Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Writer's Workshop Up and Comers

The Lambda Literary Foundation recently announced its "Five New Queer Voices to Watch Out For" and two of our local Iowa City Writer's Workshop participants are on the list. Congratulations to Justin Torres and Michael Fauver.

Monday, June 28, 2010

This just in....

Seven boxes of science fiction and fantasy - almost all from Hugo and Nebula winners. Signed literature, particularly Workshop authors. German genealogy. Linguistics. Ahhh! I gotta go - there's another box to price.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

First Officer's Log No 6: What To Read Next... Non-European Mystery Edition

"Ali, what do I read next?" Such is the question that I am asked, weekly, by friends, family and friends of friends, and sometimes I imagine that sooner or later the owners of the Corgis who walk their dogs on the block where I live will ask me for a recommendation. The hardest part about recommending books is knowing just who and what will appeal to people's interests and tastes. It's one of the most challenging parts of working in a bookstore, but also one of the most rewarding.

Nialle has talked about recommending books for younger readers, but since my interests tend to veer towards science fiction / fantasy, mystery, literature and any kind of non fiction, that gives me a more adult-oriented audience to play with. Recently, my younger brother has been quite taken with Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, a mystery series set in Chicago, starring a snarky wizard and his assistant, a talking skull. When my brother asked me what to attack next, I guided him to Dean Koontz, a good segue into adult fiction for a 14 year old boy.

I suppose that's not the best example of a suggestion, but I think it shows how my brain works, at least with regard to those whom I know quite well. Recently, a woman approached me in the store and asked about a good mystery, though she did not care for European mystery writers, despite their being all the rage. I thought about it and directed her to Kevin O'Brien's first novel, "Make Them Cry", a murder mystery set in a seminary. Shortly thereafter, someone asked for a European mystery writer, and Denise Mina was handed out. It got me thinking, however, about mystery writers, and how country of origin can effect the style and the reception of the novel itself.

It occurred to me, when the first woman told me that she didn't like European mystery writers, that, despite the popularity of Steig Larsson's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo", if someone comes in and asks for a good mystery, that isn't the first thing that I can, in good conscience, direct them to. Even with his headstrong central female character, Larsson's books are not cheerful, most of the characters are despicable, and the events in the novels are quite grotesque at points. It's enough to make me pine for the prose of Thomas Harris, whom I once considered quite vicious.

So. With that in mind, here are a few American mystery writers whose work is consistently excellent, and whom I highly recommend to anyone who needs a great story to get lost in.

- Dennis Lehane: author of the gritty Kenzie / Gennaro mysteries, which begin with "A Drink Before the War", and the critically acclaimed novels-turned-films "Mystic River" and "Shutter Island". Lehane's style of writing, which spares no emotion nor any easy decisions is borderline literature. My favorite novel of his is the second of the Kenzie / Gennaro stories, "Darkness, Take My Hand", a novel that had me up late into the evening, a novel that deals with bitter themes of childhood, lost innocence and brutality, while still offering a hopeful resolution.

- Michael Connelly: while Connelly is best known for his Harry Bosch series, one of his best works is the recent "The Lincoln Lawyer", a humor-laced look at a criminal defense attorney and the madness that he gets himself into.

- Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child: I consider these gentlemen guilty pleasures, but their most recent novel in their ongoing Aloysius Pendergast series, "Fever Dream", is one of the eeriest, most fun mysteries I've read in a very long time. The Pendergast series technically begins with "Relic", an archaeological museum mystery, but as the series progresses, more and more madness ensues. Their stories are fun, pure and simple, with good scares, villains and compelling heroes.

- Tess Gerritsen: one of my favorite women writing currently, Gerritsen's first novels were stand-alone, but she eventually created a series with recurring characters, starting with "The Surgeon". Sparing no details, and often quite gruesome, Gerritsen's writing is very tight, with well drawn, memorable women as her lead characters. Jane Rizzoli is one of my all time favorite women in mysteries.

- Elizabeth George: while her Inspector Lynley novels are set in England, George is an American. Her novels may be dense, but they offer compelling stories, and continuous threads that enrich her characters, starting with "A Great Deliverance". George's writing is consistently excellent, and her characters shift and evolve, growing as they experience life and the events of their professions. An excellent series, still great after all these years.

Hopefully these can offer a few new ideas for good American series to start with. Next week I'll look at European and Asian authors whom I like.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

This just in....

A great deal of music history and analysis, very scholarly stuff; some signed literary fiction; even more photography; and legions of good literature, along with some children's nonfiction on historical and sociological topics.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Ghostwriting No. 6: Placing Internet Orders

It's a fiendishly busy time of year for us, so this week I've only got a short one for you. Short, but useful.

When you are ordering books on the internet, there are three VERY important things to remember:

1. Fine means like new. Near fine means slightly used. Very good means used. Good means kinda shabby. Acceptable or Fair mean crummy. Poor means don't order this unless you are a book repair expert.

2. More important than how many stars in the seller's rating, more important than which charity they are (supposedly) supporting, more important than the promise of prompt shipment or service, is this: Does it look like a person sat down and described the book? Never, ever order anything described as "Used - Standard" unless you don't care what condition it's in, and ditto "Our FIVE-STAR RATING says it all! Prompt service! We ship daily! Condition: Fine. Ex library." There is no such thing as a Fine ex-library book. Also be aware that a lot of the sellers who have books for five cents got them for one cent or less - and that means dumpster dives, library sale rejects, and discard shelf freebies. Not all of them, maybe. But most. And one more thing: Print on Demand is a total racket. The books are printed a lazy week after your order at best, on cheap paper with bad glue and ugly covers. If you only need it for research, that's fine, but seriously, the prices on these things are unreal too - $44.95 for a book they'll spend $6 flinging in a manila envelope for you. Seriously, interlibrary loan is better than that.

3. There's one site everybody knows. That site is also legendary for sloppy service, wimpy packaging, and shipping delays - and that's from the 'professional' headquarters, not even including the price hounds who sell through them. Ever see a paperback listed there for $215.97? I bet you $195.97 that the exact same book is for sale at a professional bookselling website for $5 plus shipping.

Where should you check to find out? There are two websites that do a good job of "meta-searching" the bookselling services on the internet. has a somewhat clunky format, but it has a lot of information, and you can sort your book findings in a number of ways. is a little easier on the eyes and - this is why we really like it - the site adds in the shipping cost so you can see the actual price on offer. Some places price the book at $1 and charge $5 shipping, and it's cheaper to order from a place that prices the book at $2.50 and charges $3.00 shipping. shows you where.

What AddAll and Bookfinder don't tell you is how reliable the sites are, or the sellers on those sites. Here's a quick guide to where we like to buy: is, of course, our favorite. We can vouch personally for the sellers on the site, because they're our friends around the world, people with nice books and strong ethics. On the off chance that something actually goes wrong with your order, World Book Market sellers will follow up with you professionally. But odds are against this, because we're all very carefully professional to begin with. has a huge selection, a strong advanced search page, and a conscience. They put the individual sellers' phone numbers right there in front of you if the seller provided it, so you can call and check that the book is in stock and as described; odds are it is, because Biblio checks out its sellers and bases its fee structure for sellers on fulfillment rates. They also don't overcharge the sellers, and they let us set our own postage rates, so we often offer our books for less there, or cut the shipping cost below the "standard" $3.99. Not only that, but Biblio donates a portion of its proceeds to literacy projects, like building libraries in third-world countries, and buys a carbon offset for every shipment. has an even bigger selection, a slightly less confusing payment system, and (sometimes) discount rates on international shipping. Problems: requesting a refund is tricky, and there are a lot of pseudo-professionals selling on the site. has a big selection, an excellent advanced search page, the very useful Book Sleuth message boards, and a not too tricky checkout system. Problems: pseudo-professionals abound, and prepare to get a 'foreign transaction' fee on your credit card regardless of where you're ordering. This site is also kind of notorious among sellers for being unreceptive to our suggestions and increasingly expensive and less user-friendly. We don't buy here anymore unless we have to, but we'd sure rather buy here than at that other website, the one everybody knows about. Which unfortunately bought Abebooks, so expect this site to go downhill even faster. Alas. It used to be the bastion of excellence.

If you have questions about the terms used by booksellers, about particular sites, or about particular sellers on those sites, feel free to ask us. We're happy to explain. We don't want you to get stuck with a crummy deal. Also we'd like a chance to tell you we have the book in stock, in very good condition, for $5 with no shipping cost. Cheers ;)

Monday, June 21, 2010

Anna: (after Ali recounts an unpleasant story) "People we will not save during the Apocalypse."
Nialle and Ali: (laughing)
Anna: "What??"
Ali: "You made a funny! You get insane cackling in surround sound!"

Thursday, June 17, 2010

This just in...

A mighty assortment of Continental philosophy, stacks of fresh old and new literature, psychology, children's books (including ones specially for Jewish children) and loads of signed novels. PLEASE NOTE: this is a very good time of year to call when you intend to bring books, as many people are selling lifetime collections during this moving season, and you wouldn't want to have to wait in long lines.

Ghostwriting No. 5: How Booksellers Know There's a Recession On

Those of you who have been around the shop much know I don't get out much. In fact, I rely on my friends for news of the world, my mother for the weather report, and (I'm sorry, it's really morbid, but it's true) sudden runs on the works of a certain author to tell me that author is no longer in this world.

But there are ten certain signs that tell me the recession is finally hitting the Haunted Bookshop, and here they are:

10. Charles Bukowski books that actually make it from the shelving pile to the actual shelf and even stay there for long periods of time

9. Ditto Richard Brautigan

8. Ditto Vladimir Nabokov

7. Ditto The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

6. Ditto Billy Collins

5. Ditto Jacques Derrida (and there are almost twenty of his titles in Continental Philosophy)

4. Ditto Neil Gaiman

3. Ditto Kurt Vonnegut

And the top two indicators:

2. More than three quarters of our guests come in looking sad and nervous, many already talking about how they are only going to look because they can't buy.

1. Over twenty people a day selling books - over half of whom don't want to sell but can't make the rent/utility/etc. payment if they don't.

This is heartbreaking. We'll try to help in any way we can, but really, if it's this bad out there, we'll all need something even better than a kitten ankle rub and a friendly greeting, won't we? Ideas? How can we help you smile?

2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

The IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is the largest prize in the world for a work of fiction written in English. This year's winner is Dutch author, Gerbrand Bakker, for his novel The Twin.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Who Guards the Guards #1

I'm Luke, and I've been working in this building for about five years (I worked for Northside before the infamous merger of 2009). While I'm in Iowa City, I'll be reviewing the reviewers of books, to give readers some idea of not just what's being said but who's saying it. I will be traveling to Europe in June and July, and I'll be talking about some of my favorite bookstores on the other side of the Atlantic.

I recently finished a sociology book that I simply could not stand. Why I bothered to finish it I don't know, since after the first fifty pages I had grown very weary of the author's arrogance in prescribing ways to, and I quote, "fix everything," but finish it I did. Since for the most part the people who recommend books to me have very good taste, I wasn't quite sure how I was going to deal with the bad aftertaste of this particular read. For starters, I called my brother, who had originally suggested the book, and let him know that I hated it, but that didn't lead to much except an awkward pause and a quick change of subject. So I decided to write a review on Amazon.

I spent a fair amount of time thinking about how exactly I was going to properly articulate why I disliked the book as much as I did. The problem was that there were a few fundamental problems with the book, on both a descriptive and prescriptive level, and so it was hard to develop a coherent criticism of the book in just a few paragraphs. There was the aforementioned arrogance of the author's solutions, but the author also generally engaged in contentiousness for contentiousness' sake, a pet peeve of mine, and exercised utter academic carelessness by rejecting any form of nuance whatsoever (e.g. ascribing linear models to certain patterns of human behavior in instances where exponential growth with an asymptote would be more accurate.) There was also a dash of ad-hom, in order to pre-empt some of the more reasonable critiques of his arguments. My personal favorite instance of this was when he asserted that anyone who did not believe in (or was even uncomfortable with) quantifying life in terms of economic value needed to "grow up".

I mention all this because I was prepared to put all this, and much more, in what I foresaw as a blistering attack on the author's reputation that would certainly ruin him (although in fact it would almost certainly have ended up as an incoherent rant with "12 of 37 people found this helpful" above it) when I noticed that Publisher's Weekly had already reviewed the book and said all of this. The review, without being combative, concisely deconstructed the abuse of logic the author had perpetrated. I couldn't have been happier with it.

Now one might perhaps reasonably assume that one good review would simply mean that there was one good reviewer on staff, so I tried something of an experiment. I had been hunting for another sociology book for some time (I was on a bit of a sociology binge at this point) and I decided to check out the Publishers Weekly had to say. The review was, again, concise, well written, and to the point. I read the book and agreed wholeheartedly with just about everything PW had to say. The only difference was that this book was quite good.

As it turned out these were two pretty exceptional examples. I don't always agree with what Publishers Weekly has to say, but this is of course not the point. Through every review of books that I've read, I've found that Publishers Weekly has given them a fair shake and, in a fairly short paragraph, managed to provide an insightful opinion of the book. At the very least, I get the sense that the reviewers actually read the books, which is more than I can say of some reviewers, but I'll save that for next week's entry.

To add one caveat-the website is not the easiest to navigate, and it can be difficult to access some of their archived material without having an account or subscription. With that said, one can generally find their reviews on Amazon, and reading the paragraph-long review might just save you from an excruciating couple hundred pages.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

First Officer's Log - No 5: The Art of Marketing the Book

It is interesting to me how working in a bookstore can really tune you on to how the world of bookselling is very based in what I suppose I'd call 'marketable products' (and before you ask if I'm just now coming to this conclusion, the answer is 'no'). If a book can be packaged for a certain group of people, then that book will start selling wildly. The same is true of any kind of popular media, film, music, video game, even the random magazine you might pick up in the airport.

Consider a particular popular young adult series with distinctive black covers, that feature white text in the title, and a red object in the background. Notice how when you wander into a young adult fiction section now, you will see popular classics, including 'Wuthering Heights' and 'Romeo and Juliet' (and an odd couple of books that is, to market to this audience, in this bookseller's humble opinion), packaged in a similar manner - black cover, with white text and a red object in the background. Now, it doesn't really matter that these particular titles don't have much in common by way of story or subject matter, but just by repackaging Emily Bronte and Will Shakespeare in a similar fashion to a popular series, the publishers have all but ensured that there will be a resurgence of interest in those classics.

Young adult books are in an incredible place right now. Everyone reads young adult fiction - men, women, kids, their parents, their grandparents. Everyone reads it. If you read 'Harry Potter', you're reading young adult fiction; same with Erin Hunter's popular 'Warriors' series. Certain themes are so popular that older series, long out of print, are enjoying a resurgence. L.J. Smith wrote her 'Nightworld' series in the early 1990s, but due to the popularity of supernatural themes in young adult fiction, her series has been brought back, repackaged in singe volumes containing three books from her series, and are selling again. Lynn Ewing's grrl-power / fantasy series 'Daughters of the Moon', originally packaged in small hardcovers with beautifully designed covers, is being repackaged in blue-black paper with silvery-white text. Even Christopher Pike's more adult-themed 'The Last Vampire' series is enjoying similar treatment, now packaged in white covers with black text, and entitled 'Thirst'.

The popularity of young adult fiction has allowed marketers to package, and repackage and repackage, yet again, certain books. If a film is made based upon a young adult novel, that novel will receive at least two new editions, one with the original cover art and a sticker proclaiming that it is soon to be a film, or a film-art based cover, which will soon become the only edition available, even if the film is on DVD, or won't be released for several months.

I've noticed similar marketing issues in science fiction and fantasy novels, but in the case of this genre, it's how some of the best books have the worst cover art. Granted, some of these books are products of their time; in the 1980s, cover art wasn't exactly top notch, but sometimes the subject matter is just nonsensical with a capital "Huh??" Take, for instance, Simon R Green's Deathstalker series. The series is a high-energy, fun romp, with science fiction and fantasy elements; Green is a talented writer who clearly wanted to have fun, while telling a fantastic story with great characters. Why on earth the cover art for the first Deathstalker novel features a man wielding a sword while wearing white leggings under a frilly top (this has to be a fashion faux pas even in science fiction) is something I've never understood. Half the reason I never read Green's books until I was in college was because the cover art was so off-putting.

Some publishers have figured out how to market books to the science fiction and fantasy crowd properly. The abundance of urban fantasy has kept a few artists very well employed, and so long as cover art features dark tones (blacks, grays, a little bit of red, lots of blue), and a very attractive man or woman (the woman inevitably dressed in next to nothing) posing in a fashion that suggests this isn't your typical fantasy story, the book will sell. George R. R. Martin's 'Song of Ice and Fire' series, a favourite of the Haunted Bookshop's fantasy readers, was originally marketed in single coloured covers with a high-fantasy art scene at the bottom. Now the books are marketed in solid colours (gold, purple, blue, red), with a small, raised decal at the front cover the signifies the primary bent of the story. Simplifying the cover art made the books more appealing from an aesthetic standpoint, and the writing, while always good, seemed better for the art.

And when it comes down to it, perhaps aesthetics are half the reason why people pick the books that they pick. If a book is pleasing to look at, people will pick it up, read the back, and probably buy it. The Modern Library publishers learned decades ago that if you publish books in simple formats with attractive dust jackets, those books will be popular sellers. Now, the Modern Library is highly collectible. Though they still publish, Modern Library now packages its books with gold-toned paper covers, and a decorative painting that captures the overall mood of the book within the wraps. In this way, they continue to market old classics with newer designs that attract the eyes of contemporary readers (I confess that this is how they got me to read Dumas' 'The Count of Monte Cristo').

The cliche is never trust a book by its cover. The truth that I've found is that if a book has poor art, it won't sell and people who might otherwise enjoy the book won't look at it. However, with a bit of time, energy and some slick art direction, a writer who is not widely known can become a powerhouse.

A contemporary writer whose work has sold increasingly well due to slick marketing is Cormac McCarthy. Simple cover art, with a white or black border, and a stark image in the center, represents what is contained within - a literary feat of precise language, intense imagery and grand themes that appeal to every kind of reader. McCarthy, a poet by origin, enjoyed a resurgence in popularity over the past ten years, probably due in no small part to the marketing of his book 'No Country for Old Men'. The original printing, before the acclaimed film version, had a stark red cover, with a slightly off-set silhouette of a man running. The image was intriguing, and upon opening the cover, the book is revealed to be something truly special, a neo-western that revels in dark themes of greed, murder and cruelty, while still believing that there is still something good and honorable about people. Thanks to the art direction and the writer's own talents, McCarthy's novels fly off of our shelves at the bookshop, and I'm almost always hard-pressed to find them in a new store.

So. The next time you're looking for a good book to tickle your fancy, check out the cover art. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Until next week, fellow bibliophiles.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Ghostwriting No. 4: What We Can Do

One heartbreaking phone call after another. Even in economically good times, I'm sad to hear from people want me to go through the collection of a recently deceased loved one, but now I get as many phone calls from people facing foreclosure or having to get smaller apartments as I do calls about estates. I get to the soon-to-be emptied house or apartment and divide a person's beloved books into ones that fit my store's collection and ones that don't, and then I have to tell someone that some of the books they're being forced to let go aren't things I'm buying. Nobody's happy at moments like these.

I try to pay as much as I fairly can for books, and I try to take extra steps to help, like letting people know about job opportunities or apartments for rent at decent prices or groups that might be able to help them. And for the most part, the people of
Iowa City appreciate and reciprocate. They give me tips to pass along to others; some offer me a cup of coffee while I'm sorting; one dear woman gave me plants from her garden to add to my own. We tell them about charities who could use the extra books for benefit sales, and many choose to give. These people are being as generous as they can. It's admirable, and it's what keeps all of us going during these tough times. The recession is eating into all of our pockets, but kindness as a currency never loses value.

Does that sound too crass? Maybe. But I stand by the analogy: the movement of kindness, graciousness, and mutual help through our society right now is the one thing we can do easily despite, and possibly even to help, the situation.

Which is why it kills me when I see abuses of the economy of humanity. Twice this week, I've had to intervene on behalf of my employees when people selling books were frankly abusive toward them, and that doesn't include the guy with whom I couldn't intervene because he hung up on us. On none of these occasions did I see my employees being anything other than honest and professional; these individuals came in ready to pick a fight about whatever we did or didn't offer. No money changed hands; the books didn't go anyplace where they could be of use; my staff and I were left demoralized. Who benefits from such incidents? No one. Having vented their frustration at someone not responsible for that frustration, the angry people gained nothing beyond a temporary adrenaline rush - not even real relief for whatever was bothering them.

I won't tolerate this in my store. Wasting our goodwill is, in the economy of kindness, theft.

We will continue looking for ways, financial and otherwise, to facilitate the recovery of everybody. We'll keep smiling at people when they come in, paying what we can for books for sale and keeping prices low on books we sell; we'll continue to offer our usual courtesy. At The Haunted Bookshop, we consider it part of our jobs to make things better, from cleaning sticker goop off books before putting them out for sale to recommending a book to fit someone's taste to sharing anything we know that might help on a school report or in someone's job hunt. Consider it our miniature GDP.

But let me make this appeal. Not just as it concerns the Haunted, its employees, or the people who are routinely mistaken for its employees because they hang out here a lot. As it concerns everyone. The clerk in the check-out at the grocery. The lawyer who isn't explaining things in a way that makes perfect sense to you. The secretary trying to help you reschedule your appointment. The teller at the bank. Give this to each and every one of them: the basic acknowledgment that each is a person, each deserves to be treated with a basic respect for each one's area of expertise and ability; none deserve blame for things they can't change or for not providing services it is not part of their job to provide, and while some might occasionally slip in their professionalism because they, too, are scared or behind on payments or got bad news or have had a rough day already, your courtesy could be the thing that helps them to be calm and helpful with the next dozen people.

This is not a pyramid scam or a sentimental, saccharine plea for hope. It's a request that, given the mess we can't do much to change, we compensate by being productive members of the civility economy. The more non-unkindness in circulation, the more each of us will have to share or save for use in the ugly times ahead.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Orange Prize 2010

The 15th Orange Prize in Fiction has been awarded to Barbara Kingsolver for her novel The Lacuna.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The New Yorker Gives Iowa Recognition

Here's a nifty article that Nialle passed along to me, the New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list. This year is pretty cool because it includes six University of Iowa Writer's Workshop graduates. The six names to note are Chris Adrian, Daniel Alarcon, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Yiyun Li, Z.Z. Packer, and Salvatore Scibona. Congratulations to the writers.

This just in

Photography and art, lots of it, so much so that photography had to move over by Books on Books to make space, and coming up next, lots of British history....

Sunday, June 6, 2010

First Officer's Log - No 4: Reality, Biased and Otherwise

While we're fond of saying that reality stops at the front door in the Haunted Bookshop, there is a certain delight in bringing reality inside. Reality, in this case, refers to the Sociology (now Cultural Studies), Journalism, Political Science, Political Biography, Labour, and Current Events sections. That's a lot of reality, right there.

My own fascination with politics has grown steadily over the past ten years, and popular culture is always intriguing, simply because it can go from either extreme of awesome to horrid in 3.5 seconds. Cultural studies (which include all of the reality-leaning topics above, I think) is interesting in this regard, because, as favourite character of mine states: "If there are three people in a room having a conversation, there will be six opinions." Wise words.

The reason I bring up reality as the topic of the day is that recently I found myself in one of the enormous chain booksellers that one usually sees in and around shopping malls. Whilst wandering through the shop, I came upon their political science / social studies section. While the extreme bias in titles didn't surprise me, the heavy conservative slant did puzzle me somewhat. When I commented on the bias to a friend of mine, he observed that perhaps those titles are more prevalent in new bookstores because conservative-minded readers tend to have the money to procure such titles.

This got me thinking about how it's hard to be a bookseller and leave your own personal opinions at the door. To our good fortune, most of our clientele at the bookshop share our views, and so we're welcome to discuss opinions if such discussions come up. It's also interesting when people come in asking for books on opinions that might differ from theirs or our own viewpoints, because we might be able to find a book for them that suits a happy medium for all. In my experience of working in a new bookstore, I found that I did not have such freedoms and could not share my interests or opinions with clients, because to do so invited conflict.

In the current sphere of political diatribe and dialog, cultural controversies and conflicts, it's important to recognize that there are dozens of books available that can answer questions, and perhaps open eyes to other viewpoints. I know from personal experience that sometime one must bite one's tongue and delve into a kind of 'enemy territory' in reading a book that one might not have otherwise tried, but I have found that in reading books by people whose viewpoints I do not agree with I have been forced to question my own views, and perhaps explore why and how I have come to my current understandings and beliefs.

In this regard, this bookseller offers a request: next time you come in the shop, try to find something you might not necessarily read, whether you're a fiction reader, a political science person, a pop culture buff, or even a science fiction fan. Whatever your interest is, look for something that you otherwise might not go for. Trust me, you'll surprise yourself

Until next week, fellow bibliophiles.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

This just in

Dozens and dozens of young adult novels - Beautiful children's picture books - 200 more titles in Christian theology and church history - Coming this week: more Iowa history and more photography and architecture. Remember, at this time of year we often end up buying over 300 books a day, so check all your favorite sections for new arrivals.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Ghostwriting No. 3: The End of the Book?!

While we're on the subject of Questions I Get Asked, I'd like to take this opportunity to reassure those who have expressed concern that electronic readers will put me out of business - and far worse, result in the extinction of the book as we know it. Folks, don't panic.

A number of other broadcasters in the blogosphere have noted, not without accuracy, that the rhetoric of this latest discussion of The End of the Book reminds them of another time when books were about to die a horrible, wasting death: at the dawn of Television. The parallels in events are not exact, but the rhetoric is. This new technology will cause people to lose interest and libraries will become a thing of the past! Soon children won't even know what a book looks like!

Well, as we learned from the non-death of the book after the birth of television, the introduction of a new technological medium will not, in itself, cause everyone to forsake the Book. Granted, this new gizmo actually claims to replace books - it actually has digital words on digital pages. The digital pages can be stored by the thousands in a convenient object that, in most cases, really does have a pleasantly readable screen, and the gizmos can communicate with the interwebs at high speeds for instant gratification purposes. Contained within these benefits, however, are the very factors that mean that the digital reader will not replace the book so much as provide a book service to a particular share of the market - one that I don't actually serve. And in fact, I would argue, the introduction of the gizmo will in the end save me both time and money while still letting readers read what they want when they want it. Which makes everyone happy.

What is the target market of the digital reader? People who want easily portable, quickly obtainable books to read. Not books to study, annotate, grace a personal collection, collect, or otherwise replace ownership of beloved books, just books to read. This means that the best possible use of the digital reader is to allow readers to obtain and peruse popular fiction and some nonfiction. Issues of price aside - digital books still cost two to eight times as much as paperbacks at The Haunted Bookshop - and issues of market limitations aside - not everything is available in digital format, and in fact some publishers are backpedaling due to pricing concerns - if a person wants to be able to download a bestseller and keep it on file, three things happen that make the digital book helpful to everyone involved.

The reader gets to read. The reader does not have to store all of his or her already-read books on limited shelf space at home. And I don't have to worry about stock levels of bestsellers. Seriously, one of my least favorite parts of this job is having to tell people that no, I can't pay them for their perfectly kept copy of [insert book club pick or NYT Bestseller List title here], because I have already got more perfectly kept copies than I anticipate needing in the next six months to two years. I do err on the side of having more copies when I can, but there's a limit to what I can store while still keeping my shelves as diverse as I do. If the reader got the eBook, it was right there, available when the reader wanted it, and there's no physical book that anyone has to reshelve.

So Book 2.0 actually helps all of us. The reader has the latest whichever, and less clutter around the house too. Meanwhile, I have the out-of-print ones in case the reader wants to go back to those. I get to specialize in the books I set out to have: the unusual, the beautiful, the ones people want to have and keep and treasure, the ones that make great gifts, the ones readers can't find elsewhere. Books for the personal library, the physical place where people go to be surrounded by the stories, theories, and facts that made a difference in their lives, where they can smell paper and cloth and leather and turn right to the best part out of simple familiarity with a particular copy. Books for friends, books with amazing bindings and old-fashioned woodcut illustrations, books in the margins of which you can write and not fear losing your notes, between the pages of which you can stick a syllabus or a birthday card.

Books that no company can revoke. While it may be a fluke in epublishing so far, it's true - when it turned out that a certain company didn't really own the rights to distribute digital copies of a book, that company, namely, deleted the book from every one of its digital readers, known as Kindles. Amazon gave all the former owners of the digital book refunds, but here's the thing: the book that got revoked was George Orwell's 1984. It makes you think. What if someone decided a legal case against a book or against a company's right to distribute the book and suddenly, the book became unavailable? What if someone involved in the case had an ulterior motive? Do you really want to spend $9.95 (or $14.95, or more) on something that might not be yours to keep anyway? Especially if you were taking notes in it for class?

And what if the battery runs out? I know there are lots of places and ways to charge things, but seriously, if you're taking your eReader camping and the battery dies on page 255 out of 258 in a really taut thriller, you'd be annoyed. Or what if the data got scrambled? Books aren't always printed perfectly - once in a while there's an offset page or a miscut signature or what have you - but they don't suddenly lose pages 122-197 when you're not looking, and they don't suddenly display text only in google-German, and you don't have to worry about upgrading them when a new technology comes out, either. Once you pay your $7 for a nice, large-format paperback at a used book store, it's yours. It doesn't change unless you change it. And it doesn't go out of date, like your LPs, Super-8's, cassettes, VHS, and apparently now DVD as well. Nobody can make you re-buy all your books, pay for upgrades or maintenance software, or for that matter, limit your book ownership to what is available in your eReader's format.

So no, I'm not worried.

Actually, if I had more time to read and a few hundred dollars to burn, I might get one of those gadgets myself (though not a Kindle, not after the 1984 fiasco and not after finding out that Kindle data files are incompatible with other eReaders and vice versa). It would be fun to be able to carry a minilibrary in .pdf format - anthologies of poetry and literature, a massive library of sacred works, and whichever mystery series I'm following in an object the size of a paperback, especially since I'm forever having to look up the precise words of a quote - and don't get me wrong, the find function is a beautiful thing. But I'm not about to burn my signed, first edition of Eugenides' Middlesex, my nearly bicentenary family Bible, my increasingly scribbled-in Tanakh, or the copy of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine that looks just like the one I first read, with the pretty cover art rather than the slightly dorky later version, and I don't think you would do comparable things to your collection either.

In fact, you might meet a book or two in e-space that you would like to have on your actual shelves, and I might happen to have an actual copy for you here. And maybe an older book by the same author, or an even older book on the same subject with unusual illustrations, or some books by authors you haven't read yet but that might be up your alley, since you liked this book or that one.

When you come right down to it, the digital book is great in a world of world-sized book clubs, like the NYT Book Review or the Harry Potter phenomenon or Oprah's reading list. It fills a need I've never been able to fill, a new need really, a new market sector even, the sector of 5 million copy first editions (or more!). It's also, for some uses, an improvement, and I'm all for improvements.

The needs I have filled, and that many, many other booksellers have filled before me despite dangerous things like television and the printing press and vulgate language books and literacy outside the aristocracy, are still the same: sometimes you want to hold the Book in your hand and know it's yours - and to know that the person from whom you got it took care of it, wants to know how you feel about it, wants to know what else you read, and is happy to share other books with you next time you're here.