Good News for the Book Business: Print sales on the rise, independent bookstores going strong

Alexandra Alter reports for the New York Times that a surprising thing has happened in the book business over the last couple of years (although perhaps not so surprising to longtime readers and booksellers): the sharp rise in ebook sales generated by early Kindle excitement has leveled off, and readers are returning to print.

Alter interviewed Steve Bercu, owner of BookPeople in Austin, TX, who credits his store’s profitable 2015, in part, to

the stabilization of print and new practices in the publishing industry, such as Penguin Random House’s so-called rapid replenishment program to restock books quickly…Penguin Random House has invested nearly $100 million in expanding and updating its warehouses and speeding up distribution of its books.

I’m thrilled that my longtime publisher is taking the lead on this. People say, “Oh, the Big 5 publishers never change,” and I constantly hear complaints that the New York publishing houses have their heads in the sand. But it sounds as though things are changing, and the publishers are finding ways to make print books more appealing–which is good for readers, good for authors, good for bookstores, and good for communities.

I’m fortunate to live in the Bay Area, home of dozens of thriving independent bookstores. At Kepler’s 60th anniversary party last week, lines were out the door. Green Apple, a mainstay of the Richmond district in San Francisco, opened a new branch on the other side of Golden Gate Park a couple of years ago, and it’s thriving. So too are Books Inc., The Booksmith, and many other bookstores in San Francisco, Marin, the East Bay, and Silicon Valley. Southern California has some fantastic indies too. On my Golden State book tour last year, I had the chance to read at Warwick’s, an amazing independent bookstore with a strong community following in LaJolla, as well as LA’s Vroman’s. And in the past, I’ve had the pleasure of reading at West Hollywood’s famous neighborhood store, Book Soup.

And it’s not just the Golden State where independent bookstores are going strong. The article notes: “The American Booksellers Association counted 1,712 member stores in 2,227 locations in 2015, up from 1,410 in 1,660 locations five years ago.”

I’m sure there are plenty of reasons behind the shift, but I have an inkling that one contributing factor may be a more even-keeled approach to e-book pricing. When publishers have control over the price of e-books, it levels the playing field for print books and, as a result, for brick and mortar stores. My books often cost the same in paperback as they do in e-book format. As a reader, given a choice between print and digital when the cost is the same, I’ll always choose print. E-books may still be very appealing in contrast to hardcovers, which often cost twice as much, but once a book comes out in paperback, the e-book has no real advantage unless you’re a traveler who doesn’t want the weight of books in your luggage or a minimalist who doesn’t want the bulk of books in your living space.

And while the chains may have trouble competing with Amazon, local independent bookstores offer readers, authors, and communities something that Amazon never can. I think that’s why they do so well. Go into Books Inc. Burlingame during holiday season, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, etc., and you’ll see people lining up to have their purchases gift-wrapped. On any afternoon after school, you’ll find kids reading on the bench seat in the children’s section. Earl, the manager, and all of the employees, will put just the right book in your hand if you’re not sure what your looking for.

Amazon can’t give you that experience, but neither can Barnes and Noble–which may be why smaller bookstores seem to be faring better than the chains. Nor can they mimic the experience of walking into Kepler’s and being greeted by the co-owner, Praveen Madden, who is always excited about something he’s reading and will tell you why. Nor can it rival, for an author, the joy of finding all of my books lined up, signed, on a shelf at Green Apple, with handwritten shelf talkers. (Below, the store’s owners: Kevin Hunsager, Kevin Ryan, and Pete Mulvihill).

Two Kevins & a Pete at Green Apple Books, image courtesy Green AppleGolden State book launch at Green Apple

That’s why I bristle at the idea that independent bookstores are quaint entities we need to “save.” They are vital, and they are strong businesses with sound business models: small spaces filled with the kind of books people want to read, staffed by avid readers who also happen to be great salespeople. Independent bookstores tend to be located in community centers. Books Inc., for example, has eight small but incredibly well-stocked and well-curated stores scattered throughout the Bay Area, all located in the middle of communities that have a lot of readers. Green Apple is in the heart of the inner Richmond, near neighborhood markets and restaurants. The Booksmith is in the heart of Haight Street, a neighborhood with constant foot traffic. And what serious reader in San Francisco can resist a trip to City Lights in North Beach? The fact is, ordering books from Amazon is no more convenient than purchasing from my neighborhood store, which is a five-minute drive from my house, gives me “same-day service” without the prime membership price tag, and pumps money back into my community.

I’ve got nothing against e-books, really. But, as my 10-year-old, child of digital everything, consumer of all things electronic except electronic books, says, “I like real books a million times better.”

Read Alter’s article, “The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip and Print is Far From Dead.”

photo of Books Inc. courtesy of Yelp

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First Lines in Fiction – Black Glass

Black Glass, by Karen Joy Fowler

Great First Lines in Fiction

First published in 1998, this book of short stories by the author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is just as rich and complex and strange as it was seventeen years ago. If you’ve read it before, it’s worth revisiting, and if you haven’t, it’s time to discover the short fiction of Karen Joy Fowler.

The best fiction sucks us in by presenting opening lines we simply can’t walk away from, because they raise so many intriguing questions, and we can’t leave until we have the answers. For this reason, I often begin fiction writing workshops with a study of the opening paragraphs of novels and stories.

What a first line shouldn’t be: boring or overwrought. Nothing is more irritating to me as a reader than when the writer uses the first line to show off, rather than to start a story. Anyone can show off, but it takes something more to let the reader know, in the very first line, that a)you can tell a story and b)you’re about to do just that.

What a first line must be: clear and suggestive. Clear because the reader should not be trying to untangle words in your very first sentence.  Suggestive because the line must suggest a character, or a place, or a situation, or a problem, or some combination thereof.

Here are a few of the first (or almost-first) lines from Black Glass:

From The “Elizabeth Complex”:

There is no evidence that Elizabeth ever blamed her father for killing her mother.

From “Shimbara”:

At the top of the cliffs was a castle and, inside the castle, a 15-year-old boy. Here is where it gets tricky. What is different and what is the same?

Here is the opening of “Letters From Home:”

I wish you could see me now. You would laugh. I have a husband. I have children.

To whom is the narrator speaking? And why would this person laugh at the notion of her having a husband and children?

We have to know. And so we read on. That’s exactly what great fiction urges us to do.

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Yangtze River Cruise

A Journey up the Yangtze River Through Three Gorges Dam

There is the sound of a releasing, water rushing in, and the ship begins to rise. It feels as if we are on an enormous elevator. Despite the early hour, the bridge above us is crowded with onlookers—the usual assortment of crumpled workers and lackluster soldiers, along with lithe elderly people who continue with their morning stretches as the array of boats rises to meet them. They wave and exchange greetings with the passengers. There are already a few vendors milling about, trying to sell postcards and jade trinkets, dried eel snacks and steamed buns. Bells ring, lights flash, and another set of massive doors opens. In the space of five minutes we have risen seventy feet.

Layers of green hills rise out of the water. Through the thin mist I can make out small houses huddled up to the water, and, behind them, steep terraced hills.

What looms before us now looks like some cold-war era industrial nightmare. The hillsides, shattered with explosives, are craggy banks of eroding soil dotted with tumble-down workers’ shacks and piles of dirt and granite. Graham lends me his binoculars, and through them I can make out small human figures dangling precariously from bamboo scaffolding that climbs one of the vertical walls of the new lock.

“That used to be a mountain,” Graham says. “They sliced it in half to build the locks. A 10,000-ton whip will be able to steer into the pair of locks, ascend from river to reservoir, and emerge on the other side in a lake as placid as your bathtub.”

The drilling is ceaseless. An explosion echoes through the valley, but it is impossible to tell where it came from. The air is gray and grainy. Simply to breathe is a challenge. My eyes water, my throat burns. I gaze out in astonishment. “How can the people let this happen? Don’t they see the damage that’s being done?”

The Red Victoria presses on toward the narrow pass. The river seems too much for us. Here, it is deep and very fast. I see the cranes, the concrete, the mounds of blasted granite.

“What do you expect them to do?” Bai says. “Paint signs? Stage a sit-in? Organize a petition?”

“Why not? Somebody has to.”

“It’s not that simple,” Bai says. “In 1992, 180 men and women from the Democratic Youth Party in Kaixian County did oppose the dam. They were arrested and charged with sabotage and counterrevolutionary activity.”

“Whatever happened to them?”

“No one’s seen them since they were arrested.”


A small band of passengers is crowded around Elvis Paris, who is extolling the virtues of the dam. He points to a mass of rock and gravel and concrete littered with cranes and drilling rigs. “This used to be Zhongbao Island,” Elvis says. “Thanks to modern engineering, useless island is now foundation for world’s greatest dam.”

The Red Victoria presses on toward the narrow pass. The river seems too much for us. Here, it is deep and very fast. I see the cranes, the concrete, the mounds of blasted granite. I hear the din of drills and chisels. But these bare facts are not enough to convince me. I cannot believe that this fast and powerful river will simply stop, paralyzed behind a manmade wall. I know nothing of physics, mathematics, the intricate workings of engineering. But I can see and feel the power of this ancient and magnificent river. Instinct tells me that she will not be so easily tamed.

Soon we are approaching Xiling Gorge. Graham translates a series of huge Chinese characters painted in white on the sheer side of a cliff: Serve the People. Develop the Three Gorges. Layers of green hills rise out of the water. Through the thin mist I can make out small houses huddled up to the water, and, behind them, steep terraced hills. Solitary figures stand atop bamboo rafts, using long poles to navigate the swirling rafts at the edge of the river. Flat-bottomed boats pass us, headed downstream with their loads of golden hay. Goats wander the hillsides, foraging. The ship rocks as the water whirls around us. The air is chilly, just the vaguest shadow of the sun visible through the fog.

The Voice calls out the names of attractions along the way: Sanyou Cave, Three Knives, Shadow of Lamp. Next we come to Ox Temple. Behind the temple a mountain rises. “Look close at the mountain and you will see strong young man leading ox,” The Voice says. Then there is Kongling Shoal, also known as the Gate of Hell, because many boats have been wrecked here. The Gate of Hell is dotted with dangerous reefs, the most deceptive of which is called Come to Me Stone. After that we pass, Horse-lung, Ox-liver, and Book of War Art and Sword Gorge.

The cliffs rise up sheer, like great walls. In some places the bases of the mountains are so close together that I am certain we will not be able to pass, but each time it seems that we are headed for disaster, the ship turns at just the right moment, to just the right degree, and we continue smoothly upstream

The cliffs rise up sheer, like great walls. In some places the bases of the mountains are so close together that I am certain we will not be able to pass, but each time it seems that we are headed for disaster, the ship turns at just the right moment, to just the right degree, and we continue smoothly upstream. Graham and Bai are standing on either side of me. Neither Dave nor Stacy is anywhere to be seen. I feel enclosed in some strange dream—the green mountains, the pale mist, the heavy tin covered with photos of Amanda Ruth, the weight of my longing for a man I met only days ago, the unsettling patience of his knowing wife. We have been standing here for some time when I realize that they have moved closer to me, that both of them have one arm wrapped around my back.

Excerpted from DREAM OF THE BLUE ROOM, a novel of the Yangtze River and the Three Gorges Dam, by Michelle Richmond

Read the story behind the book.

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via Behance

Lester the Minimalist 3D-Printed Book Holder – Old School Meets New School

One of my favorite sources for design inspiration is Design Taxi. Today, Design Taxi shared images of Lester, a “3D printed book holder” by designers Ludwig Mattsson and Simon Eriksson (leave it to the Scandinavians to be the arbiters of cool). I was confused by the description at first. Does 3D printed book holder mean that it is for the printed book, or that it was printed with a 3D printer? Both! Newfangled gadgets for the old-fashioned reader.LOVE

See more images and gifs of Lester on Behance.

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5 Odd & Wonderful Novels to Read This Spring (part 1)

The Room, by Jonas Karlsson

A delightfully strange, unflinchingly surreal novel that brings to mind Kafka and Hrabal. When a narcissistic government worker named Bjorn discovers a secret room, his co-workers, who do not believe the room exists, ostracize him. While in the room, however, Bjorn does his best work, making himself indispensable. The co-workers who despise him come to resentfully rely on him to keep their entire department relevant. A slim, tricky, maddeningly amusing novel that leaves many questions unanswered. Of all the books I’ve read this year, this is the one that most often comes to mind at random moments.

Crown Publishing, Feb. 2015

ISBN  9780804139984

Buy the book:  Indiebound   Amazon

There Must Be Some Mistake, by Frederick Barthelme

Forgetful Bay reminds me a lot of the Gulf Coast, where I grew up. No one does Gulf Coast torpor–the heat and humidity and wrenching boredom of it–quite like Barthelme. Wallace Webster lives a quiet life, observing the strange goings-on and frequent deaths in this backwater community with a sharp eye and quick wit. I was reminded of the short story “The School,” by Barthelme’s brother Donald, in which a series of small animals dies, leaving a group of innocent children wondering, “Is death that which gives meaning to life?” As with “The School,” the crimes that befall Forgetful Bay become increasingly difficult to ignore.

Barthelme draws Webster’s relationships with the various women in his life–daughter, co-worker, and occasional lover–with tenderness and complexity. A wonderful novel by one of my favorite writers, whose work proves, again and again, that you don’t need a lot of pages to cover a whole lot of emotional ground.

Buy the book:  Indiebound   Amazon

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