Thursday, November 20, 2008

Texans well-represented in National Book Awards competition

Texans well-represented in National Book Awards competition

12:00 AM CST on Wednesday, November 19, 2008

By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

Tonight's National Book Awards is the book world's equivalent of the Oscars.

The annual black-tie ceremony in New York City draws glitterati and literati alike. They come to ogle, to flirt and, at the popular cocktail party beforehand, to handicap the contenders for the four $10,000 prizes.

This year, 200 publishers submitted 1,258 books to compete for the awards honoring the year's best works of fiction, nonfiction, young people's literature and poetry. Of those, 20 finalists were selected, five in each category. What may surprise the bow-tied crowd is that four Texans grace the list.

Livingston-born Annette Gordon-Reed was shortlisted in the nonfiction category for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, a group biography of one family of slaves owned by Thomas Jefferson. It covers Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings, who became a lover and bore him children, as well as the rest of her family.

Ms. Gordon-Reed, now a professor at New York Law School, believes the book is especially relevant because of this year's election.

"It's amazing to contemplate that the president I write about held black people as slaves, and we will now inaugurate a black president," she said.

Recalling her segregated childhood in Conroe, Ms. Gordon-Reed said: "I can remember as a little girl going to separate waiting rooms at the Sadler Clinic and sitting in the balcony at the Crighton movie theater. I integrated our school district, which wasn't the easiest thing for a 6-year-old, but it gave me an early sense that blacks were on a journey of sorts, from worse to better, I hoped and still hope."

Kathi Appelt was born in Fort Bragg, N.C., came to Texas as a child and graduated from Houston's Spring Branch Senior High School and Texas A&M in College Station, where she still lives. The author of some 30 illustrated books for children, such as Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers and the beloved Bubba and Beau series, Ms. Appelt is a finalist in the young people's literature category for her first novel, The Underneath.

The book is the story of a lonely hound dog and a mother cat who come to depend on each other for survival in East Texas. She also weaves throughout the book a folk tale of a 10,000-year-old shape-shifting water moccasin – itself inspired by her interest in the Caddo Indians.

In addition to the vivid, rich characters, the landscape itself comes to life. "I just love the pine forest, the swamp – it's so mysterious," Ms. Appelt explained. "There's just the feeling of magicalness to it."

In a coincidence, poetry finalist Reginald Gibbons also graduated from Spring Branch Senior High. Now a professor of creative writing and classics at Northwestern University in Illinois, he is shortlisted for his 11th poetry collection, Creatures of a Day. Though he left the Long Star State at age 18, he acknowledged, "Texas has had a pervasive influence on my life – it is present in some way in each of my books." He also credits underappreciated Trinity-born writer William Goyen as "one of three or four writers who have been most important to me." (Mr. Gibbons serves as Goyen's literary executor.)

Mr. Gibbons was the first to publish the work of two other of this year's NBA-shortlisted authors, Chicago novelist Aleksander Hemon (fiction) and Patricia Smith (poetry), both while he was editor of the literary journal TriQuarterly from 1981 to 1997.

Houston, said Mr. Gibbons, is far more interesting to him today than when he was a child.

"There is so much more literary life there than when I was growing up in the '60s," he said, "a big part of which stems from the creative writing program at the University of Houston, which brings in many powerful writers."

Among those to whom Mr. Gibbons refers is Mark Doty, a New Yorker who spends half the year teaching at UH. Mr. Doty's eighth book of poetry, Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems, is a finalist in the poetry category. The book covers some two decades and provides a kind of conversation between the younger self and older self. Mr. Doty couldn't be reached for comment.

Though the National Book Awards are a competition, all the finalists win in a way: Each gets a medal, and the attention alerts new readers who might not have noticed them before.

"It makes me feel that my work is very present at this moment in the U.S.," said Mr. Gibbons. "The country is so huge and so many thousands of books are published, that it's not often that happens."

That is reward in itself.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Two Indies for Big D

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 11/17/2008

Dallas may pride itself on being the brashest city in the country, but for nearly three years it has lacked a large-scale independent bookstore. Earlier this month that changed, with the opening of the 24,000-sq.-ft. Legacy Books.

The store is situated in the north Dallas suburb of Plano, in a purpose-built space that boasts an 1,800-sq.-ft. kids section, a third-floor art book gallery, a kitchen for cooking demos, a cafe that offers beer and wine, a wi-fi bar with computer stations (so people with laptops don't clog the cafe)—and 110,000 books. Managing partner Teri Tanner is a former national and regional sales director with Borders and Barnes & Noble, who said she's been “dreaming of this store for 25 years.”

Though the economy is foundering, Tanner believes this to be as good a time as any to open a bookstore. “There's never a right time for anything,” she said. “One thing that makes me really hopeful is when I look at this from the perspective of it being a local store. People are becoming increasingly aware of buying local—whether because it keeps tax revenue in the community or there's a lower environmental impact. I think we can make a difference to this community.”

Tanner has recruited experienced bookselling staff from the area, including romance buyer Kathy Baker, formerly of Waldenbooks in Hurst, Tex., and the 1999 RWA Bookseller of the Year, and Jeremy Ellis, one-time event and marketing manager at Austin's BookPeople, who now serves in the same capacity at Legacy. Former Borders publicity director Ann Binkley has consulted on publicity. In all, the store has 33 employees.

Legacy's event schedule started off auspiciously, featuring designer Isaac Mizrahi presenting his new book, How to Have Style, in his only Texas appearance. Forthcoming events feature a mix of national and local favorites, including Adam Jones, author of Rose Bowl Dreams: A Memoir of Faith, Family, and Football, and Willie Nelson biographer Joe Nick Patoski.

Tanner said that the book selection and product mix will change in response to customer reaction. “We've already broken out our very substantial religion section into different faiths,” she noted.

So far, the early response has been positive, with local media taking a keen interest. One thing that Legacy can count on: the locals have money to spend. “According to USA Today, Plano is one of the wealthiest communities in America,” said Tanner. “So at least we know we got the demographics right.”

Some 25 miles south, in the Bishop Arts District in Dallas's Oak Cliff neighborhood, Jorge Alvarez and Gilbert Barrola have launched a more modest enterprise: Dicho's, a 1,300-sq.-ft. bookstore. This is the second branch of Dicho's. The original was founded in Pomona, Calif., in 2000 and relocated to Gainesville, Tex. (pop. 28,000), in 2006 when the duo moved. Now Alvarez and Barrola commute the 70 miles back and forth between the stores in Dallas and Gainesville—where the outpost of Dicho's is somewhat larger, at 3,000 square feet.

“We realized that running two bookstores is just something we couldn't do all by ourselves,” said Alvarez. “So we've hired three employees.” Alvarez, who at one time managed a Barnes & Noble bookstore at California State University of Los Angeles, described Dicho's (which without the apostrophe means “aphorisms” in Spanish) as a “nontraditional bookstore.”

“We also sell furniture, lamps and home d├ęcor, and we display the books as a series of vignettes,” he said. “For example, right now we're featuring Too Many Toys by David Shannon—we have it grouped with a bunch of vintage toys and a fire engine children can play on.” Children's books represent a large portion of the book stock; there's also a small branch of Dallas's Cretia's bakery in the back.

The Oak Cliff neighborhood is not typical of Dallas and, according to Alvarez, is home to a large constituency of gays, lesbians, Latinos and Democrats—“all groups we hope to cater to,” he said, noting that at some point he hopes to add Spanish-language titles to the store's mix.

They aren't the only ones to have realized the neighborhood had potential: Oak Cliff is the former location of Black Images Book Bazaar, which closed in December 2006.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Economic Downturn Shutters Dallas-area Indie

By Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 11/7/2008 7:19:00 AM

David Norwood, owner of The Bookworm in Frisco, Tex. is closing his two-year old, 4,000 sq.-ft. bookstore immediately. “We were approaching the break even point, then the economy turned,” Norwood said. “The holiday season isn’t starting soon enough and we’re in too big of a hole.” Seven part-time employees will lose their jobs; Norwood plans to return to his former career in software development. “The return to the corporate world will be a welcome relief,” he said. “Running a bookstore is like having a double full-time job.”

On reflection, Norwood said has learned that he need not have opened such a large store. “We could have gotten by being a bit smaller, therefore paying less rent and utilities,” he said. “The bulk of the business was in relatively new releases, not bestsellers necessarily, and fans of particular authors who were content to let us special order for them. The amount of inventory we had here in here initially that didn’t sell just ended up sitting here tying up money. In the long run I thought maybe it would have been fine -- we had steady sales growth until the economic thing happened this year.”

The news of The Bookworm’s closing comes in the same week that Legacy Books, a 24,000 sq.-ft. indie, celebrates its grand opening in nearby Plano. “I’m encouraging all my customers to shop there,” said Norwood. “It’s opening in a rough economic climate and they are going to need all the help they can get.”

There’s a New Gang in Town: Austin’s Delacorte Dames and Dudes

By Edward Nawotka, Children's Bookshelf -- Publishers Weekly, 11/6/2008

Delacorte’s Austin authors:
(l. to r): Shana Burg, Margo Rabb, April Lurie, Varian Johnson and Jennifer Ziegler.

DDD—no, it’s not a heavy-duty new battery. It’s the acronym for an informal group of Austin, Tex., writers all published by Delacorte Press. “Delacorte Dames and Dudes was a little cumbersome to say,” says member Jennifer Ziegler (How Not to Be Popular, 2008), “so we shortened it.”

Other DDD members are April Lurie, author of The Latent Powers of Dylan Fontaine (2008), Margo Rabb, author of Cures for Heartbreak (2007), Shana Burg, author of A Thousand Never Evers (2008), and the latest member, Varian Johnson, whose novel Saving Maddie is forthcoming in 2010.

The writers realized they all had a publisher in common while attending meetings of the Austin Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. “That became a good excuse to get together,” says Ziegler.

Their first gathering took place June 10 at the Central Market grocery and has since moved to BookPeople, becoming a regular monthly fixture on the authors' calendars. Unlike other writing groups, the focus here is on professional development, rather than critiquing the work itself. “Most of the writers are already in a critique group,” says Ziegler, “This is more like a support group.”

The meetings have no formal agenda. “We talk about our very odd jobs.” says Ziegler. “It’s therapeutic, because other writers understand what you’re going through and can offer advice and encouragement.”

Ziegler says the group has shared information on speaking engagements—even recommending other members to interested parties when one was invited but not available. Later this month, DDD will carpool to San Antonio to attend the annual National Council of Teachers of English conference, and will even share hotel rooms.

Asked what would happen if someone in the group jumped to another publisher, Ziegler opted for plausible deniability: “Right now our main concern is figuring out how to initiate Varian,” she says.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Texas Book Festival's 13th is Still Lucky

Originally appeared in Publishers Weekly, November 4, 2008

By Edward Nawotka

“Thank God for global warming,” said Claiborne Smith, literary director of the Texas Book Festival. Perfect 80 degree weather greeted this past weekend’s festival goers, who visited the Texas capitol in Austin for the 13th annual gathering. Despite the lack of a marquee headliner like Bill Clinton (2005) or Barack Obama (2006), both the number of attendees – typically 40,000 over two the two days – and quantity of book sales – which are handled by Barnes & Noble and routinely top $100,000 -- “should be about the same,” reported Smith. Over 190 authors participated. 

Long-time Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda remarked: “On Saturday morning itself the Capitol Grounds looked like a carnival, and I had a standing room only crowd for my book Classics for Pleasure.” Rue Judd, publisher of Houston’s Bright Sky Press, said her sales were “better than ever before” and expected to sell all 12 cases of Mike Renfro’s Shine On a history of local favorite Shiner Beer. In the past Cinco Puntos Press has been a vocal critic of the Festival, accusing it having both high booth prices and exclusionary policies, but has since had a change of heart. “We brought five authors to the Festival,” said Cinco Puntos v-p John Byrd.

Unsurprisingly, considering the Festival’s proximity to the election, politics took center stage. Many of the largest venues were committed to authors discussing political themes, whether it was Jane Mayer outlining the shortcomings of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, Harvard professor John Stauffer describing echoes between our age and that of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, or Christopher Buckley offering updated inscriptions to go above the entrances of various government buildings (The Library of Congress: “Just Google it.” The Pentagon: “Make my day.”)

Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro, though not beloved by many Johnson loyalists, took home the Festival’s highest honor, a Bookend Award.

Smith noted that this year the Festival was forced to pay many authors travel expenses, that despite the fact that numerous publicists told Smith they were favoring festivals over book signings. “One thing that we as a festival can do is guarantee a good crowd for a writer,” said Smith. “which is not necessarily something a bookstore can do."