Wednesday, July 31, 2013

"Books on Books" and the Phenomenon #1 Indie Next Pick "Hothouse" for August, On Sale Tuesday, August 6.

There’s a little section in our store called “books on books” which we, and before us, Schwartz have had for a number of years. Previous to that, this kind of title was folded into literary criticism or biography, or sometimes reference. The subject can be about book design, booksellers (one of David Schwartz’s favorites was Sunwise Turn), or even a memoir that is about reading a whole mess of books in a year.

I used to be a bit obsessive about this section and as a buyer, I probably would have put The End of Your Life Book Club here, after it had its run of front of store, staff rec, and book club table (it’s currently one of our book club picks, and featured in the brochure), instead of the biography section where we currently have it. Though I was not as anti-biography section as the late Borders, I still wasn’t crazy about it for memoirs, although I did accept it for historical figures when another section (sports, music) didn’t make more sense. But I’m not moving it or anything, as I am reminded of the longtime bookseller I worked with whose quirk was demanding that every book she liked written by a woman should be in women’s studies.

That said, these books on books are the kind of titles that work great in indie bookstores and I’d often have great success featuring them in our Schwartz newsletter. They didn’t work very well in other markets, sort of the way a Wisconsin interest store wouldn’t sell well in Missouri. I think of this because of the release of Boris Kachka’s new Hothouse: The Art of Survival andthe Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, FarrarStraus and Giroux. To my knowledge, Simon and Schuster did not do a mass-mailing of advance copies to bookstores. Instead, they did a targeted distribution of print-on-demand, tape-bound galleys along with a note from the editor.

But this is the thing about these kinds of books. It seemed like just about everybody who got a copy read it, and liked it enough to get it to the #1 pickon the American Booksellers’ Association Indie Next List for August. Let me just say that this kind of percentage is very unusual. I am one of those people, of course. How could I not be interested in the story of FSG, responsible for the careers of many of the great writers of the 20th century, a house that one could say hoarded Nobel prize winners.

The stories that Kachka tells in his exhaustively researched story are fascinating or delicious, depending on whether you are focusing on nurturing, advances, successes and failures of the house, or the peccadilloes (this word somehow came to me and I was shocked when I looked it up that it was actually being used correctly) of the participants. This sort of high-low gossip reminded me a bit of The Devil in the White City’s “come for the urban planning history, stay for the true crime” sort of dichotomy. I could have done without the who slept with whom and how who got fired, especially when a lot of these folks are still around, but I understand that this really puts the story in a cultural context.

Here’s what I sent to the publisher after I read the book. It’s a little too long for a rec; there’s also a shorter version somewhere, but it explains what I liked.

“The family business may have been American Smelting and Refining (ASARCO), but for Roger W. Straus, starting a publishing company was the perfect mix of business and culture. Having started the eponymous company with John Farrar, an acclaimed editor recently pushed out of another family publishing business. The independent presses were legion in those days, and many of them boasted authors of note. But upstart Farrar, Straus (the third name rotated out like an accounting partnership until Robert Giroux came aboard), their mission was to carry the intellectual torch while outlasting everyone else.

“Of course the mission sometimes included at least one bestselling celebrity memoir, a diet book, and a series of commercial thrillers, but if I’ve learned one thing from a family business, it’s that there’s always going to be some contradictions. The company boasted an international lineup that included a streak of ten Nobel prizewinners in an 18 year period, and raised the profile of many a Jewish and Catholic writer. Reading Hothouse is a great introduction to 20th century publishing, but even someone well versed in the subject will find many insights into everything from new journalism to the shockingly sexual office politics of an earlier day.

“Much of Kachka’s book chronicles the tortured relationship between Roger and his son Rog, another hallmark of many a family enterprise. In the end, the best way out was a sale to Holtzbrinck, with the intellectual mantle passed to Jonathan Galassi. My only beef about this well-researched, smartly written, and often juicy read? There’s way more gossip about the folks who’ve passed away than then the ones that are still living. So here’s to a second edition in twenty years!”

Recently Chuck Klosterman stated that in his opinion, you can’t plagiarize yourself, but wasn’t that one of the 17 things that got Jonah Lehrer in trouble? Here’s the thing-if he had only reused ideas (and exact language) in multiple columns, would that have been enough to lose his appointments and contracts? I don’t know, because he did lots of other things too. I’m also not being paid for any of this, so there’s not the presumption of me recycling old work. But just in case, I put that recommendation in quotes from myself.

Let me emphasize that Hothouse really was a fascinating look at leadership transition at a small business. I was just talking to a friend in the consumer food business, who formerly worked in the grocery business, and we had a fascinating discussion about exit strategies. It depends how big you are, how you get your capital, and whether you are really making enough money to be sustained, or instead making money through growth. One of FSG’s biggest problems was their success in the 1980s with Tom Wolfe and Scott Turow. It brought them into the big leagues, and the small advances they paid previously weren’t cutting it when writers saw fellow authors being paid big bucks. There are no end of cautionary tales (The Time Traveler’s Wife comes immediately to mind) about a publisher strained by their success.

A couple of other people who liked Hothouse...

"Hothouse has both intelligence and wit in its revelations of publishing, publishers, and the capture of authors. The story of FSG is a dazzling, wide-lens view of decades of literary America. To call Boris Kachka's prose 'brilliant' is not a cliche, it has meaning."

Toni Morrison
"This is an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime book. With Hothouse Kachka has produced his very own Mad Men for the literary world--an exhilarating, beautifully written biography of FSG that's really an exhilarating, beautifully written biography of a literary culture."
Junot Diaz

So maybe if I were another kind of store, I might put this in biography, history, or even business. But for me, this is a “books on books” kind of book, through and through, at least after it works our way through the new releases and my staff rec shelf.

1 comment:

JG said...

Consider this another vote for putting END OF YOUR LIFE BOOK CLUB into the “Books about Books” section.