Monday, December 23, 2013

Malcolm Gladwell, Underdogs, Word-of-Mouth Phenomena (Note: Phenomenons is Also Acceptable), and The Upcoming Ticketed Event for "David and Goliath" on January 31st.

Like so many other folks, I am always intrigued by Malcolm Gladwell's theses. Take his first book, Tipping Point. He took an idea, specifically the idea of a viral phenomenon, and showed how it came together. In the bookstore, we wonder about that sort of thing all the time. Sometimes we now what makes a book take off—an Oprah Book club pick, a presidential recommendation, a national prize. But other times we just say it’s word of mouth. He broke down word of mouth to its components and showed how a product, or even an idea, can take off.

Why are some books lovable but hard to sell and others easy to sell? I’d see this firsthand with customers, and second-hand when trying to get booksellers excited about reading books. In the old days I’d write up galleys for booksellers, and when I would get more than a half-dozen requests for a book from an author nobody had previously heard of, I’d get goose bumps. When the story delivered, and I’d start getting back one rec after another, it was time to start selling.

Some of the titles caught the eye of big-time sellers, and you’d get an explosion of national sales, like David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Other times it never seemed to get out of the indie bookstore recommended land and we’d have our own phenomenon with Louise Murphy’s The True Story of Hansel and Gretel or Linda Olsson’s Astrid and Veronika. What would be funny is that there would be other stores selling them just like us, but it wouldn’t be consistent.

Using Rebecca Wells’ novel, The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood as an example, he showed the effect that one bookseller, Mary Gay Shipley of That Bookstore of Blytheville, had on the book’s success.* The Tipping Point continues to be a huge influencer many years later; it’s still on the national bestseller lists.

In Blink, Gladwell looked at decision making, and in Outliers, he looked at success. The new book, David and Goliath, is about underdogs. As one of my customers, who asked for the book by the name Underdog said, “I remember the books by the concept, not the title.” However, the book is not just about underdogs, but the advantaged who might be toppled by underdogs. Gladwell looks at strengths that might be covering weaknesses.

He makes much use of the inverted-U curve, where throwing more resources to achieve a desired result flattens out and sometimes actually becomes a detriment. And he looks at how changing the rules can change the playing field. And we’ve all seen perceived giants and industry topple when the rules were changed.

Jason and I were lucky enough to hear Mr. Gladwell speak at last winter’s bookseller conference in Kansas City. We were both struck by his message, particularly because as independent booksellers, we think of ourselves a bit as underdogs. Now it’s double underdog status—small potatoes in a changing technological market. But interestingly enough, the media’s new story is that the small players can handle the changing market relatively well. Honestly, that’s gross generalization, but we can discuss that another time.

We made a proposal for Mr. Gladwell’s fall tour, but alas, it was not to be. But then a great thing happened--Gladwell enjoyed touring so much that he suggested to Little, Brown that they put another one together. Gladwell's sales tend to spike after the holidays, giving David and Goliath another round of attention. So we got the call--Malcolm Gladwell is coming to Milwaukee for David and Goliath: Misfits, Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants! It’s Friday, January 31, to be precise, for a ticketed event.

To make this work, we’ve gotten together with a group of great partners. We’re hosting the event with the UWM Bookstore, whom we worked with on Chuck Palahniuk’s event last October. We secured the Helen Bader Concert Hall at the UWM Zelazo Center on Kenwood Avenue, just off Downer Avenue. Tickets are $32, including all taxes and fees, and are available on the Brown Paper Tickets website. In addition, UWM students, faculty, and staff can buy tickets at the UWM Bookstore. For more info, call them at (414) 229-4201.

Our media sponsors are 89.7 Milwaukee Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Radio, and the Business Journal serving Greater Milwaukee. We love working with all three, and they will be great partners at helping get out the word.

For this event, there is no gift card option—every attendee will get a copy of David and Goliath. But I assure you that every person attending this event who already has a copy has a list of ten friends who’d love to get one as well. So keep your original and give the autographed one as a gift, or keep the signed copy for yourself and pass along the original. Either way, you’ll get a big thank you.

More to come on this event, including things I've learned from reading David and Goliath. 

*That Bookstore in Blytheville was recently sold to longtime fans of the store, according to Chris Pinker in the Blytheville Courier-News.

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