Wednesday, September 30, 2009

MPIBA Gets Boost from Guns, Tourists, Hype

By Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 9/29/2009 1:34:00 PM

"Many of our stores are small, in remote or rural areas, and don't have the opportunity to travel to BEA, so the trade show is important to them," said Meghan Goel, children's book manager at BookPeople Bookstore in Austin, TX and the incoming president of the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association (MPIBA) (who had just returned from Kenya where she climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro). The annual meeting returned to Denver after shifting last year to Colorado Springs, and attracted approximately the same number of attendees as last year.

At the association’s general meeting, executive director Lisa Knudsen praised outgoing president Andy Nettell of Arches Book Company in Moab, UT for his three years of service and his “calm” demeanor. She announced that 13 new stores had joined MPIBA since last year bringing the total number of members to 167. She admitted that the association’s finances had suffered due to last year’s market meltdown, with the association losing nearly a third of its financial reserves, some $78,000 in the stock market. “We’re still here,” said Knudsen, who added that as the market has bounced back, so has MPIBA’s finances.

She also touted a number of marketing moves the MPIBA has recently made, including the launch of the “Reading the West” program this past June. The program selects specific titles that are relevant to the region to promote at MPIBA, each month. “The board wanted to do this because some of our members are not in the ABA [American Booksellers Association] and don’t use IndieBound.” The association has also launched a new blog at

In April, the MPIBA hosted the first of a planned series of “Regional Focus Meetings,” with the inaugural session held in Austin, Texas. Twenty people from 12 stores attended. Plans for 2010 include meetings to be held in Texas, most likely in Houston, as well as in Colorado, Utah, Montana and Arizona. “We’re still pinning them down, but we’ve had a lot of interest,” said BookPeople’s Goel.

Additional information sessions focused on coping with the recession, with numerous booksellers reporting that they have cut staff (often by not replacing lost employees) and added additional sidelines. This being the West, and considering the incredible jump in sales of firearms since the election of President Obama, it should come as no surprise that a number of stores reported a sizable boost coming from the sales of books about firearms.

That being said, there was little evidence of gun-related titles on the exhibition floor. Smaller booths from some of the major publishers -- Random House for example, had just a single table – were somewhat offset by the addition of seating next to each table, a change Knudsen said was intended to facilitate more sit down meetings for the taking of orders. Small regional publishers dominated the floor, ranging from Denver’s Flying Pen Press – a specialist in sci fi and speculative fiction -- to Mukilteo, Washington’s Basho Press, which is entirely focused on haiku gift books and was given a slot to speak at the “pick of the list” sessions.

Hachette Book Group produced a specialist catalog of “staycation” titles for the show, a likely response to the economic crisis. The branding proved a mismatch for what booksellers – particularly in heavily touristed locals – were reporting.

Tommie Plank of Covered Treasures Bookstore in Monument, Colo. remarked, “People are still traveling, they’re just driving a few hours, instead. Sure, people aren’t traveling to Europe and we’re not seeing as many people from the coasts, but we are seeing a lot of tourists from Colorado and surrounding states. Daiva Chesonis, book buyer for Between the Covers in Telluride, Colo. concurred, saying that one of the stores bestselling titles this summer was a Colorado driving atlas.

As far as sales are concerned, booksellers seem to be holding steady throughout the region. Plank reported that her store’s sales were up 2% over last year, due both to continued tourist traffic and the store’s proximity to the Air Force Academy and various military bases. “We have a lot of retired military in our area and since they’re retired they can’t lose their jobs, so they’re buying just as many books as before.” Local author Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman is currently proving popular.

Even so,“The economy has tempered expectations for the fall,” said Drew Goodman, a MPIBA board member and sales manager of the University Campus Store at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. “It’s hard to tell what direction things are going to go in – is the recession over, as everyone is saying, or is this just a lull?,” said Goodman. “It’s hard to tell and there are mixed feelings out there. One thing that we know is there are a lot of big books out there for the season, it’s one of the best I can remember in a long time.” Goodman added that although his store was selling plenty of copies of The Lost Symbol and True Compass, his profits came from his ability to “make books” by hand selling. He offered Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night as an example: “In August, we picked it as ‘Book of the Month’ and sold 30 copies, making it one of our bestselling titles,” he said.

Cathy Langer of the Tattered Cover agreed, adding that it’s the “sleepers that rise to the surface” that really matter to independent stores. One book she expected to do especially well in the region is Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn. She’s also encouraged by the appearance of Brown, Kennedy, Krakauer, and even Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro on the fall lists. “After all the glum news this year, the hype is nice,” she said.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

In 'Strength in What Remains,' author tells story of immigration, return to home country

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Tracy Kidder's ninth book, "Strength in What Remains," tells the story of Deogratias — called Deo — a Burundian medical student who, after fleeing his country's civil war in 1994, makes his way to New York with $200 in his pocket and speaking only French. There he squats as a homeless person in Central Park; he delivers groceries for $15 a day.

This is before he's taken in by Charlie and Nancy Wolf, a charitable couple with a big heart and a Manhattan apartment with an extra room — one that happened to be full of books, one Kidder describes as "a room for the end of a journey of the body, but also for the continuation of a journey of the mind." They encourage Deo to pick up with his studies, and he eventually enrolls at Columbia University and, ultimately, Dartmouth Medical School.

What initially might seem like an intriguing, if conventional, tale of transformation turns out to have a remarkable coda, as Kidder divides the book between Deo's stateside story and his return to Burundi to open a free clinic in his home town.

Kidder spoke by phone from his home in Massachusetts.

Austin American-Statesman: You were introduced to Deo through Dr. Paul Farmer, his mentor and the subject of 'Mountains Beyond Mountains' (Kidder's 2003 book about a doctor who conducts medical missions to Haiti). Is this new book a kind of sequel to the Farmer book?

Tracy Kidder:Deo and Paul do have things in common — they are very close friends. When I first met Paul, he was already very well known in medical anthropology; he was a clinic hospital-builder par excellence. He's extraordinary. Deo had been through a crucible of war, been through a miraculous escape, come to America, learned English, but Deo is more of an ordinary person than Paul. So, in that sense, they are not sequels.

The first half of the book focuses on Deo's travails in New York, and it's not a part of the city people often see in books — homeless people living in Central Park, the service entrances to Fifth Avenue high-rises. Was that deliberate?

First and foremost I'm a storyteller, and that's an important part of Deo's story. But that part of New York is designed to be invisible. It's very tempting if you're privileged, particularly in a place like New York, to think that the world is properly ordered or that your job is representative of who you are. When you get into a taxi and the driver has a foreign accent, you should wonder, "Where did they come from? Why they are here?" At Columbia, one of Deo's favorite writers was W.E.B. DuBois, who said, and I'm paraphrasing: To be a poor man anywhere is hard, but to be a poor man in a country of dollars is the hardest of all.

You clearly admire Deo, and Paul Farmer for that matter, and many of your books seem to be about people pushing the limits of human potential.

The story I've told is about courage and endurance and idealism enacted. We have to remember that we all walk around with the most complex structure in the known universe on our shoulders. Deo is pretty extraordinary.

To what do you see this as a distinctly American story? The embodiment of the American dream?

I think it is distinctive insofar that he's now an American citizen; he rallied a collection of American and Burundians to something he had dreamed of as a child: to go back to Burundi to create a medical system to serve the poor of whatever ethnicity. He's done that and his aims are much larger. This is one small beginning.

Would you describe the clinic Deo started?

It's called Village Health Works and in its first year it saw 28,000 patients — from Burundi, but also from Tanzania and the Congo. A few who came weren't sick. When asked why they came, they said, "To see America." At first I thought this was a misconception, but it was true. This represents America at its best. In miniature, it's what President Obama was talking about in Ghana — African and American cooperation; it's a little instrument of peace.

It's also a different view of Africa than one usually gets from the news, for example.

We tend to look at Africa as a single dysfunctional country, which is nonsense. It is many dozens of countries with different problems. I am aware that Westerners only talk about the bad news from Africa, and I distrust that sentiment in Western mouths — either that or something that sounds like political correctness, and that is usually a sign that that group is really getting shafted. I wrote a book about a person who came from a place that hasn't produced a lot of good news in a century, but has a different story to tell. The real question is how to get people in the West and in the Western countries to help in an effective way.

Is that something you are trying to accomplish with your writing?

I think the trick for people attempting to write stories about Africa is to find a way to move people, to find that this suffering person is the same as you, just like you, and in another circumstance it could have been you.