Bookfinding is a science of sorts. Ostensibly, it is a money issue: the goal is to find books for two dollars or less a piece. But there is another element to this exercise. When you walk into a Salvation Army store, or any non-bookstore that has a few shelves full of books at the back, you never know what you’ll find. It’s a real treasure hunt. Sometimes you walk out the door with arms full of books, other times you walk out with one or none. Some of the highest yield bookfinding spots that I have found so far are the Out of the Closet thrift stores that are ubiquitous in some parts of Los Angeles. Out of the Closet is a charity that raises money for AIDS, and like any charity-based thrift store it does not discriminate. Along with a vast selection of clothing, each store has a ton of housewares and furniture and a mindboggling array of random junk. Still, there’s something slightly more hip about Out of the Closet. The staff is young, helpful, and fashionable. They’ve always got good tunes on the radio, and they put together clever displays and windows. It’s only a half step away from the church basement, but that half step makes a difference. I always go straight for the shelf or two of books tucked away at the back of the store, in the dimly-lit corner behind the broken exer-cycle. Though it requires the same amount of digging, the treasures that can be found are incrementally better. At the Salvation Army, I’m pleased to find old paperback editions of classics, but at Out of the Closet, you might just as easily come upon a cult-favorite and books that are more obscurely charming. Which brings me to Monday, when I made a quick run to an Out of the Closet that I hadn’t yet raided, spent ten bucks, and walked out with eight books. Good ones, too. I’m most excited about finding a hardcover edition (though it lacks its dust jacket) of Woody Allen’s print masterpiece Without Feathers. You really can’t go wrong with a book that in its first three pages has about two dozen gems like this one: “Play idea: a character based on my father, but without quite so prominent a big toe. He is sent to the Sorbonne to study the harmonica. In the end he dies, never realizing his one dream — to sit up to his waist in gravy. (I see a brilliant second-act curtain, where two midgets come upon a severed head in a shipment of volleyballs.)” Genius! I also picked up Fraud by David Rackoff, the frequent contributor to This American Life. I usually recommend this one to fans of David Sedaris who have read all of Sedaris’ books. I also somehow remembered that Michael Lewis is the name of the author of Moneyball, and when I saw a copy of Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street, his 1989 memoir about working in the cut-throat, 1980s Wall Street world, I snagged it. I also found another first book by an author I like: Michelle Huneven’s debut Round Rock. And I picked up a slick little paperback edition of a somewhat forgotten 20th century American classic, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. I rounded out my purchases with three classics of the Calvin & Hobbes oevre which I gleefully found sitting neatly in a row: The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book, Weirdos From Another Planet!, and Yukon Ho!… not a bad take for 10 bucks!
We’ve written about how difficult it can be to find a proper title for a work-in-progress. Lately, however, we’ve started to notice a certain trend that may make things easier on the budding novelist. Consider the following novels, all published within the last couple years: The Inheritance of Loss; The History of Love; The Story of Forgetting; The God of Small Things; and The Secret of Lost Things.Certainly there’s some precedent for titling a work with the prepositional construction “The Blank of Blank.” (The Wings of the Dove, The Heart of the Matter, and The Nightmares’ forgotten R&B classic “The Horrors of the Black Museum…” come to mind, and and that’s just off the top of our heads.) Indeed, pairing a wispy abstraction with something surprisingly concrete can be a recipe for piquancy: Think of The Possibility of an Island or The House of Mirth.The innovation represented by the recent spate of prepositional titles is the pairing of two abstractions. A writer willing to settle for the tried-and-true might consider recombining some of the nouns above to create a title for her manuscript, such as The Secret of God, The Lost Things of Small Things, or The Inheritance of History. But for the truly ambitious, may we suggest the following approach: roll some virtual dice, take the corresponding abstract nouns from Column A and Column B, insert a “the” (or two) and an “of,” and you’re off to the races!Column A:1. Earnestness2. Persistence3. Irritability4. Malodorousness5. Malice6. WhimsyColumn B:1. Splendor2. Etiquette3. Particle Physics4. Numismatism5. Large Things6. Medium Things
Over at More Intelligent Life, you’ll find my reflections on the Joseph Mitchell centenary. Mitchell is, for my money, the greatest reporter-stylist of his era; the essay points to a few reasons why. In related news, The New York Times today reports on a blog version of the diaries of that other great reporter-stylist, George Orwell.
A couple of weeks ago I started a new job doing internet marketing for Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, CA. At about the same time, the president of Vroman’s, Allison Hill, left for the Beijing Book Fair as part of a delegation of American and British booksellers. Considering it took place on the other side of the globe, the Beijing Book Fair has generated a fair amount of heat here in the US. Among the other American delegates, Karl Pohrt, from Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor, MI, blogged about the fair for three percent, a blog about international literature from the University of Rochester. Yet another of the delegates, Rick Simonson of Elliott Bay Book Company blogged about the experience for Publishers Weekly.Allison isn’t quite as bloggy as her compatriots, but she did sit down with me for a conversation about Beijing once she got back. Among the most interesting nuggets:One store we went to, the owner asked how we make do with a staff of only 120 or so people. His store employs 500 people. When I saw the store, I understood why. It was 355,000 square feet! I asked about the buying strategy, and they told me they buy every single book published in Chinese.For the complete interview, check out the Vroman’s blog.
Borders’ plan to display more books face-out and, as a result, to stock fewer titles has generated quite a bit of discussion. On our own post about the plan, we received several interesting comments, but I was most intrigued by what commenter Matthew had to say:The Froot Loops example is classic thinking from retailers who enter bookselling from another retail environment.The next time I go down to my local chain Cerealseller to choose my cereal for this week from among the 150,000 cereals on offer Mr Froot Loop can come and offer me some buying advice.Finally, the point of facing out is to attract attention to specific titles from the larger product range. The larger product range sells fewer copies of individual titles, but sells well by total volume… it also serves to attract serious bookbuyers and lend kudos to the bookstore.If chains chose to employ staff with knowledge (and local control) of that enormous range then they’d have a most effective sales tool. These retail gurus need to spend less time in supermarkets and more time at beauty counters and in cell phone stores. Books are a knowledge product requiring retail guidance and salesmanship… do these guys spend as long with their Wheaties as they do with a novel?Emphasis mine. What Matthew has so deftly put into words is something I’ve mulled over since my bookselling days but never quite found the right words for. I’ve always known that knowledgeable booksellers are a huge asset to any bookstore – I was lucky to be surrounded by many when I worked at one – but I had never fully grasped what it means to sell a “knowledge product” as opposed to a “commodity product,” nor had it occured that generally products can be described as one or the other.What’s key here is the distinction between how knowledge products are sold versus commodity products. To use Matthew’s example, when buying a cell phone or going to the beauty counter, you are confronted with many dozens of choices offering an array of specific features suited to a variety of specific needs – bluetooth or dry skin, for example. When it comes to breakfast cereal, you don’t need the guidance as much. The product is cheaper, “wrong” choices cost less, and cereal box mascots aside, one type is generally as good as another.Viewed in this light, it’s crazy to try to sell books as a commodity product because, (and this is just a guess) out of all the retail categories out there, bookstores by far offer the widest array of products, and therefore would require the most guidance and the best systems to help customers find what they are looking for. Undoubtedly, there are many knowledgeable booksellers at chain stores, but if the chains continue to view books as commodity products, their booksellers’ efforts will be futile. It’s also clear why Amazon has been so hugely successful. The site is the ultimate resource for selling knowledge products, with a wealth of information at the ready for anyone looking for a book. It’s possible that, thanks to the internet, the costs are simply too high for chains to go the knowledge-product route, but running in the other direction, towards Froot Loops, hardly seems the answer.For those still interested in this issue even after all this, check out these links:GalleyCat wonders if face-out books will put more emphasis on cover design and follows up with further questions about the co-op payment aspect of this.The Stranger guesses we’ll see more extremely popular and/or bad books face-out at the expense of those hidden gems.A dissenting opinion
February 23rd marks the 20th anniversary of the original publication of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and on that date, his publisher Little, Brown is putting out a new edition of the now classic novel with a new introduction by Tom Bissell. To recognize, as Little, Brown put it, ” the deep way that so many readers have connected with the book over the last twenty years,” the publisher held a contest allowing fans to submit their designs for the new cover.
The winner, we can reveal, is Ohio-based designer Joe Walsh, who has dispensed with the sky imagery that has adorned all prior U.S. editions of Infinite Jest. Walsh’s cover is spare and employs symbolic imagery with a playful undertone. After seeing the cover, we reached out to Michael Pietsch, CEO of Little, Brown parent Hachette Book Group, and David Foster Wallace’s editor, to get his thoughts.
The Millions: Beyond the commercial considerations, why is now the right moment to issue a new edition of Infinite Jest and what does the book have to say to today’s readers?
Michael Pietsch: I’m astonished that ten years have passed since our 10th anniversary edition with a foreword by Dave Eggers. It’s the publisher’s job to find ways to keep books fresh, and an anniversary like this seemed an unmissable occasion to highlight how alive the book still is. Infinite Jest is embraced and discussed by ever larger numbers of readers with each passing year. This new edition is a celebration of that vitality and an invitation to those who haven’t yet turned the first page.
The book’s main ideas—that too much easy pleasure may poison the soul, that we’re awash in an ocean of pain, and that truly knowing another person is the hardest and most worthwhile work in the world—are truer now than they’ve ever been. Tom Bissell’s brilliant new Foreword calls attention to this far better than I can.
TM: Why did Little, Brown decide to go with a fan-designed cover and what would David have made of that decision?
MP: The internet has made it possible to see the massive amount of creative response readers have to Infinite Jest. I’d seen a lot of art connected to the book online, and it seemed that allowing readers who have loved it to submit cover designs for the anniversary edition was a way of honoring and highlighting all that creativity.
I never presume to comment on what David would have made of this or any other aspect of our work. The David Foster Wallace Literary Trust wholeheartedly supported the idea of inviting fans to submit cover art.
MP: David sometimes made suggestions for cover art. For Infinite Jest he proposed using a photo of a giant modern sculpture made of industrial trash—an interesting idea, but one that our creative director felt was too subtle and detailed to work as a cover image. The cover image for the paperback of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is one he suggested, and that I’ve always loved.
In the comments of the last post, Laura asked about a new novel by Zadie Smith called On Beauty. There’s no release date yet for the US, but I suspect it will be close to the UK date, which has been set for September. The Guardian has described it as “a transatlantic comic saga,” but I haven’t seen anything else regarding the subject matter. Smith is also writing a musical about based on the life of Kafka with her husband Nick Laird as well as a non-fiction book called Fail Better that will come out in 2006.Of all the books mentioned in my preview post, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close seems to be generating the most excitement. Among those excited is my mom, who was inspired to dig up some links to some old interviews with and articles about Foer. These may help you pass the time until his new book comes out: an interview with Robert Birnbaum at identitytheory.com, an interview with Decode Magazine and a profile in The Jewish Journal.UPDATE: Found this story when reading back through the archives at Conversational Reading. It asks when America’s fiction writers will take on the subject of 9/11. While I think it’s an odd request — I’ve never been under the assumption that fiction writers are expected to pen novels ripped from the headlines — we will soon have such a book: Foer’s new novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. From Houghton Mifflin’s description of the book: “Oskar Schell is an inventor, Francophile, tambourine player, Shakespearean actor, jeweler, pacifist. He is nine years old. And he is on an urgent, secret search through the five boroughs of New York to find the lock that fits a mysterious key belonging to his father, who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center.”
After bringing us rankings and tags and reviews and recommendations and lists and blogs and discussions, Amazon, which never met a feature it didn’t want to add to its product pages, has now added wikis. They live way down close to the bottom of the page. There aren’t many of them yet, and it’s hard to see a reason why they would really take off at this point, but who knows. To give an example here’s the text that currently resides in the wiki for James Frey’s infamous A Million Little Pieces: Author James Frey was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1969. He was educated at Denison University and the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2000, he spent a year writing A Million Little Pieces, which was published in 2003 by Doubleday Books, a division of Random House, Inc. He is married and has one child. In early 2006 he admitted that much of the content in A Million Little Pieces, which is presented as a memoir, had been fabricated.That’s it. Not very exciting, is it. But perhaps there are more exciting wikis floating around in Amazon-space. If you’re inclined to explore, the list of most-edited wikis might be a good place to start.