Thursday, July 28, 2011

Banned Book Week

Banned Book Week is September 24 - October 1 this year. The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) is encouraging all readers to get involved. Check out this link,, then go for it. Stay tuned here and we will tell you how to get your videos to us and then on to ABFFE for viewing on the web.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

So You’ve Lost Your Borders

Hundreds of Borders locations will be closing over the next week or so. They’ll be liquidating their inventories, laying off their employees, and closing their doors. So what to do if your bookstore is a Borders?

Find an Independent Bookstore Near You: IndieBound.Org is the online presence of the American Booksellers Association. Use its store finder to see if there’s a bookstore near you. Just plug in your zip code and the miles away you’re willing to go and you’ll get a list of stores. Because indie bookstores don’t usually have much money for advertising, there’s a chance there’s a store on the other side of town or the next city over you just haven’t heard of.

Shop Online at a Store in Your State: Unfortunately, if you had a Borders in your area it is likely you didn’t have an indie bookstore. If there is an “It Gets Worse” about the Borders story it is that all of their mistakes caused their failure after they contributed to the demise of hundreds of independent bookstores over the last decades. However, most indie bookstores sell books online, and most will ship books to you as well. If you don’t want to pay for shipping and the closest store is too far away, hundreds of indie bookstores sell Google ebooks through their websites. Google ebooks can be read on many different devices including, computers, laptops, smart phones, and tablets like the iPad. Most ebooks sold at indie bookstores are the same price as at all other ebook stores and you don’t have to buy a specialized device to read them.

Find a new Favorite Store Online: Hundreds of indie stores (including us) are on Twitter and Facebook and run blogs. Look around online for a bit. If you find yourself retweeting, liking posts, or reading a store’s blog fairly often, start shopping with them. They can only tweet, post, and blog if people buy books from them.

Powells and The Strand: Powells, in Portland, OR and The Strand in NYC are two huge independent bookstores that sell new and used books online. Between the two of them, there is a book inventory just about as big as Amazon’s.

Talk to Your Local Chamber of Commerce, City Hall, Small Business Association...: Nothing can replace popping into a bookstore to get out of the rain. Wandering around the stacks just to see what catches your eye. Meeting friends. Getting your picture taken with your favorite author. There are some things that can be done only in a physical bookstore. So talk to the relevant agencies to make getting a bookstore into your community a priority. There are lots of things local government and agencies can do, from streamlining licensing and zoning procedures, to low interest loans and property tax breaks that can help get a town a bookstore. Make a bookstore a community priority. Furthermore, locally owned businesses are great for the local economy. Given that states, counties, and cities will often give big national chains tax breaks, incentives for small local businesses shouldn’t be too much to ask, especially given that the return on investment would be much higher from the local business. Here is more information on the impact of local businesses.

Everyone knows bookstores fill important roles in their communities, one of which is selling books. But the only way bookstores can do all the other important work they do, like providing a safe space for young people to hang out or getting books for local schools or providing a haven of slow moving contemplation in our information deluge society, is because people buy books from them. The closing of Borders is tragic, but if people respond by shopping at indie bookstores, there will be more indie bookstores. If you make the effort to shop indie two towns over, it will greatly increase the chances of getting an indie store in your town.

For further reading and to see how other independents around the country are doing, check out this link.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Two Great Reads for This Summer

Since I’ve been out of school, I stopped buying into the whole “Summer Reading” idea. There are books you read to relax, books you read for entertainment, books you read to stretch your intellect... and it’s the use and not the season that determines what book I pick up. That said, the idea of “Summer Reading,” provides a great opportunity for book people to tell the world about the best books out there, and so here are two great books that have come out this summer that make great reading whenever you get to them.

There is No Year by Blake Butler. Told in vignettes and short chapters and using the space of the words on the page to help communicate the story, this is a drifting, imaginative, innovative novel, that often moves with the fluidity of poetry. The characters (if they can be called that) are father, mother, son, and, eventually girl, and the plot, if this book can be said to have one, follows the family’s interactions with the distorted and shifting geography and topography of their new house. The prose is exquisite. This is one of those rare books you can pick up, flip to a page, read for a few minutes, and then set down again to have a sip from your cold beverage and contemplate the view of the world from your porch. This book reminds me of Lydia Davis, Mark Z. Danielewski, and Jesse Ball (more on him in a bit) and sometimes even David Markson and Donald Barthelme. Butler has published two other books Scorch Atlas and Ever and edits HTMLGIANT, Lamination Colony, and No Colony. If you’re interested here is a full review of There Is No Year from my personal blog.

The Curfew by Jesse Ball. I teared up at the end of this book, even though I knew exactly how it was going to end. Part touching story about a father and a daughter navigating an indifferent world, part exploration of resistance to a totalitarian state, part homage to music, puppetry, art, and imagination, this is a stunning mix of emotions and intelligence and innovation and tradition. “The movement” is the most interesting idea I’ve come across recently about radical activism. Furthermore, Ball’s prose is almost folktale or legend-like. There is a timelessness to his style, so that even though his books exist in a time and place, you feel like they’ve always been there and will always be about the human future. Furthermore, this timelessness makes Ball's work accessible to a whole range of ages, so his work is also good for intellectually inclined teens. Jess Ball is the author of two other novels Samedi the Deafness and The Way Through Doors. Fans of his work will be thrilled to know that a collection of his other work has been released called The Village on Horseback. Along with two books of poetry and other prose, it collects the otherwise hard to find Parables and Lies and his Plimpton Prize winning novella The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp & Carr. He is an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he teaches classes on lying, lucid dreaming, and general practice. Here is an interview we conducted with him.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Buying In

Who would suffer if we lost our favorite independent bookstores, and especially if we lost Porter Square Books? Not just the staff. Not just the little kids who come to story time. And not even just readers. In some ways, the biggest losers would be local writers.

Here's my story. A year ago, Yale University Press published Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging, and Mating, which I wrote with my co-author, arachnologist Catherine L. Craig. This is my first book. I'm hardly a big-name author or celebrity. (Have you heard of me? Thought not.) Yale pushed hard to get us reviews in all the popular newspapers and magazines any writer would like to get reviews in. No dice. In the U. S., trying to sell a book by non-celebrities about spiders, evolution, genetics, and proteins--even though there's some bizarre spider sex featured--is tough. And without reviews, reporters and radio programs aren't interested. Publications in England lapped the book up. The Times: "a fascinating and readable account of one of the great, overlooked mysteries of life." The Sunday Telegraph: "full of amusing facts and observations." BBC Wildlife Magazine: "This supremely absorbing book examines one of nature's most extraordinary creations." See, it's not like we were trying to peddle dreck. But U.S. newspapers and magazines have drastically cut back on the column inches they devote to book reviewing over the last decade, some newspapers discarding their separate book review sections altogether. We were just one of tens of thousands of books vying for their attention, and given that very few science books for nonscientists get reviewed anyway (start keeping track; you'll be surprised given that we're supposedly such a technological society), we reconciled ourselves to being essentially invisible, just like lots of other worthy books.

So when I went to ask Ellen Jarrett at PSB whether she would consider giving us a reading spot, I wasn't exactly expecting her to say yes. What was in it for PSB? We had great blurbs, but there weren't any reviews, or interviews, or articles they could cite to generate buzz. But I knew PSB had a history of promoting local authors and also of co-sponsoring events with the Boston Chapter of the National Writers Union, which I've been a member of for about 25 years. I left a book and a flyer with Ellen and went home.

Ellen said yes. I felt like a high school senior hearing I'd just gotten into my first-choice college--the same mix of elation and nervousness. I'd never done a reading before. But we rustled up as many friends for the audience as we could, and it was absolutely exhilarating.

That was our first big break after publication. The PSB reading gave us credibility when I approached other venues less interested in the "local" issue, even though we still weren't getting any stateside reviews. And things began to build slowly from there.

Just recently, nearly a year later, PSB's support of us no-name authors has been vindicated. The Boston Authors Club named Spider Silk a Highly Recommended Book. ForeWord Reviews gave the book its Silver Award in the Nature Category of its Book of the Year Awards. And just last week we found out that we're longlisted for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, maybe the premier book award for science books written for nonscientists. But Ellen had no idea any of that would happen. She just knew the book looked interesting and, most important, I was a local writer.

Writing is a tough business. Most of us make very little money from our writing. By giving us reading spots, PSB helps us make a few immediate sales and lay the groundwork for future sales. Readings also help us network with other writers: I talked to Dominique Browning at her PSB reading after she wondered whether it was true that hummingbirds knit spider silk into their nests (it is), and she very nicely mentioned Spider Silk in her widely read blog. Plus, of course, hanging out in Cafe Zing before or after browsing often results in serendipitous conversations with other writers.

PSB does all this for writers, but it's not a charity. It's a business. We penurious writers can get books cheaper from Amazon. I'm glad to sell a copy of Spider Silk anywhere from any outlet, but Amazon doesn't care about me or the local writing community. Because my co-author and I are of a certain age, most of our friends remember when Cambridge was a mecca for book buyers and have mourned the loss of bookstore after bookstore. So they bought Spider Silk from PSB at my reading, even though they could have gotten it cheaper from Amazon. We didn't even have to ask them to do this--they know from experience what eventually happens when you don't buy books locally.

So, fellow local writers, when we go to a reading at PSB, we should buy something, even if it's not the book being featured. No one begrudges buying a ticket when we go to the movies, but for some reason we think spending an hour and a half at a bookstore listening to something we'll never hear anywhere else should be free. We should buy the books we want to own at PSB. And we should tell our local readers why they should buy our book at PSB, even if it costs more. Almost any book you can get from Amazon, including ebooks, you can get from PSB: if it's not on the shelves today, you can order it. I'm sure most of us follow these rules already, but in tough times, for writers AND bookstores, they seem worth repeating.

The future reading you save may be your own.

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