Thursday, February 26, 2009

"The Housekeeper and the Professor"--A Case Study in How to Spot a Book we can Sell.

Folks always ask how we know whether a book will work for us. We get lots of reads of course. Reviews and interviews often help.
There is sort of a formula. I'm always looking for books that have multiple markets. Does the story work both as a character-driven novel and also a mystery? That would be In the Woods. Does the old-fashioned storytelling blend with a modern structure? There we have City of Thieves.

Two audiences I'm always trying to link together are the review-driven and the word-of-mouthers. You'd think that sweet spot is the book that appeals to both, but a book that gets all glowing reviews has one problem going for it--why do publishers need booksellers to tell readers that they should read it in spite of the mixed review?

The book has to be good enough to get reviews, but at least a few of the reviews have to voice complaints that the book is too commercial, too story driven, too emotional, perhaps too cliched. That would be Water for Elephants and any number of bestsellers driven by independent booksellers.

Early reviews are usually either positive, if the author is well-connected, or non-existent, if there are no logs to be rolled (ask me about that if you don't know to what I refer). If the book works, however, later reviews are sometimes of the backlash quality, analyzing the cultural response as much as the book itself. To use a comparison from the film world, one of my more erudite cinematic friends confided in me that he despises Slumdog Millionaire.

As an indie bookseller, we've had several books in the last year that had immediate response, but nowadays communication is so fast that by the time the book is out, it's an immediate hit. After seeing both The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society break out of the indies faster than my sister Merrill's cats can scoot out of a room as soon as they lay eyes on me, I decided that for fall 2008, we needed a book that would be the same kind of gem, but folks in the mainstream would find a bit offputting.

We found it in The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Say "translated from French" and "discussions about philosophy" to most self-service shoppers, and they will quickly move on to another aisle. But we were lucky enough to have the trust of our customers, and could therefore sell hundreds. The reviews didn't hurt on that one, either, though I could easily see that backlash-type review had the novel achieved the level of success stateside that it received in Europe.

So this winter I went sniffing for another success story on that level. It's been a bit harder, due to all our transition issues, and the fact that there is actually a lot more great fiction published in the winter than there is in the fall. Publishers save fall for the big guns that don't need our help, and use January through August to launch the breakouts.

My find is Yoko Ogawa's novel, The Housekeeper and the Professor. Ogawa's novellas, The Diving Pool, vanished without a trace, giving him a bad track record in the US. The book was sold into us very quietly, we didn't even put it at every shop.

It wasn't until our fall rep night, where several publishers meet with our booksellers to talk about hand-sells and gift options, that we had any inkling this was something special. Mary Ellen, our recently-retired Macmillan rep, got the chance to talk up one book from winter 2009 and said this was her favorite book on the list? Really? I didn't even remember it.

It's the story of a woman who is hired to care for this mathematician who has been in a terrible car accident. He's lost his short-term memory and can't recall anything from longer than 80 minutes previous. He's already driven off a number of domestic workers. They sort of hit it off, and when he insists her son stay with her during her work hours, he starts giving the two of them math lessons.

It's a philosophical tale filled with number theory where the reader has to fill in some of the details. It's actually quite accessbile but the quotes from Paul Auster and Nobel prizewinner Kenzaburo Oe lend it gravitas. Ogawa is acclaimed in Japan but not enough to get the great reviews; hence the book was released as a trade paperback original. Oh, and if you'd like to read an Oe novel, I've been told that A Personal Matter is a good place to start.

Mathy? Translated from Japanese? See, there is a formula. The fact that the book is actually quite wonderful is the key, but the other little details make it stand out from all the other wonderful books out there. It also keeps it from selling off the shelves at Target successfully, at least for a while.

And it's not just any math, it's number theory. That's the one branch of math that's easy to explain but very hard to prove. Just ask anyone who has struggled over Fermat's Last Theorem. Readers like the former, but don't care much about the latter.

Here's the Auster quote. We booksellers know how he came across the book, but the fact is, he doesn't give quotes to everybody, so this still means a lot.

"Highly original. Infinitely charming. And ever so touching."
--Paul Auster

And now you know our secret. Go open a bookstore!
Addendum--I wrote this piece several days ago, but posted it on the 26th. Coincidentally Motoko Rich wrote a piece in today's New York Times on Europa's success with translated titles, most notably The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Now all we need is for Janet Maslin to write a rave about Little Bee. I'm pretty confident she would love it.
State of the store. Among the paperwork I've filled out this week was my membership form for the American Booksellers Association. Once I have that, I can start on two projects that many customers have been asking about, our gift cards and our web site. Neither can be functional until the bricks-and-mortar store is live. I'll keep you posted.

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