“Great books are great books, regardless of the publisher size”: A Word with . . . Cristina Rodriguez

For this week’s A Word with You, we interviewed Cristina Rodriguez, the General Manager and head buyer at Deep Vellum Books, a bookstore in Dallas, Texas that specializes in international literature, independent presses, and marginalized writers. She is a Bookselling Without Borders fellow and a 2020 Firecracker Award judge. Follow her @CristinaRodrgz.

So . . . how are you?

I’m good! It’s funny because I feel like “how are you” is such a loaded question nowadays, but honestly in this moment I feel pretty okay. I’m extremely thankful that I’m still working and that I have very close friends and family that I’m constantly in touch with, but in no way do I want it to seem like everything is perfect. I tend to be a pretty chilled out person normally, but it can be hard to take things day by day when it really feels like things are abruptly changing moment by moment. One minute I’m excited about something, the next I’m feeling down, or restless, but I’m learning how to be patient with myself.

Tell us about the hotline!

Like many of our bookstore friends we’re currently closed to the public. I wanted to find a way to continue interacting with readers that offered some relief but that didn’t feel completely centered around capitalism. So, I created a bookseller hotline where people can call or text to get book recommendations, life advice, daily horoscopes, or just talk. People call in to talk about books, sometimes they want to discuss their love life, feelings about loneliness, or even what reality shows they’re currently obsessed with. I’m pretty down to talk about anything and feel really honored that strangers are willing to share a bit of their lives with me. I know a lot of people find comfort in books, but this hotline has taught me that sometimes that’s not enough.

Deep Vellum Books loves to spotlight indie presses, and obviously you have an up close and personal look with Deep Vellum Publishing. Is the crisis changing how bookstores work with indie publishers?

The moment everything drastically turned for the worst, I feel like indie publishers really stepped in to show that they were listening and trying to support bookstores. I received so many emails and texts from people in publishing checking in with how I personally was doing, but also what they could do to help the bookstore. It’s this kind of support and understanding that you normally don’t see from larger publishing houses.

What I’ve noticed recently is that bookstores are really interacting with small presses and debut authors in such a noticeable way. Everyone is willing to take bigger risks with marketing ideas and events and it feels fresh and genuine. I think readers can sense the sincerity of the indie presses that booksellers love and as a result it gets them excited about a book that might normally be missed amongst the New York Times bestsellers.

I feel fortunate that I work for a bookstore that has an indie press connected to it. I’ve been able to see firsthand what goes into the production of a book. It’s given me a deeper book education about the importance of independent publishing in the book ecosystem and as a result has affected how I do my job. Our bookstore’s inventory is 90% independent presses and that’s intentional. I know that this kind of buying is not possible for a majority of bookstores and I like that stores are able to have the freedom with their inventory to do what works best for them. We’ve made this model work for us and I hope to expand our inventory in the future in a way that is still very thoughtfully curated and shows off best books that are coming out from indie presses. 

What are publishers or bookstores doing now that you are particularly excited about? Who is inspiring?

I’m constantly inspired by all of my colleagues who wake up every day and just keep pushing forward. With everything going on, most days it feels easier to call it and go back to bed. But I think seeing everyone’s creativity and hustle makes me feel a little less hopeless. As far as bookstores go, I’m a big fan of RiffRaff in Providence, Rhode Island and I love their Surprise Book Care Packages they started doing. I’m a terribly indecisive Libra and sometimes I just need to be told what to read. I completely trust and love Emma Ramadan’s book taste, so I know once I finish the books she sent me, I’ll order myself another one. The Transnational Lit Series at Brookline Booksmith has also become one my favorite virtual event series to attend. And I think we can all agree that Coffee House Press’s paid writing program is super inspiring. I hope it motivates other presses to find new ways to support the literary community in a monetary way during this crisis. As an industry it’s nerve wrecking to have to step out of our comfort zone and experiment with new ideas. But it’s exciting to see what progress is being made to change the book landscape for the better.

What does business look like right now? How are online sales and events working?

I wish I had something new to bring to the conversation but like other booksellers have mentioned before everything is so much harder than it used to be. And I didn’t even think things were that easy before the pandemic. Every time I figure out how to do something new, something else will happen and I’m like, lol no girl, you do not know what you’re doing, you better phone a friend. But I guess that’s the positive. Everyone is so willing to help and share their experiences I feel less alone in this.

In terms of online sales, it never feels consistent. We have good and bad days, but I feel like that’s kind of expected for everyone? The hotline gets daily calls or texts and that helps with sales, but nothing will ever compare to being able to physically hand-sell books. We’ve built a stronger following on social media recently and it’s been an interesting challenge to try to convey my bookselling style on the internet. My regular customers know that I don’t really take myself that seriously and when you shop at Deep Vellum, you’re going to get book recommendations in addition to my unfiltered opinions on a range of unprompted topics. I miss that kind of deeper connection with customers and I don’t know if virtually we can ever replace it, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying.

As far as events go, I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m perpetually tired and virtual events are so much work and often have very little pay off. I also think people are just exhausted by Zoom events and while I would never turn down an author event for a book that I think is exciting, I’m trying to be considerate with the kind of programming I put out. I want it to be fun, interactive, and not feel redundant. If that’s not possible then I don’t see the point.

Do you have any new practices you hope to continue doing even after this crisis subsides?

I definitely plan on keeping the bookseller hotline because as much as it’s meant to help others, I would be lying if I said it didn’t help me too. And while I’m not really a Zoom enthusiast, it has made me re-evaluate what I can do to improve event programming and the inclusivity in the store after the crisis ends. Event spaces should be more accessible and the fact that we haven’t offered some kind of virtual or live feed for those who are physically unable to attend feels likes a disservice on our part.

What do you hope for the future of indie bookselling and publishing? What trends do you hope will end?

I mean, I have a lot of questions, comments, and concerns regarding all facets of the book industry, but I’ll try to keep this short. I would love to see greater solidarity over livable wages and Medicare for all, but most of all I would love to see better representation in bookstore staffing and the publishing world. If we want to diversify the types of books our culture reads, we first have to address how we discuss voices of different cultural backgrounds and expand the representation of who is selling and publishing their books. I want readers to think critically about their own roles within stories of marginalized experiences and for booksellers to not have to avoid any aspect of a book (if it’s translation, queer, POC, etc.) in order to sell it.

I’m actually quite terrible at identifying what a “book trend” is, so I just read and do what I want, otherwise I think it would overwhelm me. I do kind of wish people would stop doing “small press” merchandising displays in stores. It feels gauche. I think when you put indie presses in a small book display to “normalize” them to customers it does the exact opposite. It almost feels like pandering to independent presses and an attempt to distract customers from the fact that a majority of what you order is Big 5 bestsellers. My hope is that bookstores with larger credit lines become more thoughtful with their book buying and try to allocate a better percentage to indie presses. Great books are great books, regardless of the publisher size. 

What are you working on and what are you reading? Do you have anything you would pair it with (a food, a movie, another book, etc.?)

My project list feels endless at this point, but my main focus right now is getting our new website launched. I’ve also been working on some fun video stuff for preorder campaigns and a collaborative project between the bookstore and Deep Vellum Publishing is in the works. We want to dive in and talk about their backlist catalog a little more, create more interactive content, and of course allow me to ramble about books and pop culture. This should hopefully launch soon!

As far as reading goes, I watch a stupid amount of television. Then try to read a significant number of books to balance out the fact that I have low-brow interests and no real hobbies, so I’m going to do this book pairing a little bit differently.

Does anyone remember the movie Thirteen? Starring a young Evan Rachel Wood and Nikki Reed? If no, it’s a chaotic teen drama that I probably watched too young and took a little too much direction from in 2003. I just re-read Maidenhead by Tamara Faith Berger and it’s the perfect match. Similar to this movie, Maidenhead depicts everything from young drug use, underage sex, but takes it a step further by examining issues of porn, race, and class. It’s one of my absolute favorite books. 

I finished Seven Years by Peter Stamm at the beginning of quarantine and the only way to describe reading a Stamm book is that it’s like smoking a cigarette after a long stressful day in perfect weather. Or like listening to Ariana Grande’s song “ghostin” for the first time. It’s sexy, it’s sad, and has the appropriate amount of drama and longing that I want in a book.

I just started reading The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek and have every intention of watching the French film after I finish because Isabelle Hupport is a babe and erotic dramas are kind of my thing. If you’re like me and also love unapologetic, depraved, erotic fiction, some of my favorites that I plan on revisiting this summer are: The Mirror in the Well by Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed by Melissa P., Hashish by Oscar A. H. Schmitz, The Skin Is the Elastic Covering That Encases the Entire Body by Bjørn Rasmussen, Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille, The Ancestry of Objects by Tatiana Ryckman, Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Was Bigger by Brontez Purnell, and Leash by Jane Delynn.

Looking for a way to support independent bookstores? Make a donation to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC), purchase a book online from your favorite bookstore, or visit Bookshop.org.

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