Wednesday, February 15, 2012

This is Where I Came In--Reflections on Little Bee Three Years Later.

If you've been following the blog since the beginning, you know that for the first six months, I was pretty obsessed with Little Bee. It was the last event hosted at the Schwarz Bookshop on Downer, and pretty much the last book at Schwartz where I led a charge to consolidate some major handselling. By the time the event happened, we had about eight people on staff who read the book. I even had a case of Little Bee quotes from around the country. I had fun!

With Little Bee, I did something I rarely do, which is read the manuscript. I guess now we're expected to read e-manuscripts--Jason just told me he's read two of them, though I've slacked on getting folks to write early reviews. And rarer than that, I actually really loved the manuscript. I find that when I read things very early, and there is no book jacket, and the type isn 't set, the experience for me isn't quite there. Honestly, that's one of those things I don't understand about reading ebooks; the enjoyment for me is partly in the package.

By reading the manuscript, I spent not one but two bookseller conventions (Great Lakes in the fall and Winter Institute in January) yammering about the book. I put the book in a lot of booksellers' hands, and then went back and did the same thing to customers.

We wound up having a very good event for this sort of breakout, early in the process, low thirties. I note that my hand-selling skills were nothing if not rusty. I really didn't know many of my customers yet and they really didn't trust me. And yet we wound up selling over 100 copies in hardcover, and though I had friends that could plow through 500 copies of non bestselling hardcovers, for me, 100 was amazing. It helped that in December, I was invited to go on Morning Edition with Susan Stamberg and my Little Bee conversation was the one featured on the air.

At the time, I was obsessed with showing the jackets for Cleave's novel as it was released in various countries. I wondered why the US and UK held firm on different titles--as you know it was called The Other Hand in the UK, though later editions show that Little Bee was likely the better title, as variations of this title were the preferred way to go, but not in Spanish, where they went in a completely different direction.

I wondered whether they would keep the beautiful hardcover jacket, or go in a more commercial direction it up the way they did for the UK paperback. I have to say I was rather shocked that they went with the original, but boy did it pop against everything else out there. It just goes to show that sometimes the best course of action is the unexpected. And haven't we all seen a lot of copycat jackets since?

Was I alone in my Little Bee love? Of course not--there were booksellers all over the country cheering the book on. And of course most people did not get events--I spoke several times to a suburban Chicago store that so desperately wanted Cleave to get to their store, but it just never happened.

And then the book broke out in paperback. At the time, Borders was really working on making these things happen, and like City of Thieves and A Reliable Wife (also books heavily blogged about on Boswell and Books), they found titles with handselling potential and worked them very aggressively. The rumor was that the booksellers were forced to upsell these books to everyone who came in, no matter what they wanted. It was surely successful at breaking books, but forced handselling comes at a price, both in your relationship with customers and also as a proprietor, with your booksellers.

We recently sold our 500th copy of Little Bee. And then the manuscript came for the next book. I know I should have read it right away, but other Boswell business got in the way.  When Jason got an an advanced copy of Gold with the tentative jacket, a striking yellow and black number that plays off of Little Bee and uses the classic optical illusion of a chalice that turns into two faces, I dug right in. But it's too early to write about that.

And now it was time to write our event proposal for Gold. We'll see how it goes. But how swell would it be for Cleave to return to Milwaukee this summer? Remember his Milwaukee winter video?

So now what happens? We wait! That's the way these proposals go.

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