And The Colbert Report planned to interview David Levy, author of Love And Sex With Robots, AJ Jacobs author of The Year Of Living Biblically, and radio producer David Isay, author Listening Is An Act Of Love.

“For the right author, they are the gold standard,” said Lisa Johnson, v-p executive director of publicity and marketing for Dutton and Gotham. Gotham author Jared Cohen was scheduled to appear next Monday on The Colbert Report to talk about his book Children of Jihad. “It is his first book and getting him booked on Colbert was a coup.”

Johnson pointed out that Stewart and Colbert’s shows are not the only late night gab fests that hosted authors: The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson is also known for promoting books. Johnson’s author Jenny McCarthy, whose latest book is Louder than Words, had an appearance cancelled this week due to the strike.

“It’s not as if our business is going to collapse,” said Paul Bogaards, executive director of publicity at Knopf. “But we publicists are desperate to get our authors in front of readers and these are lost opportunities, especially as we enter the holiday shopping season.”

"We go through this all the time," added Johnson. "There's always something in the news to contend with, either politics, a natural disaster, a war," said Johnson. "It's rarer when it doesn't happen."

Monday, November 05, 2007

A conversation with Roy Blount Jr.

The esteemed Southern humorist explains how Texas is (and isn't) part of the South and how Austin is (and isn't) part of Texas.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

'Humor,' writes George Saunders in his new essay collection 'The Braindead Megaphone,' 'is what happens when we're told the truth quicker and more directly than we're used to.' Nowhere is that definition more apt than in the work of Roy Blount Jr., who, like Saunders, will be appearing at this weekend's Texas Book Festival.

Blount has become, over the course of his 40-year career, a kind of national mascot for the clichéd curmudgeonly Southern writer. It's a self-conscious role he's been willing to play, much in the same way Garrison Keillor plays a Northern country rube on "A Prairie Home Companion," only to undermine the stereotype. Here's a guy who doesn't like NASCAR; tosses off knowing references to Voltaire, Emmanuel Kant and Edmund Husserl (often on the same page); and has lived in New England for most of his adult life — though he's retained his Georgia accent.

"One difference between Garrison's franchise and mine," says Blount, "is that nobody on a national, much less international, level knew about bachelor Norwegian farmers and Midwestern Lutherans and lutefisk until he came along. Everybody already thought they knew about Southern stuff when I came along. Also, he can sing. I wish to hell I could sing."

Ironically, Blount wasn't born in the South, but in Indianapolis in 1941, though he was raised in the Atlanta suburb Decatur and attended Vanderbilt University (a proud Southern institution if there ever was one). He then moved to New York City in the late '60s and has since divided his time between there and the Yankee stronghold of Western Massachusetts. His expatriate existence, he writes in his collection of essays, "Long Time Leaving: Dispatches from Up South," entails explaining to people that "y'all" is always second person plural (not singular) and "trying to get Aunt Dixie and Uncle Sam on speaking terms."

Blount was scheduled to be one of the headliners at the Book Festival's opening night gala Friday, participate in Saturday's Molly Ivins tribute and today will read from "Long Time Leaving" and co-host the festival's debut "Define-A-Thon," which promises to "separate the vocabulary geniuses from the vocabulary wannabes." (Blount's co-host Steve Kleinedler, a lexicographer with the American Heritage Dictionary, is said to have a phonetic vowel chart tattooed on his shoulder — which sounds like the punch line of a Blount joke.)

"I always loved coming to Austin for music and high times in the '70s, and now I enjoy coming to it for the food and the countryside and to see my sister, Susan," says Blount. "As I am not the only person to have observed, Austin is not like the rest of Texas. Of course, you could probably say the same about Abilene or Amarillo, but I like the ways in which Austin is unlike the rest of Texas, and I even like the ways in which it is, in my eyes at least, thoroughly Texan."

It's tempting to suggest that Blount is a modern-day Mark Twain, but the comparison doesn't rate. First, Blount seems less inclined toward get-rich-quick schemes and taking on debt. Second, of Blount's 20 books, only one (1990's "First Hubby") is a novel and one of his best is about ... football. "About Three Bricks Shy of a Load: A Highly Irregular Lowdown on the Year the Pittsburgh Steelers Were Super but Missed the Bowl," was written in 1974 and remains among the finest books about the sport ever written. Twain wrote about frog races.

Blount is best known — aside from his regular gig on the NPR quiz show "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" — as the editor of "Roy Blount's Book of Southern Humor," which made him the de facto expert on the topic of joke telling south of the Mason-Dixon line. That book includes a contribution from Edgar Allen Poe, so we know he considers Maryland to be part of the South. How about Texas?

"Texas is Texas," he said, "When I edited an anthology of Southern humor, I included several Texans — Molly Ivins, Dan Jenk ins — because I wanted to. But there are differences, of course. When I was growing up in Georgia, we were cowboys until we were maybe 11, but after that we moved on."

Blount, an "avowed non-Republican" — because "Democrats are bad enough" — has, like many other great humorists, found that politics provides some of his best material. In "The Story So Far," the tour-de-force essay that closes "Long Time Leaving," he offers a faux-epic lineage of modern American presidents as seen from the perspective of a Southern liberal.

It starts with John F. Kennedy, "A Hero of the North," who was "martyred in Texas" only to be followed by "The Texan" (Johnson), then the "Dark-Jowled Embodiment of Evil" (Nixon, who was brought down by the "Hero Storytellers, Sir Woodward and Sir Bernstein"). The Georgian (Carter) begets the Aged Genial One (Reagan) who is followed by the Sidekick (George H.W. Bush) and his Glorious War Story in the Televised Sky (Gulf War I). He is succeeded by the Arkansan (Clinton) and finally by the Knothead (George W.) and his war to Vanquish the Evil Ones.

The "Knothead" coinage is vintage Blount: It evokes Bush's convoluted thought processes (if his speech patterns are any indication) and his heels-in-the-ground stubbornness ("knot" being a homophone for "not!").

In a mere two syllables, Blount manages to deploy the verbal and the aural aspects of language to capture two essential characteristics of his subject. It's an efficient bit of word play — the very essence of the nimble sort of truth-telling that George Saunders values so highly.