Friday, March 06, 2009

A bookstore plugs international mysteries

Props to the Borders at the Atrium Mall in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, for its display of international crime fiction. It was nice to see display space allotted to my favorite reading and nice to see a personal touch at a chain bookshop. In the past I'd complained about unfortunate book placement at chain bookstores, only to be told that placement was dictated by corporate headquarters. In this case, the display was the initiative of a store employee.

Quite naturally this employee and I shared reading interests, and it transpires that we both attended an international crime panel at Bouchercon 2008 in Baltimore. We exchanged recommendations, and I bought a book on her say-so.

Here's hoping more bookshops follow the Chestnut Hill example. This seems a fine way to draw attention to the wealth of crime fiction from other countries.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

Labels: ,

32 Comments:

Blogger Rafe McGregor said...

That is a refreshing change, Peter, and "The Master of Rain" is an excellent read...one of the few crime novels to make use of Shanghai in the inter-war years, a fascinating setting.

March 06, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

Nice post! In Denmark the main problem is that most of what our so-called bookshops sell is stationary. They may have the latest 10 bestsellers which anyone could get anywhere anyway so obviously I buy all my books online. (And don´t blame me - I did not go online until the shops had gone through this ´development´).

March 06, 2009  
Blogger R. T. Davis said...

Let me get this straight. Bookshops in Denmark focus mostly on best-sellers and stationary? And I was naive enough to think that stationary had gone the way of dial telephones, B&W televisions, drive-in movies, and the New Deal. Well, you learn something new every day. I could also say something about Borders (and big book stores and online sales) versus neighborhood bookshops (in the U.S.), but we'll have that discussion some day in the future. Suffice it to say here that it is a "damned if you do and damned if you don't" proposition with the issue: We love the almost infinite selection available at Borders and its ilk, but we miss the small bookshops (which seem to be going out of business at alarming rates). Perhaps we'll get into that some day later. At any rate, thanks, Peter, for all the great news about international mysteries. Your blog is wonderful.

March 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Rafe, I'm surprised to learn that few writers have set crime novels in Shanghai at that time. The time of the warlords seems so natural a setting for crime writing as to be almost a cliche.

March 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorte, one of my first impression of the big chain bookshops in the U.S. is how much non-book merchandise they sold. I wonder what the thinking is behing this. Perhaps the strategy was to price books low enough to drive independent stores out of business, and then make a big profit on the blank books, reading lights, bookmarks and everything else.

March 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the compliment, R.T.

In general, I feel the same way you do about independent bookshops and chains, though I disagree with you about the chain shops' selection. The selection in my main areas of interest -- internatioal mysteries, crime fiction that tends to be "midl-ist," and history -- tends not to be great.

But if chains must exist, displays like this are a good thing. And who says this post can't encourage independent bookstores to create displays of international crime fiction?

March 06, 2009  
Blogger Barbara said...

This is really a surprise. Normally, publishers pay the chains big "co-op" dollars to display the books they are willing to spend promotions dollars on. Apparently, this is a way to avoid anti-trust issues by not charging less on books, but rather by giving them rewards for bulk buying - you buy a large number of books, then the publisher pays you to display them in an advantageous spot, and shoppers think the staff recommends them. (Publishers also buy space on websites, fund advertising by the store, etc.) Since those bits of real estate amount to big bucks, it's quite amazing that a chain would "waste" any on a display that wasn't paid for. Wow.

By the way, this is one argument for independents. They tend to recommend books they think are worthwhile rather than ones they are paid to recommend.

March 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Barbara, thanks for a note that was a lot more informed than my comment. The woman who prepared the international-crime display said, “That was my display.” I assumed she had taken the initiative to set it up and had chosen the books. For all I know, publishers may have paid for the books’ extra prominence and the store management left the details of the display up to the employee. I don’t remember noticing that the books were all from the same publisher, though.

I do know that Hard Case Crime pays or once paid Borders to shelve all its books together, rather than individually by author. This made sense to me because the imprint has such a strong brand identity. I wondered if Akashic might do the same with its City Noir books.

March 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The exchange during which I learned about “co-op” payments illustrates nicely the difference between chains and independents. It took place during a panel of publishers and editors at NoirCon in Philadelphia last year.

The discussion had turned to better ways of marketing books, and I said that I’d seen Hard Case’s books shelved together at one chain store. Hard Case’s Charles Ardai, who was on the panel, said, “That was Borders,” and he explained that Hard Case had paid to have the books shelved together. David Thompson of Murder by the Book in Houston, also on the panel said, “Hey! We did that for nothing!”

March 06, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

There are so many things to respond to here, but I guess I'll stick to two: One thing is that even Borders is going through rocky times right now, according to any sources that I read. I wouldn't be surprised if an employee was able to make their own display, though. I expect that that's a part of the strategy. Borders was originally and independent bookstore in Ann Arbor, after all--individualism may be part of its 'branding'.

Although I work at an independent bookstore, I do think that the model is the same on a smaller scale. In economic hard times, we too are scrambling for the co-op dollar, and for the 'non-book' merchandise, with its higher profit margin, that will keep the store afloat. Maybe the biggest problem with the chains is that, in order to fight them, you have to become more like them...

However, as a reader, I take the victories where I find them, and I agree that this display was great and obviously came out of one person's interest and not the group think of a committee. Whether they got co-op dollars for it or no.

March 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I was wondering when you would weigh in on this.

Borders probably has an interesting history. I remember what a splash it made when it opened its first store in Philadelphia. It was a lifestyle story, not just a business story.

Borders got the jump on some other companies as far as hard times, I think. I seem to recall reading that it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection some time ago.

Co-op or no, the woman had a real interest in international crime fiction, which was nice to see.

(If you let me know via e-mail the name of your store, I can look for it the next time I browse ABE. I always liked the idea that this gave me a chance to put some business in the way of indepdendent bookstores, though I know there is always the issue of how much these clearinghouses charge for transactions.)

March 07, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

I don't have a problem just posting that I work at Bookshop Santa Cruz. I won't post the link as that might seem like a commercial plug, which this is not. It's easy enough to find it on line, for anyone so inclined. I don't think the store is connected through ABE, but I applaud the effort.

It's funny, but as much as there is an agenda about Amazon, chains, etc., I must say that on the staff level, I have never seen a huge amount of difference. People who like books tend to gravitate to bookstore work, because it's not like there is a whole lot of other incentive to work in one. I mean careerwise, not peoplewise. I tend to like the vast majority of people who work in them a lot, and I think on the staff level, there is much more interchange among indies and chains than purists might like to think.

March 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My introduction to the modern bookstore chain was a jolt. It came amid the hoopla surrounding the first Borders in Philadelphia. I don't respond well to aggressively marketed cool, but hey, this was books, so it had to be good. The first thing that hit me is that the store sold its titles at list price, with the exception of a few highlighted specials. This was an unpleasant change from the stores I'd shopped at in Massachusetts, which discounted all titles.

Given that Borders began as an independent, I wonder that its original shop was like. Did it have what I've since come to associate with chains even then: the non-book products, the emphasis on book buying as an "experience," even then?

March 07, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

I must say that even as an independent we are leaning heavily on precisely those things. For better or worse. The reason that all bookstores are gravitating like moths to flame to non-book items is simply that the profit margin is higher, and it's almost like doing well with non-books is what is going to keep books available at all. It's a sad state of affairs, but there it is.

There is a constant push right now to figure out new marketing strategies and the book as 'experience' is definitely one. I am not necessarily against this, by the way. If any of these schemes keep bookstores going, more power to them. It's just that I have my doubts.

March 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

First, let me compliment your store's Web site for the detailed category searches it allows.

Second, let me confess to a bit of snobbery. One reason I rolled by eyes at the frenzied excitement over shopping as an experience is that I'd experienced it already. A friend took me for a birthday dinner years ago at, if I remember the name correctly, the Boston Bookstore Cafe.

March 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I loved to sit over coffee and scones at the secondhand bookstore near my first apartment in Philadelphia. It's not the purity of communing with books must be unsullied by any other experience. But do it without the damned hype.

March 07, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

The problem is that as much as an individual store may push titles that its staff admires, hype does seem to triumph over all else. So that some self-help book that Oprah has pushed is going to be the book that we have to have in, because that's the one everyone is fever-driven to buy. On the one hand, it makes more money for the more idiosyncratic books, but on the other, it drives them out, too.

March 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That sounds like part of a larger trend in American society toward concentration of attention and money on a smaller and smaller group of bigger and bigger authors, celebrities, what have you.

Yeah, I understand that we can sneer all we want to, but we still have to earn a living. So I'll happily walk right past Oprah and roll my eyes as long as I can find some real books elsewhere in the store.

March 07, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Noah Adams wrote in his book On "All Things Considered" that bookstore owners had told him when ATC reviewed a book they almost inevitably saw a spike in shopping for that book in their stores, often within the hour (the show runs at drive-time on the East Coast).

That's not celebrity-pushing but trusted-source-pushing, I think.

March 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're probably right. I would often buy a book after reading an essay or review about it in The New Republic. This was less a matter of trusting the source than of having been drawn into an interesting discussion. Still, the principle is the same, I suppose.

I just wish the trusted sources were not so powerful and were not Oprah. And I'd feel better, for only partly selfish reasons, if they were in print rather than on the air.

March 07, 2009  
Blogger R. T. Davis said...

Let me add two-cents about trusted sources: Once upon a time there were fewer sources (critics and reviewers) in a different species of media; now, though, with television (including the excessively influential Oprah) and the Internet Iwith thousands of people functioning as reviewers/critics), I think the wise reader seeking good suggestions for reading must rely more and more upon trusted friends rather than media sources. Of course, sometimes one can actually find those friends on the Internet, which seems like something of a paradox though I am a bit too foggy to say more on that (i.e., long weekend).

March 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Those trusted friends on the Internet are part of that uncertain area where boundaries blur. Those trusted friends are a medium themselves.

When it comes to trusted friends and sources on the Internet, of which I have a number, I sometimes think that the difference between the mainstream and us is money: mainstream critics and reviewers get paid; I don't.

March 07, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Peter, I think the blur is the salient point. (Can you already guess that 'salient' is going to show up on my blog soon?) We actually have a 'trusted source' program in the store where every couple of months some person, business, or institution is asked to recommend five books in order to help sell those books and also to feature them or their business or their agenda. Is there anything false or fake about this? No. Is there marketing and quid pro quo involved? Yes. Do I personally think it's a good thing? Well, yes and no. Overall, I think it's a great idea. People who have a particular field of expertise get to share that information. But the branding of everything always leaves me a little cold.

I read a recent article in Harper's about the Frankfurt book fair. I'd post the link, but it looks like you'd have to be a subscriber to get any benefit from it. However there is an interesting comment on it here and you can find a link there if you want to see more.

What struck me was the idea that the book biz is one of the places where business and taste conflate. I realized in reading it that a lot of what we are selling is our sense of what is good and what is bad, and although this is nothing new, I have to say that having it stated so boldly made me flinch a little. I like opinion, stated plainly, but commerce immediately adds something suspect to the mix. It's that whole quid pro quo thing again.

March 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I am leery less of commerce than of the ideas that everything is for sale and that too much real economic power is concentrated in too few hands.

Economies of scale can be harmful in publishing. It bothers me just a bit that 10 million people want to read, say, Dan Brown, and maybe 10,000 want to read some crime writer I like. It bothers me a lot and should bother everyone that today's publishing environment makes it harder and harder for those 10,000-selling authors to find and retain a supportive publisher.

March 07, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

To play the devil's advocate for just a moment, I think that in some ways that it is easier than ever before for that 10,000 plus writer to find an audience. It's just that there is not a lot of glamour, and certainly not a lot of pay involved. But there are many small publishers who are much more flexible than than the big publishing giants when it comes to being willing to get behind a book, and put time and effort into it in a way that the mainstream industry no longer deigns to do for the shall we say, B list writers.

The larger truth is that I could publish a novel on line right now, and it would be absolutely free for anyone in the world with access to a computer to read it. There wouldn't be any money in it, of course, but when you think about it this way, the odds are actually all with the writer and all against the publishing houses.

And of course everyone needs copyeditors that they won't bother to get, but that's a given.

March 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, sure, if those small publishers can do for the 10,000-selling writer what the large publishers used to be able to do.

With respect to your second paragraph, for "publish" I mean "publish with a decent chance of success, maybe a bit of money and a publisher who will stand behind your book."

With respect to copy editing, I am reading a novel now that commits a mathematical error similar to the Daily Kos' unacknowledged mistake. Its copy editor, if there was one, thinks a jump from five dollars to twelve dollars is an increase of 240 percent.

March 08, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

I don't think it's an ideal system--more that I am heartened that there are ways for worthy writers to get their work out there despite the big houses, and big agents, averseness to risk.

A case in point--and I know this is sort of the best case scenario kind of thing, it's hardly everyone's experience--is My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. Originally, this was a self-published book that now appears on at least the Indiebound bestseller list. And has for weeks if not months. Of course, it's non-fiction, and on a subject that is likely to appeal to an aging population. But it's also apparently well-written and unique in its perspective. That some mainstream house didn't pick up on this book makes you wonder. But it's interesting that they let the self-publishing world in a sense vet it for them, and then once the waters were tested, someone snatched it up.

March 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Declan Burke went through something similar. He published "The Big O" on a cost-and-profit split basis with a small publisher in the UK. Harcourt then picked the book up as part of a two-book deal for U.S. publication but -- and I hope I'm not too far wrong -- did not give the book much of a chance before deciding not to pick up the next one.

I don't know the details, but it seems to me a book like that ought to have been given more of a chance and more support.

March 08, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

I don't know any official details of what happened there either, but by a kind of fluke I did hear that morning that Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt had announced no new acquistions for the near future, and then read on Declan's blog when I got home that they had gone so far as to renege on his second book. I think he was a victim of their more general contraction rather than of any judgment call on his work. But obviously that's not the inside scoop or anything.

March 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's hard to assess the situation accurately from the outside, but his case may buttress my point: that authors who don't sell multimillions have a tough time with big publishers.

March 08, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Well, yes--I think it's safe to say that John Grisham doesn't have these sorts of difficulties. Though he well might have at an earlier point in his career.

I don't think we're really disagreeing on anything. But my point is, given that this is the reality, what should a writer like Declan Burke do now? I thought The Big O was a very good and very enjoyable book, and I suspect he will only get better as he goes. But it looks like he's going to have to write the next novel or two without the support of a big publishing house, or at least that's the way he's been mulling it over on his blog. What I see ebooks, the web and the small publishing houses doing is providing other ways to get the work out there.

I am not totally sure that the big houses are solid enough that people should be aiming for them as the be all end all anyway. Smaller houses may end up weathering all the financial storms better, for all we know. Not that I'm a financial wizard myself, but there was a piece in Publisher's Weekly recently which talked about the vitality of small presses. I only glanced at it, though.

March 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll agree that we can agree not to disagree. I'm prepared to consider the possibility that a better publishing environment would place less emphasis on the big publishing houses.

March 08, 2009  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home