Friday, February 25, 2011
Q. Your bookstore emphasizes the fields of History and Mystery. In my novels the key to solving the mystery is frequently found in historical precedents and situations. How did you come to pair these two fields as your specialties?
Q. This is a difficult time for retail bookstores. Your store is local and in a downtown area of an urban suburb, yet your reputation and appeal go well beyond your location and size. How have you managed to continue to grow your base of followers?
Q. Until fairly recently, self-published books had very little chance of attracting the interest of bookstore managers. Now, due to changes in technology and the advent of e-Books, the majority of titles are self-published. How do you perceive the trends in quality and acceptance of self-published books?
Q. Independent bookstores and independent publishers appear to be finding niche markets that give them staying power while the giant bookstores and major conventional publishers are facing difficulties that are new to them. How would you forecast future problems and opportunities for bookstores and publishers of various sizes?
I think it is important to know your product and, at the same time, know what the buying public wants and if your product meets their needs. Also, there is the educational aspect. Many times the public (your prospective customers) don’t know about your product and how important it is for them to know, appreciate, & understand it. There is a great quotation from Christopher Morley in his book The Haunted Bookshop "We have what you want, though you may not know you want it." Having a niche makes it more likely that you know your product because you purposely chose it. Having a niche makes more viable for the small business to survive financially since you have no intention of pleasing everyone with your selection and the reading public knows that, if you’ve advertised well. It also gives a vast opportunity to have programs in your store that promote your niche. The owners can have various discussion groups, author signings and talks by specialists in your specialized area, and performances which educate and entertain your customers. The only problem, sometimes, is success itself. When you do things right and do well there is the temptation to enlarge expand or in some cases be bought out by a larger company. Then you risk losing the personal knowledge of and touch with your customers’ wants and needs which won them over to you. Don’t lose touch with your product or your customers.
Q. There are currently more writers and published books than ever in our history. With all of these new books, how do you see the trend in readership?
It does concern me with reports that more newspapers are closing because no one’s bothering to read the daily or even weekly papers. Also, they are telling us that less of the young people are bothering to read. However, perhaps they’re not looking in the right places. Since papers and books are available on line now more of both adults and children are reading on line. Also, I have heard from a high school literature teacher that said it depends on the quality and the topic of the book whether young people read it. The Harry Potter and the Twilight series have become quite popular and both books are quite thick. Also, an author's grandmother has noticed that her granddaughters are communicating and reading, but are using the electronic media to do it. So, it seems that readers young and old gravitate to quality, but have more distractions to take them off course.
Q. The Harry Potter books uncovered an amazing willingness of young readers to tackle the reading of large books if the subject matter excited them. Do you see the younger generation as becoming lifelong book readers, or do you think that the social media, blogs, and e-mail tend to limit their attention spans to shorter works and articles?
That’s a good question. I think using Harry Potter as an example is part of the answer. The quality has to be there, but it has to have appeal to what young people want to know about. There’s friendship (Pals), the need for study, discipline, good fun and EVIL. The books have to have something to challenge youth, both good & evil besides being a good yarn. There also have to be good marketing and promotions with social media because this, unfortunately, is where, not just kids, but many are getting their news. There is hope. Ways of informing young readers about a quality volume, have changed, but they contact far more people than past methods.
Q. As a bookstore owner of significant reputation, you are probably in a position to be a gatekeeper for achieving legitimacy and standing for new and little-known authors. Can you think of some authors who have benefited from your encouragement and gone on to significant popularity and careers?
That’s a tough question to answer. I think I have been responsible for putting my customers and/or friends on to great authors after having read their works. But my recommendation did not make the readers come back to read more of a given author and have the customer tell me they appreciate my suggestion. The writer wrote a good story, they told it well, it kept the reader’s attention and wanting more. There are authors like: Harriette G. Robinet and Norm Cowie with good kids’ books; Will Thomas, Peter Tremayne, Bob Goldsborough & Michael Jecks that have great historical mysteries; Libby Fischer Hellmann, Julie Hyzy, Barb D’Amato, Sean Chercover, & John Connolly writing exciting and sometimes really creepy thrillers, and Jennifer Lee Carrell, Ian W. Toll, Erik Larson, Lynne Olson, Stanley Cloud & Linda Himelstein who make history & it’s characters come alive. I don’t think these authors would have benefited from my recommendation or encouragement if they hadn’t written wonderful books. Maybe my customers have benefited from my help and saved them from wasting time on a poor or mediocre book. I just wish I had more time to read.
Q. Can you identify some trends in the approach and subject matter of history works and mystery novels that have increasing popularity?
Well, I think there are some trends in both areas. It’s been the consensus of our history discussion group that journalists who do their research well are the best writers to tell the public their history. Historians are good for facts, dates, figures, etc. that fit in an academic environment. However, it is the good journalist that knows how to write the story that keeps the reader interested in the subject with desire to read through the whole book. Martin Gilbert in his History of the Twentieth Century is a prime example. Most people know what happened in at least up to just past the mid 1900s. However, the style that Gilbert writes in makes you want to read how the German’s are going to be defeated in both World Wars I and II. They were like a juggernaut with no one or way to stop them. Also telling us of the origins of Franco in Spanish history and Mussolini in Italian history, but how they fit into the big picture. It appears that in the mystery area there has been a tendency to the supernatural and horror. We have vampires and werewolves roaming not only mysteries, but the classics and I don’t mean Frankenstein and Dracula. But, again I think the quality of the writing makes a book work. One of my personal bestsellers in 2010 was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Graham-Smith. It’s very unique in the way of blending history and mystery. Graham-Smith does a great job of research, writing and transitioning from reality to horror. It does appear that it’s a trend and what “new” readers are buying. As bookseller and authors we must realize that some of the “old timers” that were in love with the old traditional mysteries are dying out. So we have to be aware of these trends, but quality and clever writing is what will survive.
Q. When I was younger, I was very enthusiastic about historical novels for both their entertainment value and their ability to transport the reader to different times while providing reliable historical lessons. The Kenneth Roberts series of American history novels come to mind. Are such novels still finding a significant market, and are the authors maintaining adequate historical accuracy?
Yes, the historical novels by Bernard Cornwall, George Mac Donald Fraser, Robin Maxwell, Patrick O’Brian, C.S. Forester, Alexander Dumas, Rafael Sabatini, etc. are all doing well. They fill 1-3/4 bookcases. They are filling a vacuum left by former history students who had poor history teachers. These are adventures and get their life from history’s legends. Fraser’s books are full of footnotes telling the reader what was historically taking place as he tells his story. Their accuracy is probably better than James Fennimore Cooper.
Q. Would you comment on the significance of trade associations and networking with other bookstore owners for the success of an independent bookstore?
I definitely favor the trade associations because they keep us in touch, aware of new systems and challenges out there, and help with costs because of the power of numbers. The networking is a key factor because he makes you aware what others are doing even if they don’t work for you. Or you can take someone’s idea and put a new twist on it to make it work for you.
Q. What would be your advice to someone who was considering opening a new bookstore, with or without an area of specialization?
1. Do a Business Plan. (If you don’t know what one is look it up.)
2. Analyze the market in which you’re opening your business.
a. What are people buying?
b. Does that market need another bookstore?
c. Why are there no bookstores in that area?
3. What can you afford & where are you getting your money?
a. Personal Savings (Family’s?)
4. Make sure your personal support system (family, friends, partner, pet or whatever) is behind you. If not, and you still want to move on --- It’s going to be even tougher than you imagined.
5. Remember, no matter what the “How To” books say Bookselling is a career, a vocation and a life style. It’s not 9AM-5PM Monday through Friday.
6. You’ve got to be both tenacious and creative to succeed. Don’t ask me yet what success is.