Monday, July 21, 2008

To Woof or Not to Woof? 'The Story of Edgar Sawtelle' by David Wroblewski: Best-selling boy-and-his-dog story has parallels to 'Hamlet'

By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning New

There's something rotten in the state of Wisconsin.

David Wroblewski draws on disparate literary influences (Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh, Kipling's The Jungle Book and most notably Shakespeare's Hamlet) for a family saga set in the early 1970s in rural Wisconsin. The result, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, is exemplary.

Fourteen-year-old Edgar is mute. Together with his father, Gar, and mother, Trudy, they breed "Sawtelle" dogs, precious, intelligent working animals, on their farm. Gar whelps the pups, Trudy (nee Gertrude) trains them and young Edgar names them with the help of a dictionary. Edgar's constant canine companion is Almondine, a creature who "simply worried whenever the boy was out of her sight," and becomes his guardian, of sorts.

The appearance of Edgar's uncle Claude (nee Claudius), following a 20-year absence, leads to the inevitable: murder most foul, strange and unnatural.

Subsequently, with Trudy in mourning, Edgar succumbs to anger, doubt and brooding and eventually absconds into the woods with a trio of dogs, all the while fomenting a plan to confront Claude.

That this book has become a national best-seller is no surprise; it is a about a boy and his dog, after all. (Marley & Me, anyone?) Yet it is not the most likely candidate for best-seller-dom: It is long (556 pages), leisurely (it takes more than 250 pages before parallels to Hamlet lock in place), it is set during an unfashionable period (the 1970s) in the middle of nowhere with a main character who is handicapped. So why has it resonated with so many readers?

The novel, as a form, is an old dog trying to learn a new trick. It has been struggling to find a way to entice an audience among people more accustomed to the short, addictive snippets of the Internet and the nonstop cacophony of television. What Mr. Wroblewski has done here with mute Edgar is produce a character that physically mirrors our own experience sitting in front of the television or the computer screen.

We can see and hear, but we can't talk back. Edgar can write and sign, as well as hear, but he cannot talk. We, like Edgar, are forced to be observers and thinkers, the perfect state for reading.

Theories aside, Mr. Wroblewski, a software designer who once lived in Austin, has done one verifiable thing: He's produced one of the most charming and absorbing novels this year, one in which even the digressions, about dog breeding or Midwestern electrical storms, prove interesting.

This is a book for long summer nights on the mythical porch swing to be read in the dying light. When you do read it, savor it, for treats like this are rare indeed.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Houston's Brazos Launches $1,000 Loyalty Program

By Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 7/17/2008 7:17:00 AM

In 2006, more than a dozen investors contributed a minimum of $10,000 each to purchase Houston’s Brazos Bookstore.

“Since then,” said manager Jane Moser, “I’ve had so many customers come up to me and say they would have liked to have been able to invest in the store themselves. Of course, we can’t do that now so we’re doing something different.”

This week Brazos introduced a new multi-level loyalty program. Dubbed “Friends of Brazos,” annual membership starts at the $50 “Manuscript Level,” which bestows an invitation to one private author event, an evening with publishers' sales reps previewing forthcoming titles, and 20% off any in stock title four times a year. Subsequent levels, including “Paperback Level” ($150) and Hardcover Level ($500), offer more private functions, such as author dinners, and additional discounts. Membership tops out at the “First Edition Level” which costs $1,000 and offers, in addition to other benefits, a ticket to the UP Experience (a day-long seminar held in Houston in February that features featuring 20 speakers and is modeled on the TED [Technology Enterntainment Design] conference). “We can’t compete nose to nose with the chains on discounts, so we’re doing something different,” said Moser.

Asked if customers might balk at the idea of a $1,000 loyalty membership, Moser acknowledged that it might seem like a lot, “until one realizes The First Edition level is actually a bargain, considering a ticket to the UP Experience alone costs $1,000.”

The intention is to boost revenue while simultaneously making customers, quite literally, more invested in shopping in the store. “It’s a tough business,” said Moser. “We think anyone who becomes a Friend of Brazos is getting a lot for their money. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

Monday, July 14, 2008

Bookazine's Book Buddies

-- Publishers Weekly, 7/14/2008

If the Book Buddies had a theme song, it could be James Taylor's hit “You've Got a Friend.” The semi-formal group of booksellers organized by Ron Rice, sales manager of Bookazine, and Eileen Dengler, executive director of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, has so far convened twice at bookstores for a walk-through and store critique, followed by a lunch to talk through issues facing new booksellers and their stores.

“The group was formed with the idea of sharing concepts and techniques, as well as to foster friendships among booksellers and encourage a feeling of solidarity,” explained Rice. “It's important on a grassroots level for local booksellers to talk to each other.” Donna Fell, who took over ownership of Sparta Books in Sparta, N.J., last November, received the first Buddies visit in February. It was, said Fell, “perfect timing.”

“When I bought the store, the previous owner just handed me the keys and said, 'phone if you have any questions,' ” recalled Fell, “I was brand new to bookselling and owning my own business, so meeting the Book Buddies made me feel like I wasn't so crazy after all.”

One of the Buddies, Jason Rice, Bookazine buyer/sales rep, solicited publishers to provide marketing materials and posters on Fell's behalf. Others offered advice on everything from making best use of the ABA to how to host a story time for children. “It was the best experience I could have asked for,” Fell said.

The Book Buddies include booksellers, store owners and journalists, most of who work in the New York/Philadelphia/Washington, D.C., corridor. The second gathering of the Buddies took place June 13 at the recently opened Idlewild Books in New York City. Idlewild owner David Del Vecchio called the group “helpful and solution oriented,” and added, “We made numerous changes based on things they said, such as adding shelftalkers and some additional signage, and using smaller tables for displays.”

Rice intends to plan further Book Buddies outings in the future, though none are as yet scheduled. In addition, Rice would like to expand the program to other parts of the country, and has spoken with Wanda Jewell of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (where Rice is on the advisory council) about doing something further south.

Margo Sage-El, owner of Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, N.J., said what she most appreciates about her outings with the Book Buddies is the opportunity to pass along some of her own hard-earned wisdom: “When I first bought my bookstore, I worked in a vacuum, except for visits from publishers reps, who I would always bug for information about other stores. So my feeling about the Book Buddies is, if anyone can learn from my struggle, that's great.”

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Betting, and winning, on indie publishing

Clint Greenleaf & Meg La Borde

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 7/7/2008

You might call Clint Greenleaf, president and CEO of Greenleaf Book Group, a betting man. In March, he was sitting in the Fox News studio in Austin, Tex., serving as a commentator on the Fox Business Network's morning business roundup, when he saw his opportunity to win a longstanding wager. “A friend bet me when I started this gig that I would never be able to refer to Al Sharpton and the Ukrainian Orange Revolution in the same sentence on national TV,” says Greenleaf, a glint in his eye. He walks over to the iMac in his office and pulls up a clip of himself doing just that. (The son of a Ukrainian immigrant, Greenleaf speaks fluent Ukrainian.)

In fact, it was a bet that set him off on his current career. “I was 22, just out of college and working at Deloitte and Touche in Cleveland, when someone said to me, 'Clint, you don't seem so smart. How is it you're working as an accountant?' I told him, 'I dress the part: I wear a tie and shine my shoes.' 'Okay,' the guy says, 'if you're so smart, then why don't you write a book about it.' ”

The resulting self-published book, photocopied at a Kinko's, was Attention to Detail: A Gentleman's Guide to Professional Appearance and Conduct. Attention was eventually picked up by Adams Media, sold 12,000 copies and drew the attention of the Wall Street Journal. As a byproduct of finding distribution for the book, Greenleaf left accounting and opened his eponymous company in his parents' garage.

Meg La Borde was living in Austin working as a book publicist for Phenix & Phenix when Greenleaf phoned her about a book. When she asked Greenleaf what he did, he replied, “What do you need?”

“I had just gotten in some good self-published books that needed distribution, so I asked him if he did that,” she recalls. “I expected it would take months to set something up, and then he told me, '24 hours.' He called back in five hours to say it was all arranged through Ingram.”

Soon the two were collaborating on various projects, and lured by the youth and entrepreneurial spirit of Austin, Greenleaf decided to move operations from Cleveland to Texas in 2004. Today, Greenleaf Book Group employs 25 people—including La Borde, who serves as the company's chief operations officer—and is publishing 80–100 titles per year, using a collaborative model whereby the author pays for publication, and Greenleaf is responsible for production, distribution and marketing.

Greenleaf estimates revenue for 2008 will hit $8 million; in 2006, Inc. magazine listed Greenleaf among its 500 fastest-growing companies

The move to Austin has enabled the company to retain and attract talented staff. “We get résumés from people at big houses in New York begging to be hired just so they can move to Austin,” says Greenleaf. “It's the lifestyle we have here that's most appealing.”

Asked if he plans to write another book, Greenleaf demurs. Over the past year, he's been blogging about entrepreneurship for “I may turn that into another book at some point,” he says, admitting that he has other priorities, including his 14-month-old daughter, Suzie. (Greenleaf's wife is an attorney and not involved in the business).

At the moment, Greenleaf is focused on publishing other writers, and has lofty goals for his company. “I think we can reach $100 million per year,” he says. That's not stopping him from launching other businesses. His latest project is, a company that helps publishing companies pay to plant new trees to replace those cut to produce paper for books. “We need to plant 20 to 60 to cover the print run for each new book we publish,” he says. “Starting this new company is the least thing I can do for my daughter.”

Larry McMurtry's 'Books': rambling, disorganized, dull

The 'Lonesome Dove' author leads us through a disappointing tour of his life as a bookseller

Sunday, July 06, 2008

In his new memoir "Books" — an account of his more than 50-year career as a "bookman" — Larry McMurtry states that "the antiquarian book trade is an anecdotal culture." To wit, I start thusly: In my 20s, I spent a summer working for an antiquarian book-seller. It was a prestigious place, just off Boston's posh Newbury Street, run by a married pair of blue-blood WASPs who hired their interns from Harvard and — in those pre-Internet times — researched the provenance of any book they didn't have immediate knowledge of by going down to the Boston Athenaeum, a members-only library dating back to 1807.

When I wasn't photocopying pages from yellowing Christie's auction catalogs to send to prospective clients, I was massaging conditioner into the cracked spines of old leatherbound books or carefully pulling a book from a high shelf for a customer to peruse while wearing the white gloves we provided for just such a purpose.

It was a heady experience for a book lover. The highlight of my time there was the day Umberto Eco, author of "The Name of the Rose," walked into the store, announcing, "I am Umberto Eco!" to no one in particular.

Of course, any sales job requires a propensity for fabrication, exaggeration and distraction. The owners of the store boasted that they were the dealer of record for the private library of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science Church, which was true. What they were less likely to mention was that the majority of the company's profit was made trading in Victorian erotica, much of it slip-cased in purple velvet, and providing throwaway books (Thomas Hardy was a favorite) to interior designers who would have the leather covers dyed to match the décor of a client's house.

Yes, there once was a time when antiquarian bookselling was a trade practiced by wizened men and women with vast repositories of rare knowledge and a list of people in their head eager to pay hefty sums for hard-to-find volumes.

Now, the Internet has rendered much of the mystery of antiquarian bookselling — the specifics of buying and pricing — an open secret, and the barrier to entry is low enough and knowledge of the value of books so general that nearly anyone who wants to get into the game can. There are still high-end dealers such as Glenn Horowitz, who has brokered recent acquisitions at the University of Texas' Ransom Center and Texas State University's Southwestern Writers Center, but if you want something less exclusive, all you need to do is log onto eBay or drive over to the Half-Price Books on North Lamar Boulevard.

These thoughts and memories came to mind when I picked up "Books." Like myself, McMurtry was introduced to antiquarian books when he was a student, albeit one at Rice University in the late 1950s. And while my experience as a "bookman" was brief, McMurtry has lived a dual life as book dealer and writer for nearly six decades.

The first book he acquired for his personal library was a "lovely two-volume nineteenth-century 'Anatomy of Melancholy,' in calf with morocco labels," for which, he dutifully reports, he paid $7.50 to Ted Brown, owner of Brown's Book Shop. That book formed the foundation of a personal library that now amounts to some 28,000 volumes — about the same number of books contained in a typical Barnes & Noble; it's merely a fraction of the 300,000 books he has on offer at Booked Up, his bookstore in Archer City, near Wichita Falls.

"Books: A Memoir" is what McMurtry describes as "a hasty account of my life in books" and amounts to a paean to the accumulation of those volumes. It offers sometimes detailed, sometimes vague and, yes, sometimes hasty recollections about the acquisition of everything from individual volumes to entire libraries — most of them from long-gone book dealers of yesteryear.

Like many of the bookshops it describes, it is rambling and disorganized. It is also inexcusably dull.

Here's a writer who in his long life has accumulated anecdotes in the same way he accumulates books — did you know that Thomas Pynchon lived near the Houston Ship Channel in the 1960s? — yet hasn't bothered to shape them into a narrative. He merely rambles like an old man on a porch swing with an endless supply of lemonade to keep him lubricated and lugubrious.

One random five-page stretch (pages 93-98) finds him ranging from Houston, where he worked in a now defunct store called The Bookman; to the story of how he got his first literary agent, Dorothea Oppenheimer; to the auction of the Washington, D.C., bookstore Lowdermilks; to the opening of Booked Up in Washington, D.C.; to a discussion of the impact of real estate prices on bookstores and why he moved Booked Up to Texas. All this, with a reference to writing the script for "The Last Picture Show" sandwiched in between.

"The writer who should have written a masterwork about the second-hand book trade was Anton Chekhov, the genius of small frustrations and little failures," McMurtry writes. It's an apt observation — Chekhov, primarily a short story writer, was a master of the wedding of compression and gravitas that the subject calls for. McMurtry, who has written just one short story in his entire life ("There Will Be Peace in Korea," published in the Texas Quarterly in 1964), simply isn't up to the task. He tries — this book's 259 pages are divided into 109 chapters — but the attempt comes across as, at best, episodic, and at worst, batty.

Part of the problem is that McMurtry has already written at some length about reading and bookselling elsewhere, especially in his highly regarded essay collection "Walter Benjamin and the Dairy Queen" — a fact he readily acknowledges. Sadly, "Books" is also consistent with his recent nonfiction books "The Colonel and Little Missie" and "Oh, What a Slaughter," much of which read as if he's cleared out his old filing cabinets and been given carte blanche by Simon & Schuster to publish what he finds there.

If you're really interested in McMurtry's books — that is, the ones he owns, not the ones he writes — you'd be better off making the pilgrimage to Booked Up, where you can see them for yourself. There's no substitute for shopping in a well-stocked antiquarian bookstore. The employees will, doubtless, be able to recommend a book to hold your interest this summer, even if this particular book isn't it. But take that trip now; if the litany of defunct bookstores that litters these pages is any indication, time is of the essence.

Texas writer Edward Nawotka covers the South for Publishers Weekly and is a nationally syndicated book critic.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Oxford’s Square Books Gets Campy

By Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 7/1/2008 7:40:00 AM

Mississippi in mid-July isn’t at the top of most travelers' wish lists. For starters: it’s damn hot. Then there are the mosquitoes, some almost the size of hummingbirds.

But Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books in Oxford, is undaunted. When he saw he had six notable authors scheduled to read at the store in an eight-day span, July 10-17, he dubbed the week “Camp Square Books.”

Howorth, who also serves as Oxford's mayor, figured the top-notch roster of authors would be enough to entice book lovers to come and spend a few days and some of their discretionary income. He’s negotiated discounts with local hotels and restaurants to lure holiday makers.

Camp kicks off with an appearance by Julia Reed, followed by Jack Pendarvis, Martin Clark, Brett Lott and burgeoning bestseller David Wroblewski. The week culminates with Andre Dubus III.

“Even with gas at $4 gas, we hope get a lot of visitors from Memphis – which is only an hour away by car – and up from Jackson,” said David Swider, Square Books’ art director and publicist for the event.

“Campers” can pre-register online or at the store. Camp will start each day at 10 a.m. and feature different activities, including poetry lessons, a tour of Faulkner’s house Rowan Oak, and a visit to the literary archive at Ole Miss, where Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Medal resides. Author events begin at 5 p.m. and will be followed by socializing and drinking at the City Grocery restaurant.

All events will be free and, promises store manager Lyn Roberts, if not cool, then at least bug-free. “Since what we have planned mostly will be indoors, there won’t be any insects,” said Roberts.