Tag Archives: A Word with You

“2020 Is Turning Out to Be a Heck of a Year”: A Word with . . . Lily Tschudi-Campbell

In this week’s A Word with You, we talked to Lily Tschudi-Campbell, buyer and marketing coordinator at Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she’s worked since 2015. She also has an MFAC from Hamline University and is writing children’s books of her own. You can find her at @lilywritesstuff

So . . . how are you?

I never know how to answer this question any more! I mean, good, mostly—I still have a job, my family is healthy, things are going about as well as can be expected. But that “can be expected” is a bit of a lower bar than it used to be, isn’t it? It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the ways our world is changing, by the vast uncertainty of the future, by the many new stresses that have been piled on top of our already-stressful lives. 2020 is turning out to be a heck of a year, and we’re only halfway through. *insert Jake Peralta screaming guitar GIF here*

Has the crisis affected how you buy and think about books?

Oh, absolutely. As an indie bookseller, I’ve always known that the experience of buying/selling a book in person, face-to-face, is completely different than buying/selling a book online, but operating like this has really driven that point home. As a buyer, there are books I would have purchased for the store in the Before Times that I no longer think we can sell without the option of handselling or physical shelftalkers. This feels especially true for books for adults, since as a children’s bookstore, our grown-up section is quite small.

Hours & Directions | Red Balloon Bookshop

Additionally, one of the things I love best about indie bookselling is the way you can see the effect of an individual bookseller on a particular book’s sales. We’ve seen certain books that will be selling consistently and well at our store, and then go into returns six months after their champion bookseller(s) has left. But now that only a couple of our staff members are on phones and no one is coming into the store (yet), the books we sell are skewed towards those people’s tastes.

In losing those things—the power of a handsell, the full breadth of our staff’s taste and opinions and knowledge—I think we’re losing a lot of what makes indie bookselling so special, as well as losing many of our opportunities to promote smaller titles from smaller presses. I haven’t really come to terms with that, to be honest. It definitely means we’re going to need to shift the way we do our business/promotion. I’m not sure yet what that looks like. For now, it’s just another little thing to grieve, among the many changes and losses our society is experiencing.

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

I’m hugely inspired by the folks who immediately found ways to help. During the recent protests following the murder of George Floyd in the Twin Cities, Moon Palace immediately stepped up to be a source of community safety and support. I am amazed by their generosity and strength. The Raven Book Store has been a force for good on the interwebs for some time now, and they’ve only increased those efforts in the past few months. The owner, Danny Caine, even purchased some books from us so we could color in Kansas (with a crayon—we are a children’s bookstore) on our map of places we’ve shipped to since COVID (an idea I enthusiastically stole from them in the first place). I can’t even tell you how supported that made all of us feel.

And I’m in awe of the fortitude Black booksellers/bookstore owners have shown in dealing with massive orders of antiracist books from (white) customers who immediately turn around and demand impossibly instant delivery of books (and which those customers will absolutely still need to read in a month). Places like Loyalty Bookstore and Frugal Bookstore, among others, have been dealing with this entitled nonsense with incredible grace despite the frustration they must be feeling. Plus, last but not least, a brand new bookstore is going to open in the Twin Cities—Black Garnet Books—which will be the first Black-owned bookstore in Minnesota. I can’t wait to see what they do.

What has the switch to virtual storytimes and events been like? Do you think the experience of being read to changes when it’s virtual?

It has been so, so strange, especially as a children’s bookstore. I think the experience of being read to virtually is hugely different than being read to in person, especially the younger your audience gets. Just like the transition to online schooling has been generally harder for first graders than for high schoolers, moving our storytimes to video has completely changed the experience, both for the kids and for our storytellers. Kids learn differently through a screen than they do in person. Storytime for the very young is absolutely a form of education. It teaches listening, sitting with a group (which is obviously gone), following simple directions, and early reading comprehension. And for the storytellers, it becomes impossible to react and adapt to the audience—there’s no way to tell if they’re confused, excited, distracted, all of the above. Virtual events are slightly easier, as their audiences are older, but it’s still quite different from the kind of book parties we used to throw.  

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

We just recently started having staff Zoom meetings where we can talk about book world and regular world issues, especially race and racism, but also more generally about representation, which authors we choose to support (or not), what constitutes support (carrying a book on our shelves vs. recommending it vs. hosting events around it), etc. I’m really excited to see where these conversations go—I’m hopeful it will make it possible for the store to more accurately represent all of us, and not just those who run the social media, choose which books to carry, or own the store. And much as I miss seeing all of my lovely coworkers together at once, Zoom makes the meetings a little bit more accessible for those with other commitments. I’d love for these to become a regular part of us being a bookstore.

What do you hope for the future of bookselling, and especially children’s books?

I hope that we can keep independent bookstores going strong, in whatever form that takes. In some ways, this feels like another 2008—a year when we’re going to lose a lot of indies and where the rest will need to find ways to adapt and change to survive.

I hope we can keep doing the work on making books and publishing more diverse. The difference in the Diversity in Children’s Books Reports between 2015 and 2018 is far too small for what should have been possible in three years. That data doesn’t even address the ways that, while the characters in children’s books have become slightly more diverse, their authors barely have. That’s a conversation that the whole of publishing needs to get involved with, and that white authors, publishers, and booksellers need to do the work to advance, instead of relying on their BIPOC counterparts. Our industry needs to be better, and independent booksellers need to involve themselves in that conversation as well.

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.?)

I’m all over the place in what I’m working on, to be honest! Writing is coming slowly for me right now—despite the romantic (and nonsense) ideal of the struggling artist, stress is actually very counter to creativity. I have been working on my own version of Jane Mount’s Ideal Bookshelf artworks, though, which I’m finding a very soothing project that still lets me connect with books. 

Reading wise, I’ve been working on our store’s summer reading bingo challenge. Some particularly stand-out titles have been A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow and The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed (coming in August)—both are excellently written books about anti-Black racism and police violence, and one of them has magic! I’d pair those books together, along with a lot of the other antiracist books that have been making the news.

I also recently read Desert Notebooks by Ben Ehrenreich, which was an incredible creative nonfiction combo of personal essays, history, philosophy, contemporary politics, and nature writing. It’s an intelligent and compassionate look at the way our world seems to be falling apart around us (though it does not mention COVID, as it was written before that began). And it’s been very hot in the Twin Cities lately, so I’d pair all of these books with some mango popsicles so you can have something cool and sweet while you read about hard times!


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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“There Are Always Market Constraints. But the Best Stores Kick Against Those Constraints”: A Word with . . . Brad Johnson!

For this week’s A Word With You we chatted with Brad Johnson, owner of East Bay Booksellers in Oakland, California. He was formerly a manager at DIESEL, A Bookstore in Oakland, which he purchased with the help of customers in 2017. Follow him @AhabLives.

So . . . how are you?

It’s unfair that “I’m tired”—that most mundane but necessary of human traits—is now a little clichéd. I don’t know a bookseller who’s been able to work during the past few months who hasn’t had some seriously exhausting, soul-searching, long nights during all this. In between the exhaustion I feel more engaged with the job than ever though, which in turn makes me work harder and get more exhausted. Feedback loops are fun. 

What’s some good advice you’ve received recently?

John Evans (my former employer at DIESEL, a Bookstore) made a point to remind me that I need to step away from the job from time to time, even when it doesn’t seem like I have the time. That sometimes the most responsible thing is NOT to do the work. It’ll make you that much sharper when you do step back into it. He didn’t use those exact words—John’s a poet, so it was both more succinct and enigmatic. But that was my takeaway, and it seemed right . . . even if I don’t always follow it really well.

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

I’m especially excited about the work being done on the university press level. The University of North Carolina Press, for example, consistently publishes some of the most interesting and radical BIPOC political theory. University of Texas really sinks their teeth into regional culinary and musical studies. What I love most about university presses are the riches their backlists offer readers (and buyers). Other publishers have great backlists too, but university presses are where worlds are upended & recreated. I’m a lover of the deep dive. I may not have the breath to get as deep as I’d like, but to know that others have, and to have that as a resource when I need it, is powerful and inspirational. 

The stores that excite me most are the ones that most clearly pursue a vision of what their store is about. I think we’re now—and maybe always have been— coming up against the limits of the “general bookstore” model that tries to be all things to all people. Being an indie, to me, means blazing a path that is truly independent. There are always market constraints. But the best stores kick against those constraints.

How is contactless bookselling going? How has the East Bay Booksellers community (writers, readers, patrons, etc.) responded to the pandemic?

For the most part our customers and community have appreciated our conservative approach to the pandemic. We haven’t set a time-table to open for browsing. Some will grumble, but more often than not, our customers have appreciated our position. I’ve been upfront about the fact that I think we’re only at the end of the beginning, and that the emergency (not just for the store) is a long one. If we’re in this together, then all things—including how we go about business—have to look and be different. 

Can you talk about the Surprise Me function on your site?

It grew out of a conviction early on that I wanted people to focus on buying things we already had in the store. What better way to showcase both your store’s & your booksellers’ tastes? We offer a $20 and $30 option, and ask people to give us a little description of what they’re looking for or what they’ve liked. The best are the most impressionistic. And then we try to find something that’s as far off the beaten path as we think our customer is willing to go. It’s sometimes hard, but it’s always exciting. We wish we had a chance to have face-to-face chats with people about the selections made. 

What does business look like right now?

We’re working to transition into a state that isn’t simply order fulfillment. This form of bookselling is exhausting on a spiritual and emotional level, and not at all what I signed up for. We want to devise better ways for people to engage our bookstore in a somewhat similar way to how they would when they were shopping inside it. Right now that means we’re reimagining how we convey “who we are” and “what we’re about” by way of what we actively try to sell. As an example, our Anti-Racist Literature display, which takes up the entirety of our front-window, is pretty politically radical and doesn’t shy away from being intellectual or theoretical. We make no bones about the ideological bones we’re picking and the world we want to help make happen.

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

I really quite like the shortened hours. I talk to customers about embracing, not apologizing for, the human-scale of our retail. This means right now if you email us on a Friday at 7pm, you’re not likely to hear from us until Monday. I don’t know that I’ll have the conviction to sacrifice Saturday retail, whenever the dust settles on the pandemic. I think that kind of honesty is important and ultimately helpful. 

In addition, like it or not, e-commerce is going to be something we have to keep getting better at. Ideally this also means more variety in e-commerce platforms, different stores have different needs and aesthetics. We need platforms that work with us, rather than ones that we have to work around. 

What do you hope for the future of bookselling?

Think more radically than “we’re not Amazon.” To me, that’s just an extraordinarily low ethical bar. What I want to see from bookselling is a firmer embrace of independence and a more finely tuned resistance to corporate taste-making. If our independence is only in the regional interests section of our stores or staff recommendations shelves, how independent are we? And this isn’t just a matter of what books we buy, but in the convictions and personalities that motivate what books we’re actively trying to sell. There’s no way to get to this sort of independence without a full commitment to diversity; and there’s no true commitment to diversity without the hard (sometimes uncomfortable) work of transparency and honesty. 

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 co-worker, Elizabeth Freeman, and I recently started a bookselling podcast called Faced Out. It’s pretty raw and opinionated, but our ultimate aim is to be a sort of open door for fellow booksellers (and people in their orbit) to discuss important issues of our industry. Thus far we’ve featured interviews with Hannah Oliver Depp, owner of Loyalty Books, and Lisa Lucas, of the National Book Foundation. 

I’m on the National Book Award jury for Translated Lit, so I’m reading so much international fiction I can’t officially talk about! Frank Wilderson III’s Afropessimism, however, has completely rocked my world. Pair it with Joshua Bennett’s Being Property Once Myself, and very little about the world will look the same. 

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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“Elements of the Comics Community Have Really Pulled Together”: A Word With . . . C. Spike Trotman

In this week’s A Word With You, we chatted with C. Spike Trotman, artist, writer, and founder of the award-winning Iron Circus Comics, Chicago’s largest alternative comics publisher. They are the first comic books publisher to fully adopt a crowd-sourcing business model, and have raised over $1.8 million to date. Her best-known work includes the webcomic Templar, Arizona; the Smut Peddler series; and Poorcraft. Follow her @Iron_Spike.

So . . . how are you?

Busy? Put-upon? Incredibly stressed out, but simultaneously incredibly grateful things are so hectic around here. It’s been a helluva a year, but I am 100% cognizant of the good fortune I’ve enjoyed despite that. Iron Circus has some very briskly moving new titles, and an amazing crowdfunding campaign under its belt, our biggest to date. 2020 is the year from hell on a lot of fronts, but for us? Our trajectory has been upwards for years, but the incline got a lot steeper.

What’s the best (or worst) piece of publishing/writing advice you’ve received recently?

“Find an audience no one is serving.” I think there’s a lot of Follow The Leader in publishing (in LIFE, really), and the impulse, the trend is to do what looks popular, what’s selling thousands and thousands of copies. But the simple fact is, by the time you’ve HEARD about trends like that, it’s probably too late to exploit them that cynically.

Banned Book Club, our 2020 flagship title, has been in the works since 2018. We couldn’t have timed its release better with a crystal ball. It eerily suits the mood of the age, with all that’s going on; two weeks after release, and nearly half our print run, our largest single first printing ever, is already spoken for. But if someone were to really slam on the gas and try to make a copycat book right now, hoping for the same results? It wouldn’t work.

It worked for us because Banned Book Club isn’t about chasing a trend; it was about making a book we believed in, something that wasn’t already out there. And that really resonated.

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

I am equal parts excited and terrified by all the large publishers getting into the graphic novel game. It’s a seismic shift. Random House, HarperCollins. Scholastic’s been around for awhile, of course, but things have really shifted into fourth. It’s sort of intimidating to think, “These are the people I’m competing with for talent.” But at the same time, these are the publishers who decided where the publishing industry goes. They decided what gets to be put on bookstore shelves. They’re bringing a lot of power (and organization!) to an industry that’s been underfunded and disorganized for decades, and that’s pretty incredible.

What does business look like right now? How are online sales and events working? You’ve always had a prominent online presence—how are you seeing the Iron Circus community (cartoonists, Kickstarter donors, customers, etc.) change and support each other?

I don’t think you’re gonna find a single soul that’ll claim the online convention replacements can hold a candle to the in-person events. The revenue, the attention, it’s just not the same as going to a show. And for my part, I like shows because they’re the best places to find new talent. I’m definitely having to work a little harder at that now that they’re not all in the same room with me for three days straight, ha ha.

And yeah, I’ve seen a lot of grassroots support attempts circling. Emergency funds, emergency grants, donations, and the online conventions. Some elements of the comics community have really pulled together, re-posting lists of artists now open for emergency commissions, or links to online stores. We all know it’s rough out there in general, but it’s especially bad now. And even if someone’s doing okay, they for SURE know someone who’s not, and they usually try to help.    

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

Ha ha, given what I’ve just been saying, this sounds a little odd? But . . . now that we’re not doing conventions for a full calendar year, I’m considering cutting back considerably on our 2021 convention calendar, too. So it’s not so much a new practice we hope to continue doing as . . . a new lack of practice we hope to continue . . . not doing, I suppose.

A big part of Iron Circus’ growth has been shifting my own mindset out of the small-potatoes territory that the traditional comics small press is used to, and INTO thinking of ICC as a publisher in the more mainstream sense. There was a time when going to a convention and making, say, $10,000? That was the ultimate goal, the dream. But at the end of the day, the same way the NASA Space Shuttle program had to be retired, cuz as nice as they are, those things ain’t gettin’ us to Mars? I need to pull away from the hand-selling, direct-to-consumer conventions and start focusing on ALA Annual, BEA, other trade shows that are about a more comprehensive, higher-volume approach. Banned Book Club was pushed hard at ALA Annual in 2019, and we’re really reaping the benefits of that now. I want that kind of performance for all my books.

I’ll never tap out of comic conventions altogether; I love them. But I can see a future where we do, maybe . . . three a year. And leave it at that.

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

More exposure! More shelf space and industry backing for adult graphic novels! More small press publishers on the shelf beside me, publishing weird and fun graphic novels for an adult audience.

C’mon, everybody, these MILLIONS of kids reading Dog Man and Drama are gonna wanna keep reading comics! Let’s MAKE SOME for them! Let’s meet that need!

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

You mean besides what I’m currently publishing? I just finished re-reading Eleanor Davis’ The Hard Tomorrow. It’s just so horrifying and incredible and powerful and repulsive and compelling and, like, a lot of Octavia Butler stuff . . . maybe not the best thing to read right this second, if you’re look for escapism? But ugh, I love it. I’m orbiting it.  

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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“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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“You Can’t Eat Frustration”: A Word with . . . Josh Cook

For this week’s A Word With You, we interviewed Josh Cook, marketing director and co-owner of Porter Square Books, which was named the 2020 Bookstore of the Year by Publishers Weekly. Josh has been selling books with Porter Square Books since it opened in 2004, and is a frontline bookseller, magazine buyer, and the website and social media manager. He is also the author of An Exaggerated Murder (Melville House, 2015). Follow him @InOrderofImport.

So…how are you? 

Pretty good. Or, weird, but doing a lot better than a lot of other people and trying to feel grateful about that. I’m still working, still getting paid. I live in a place where I can get take out, beer from local breweries, groceries. I have a backyard and a nice porch. There are absences in my life, and as important as going out, being in the same physical room as my friends, being able to hand books to customers, being able to visit family is, none of that is existential.

Can you talk about winning Publishers Weekly‘s Bookstore of the Year? What was that like—and what did you think 2020 would look like after winning that award? 

I didn’t really have a lot of expectations. When we were nominated, I was most looking forward to the speech that David would give at [BookExpo] if we won and then, when we actually won, we found out on a 10AM Zoom meeting. That happened just a few minutes before the announcement went public and after we’d been closed for a little while and after we had changed our business model, like, three times in a week. There wasn’t a lot of emotional space if you know what I mean. It is, of course, validating to see something you’ve built recognized on a national scale, but I think its real importance and its real impact on us and our community was the opportunity it gave everyone to celebrate. I think a lot of people in our community felt they were a part of that award and they’re right.

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

I’ve been running to stand still so much recently I almost feel a little disconnected from the industry despite working so much. I’m excited for Coffee House’s new paid writing program. I’m excited for a lot of the books coming out this fall. I’m excited that so many bookstore GoFundMe are actually getting funded, even ones with six-figure asks. I’m excited that individual booksellers are finding ways to sell books even if their stores are closed. I’m excited that we seem to be starting a bigger discussion of systems of power in publishing and how we can build a more just industry. I’m excited that it looks like some number of Amazon shoppers have migrated to indie bookstores.

There is always potential that tags along with volatile situations. There are opportunities to be creative and inventive, to discover new ways of doing things that could leave the world a better place than it was before the crisis. And it seems like, unlike in 2008, communities really understand the value of independent bookstores and are spending the money to keep them afloat. It’s scary that it still might not be enough. It’s frustrating that so much of the work being done and money being spent is by people who don’t have the time and don’t have the money. It’s frustrating that a lot of this would be easier if some number of powerful and wealthy people did just a tiny fraction more than the nothing they seem to be doing.

But you can’t eat frustration and though you can’t eat excitement either, it’s at least something to get up for in the morning. Bookselling in 2021 might look completely different from how it looked in 2020 and I think there are good reasons to be excited about that.

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

A lot of other people have been saying this, but I’ll say it again because I think it’s important to how we think about what our economy could look like after the crisis and to adjusting our assumptions about online commerce: Every sale takes three times as much work. Sometimes more. That said, our online sales have been strong. We already had relatively strong online sales, so even though we didn’t build our online commerce for pandemic mitigation, a lot of our in store customers have transitioned to shopping online. Furthermore, we’d also built a strong social media presence, and so there are a lot of people around the country who just wanted to support indie bookstores and chose us because they like what we do on Twitter. I also think both of those things helped us capture some Amazon customers. So, we’re doing okay with online sales. 

But the simple fact is, there is no digital technology yet that is as good at selling books as a physical bookstore. I mean, just think about how many different books you can look at in a minute of wandering around bookstore verses scrolling through a website, how much faster it is to read their summaries, how much easier it is to flip to a random page to test out the prose. Even before we consider gifts and greeting cards and socks and literary magazines and everything else that is difficult for a bookstore to sell online, it is, technologically speaking, a lot harder to sell books online than in a store. So, PSB is doing okay, maybe even great, in the context of this moment, but we’re selling far fewer books than we would be if the store were open.

In terms of events, I think we’re still figuring it out. We haven’t done a ton. We’ve had some with a ton of views and a healthy number of sales and donations and some with not so much. We’ve sold out one ticketed event, but it’s the only one we’ve had and that was Christopher Moore. Given the type of work virtual events take and the type of communal space they occupy, at the moment we’re planning on doing fewer virtual events than we were doing in store events, but that’s the only thing we’ve really decided. That is the other side of “innovation.” Sometimes it takes awhile to figure out what works. One thing hasn’t changed though, authors that did outreach to their fans had more successful events than authors who didn’t.   

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

We were all hoping for an end date, right? Okay, the crisis is over today so tomorrow we can have a huge party. That’s clearly not going to happen. I think a lot of people, regardless of whatever recommendations are made by authorities, are going to maintain social distancing of some kind at least until there is a vaccine. So there is a good chance we’ll need to continue things like curbside pick-up and local delivery after the store is fully open in order to serve our community. For obvious reasons, I hope people will keep buying the Josh Sends You Three Paperbacks bundle, as that has been a lot of fun. It’s basically a bookseller’s dream. There were also a few things we were working on that were put on hold, that we hopefully have the space to pick back up. I think we’d like to figure out ways to do hybrid events. Not only do events with a virtual component have no attendance limit, they’re also more accessible in general, so I’d really like to use what we’ve learned in the crisis to make our events more accessible when they can be in the store again.

The thing I hope for the most is that Amazon customers who came to us because Amazon deprioritized book orders stay with us. At least some of them. If indie bookstores can get to the other side of this AND those customers stay in the indie bookstore channel, we could end up with a much stronger industry than we’ve had in decades. And if we combine that with some of the other things we developed, like The Bookstore at the End of the World, like the various bundles stores are selling, we could find ourselves in something of a golden age of empowered, independent booksellers.

We have to ask: do you have another book-themed tattoo planned?

Not specifically! I’ve got a bookselling one in the back of my head and I’ve had something to commemorate my book also in the back of my head for a while. Just kinda waiting for an excuse if you know what I mean. I don’t have anything like my Ducks, Newburyport tattoo in the queue, but who knows what book I’ll try to sell 100 copies of this year.

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.?)

I’m still plugging away at the same [work-in-progress] I’ve been on for a few years now, along with the range of side projects I always keep around. I’m not in a place where I can say too much about the main project, but I will say I am looking forward to What is Grass by Mark Doty. I’ve always liked having different projects that require different brain spaces that I can turn to when I don’t have whatever I need for the main thing, but it’s been a real boon during the crisis. Having writing that doesn’t need to be done on the computer, that doesn’t have any real stakes, that I can just pick up when I have a relevant idea and put away when I don’t makes it easier to just keep putting words out there and that seems like a luxury these days. 

I’ve been able to keep up my reading pretty well, too, especially now that the bookstore has been settled into its processes for a couple of weeks and we can have days off. I’m working my way through The Dreamed Part by Rodrigo Fresan and Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash (both works of genius, but very different types of genius). I just started Telephone by Percival Everett, High As the Waters Rise by Anja Kampmann, and Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride (the prose is like she put the sentences of Henry James in a mirror and then smashed it), and I’m working my way through a handful of the Best Translated Poetry finalists, including The Next Loves by Stéphane Bouquet. I’m also excited to start Feminist City by Leslie Kern and Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau. Other new books that I hope sell a shmillion copies are the new Wanda Coleman selected works, Wicked Enchantment. She should be a household name (at least in poetry households) and I really hope Wicked Enchantment does that for her. And Cars on Fire by Monica Ramon Rios is wild. Great book for fans of Lina Wolff and Renee Gladman and the story “Invocation” has what might be the best use of two column storytelling I’ve ever seen.  


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